Lately, for boxing fans, it's a familiar pattern: another day, another piece of "news" or speculation on the Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao situation.
As a fan, it gets frustrating. Some people say they'll stop following boxing because of it. Some say that this shows what's wrong with boxing today, and that people will start moving over to MMA.
Don't believe it.
We’re still talking. They’re playing us, and in some ways we want to be played. True, there could be some legitimate differences of opinion between Mayweather and Pacquiao, and some things could be taken at face value, but if we know one thing about boxing, we know it all comes down to marketing and psychology.
Boxing promoters are masters at using psychological tricks to sell fights, and it is in full force here. Here’s what they’re doing, why it works, and how the Mayweather-Pacquiao situation might unfold.
First thing: They want to sell more fights, and they’ll milk this for all it’s worth
This is obvious. The hunger for this match is palpable, and for good reason. It’s a once-in-a-generation boxing event, pairing up the two greatest fighters in the world in their prime.
It’s Ali vs. Frazier, it’s Ali vs. Foreman, it’s Tyson vs. Holyfield. It will be the best-selling pay-per-view in the history of boxing, and fights like this don’t come along often.
Boxing thrives on storylines, and this is the climax, the culmination of an ongoing narrative.
Even if the fighters don’t know it, they’re in this together.
More than any other sport, boxing is about storytelling.
The reason we follow it is because we need to see the story unfold. Because of this, boxing history is tied to our cultural history.
When you think of great moments and figures in boxing, they are the ones that carry our collective history. They embody the American dream.
Boxers represent each of us, and the values we stand for: rags to riches tales; overcoming adversity; approaching a problem with a combination of finesse, power, and determination. There's a reason so many boxing terms and phrases have worked their way into our everyday language. On the ropes, throw in the towel, jab, saved by the bell, in your corner, one-two punch, knockout, punch drunk, go down swinging, tale of the tape - people use these terms without even thinking of their meaning anymore.
Most boxing observers will go through a period where they struggle with the violence of the sport, and we all take great heart in the improving safety precautions and medical oversight we've seen in recent years. But we keep on following it because it offers a narrative no other sport can offer.
Of the four sports-related movies to win best picture, Chariots of Fire is the only one that wasn't about boxing. Rocky,On The Waterfront, and Million Dollar Baby were - and most people thought Raging Bull deserved best picture as well. When viewed through the right lens, boxing is a remarkably apt metaphor for the human condition.
Legendary HBO commentator Jim Lampley has described each boxing card as being its own "entrepreneurial snowflake," a one-time-only event that must be understood within a larger context, something that is unique in sports. Before every major fight, they try to build a storyline. The history of boxing is the history of our heroes, told in matches rather than pages.
Muhammad Ali, Julio Cesar Chavez, Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis, Max Schmeling, Sugar Ray Robinson, Manny Pacquiao, Ricky Hatton, Juan Diaz.
Beyond mere talent, these fighters have captured our imagination because they are vanguards of a social and economic group, symbols of a struggle that we can all associate with on some level, because they tell our story.
Manny Pacquiao is the clear protagonist
It is becoming lucidly clear that Manny Pacquiao is the protagonist of this tale. He is likeable and reinforces our view of what is just.
As a poor child selling cigarettes on the streets of the Philippines, he found his way into a boxing gym and a way out of poverty through his athletic ability.
He had clear talent and promise, but dropped a few early bouts as an unpolished boxer early on. His career changed when someone saw him as a diamond in the rough.
In comes Freddie Roach, a likeable, humble former fighter afflicted with an incurable disease. He speaks softly, but no one can doubt his prowess as a trainer.
He and Pacquiao have a union of teacher and student that brought Manny where he is today. Under Roach’s tutelage, Pacquiao overcame innumerable obstacles.
After an early loss to Morales and a draw with Marquez, he then won his series against Morales, Barrera, and Marquez.
He defeated Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, and Miguel Cotto. He seemingly takes on bigger and stronger foes every fight, now competing for a world title in an eighth division against one of the biggest villains in boxing, Antonio Margarito.
And throughout all this, he perseveres with an angelic smile and fists that seem unfitting for such a diminutive fighter. He has risen from poverty to become a political leader in his home country and is loved by his people and the world.
We know he is the good guy because we hope that every poor, small child in the Philippines has the heart that Manny Pacquiao has displayed.
Mayweather is quickly becoming the villain
The difference between a hero and a villain isn’t cut and dried. Both are impressive and awe-inspiring, but we can’t help but feel like the villain made a bad choice somewhere down the line.
Mayweather was once an admirable fighter. “Pretty Boy” Floyd was a smooth, technical, undefeated fighter with bright eyes, a winning smile, and a “good guys finish last” fate. He couldn’t get the big fights until he became “Money” Mayweather, and now he looks like he sold his soul to the dark side for fame and profit.
Mayweather knows this. Every time Mayweather is on HBO’s 24/7, we see a decent, but misled soul who is prone to cocky behavior, arrogant declarations, deceptive practices and an insatiable lust for power and fame.
His team is continuously beset with criminal investigations. He knows that bad news travels seven times further than good news. And he uses that to his advantage.
We want to like Mayweather because of his talent, but we find him offensive. He offends the values we hold dear. If we buy into the stereotype of the arrogant, foul-mouthed, selfish, greedy “gangsta rap” figure, then he upsets our sensibilities.
If we don’t believe this stereotype, then he offends us because he reinforces a faulty, harmful stereotype. Yes, he appeals to our rebellious side, but it’s always an afterthought. He is meant to be the bad guy.
We know this because we fear that every talented, promising kid who has made a few mistakes in life will end up being like Floyd Mayweather Jr.
We want to see this conflict resolved for reasons that extend beyond boxing
Of course everyone wants to see a fight between the two top fighters in the world, but this dream matchup has captured the imagination of people who couldn’t care less about boxing.
It has all the elements of a tremendous boxing match, but it goes beyond that. It’s a cultural event. People want to be a part of it.
They want to tell their grandchildren about Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao. It’s like McGwire and Sosa, Ali and Frazier, Magic vs. Bird, Unitas vs. Namath. It might be the defining sporting event of our time.
But the promoters and fighters only have one chance to get it right, and they know what they’re doing
This is the key point. They only have one chance to have this be the biggest sporting event in the world. So they’re doing a few things:
1. Developing the characters, storyline, and conflict. It doesn’t have to be good guy vs. bad guy, and arguably it shouldn’t be. But it must be relevant, and the characters must be engaging.
Recent developments have added to this. Mayweather’s rant and his run-ins with the law have lent credence to the idea that he may not just be acting, but might actually be psychologically on the edge.
He also brought race into the fight, which is a tired, but still effective, talking point. Pacquiao, on the other hand, has strengthened his reputation by being elected to office in the Philippines, continuing to thrive in drug-tested matches, and is facing arguably boxing’s greatest villain, Antonio Margarito.
Mayweather defeating Marquez also gave Floyd a much-needed benchmark win over a fighter Pacquiao has struggled with.
2. Building anticipation. The best things in life are worth waiting for. Mayweather, Pacquiao, Bob Arum, Don King, and the rest of the world know that this has been the most talked-about fight in boxing for the past two years, and with hunger comes anticipation.
In love and in sports, a little teasing and playing hard-to-get goes a long way toward building excitement, and with each passing fight, the mystique for this matchup grows.
In addition, we've all committed our minds, time, and energy to this fight. Commitment will result in increased sales when the fight actually happens.
3. Waiting for the right timing. A final caveat is that they must be careful not to overplay their hand. Letting suspense build is good, and knowing that Mayweather prides himself on his Pay Per View sales, it may have been wise to not have the fight during a recession.
But there comes a point when interest wanes. These fighters are in their 30s now, and neither seems interested in fighting for more than a few more years. More importantly, they won’t be the top two pound for pound fighters forever.
Promising young fighters abound, and a single loss to another opponent will override much of the excitement around this fight. Pacquiao-Mayweather must be launched when the tide is still high for these warriors.
And then the fight will happen, and here’s why:
First off, I don’t agree that we need this fight to “save” boxing. Boxing is a well-established sport with a number of compelling figures and we have seen Pay Per View records set during the past five years.
Boxing has a rich history, a promising future, and the sweet science is a thinking man’s sport unrivaled in its ability to showcase the psychology of competition and embody compelling storylines.
But the fans want this fight, Manny Pacquiao wants this fight, and Floyd Mayweather will soon need this fight, for his pocketbook and his reputation.
His recent legal proceedings will only plunge him into further debt, and as conscious as he is about his legacy, he will need this fight in order to not be labeled a cowardly, protected fighter in the eyes of many boxing fans, especially newer ones.
Floyd Mayweather is obviously a great fighter, but he knows he is better than that.
Mayweather will soon realize that even if he loses to Pacquiao, he will be remembered as one of the icons of the sport.
History smiles on fighters who fight and lose, rather than avoid fighting at all. People don’t dismiss Joe Frazier because he lost twice to Muhammad Ali and was knocked down 8 times in two losses against George Foreman.
They remember him because he once beat Ali and was his greatest opponent, and he stood up after being knocked down eight times against Foreman.
Muhammad Ali lost to Frazier, Ken Norton, and three other guys, and he is still “The Greatest.” Julio Cesar Chavez lost 6 times.
Sugar Ray Robinson lost 19. Willie Pep lost 11. Tommy Hearns’ legacy was only boosted by his third-round loss to Hagler.
Compare this to 49-0 Joe Calzaghe. Who ranks him among the top twenty fighters of all time?
The only undefeated fighter who makes this list is Rocky Marciano, who fought only the best fighters in true wars, and won against Ezzard Charles with a broken nose while showing tremendous heart.
And even Marciano struggles to make many observers’ top-10 lists. A fight with Pacquiao, win or lose, will only help Mayweather's legacy.
So Manny Pacquiao wants this fight, Floyd Mayweather will soon realize he needs this fight, and most importantly, sports fans and the general public want to see this fight more than every other bout in boxing today combined.
It is simply the best option for everyone involved, and it's part of what we as a society hunger for.
Every all-time great fight is an unfolding story that captures a moment of triumph in our history. This draws us in. It plays on our humanity and serves as a defining cultural event for its generation.
Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao will happen because it must happen.