What does it mean anymore, the notion of a big prizefight? On May 2 in Las Vegas, Manny Pacquiao will meet Floyd Mayweather; it is a marquee bout that is taking place five years too late. It was delayed for nearly all the reasons that fights are typically postponed, a series of internecine conflicts and ego-driven spats and rights wars that apparently reached a detente when the two men met spoke at a Miami Heat basketball game last month.
It doesn’t matter that each boxer is at least slightly past his prime (though Mayweather is still undefeated, he has only one knockout win in the past eight years, and Pacquiao hasn’t knocked anyone out since 2009). According to promoter Bob Arum – who speaks with the blind confidence of, you know, a boxing promoter – the delay was actually a good thing. According to Arum, the five years of anticipation will actually build up the hype: “I’ve been promoting boxing for nearly 50 years,” Arum told ESPN.com, “and there is nothing that has come close to this because there has been nothing that has been so difficult to come to fruition. As interest is concerned, this is akin to the first [Muhammad] Ali-[Joe] Frazier fight.”
This is, of course, a completely crazy notion, the kind of hyperbolic declaration that used to make the sport so compelling, but now just makes it seem like a sad parody of itself. Boxing is in a completely different place than it was when Ali and Frazier met in 1971; it’s in a different place than it was when Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis broke the all-time record for a pay-per-view fight back in 2002. A Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, priced at roughly $100 in HD, will make a good deal of money and will probably break every record in terms of revenue, but it doesn’t feel as culturally vital as it once might have. And it sure as hell doesn’t feel as vital as Ali’s fights did, or even as Tyson’s fights did a decade or two ago.
There have been a million requiems written for the sport of boxing, and so I don’t feel the need to pile on too much further here. Mayweather-Pacquiao is a big deal for those people who still feel a deep connection with the sport, but it won’t alter the basic notion that boxing exists on the margins these days, that everything it tries to rekindle that image feels a bit dated. Years ago, a studio like Marvel might have moved the opening of one of the biggest superhero movies of the year to another weekend in order to accommodate a big fight, perhaps even a fight between these two men at their peak; but not anymore.
Maybe it will be the sort of fight that pulls people in; the notion of determining “best pound-for-pound fighter” is the one allure boxing has left in this lackluster era for heavyweights. Maybe it can be the kind of fight that draws at least a few people back to the sport. But mostly, the whole thing feels kind of like boxing has for the better part of a generation: A niche drama that’s trying to resurrect a once-compelling storyline a few years too late.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb