Boxing often feels like an alternate sports universe, and devotees of the sport tend to treasure that bubble. It’s a world that’s openly corrupt yet has developed its own internal logic based on money and power, risk and reward, youth and experience. The rules aren’t codified as much as they are internalized and boiled down to a fatalist credo: “That’s boxing.” The longer you follow the sport, the more you learn to anticipate the bullshit that boxing will fling at you. That’s boxing.
But “That’s boxing” also applies to the bright side of pugilism’s otherness, because the brutal nature of a fight can expose glimpses of humanity — inspiration and outrage, absurd humor and deep sorrow, breathtaking grace and stupefying grit — that rarely emerge in other sports. A trainer, between rounds, wants to liven up his fighter (who also happens to be his son), so he says, “Let me pour some water on your balls.” That’s boxing. Arturo Gatti rises from a crippling body shot, then survives the ninth round in visible agony during his first bout with Micky Ward. That’s boxing. The simple beauty of a Floyd Mayweather Jr. right hand counterpunch over Marcos Maidana’s jab. That’s boxing. Mayweather, running for the final three minutes of a fight, saps the drama from what should be the bout’s climax, because he knows he’s already won. That’s boxing.
“If there’s one thing I still love about boxing it’s that a bunch of guys can sit around a gym and call one guy ‘braindead’ and say a fighter will ‘go to jail for murder’ and everyone laughs.” My friend Bill Dettloff, cohost of the Ring Theory podcast, wrote that in an email last week after I sent him a recent YouTube clip from a California gym. If you like the sport, you know exactly what Dettloff means. If you don’t, then you might feel disgusted. That’s boxing.
And boxing may never have felt more like a subculture than it did this weekend in Las Vegas, where Mayweather headlined a pay-per-view rematch against the rugged Argentine fighter Marcos Maidana, who four months ago gave Mayweather one of the toughest challenges of his career. While the sports world had spent the past days digesting the sickening video of Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancée, boxing revved up its promotional machine to convince sports fans to spend upward of $70 to watch Mayweather, who has twice been convicted of domestic violence charges and who has a troubling history of alleged abuse against women in his life. Away from boxing, the themes of the week had been outrage at the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell’s handling of the Rice scandal, along with a serious call to confront the problems of domestic abuse in the NFL, professional sports, and the entire United States. Then, on Friday, I arrived at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas to find “Money” Mayweather’s oversize face plastered to the side of a bank of slot machines. The bank after Floyd’s was adorned with Taylor Swift’s sunny mien.
In the larger sports world there were calls to boycott Mayweather’s fight and suggestions that the Nevada Athletic Commission should somehow suspend him. Meanwhile, at pre-fight press events and during Friday’s weigh-in, the attitude inside boxing seemed to be that the timing was unfortunate, but the show had to go on. Besides, a state commission is not a league; it might suspend a fighter or decline to license him for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs or for cheating in the ring or for failing a physical. It would be highly unusual for Nevada to banish Mayweather for conduct detrimental to the sport, especially for crimes for which the state of Nevada had already sent him to prison. And if it did, then Mayweather would probably get a license in Texas or California or New Jersey or the United Kingdom or China, and some other commission would rake in a fortune for sanctioning his fight. That’s boxing.
Additionally, one of the sport’s virtues is its history of giving second chances to fighters with criminal pasts. Mayweather, with his pattern of abusive behavior, might be beyond redemption. But exiling every boxer who runs afoul of the law might also mean never getting a chance to witness a career like Bernard Hopkins’s. Hopkins, a current titlist at light heavyweight, served almost five years in prison for strong-armed robbery and assault, then embarked on a record-breaking, Hall of Fame–worthy career that has spanned four decades and still isn’t over. In boxing, the morally reprehensible often lives beside the uplifting and inspirational. The sport’s fans understand this; many of them seem to embrace it.
I’ll admit it: I suffer from some kind of Floyd Mayweather–specific Stockholm syndrome. When he fights, I can’t help but marvel at the speed and reflexes he uses to outbox opponents. I can’t help but feel riveted by watching him outthink an adversary in the ring, the way he convinces the man whose job it is to knock him out that said task is hopeless. He is so good at the one thing he does better than anyone else that for 36 minutes, I can only think about that one thing, and all the reasons to despise Mayweather fade into my subconscious.
Perhaps that dissociative backflip is unprincipled, but it’s a bit of mental gymnastics that the thousands of people who came to Las Vegas for Mayweather-Maidana 2 seemed to experience, in one way or another. Mayweather was much more dominant Saturday night than he was in his narrow victory last May. This was expected. The only other opponent who has fought a rematch with Mayweather was Jose Luis Castillo, back in 2002, and the steady pressure and body-punching Castillo used to convince many fans he deserved to win their first fight weren’t there for him the second time around. Most boxing observers seem to agree: Once Mayweather figures out how to neutralize a fighter, the opponent’s window of opportunity for an upset gets slammed nearly all the way shut.
In their first fight, Maidana troubled Mayweather with an energetic, relentless, mauling style, punctuated by chopping overhand rights thrown from unorthodox angles. Mayweather spent long portions of the first four rounds pinned against the ropes, dodging Maidana’s clubbing shots. Saturday night, Mayweather made sure not to let the same thing happen again. He made a concerted effort to circle the ring and prevented Maidana from setting his feet with little back-and-forth hops and changes in direction. When Mayweather felt his back touch the ropes, he rarely let Maidana get off more than one punch before either sidestepping and moving back toward the center of the ring or springing forward and wrapping his arms around Maidana to force referee Kenny Bayless to break them and reset the action.
Mayweather was no doubt helped by Bayless, who has received heated criticism for calling the bout too closely. It’s true: Bayless was very quick to separate the fighters when Mayweather tied up Maidana, and there was something unseemly about how eager Bayless appeared to be as he hovered near the action when Mayweather and Maidana fought in close quarters. It was as if the referee were anticipating a clinch and could barely wait to jump between them and call “break!” At the same time, however, Mayweather was very precise about how he would tie up Maidana. He’d jump forward so that the two fighters were chest-to-chest and hook his arms under Maidana’s to disable any one-handed inside offense his opponent might try to achieve. Would it have been better for Bayless to wait a few seconds to see if Maidana could shake himself free and get off a couple punches? Or for Bayless to warn Mayweather for holding? Sure, but the way Mayweather clinched also left Bayless with little choice but to break the fighters up, time after time.
On offense, Mayweather was judicious but brilliant. He started the fight by poking a left jab into Maidana’s midsection and working his left hook, either as a check hook to discourage Maidana’s bull rushes or as a leaping, close-the-distance lead hook to stun him. Then Mayweather gradually worked in one-two combinations to Maidana’s head and his signature straight right hands, thrown both as a lead and a counter. Later in the fight, Mayweather landed a handful of gorgeous uppercuts to the midsection that appeared to hurt Maidana more than anything else Mayweather threw.
This is almost certainly the Stockholm syndrome talking, but it’s hard not to see something very close to perfection in Mayweather’s punches. Boxing’s action junkies will understandably gripe that he throws them more to score points than to knock out opponents or that he would rather win on single potshots than risk staying in the pocket to throw a four- or five-punch combination, but it’s difficult for me to witness Mayweather’s quickness and timing in the ring and not sense that I’m watching a master at work. A sequence like Mayweather bending backward out of range of Maidana’s jab, then snapping forward to land a right hand over it, occurs in a split second, yet the image stays frozen in my mind like some classic Roman sculpture: The tension and power in both men’s bodies, one fighter’s tiny misjudgment of distance and speed about to be converted into his opponent popping him on the cheek.
Mayweather’s most impressive feat Saturday night was that he seemed to finally make Maidana accept that he was beaten. Whereas many Mayweather opponents succumb to frustration or dejection once they find out that it is nearly impossible to land a clean punch on him, Maidana distinguished himself in the first fight with a seemingly indomitable will. He didn’t seem to care when he wasn’t landing much; he just seemed energized by the act of pinning Floyd against the ropes and whaling on him.
On Saturday, Mayweather all but eliminated Maidana’s chances to get rough and brawl. Maidana had moments in the rematch, most notably an overhand right that landed just after the bell rang to end Round 3. It was probably the hardest Mayweather has been hit since Shane Mosley nearly knocked him down in 2010. The effects of Maidana’s shot seemed to last into the fourth round, which was the only one when Mayweather abandoned his game plan of moving off the ropes and tying Maidana up on the inside. For two minutes it looked like the first fight, with Maidana hurling punches from every angle and Mayweather desperately bending and swerving to avoid the incoming fire.
That turned out to be Maidana’s only real chance. Once Mayweather got his legs back, he didn’t falter again. As the fight went on, he repeatedly led Maidana back toward the ropes and then slipped out of the way while Maidana swung wildly at a target that was no longer there. Occasionally, after Maidana whiffed on one of these looping power shots, he’d take a deep breath, almost a sigh, and a glimmer of what seemed like recognition would cross his face: Fuck. I’m not going to catch this guy. Mayweather took Maidana out of the fight by not allowing the Argentine challenger to feed off his own aggression.
Twice in the second half of the fight, Maidana walked to the wrong corner at the end of a round, and it didn’t appear to be because he was dazed from Mayweather’s blows. Rather, he just seemed befuddled and checked out, like he lost his way and had no clue how to get back on track. That confusion boiled over into frustration in the eighth round, when Maidana appeared to rake his teeth over Mayweather’s glove during a clinch. After Bayless halted the bout for a minute or so to investigate and calm down both fighters, the bout resumed, and so did Mayweather’s dominance.
Then, in the 12th round, after beating Maidana to the punch, stunning him with hooks, hurting him to the body, and unraveling him mentally, Mayweather extended his dominion over Maidana by running. Mayweather barely fought for the final three minutes of the bout. Instead, he circled the ring, using his body for a game of keep-away that his opponent had little hope of winning. Mayweather was criticized for giving away the final round, for declining to fight, for playing it safe and, in the eyes of many fans, betraying the sport. But I don’t think Mayweather was only trying to ensure victory with his 12th-round marathon act. It felt to me like he was also trying to deliver a psychic coup de grace on Maidana, an aggressive boxer who plainly loves combat. If Mayweather had marched to the center of the ring and somehow knocked Maidana out with one shot, I think it would have bothered Maidana less than Mayweather’s refusal to engage. This felt like Mayweather twisting the knife, making clear to his opponent: I know you love to fight, so I’m taking that away from you too.
Floyd Mayweather is like that. He’s nasty, vindictive. He wants to beat his opponents; he also wants to embarrass them. He wants them to feel beaten. He wants them to know that even if they are stronger than him, they are less than him. It’s a credit to Marcos Maidana that it took Mayweather two fights to prove it against him.
Not long after the final bell, after being released from the captivity of Mayweather’s genius, the Floyd Stockholm syndrome starts to wear off, and you remember that this era’s most awe-inspiring performer in the ring is also one of the sport’s least admirable men outside of it. That’s boxing.