Saturday 24 February 2018

Money men crank up narratives for another steal of the century

Like most other boxing fans, Tommy Conlon left the 'fight of the century' feeling short-changed

‘Everyone involved has a new narrative now: the first fight wasn’t definitive because Manny was carrying an injury. A second confrontation is needed to correct the record once and for all. Then they will pump up the balloon with the requisite hot air until it’s the size of a zeppelin’
‘Everyone involved has a new narrative now: the first fight wasn’t definitive because Manny was carrying an injury. A second confrontation is needed to correct the record once and for all. Then they will pump up the balloon with the requisite hot air until it’s the size of a zeppelin’
'The inconvenient truth is that Floyd Mayweather is one of the most repugnant figures in all of sport'
'They will make the case that for all of Manny’s problems, it still wasn’t a bad fight'

Tommy Conlon

For the millions who watched the fight just hoping to get a decent bang for their buck, the news that Manny Pacquiao came into it carrying a bad shoulder only rubbed salt into the wound.

Feeling suckered - again - by boxing's recidivist talent for selling promises it cannot deliver on clouds of hyperbole, the fact that Pacquiao's injury was kept secret stank like hell. It was another shakedown from sport's most incorrigible hucksters.

The once-in-a-generation fight between the two best of their generation had turned into a damp squib, a stately procession for the favourite and career-long anti-entertainer, Floyd Mayweather Jr.

When all the figures are tallied, it is expected that pay-per-view sales for this world welterweight unification showdown will top $300m. Some $80m was gambled on the outcome. The live gate at the MGM Grand Garden Arena came in at $74m. Fight fans who flocked to Las Vegas shelled out millions more in flights and hotel rooms.

So naturally a few of them have decided to sue. Two locals filed a lawsuit in the district court of Las Vegas last Tuesday. They are seeking damages against Pacquiao, his promoter Bob Arum, his manager Michael Koncz, and Arum's company Top Rank Inc. They are claiming that the boxer and his associates should have revealed the injury before the fight took place.

Meanwhile, the Nevada Athletic Commission (NAC), which had jurisdiction of the fight, called in a lawyer from the state's attorney general office to investigate a possible perjury issue. Pacquiao had filled out the mandatory pre-fight medical questionnaire in which fighters are required to tick various boxes asking if they have any injuries to specific body parts, including the shoulders. The Filipino ticked the 'no' box here, as he did with the rest of the form.

But in his press conference immediately after the fight on Saturday night, Pacquiao revealed he'd injured his shoulder during a sparring session on April 4. He took anti-inflammatory medication for it in the weeks after. His team planned to administer a final pain-killing injection hours before the fight.

In keeping with official drugs protocol, they requested permission from an NAC official for the injection. NAC denied the request because he hadn't disclosed his injury on the medical form. It led to heated exchanges between NAC officials and Pacquiao's team outside his dressing room.

On Sunday morning in his hotel suite, he elaborated on the matter. His right arm, he said, only functioned at 60 per cent during the fight. "It felt like a needle was being stuck into my shoulder," he said, having been denied a needle in precisely that location the evening before.

All of which begged the question as to why the fight hadn't been postponed. Arum, the 83-year-old promoter, was bluntly asked by a reporter if he'd screwed people for $99 a pop on pay-per-view whilst sending a one-armed fighter into battle. Arum flannelled his reply, no follow-up questions were allowed.

But while the belated disclosure of Pacquiao's injury left multiple thousands feeling short-changed, it came almost as a relief to his legion of diehard supporters. At least now they had an excuse, an explanation for his underwhelming performance.

The revelation had initially been met with widespread scepticism: an injury claim is often the last refuge of the beaten fighter, a phantom ailment offered as some sort of fig leaf to preserve lost pride. It only added to the sense of disappointment, following such a meek effort, that this revered warrior was now resorting to the playbook of lame excuses.

It turned out to be true, however: last Wednesday he had surgery in Los Angeles to repair the torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder.

He said he'd re-injured it during the fourth round. And this put another nagging question to rest because the fourth had easily been his best of the fight. He'd dominated this round, breaking repeatedly through Mayweather's fabled defensive shield to land a series of damaging combinations.

The mystery to anybody watching was why he hadn't continued this assault in the fifth. But he'd re-torn the muscle during one of those attacks. "I backed off because of the pain," he revealed last Sunday morning. "It's very important to have confidence in your right and left, and when you're hurt, you're thinking about that too."

Pacquiao was expected to throw a far greater volume of punches than Mayweather, and volume was supposed to be his route to victory. In the event, he wasn't able. "You saw Manny threw punches with his left hand only," remarked Arum afterwards. "That's not Manny Pacquiao. He fought with one hand."

His trainer Freddie Roach was also deflated by the performance of his prized protégé. "I wanted Manny to throw more combinations," he said. "I thought he was a little flat-footed at times."

* * * * *

The primary post-fight narrative however had nothing to do with Pacquiao's troubles; it was all about Mayweather's mastery of his trade. The fight was billed as the ultimate challenge to his undefeated career and incomparable reputation - but he simply cruised through it. He had controlled the tempo, managed the ring, dictated terms virtually all night. Once again he refused to become embroiled in a war. Once again he deployed his jab to keep the challenger at bay while remorselessly building up points with regular snap-punches from his right hand.

His concentration too was invincible, eyes permanently locked on Pacquiao in an unblinking stare. He did not dare take those eyes off him; he had shut out the crowd; he was sealed off from the world within his own impenetrable mind.

This fierce concentration served as an early-warning system for any imminent incoming flurries. When they came he was already moving away, being taken out of range by his fluid, silken movement.

Mayweather has often likened boxing to physical chess and even his begrudgers had to concede that this was a grandmaster at work. If the sweet science is all about hitting while not getting hit, he is the modern exemplar of the age-old ideal.

His record now is 48 professional fights and 48 victories. In the build-up he boasted about reaching the age of 38 without ever having been badly hurt. After 20 years in the game he was unscathed, the skin on his face unblemished, not to mind his brain or cognitive faculties.

It is not much of an exaggeration to say that Mayweather was born to do this job. Nature bequeathed him with elite gifts, and nurture with the best tools to shape them. His father and trainer, Floyd Sr, was a top professional, good enough to go 10 rounds with Sugar Ray Leonard in 1978. His uncles Roger and Jeff were both world title-holders.

Floyd Jr was therefore reared in a boxing hothouse. He was barely walking before his father had laced gloves on his hands. By the age of seven he was partaking in organised gym work. By 14 he was winning national tournaments. He won three Golden Gloves titles and an Olympic bronze medal at the 1996 Games which would have been gold or silver were it not for rank bad judging of his semi-final bout.

In 1998, he won his first world title, at super featherweight. He subsequently won multiple belts in four more weight divisions. Mayweather has proven to be a man for all seasons and a champion for all times.

The inconvenient truth however is that he is one of the most repugnant figures in all of contemporary sport.

Boxing has a long and contemptible history of violence against women. One of the sport's most notorious hard men was Jake LaMotta - the Raging Bull of Martin Scorsese's eponymous 1980 film. After a storied career in the ring, he became among other things a professional self-publicist, personality and inveterate braggart.

In a New York restaurant during the 1960s, LaMotta was entertaining various diners with one of the yarns from his wide collection of egotistical anecdotes. At which point a famous bookmaker by the name of Bob Martin, tired of the posturing, decided to land a verbal haymaker of his own. "Jake," he asked, "which one of your wives took the best punch?"

It was well-known within boxing, media and showbusiness circles that LaMotta had a habit of beating up on wives and girlfriends. He was never legally charged.

In 2010, Mayweather was arrested for a domestic violence incident with Josie Harris, the mother of three of his children. She alleged that he kicked and punched her. He pleaded no contest to a charge of battery and was sentenced to 90 days in jail; he served two months. In September of last year, he told CNN that there were "no pictures, just hearsay and allegations".

Mayweather seems to be one of those human beings blissfully untroubled by self-awareness, self-doubt or self-criticism. He generally doesn't even simulate a modicum of shame for public consumption when asked to address this issue. In a recent documentary on ESPN that investigated his history of domestic abuse, he gave a glib reply and turned the accusation into a chance to promote the Pacquiao. "When it's all said and done," he retorted, "only God can judge. But I don't want people to miss this fight."

Then at a pep rally on the Tuesday of fight week, he brought up his relationship with Josie Harris without even being asked. Most public figures would have been too embarrassed to even broach such a sensitive subject. The context was a discussion about the financial security of his children. He planned, he said, to give each of them $50m after the fight.

He volunteered that it troubled him to see Ms Harris retain custody of the children. "It's been bothering me a lot, that, (the) three of them. I haven't been able to see (them). You know how women are sometimes."

Most sporting superstars, no matter how spoiled or sheltered from reality, have enough cop-on to keep their wealth a private matter. If they don't have sufficient common sense to do so themselves, they will have advisors insisting upon discretion. There is no point in flaunting it, and it may well just alienate the fan base and wider public.

Again, Mayweather seems devoid of any conscience in this regard. In 2007, with the millions rolling in, he publicly changed his fighting nickname from 'Pretty Boy' to 'Money'. Since then he has made a habit of flashing bricks of cash in front of the cameras. He has posted photographs online of him lying in bed surrounded by thick blocks of cash. He has posed with his private jet, his fleet of luxury cars, in the gilded rooms of his vast mansions. His brand logo is TMT - The Money Team.

All of this behaviour is indicative of a man who exists almost entirely without an inner life. And it is not uncommon for sportsmen who express themselves at such a level of athletic excellence to live on the surface, to perfect the exterior gifts at the expense of any interior development.

Perhaps in their exclusive dedication from childhood to the physical arts, the natural capacity for reflection and self-consciousness becomes stunted. But Mayweather appears to be an extreme manifestation of this imbalance. It is widely rumoured, though not confirmed, that he struggles to read and write.

The great paradox of course is that he fights like an Ivy League graduate. Despite his magnificent physical conditioning, he is an exceptionally cerebral boxer. He visibly thinks his way through a fight. He is highly strategic, technical and risk-averse. He deplores any indiscipline in his fighting regimen. He has rarely if ever deviated from this template throughout his 48 fights. His career is a monument to personal rigour and psychological self-restraint between the ropes.

Outside of the ring he has been equally strategic. In 2006, he paid Arum $750,000 to buy himself out of his contract with the promoter. He then teamed up with Al Haymon, a Harvard-educated economics graduate who avoids publicity to the point of paranoia.

Freed of his contract with Arum, and in tandem with Haymon, Mayweather has become one of the richest sportsmen in history. And he has accumulated this fabulous wealth without virtually any endorsement contracts: corporate America has shunned him almost completely. It probably hurts his ego but he is doing fine without them anyway.

* * * * *

On Saturday night he publicly vowed on television that he would have one more fight in September and then retire. At the subsequent press conference he produced a piece of paper from his pocket and brandished it in front of watching reporters. It was a cheque for $100m - the reward for his night's work. "This is what $100 million looks like," he declared with a vainglorious flourish.

But with the fight breaking all sorts of financial records, his final take-home pay is expected to range between $180m and $200m. Pacquiao is believed to have grossed about $120m.

While the Filipino was preparing for surgery early last week, Mayweather texted a boxing reporter at ESPN to say he would consider offering Pacquiao a rematch some time next year. More recently, he seemed to change his mind, accusing Pacquiao of being a sore loser and a coward.

Everyone involved has a new narrative now: the first fight wasn't definitive because Manny was carrying an injury. A second confrontation is needed to correct the record once and for all. Then they will start pumping up the balloon with the requisite hot air until it's the size of a zeppelin. They might even offer a reduced tariff on the pay-per-view slot machine, just as a softener for old times' sake.

And they will make the case that for all of Manny's problems, it still wasn't a bad fight - which indeed it wasn't.

So what could a fully fit Pac Man do against the self-styled greatest ever?

The temptation to double-dip will be overwhelming. They'll find it hard to walk away from another pay day of this magnitude.

And they know in their hearts that all those fight fans, no matter how they're feeling this week, will find it hard to walk away too when the show comes round again.

If the two amigos manage to fill their boots again, the rematch could easily be billed as the second coming, not of Manny and Floyd - but Bonnie and Clyde.

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