The Devil in an Empty Arena: Las Vegas on Fight WeekendJohn Gurzinski/AFP/Getty Images
No single moment can capture the moral and spiritual rain cloud that hovered over the Floyd Mayweather–Manny Pacquiao fight. But let’s give it a shot. After Mayweather won Saturday night, in exactly the methodical, efficient way that Manny fans had feared, the arena was cleared. Then Floyd Mayweather Sr., the champ’s trainer, wandered in. He was looking for an audience.
“I just know my son should be treated better,” Floyd Sr. told a few reporters.
“I never got the kind of accolades that Freddie Roach is getting,” Floyd Sr. said. “Freddie Roach is a joke, blowing smoke, with no hope.”
Is Floyd Jr. simply too good? a reporter asked. “Maybe that’s the truth!” Floyd Sr. said, brightening. “Sometimes things be so good, people don’t appreciate it until it’s over and done.”
Students of the Mayweather family will recognize this odd mix of strutting machismo and runaway martyr complex. Floyd Sr. rambled about the drug testing that delayed the fight for five years. “Tonight, everything was random,” he said. “Random piss, random everything.”
Floyd Sr. feigned that he didn’t remember Pacquiao’s big left in the fourth, one of the few memorable punches of the night. “Did my son’s knees buckle? … I didn’t see that.”
Would there be a rematch? “[Pacquiao] would never beat him, believe me. He don’t have this” (Floyd Sr. tapped a single finger on his forehead).
Boxers and their handlers aren’t obliged to come out after an event and write the odes for their opponents’ Hall of Fame plaques. We forfeit that expectation when we ask them to beat each other senseless for two hours. But Floyd Sr.’s monologue was so casually cruel, so inane — it was the random piss of post-fight interviews — that I began to remember just why the Fight of the Century made so many people so queasy from the start.
Has there ever been a once-in-a-lifetime sporting event that made everyone feel worse than Mayweather-Pacquiao? There were calls for a boycott because of Mayweather’s domestic abuse allegations and convictions. More calls for a boycott when press credentials were yanked away from Mayweather’s critics on the eve of the fight. If you accept the media story line that Floyd Jr. called “the guy versus the Devil” (Pacquiao the former, Mayweather the latter), the Devil won. Easily. We barely needed to look at the cards.
The exciting early rounds of the fight offered the possibility, however ridiculous, that it could be a vehicle for moral vengeance. The Devil might go down. But here was the Devil Sr. celebrating a blowout. And how would he describe Pacquiao’s performance tonight?
“Terrible,” Floyd Sr. said.
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Before the big names swept in, Las Vegas’s resident population of pseudo-celebrities was replaced by boxing’s resident population of pseudo-celebrities. A writer pal and I were making the rounds at the MGM Grand hotel Friday afternoon when we saw a crowd of people, four- and five-deep, clustered around someone. They were snapping selfies, handing him Sharpies to sign autographs.
Who’s in the scrum? I asked one of the gawkers.
It’s Roger Mayweather, the gawker said — Floyd Jr.’s uncle.
My friend and I chuckled and took a long, circular walk through the casino. When we came back, we found another crowd formed about a hundred feet away from the original. It was still Uncle Roger.
What was Las Vegas like on fight week? Aside from odd sights like that, it was weirdly normal. The city absorbed the “Fight of the Century” in its bloblike embrace. Last week, a police official had predicted a crowd “not quite as big as New Year’s Eve.” If you strayed a few hotels away from the epicenter of the MGM Grand, that basically held up. The masses were thick but not overwhelming. The depravity was familiar. On the morning after the fight, I found the following items in hotel elevators: a wilted rose, an empty can of Coors Light, and a used rubber glove.
Las Vegas’s nostalgia clock has sprung forward. Ten years ago, it was still possible to find Wayne Newton and various knock-off lounge acts. As of May, both Britney Spears and Mariah Carey will be “in residency” at casinos, and Robin Leach, the breathless chronicler of ’80s and ’90s affluence, is writing a column for the Las Vegas Sun. “We’ll examine the huge $$$$ at stake for the big fight weekend as ticket prices soar into the stratosphere,” Leach wrote Friday. The guy’s still got it!
Doug E. Fresh walked out of the ’90s, too, and became emcee of Friday’s weigh-in. He came out after 3 p.m. Friday and told us, “If you feel some energy, make some noise!”
More desperately: “This is live, y’all. I need energy. I need people — real people that do real things.”
Still more desperately: “I want to know, are you looking at the screen? Who’s looking at the screen? Who’s paying attention to what’s going on?”
I turned to Thomas Hauser, the veteran boxing writer and Muhammad Ali biographer, to ask if out of any of the dozens of hype events he’d witnessed over the years, this stood out. “No,” he said. “This is more of the same, just piled higher.”
Then Mayweather and Pacquiao came out, stripped down to their underwear, and stepped on the scales. The former weighed 146 and the latter 145. (Pacquiao started chewing a candy — or granola — bar the moment he stepped off the scale.) The fighters began to dutifully play up the “guy versus the Devil” story line. When the camera landed on Pacquiao, he turned and showed off the motto on the back of his T-shirt: “All Glory and Honor Belongs to God.” Everyone cheered. Then the camera caught Mayweather’s smug look of disdain. Everyone booed.
The two boxers stayed in character through the staredown: Pacquiao smiled while Mayweather scowled — though I thought it almost looked as if Floyd Jr. were stifling a smile at that moment. During the staredown, Pacquiao said to Mayweather, sotto voce, “Thank you” — presumably for agreeing to the fight. Before the weekend was over, Pacquiao would thank everyone — his trainers, God, even the media — at a rate that would impress a casino worker.
The weigh-in also revealed the strange marriage of two networks, Showtime and HBO, that were copromoting the fight. HBO’s ring announcer, Michael Buffer, came onstage and announced Pacquiao. Then Jimmy Lennon Jr., Buffer’s Showtime counterpart, did the honors for Mayweather. Neither guy looked happy ceding the mic.
Outside the arena, the crowds who had surrounded Roger Mayweather had massed by the doors. They weren’t going to the fight, necessarily, but they wanted to be around it. “Nothin’s happening for 29 hours!” an old security guard yelled at them. “Nothin’!”
Over at Charleston Boulevard and South Main Street, a small boxing gym called Johnny Tocco’s opened its doors for a sparring event on Friday night. With its cinder block walls, popcorn ceiling, and oppressive heat even at 8 p.m., Tocco’s offered an antidote to the hype down the Strip. Kids sat on the ring apron. A boxer’s girlfriend leaned over the corner, lazily sipping a Super Big Gulp while her guy searched for a water bottle.
I found one of the managers and asked him, What are you calling tonight’s event?
“What do we call this thing?” the manager screamed across the room. “No! What’s it called?”
He turned to me and said, “The Art of Pugilism.”
It was as if boxing’s grandiosity was a fetal condition, detectable even at its training grounds. The manager, a compact, goateed man, told me his name was John Maynard Roberts III. He savored that middle name. He enunciated the latter syllable of it like he was throwing a crisp jab.
Roberts and I were leaning over the corner of the ring, watching his fighter, Jeremy Nichols. A veteran of just 16 amateur fights, Nichols had been hired by Mayweather as a sparring partner. “He got in there with Mayweather and shocked everybody,” Roberts said. “Floyd loved him. He invited him to Easter dinner with his mom.”
“I could see the old Floyd,” Nichols told me later. “The combinations came out. He was aggressive. He’d worked hard. He had that fire in his eye.”
Why do you think Mayweather picked you? I asked.
“Because I’m a southpaw,” Nichols said — just like Pacquiao. “They say I’m one of the best southpaws out here. But I’m just a normal guy trying to make a living.”
Mayweather had paid Nichols $3,000 a week for sparring. After one session, Floyd told him, “Keep up the good work, champ.” Nichols could have swooned at the honorific.
The schedule for the Art of Pugilism called for Johnny Tocco’s young boxers to pair up and go four rounds. I saw a big, terrifyingly powerful guy named Alex Thiel bludgeon his opponent out of the ring after three. For the finale, Nichols jumped in. He didn’t want to fight. So he danced around and did a Pacquiao impression through his mouthguard: “I want to thank everybody for the opportunity! I want to thank the Money Team! Thanks to all the teams!”
John Maynard Roberts III rolled his eyes. “The main event is always anticlimactic,” he said. “That’s why I’m not going to watch tomorrow night.”
At 9 a.m. Saturday, reporters covering Mayweather-Pacquiao were standing in line for their credentials. The sun was hot, the line long. But then tweets from Rachel Nichols and ESPN’s Michelle Beadle turned the usual reporterly gripes into full-blown yells.
Nichols later provided the blow-by-blow of what happened. Basically — and this is the most charitable interpretation — Beadle and Nichols were told during the week that their credentials were canceled or in danger of being canceled. Their credentials were later restored (either through the intervention of HBO or because of the mushroom cloud visible on Twitter). But both concluded they’d been jacked around and didn’t cover the fight.
I can add a couple of additional notes from the scene. First, Credentialgate is best understood in the context of insults that boxing writers suffer all the time. Even the writers who schlep to the lousiest cards get emails from promoters asking why they haven’t generated enough pre-fight hype. For Saturday’s fight, the Mayweather-led promotions team didn’t reveal which writers were going into the arena until 12:01 a.m. on the day of the fight — thus ensuring mediawide trepidation, if not cooperation, until right before the bell.
Second, that kind of gamesmanship takes on a special kind of nastiness when it targets two women who have delivered factual recitations of Mayweather’s history of violence toward women.
Third, putting Floyd Mayweather in charge of credentials is like deputizing Marshawn Lynch to drive the media bus at the Super Bowl.
No, actually, it’s worse. It’s much, much worse.
When baseball is played in an empty stadium, everyone pays attention. When a boxing match happens in an empty stadium, everyone shrugs. It’s called the undercard.
A little after 3 p.m. on Saturday, I walked into the MGM Grand Garden Arena as Brad Solomon and Adrian Granados, two super middleweights, were duking it out. It was nearly five hours until the main event. On TV, Lennox Lewis called the crowd “intimate.” Fifty fans — in a stadium that holds more than 16,000 — seemed like a generous estimate.
You could sit hundreds of feet away from the action and still hear the corner men clearly. The arena briefly became a left–winger’s dream of democracy. The women in black dresses who would later be serving cocktails parked themselves in empty ringside seats that cost thousands of dollars. A couple of ushers studied their smartphones to see if they could cash tickets on the Kentucky Derby. Another usher described her coming workweek. “It’s easy,” she said. “I’m doing Journey, Dice, Journey, Dice.”
Only the Hitchcockian form of Bob Arum, who had planted himself near the ring, reminded you that you weren’t at Johnny Tocco’s anymore.
The Grand Garden Arena is a likable place. Like the Nassau Coliseum, it has no upper deck. Like a Prince video, it is bathed in smoky, purple light. I walked up to Section 219, the one farthest from the ring, to see a guy who was sitting alone. His name was Steve Abt. He’d been to every Mayweather fight since 2001, he said, and nearly every Pacquiao fight in the same time frame. He was a loyalist.
Abt had gladly paid $600 for seats to Mayweather–Canelo Alvarez in the same spot in 2013. When Mayweather-Pacquiao was announced, he didn’t know what to do. He waited nervously, weighing the hit to his bank account versus the sick feeling he’d get if he watched the Fight of the Century from home and it turned into a classic. Finally, on Friday night, he caved. He paid $2,700 on StubHub for one of the worst seats in the house.
“It’s gonna be awesome,” Abt said. “Still, $2,700 is a lot.” He came early to get his money’s worth.
In the ring, Solomon beat Granados in a close split decision. Granados came unglued, screaming and slapping his chest in despair. There was no reaction from the crowd, because there was no crowd. Granados stormed out of the ring as arena rock echoed through an empty stadium.
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On TV, you could hear that the crowd was overwhelmingly behind Pacquiao. But let me tell you about Mayweather fans — particularly, the one sitting behind me.
I never got a good look at the guy. He was perched somewhere a few rows behind Magic Johnson and Jesse Jackson. He was on the beat all night.
“That’s my boy. Whoop his ass!”
“He’s tired, champ. He ain’t got no more power pellets!”
“Give your best Ray Rice to ’em!”1
When Pacquiao stepped into a Mayweather punch in the ninth round, the guy yelled, “Come on in there again, Senator!” — a line that drew an appreciative laugh from Magic. (Pacquiao is actually a member of the House of Representatives of the Philippines.)
The pro-Manny faction’s connection to its man was emotional. Every cheer, every MAN-NY, MAN-NY! chant, oozed love. The Mayweather fans were different. Every punch Floyd landed got a “Wooooo!” — a Nature Boy cry of admiration. It’s the difference between being taken with a fighter because you genuinely love him and being taken with a fighter because you’d genuinely love to ride on his private plane.
“Where’s all this speed everybody’s talking about?” Floyd Sr. said of Pacquiao later. “All this jumping around? He wasn’t doing too much jumping.”
Indeed, Pacquiao was active at the beginning — all three judges had Mayweather up 58-56 after six rounds, a manageable margin. But Pacquiao said later that he’d reinjured his right shoulder. He couldn’t sustain the kind of flurries he unleashed early when he got Mayweather on the ropes.
Nobody in the arena knew that at the time. But they could sense the futility of his mission. It was after the eighth round when I got the feeling I get in every Mayweather fight, inevitably, sooner or later: He’s just a better boxer than the other guy.
Afterward, Floyd Sr. was asked who his son should fight in September, in a bout that would allow him to tie Rocky Marciano’s career win total. “[A]ll the guys that’s around here, the hard hitters, the Alvarezes, Cotto — he fought all of them,” Floyd Sr. said. “My son needs to take his contract and end it with an easy fight. We don’t need all them tough fights.”
The guy versus the Devil was an enormously tempting way to think about the matchup this weekend. The two fighters were happy to play the roles. It offered the same comforting, black-and-white morality that has greeted (and here we see the different sporting definitions of “morality”) Bill Belichick, LeBron James, and Jameis Winston in their own championship bouts.
Of course, such a frame was way, way, way too easy. Not only did it overlook Pacquiao’s warts (alleged homophobia, giant tax bills), it excused the sadism at the very heart of boxing. But as frustrating as it was, Pacquiao losing is probably the best result. We don’t get to choose between “good” and “evil.” We don’t get to substitute a TKO for genuine moral reckoning. There is no false hope. No feel-good moment. There is just the Devil standing alone in an empty arena.