By Jason Keidel
At the risk of sounding like the very geriatrics I swore to ignore, the ones frozen in the fairy tale, photoshopped halcyon years, you have to be of a certain vintage to know how big boxing used to be.
Before it was relegated to the back alleys of the sports section, nestled between high school wrestling and harness racing, boxing was the original sport of kings.
Before the nation soured on the sweet science, before MMA scooped up the disenfranchised masses, there was no sport, no event, that owned our attention and adrenaline the way fight night did.
It is with that premise and prerogative in mind that I implore you to watch the bout between Floyd Mayweather Jr (44-0) and Saul “Canelo” Alvarez (42-0-1) tomorrow night in Las Vegas.
Yes, Golden Boy Promotions is asking you to dig deep into your checking account for the fight to appear on your television, and Golden Boy himself (Oscar De La Hoya) checked into rehab this week. But if you can appreciate the ancient, helpless dysfunction of the sport, it all makes sense.
We may be watching the final megafight, the last, enchanted moment when boxing is the main nerve of the night. There is nothing like watching two glistening gladiators slowly stroll to the ring, to some slow, ominous song, flanked by their corner men. A great fight is the distillation of our hidden appetites, a cocktail of bloodlust, aesthetic appreciation, and the keen awareness that one punch could change a life, if not end it.
The last few years, Floyd Mayweather has been far more concerned with his financial supremacy than his legacy. His retrograde schtick is nothing new, nor is it charming. He steals from Muhammad Ali’s loudmouth histrionics but has none of the champ’s charm or originality.
Adding to the drama – and his rap sheet – is a recent stint in prison on domestic violence charges, which somehow keeps with boxing’s paradoxical charm as the quintessence of the American Dream and the landing strip for the career criminal. Before Mayweather, Sonny Liston, Bernard Hopkins and Ron Lyle used a jail cell as source matter for their conflicted narrative.
But for all his foibles, the one place where Mayweather’s devotion is never questioned is the ring, where he plies his trade with alarming alacrity. While so many of his peers spend their times in strip clubs, crack houses, or other houses of ill repute, Mayweather devotes his sleepless nights at the gym. For his monolithic, drug-free romp to the ring, Mayweather is guaranteed at least $41 million for his time tomorrow night.
Alvarez and Mayweather are fighting at a catch-weight of 152 pounds, which, if you’re looking for an edge, would probably point to Alvarez, the naturally larger man. But Mayweather has a way of making larger men look small. Punching Mayweather flush on the face is like trying to hit a cobra in the eye with a spitball.
The one stat that can’t be changed, the trend that can’t be reversed, is age. Canelo is a volcanic 22, while Mayweather is 36 – a tender and tenuous age for any athlete, but particularly for a fighter, whose reflexes are the difference between life and the afterlife.
But Mayweather, warts and all, is a brilliant boxer who seems to live on a treadmill. His impromptu training sessions include 3:00 a.m. jaunts to the gym, dragging his sleepy entourage to cheer him on. For all of his transgressions, his dedication to his craft is unquestioned and unmatched.
No matter Mayweather’s reasoning for this fight — and he undoubtedly took a bout with more cash and cachet for selfish reasons, particularly to leave the swamp of sagging pay-per-view ratings following his soporific win over Robert Guerrero — we win. This has all the earmarks of a fascinating fight.
In a strict, scientific sense, this is the best possible match between any two active fighters. Their demeanors on and off canvas are complete contrasts. Alvarez is a boxing rhino who wins with volume and violence; Mayweather is the magician of pugilism, the ultimate matador who befuddles fighters into endless errors.
Boxing has done all it can to ensure its demise, largely collapsing on itself. Between the incompetence, corruption, and anarchy that allows Don King, Jose Sulaiman, and Frankie Carbo to get their poisonous slice of a once-lucrative pie, the fossil that boxing has become is inevitable. The sport has largely lost our confidence, our trust, and our hearts.
The 6-foot-5, 240-pound stud now plays power forward for the same money, with none of the brutality. Large men with larger reserves of testosterone now take their act down the road, to MMA, where he may now find an entire generation who can’t name three boxers beyond Mike Tyson.
The only reason men like Mayweather still prosper in boxing is because they cannot find a home within any other sport. Athletes are only getting bigger, leaving less room for diminutive jocks who are equally gifted. Not even the Yankees are in the market for middleweights.
Once in a long while, however, boxing gets it right, and pits two great fighters at the same time at the same weight with the same hunger, anger and something to prove. It’s a classic clash in class, cultures, nations, and persona.
Though he may be the hardest puncher in pugilism, Canelo is more of a gregarious, salsa-dancing soul who literally leaves his barbarism in the ring. Mayweather is always on the clock, flashing bricks of cash, a fleet of cars, and a conga line of attractive women strutting around his grotto-lite mansion planted in the Nevada desert.
Just as many people will punch the “Buy” button to see Mayweather lose as those who still want him to win. Whether it’s incidental or intentional, Mayweather seizes on all emotion, knows that all money is green, and thanks his most rabid detractors all the way to the bank.
One would hope that behind all the opulence and arrogance, the bold and gold and mountains of money, the iconic fighter has a laconic side, and squirrels away a slice of his fortune. Because it won’t last.
What Floyd Mayweather Jr. doesn’t know, can never know, is that this gaudy, obnoxious parade through the boxing twilight will end. All the yes-men, oiled-up vixens, and long-lost family members just hitching a ride while he matters will leave as soon as the golden faucet runs dry.
Is Canelo Alvarez the one who turns the knob finally and forever? You’ll just have to tune in. Whether it’s the beginning or the end of an empire, it’s worth a few bucks to find out. Ten years from now, you can tell those who never heard of boxing, that you were witness to history.
Feel free to email me: Jakster0529@gmail.com
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