Thursday 23 November 2017

Tommy Conlon: Sweet science takes a back seat when it's all about the money

Blue-collar boxing fans squeezed out as fight of the century generates unprecedented figures

'The fight is a classic example of how top-end sport in America has been absorbed into the entertainment industry. The gargantuan Las Vegas entertainment machine has been in overdrive for weeks'
'The fight is a classic example of how top-end sport in America has been absorbed into the entertainment industry. The gargantuan Las Vegas entertainment machine has been in overdrive for weeks'
Mayweather and Pacquiao will meet in the ring on May 2, 2015 at the MGM Grand

Tommy Conlon

By Thursday evening the fight gloves had been taken into protective custody. Manny Pacquiao's primary and back-up pair were handed over on Wednesday, Floyd Mayweather Jr's a day later. They would be labelled and kept in a secure location under the auspices of the Nevada Athletic Commission. They would then be taken in a locked satchel to the MGM Grand Arena some time yesterday evening and handed back to the fighters before their warm-up.

When it is the fight of the century, the richest fight in history, the ultimate confrontation between the two best pound-for-pound boxers of their generation, everyone starts getting nervous, maybe even edgy, almost paranoid.

Mayweather's camp even got tetchy about the protective cup Pacquiao intended wearing under his trunks. They felt it might be too big, or come up too high, but the matter was defused without a diplomatic stand-off.

Win or lose, Mayweather's cup, in a manner of speaking, was already overflowing. Unless he had his senses badly scrambled by Pacquiao in the early hours of this morning, he will have spent a few hours today going over the numbers with his business svengali, Al Haymon.

The dollar has been a constant theme for Mayweather since he changed his nickname from 'Pretty Boy' to 'Money' seven years ago. And it dominated the conversation around this fight all last week in Las Vegas. The speculation as to who would actually win was swamped in a deluge of talk about the astonishing figures that this event was generating.

On Wednesday, Mayweather told reporters that he expected to personally gross at least $200million (€178m). The pay-per-view sales, priced between $90 and $100, for the stay-at-home boxing fan, were already on target to smash the record 2.45 million buys established when Mayweather fought Oscar De La Hoya in 2007. His 2013 fight with Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez set a record in pay-per-view sales of $150m.

Last night's show was a joint production between rival television networks HBO and Showtime. The number-crunchers were confident that this fight would create all sorts of new sales records. The split between the fighters is 60/40, so Pacquiao could well be walking away with much more than $100m too.

Mayweather is a famously strategic operator both inside and outside of the ring. Now aged 38, he has admitted that he has made more money than he will ever be able to spend, despite the private jet, the stupendous mansions, the fleet of luxury cars, the gold, the diamonds and the jewellery.

"When you get to this point," he said almost wistfully, "there's nothing you can buy anymore."

The fight is a classic example of how top-end sport in America has been absorbed into the entertainment industry. The gargantuan Las Vegas entertainment machine has been in overdrive for weeks, saturating the eyeballs of everyone in the city with blanket advertising campaigns. Images of Mayweather and Pacquiao have been omnipresent, staring down at people from giant banners and plasma screens, popping up at every turn in the vast casinos, appearing repeatedly on the news bulletins of the local television stations, and, of course, materialising on thousands of T-shirts and hats in the merchandising stores.

The message has been hammered home: this is not an exhibition of the old sweet science between two masters of their trade, but a once-in-a-lifetime event that no one in their right mind would want to miss.

The net effect is that the city is expecting more than 300,000 visitors this weekend - more or less the same number that descend on Vegas for its annual New Year's Eve extravaganza. Hotels jacked up their prices across the city. The MGM Grand itself was selling standard rooms, which typically cost $270 a night, at $1,600. In a city with hundreds of thousands of rooms, they were expecting to reach 97 per cent capacity over the weekend.

Demand for tickets into the 16,800-capacity arena left even the casinos' wealthiest clients sweating on their allocation. The highest of high-rollers, gamblers who can afford to blow a million dollars and counting over a weekend, are normally showered with complimentary tickets for the big fight nights. Likewise the Hollywood heavyweights and the major players in the music, television and sports industries. But there was a long waiting list, so not even these behemoths could be guaranteed their prime viewing seats.

Also rumoured to be jostling for ringside privileges was a diverse plethora of stars ranging from Justin Bieber to Tom Brady, Jamie Foxx, Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, Will Smith, Matt Damon, Sean 'Diddy' Combs, Ben Affleck, Mark Wahlberg and Sylvester Stallone.

Inevitably, this omnipotent alliance of corporate power, showbusiness vanity and private wealth had a crushing effect on boxing's blue-collar wage-slave fan base. All week, thousands of forlorn fight fans flocked to the various promotional events hoping to catch just a glimpse of Mayweather and Pacquiao, or even an autograph or a photo. It was simply the nearest they were going to get to the great occasion.

Some of them had moved early enough to buy the $10 tickets for Friday's weigh-in. All the proceeds from this event were earmarked for charitable causes. But demand far outstripped supply even for this fight-week ritual, which is normally held free of charge, and the black market ran riot here too. By Thursday evening, these tickets were being advertised online for prices as high as $500.

Tickets for the fight itself reached outlandish figures on the same internet sites. The cheapest seats on the market, priced originally at $1,500, were re-selling for more than $5,000 as the week wore on.

On Friday night, three tickets just one row back from ringside were being offered at $234,005.25 each. The MMA fighter Tito Ortiz was said to have spent $257,410 on two floor seats.

The last option for priced-out fans who wanted to enjoy the fight in a packed atmosphere was an assortment of bars on the famous Strip - Las Vegas Boulevard. But these bars were charging $400 and more just to allow punters through the door. The price tab came with free beer. One upscale bar/restaurant inside the MGM Grand was offering a seat in front of a television tuned to the fight, plus a steak-and-lobster dinner and wine, for $1,000. And people were literally queuing to pay up.

The abiding irony of the week was that the two men at the eye of the storm were consistently low-key and understated, opting for bland soundbites rather than the usual trash-talk and macho preening. Both of them knew that the event needed no further selling. And both of them were facing into a fight of such historic magnitude, it seemed as if its sheer scale had subdued even an incorrigible braggart like Mayweather.

His personal brand logo is TMT - The Money Team. And he still insisted on appearing at his 'arrival' rally at the MGM arena on Tuesday in a Mercedes van swathed in the TMT livery, from which he alighted onto a red carpet and proceeded to make his regal procession, accompanied by his entourage, a flutter of showgirls and, of course, a full marching band.

Outside the arena, security was so tight that one onlooker wondered if it wasn't President Obama who was arriving. Some 3,000 Mayweather fans turned up, but anyone carrying a bag of any sort was not allowed into the venue.

Earlier that day, Pacquiao and his team arrived at the Mandalay Bay, a 10-minute walk away. At least 1,000 Filipino fans were there to hang on his every word, but he uttered just a few platitudes and proceeded to say very little at the joint press conference on Wednesday and the weigh-in on Friday.

It was this latter event that finally retrieved the fight from its sweltering corporate showbusiness cocoon. When they stripped down to their underwear for the scales, they were no longer a pair of immensely rich businessmen - and, in Pacquiao's case, a politician in a suit. Now, at last, they were two magnificently conditioned gladiators, muscle and sinew popping against the taut skin on their frames.

And when they got their gloves back from security last night, taped up their hands, said their prayers, and marched into the deafening crowd, they were heading irrevocably for one of the loneliest places in all of sport.

Not all the money in the world could save them from the ordeal that was looming between the ropes.

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