Boxing has always produced some of the greatest rivalries in the history of sports. You cannot think of boxing without thinking of the classic heavyweight fights between Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Ken Norton or the epic clashes between Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Tommy Hearns and Marvin Hagler of the 1980s. These super fights were about pride and proving yourself the best in the division, but these types of fights tend to be rarer in the modern era.
That is why the upcoming clash of pound for pound greats Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr in the MGM Grand, Las Vegas on May 2nd 2015 is of important significance. Over the last ten years, either Pacquiao or Mayweather have occupied the top spot in the pound for pound rankings which determines the best fighters in the sport.
The Mayweather v Pacquiao fight has been announced following a protracted negotiations reaching back to 2009. Ironically, the bout billed as ‘Fight of the Century,’ would have been a much more competitive affair in 2009. In a sense, boxing fans are being sold another hyped up super-fight which in reality may not materialise.
Both fighters are in their late thirties, Mayweather remains unbeaten but has gone the distance with eight out of his last ten opponents. Pacquiao suffered back to back losses in 2012, and likewise has gone the distance with eight out of his last ten opponents. The fight seems less of a gamble for Mayweather than it did five years ago when Pacquiao was still at the peak of his powers.
Rather than being a classic match-up between a boxer and puncher, cynics may view the fight as the boxing promoters metaphorically cashing in on two pedigree racehorses before they are put out to pasture. The fight represents an unsavoury reminder that television networks, promoters and managers make the decisions about the fights fans really want to see.
It seems far-removed from the golden era of boxing of the 1930’s and 40’s, when pugilist heroes like Sugar Ray Robinson fought Jake Lamotta six times over a nine year period (with only a twenty-one day break in between the second and third fight), or when Henry Armstrong became the only boxer in history to simultaneously hold three world titles, in three different weight divisions.
Fighters from that era of boxing were not afraid of losing their undefeated status. They were more concerned with their pride and status as the best in their division. In the modern era the major television networks, mainly based in the US build stables of carefully matched, undefeated fighters to market to an unsuspecting public. In addition to this boxing has almost entirely disappeared from terrestrial television, and coverage of the sport through other media outlets has left the average person on the street with a blinkered view of what constitutes a legitimate world title fight.
The greatest affliction in boxing is the demand by television networks that every televised fight be, ‘a title on the line,’ affair. It only exacerbates the major problem facing boxing regarding the proliferation of world champions and the so called, ‘alphabet organisations,’ sanctioning world title fights. Today, there could be anything up to five fighters claiming to be the legitimate world champion in one boxing division, not to mention inter-continental champions, super-champions, or silver and gold champions to name but a few.
Mayweather v Pacquiao should cut through all the hyperbole, but yet it only seems to encapsulate what is currently wrong with the sport. Fans want to see fighters at their peak putting their titles, reputations and pride on the line. Mayweather v Pacquiao represents an exercise in risk management as the fighters have navigated themselves to the point where they can extract the greatest remuneration for their clash.
It is no surprise, that fans are turning their attention to the world of Mixed Marital Arts (MMA). MMA has grown massively in popularity since the first UFC in 1993; more recent UFC events have even rivalled the pay-per-view sales of some of boxing’s biggest fights. The reasons are apparent, fights in MMA are quick, ferocious, technical and usually involve matches between the best in the sport. All the things that used to make boxing so attractive to the public.
As a purist, I would never turn away from boxing, but I do recognise that the sport needs to undergo significant changes.
Boxing could go a long way to addressing its failings if the promoters could secure the fights fans really want to see. There are only a handful of really competitive fights that could re-energise the sport in the minds of the masses. One is in the light-heavyweight division; the meeting of two undefeated, world champions who are both bona fide knout artists; Russia’s Sergey Kovalev and Canada’s Adonis ‘Superman,’ Stevenson. The other is at middleweight between Puerto Rico’s only four division world champion Miguel Cotto and the undefeated Gennady Golovkin. Golovkin carries a remarkable knockout percentage on his record and could potentially be the next pound for pound great. If Golovkin beat Cotto a fight with another pound for pounder; Super-Middleweight Andre Ward would seem logical. Golovkin has also expressed a desire to move down in weight to meet Mayweather. If that fight were to materialise then surely boxing would be back on the road to redemption.
The old adage in boxing is that styles make fights; unfortunately boxing has failed to maintain its style in recent years. Mayweather v Pacquiao may be billed as ‘The Fight of the Century,’ but when you pull back the veil of pomp and ceremony it only highlights the need for competitive matchmaking and more than one legitimate super fight per century.