Editor’s note: This column appears in the May 4 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
The De La Hoya-Mayweather fight feels like a trip down memory lane, back to the days when boxing still mattered and people asked questions like “Where are we watching the big fight this weekend?”
Before May 5, most every group of pals will force the one guy with the biggest TV to host a pay-per-view party, either by guilting him into it or by going through the charade of pretending someone else with a much crummier TV is hosting, knowing full well the buddy with the giant plasma will step up in the end.
Sounds just like the old days, right?
When was the last time boxing captured the attention of casual sports fans? Consider this: When A-Rod turned into Roy Hobbs, somewhere between his ninth and 12th bombs, my mother (the most casual sports fan alive) innocently wondered on the phone, “Hey, what about this A-Rod?” I knew it was coming. And within the next two weeks, she’ll definitely weigh in on the Mayweather fight, even if it’s a hard-hitting analysis like “I hope Oscar doesn’t get hurt; he’s so handsome,” or “Somebody needs to wash Floyd’s mouth out with soap.”
Unquestionably, it’s the biggest fight in years. It’s also the last Big Fight, period. Here’s a top-10 list of boxers who could be described as popular and famous right now:
1. Oscar De La Hoya.
And we’re done. De La Hoya is the only boxer who matters anymore. As with any other superstar athlete, Oscar generates a wide range of opinions — he’s a classy dude, he’s never beaten anyone great in his prime, he’s full of himself, he’s a warrior, he’s overrated, he has a gravity-defying noggin that looks like Sputnik — but at least people have opinions about him. You can’t say the same for Mayweather, the best pound-for-pound fighter alive but also someone who could show up on “Lost” as one of the Others and go unrecognized by viewers and everyone else on the island. We need Floyd’s brilliance to push the fight to another level, but Oscar’s star power makes it relevant in the first place.
Well, what happens when Oscar retires? Only one megafight remains that doesn’t involve Mike Tyson and a grizzly bear: the Klitschko brothers breaking their lifelong vow and battling for the heavyweight title, which won’t happen unless they both go broke (impossible) or a girl comes between them (improbable, but not impossible). So unless Don King hires some überhooker to play one against the other, or unless someone improbably emerges as the Tiger Woods of boxing, this could be the last Big Fight for a long time. And it might not even be that good a fight: The bookies originally made Floyd a 3-1 favorite, mainly because he’s a sleeker, deadlier, more polished version of Sugar Shane Mosley — yes, the guy who beat Oscar twice.
The outcome doesn’t matter as much as boxing’s brief return to the mainstream, which has been propelled partially by HBO’s De La Hoya/Mayweather 24/7, a masterfully entertaining “reality show” about the lead-up to the fight. The first episode alone featured Floyd dropping about 10,000 f-bombs, 50 Cent improbably showing up at Floyd’s camp on a Segway and Floyd’s uncle Roger answering the question “What would it be like if Flavor Flav was a boxing trainer?”
Meanwhile, poor Oscar has to balance sparring sessions with family life and his many business interests, and as we watched him sitting in his enormous kitchen or training in front of hundreds of media people, the parallels between Oscar and the “domesticated” Rocky Balboa (from Rocky III) were more than a little creepy, right down to Floyd’s playing the role of a hip-hop Clubber Lang.
You’d have to hark back to Leonard-Duran for a matchup with such clearly defined white hat/black hat roles. Floyd hasn’t just positioned himself as the villain; he wants to be the villain, making him different from Jones Jr., Holmes, Tyson, Hagler and everyone else since Duran who has begrudgingly worn a black hat to sell a fight. Deep down, every boxer from the past 25 years has wanted to be loved. Floyd wants to be remembered. Big difference.
For our purposes, it’s been a revelation to watch two superior boxers promote a fight without forcing mutual contempt simply for the hype. Floyd genuinely dislikes Oscar and resents his fame. Oscar genuinely dislikes Floyd for not showing him respect. Over everything else, that’s what makes this a special sporting event: In a world where NBA refs hand out flagrant fouls like parking tickets, baseball pitchers aren’t allowed to protect teammates and hockey players settle scores by high-sticking someone in the helmet and waiting for three other guys to jump in, it’s nice to know that two athletes can still settle a feud by beating the crap out of each other.
So why does boxing have to go away? Sure, it’s a completely corrupt sport that lacks any semblance of organization, but that’s been the case since, well, forever. The bigger issue? Lack of star power. American kids don’t grow up hoping to become the next Ali or Sugar Ray anymore; they’re hoping to be the next LeBron, Griffey, Brady or Tiger. The thought of getting smacked in the head for 20 years, soaked by the Don Kings of the world, then ending up with slurred speech and a constant tremor doesn’t sound too enticing. Fifty years ago, before anyone knew better, Allen Iverson might have been the deadliest middleweight alive and ended up broke and incoherent. In 2007, he’s worth tens of millions and there’s a chance he’ll be able to hold an articulate conversation when he’s 70.
Which scenario sounds more appealing to an inner-city kid with serious athletic chops? Take a guess. It’s ironic that Muhammad Ali — once upon a time our most popular athlete and a boxing ambassador — damaged the credibility of the sport more than anyone else by turning into a quivering mess. Maybe he is a great man, maybe he had a great career, maybe he was the warrior of warriors, but nobody wants to end up like him. Even the sport’s most talented boxer (Mayweather) started fighting only because of his father and uncle (two former boxers). Raised in a different family, he’d definitely be playing centerfield or point guard for a living.
Boxing could have staved off its decline, at least a little, with a UFC-like business plan that included a constant presence on one cable network, one loaded PPV card per month, one championship belt per division, better marketing and promotion, and a charismatic, accountable leader like Dana White. But it’s a pipe dream, and we know it: Too many dirtbags make too much money feeding off the perpetual disorganization and lawlessness, so that’s how things will stay. The sport resembles a broken-down mansion that seems as if it can be salvaged — right until the housing inspector tells you about the water-damaged walls and termite-infested foundation rotted to the core.
We need to knock down the house and start over. And in the years following the De La Hoya-Mayweather fight, as boxing crumbles from a lack of mainstream interest, we will. Until then, let’s enjoy the Last Big Fight. Call your buddy with the big TV and tell him you’re coming over on May 5.
Just like old times.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available in paperback.