Floyd Mayweather, Jr., and Saul Alvarez look to set a new profit paradigm in boxing when they meet on September 14th at the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, at a catchweight of 152 pounds. This is a fight that may gross up to $200 million, an astonishing figure for any event, much less one that will involve two men engaging in fisticuffs, a barbaric practice whose doom has been predicted for decades. In addition, Mayweather-Alvarez is one of the rare instances of logic taking precedence in boxing, a pursuit so irrational it often resembles a Marx Brothers production. Not even a bout between Manny Pacqiuao and Mayweather—possibly the biggest grossing event in boxing history—could be made in the madhouse atmosphere of prizefighting. Like a sinister matryoshka doll, boxing reveals a new grotesquerie every time common sense threatens to make even a cameo appearance.
It took Mayweather ten years, Oscar De La Hoya, several infomercials on HBO and Showtime, and a staunch allegiance to ghettiquette to earn his raunchy superstar status. A rowdy synthesis of swag, swank, and swat, Mayweather is perfect for the TMZ demographic, ADD millennials, and SEO pimps on the internet. With a life as choreographed as anything by Bob Fosse, Mayweather has become a paparazzi celebrity able to tap into the multiplatform digital age. Indeed, Mayweather even became an auteur of sorts when he was essentially allowed to script his own biopic on Showtime. For his next fight, Mayweather ought to submit some of his pseudo cinema verite to the Sundance Film Festival. As the highest paid athlete in America, however, Mayweather is the undisputed P-4-P buzzmaster of The Sweet Science.
Only in this unique racket can a commodity produce one-third of its peak numbers—Mayweather-Oscar De La Hoya sold around 2.5 million pay-per-views in 2007—and still turn an industry on its head. Boxing, in particular, is immune to critical consensus because of the number of fanboys who pretend to be journalists. No other sport has such an unsophisticated mediascape covering it. So whenever Mayweather decisions a lightweight or beats a fighter he managed to duck years ago, you can count on it being hyped by press hounds who line up to get autographs from the athletes they are enamored with. Still, Mayweather looked like a meme with staying power, the Paris Hilton of sports, unlike the Snapchat notoriety of Chad Ochocinco, say, or Jeremy Lin.
That all seemed to change a bit when Mayweather outpointed Robert Guerrero last May in the first start of an extravagant six-bout deal with Showtime. Mayweather drew mixed reviews against Guerrero, along with a disputed buy-rate that lagged well behind his previous numbers against Miguel Cotto in 2012. (Of course, no one ever really knows the truth about these figures, because boxing often operates like a shadow banking system. It will take a Julian Assange or a Joe Valachi, maybe, to bring transparency to the business end of boxing, especially since the Muhammad Ali Act seems to be as toothless as a supercentenarian.) A dull 36-minute tango with Guerrero made the Mayweather Farewell Tour look like the last sad gigs of Judy Garland or Billie Holiday. Not surprisingly, some of the American media thought Mayweather conducted a master class, but they neglected to mention that the student, Guerrero, was the perfect example of social promotion in boxing. Once a solid featherweight and, later, a good junior lightweight, Guerrero stood no chance against Mayweather at 147 pounds, no matter how viciously he pummeled Andre Berto, the most overpaid clubfighter in America.
Although his bout with Guerrero reportedly drew anywhere from 800,000 to 1 million buys (depending on whom you ask), it was the kind of dud—relatively speaking, naturally—not usually associated with a man who believes himself to be the axis mundi of sports. “All Access,” the Showtime equivalent of “24/7,” also drew low numbers. Of course, that assertion has been disputed as well. In boxing, you can find someone to dispute everything from the death of Elvis to the existence of the sun, depending on the agenda. For a while, Mayweather Fatigue seemed to be as real as anything can be in an industry built on deception. Enter Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, one of the only surefire box office attractions in North America, chosen by Mayweather to reverse any bragging rights fallout from the Guerrero oil spill.
In trying to maintain his Starpulse appeal, is Mayweather, 44-0 (26), finally taking the risk so many have accused him of avoiding for most of his career?
Alvarez, 23, deserves credit for ignoring his own value as a commodity and seeking out a challenge. Like so many fighters today, Alvarez could have spent another year or two on the premium cable network gravy train, feasting on the hopeless, the hapless, and the helpless. By refusing to follow the track of least resistance any farther than he already has, Alvarez has made a statement unusual in a marketplace where Twitter is a negotiating tool and pound-for-pound maestros draw 384 paying customers to a title defense. Today, at least in America, most fights are set-ups. Whenever Gary Russell fights, for example, it is a set-up. Ditto Deontay Wilder and Andre Berto, although Berto is unique in being unable to capitalize on the opportunities presented to him. With the aid of network executives, promoters, more than ever, are the sporting equivalents of third-world dictators who rig ballot boxes right under the noses of UN voting monitors.
Because of his ability to make money in two markets, Alvarez has also faced any number of fighters with little or no chance of beating him over the last few years. It was a dispiriting run for anyone interested in competition. In fact, until Alvarez faced Trout in April, his best opponent may have been Archie Solis. Even Alvarez, who appeared to be going through the motions in a few fights, seemed to think it was all a big nothing. After outpointing Shane Mosley in 2012, Alvarez made it clear he was interested in bigger game. What he got instead was a brave but completely overmatched Josesito Lopez in one of the ugliest high-profile mismatches of the last two years. Even so, Alvarez kept his eye on Mayweather from fight to fight. Last spring, unable to corner Mayweather into a guarantee, Alvarez walked away from an undercard slot on the Mayweather-Guerrero pay-per-view and, against the dissenting judgment of his management, chose to face dangerous Austin Trout instead. Alvarez gambled an astronomical paycheck, outpointed Trout, and, when Mayweather needed an A-list counterpart, accepted a catchweight, and signed a contract for the biggest fight of his career. Whether Alvarez is seasoned enough to defeat Mayweather remains to be seen.
Alvarez, 42-0-1 (30), is in deep on Mexican Independence weekend, and he knows it. Unlike most of the HTML stars of today, Mayweather actually has talent—lots of it. One of the most gifted fighters of the last 25 years, Mayweather is so far ahead of his clumsy peers that he seems to be practicing an altogether different art than most fighters. But, except for Dancing With the Stars alum and confirmed basket case Victor Ortiz, it has been a long, long time since Floyd Mayweather has faced a fighter in his prime and in his natural division. Yes, there is the two-pound catchweight, but this is a matchup with few asterisks attached to it.
Alvarez gave some insight into his strategy when he spoke to Golpe a Golpe last May. “I’ve seen that many—the majority—want to tear his head off. I think that may not be the way to go, right? You have to start hitting the body-obviously with intelligence, because Mayweather is a fast fighter-but attacking the body and then throwing combinations upstairs, as well. But this is how we have to attack from the beginning.”
Alvarez, Juanacatlán, Jalisco, Mexico, seems to think he can breach the defense of a fighter who believes hit-and-not-get-hit should be one of the Ten Commandments. Just how Alvarez expects to do that, considering his low work rate in the ring, is hard to imagine. Judging from the limited action he showed against Trout, Alvarez is going to have a hard time setting a pace that will overtax Mayweather and force “Money” to remain on the defensive. Trout is a tricky southpaw, but he is encumbered with any number of technical flaws, not the least of which is poor balance. Alvarez was ready to counter whenever Trout lunged in, but he will find it much harder to time Floyd Mayweather.
From long range, Alvarez may try to feint Mayweather out of position so that he can step in behind combinations. But Mayweather, whose reflexes remain sharp, is unlikely to fall for this more than once, if at all. In order for Alvarez to bang away consistently at the body, as his plan dictates, he will have to lead, and there is no better counterpuncher in boxing than Mayweather, who still throws straight rights the way a Parabellum spits out bullets.
Mayweather showed no ill-effects from his three-month bid in the Clark County jail last summer when he easily dominated Guerrero in his comeback fight a little over four months ago. He did hold more than usual, however, possibly a sign that his legs are starting to yield a bit. At 36, Mayweather, like all of us, will eventually have to make concessions to time. Unfortunately, Alvarez does not grind much on the inside, and this oversight may allow Mayweather to remain fresh throughout the fight. If Alvarez decides to work harder in the trenches, he can keep Mayweather from being comfortable and can try to wear him down.
With only two knockouts in his last nine fights, Mayweather, Las Vegas, Nevada, is unlikely to hurt Alvarez, who will enter the ring on fight night with a decided advantage in size. Weight differentials are most important when there is a certain amount of parity between fighters—the wider the divide in talent, the less weight matters.
But there are several other variables Mayweather will have to face on September 14. First, Mayweather has never particularly shined above 147 pounds: He squeaked by De La Hoya in 2007 and took his share of punishment against dog-eared Miguel Cotto last year. Second, he will be fighting with 10-ounce gloves. Third, and most important, Alvarez will have nearly every physical advantage over Mayweather. “Canelo” is younger, bigger, fresher. In the end, these variables will, to an extent, bridge the gap in talent on fight night. But they will probably not be enough. Waylaying Carlos Baldomir, Josesito Lopez, and Kermit Cintron is no way to prepare for a unique talent like Floyd Mayweather. Alvarez shows promise, but a lack of world-class experience will likely hurt him as the rounds go by. Mayweather ought to be able to work his jab on the outside, score with one-twos, skirt away when Alvarez gets too close, and create a DMZ inside by clinching. Although Mayweather has spoken about scoring a knockout, he knows better than anyone that risk is nothing but a four-letter word.
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