THE FIGHT TO SAVEBOXING
Can Saturday's showdown make the average fan care about the sport again?
Oscar De La Hoya,the most acclaimed boxer of his era, has a loving family and a budding businessempire. He needs one more victory to gild his Hall of Fame career--and wantsone more whopping payday
Floyd MayweatherJr. , the best pound-for-pound fighter on earth, has a chaotic family, animpish sense of humor and a willingness to play the bad guy. What he craves nowis the world's recognition
IN A LAS VEGAS gym,far from the boardrooms, Floyd Mayweather Jr. chops at a heavy bag, slowlycircling it, punch by punch. "I like [whomp!] having [whomp!] $10,000[whomp!] in my [whomp!] pocket." His personal videographer, who has eightyears' worth of film to edit so far, revolves with him, trying to keep out ofthe way of Mayweather's personal photographer, who is in similar orbit. "Ilike [whomp!] having a [whomp!] cook [whomp!]. I like [whomp!] having [whomp!]a driver." Two assigned punch counters (one is counting byhand--"seven, eight, nine, 2,000!"--the other clicking on a smalldevice for backup) move with him, adding to the effect of a small butneedlessly complicated planetary system. Mayweather chops away, narrating hislifestyle, as if his work here requires explanation. "I like [whomp!]having [whomp!] a big house." The entourage shuffles along in cycloidcongestion, documenting and affirming, until Mayweather suddenly drops hisarms, not so much because they are tired as because he has begun to repeathimself. Above all, it seems, he likes having (whomp!) $10,000 in his pocket.Everyone is pleased with the drill, clapping and whistling. The man with theclicker shows me the count: 6,261. I remember now that Mayweather had,altogether spontaneously, set out to "crack off" 1,000 straightpunches, to the delight and astonishment of the crowd gathered near the ring.He has (whomp!) overshot.
As he moves off, adozen people trailing in his gravitational wake, I marvel at such wonderfuldesperation. You see this only at the highest levels of performance.Mayweather's drive is so deep-seated that at first it's hard to see the doubtthat inspires him, and he tends to come off as heedless, irrepressible and,above all, childish. He never seems at work, but rather at play. In fact, theday's training is in jeopardy when somebody produces a giant jar of Twizzlers.The camp has taken on Mayweather's attention-deficit persona and is impossibleto keep on track for very long. Everyone dives into the jar. Crazy. How much isat stake here? How many hundreds of millions? Then again, didn't Mayweather, at3 a.m. this very day, spring upright in bed and send out a call to gathereverybody at the gym? I imagine that gloomy phone tree. It was, however, by nomeans the first time that the gang had assembled in the Nevada moonlight.Indeed, like firefighters wired to answer alarms, they do it all the time, onlythese men are chronically attuned to whim.
If Mayweather istruly desperate--and nothing else explains his fanaticism--this is good newsback in the boardrooms. His fight with Oscar De La Hoya on Saturday night atthe MGM Grand in Vegas will probably be boxing's last gasp, surely the lastbout that can produce anything like coast-to-coast appeal or, let's say, twomillion pay-per-view buys. Unless De La Hoya is fighting, which has been seldomof late and is about to become never, the sport exists on the fringes,particularly in the U.S. The lower weight classes are dominated by Hispanicfighters, and their fights, dramatic as they might be, are marketed almostexclusively in the West, Southwest and some big cities elsewhere. Theheavyweight division, which traditionally galvanized the nation, is similarlydominated by foreign fighters, but with the added disadvantage that they're notvery good.
In short, De LaHoya--Mayweather just might be boxing's last megafight, the last event of itskind, the last time a bout features two widely known athletes and is a topic ofnational interest. There will be boxing, and lots of it will be quite good, butthere may never again be a time when boxing penetrates this country'sindifference and causes a viral, all-consuming hubbub.
The reasons forboxing's decline, or at least its transition to a specialty sport, have beenoutlined in these pages before. The Olympics, once a springboard to stardom, nolonger provide boxing any exposure in this country. It's been a long time,perhaps since De La Hoya won his gold medal in Barcelona in 1992, that kids inthis country could be goaded into a gym with the promise of glory.Globalization, which ought to be good for boxing, a traditional melting pot,has instead turned it into a nightmare of competing ethnicities, with nichemarketing now the norm.
ON TOP of all this,there has been the sudden and surprising emergence of mixed martial arts. TheUltimate Fighting Championship, which has been selling out Las Vegas arenas forseveral years now, is lately making big bucks with its own pay-per-view shows.It skews much younger, imbuing Gen Xers with an appreciation of leg sweepsinstead of left hooks. Boxing's demographic is increasingly made up of peoplewho eat early-bird specials and wonder what e-mail is. And it will get onlyworse. "It's a bit like horse racing," says Marc Ratner, longtimeexecutive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, which overseesboxing in the state, "and you wonder about that." (Indeed. Ratnerrecently switched sides and went to work for the UFC.) Saturday night's fightwill not change this but will instead represent something of a last hurrah. Theriches this bout will produce (the $19 million gate, the potential $100 millionPPV haul) will most likely not be matched. Not on one night, anyway.
In the boardroomsthere seems to be a reluctant recognition of this. While old boxing hands arguethat the sport is merely in a lull--"Boxing has gone through ebbs and flowsin its history," says HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg, whose network,long among the sport's biggest boosters, is essentially promoting the fight andtelevising it on PPV--there is nevertheless a sense of urgency. Blessed withtwo remarkable fighters, terrific subplots and a looming deadline of De LaHoya's expected retirement, HBO (which, like SI, is owned by Time Warner) haspulled out all the stops. And that includes foisting an hourlong PowerPointpresentation on a cadre of bewildered boxing writers.
Basically,according to the slide show, everybody's doing a lot of stuff. Here's some ofit: As the promoter of record, De La Hoya's company, Golden Boy, leased a pairof Gulfstream jets to ferry the fighters on a nine-day, 11-city tour. Thestopovers served to remind the cable-ready universe that the 34-year-old De LaHoya, only sporadically active (or successful) over the last several years, hadregained his appetite, his nerve and his megasmile. Also that Mayweather, 30,undefeated and a champion for a decade, was not so intimidated by moving upfrom welterweight to challenge De La Hoya, the WBC champion, at this new weightof 154. "Golden Girl," Mayweather called him.
De La Hoya deservesbetter than that, of course, having ruled six divisions and run up a 38--4record (with 30 KOs) during his 15-year career, his left hook as impressive ashis smile. He still has some crunch in him and could be dangerous at thisweight. Mayweather (37--0, with 24 KOs), who has an equally impressive set ofchoppers, is the quicker and shiftier boxer and will be the favorite in thefight for it. But even as a shoulder-rolling phantom, his power, never hisstrong suit, becomes suspect as he moves up in weight to meet De La Hoya.
The fighters' tourwas a staple of big-time promotion in the 1970s and '80s, when Sugar RayLeonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Tommy Hearns and Roberto Duràn wererepeatedly squaring off. It hasn't been used as much, or as effectively, inrecent years. With De La Hoya consistently taking the high road and the puckishMayweather playing his recklessly rude foil, there could hardly have been moredrama, or comedy. Mayweather seemed to be beside himself on the tour, hatchingcaper after caper (producing a live chicken with a gold medal around its neck,stealing De La Hoya's bag) and generally getting under his opponent's skin.When the two parties ate in the same restaurant, someone from Mayweather'stable took food from a cart headed for De La Hoya. "I mean, who acts likethat?" says De La Hoya, shaking his head.
But if the tour wasold school, the HBO documentary (or reality show, or infomercial, depending onwhere you dial in your cynicism), 24/7, was something very new. Its fourhalf-hour segments, shown after The Sopranos and Entourage on Sundays, were anall-access peek into the two fighters' camps. The shows were so profane thateven promoter Bob Arum (who has been involved with both fighters) was aghast:"I mean, what the f--- was that!" But they were also funny, not alittle revealing and a shrewd ramp-up to Saturday's event. Toggling between twoentirely different lifestyles (De La Hoya sips cappuccino that his wife, PuertoRican pop star Millie Corretjer, made for him at their San Juan estate; rapper50 Cent materializes on a Segway while Mayweather gets a haircut at his LasVegas estate), HBO easily made the case for rooting interests while alsoproviding a benchmark for televised surrealism.
When you promiseyour fighters estimated purses of $25 million (for De La Hoya) and $10 million(for Mayweather), you need to find promotional leverage where you never lookedbefore. So in addition to 24/7, HBO boasted of "600 millionimpressions," worth $25 million, in its PowerPoint show. Nobody at thepress conference had any idea what that meant. Advertising, possibly? Betterunderstood was the Tecate beer marketing in 14,000 7-Elevens, and the Rockstarenergy drink promotion in 11,000 Circle K's. This kind of sponsorship for afight is certainly unprecedented but possibly now required.
"Somewherealong the way," says Greenburg, "[boxing] lost the average fan. But Ithink we're earmarking this as the fight that can bring him back. In many waysthis is the Super Bowl of boxing. We can get that viewer back once again, tocreate the beauty and drama of this sport."
THE PROBLEM is,once the viewer is back, he may not stay. For all of Mayweather'spound-for-pound excellence, his willingness to play the heel and hisentertainment value, this is still De La Hoya's promotion. He is boxing'sbiggest breadwinner since Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield surrendered theheavyweight division; in total PPV revenue his take is $492 million from 17events, third behind the two big men. And with this fight he will easily toppleTyson's career haul of $545 million. In terms of single-fight buys, the 1.4million for De La Hoya's bout with Félix Trinidad in 1999 remains anonheavyweight record. And the record of 1.99 million buys for Tyson-HolyfieldII in '97 is within reach.
De La Hoya has beennotoriously cagey and unreliable when it comes to setting his retirement date.He was never going to fight into his 30s, remember? It's been a year since heknocked out Ricardo Mayorga and 2 1/2 years since he lost to Bernard Hopkins inan ill-fated but lucrative step up to the 160-pound division, but he alwaysfinds a reason to come back for one more payday. However, with an estimated networth of $150 million (prefight) and with investments in publishing, banking,fight promotion and real estate, he may be hard-pressed to find many morereasons.
Mayweather'sbox-office clout, without the ability to cross over into the Hispanic market,is paltry in comparison with De La Hoya's, and he has never become theattraction his talents seemed to predict. This puzzles most followers of thegame, because Mayweather's impish charm trumps De La Hoya's less-authenticpublic persona. There's hardly anyone more fun to be around than Mayweather.But he's also capable of nastiness--blasting the very people who bankroll him.Also, there's the matter of his family.
If we got a nickelevery time we used the word dysfunctional in a Mayweather story, we could moreeasily afford to buy his pay-per-view fights. But the family is unusual. FloydSr., who as a trainer was seen not so long ago in De La Hoya's corner,developing game plans and off-the-wall rhymes, was never truly estranged fromhis son, but their relationship has had its ups and downs, not limited to thetime in 2000 that Junior evicted Senior from his house. The father, save for a5 1/2-year prison stint on drug charges, was demanding when it came to theson's boxing career, requiring a perfection that not even Floyd Jr. coulddeliver. The son, though admitting that he still works to please the father,chafed and fired him first chance he got.
In his place heinstalled his father's brother, which produced even more sensational familydynamics. Roger Mayweather, like Floyd Jr., could not take the old man'sblathering. They never got along, and they still snipe at each other at everyopportunity. The young fighter has handled this better than you might haveexpected, even though his father was De la Hoya's trainer of record untilJanuary. Give Senior this, though. Rather than continue to train a man todestroy his son, he essentially fired himself by asking for an unheard-of $2million to remain in De La Hoya's corner. De La Hoya replaced him with veteranFreddie Roach.
The family dynamicgot a further tweak last September when Roger was sentenced to six months inprison for decking the grandmother of his child. Now who would train Floyd Jr.?Floyd Sr. was seen around the gym, looking to help, but his son set himstraight. "I love my father," Floyd Jr. says, but Floyd Sr. is nolonger his trainer. As soon as Roger got out of the can in March, it was backto business, although it can get a little tense with the two brothers eyeingeach other from under those furrowed brows.
Floyd Jr. hasstreamlined his life; he says he hardly ever goes out in full party modeanymore, preferring to stay in his Vegas manse to watch basketball on one ormore of his six plasma TVs. He bets the games but says that's his only vice.Well, he likes to shop, too, which is why he needs that $10,000 in his pocket."You never know when you might need a Brioni shirt," he says. And justas he's likely to roust his crew for a midnight run, he might as easily givethem a call to meet him at Niketown or Ruth's Chris. His burn rate is afunction of boredom.
MOSTLY, HE likes tobe in the gym. Here he is, on what's supposed to be a day off, hitting themitts with Roger. Maybe the peculiar exhilaration of boxing will no longerappeal to a mass audience. Maybe the sport really will be driven into cornersonly connoisseurs can find. But its pleasures will be no less intense for allthat. Anyway, here's Mayweather at his trade, in a spectacle of syncopation,firing off combinations according to a secret plan, his uncle catching themwith his mitts (and the videographer and photographer circling cautiously).There are three-punch combinations, five-, 10-, 20-punch flurries of pinpointdelivery. Floyd steadily increases the pace until the staccato pop-pop-pop ofhis gloves begins to sound like machinery.
And then I noticethat Floyd and Roger are not looking at each other but are staring off intospace, as if enjoying a private reverie, or maybe it's a shared disdain for thesport's simplicity. Who can tell with these characters? And then (this isalmost impossible to believe) I see that Roger's two-year-old son, Lakai, hascrawled into the ring and attached himself to his father's leg. There is nobreak in the action, which increases, if anything, Roger continuing to catchblows--here, there, everywhere--while lugging his son around on his leg.Nobody's looking at anybody, and the punches are flying, just flying. Finallysomeone shouts "Time!" and the drill is ended. Everybody claps andwhistles.
Read Chris Mannix's profile of De La Hoya and RichardO'Brien's on-site analysis of the fight. ONLY AT SI.COM
"Somewhere along the way," says HBO's Greenburg,boxing "lost the average fan. But we're earmarking this as the fight thatcan bring him back. In many ways this is THE SUPER BOWL OF BOXING. We can getthat viewer back once again."
De La Hoya was never going to fight into his 30s, but healways came back for one more PAYDAY.
There's hardly anyone more fun to be around thanMayweather. But he's capable of NASTINESS.
¬†AGE: 34HEIGHT: 5'10" RECORD: 38-4-0 (30 KOs)
Ten-time World Champion
AGE: 30 HEIGHT: 5'8" RECORD: 37-0-0 (24 KOs)
Five-time World Champion Robert Beck
SAY UNCLE Floyd Jr. (left) put his training in Roger's hands.
MITT FIT New trainer Roach has meshed with De La Hoya.
GV CRUZ/WIREIMAGE.COM (CORRETJER)
SINGING HIS SONG Oscar's wife, Millie, is a pop star at home in Puerto Rico.
STEVE MARCUS/LAS VEGAS SUN/REUTERS (FLOYD SR.)
PRODIGAL FATHER Floyd Sr. is back with his son--but won't be in his corner.