I hadn’t expected to be writing about Floyd Mayweather on a Sunday morning in Macau. When I’d started working for Boxing News, five years previously, Floyd Mayweather versus Manny Pacquiao was an obvious match to make. But with boxing doing as boxing does, every laboured effort to bring about The Big One collapsed into nothing more than verbal barbs, seasoned with the odd lawsuit. It had gone on for so long that there seemed little more to add to the tale of The Best Fight that Never Happened. Once Pacquiao had lost a controversial judgement against Tim Bradley and a single, stunning blow from bitter rival Juan Manuel Marquez had knocked him cold, the Mayweather fight slid almost completely out of sight.
Yet Pacquiao had struck out for the Far East, rebuilt and suddenly, with the blood from his last fight scarcely washed off his gloves, he stood in front of the world to declare baldly what everyone had longed to hear. He called out Floyd Mayweather.
“I think it’s time to say something,” he announced in his soft voice. “The people deserve that fight. The fans deserve that fight. I think it’s time to make that fight happen.
“It has to happen.”
As he spoke the words, the possibility, once distant, seemed real.
I couldn’t deal with the queues. My journey to Pacquiao began on Jeju Island, the far side of the East China Sea from Macau (I was taking in the start of the Women’s World championships naturally enough). China is of course one of the great civilisations, not to mention the world’s economic powerhouse – why then is the queuing system, or lackthereof, so insane?
I de-planed in Shanghai with 10 hours to catch my connection to Macau, which began to look like far too short a period of time after some protracted confusion about what a Transit Visa was, how I got one and what I was doing in Pudong airport. That flung me into the maelstrom of my first queue in mainland China. So many bodies, jostling into one mass, with no real patience for waiting or for personal space. It might have offended my English sense of decorum but I had to shrug off my sense of politeness and shove my way into scrum with similar gusto.
I ended up in a taxi. In my brief experience of Korea, the taxis had been ultra-modern, comfortable, replete with satnav, even a phone to call a translator if there were any problems. But I wasn’t in Korea any more. As I flopped into the back of the cab, heaving the rusted door closed behind me, I was confronted by a small, angry man in a transparent perspex case, welded round the driving seat. He didn’t seem pleased to see me. It dawned on me he probably didn’t speak English. I’d printed out the address, in what appeared to be Chinese characters, of a hotel I’d found near the terminal of the airpoirt I’d be leaving from in the morning. He peered at the sheet of the paper, looked up and started shouting at me. Given I don’t speak Chinese and given I had no idea where I was, and given I could not face the queue again, all I could do was sit back in the seat of this rust bucket and let the waves of sound wash over me as I wondered whether I would indeed make my flight to Macau the next morning.
Eventually the engine wheezed into life and the little cab rattled off into the night.
I hadn’t quite grasped that the terminal I’d arrived at was 10 miles away from the one I’d be leaving from. That was the sheer scale of Shanghai. Looking through the greasy window as we thumped along a dark and empty motorway huge skyscrapers glimmered on the far horizon. Only for the driver to drag the car across two lanes, let it grind to a halt and gaze again with increasing frustration at the paper I’d handed him. He looked up, squinted at me and shouted some more. I started to feel distinctly uncomfortable, especially once my beady eyes noted the picture on the licence card in his dashboard bore little relation to the elderly man screaming feverishly at me. Finally, scowling, all the while he phoned what I hoped was the hotel’s number. We appeared to have settled on an uneasy truce and set off again.
The Jinjiang Inn is probably not somewhere I’ll return to, a hotel inspired by, or perhaps unchanged from the décor of the Cold War. The small square window carved through the concrete wall was too low for me to see the sea but it did transmit the sound of the planes landing on the airstrip, lest I forget that I had a flight to catch in a few hours and to prevent anything as luxorious as sleep interrupting my vigil.
The contrast with Macau couldn’t have been greater. From a compact, musty room in Shanghai, a plane disgorged me into the beaming sun of a hot day on the Cotai peninsular. An air-conditioned bus, complete with wifi for the 10 minute journey, swept round the vast casinos that shaped the flat island. There was a small Old Quarter, with 19th century Portuguese villas and a few restaurants. But otherwise there was nothing on the streets, there was no need. The casinos, like of a web of fantastical forts contained everything, from shops, bars to of course the arena where Manny Pacquiao would box Chris Algieri in a few days.
I wasn’t in the fight venue, the Venetian. I was staying at the Holiday Inn over the road, which, rather than being the motel-like place I’d expected, turned out to be by far the most grand hotel I’d ever stayed in. For a start it was massive, my room had a vertigo-inducing view and was only halfway up the tower. It, of course, housed its own casino, mini shopping mall and its guests, if they were so inclined could enjoy ‘Shrekfast’ (yes, that is indeed a breakfast served by a cast of costumed characters from the film Shrek).
That was nothing compared to the Venetian, a casino just like its counterpart in Las Vegas only bigger. Indeed Macau was Las Vegas, transposed to the coast of China and doubled, if not trebled in scale. The casino floor was disorientating, there were vastly more people than you found in Sin City pouring through the doors out to the slot machines and blackjack tables. The volume of money sluicing through the coffers of these buildings was similarly on a new level to Las Vegas.
To reach the press room for the Pacquiao fight I joined a tight packed stream of bodies that flowed through a shopping mall built as a replica of Venice, complete with a canal containing gondolas and the fronts of fake houses built over the store windows along the promenade. There was a fake town square, with a sky painted on to the ceiling overhead, illuminated with its own sunlight beamed out of hidden bulbs. The unseen sun inside never set. The lights of the casino always stayed lit, so the gambling could go on whatever the hour.
The real and the unreal overlapped easily here among the shuffling decks of cards. In Macau Chris Algieri could make a case that he provided a genuine threat to Manny Pacquiao. He had never shared a ring with anyone like the great Filipino though he had earned the WBO light-welterweight title with a gutsy win over rough Siberian Ruslan Provodnikov. He had to pack on a few more pounds to meet Manny at a catchweight but stood before a waiting crowd in the lobby of the Venetian looking for all the world as if he was a star to rival Pacquiao. He entered the Venetian for his ‘Grand Arrival’, as these functions are known, wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket as though he were walking down the red carpet of his own movie premiere.
The assembled throng might have been waiting for Pacquiao but he nevertheless informed them, “This is a dream come true.”
But the real icon could only be Manny Pacquiao. The photographers suddenly sprang to the door en mass. As one the body of snappers scuttled back. Momentarily through a forest of heads and cameras I could a catch a glimpse of the great man. Functionaries buzzed round to force back the wave of photographers and there revealed was Pacquiao. He smiled faintly at the onlookers. The fans, held back behind me by a small fence, stretched glimmering cameraphones high above their heads. Pacquiao shuffled back to pose alongside Algieri, both holding a bouquet of flowers they had been given on entry. Neither man looked especially pleased to see the other. Fight week had begun.
The next day Algieri was in a gym in the bowels of the Venetian hotel. A single enthusiastic camp follower leant on the ring apron in the near empty gym and cried out, ‘Yeah!” with a chuckle as the American’s strikes connected with the pads. Algieri was lean, looking sharp as he cracked punches into his padman’s mitts. He gazed at himself as he shadowboxed in front of the mirror, well pleased with his condition.
He’d thrown his final punch before sharing a ring with Manny Pacquiao. Speaking in clear, clipped tones, he said, “This ends in a fight so you got to be prepared not only physically but mentally in the right psychological/emotional state. We’re about there.”
Algieri wound up his training there and then. While Algieri might have been soaking in the atmosphere, Pacquiao wasn’t enjoying himself. He trained right up to the fight. The day before the weigh in he was in the gym for hours. He didn’t arrive when advertised, the great man operated according to his own timeframe. But when he did come to the gym, his sizeable entourage streaming in after, he worked his body far longer than expected for someone who would be boxing a 12 round contest in less than 48 hours.
In contrast to the genial Algieri, Pacquiao was withdrawn. Normally cheerful with a beaming smile in public, here he was almost sullen, Manny sat on a stool oblivious both to the journalists and his compatriots clustering round him. He pulled on his own boots and barely spoke. The words that did pass his lips were hushed too quiet to hear.
“Manny, he’s really ready, he’s hungry for the first time in a long time,” his trainer Freddy Roach said. “He needs a big win right now, he knows that, to make the world come back on his side.”
Pacquiao was looking at a challenge far bigger than Chris Algieri. He was fighting to return to the top of the sport. “He’s really fired up,” Roach continued. “I like what I see. I don’t talk about it too much with him because I don’t want to bother him about it but I like what I see. He’s very focused. He’s very mean on the mitts. Usually when he hits me a good shot, sometimes he knows he hurts me, he’ll say sorry and stuff like this. This time he stayed on me, he knocked me down one day on the mitts. For the first time in a long time he had two knockdowns with the sparring partners, which is something I haven’t seen in a while. Everything I see is very good. I like what I see. I think he’s going to bring it out in the fight.”
It may have only been a training session but he had his hands wrapped intently. It was a long time before he even began limbering up. Once he had stretched, he gradually built up the speed of his shadowboxing as he bounded across the ring. He was fast on his feet, very fast, bursting forward, shifting easily forward and back, all signs of power.
Algieri had looked slick, light on his toes as he shot out smooth punches. But Pacquiao carried a different order of force. It was clear just in the way he moved, his boulder-like calf muscles contracting to spring over the ring canvas. He radiated power. Algieri was an athlete, scientific in his approach, who handled his own nutrition. Pacquiao was a pure fighter. The Filipino had taken his training back to his roots, back to how he worked with Freddie when he won his first world title in America against Lehlo Ledwaba.
“Manny came up to me and he said we’ve been doing the same thing for a long time, the same workouts and so forth and he wanted to go back to the old workouts,” Roach had said, “with more heavy bag, less mitts and more strength work. So I said yes it’s time to change back to that. So we used the heavy bag quite a bit this time. We did five to six to eight rounds a day on the heavy bag, just exploding on it. It helped his strength, he’s punching a lot harder I feel. His punch rate has actually gone up since then also. His punch rate actually had been slipping a little bit in his last couple of fights. So I think that he just wanted to get back to where he was when we were fighting Ledwaba and those guys a long time ago because I think we were getting a little stale with each other.”
In the gym Freddie put on the mitts and strapped the body belt round his waist. Pacquiao worked forward, taking Roach into corners, on to the ropes. He hammered in rapid-fire shots, multiple southpaw rights whipping across before he slammed a wickedly hard backhand into the pad. Even though the weigh-in would take place the next morning, there was an intensity to Pacquiao’s training here. His fists drummed against the pads and he finished with an attacking burst into the body belt.
A stint on the speedball, his blurring rhythm apparent, and Pacquiao was warming down on the gym floor, still moving, grinning now at those around him. He held his arms up as he looked into the mirror and declared happily, “Victory is mine.”
Pacquiao ran for 23 minutes before the weigh in, early on a Saturday morning in Macau. It’s unlikely he had any concerns about making the 144lbs catchweight. He was just that focused on the battle ahead.
I hadn’t realised Manny’s mother was a cult hero. With the scales waiting on the empty stage, she processed down the stands to a huge cheer from the patient crowd at the Cotai Arena. Pacquiao’s mother was renowned for uttering such fervent prayers over Manny it looked like she was casting incantations.
Chris Algieri soon arrived. He stepped on to the scales, flexed his biceps and his face contorted into a strained grin as the screen beside him displayed his weight, 0.4 of a pound over their agreed limit. Chris stripped naked to try again, doubly embarrassing for Algieri as not only was he coming up from the weight division below but also because he had spoken so proudly of his holistic approach to his own preparation where he took control of the food he was eating. He therefore owned this failure. On the second attempt, with his modesty concealed by a Stony Brook jersey stretched taut in front of him, the New Yorker was still 0.2lbs over the limit.
“I know I did all the hard work I need to do,” he still insisted.
Pacquiao might have been of the old school in his approach, but swept in to make weight comfortably, 0.2lbs under the limit. Algieri still had to endure the obligatory head-to-head before he could prepare for his third attempt. Manny stared up at the taller man, relishing the following day’s fight.
“I’m so excited to show my speed and quickness, like I did in those early days of my boxing career. I want to get back the hunger and aggression that I had when I was young,” Pacquiao declared. “I love to fight undefeated fighters like Algieri.”
Long after the arena had emptied, Algieri returned to a silent stage to make weight, 143.6lbs in fact, at the third time of asking. Boxing, even at the highest level, can be a lonely sport.
Nine o’clock on a Sunday morning is a strange time for a major prizefight. But then everything in the course of a week in Macau had a strange veneer of unreality to it. The weigh in had been even earlier on Saturday, the press conferences took place deep into the night, you could find yourself wandering through ‘Venice’ at two o’clock in the morning with the fake sunlight still burning brightly above you. Croupiers stood behind empty blackjack tables, saying nothing but holding out a palm to beckon you to a seat.
Fictions cling to boxing. Nevertheless at the weigh flaws appeared in the story Algieri had been telling himself. They ripped wide open in the fight. He was just an ordinary man fighting against one of the gods of the modern sport.
Pacquiao had smiled as he waited for the fight to start. It might have been the joy he tends to exude when he’s surrounded by chaos. He might have smiled just at seeing the side show melt away from him, leaving him alone in the ring with Algieri. Or it could have been a cruel pleasure in the storm he was about to unleash on the callow American.
Pacquiao fell on him. Whatever Algieri told himself, Manny seered through the illusions to impose a clear truth on the fight. He was a level beyond his prey. The American couldn’t staunch the onslaught Pacquiao unleashed, he couldn’t hold his ground, he was scarcely able to keep his feet beneath him.
The great Filipino rolled his shoulders as he walked Algieri down in the first round, as though he were still warming up for the job. Pacquiao hadn’t won by knockout since battering Miguel Cotto, with unbelievable skill and venom, five years earlier. He set about Algieri, determined to prove he was still the finisher of old.
Chris peeled away from the Filipino southpaw, trying to keep clear of danger. But the pressure he applied flung Algieri off his feet as early as the second round. That looked like a slip, but Pacquiao was linking his punches into a chain, his hard left hand finding the mark. In the third round Algieri gripped him tightly in a clinch, desperate to contain the threat but already running short of ideas. Manny struck with his backhand, his right followed before he thumped over a double left hook.
Algieri dabbed at him with his punches. He essayed a right hand to the body. The shots didn’t trouble Pacquiao. He looked strong enough just to walk through the American but Manny possesses a fine judgement of distance, so essential for an elite boxer. He could bounce in to attack, slide back fast enough to make a counter miss before bounding in once again to press home his advantage with real spite.
He rushed Algieri with a one-two, breaking the American’s rhythm. Pacquiao didn’t let up the assault, keeping a serious focus throughout. A cuffing left in the sixth round saw Chris reel away. Pacquiao followed up with same fist, pitching Algieri over and down. Manny stayed on him. The cross hurt the American and Pacquiao ripped off a combination that slung Algieri into the ropes and back down to the canvas.
Pacquiao struck him down twice more in the ninth round. Algieri hit the deck heavily. There was real power in Manny’s hands, which he could trigger in a sudden explosive burst.
Algieri shifted round the ring but he was boxing just to see out the bout. Pacquiao beat pain into his body, eager to prove he hadn’t lost his spite. The Filipino led with his rear hand, his right hook hacked down and bowled Algieri over once again.
But he couldn’t apply that final, decisive touch. Algieri kept managing, just, to elude disaster. Pacquiao drummed in a double jab and a straight left. He led with his back hand to drive in a right. He chased Algieri until the last bell, finishing the contest in the centre of the ring, shuffling his feet.
Lights flashed round the arena, the crowd still roared in appreciation, well pleased at seeing 12 rounds of vintage Pacquiao. He had won this as emphatically as he could have without a stoppage, 119-103 twice and 120-102 on the cards.
During a fight a boxing ring can seem vast. The referee fades out of focus as the eye focuses on only the two fighters. But as soon as the final bell tolls, the ropes can barely contain the volume of bodies that flood in, whoever they are, officials maybe, corner teams, entourages, broadcast crew, it tends to be a free for all. But visible among the bedlam was Pacquiao’s mother, holding her rosary out over him.
The inevitable Mayweather question was thrown at Manny afterwards. The familiar grin crept across his face. “He’s going to fight me?” Pacquiao cried. “Yes!”
The formalities of the final press conference were over. Freddie Roach drifted over to the metal barrier that sat on the opulent carpet of one of the Venetian hotel’s cavernous conference rooms, separating the stars from journalists. So I asked Freddie about the Mayweather fight. “I think it’s going to happen,” he said.
He was in a position to know. Roach had been the man to bring together Les Moonves, the head of CBS, the corporation which contained Mayweather’s broadcaster Showtime, with Bob Arum, Pacquiao’s ageing but sharp promoter. That was no mean feat. Those with a history in the sport seem to have built up enough grudges to last a lifetime. “Moonves was trying to get the fight together without Bob and I said no, you’ve got to get Bob involved,” Roach revealed. “He called Bob ‘the devil’ but you know what – I put them together. We had a meeting at Bob’s house. It was hard to get them together but just for that fight. I was at the meeting and if they both do what they say they’re going to do, the fight will happen. They walked out of the meeting with their arms around each other and I said look at that, maybe it has a chance. I hope so.”
More and more reporters clustered round as Freddie spoke. “Moonves and Bob got together and spoke, it was a good meeting. I listened, I didn’t say anything, because I’m really not the deciding factor in that. I just put them both together at Bob’s house and I got them both to show up at the same time. It was good. I was trying to make this fight happen,” he continued. “I’m doing things I’m really not supposed to be doing to make this fight happen. It’s way out of my league but the thing is I want this fight to happen and those two guys can do it. It was a good meeting and I was very happy afterwards because I thought what was said was good. What was said could be done. He says he can deliver one guy and Bob can deliver the other. That’s really all we need.”
Slowly the pieces were moving into place. Showtime and HBO, commercial rivals still had to thrash out how the fight would be distributed, the ticket allocation was another battleground between the promoters. But the final call lay with Floyd Mayweather. The world would wait for him to tweet yes or no.
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.
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.
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.
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.