Monday 19 March 2018

Mayweather and Vegas prove a perfect match

Manny Pacquiao at a press conference in Las Vegas last night
Manny Pacquiao at a press conference in Las Vegas last night

Oliver Brown

In Las Vegas, you are never in much doubt about being the victim of a crude manipulation. One of its Strip hotels, a monument to gigantism rising theatrically from the desert floor, is called the Mirage.

Further along, New York, New York engenders its own fool's paradise with a life-size replica of the Statue of Liberty. Even the one-armed bandits strewn across every casino floor, where glassy-eyed spinsters yank the levers with calloused hands, suggest by their very name the act of larceny that they are about to inflict.

The promises made by this city are flimsy and chimerical. The Venetian, the largest resort on Earth with 7,117 rooms, has even created a model of the Rialto Bridge that has about as much in common with the 16th-century Grand Canal as the nearby Hooters.

Las Vegas, in the words of Tom Wolfe's 1964 essay on the place, takes a basic bombardment of the senses and "magnifies it, foliates it, embellishes it into an institution". It is forever redrawing the very boundaries of kitsch that it helped to set. You are starting to see, perhaps, why a man like Floyd Mayweather fits right in.


His tour bus, a tasteless tank emblazoned with his slogan "T.B.E.' - The Best Ever' - was parked outside the main entrance of the MGM Grand yesterday, alongside a stretch limo.

In four days' time, this colossal 30-storey hotel, sealed on every side by tinted blue windows to heighten the Aladdin's Cave effect, will host a fight poised to gross £388m, more money than even the most minted casinos could coin in three months.

The boxing ring for Saturday night has been thrust centre stage in the lobby, complete with MGM's golden lion on the canvas. Banners for 'Mayweather Promotions' - as if we needed reminding that this occasion was taking place purely on the unbeaten champion's terms - were everywhere. Even the main shopping mall was brimful of Floyd's 'The Money Team' paraphernalia.

One would like to suppose that there was a streak of post-modern irony in Mayweather's posturing, that he was just trying to wrong-foot his detractors with all his lavish boasts, but he believes every word. He is the perfect embodiment of the Vegas custom of worshipping money for its own sake.

It feels right that an event of such exaggerated magnitude should be hosted in the desert, where the collision of neon excess and the silent wilderness beyond amplifies the disconnect from reality.

Here, the preposterous notion that any sporting spectacle can be worth over £300,000 a ticket, or that ringside seats are only attainable by also agreeing to million-dollar credit lines in the casino, is allowed to assume validity.

The fight of the century, sandwiched between a David Copperfield magic show and a Mariah Carey gig, has found its fittingly artificial home.

The one commodity that is real is the passion of Manny Pacquiao's followers. They thronged the vast concourses of the Mandalay Bay last night in their thousands, to herald his arrival in a week they trust will cement his reputation as the finest fighter of his generation.

Arc lights strobed across the stage and screams rang out like steel blades on glass as the Filipino gave a modest salute to this astonishing display of love. He had made this journey to Las Vegas in the fashion of a dissolute rock star, travelling 270 miles by coach from his Los Angeles base. But by instinct he is disinclined to indulge in the superstar shtick.

In his manner, his very cadence, Pacquiao is the starkest antithesis, a counterpoint of understatement next to his adversary's relentless braggadocio. He is a born-again Christian. So often does the Filipino invoke that even Freddie Roach, his trainer, admits that "the Bible gets in the way a bit".

But for a couple of hours yesterday, they were content to play up to the hyperbole, taking selfies together as the music boomed at this so-called 'fan rally'. Pacquiao had been scheduled to take part in a much grander ceremony with Mayweather at the MGM Grand, but promoter Bob Arum vetoed the idea on the grounds that he could "do without all the hoopla".

Such is the voracious appetite for this fight that Arum indicated Pacquiao's safety at a joint showpiece could not be guaranteed. The alternative worked: Pacquiao could glad-hand his legions of supporters, many of them had screamed themselves hoarse on Monday evening when he checked in at the Delano Hotel, undistracted by Mayweather's goading.

The two of them are such diametrically different characters that it is prudent to keep them apart unless strictly necessary - or at least until Sunday, when they will line up for their final press conference. And yet their paths to this auspicious juncture are not without parallel.

Pacquiao hauled himself from grinding penury in the southern Philippines, while Mayweather prevailed despite a vexed relationship with a violent criminal of a father, who once fended off a gun attack by holding up the baby Floyd as a human shield.

Mayweather luxuriates in his wealth and tacky opulence precisely because he could not countenance the day, growing up with six relatives in one room in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that he would ever have any. They are both fortified by a struggle against deprivation, both unlikely products of their backgrounds, both protected by loquacious side-men in the form of Roach and Mayweather Snr.

But Pacquiao has palpably secured the popular vote so far. In part because of a vast Filipino population in southern California, and in part because of a demonstrable commitment to his own people as a congressman, he is seen to exemplify what passes for decency here in the land that morality forgot.


He did not preen or flex the biceps at last night's grand unveiling. The seething crowds, who beseeched to touch him as if he were a deity made flesh, were a clear enough sign of how much he was cherished.

America's playground, Las Vegas calls itself. For it is here that so many Americans flock to break out the strictures of their workaholic lives, at liberty to interpret the 'what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas' with whatever debauchery they choose.

But this is no longer quite the same drug-fuelled fantasia mythologised by Hunter S Thompson. The illusions it presents to the world are more corporate, more cynical, as billionaire vanity projects by Steve Wynn and Donald Trump compete for attention in a cluttered cityscape.

Las Vegas has become the type of curious civilisation that Louis XIV, the Sun King, tried to forge when he broke out of Paris to establish a tribute to his own extravagance at Versailles.

In its reverence for greenbacks and easy temptations, it is quintessential Mayweather-ville. At one level, this fight is nothing less than the ultimate manifestation of Vegas itself. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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