May 2, 2017
May 2, 2017
Floyd Mayweather vs Manny Pacquiao

Mark J Rebilas/USA Today Sports

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Las Vegas

My lodgings for the fight week in Las Vegas didn’t quite match the glamour of Macau I’d experience five months earlier. Circus Circus’ glory days, if they had existed, had faded into the 1970s. Even late at night, when the creaking carousel café had ground to a halt, the floor of the casino was filled with heavy set men in vests, with tattoos coating their thick arms. Tickets for the big fight may have been hard to come by and impossibly expensive but Sin City was full for the final few days. Mayweather, assisted by his influential advisor Al Haymon, had given the go-head. The Fight of the 21st Century was happening.

Naively thinking any hotel on the Strip would do, I hadn’t factored in that Circus Circus was about an hour’s commute away from the MGM where most of the pre-fight action would take place. It meant after a long day’s work and interminable bus ride back to the hotel, I had about enough time to turn around and come back again for another early start. Which was a comfort of sorts when I discovered my room door at Circus Circus only needed a moderate push to open, regardless of the position of the lock.

Manny Pacquiao's jet

After his training camp with Freddie Roach at the Wild Card gym in Los Angeles Manny Pacquiao jetted in to Las Vegas on the Monday before the Mayweather fight. (There were so many private planes clogging up McCarran airport they formed the most privileged of traffic jams.) After a morning run the ‘People’s champion’ snubbed the MGM, where the Grand Arrival ceremonies were supposed to take place. Instead he held a fan rally at the Mandalay Bay, the hotel where he chose to stay.

It was a curious event, but the buzz around the fight was palpable. Fans streamed into a hangar-like hall that had been opened up, waving flags as they waited for their champion to arrive. The event itself took the form of a traditional Filipino ceremony. Songs were sung, by a pair of incongruous old men and a little girl, dances were performed and then finally Pacquiao marched on the stage. Now the celebration really could begin. Lights flashed and dry ice hissed into the air behind him. If Manny had been sullen before the Algieri fight, joy was apparent on his face here. He stood with his hands aloft as if this was already a victory parade and Pacquiao assured his public he would emerge from the Floyd Mayweather fight triumphant.

Amid the cacophony, the Filipino icon asked, “Are you excited?”

His crowd howled in response.

“Don’t be nervous on Saturday,” Pacquiao cried. “I’m going to win the fight in the ring. So relax.”

Yet there was always room for doubt that something could derail the fight. It been such a tortuous process to bring it about, five years in the making and Mayweather and Pacquiao were yet to be in same building in Las Vegas at the same time.

Across the dark pyramid of the Luxor hotel, the false battlements of Excalibur and the decorative palm trees of the Tropicana, Floyd Mayweather motored into the MGM Grand in the back of a black van. If Pacquiao’s rally had been a characteristically Filipino event, Mayweather’s was an all American affair. The marching band from Southern University played him in and, taking to the stage, Mayweather thanked one and all, notably the loud collection of supporters who had turned out.

“Everybody that’s in this arena is the Money Team,” he told them.

Which is a sobering thought. For many Floyd Mayweather is hard to like. He’s served time in prison for domestic violence, a deeply troubling offence. There is no denying the shrewd calculations he’s made to navigate the business of boxing. His brilliance in the boxing ring is also a fact. He hasn’t taken risks but he dealt with Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, Shane Mosley, Miguel Cotto, Saul Alvarez and more in consummate style. He’s amassed huge wealth in the course of his career, particularly after he bought out his contract with Pacquiao’s promoter Arum, changed his nom de guerre to ‘Money’ and had a vast fortune waiting to be collected once he was through Saturday’s fight. His supporters joined in the celebration of Mayweather’s riches. Hats and clothing adorned with “TMT”, The Money Team that is, filled nearly every casino in the city that week.

Mayweather stood straight as he spoke to the crowd at the MGM arena. He wanted to emphasise a different side to him. “Of course I make a lot of money but also I like to give back,” he said, his voice a touch hoarse.

One thing noticeable by its absence was the name: Manny Pacquiao. Floyd surely knew this event would define his career. Not only was the undefeated record he held so dear on the line but this was the biggest fight the boxing world had seen. Winning had always been everything. A loss to Pacquiao was unconscionable.

In an almost formal address, Mayweather acknowledged neither Pacquiao nor the scale of the event that lay ahead of them. Perhaps he was trying to treat this just the same as any of his previous fights. That was a sign of his focus and clarity of thought.

The next day the circus moved fittingly to the KA Theatre at the MGM, normally the home of Cirque du Soleil, for a final press conference. Finally Mayweather and Pacquiao were seated behind the same desk, though neither man bristled with ferocity. The auditorium was filled with journalists and camera crews, not to mention more glamorous guests. Mike Tyson was sat a few rows back over my shoulder and took it upon himself to liven up the staid proceedings with a few heckles. When he walked out the building, with journalists hanging off his shoulders, he had little interest in adding more. “I like Pacquiao,” he muttered barely louder than a whisper. Whether he meant he thought Manny would win, or whether he just wanted Pacquiao to, remained unsaid.

There were smaller press conferences for written media in the fringes of the room, with Pacquiao speaking before the more stilted televised presentation and then Mayweather afterwards. Manny did say something which beyond the smiles sounded chilling. “I want him to know God,” he intoned. But he soon made it clear he wasn’t planning on destroying Mayweather, or necessarily humbling him. “The most exciting thing for me is how I glorify the name of my God, the name of the Lord my God. That’s the most important thing for me,” he explained. “I want to be an inspiration to people, how I live my life, to be an inspiration to everybody.”

We won’t know how good a politician Pacquiao will be until he pursues higher office in the Philippines. But he is a symbolic figure already. As he said, “My life before, I was sleeping in the street with nothing. I’m so blessed because I came from nothing to something. The most important thing for me is to let the people know, to inspire them.”

Pacquiao nevertheless maintained that beneath his jovial exterior he still had the required spite. “I’m so happy because the feeling, the killer instinct and the focus that I had 10 years ago, 11 years ago is back. It’s a good feeling. You will see on Saturday,” he promised. He put it down to “my interest in this fight, my love for this fight, my eagerness for this fight to show something, especially around the world. If you think about Marco Antonio Barrera one, Lehlo Ledwaba, my first fight in America, and Oscar De La Hoya, that feeling, that’s kind of different, it’s back.”

In boxing no one is completely a saint, nor completely a sinner. “This fight isn’t about good versus evil,” Mayweather said. “It’s about one guy at the top versus another guy at the top. I’m glad we had patience and didn’t rush into the fight. This is the right time.”

Focused, measured, he may have been, but he wasn’t animated. The occasion wasn’t getting to him but nor was he feeding off it. In fact he seemed strangely bored of the whole affair. “I don’t really watch boxing. I like to leave boxing in the gym. I’m just taking it one day at a time,” he sighed.

Mayweather went on to say something eerily prescient. “I can’t really say if the fight will live up to the hype. It’s not for me to judge. When the fight comes, my job is to go out there and do what I do best,” he reflected. He knew his mission better than anyone. He had his eye on the end game now and insisted there was more to him than the caricature. “I’m a little different from everybody else,” he said calmly. “I’ve always had a game plan, throughout my career. It’s just like chess. You have to make calculated moves both inside and outside of the ring. Having a big personality and speaking out loud is something that I’ve done in the past. It’s all about entertainment, but I’m a lot older and wiser now. This fight sells itself.”

And maybe Mayweather, after all these years, had tired of playing the villain.

Floyd Mayweather

***

Whoever proved the fan favourite, the frenzy to see the boxers themselves reached fever pitch by the Friday before the fight. The weigh in was the last chance for an ordinary member of the public, someone that is who didn’t have a king’s ransom to spare trying to procure a ticket, to see the fighters in the flesh. The weigh in was ticketed, it probably had to be given the demand. For the fight itself ticket prices averaged over $6,000 on the secondary market. The cost of ringside seats was extraordinary. Tickets for the weigh in were only $10 (no doubt they would be resold for a handsome price) but this event wasn’t designed to enrich Mayweather and Pacquiao, with the $10 going to chosen charities.

A veteran observer of such things had advised me not to wander beyond the confines of the media tent, a temporary edifice constructed out in the MGM’s carpark, with my fight week credential on display, in case a fevered fan tore it from my throat. The architecture of the MGM is not well-designed for a large mass of human bodies moving with intent. For far too long, squashed against a door, I thought as going to be crushed as the dense crowd tried to press through into the arena. I squeezed out on to the other side, just about intact. Taking a seat high up in the stands I could see the whole arena. 11,000 had descended on the event, just to see two men in their underpants weigh themselves. On the floor before the stage was another mass of shifting bodies, these presumably were the world’s broadcast media.

The ring in which Mayweather and Pacquiao would fight, in a day’s time, was illuminated in the centre of the floor. All around it the stands were full. Fans cheered, jeered. Many held up dollar signs, chanting, “Money.” They were supporting “Money” Mayweather, but surveying the scene, deep inside a casino, in the heart of Las Vegas it was like looking over, I supposed, the fourth circle of Hell.

Pacquiao of course was hardly doing this job pro bono. He might not make quite as much as Floyd out of their encounter, but he too would leave the MGM a fabulously wealthy man. The Filipino in fact looked like he was in heaven. He stepped into the arena with delight etched across his face. He processed through the crowds with both hands raised above his head, his unmistakeable grin beaming out. Mayweather stode the length of the arena at a more serene pace. He was a studied contrast to his opponent. While Pacquiao was all smiles, Floyd was a picture of sombre concentration.

Neither had any trouble on the scales, both came in well under the welterweight limit, Mayweather 146lbs, Pacquiao 145lbs. Manny gambolled across the stage, hoisting his WBO belt over his head. (Mayweather had a couple of burly men in his entourage to carry his WBC and WBA titles.) The Filipino grabbed a bite to eat, reclaimed his T-shirt and turned his back to the crowd to point at the words printed there. Beneath Team Pacquiao it read: ‘All glory and honour belongs to God’. The two distant figures went front and centre, going head to head for their third face-off. Mayweather was the taller man, he stared down at Pacquiao, chewing thoughtfully on a piece of gum. He was solemn, serious and utterly intent. Pacquiao murmured something to Mayweather. It could have been thank you.

“I don’t know what he said,” Floyd shrugged after. I don’t think he particularly cared. Pacquiao raised both fists in the air again, savouring the occasion, as they both turned away. They looked out at the cameras and the sea of people behind them. Cold and still, Mayweather gazed forward but he didn’t see the crowd.

Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao

***

Perhaps I was hallucinating. It had been a strange day. Whilst fans were in a mad hunt to procure tickets, journalists had been feverishly pondering how media accreditations would land. I didn’t know where I’d end up watching The Fight until an email pinged into my inbox at midnight giving me my instructions. (When you’re staying in Circus Circus in a room with a door so flimsy someone could easily lean through it, you stay awake until daylight.)

Along with the other excitable journalists, I swarmed towards the pick-up point the next morning, only to find myself at the end of long queue that stretched out into the unshaded street. Which may not sound like a huge problem, but this was Las Vegas and the sun was high. I stood for hours as the tar of the pavement broiled beneath my shoes and the heat beat down through my skull, my shoulders, turning my vast, light-catching ears a dark shade of pink. Wearing a grey suit was bad choice for the conditions. Soon it turned black as my body began to squeeze out moisture, including tears, from every available pore.

But, mirabile dictu, I got my hands on a ringside pass and delirious with joy, or sun stroke, I swept off to the arena.

Which was gloriously air conditioned, and surprisingly empty when the undercard commenced early that afternoon. The preliminary contests were not the stuff of legend. “Are you ready for an epic night,” the announcer roared before Chris Pearson boxed Said El Harrak. “Yeah,” said the handful of people present in a curiously non-committal tone.

But as day turned into night at least the event sported a higher standard of celebrity observer than one typically finds at a boxing event. After brushing past Lucien Bute and Andre Ward, I bumped into Jamie Foxx, you might know him from Any Given Sunday and The Jamie Foxx Show, in the queue for the loo. “Is there a line?” he asked.

Unsure of the etiquette for small talk in front of urinals with Hollywood stars, I nodded in benign Zen-like silence at the queue we were indeed queueing in. Then some other guy started chatting to him about the fight as if this whole thing was entirely normally. They’re probably friends now, zooming round Beverly Hills in a Chrysler, drinking wheatgrass juice and so forth. And that should be me.

But I digress. Returning to the arena, like an elaborate game of Tetris, the media members and I settled into our ringside seats. Fans too began to pile into the stands. At boxing events you sense something big is about it happen either when someone sticks Sweet Caroline on the sound system or the wifi in the arena crashes. With dread inevitability my internet connection fizzled to a lifeless halt and Manny Pacquiao stepped into the building.

A huge cheer rushed out of the crowd. He was the man they were here to support. The roar rumbled around them and, after waiting so long for this fight to finally happen, the last few moments passed in an instant. Mayweather and Pacquiao were in the ring, with only referee Kenny Bayless between them, and they marched forward to answer the first bell.

Perhaps he was exasperated at the boos, which had followed him for the last two days, but Mayweather determined to dictate the fight from the start. He stepped to Pacquiao in the opening two rounds. His cross was the first telling shot to land. He drove that right into Manny’s head. The shot forced Pacquiao back a step. The Filipino struggled to get a glove on him, he couldn’t get a grip on the fight.

Yet Pacquiao strolled to the stool in his corner after the first round with that familiar smile on his face. Maybe he was content that at long last he had Mayweather alone with him inside the ropes for another 11 rounds.

To open the second session Pacquiao chucked his southpaw left at Floyd’s body but Mayweather slid clear. A ragged cheer broke over the audience as Manny let his fists go once again. But Floyd’s right flashed through again and forced Pacquiao back. Mayweather kept Manny under his spell. When Pacquiao ducked a jab, Floyd pushed down on him, leaning on, keeping Manny under control. In contrast when Pacquiao charged him, slinging a salvo of punches, Floyd bobbed smoothly away from the shots.

To start the third round, Mayweather escaped an attack from behind a well-timed left hook. Pacquiao tracked after him. Mayweather’s right slashed across his jaw. Mayweather punched with such crisp precision in the first quarter it looked like he could knock Pacquiao out.

Manny clumped him with a lead hook of his own and the session ended before the American could retaliate. In the break they glared at one another, an element of venom creeping into their contest.

They resumed the fight. Mayweather stood poised in a corner but Pacquiao held off from pressing his attack, too afraid of being picked off. Manny however rallied. All of sudden he smashed a countering back hand over. It struck Mayweather. The shot knocked Floyd back into the ropes and a roar of appreciation erupted from the crowd. Floyd held his feet still, just covering up. Pacquiao set about Mayweather, to the delight of his baying fans. He threw his right, then his left hand at the American’s body. As the noise in the arena reached a crescendo, for a second it seemed like Pacquiao had got him.

“He hit me with a solid shot,” Floyd admitted after.

A new question hovered over the fight. Was Mayweather rattled? But it was one that could be pondered only for a fleeting moment. In the fifth Mayweather used his right hand to knock Manny to the ropes. He brought his uppercut in and these head shots were hurtful.

“I get hit with a good shot,” Floyd added, “it wakes me up.”

Pacquiao stabbed his lead right straight in after a rare Mayweather miss. He clung on to a couple of the middle rounds but it was an act of defiance, not a route to victory. Mayweather’s reach was longer, his jab stronger.

Desperate to break Floyd’s rhythm, Pacquiao attacked the eighth round with spite. He jolted Mayweather with his left and up close hacked in a short right hook. He was still flinging punches as the bell rang to end the eighth round. He pressed on busily in the ninth, sticking in a satisfying jab. But it was the last round, for me, that Pacquiao won. He couldn’t sustain the pressure. Mayweather’s cross bombed down once more. Floyd slipped into a higher gear to close out the fight. Pacquiao initiated fewer exchanges than usual. He couldn’t catch Floyd and so couldn’t get any combinations going, while the American’s work had a flow to it.

In the 11th round Manny closed in, only to find himself snagged on hard right uppercuts. Mayweather changed direction, moving round the ring. His footwork kept him in position to land. He drummed clear jabs off Pacquiao. Manny swung wide, missing, only to swallow a straight one-two combination. Mayweather banged his gloves together, enjoying the job, beckoning Pacquiao in. As the penultimate round concluded, Mayweather stared after Manny as he returned to his corner. Floyd clapped his gloves together, as though he was rubbing his hands with glee, before turning back to his stool.

The punches you miss can hurt as much as those you take. They exhaust you. Mayweather slammed in hard lead lefts but finished in the end as elegantly as always, cantering from side to side, letting Pacquiao fall short, knowing that if Manny couldn’t hit, he couldn’t win.

The last bell tolled. Mayweather leapt on to the corner posts, pounding a fist to his chest, berating the crowd. “I won,” he roared back, “I won.”

He had, as he always did. The scores here were 116-112 for both Bert Clements and Glenn Feldman, 118-110 for Dave Moretti.

“A lot of people tried to turn this fight into good versus evil. I don’t care to entertain that,” he said in the quieter moments later that night.

“I was born a winner, I’m going to die a winner. It’s all about being first.”

The job had been about winning, and getting out. He received an $100 million cheque that night, and would make far more in long run from this fight alone. But he mused, “Once you get to a certain point, there’s nothing you can buy anymore.”

That is a pleasant dilemma to have. But the reflection hinted Mayweather fought for something beyond the cash. Beating Pacquiao proved, unquestionably, that Floyd was the best of his era. Whether it was glory, recognition or the ability to shape his private world, I didn’t know what drove Mayweather. Who is he, the man behind the “Money”? For someone so diligent about his training, he didn’t seem to particularly enjoy boxing. “I don’t think I’m going to miss the sport,” he said of retiring.

“People don’t really know me,” Floyd concluded. He’s right.

There were further twists. Pacquiao’s first impression was that he’d won the fight. He also revealed that he hadn’t been permitted a pain killing injection for a shoulder injury before the fight. USADA, the testing agency had okayed it, the Nevada commission had not. (It only emerged months later that Floyd Mayweather had rehydrated using an IV drip after the weigh-in, for which he then received a therapeutic use exemption.)

Yet while stories in boxing might not end happily, they do end simply. The ring was converted into a stage so, late that night, they could hold a press conference in the arena itself. Pacquiao arrived first, looking grim. “I did my best but my best wasn’t good enough,” he said. Then Pacquiao smiled.

Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao

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