A really good boxing crowd can feel like a gathering of all the crazy people in the world. There’s no place you’re more likely to spot panoramic scalp tattoos, except for maybe a nearby Six Flags park. There’s nowhere else you’re guaranteed to see more powerful old men (in this case, promoters) who look like they could have stepped straight out of central casting for door-to-door blender salesman or 1980s mafia enforcer roles. And it’s more or less impossible to imagine any non-boxing setting where a low-intensity brawl breaks out after one shirtless man appears to lick another’s chest, only to later clarify that he didn’t lick, but only sniffed, and then whispered to his opponent, “I smell pussy.”
It’s fair to wonder who in their right mind would seek out these misfit assemblages, but that gets back to the baseline lunacy issue. From Mike Tyson, the sport’s valedictorian of crazy, all the way down to Jim Lampley, its milquetoast voice of reason, everyone who follows boxing feels an affinity for the sweet science’s seedy, gonzo undercurrent.
Friday afternoon in Las Vegas, boxing’s signature milieu filled the MGM Grand Garden Arena at the weigh-in preceding Saturday’s welterweight championship fight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and his Argentine challenger, Marcos Maidana. By the time the two main-event fighters were called onstage to strip down to their boxers and flex on top of a scale, they were joined by a motley assortment for the ages: There was Golden Boy Promotions CEO Richard Schaefer, another dark-suited central-casting type; Bernard Hopkins, the 49-year-old light heavyweight titleholder who once called himself “the executioner” and now calls himself “the alien”; the rapper 2 Chainz; Jim Gray, Showtime’s nattering nabob of sideline interviews; two of Mayweather’s 7-foot bodyguards; two 12-foot inflatable Corona beer bottle balloons; two Corona girls in silver-and-blue bikinis; Golden Boy’s cigar-chomping skull mascot, a.k.a. the “mariachi skeleton,” a nod to Mexican and Mexican American fight fans on Cinco de Mayo weekend; “Lil Rome Diddy,” a 4-year-old skateboarding prodigy with a lush blond mane who is sponsored by Mayweather’s TMT Promotions; and the personal mascot of Mayweather’s personal disc jockey, Jay Bling. Later Friday night Justin Bieber — the cherry on top of boxing’s screwball pie — arrived to get a rubdown at Mayweather’s house.
To have any chance of defeating Mayweather, who entered Saturday’s bout 45-0 and widely considered to be the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world, Maidana would have to summon a whole lot of crazy. Before the fight, there was reason to believe that Maidana might have the right temperament and the requisite determination to push Mayweather outside his comfort zone. There are plenty of iron-chinned pressure fighters who are willing to walk down opponents and weather incoming fire to land their own blows. It’s difficult, however, to think of a boxer whose style is more characterized by naked aggression than Maidana. (OK, maybe Ruslan Provodnikov.)
A number of Mayweather’s recent opponents have said they planned to pressure Floyd: to crowd him, rough him up, and eventually wear him down. For rugged brawlers — and even some of the more refined boxer-punchers — who can’t match Mayweather’s speed, reflexes, and skill level, the best bet is to smother and outwork him. The problem with this approach? Until Saturday night it had been successful really only once, more than 12 years ago, when Jose Luis Castillo lost a disputed decision to Mayweather in April 2002. Mayweather’s last four opponents, Victor Ortiz, Miguel Cotto, Robert Guerrero, and Canelo Alvarez, were all expected to employ this strategy to some extent: Ortiz’s pressure mostly led to him eating stiff right-hand counters, which probably contributed to Ortiz’s headbutting, cheek-kissing meltdown and the bizarre and controversial knockout that followed; Cotto’s pressure kept the fight close, but it wasn’t enough to win; and Guerrero and Alvarez were so outclassed that their pressure never materialized.
Why might things have worked out better for Maidana? Well, he fights with a certain impudent streak that could best be described as “not giving a shit.” Several times in his career, Maidana has been cast as the reasonably dangerous but ultimately beatable opponent for boxing’s brightest prospects. He drove Ortiz to his first meltdown in 2009, back when Ortiz was being called the next Oscar De La Hoya. And although Maidana lost a decision to Amir Khan the following year, he confirmed questions about Khan’s poor chin with an overhand right that left Khan galloping to escape on jellified legs for the last three rounds of that fight. Last December, Maidana was again lined up to be a quality win on a young star’s résumé when he faced Adrien Broner, who was then being called the heir to Mayweather’s pay-per-view and pound-for-pound thrones. Once again, Maidana set fire to the promoters’ best-laid plans by knocking Broner down twice en route to a unanimous-decision victory.
Whereas outspoken fighters like Paulie Malignaggi and Bernard Hopkins have spent large chunks of their careers decrying their unjust positions in the pecking order of boxing hype and stardom, Maidana has bucked the sport’s power structure by not giving a shit about it. You want him to fight your anointed fighter of the next decade? You got it — “El Chino” will spend 12 rounds in the single-minded pursuit of pounding him into the mat. He appears to care more about going drive-by duck hunting on Argentine country roads and dressing like hipster Tony Montana than he does about the perceived greatness of his opponents.
But this was Mayweather. Against Mayweather, normally aggressive fighters end up attempting half as many punches per round as they’ve averaged throughout their careers because they can’t figure out where to aim their shots. It’s not deference so much as confusion and frustration. These are professional fighters who by the time they’ve earned a shot at Mayweather have been competing at the elite levels of boxing for years, yet when they stand across the ring from him it seems as if all the moves they’ve used to reach that point — the feints and jabs and double left hooks — accomplish nothing. And while they move around the ring, trying to solve the riddle of how to hurt an opponent who can defend against the entire playbook, they become sitting ducks for Mayweather’s lancing right-hand leads.
Sure, Maidana came into Saturday’s fight with a knack for imposing his aggressive style on faster, slicker, and more pedigreed boxers than himself, but could he really pull that off against Mayweather? That’s what made Mayweather-Maidana such a thrilling fight. A little more than a minute into Round 1, Maidana found that he could rough up Mayweather, that he could pin Floyd against the ropes, lean on him, and wail away with wild punches thrown from all angles.
How did Maidana do it? By not giving a shit if Mayweather tagged him on the way in with left hooks and right uppercuts. By not treating Mayweather like a riddle that could be solved by finding the right punch to penetrate his guard, but instead by just throwing any punch he could get off at any given moment. He would aim to hit Mayweather not just on the jaw or the temple or the liver, but just about anywhere he could land his leather — shoulders, forearms, wrists, back, hips, neck, anything.
Maidana’s flurry two minutes into the first round was one of the most chaotic attacks I’ve ever seen in a boxing ring. With Mayweather’s back against the ropes and Maidana leaning against him to hold him in place, Maidana started bringing down vertiginous, high-arcing overhand rights and lefts in a hammerlike motion. It’s an unorthodox style of throwing the overhand right that looked like something Maidana might have decided to crib from King Hippo in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out! When Mayweather clinched to smother the punches, Maidana rapped up and down Floyd’s flank with chopping left hooks anywhere he sensed he could make contact. Maidana threw out the playbook and just fought in berserker attack mode, determined to make Floyd’s night anything but easy. He fought crazy.
This is not to say that Maidana was just some windmilling spaz who fought without any technique. Much has rightfully been made of his development under trainer Robert Garcia in the past two years, and Maidana used his improved jab to work his way inside against Mayweather and put himself in position to launch those wild bombs. Other times, Maidana darted into Floyd’s personal space by crouching and moving his head to avoid — or at least limit the damage from — Mayweather’s counterpunches. Maidana’s success seemed to be born of his willingness to try any tactic, from near-textbook jabbing to out-and-out mauling, to reach Mayweather. It made Maidana unpredictable, and that blend of boxing and awkward roughhousing might have also made it harder for Mayweather to begin timing Maidana’s actions and take control of the fight.
This wasn’t one of the flawless victories boxing fans have grown accustomed to seeing in Mayweather fights, and that may cause some to wonder if Floyd, at 37 years old, is finally starting to show a hint of decline in his performance. There also may be the temptation to file the Maidana fight away as one of the lesser performances in the latter part of Mayweather’s career, since the fight was so competitive and Floyd’s margin of victory was much smaller than it was in many of his recent fights.
Don’t fall into that trap. Against Maidana, Mayweather spent 36 minutes fending off one of the strongest and most relentless opponents he’s ever faced — a guy whose spirit animal is apparently a rabid hyena. And Maidana’s surprising success at crowding Mayweather forced Floyd to fight a different and more dramatic style than fans were used to seeing. Maidana’s best brought out something close to Mayweather’s.
Remember Maidana’s vicious, helter-skelter attack in Round 1? Mayweather stood with his back against the ropes for almost a full minute while Maidana dropped skyscraping overhand rights and hacked away at Floyd with left hooks, and barely any of Maidana’s punches landed cleanly. While Maidana hammered away, Mayweather’s head sank and his torso swiveled to slip the blows, which bounced off his shoulders or glanced off the top and back of his head. The body shots Maidana landed were slapping left hooks in the clinch — arm punches that carried little power. And after muffling much of Maidana’s work in the first round, Mayweather slipped in some sharp counters, catching his assailant with short left hooks on the chin that made Maidana turn his neck and grimace. Compared to Maidana’s overwhelming aggression and ability to force the fight on his own brawler’s terms, a handful of picture-perfect counterpunches may not have been enough to win Mayweather the first round, but they were a sign of what would soon happen.
In the second half of the fight, Mayweather poked his jab into Maidana’s midsection and kept most of the action in the middle of the ring. There, he strafed Maidana with lead right hands and stymied Maidana’s bull rushes with stinging, perfectly timed uppercuts and check hooks. It wasn’t the total domination he’d enforced upon previous opponents — Maidana’s conditioning and tenacity allowed him to push Mayweather back against the ropes on a few more occasions — but the amount of time the fighters spent in close quarters dwindled as the fight went on. By the final bell, Mayweather appeared to have landed many more clean, head-snapping blows than Maidana had, even though Maidana attempted 432 more punches than Mayweather did. It became, as all of his previous 45 victories had become, Mayweather’s fight, and after the 12th round Floyd was announced the winner by majority decision.
By fighting so well and competing on almost even terms with Mayweather, Maidana appears to have made himself the front-runner to become Mayweather’s September opponent in a potential rematch. Chances are it would be an excellent fight, just like Saturday’s bout. But Mayweather has only three fights remaining on his contract with Showtime, after which he may choose to retire. If Mayweather faces only three more opponents in his career, are we sure that we want one of them to be Marcos Maidana for a second time?
One of the major lessons of Mayweather-Maidana seems to be that as boxing fans, we can’t always predict how opponents will match up with Mayweather. Maidana was an 11-1 underdog the day before the fight; his odds improved to 8-1 by the time of the opening bell. When he was announced as Mayweather’s first opponent for 2014, the news was met with a collective groan, as boxing observers all began envisioning 12 rounds of Floyd peppering another slow-footed, helpless opponent with laser-guided potshots before collecting his guaranteed thirtysomething million dollars and taking it back to the Big Boy Mansion to buy Bugattis and mani-pedis for his harem of female assistants.
Well, it didn’t work out that way, because Marcos Maidana turned out to be a truly dangerous opponent — a blue-sombrero-wearing badass who fought out of his mind Saturday night and roughed Mayweather up like few fighters ever have. Sure, we could see it again, but wouldn’t it be better to see how other fighters might show Floyd another kind of boxing crazy, something he hasn’t seen yet, and force him to find ever new ways to stay undefeated?