Floyd Mayweather will face Conor McGregor this Saturday, in what’s being billed as the biggest boxing fight ever. Three weeks later, Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez will fight Gennady Golovkin, in what should be the best pound-for-pound fight of the year. These two showdowns stand at opposite sides of the sport and yet both simultaneously symbolize boxing’s problem and attraction. The former is a spectacle; a cash grab sold on curiosity and an appeal to our most basic emotions, helped along by two fighters with an odd, loathsome charisma. The latter is among the most anticipated fights of the last several years and one in which both fighters—of whom English is their second language—have been relatively quiet, confident the value of the fight is enough to sell it. At these fights’ intersection and what they mean to boxing is Oscar De La Hoya—a former boxer and Alvarez’s current promoter—whose own career parallels boxing’s struggle between credibility and marketability.
In terms of monetary success, before Mayweather—who stands to make at least $100 million and as much as $400 million from this one fight—there was De La Hoya, whose career earnings reached $510 million. Part of De La Hoya’s success was his great appeal to casual fans, namely a large female following. But his economic success together with being sold partly as a Latin heart-throb led to questions about his greatness inside the ring. Mayweather, like De La Hoya, has also appealed to casual fans but through a different method. Rather than marketing himself on sexual appeal, a young Mayweather—who used to go by the moniker, “Pretty Boy Floyd”—understood his remarkable skill only attracted a limited audience, and thus, transitioned into “Money Mayweather.” This persona was a money-obsessed heel who embraced the hate so long as those giving it paid to see his fights, even if all they wanted was to watch him lose.
For the past decade, Mayweather and De La Hoya have developed a slow–brewing feud that has defined boxing in the 2010s. And while Mayweather has mocked his rival’s drug problem and called him jealous and a bad role model, De La Hoya has continually said two things about Mayweather. First is his insistence on having the “blueprint” to beat the undefeated fighter—a discovery made, but one he could not capitalize on, due to age and injuries, when he fought and lost a split decisionagainst Mayweather in 2007. The second is De La Hoya’s contention that Mayweather “hasn’t been good for boxing.” He bases his claim largely on Mayweather’s defensive orientated boxing style that, while admittedly flawless, is unentertaining and leaves costumers, who believed they were buying a high-intensity brawl, wanting more. A perfect example of this criticism was Mayweather’s thorough, albeit dull, domination of Manny Pacquiao—an event sold as the Fight of the Century–which resulted in lawsuits alleging fraud. But Mayweather vs. Pacquiao is nothing compared to the sham that is Saturday’s fight, making Mayweather vs. McGregor the epitome of De La Hoya’s critiques—a fight, he worries, from which boxing may never recover.
Despite Mayweather’s clear advantages, the fight’s promotion has led some fans—presumably from the MMA—to convince themselves McGregor stands a chance. He does not. It is a fantasy fueled by Mayweather claiming McGregor has several physical advantages over him including size and age. Mayweather has also insisted “this can’t be a defensive fight”—a claim that, if true, runs contrary to his entire career and negates the one thing he masterfully does. And while Mayweather, aged 40, is not skillfully the same boxer as when he defeated De La Hoya, he’s also not aged enough to influence this fight. It would take another decade before age slows down one of this generation’s best boxers long enough for a boxing novice to beat him. These points increase the validity within De La Hoya’s arguments but unfortunately for him, he lacks credibility.
Like just about every other boxing promoter, De La Hoya is prone to bullshit. If you hear him talk long enough, you hear his contradictions. He speaks, bordering on self-righteousness, as a guardian of boxing—a position he appointed for himself. Through it all, he begrudges business decisions that Mayweather made to better his situation while ignoring those he made when he was a boxer. Decisions like having a potential manager pay for his dying mother’s chemotherapy, hospital bills, and funeral—all on the promise of hiring him—before De La Hoya signed elsewhere and justifying it as “he wasn’t the right businessman for me…[and] I feel everyone involved in boxing is a crook.” Though De La Hoya may have been correct, the statement turns ironic considering what transpired.
Maybe De La Hoya’s contradictions come from living a sheltered life that revolved around boxingand as he became the sport’s “Golden Boy,” he grew accustomed to having it bend to accommodate him. Or perhaps De La Hoya sees he was part of the modern model in attracting casual boxing fans en route to record-breaking paydays, and now feels it unfair that he is a decade past reaping the full economic rewards. Hell, maybe it’s just that De La Hoya can’t get past his belief that he’d figured how to beat Mayweather, only to find out that, physically, he could no longer move fast enough or punch hard enough to take advantage of flaws he saw. Whatever it is, De La Hoya has let his dislike of Mayweather hurt his promotion of Álvarez vs. Golovkin—a fight that under just about any other circumstance should have garnered much more attention. It even feels as if there was greater anticipation for Álvarez vs. Chávez Jr.—a fight promoted as a war that proved a dud in all but economic terms.
With Álvarez vs. Golovkin, De La Hoya’s been content with believing “real” boxing fans will buy the fight. Instead of pointing out the genuine dislike between Álvarez and Golovkin, De La Hoya has sold the fight as a contest between gentlemen who share a mutual respect they’ll both abandon once inside the ring. According to De La Hoya, this strategy is part of a greater aim: “bringing boxing back to the glory days.” All the while, De La Hoya has complained that Mayweather (and UFC president, Dana White) picking a date so close to his fight—essentially undercutting some of his potential buyers—was disrespectful. He likened it to “having the Super Bowl and then three weeks later the World Series takes place.” And yet, even when promoting the fight, De La Hoya continues to address the Mayweather vs. McGregor fight, which, no matter how much of a spectacle the fight is, casts a shadow over Álvarez vs. Golovkin.
Conversely, Mayweather has sold a bullshit fight. And whether it’s on the back of making homophobic or racial remarks, or even on a sparring session that somehow justifies McGregor fighting Mayweather, the fight will sell more than Álvarez vs. Golovkin. Just as he out-boxed De La Hoya a decade ago, Mayweather has now out-promoted the Golden Boy.
Of course, none of this absolves anyone from anything. Mayweather is both a generational talent and a deplorable person. Even though McGregor is a world-class fighter–albeit not in the boxing ring–he is still a racist. And as sure as Álvarez vs. Golovkin is the legit fight, it will likely draw only a fraction of Saturday’s pay-per-view audience that tunes in for the Mayweather/McGregor fight. De La Hoya is correct to argue against Mayweather and why his fight against McGregor is nothing but a money grab, but he’s not the most trustworthy person to take at his word. Obviously, it’s a money grab, it always was. It fits into Mayweather’s—and increasingly, McGregor’s—personas to cash some massive checks. The same money that boxing needs to survive on more than its Latino audience is what it now depends on for relevancy.
One of the many problems with boxing is that, for it be successful—financially or otherwise, but mostly financial—boxers, either through themselves or by their promoters, must be sold as something more. Perhaps a symbol of hate, or hope, inspiration, an underdog, or a nation; anything, but it must be something. Or else we risk arriving at the uncomfortable realization of, “Fuck. I just paid to watch two people try to beat the shit out of each other.” At that point the sport loses the casual fan and their money, reverting to a niche following where only a small percentage appreciate its qualities.
Mayweather and McGregor have sold themselves as more than just boxers, even if what they’re selling is reprehensible; people are tuning in to watch one of them—mostly Mayweather, but in all likelihood McGregor—get humiliated. No one is paying close to $100 for 12 rounds of the subtleties of boxing. Instead, they are hoping the latest reincarnation of the Great White Hope, or Underdog, humiliates a boxer whose version of “unforgiveable blackness” revolves around openly flaunting how much money he holds. And when that doesn’t happen and instead they see another masterful Mayweather showing where he circles around McGregor while out-jabbing and easily avoiding his punches, they will feel cheated while “Money Mayweather” again posts another picture of how much money he made and builds upon his persona.
Mayweather has sold a metaphor that is a ready-made container for the paying customer’s fears, frustrations, and countless other emotions emerging from a tumultuous social climate. And when he completely dominates McGregor, those emotions will only increase. De La Hoya, on the other hand, has sold a fight to fans that were always there; a fight that means everything inside the boxing world but little outside of it. Mayweather has again beat De La Hoya. And with Mayweather again claiming he will retire following Saturday’s bout, his bullshit fight may well be the last act in a decade’s worth of irritating De La Hoya.