Some names are tied together, forever entwined, clinching and jabbing their way into boxing history.
Think Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier, challenging the way we think about race and country, and doing so in between brutally battering each other in three amazing fights.
Think Arturo Gatti-Mickey Ward, two otherwise fun but forgettable fighters who found in each other the perfect foil and a place in boxing lore.
Think Ray Robinson-Jake LaMotta, the ultimate battle of science and will.
And, yes, think Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao, the great fight that never was.
While the two men have yet to square off, together they've dominated boxing's last decade. The mere presence of the other fighter has empowered both men, the idea of their eventual superfight creating unbelievable public interest, even in their lesser contests. They've pushed each other to greatness, each bound and determined not to let the other fighter outshine him.
Without Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather is suddenly a lot less interesting. And the opposite is also true. The two have been fighting for years—it just hasn't been in the ring. The partisan bickering has been intense, with both fighters and their proxies battling fiercely over legacy and history.
Who was the best fighter of this era?
Was it Floyd, the showman who combined Ray Leonard's smooth style with Roy Jones' penchant for carefully selecting his bouts?
Or was it Pacquiao, the often undersized volume puncher who seemed never to take a backwards step?
It's an unanswerable question, one tied to each pundit's personal biases and preferences. Subjective in the extreme, there is no correct answer. At this point, even if the fight is made, it will still be boxing's great unknown.
Manny is an old 34, more than 60 professional prizefights wearing on his legs, chin and desire. At 36, Floyd is finally slowing down. Should they meet, no matter the result, it won't decide who was the better man at his peak. Sadly, that's a battle that can now never be waged.
But while we can't decide in any definitive way who was the better fighter, determining who is the bigger star requires a different kind of calculus. That question enters the realm of the quantifiable. Forget television appearances, magazine covers or even political office—the ultimate arbiter of boxing stardom is, and always will be, box-office success.
Here both men shine. In 17 pay-per-view bouts Pacquiao has generated in the neighborhood of 12 million buys and an estimated $655 million in revenue. Already a star among hardcore fans for his scintillating trilogy with Erik Morales, Pacquiao became a bona fide sensation after a 2008 win over Oscar De La Hoya, selling over one million pay-per-view buys six times.
Mayweather has come close to equaling those totals in a little more than half the number of bouts. It took just nine PPV main events for Money, perhaps the most apt nickname in boxing history, to draw 9.6 million buys and $543 million in television revenue. Since his own star-making turn against De La Hoya, Mayweather has failed to reach one million buys just once, still managing more than 900,000 against the relatively unknown British star Ricky Hatton.
The two men are truly running neck and neck. But you can't help but sense that Floyd is pulling out in front.
Pacquiao has lost twice in a row and averaged 925,000 buys—still great, but certainly diminished from his box-office prime. Worse, he's seemed disinterested, a man simply going through the motions. Few would quibble with the assertion that he's a fighter in decline.
Mayweather, by contrast, has stayed strong, averaging 1.375 million buys in his last two fights. His most recent bout, against Miguel Cotto last year, was the second-biggest non-heavyweight fight of all-time. Though he isn't quite as untouchable as he was at his apex, the falloff has revealed an additional ability to outfight even the most aggressive opponents on the ropes.
Mayweather seems a fighter with plenty left in the tank. Showtime thinks so at least, signing the longtime HBO fighter to a record-setting contract earlier this year. It's a clear sign that the battle, once waged neck and neck, has finally been won. We may never know who was the better man in the ring. But Floyd Mayweather, now more than ever, is the bigger star.