No matter what, it won’t last much longer.
Whether he wins on May 3 and goes on to fulfill the six-fight expanse of his Showtime pay-per-view contract or is beaten into a voluntary surrender sometime between now and 49-0, there will come a day when Floyd Mayweather Jr. no longer equals “Money” in boxing.
And when it arrives, there’s little doubt “the sky is falling” crowd will be first on the scene.
Because Mayweather—whether loved or loathed by the masses—is both the undisputed pound-for-pound king of the ring and among the most domestically recognizable sports stars on the modern horizon, his sudden absence is going to create a space that someone may never be able to fill, at least initially.
The vacuum would be partially due to his own virtuosity—he’s unbeaten in 18 years as a pro and has won titles in five weight classes—and partially due to the fact that a quick scan of the existing boxing landscape doesn’t immediately identify an up-and-comer worthy of taking his place.
Manny Pacquiao would most likely be 1-A to Mayweather’s No. 1 in terms of star status—in fact, he’s already a global phenomenon thanks to a rabid fanbase in his native Asia—but the Filipino is also well into his 30s (he turned 35 in December) and seems far closer to his career’s end than its beginning.
Outside of those two, however, the drop-off is incremental at first.
Saul “Canelo” Alvarez rode shotgun to Mayweather for an event that broke live gate and PPV revenue records last September, and the intensity of the adoration for him was clear as the two fighters appeared in nine U.S. cities and one more in Mexico prior to their Las Vegas showdown.
Golden Boy Promotions executive Richard Schaefer referred to the 20-something as “the Mexican James Dean” at each of the 10 tour stops, and the company’s founder, Oscar De La Hoya, ruffled Mayweather’s feathers at the concluding stop in Los Angeles when he lauded Alvarez as the sport’s biggest star.
Showtime had him back on the air for a post-Mayweather return in March, and his 10-round wipeout of fellow Mexican slugger Alfredo Angulo had good numbers—Golden Boy said it surpassed 350,000 PPV buys and exceeded $20 million in gross revenue—and justified the network’s demonstrated confidence.
Stephen Espinoza, Showtime’s boxing czar, said the plans for Alvarez range anywhere from continued success at 154 pounds (where he’ll meet Cuban export Erislandy Lara in July) to a potential rise to middleweight to meet the winner of the June 7 match between Sergio Martinez and Miguel Cotto.
“The Mayweather fight might not have gone the way Canelo would have wanted,” Espinoza said, “but from every indication we've seen he has benefited from the exposure and his fanbase is continuing to grow exponentially. We're still seeing massive traffic as far as he's concerned.”
If it’s not the cinnamon-haired Alvarez, though, imagining the next breakthrough star is a bit tougher, because it doesn’t necessarily correspond to the experts’ view of who the next-best fighter is aside from Mayweather and Pacquiao.
Andre Ward is a 30-year-old former Olympic gold medalist who’s captured every pertinent belt at 168 pounds, but he’s failed to cross over as a gigantic television draw in spite of his No. 2 position in the pound-for-pound top 10 compiled by The Ring. A spot behind him is Ukrainian heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko, who’s also failed to move the TV needle after an eight-year reign of 16 title defenses that’s second only to Hall of Famers Joe Louis and Larry Holmes.
Pacquiao is fourth in the Ring listings, while two of his past conquests, Timothy Bradley and Juan Manuel Marquez, follow closely in Nos. 5 and 6. Martinez, at age 39, is seventh, and the list is rounded out by sublimely excellent but widely panned junior featherweight Guillermo Rigondeaux at No. 8, Alvarez at No. 9 and a former Ward victim, Carl Froch, at No. 10.
Based on those numbers, it would seem that the sport as a whole might be in for the wholesale decline that many observers—particularly those wrapped in MMA-sanctioned T-shirts—have predicted since the sudden rise of UFC and its brethren within the last decade.
But as veteran observers of boxing have long understood, something else always comes along.
Louis gave way to Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali. Ali’s decline set the stage for Sugar Ray Leonard, whose own gradual steps away from the ring heralded the era of Mike Tyson. Exit Tyson, enter Oscar De La Hoya as the sport’s premier PPV driving force, a torch that was passed to Mayweather when he won their May 2007 showdown, which drew a record 2.4 million buys.
Who’s next? Perhaps someone whose trajectory hasn’t yet been charted.
“When boxing appears at its most dire state with no possible place to mold a superstar from, someone always emerges from the shadows—always,” said Mike Coppinger, a USA Today contributor since 2010 and full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. “And it's usually from the most unlikely of sources, a boxer who has been under our very noses the entire time. Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather were world-class boxers before they made the leap to mainstream appeal.
“It's possible—probable, even—that a guy we watch on Saturdays right now will take the reins when Mayweather and Pacquiao are gone.”
All quotes were obtained firsthand.