Every girl at that fight has got her ass hanging out of the bottom of her dress. It’s not a bad thing in theory, but Jesus Christ, have some decency.”
I was in Las Vegas for the second time in as many years to watch Floyd Mayweather fight, and for the second time in as many years my cab driver was talking about the relative ass coverage at the MGM Grand and the mayhem unleashed by a “specific element” at the NBA All-Star Game on the hardworking residents of Las Vegas. This always seems to happen to me. Eight years ago, I remember being driven to the airport here by a cabbie who talked with great anger and passion about the “monkeys on the USA Olympic team” and their habit of “chucking up shots like they were spears.” I do not know why racist cab drivers feel so comfortable talking out their prejudices with me. I suppose there are two possibilities: One, they are simply projecting whatever racist thoughts they have about me onto another group and projecting the whole ugly thing into the backseats of their cabs. Or maybe they have met one or two Asian persons who also did not like the “specific element” at the NBA All-Star Game and now assume that all Asians are brothers in bigotry.
I shrugged and stared out the window. When you’re driving in from the airport, the Strip looks like an outpost colony on Tatooine, which, I suppose, it sort of is. Only from up close do you see the sick organization in all that lit chaos. If you stand, say, in front of the Hard Rock Cafe on Las Vegas Boulevard and look up at all the tourists spilling out of Paris, you’ll swear that the people and all the flashing lights and the crotch rock blaring at Diablo’s bar across the street are all interconnected in an organic way — some fucked-up Leaves of Grass moment or an acid trip where all the tracers and flashing squares of light cohere into one pulsing mass that convinces you of some life truth, quickly forgotten.
The cab driver dropped me off in front of the MGM Grand. I considered stiffing him on the tip, but the rules of etiquette won out, as they almost always do. For the next hour, I rehearsed in my head what I should have said to the cab driver. This is old habit. I no longer believe that there’s much value in yelling at racist cab drivers, but I suppose there’s still part of me that rejects this older, more sober self who comes up with rationalizations like, “If I make them feel like special racists, they win.”
A few hours later, while eating lunch in a casino food court, I overheard a large, sunburned man in a tank top (the official civic mammal of Las Vegas) say something about the “element” at Mayweather fights and how all the booing that had gone on at the weigh-in was proof that boxing had gotten over Floyd and his “Money” act. “Nobody wants to watch that shit over and over again,” he explained through a mouthful of pizza. A black couple sat down at a nearby table and the sunburned man clammed up. Then, of course, he changed the subject.
The racists weren’t the only ones feeling weary in Las Vegas. Nearly everyone I talked to about the fight predicted a snoozer. At the sportsbook at the MGM Grand, the line for “The Fight Will Not Go a Full 10 Rounds” swung from -150 to +225 in a matter of a few days, indicating the betting public’s belief that the fight would end without a knockout. Like all of Floyd’s fights since he beat De La Hoya on Cinco de Mayo in 2007, the outcome of Mayweather-Guerrero felt preordained: Guerrero would come out aggressive and Floyd would quickly figure him out. The next seven or eight or nine rounds would be an exercise in ritual humiliation. This expectation, in fact, has become so ubiquitous that any deviation from the “Floyd figures it out” narrative immediately turns that fight into a “classic.” Last year, I watched Miguel Cotto occasionally rough up Floyd Mayweather in four or five rounds of their 12-round bout. Like the rest of the audience at the MGM, I felt thrilled at having watched a close, competitive fight. But when I got home and watched the fight on TV, I realized that things really hadn’t been all that close and what I had been cheering was the faint possibility that Floyd might make the sort of mistake Floyd never makes. It made me wonder if Floyd might simply be too good for the rest of boxing and if the sport actually benefits from having such an unbeatable, peerless champion. All around Vegas on Friday night, the weekend betters, the fight fanatics, and the craps dealers were all saying the same thing: Floyd was great, for sure, but maybe Floyd’s greatness had gotten a bit boring.
Consider boxing’s logline: A kid from nothing comes up through the ranks, shocks the world, and then sits fat and lazy on the top of the sport until the next kid from nothing comes up through the ranks to shock the world. This is admittedly a good story, and like all great stories it can be replicated over and over. The health of boxing relies on the refresh rate — nobody likes a champion once he’s been champion for too long. Fans start to gripe about handpicked opponents and boring fights. Alarmists declare the sport dead. Only in boxing is a champion considered greater for losing and then coming back to win a title than for simply never losing in the first place — the downward swing and the redemption reminds the fans of the young man they fell in love with. Variations of this redemption happen in other sports, but a champion who loses his title faces a specific type of humiliation that might not befall athletes in team sports. When it’s all over, you’re either sprawled out on your back or standing half-naked in the ring while the announcer tells the world that you have lost.
Boxing’s problem in 2013 is that the champions do not lose. Both Wladimir Klitschko and Floyd Mayweather fought this Saturday and both, as expected, won. Klitschko stayed a stranger, as he has for most of his 13-year stay at the top of the heavyweight division. After a close first two rounds, Floyd did exactly what everyone expected him to do: He figured out Robert Guerrero and put him through 30 minutes of eye-popping, yet reserved, dominance.
I am speaking here as someone interested in the business of boxing and its constant search for a crossover star. Were I writing as a boxing fan, I would say that in a perfect world, Floyd Mayweather’s ring intelligence alone would make for massive pay-per-view numbers. When you watch Floyd calmly standing in the center of the ring as the crazed, hungry opponent hurls himself forward, trying to subjugate the champ’s intelligence through sheer force of will, you start losing track of superlatives with which to describe him. Floyd Mayweather is a boxing genius. This cannot be disputed. But people do not buy pay-per-view fights to watch a chess master dominate a high school champion. And given that Floyd Mayweather signed a six-fight contract with Showtime/CBS in the neighborhood of $200 million, it’s worth asking: If the next Floyd Mayweather fight turns out like this Floyd Mayweather fight, with legions of fans booing and Floyd having to explain, once again, why he did not go for the knockout, what will the pay-per-view numbers look like for fight no. 3? No. 4? How many times can we watch the master work on his own terms? When will we start asking for blood?
In the past, Floyd has counteracted his lack of ring vulnerability and knockout power with a heavy serving of self-promotion. This worked in the early days of HBO’s 24/7 series because Floyd provided the charismatic, brash foil to Oscar De La Hoya’s timid, calculated, and mega self-conscious reserve. That charm turned into “Money,” boxing’s undefeatable villain. But how long is the life span of the sports antihero? Showtime’s All Access series, which has been described by several people as “24/7 with Common,” felt scattered and slightly aimless in the buildup to Saturday’s fight. There were flashes of “Money,” but for the most part, Floyd seemed to be moving himself into a more mature, relatable iteration. There were scenes that showed him watching movies with his daughter, biking around Las Vegas with his fiancée. The problem wasn’t that these scenes felt inauthentic per se, but more that they clashed so starkly with the extant (and police) record. How do you reintroduce someone who has already been introduced in countless fight-hype shows? What can you say about Floyd that hasn’t been said a million times before? Floyd Mayweather is one of the greatest technical fighters of all time and one of the most brilliant athletes of his era. But “Money May” was the one who put the butts in the seats.
Everything about a Mayweather production is meticulous and bordering on perfection. Saturday night was no different, and if Showtime and Golden Boy Productions can be criticized for a lack of creativity in matchmaking and promotion, they should be commended for putting on a beautiful show. Mayweather’s gold snakeskin shorts were the best possible shorts. His ring entrance, which featured a hyped Weezy yelling out “Easy Money!,” was the best possible ring entrance. And Floyd himself showed up in a condition that would put a 25-year-old fighter to shame. I won’t pretend to know the real Floyd Mayweather who hides behind his various personae, but it’s my belief that he shows up mostly in these small, perfect details on fight night.
Robert Guerrero, on the other hand, was sheriff of his very own shit show. Surrounded by a massive posse in his corner, Guerrero looked grim and slightly unfocused. His father and trainer, Ruben Guerrero, pranced around the ring, soaking in the moment. In the week leading up to the fight, Ruben Guerrero had diverted much of the attention away from his son by challenging Floyd Mayweather Sr. to a fight. The whole thing was about as stupid and sad as it sounds, and it debased the Guerrero family’s deep Christian message. Guerrero is your standard-issue evangelical Christian athlete who starts off every interview by thanking God and giving him all the glory. I have no problem with Guerrero’s choice to proselytize, nor did I have a problem with the “God Is Great” T-shirt that he wore into the ring (except I would ask for a better font next time), but I also believe that invoking God in interview after interview and promoting yourself as a fighter through Christian media networks demands a higher standard of behavior. Guerrero, who was arrested after he tried to bring a gun onto a plane at JFK airport, and his father, who went on every radio show that would have him to talk up a “parking lot” fight between himself and the 60-year-old Mayweather Sr., fell far below that standard. If nothing else, all the carping and gun-smuggling distracted attention away from the more inspirational story of Guerrero’s dedication to his wife throughout her battle with cancer.
When the opening bell rang, the deep, rational thinker met the evangelical in the center of the ring. The first two rounds were close — I ended up giving both to Guerrero, mostly because I thought he did some decent work in the clinches. By the middle of the third round, Floyd found his distance and started up what would become the fight’s main pattern: Guerrero would move forward cautiously while Floyd waited, sometimes with his hands down by his side. When he sensed the slightest break in Guerrero’s defense, Floyd would unload power shots straight into Guerrero’s head. The accuracy of these punches is stunning to behold in person — you can actually see Floyd’s fist snake through Guerrero’s arms and find its home on his chin. With growing reluctance, Guerrero would keep inching forward until he got Floyd near the ropes, at which point Floyd would calmly duck and spin back toward the center of the ring. That same sequence played itself out over and over again. And because Guerrero never adjusted, Floyd never did either.
There comes a time in every technical domination that you wish the winning fighter would just open up and drop the chump so you can go home and say you watched a good fight. On Saturday night, this moment came as early as the sixth round. The rest of the fight brought a few more moments of brilliance from Floyd, but it also proved frustrating to all but the most ardent fight fans. By the 10th round, several spectators at the MGM Garden Arena had started booing, including one stalwart young man who kept screaming “Boooo-ring! Booooo-ring!” at both fighters. The fact that everyone on press row could so clearly hear the displeasure of what sounded like a teenage boy should tell you all you need to know about the lack of crowd noise Saturday night. It felt, at times, like the crowd you’d find at an opera — bursts of applause for the occasional brilliant moment, but mostly just bored appreciation. After ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr. gave the inevitable news — Mayweather by unanimous decision — there was none of the excited talk that follows most boxing matches. No conspiracy theories, no rehashes of powerful punches, no speculation about future fights. In the tunnels leading out of the arena, I plodded toward the exit alongside an older media-mogul type and a stunning woman in a dress that looked like it had been sewn together with feathers from an oil spill.
“You know,” the media-mogul type explained to his younger companion, “not every boxing match can be a good one. Sometimes these things happen, but what’s more important is that you’re beautiful and it’s still only 10:30, which means we will have plenty of time to turn the night around.”
This article originally referred to scenes of Floyd Mayweather biking with his wife; in fact, the woman in the video is his fiancée.