Mayweather vs. Pacquiao: Once-in-a-Generation Showdown Is Finally Here

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterFebruary 20, 2015


Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao will be in your local paper tomorrow. They'll be on your nightly news too, the sports anchor likely expressing relief the fight has finally been made right before tossing the broadcast to a wacky weatherman to explain just how cold it's going to be next week.

For football or basketball, that kind of coverage is no big deal. Those sports get the red carpet treatment nightly, the assumption of their primacy complete and unyielding.

Boxing doesn't have that luxury. The chances of a boxing match escaping the walled gates of premium television is slim. For the most part, boxing exists in its own world, one removed from popular discourse.

And that, more than the merits of the fight itself, is what makes the long-awaited Pacquiao vs. Mayweather showdown—first announced by Mayweather on his Shots social media account Friday—such a big darn deal.

Boxing, like so many traditions, is a pastime slowly on the decline. No, contrary to popular belief, it isn't dying. Not even close. It maintains a grip on its remaining fans, one that doesn't look to be losing much strength.

But despite its relative health, there are very few fights in modern boxing capable of penetrating the elusive mainstream.

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Of course, that hardly makes the sport unique.

There are very few shared experiences these days. The democratization of entertainment has left each of us occupying our own niche. Decades ago we all watched the same three channels, listened to the same songs on the radio and read the same box scores in the morning paper.

Today you have your shows and I have mine. The advent of the iPod has made sticking to a very specific taste in music easier than ever. With magazines gasping for air and newspapers losing their battle with the blogs, it's quite possible that our sources of information aren't even the same.

No, in today's media landscape, blockbuster films and event television are among the handful of things capable of bridging that gap. We may spend all week on different planets, at least metaphorically. But come Sunday, we come together for football. It's a tie that binds.

Mayweather vs. Pacquiao will be like that too. The reason it's held the world's attention for more than six years, through numerous aborted attempts, copious trash talk and even a defamation lawsuit, is simple—this is the kind of fight that defines a generation.

Every few years a fight strikes the right nerve among boxing fans and becomes a true blockbuster. Two years ago that was Mayweather versus Saul "Canelo" Alvarez. Before that it was Mayweather and Pacquiao dispatching old man Oscar De La Hoya. With the right alchemy, a boxing match can sell.

This fight is different. It's bigger than a mere attraction. It matters. Every generation has a fight like this, one where the athletes aren't just competing for glory or even for money. Instead, they represent an ideal, an archetype.

Associated Press

In the 1930s it was Joe Louis and Max Schmeling who captured the eyes of the world. One an African-American son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave, the other a poster boy for German athletics who met regularly with Adolf Hitler himself, Louis and Schmeling were startling contrasts. The two packed Yankee Stadium twice, with an estimated 70 million around the world listening to the second fight on their radios.

"It had tremendous political implications in the battle of democracy against fascism," historian Lewis Erenberg told NPR. "And it had tremendous implications about race and racial ideology."

A similar battle was fought in the 1970s, this time between two African-Americans separated by battle lines drawn in the tumultuous 1960s. Muhammad Ali was brash, political and pretty. He was the new America. Joe Frazier, like Louis the son of a sharecropper, represented tradition, authority and the status quo.

James Rosen captured the scene for the New York Post:

Two undefeated champions, complete opposites, were earning an unprecedented $2.5 million each to produce one true champion. Who would prevail? Ali, the beautiful dancer and poetic defier of convention and authority, the conscientious objector to the Vietnam War who exalted the Koran above all else? Or Frazier, the grinding, unstoppable workingman who exemplified the grunting ethos and endurance of President Richard Nixon's Silent Majority?

It may not have been fair, especially to Frazier, but the country took sides, divided by race, politics and religion. An athletic event, again, became something more.

JACK SMITH/Associated Press

By the 1990s the stakes were quite a bit lower. Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, however, were still polar opposites, the dualism of light and darkness on display for a public craving the latest in a never-ending battle between good and evil.

In Holyfield, fans were presented a proud Christian, a Southerner with some charm and the chiseled physique of a supreme athlete. Tyson was the unrepentant thug, literally a convict, anthropomorphized violence with a brutal right uppercut. It was a combination that transfixed the sports world—and that will live in infamy because of Tyson's bizarre decision to twice bite Holyfield's ears in their second fight.

Pacquiao and Mayweather present a similar contrast, one that, along with their obvious excellence in the ring, makes this fight particularly compelling for those who enjoy sports as a morality play.

Like Holyfield, Pacquiao is a devout Christian. Though it's easy to be cynical, it certainly seems that his charity work and devotion to the poor in his native Philippines truly matter to Manny.

Mayweather, of course, became famous thanks to his "Money" character. While Pacquiao is best known for his public service, Mayweather's claim to fame is his conspicuous consumption. His exotic cars, expensive jewelry and retinue of assistants have become legendary.

Floyd Mayweather @FloydMayweather

Welcome to my world http://t.co/GwSJ4OC4Yj

While Pacquiao sports the white hat, the consummate hero, there's little doubt Mayweather wears all black. Better, each man knows his role. There will be no confusion when the time comes about who is the hero and who is the villain.

In the ring, too, the men are antithetical.

Not known for his punching power, Mayweather relies on his savvy, speed and a stamina born of a relentless work ethic to dominate the latter stages of every contest. He's a defensive genius, using his reach, preternatural smarts and ring instincts to control the action in every clash.

Pacquiao, though more disciplined than he was during his climb to fame, is action personified. If Mayweather is the Mantis, Pacquiao is the bull, charging ahead with both hands moving at lightning speed. It's a game born of angles and extraordinary speed.

What might have happened in 2008, when both men were fresh off wins over De La Hoya and closer to their physical apex, is lost to the realm of imagination. We will never know, and that's a tragedy of sorts that will haunt boxing fans forever.

But what happens now, in 2015, remains a compelling question. Pacquiao's knockout loss to Juan Manuel Marquez lingers in the memory. In truth, however, Marquez and Mayweather have very little in common. Pacquiao, in fact, looked sharp against Marquez right up until the moment he was lying face first on the ground, his body rigid and his brain losing a battle with consciousness.

We can be fairly sure that Mayweather won't drop Pacquiao with a single shot, though he will undoubtedly taunt Manny with the image of that setback in the months before the fight. Beyond that, there is very little certainty.

That's why, in the end, we'll watch. Despite the years in the rearview mirror since this fight first appeared on fans' radars, it remains a must-see bout.

This is boxing's greatest hero against its greatest villain.

This is the rare occasion when "epic" is more than just empty hyperbole.

This is the definition of must-see television. I'll be there. I hope to see you too.

Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.

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