IF ever a fighter personified what Don DeLillo once wrote about stardom – Fame requires every kind of excess – it was Floyd Mayweather. When Mayweather outpointed Andre Berto on September 12 in Las Vegas, Nevada, in a lackluster farewell, he put an ellipsis (not an exclamation point) on one of the most polarizing careers in boxing history.
With the exception of Oscar De La Hoya (who peaked before the social media revolution) and Manny Pacquiao, who is,
after all, Filipino, no fighter in America has earned mainstream coverage like Mayweather has in the last decade. What makes his lurid/lucrative run over the last few years truly extraordinary is the fact that it began in the midst of The Great Recession, when disposable income had flatlined from coast to coast, along with the Dow Jones, the GDP, and the housing market.
In 2009, when Mayweather ended an 18-month hiatus by facing Juan Manuel Marquez, unemployment in the United States was hovering around 10 per cent, time-warping the nation back to the dreary early-1980s. Naturally, while millions across the country lost their homes to foreclosure or found themselves on the dole, Mayweather was parading his bottomless collection of wrist watches, luxury cars, and sneakers as often as possible. That Mayweather could sell one million pay-per-view units regularly during an economic crisis is a testament to his unique drawing power.
Whether or not Mayweather stays on the sidelines remains to be seen. If he keeps his word and retires permanently, however, his absence is certain to have an effect on the US fight racket. Will the sweet science in America turn into some sort of apocalyptic wasteland – like Pompeii buried under ashes – without Mayweather? Or will boxing, tenacious as ever, rebound from the loss of its biggest star?
Mayweather might have done some damage to the immediate future of boxing even before his fight against Berto took place. Despite the fact that Mayweather was the undisputed box-office champion in America for years, his humdrum finish may have been proof that his act has finally faded. Most fighters use signature wins as popularity boosters. But Mayweather, in keeping with his ability to turn just about everything upside down, faced a backlash after his anticlimactic waltz against Manny Pacquiao on May 2. In the process, he may have alienated a significant percentage of the record 4.4m people who pressed “BUY” on their remote controls last May. His drab performance against Berto reportedly generated around 450,000 buys, a staggering drop-off from the record-shattering receipts of Mayweather-Pacquiao just a few months earlier and an indication that consumers retaliated with their wallets.
More important, occasional spectators may have turned their backs on the sport for good, which bodes ill for boxing in the short term. “Some general sports fans who watched the mega-dud feel as though they were duped – rightfully so – and will never shell out their hard-earned money to purchase another big-time boxing pay-per-view event again,” says esteemed writer Doug Fischer. “However, others will catch some of the brightest talents of the next generation on TV and other entertainment platforms and follow those up-and-comers to major fights that eventually turn them into hardcore boxing fans. There’s always a couple of fighters who come around in each decade – from Mike Tyson and Julio Cesar Chavez to Roy Jones Jnr and Oscar De La Hoya to Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao – that capture the imagination of casual fans.”
The Torch Factor
If there is anything truly significant about retiring undefeated, it may be the fact that Mayweather prevented an upstart from making a name for himself. One boxing ritual – the passing of the torch – is the final custom Mayweather refused to acknowledge in a career built on rebellion. Where Mayweather had Oscar De La Hoya for a springboard to stardom, the current crop of fighters will have to double down to become luminaries in the future. Eric Raskin, who covers boxing for HBO, does not see the issue in strictly black-and-white terms. “In a perfect world for the business of boxing, Mayweather would stick around and get knocked out by Gennady Golovkin or Saul Alvarez in a massive PPV event, thus making his conqueror a household name,” he said.
“But I think De La Hoya passing the torch to Mayweather (and Pacquiao) was something of a rarity. Muhammad Ali didn’t pass the torch to Sugar Ray Leonard, who didn’t pass it to Mike Tyson, who didn’t pass it to De La Hoya. A new superstar can emerge without grabbing the torch directly from the previous superstar.”
Will PBC help or hurt?
Not only will Mayweather leave behind a potential void, but his absence takes place during a tumultuous period in boxing.
Premier Boxing Champions has thrown the industry into turmoil over the last few months and promises to continue to do so going forward. Although PBC has the largest platform available in boxing (over-the-air television) its effect, so far, anyway, has been largely theoretical. Its erratic ratings turned grim on September 26 when the Deontay Wilder-Johann Duhaupas mismatch on NBC returned an average of 2.2m viewers. (Compare that to American Ninja Warrior, which aired on NBC two weeks earlier and drew over six million viewers.)
One of the strangest paradoxes surrounding PBC is the fact that its nearly half-a-billion dollar war chest, raised through venture capitalists, is being spent on mediocre product regularly. Even bedraggled Vivian Harris – denied a license to fight by the BBBofC last year – has popped up on a PBC card that also included ossified Razor Ruddock (who turned pro when Dexys Midnight Runners were at the top of the pop charts), and limited Tommy Karpency, steamrolled by Adonis Stevenson in the pitiful main event recently aired on Spike TV.
To make matters worse, PBC not only follows a slapdash matchmaking philosophy, but it also prevents top fights from taking place elsewhere because its vast stable of fighters cannot operate outside of league confines. The big question here is whether or not PBC will hurt boxing more than it will help in the future.
With its most visible athlete now gone, boxing will have to rely on its understudies to assume top billing. But the elements that made Mayweather a phenomenon are going to be difficult to reproduce in the future. Simply put, there may never be another fighter like “Money”. As an authentic Digital Age popcult supernova, Mayweather chewed up terabytes in cyberspace the same way Pac-Man devoured ghosts in arcades across the planet. Thanks to 24/7 and All-Access, his perpetual war between ID, ego, and superego became reliable click bait in the unending news cycle loop of the emoji era. Until his fiasco with Berto, however, his grip on the masses was as tight as a slip knot.
“It’s highly unlikely that anyone is going to step up immediately and sell pay-per-views or command mainstream attention on the level that Mayweather did,” says Raskin. “Nobody is at that point yet, where you can envision him headlining a 2m-buy PPV in 2016. But I think Gennady Golovkin and Saul Alvarez both have the potential to reach that approximate level eventually if everything breaks the right way… It seems reasonable to believe the winner [of Golovkin-Alvarez] there emerges as the new face of boxing and becomes that guy who, like Mayweather and Pacquiao for most of the last several years, can sell a million PPVs against any solid opponent.”
Alvarez, still only 25, has also demonstrated a trait that is becoming as rare as compact discs in the States: ambition. Since suffering his first professional loss (to Mayweather, in 2013), Alvarez has bookended a workmanlike decision over tricky southpaw Erislandy Lara with shootout KOs over Alfredo Angulo and James Kirkland. Add to his determination telegenic looks and an air of menefreghista and you have a compelling figure ready to step into the Mayweather breach immediately.
It goes without saying that Golovkin is as hot as a fighter can be without having had a defining win. Unfortunately for “GGG,” his ‘aw-shucks’ demeanour outside of the ring has fooled no one. Indeed, Golovkin has inspired more than one hardened professional to admit trepidation about him publicly. Now, after three years in the US, Golovkin raised his profile enough to headline his first pay-per-view against David Lemieux and to star in a commercial for the Apple iWatch. But at 33, and with the PBC wall separating him from other contenders, Golovkin will have to seize his opportunity soon – and he may not have to wait long.
Finally, Andre Ward – the only man who holds a clear win over Carl Froch – is considered one of the top fighters in the world, but a dull style and inactivity have kept him from being a bona fide attraction. With just three fights since 2012, Ward is targeting Sergey Kovalev at light-heavy in hopes of resurrecting his commercial allure. In fact, the marquee potential of all these fighters rests in their willingness to square off. “I think Alvarez, Golovkin, Kovalev and Ward have the potential to fill the star void,” Fischer says. “However, they won’t ascend to that role unless they fight each other. So Alvarez has to beat Cotto and then take on Golovkin in a timely fashion. It doesn’t have to be right away … but fans have to believe that the Mexican star isn’t going to avoid the boogey man of the 160lb division.
“If Ward gets Golovkin to step up to 168lbs and they battle their differences out in the ring, the winner of that fight becomes a star. The winner of Kovalev versus Ward becomes a star. Bottom line: potential stars need each other to realise their potential as fighters and attractions.”
Other notable possibilities for mass appeal include Terence Crawford, the dynamic super-lightweight with
solid support in Nebraska; bloodthirsty light-heavy Kovalev; erudite power puncher Keith Thurman; and Wilder, the charismatic heavyweight with a wrecking ball right hand. In America, boxing thrives on reinvention – those grail-hungry men in blighted gyms searching for some form of distinction – and regeneration – the promise that one new dream will supersede a dead one. Not even the loss of Muhammad Ali could snuff out boxing.
Nor will the absence of Mayweather, already a distant past in a here-and-now pursuit. For a beleaguered sport often hell-bent on self-destruction in a country with limitless leisure just a click or two away, the future is always just beginning.