Thousands upon thousands of boxing’s fringe fans will drop in for Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Manny Pacquiao on May 2, exercising their rights to throw down pay-per-view dollars only when it appears thrills are a sure thing.
And when those fair-weather fans hear the financial numbers associated with what’s expected to be the sport’s biggest revenue-churning event ever, they may wonder just how the heck a slippery eel like Mayweather became the biggest cash cow in boxing history.
To answer that, turn the pages of boxing history back to May 5, 2007, the day of the fight that made Mayweather.
His bout that night in Las Vegas against Oscar De La Hoya displayed everything that defines the still-undefeated Mayweather: the villainous persona, the aggravating but effective hit-and-run tactics, the visionary marketing and all the other elements that make him every bit as much a spectacle as a fighter.
The buildup alone altered the way boxing does business. For three weeks before they met, HBO ran a De La Hoya-Mayweather 24/7 show that took viewers into the fighters’ camps. It aired Sunday nights and couldn’t have had better lead-in programs. In boxing terms, the mafia brutality on The Sopranos and the sexy glitz of Entourage were the ultimate undercard for each episode of24/7.
Such behind-the-scenes exposure has since become a staple for big fights on HBO and Showtime, and for obvious reasons. In 2007, that hype helped stoke the audience that propelled Mayweather-De La Hoya to a $19 million live gate, 2.4 million pay-per-view buys and total revenue of about $165 million, all records at the time, per FightSaga.com.
De La Hoya, with his sparkling image and bigger name at the time, made $52 million to Mayweather’s $25 million, which also made it the biggest payday in boxing history.
Great fights typically are preceded by great animosity, and Mayweather got the ill will rolling during a promotional appearance with De La Hoya on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles.
Addressing the crowd, Mayweather told one of his wingmen to “bring Oscar up here.” What appeared was a live chicken, wearing a faux gold medal around its neck, inside a cage that had a “Golden Girl” sign on it. It was a double dig at De La Hoya, mocking The Golden Boy and his medal from the 1992 Olympics.
Mayweather was booed, as was part of his business plan.
“I’m the villain in boxing, but damn I’m good,” he told the crowd.
On fight night, Mayweather ramped up his villainy even more.
Against the backdrop of Cinco de Mayo, Mayweather insulted De La Hoya’s legion of Latino fans by parading into the ring wearing shorts that bore the red, white and green colors of the Mexican flag. The added touch was a white sombrero that ironically completed Mayweather’s black-hat demeanor.
Mayweather the Mexican was an audacious move, particularly considering that HBO broadcaster Jim Lampley estimated the MGM Grand audience was 90 percent pro-Oscar.
Also bold was Mayweather’s decision to bulk up to only 150 pounds for the WBC light middleweight title bout, while De La Hoya fought at the maximum 154 pounds.
But crowd sentiment didn’t prevent Mayweather from putting on a clinic that demonstrated how he has amassed his 47-0 career record as a pro. Mayweather, then 30, caught his 34-year-old opponent at an opportune time.
De La Hoya entered the ring 38-4 but had lost two of his previous four bouts. His ring rust also showed, as he was fighting for only the third time in 32 months. Retirement clearly was on the horizon, and after this, he fought only twice more.
Mayweather had yet to adopt his “Money” nickname and was referenced as Pretty Boy Floyd when Michael Buffer made the ring introductions. Elusive as ever for 12 rounds, Mayweather kept his prettiness intact while De La Hoya chased him, usually with little success.
|Punching stats from Mayweather vs. De La Hoya|
|Total punches thrown/landed||Power punches thrown/landed|
|De La Hoya||587-122 (21%)||341-82 (24%)|
|Mayweather||481-207 (43%)||241-138 (57%)|
De La Hoya easily won the punch count, but not much else. The CompuBox scoring tallied 587 punches thrown by De La Hoya to Mayweather’s 481. But while Mayweather’s gloves spent more idle time, they were far more accurate. His connection percentage was more than double De La Hoya’s, as he landed 43 percent of his total punches to De La Hoya’s 21 percent.
This was the night that Mayweather solidified his place in boxing lore as a defensive specialist who is half-cheetah, half-sniper.
There was no comparison between the hand speeds of the two combatants, and while Mayweather landed precious few combinations, he was able to score steadily with quick strikes and then retreat before De La Hoya could retaliate.
But HBO's Larry Merchant also wasn’t wowed by Mayweather’s style. In the sixth round, Merchant referred to Mayweather as a “defensive genius.” But in the ninth, the veteran announcer also questioned whether Mayweather could be classed as historically great “when he only throws one punch at a time.”
Lampley was of a similar mind, giving genuine props to Mayweather’s undefeated record but adding “this sport is also about theater.” The obvious insinuation was that Mayweather wasn’t providing any drama as he spent most of the night on the run.
Those choruses of complaint have only grown in Mayweather’s nine bouts since defeating De La Hoya. His only true knockout in that stretch came in his next fight, a 10th-round TKO of Ricky Hatton. But that’s how Floyd does business. (Officially, Mayweather KO’d Victor Ortiz in 2011, but there was a fiasco factor.)
In the end, the judges valued Mayweather’s accuracy more than De La Hoya’s aggression.
Mayweather won on a split decision, and after watching all 12 rounds again the other night, I’m still surprised the outcome wasn’t unanimous.
I’m not a fan of Mayweather’s style, but he clearly controlled the fight. It was an even match at the halfway point, but Mayweather zeroed in during the latter rounds and scored consistently on a tiring De La Hoya.
Naturally, there were plenty of fans who saw the fight differently and thought De La Hoya should have won. Most notable among them was Floyd Mayweather Sr., who added one more oddity to the event.
Mayweather Sr. had been De La Hoya’s trainer. A disagreement about money led to him being replaced for this fight by Freddie Roach, who is Pacquiao’s long-standing cornerman.
But De La Hoya still provided Mayweather Sr. with a $2,000 ringside seat, and from that vantage point, he saw his son as the loser.
“I thought Oscar won the fight on points, threw more punches and was more aggressive,” Mayweather Sr. told reporters, per The Associated Press. “My son had good defense and caught a lot of punches, but Oscar pressed enough to win the fight.”
Judge Tom Kaczmarek agreed with that assessment, scoring it 115-113 for De La Hoya. But Mayweather won with the backing of judges Chuck Giampa (116-112) and Jerry Roth (115-113).
The HBO crew heartily agreed with the outcome, as did the scorecards of the AP and ESPN’s Dan Rafael, which both had it 116-112 for Mayweather.
But while there was no sustained protest from the De La Hoya camp, there easily could have been a different outcome.
The final minute of the final round was the only time where the fighters really went toe-to-toe in the center of the ring for extended exchanges, throwing everything they had left. Roth was the only judge to score the 12th round for Mayweather, and if he had gone the other way, his card would have been 114-114. That would have made the bout a draw.
Instead, Mayweather kept his record perfect. That was a key element in the soaring interest that came his way but hardly the only one.
The bravado of the sombrero, the sinister side of his showmanship and the skillful precision with which he took apart De La Hoya were equally big factors. The sports world had just taken its first really close look at Mayweather, and whether fans loved him or hated him, they wanted to see more.
The "Money" Mayweather era had dawned, and it was only a matter of time before he became the most financially successful athlete on the planet.
Tom Weir covered numerous championship fights as a columnist for USA Today.