Tuesday 20 February 2018

Unbeaten but flawed genius fails to win hearts and minds

Floyd Mayweather Jr. celebrates during his welterweight title fight against Manny Pacquiao, on Saturday
Floyd Mayweather Jr. celebrates during his welterweight title fight against Manny Pacquiao, on Saturday

Oliver Brown

It did not take long for the cat-calls to rain down. Floyd Mayweather had just delivered an exhibition of masterfully-economical ring craft and yet, as he raised his arms in triumph to exhort this broiling Las Vegas crowd, he looked in vain for the love he saw as his due. Admiration for the fighter did not translate to affection for the person. Such, perhaps, is always the fate of the flawed genius.

“The most tragic thing in the world,” wrote George Bernard Shaw, “is the man of genius who is not a man of honour.” That label fits Floyd Mayweather rather neatly.

While a peerlessly accurate fighter, who proved by this surgical dismantling of Manny Pacquiao that there was no boxer alive better at calculating and punishing an adversary’s weaknesses, the American was left in little doubt as to his status as the most divisive personality in his sport.

The coldness of his victory speech, in which he reserved particular thanks for his watchmakers, did not exactly burnish his image as he headed back to his Vegas ranch $180m (€161m) richer.

At the back of the merchandise store inside the MGM Grand, several boxes of clothing for the punters were marked “Not for opening”. Rumour had it that this was the latest line in Mayweather’s collection: a set of T-shirts emblazoned “48-0”. That all-important zero on his record is not being expunged any time soon.

Mayweather looked indestructible at times in this fight, springing back off the ropes in the fourth round even as he was peppered by a frenetic flurry of shots. It was to prove a watershed. Shaking his head, Mayweather shot Pacquiao a look as if to suggest that he would have to do far better to pin him down. So it transpired, as he danced through the remainder of this contest with a poise and dexterity that went largely unanswered. The raw statistics — 148 punches landed, against his opponent’s 81 — were damning from Pacquiao’s perspective.

As the superstars in their stretch limos peeled away into the Nevada night, Mayweather and Pacquiao had the look of two boxers heading in different directions.

Pacquiao would be best advised, on this evidence, to pursue the career in politics he has been juggling since he was elected as a congressman in the Philippines.

As for ‘Money’ himself? He was talking very much like a man on the cusp of retirement, hinting strongly that his next bout in September would be his last. The temptations of trying to eclipse Rocky Marciano’s record with a 50th win without defeat appeared to hold little attraction for him. “I have always wanted to do things my way,” he said.

The Mayweather way is not always the path of beauty. He boasted again that he was TBE, The Best Ever, but history is unlikely to commit many of his fights to posterity.

This dust-up in the desert did not scream out for consideration alongside the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, or even several other mega-fights that stirred but a fraction of the hoopla around this one.

And yet Mayweather deserves admiration for the dominance he displayed for long stretches of this encounter.

As the bell tolled on this emphatic points win, he succeeded in making Pacquiao look the older, slower, and — dare one say it, given there was only a one-pound weight difference — smaller man.

Despite claims by promoter Bob Arum that a shoulder injury had impeded Pacquiao’s movement, there was no disguising the great Filipino’s pomp had passed.

Mayweather, naturally, crowed to his heart’s content. He boasted of being handed a “cheque with nine figures on it, baby”. He bragged about his big-boy house, his Bugattis, his watches, and the extraordinary effect his mysterious Svengali Al Haymon has had on his finances. He gave every indication that his distinction as the richest athlete on the planet mattered much more to him than being unbeaten for his entire career.

From his vantage point, the evening had been as much a statement of greatness as the perfect business transaction: a wide points decision earned at the expense of a patently over-the-hill Pacquiao.

Mayweather even disclosed that he would relinquish his world title belts later this month in an effort to “give other fighters a chance”.

If so, he can step away happy, for this was in many ways an archetypal Mayweather performance. Counter-punching, rough-housing, crisp and clean shots: all of this was here in abundance, as he nullified the less-disciplined Pacquiao throughout.

Whether it made for enthralling entertainment is a moot point.

The electricity crackled inside the MGM Grand Garden Arena at the opening bell, as a crowd who had paid Wall Street salaries for the privilege of a ticket seemed scarcely able to believe that these two boxers had been brought together at last.

A bizarre turn by Hollywood’s Jamie Foxx, delivering a painfully tuneless rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, could not dilute the anticipation. Even Freddie Roach, Pacquiao’s trainer of 15 years, felt moved to take a selfie with his protégé during the walk-on.

But the reality did not quite measure up to the concept. Some of Mayweather’s defence, sliding away from the Pacquiao bombardment with the deftest feints, was a technician’s dream. As a spectacle for non-aficionados, the audience who had flocked so enthusiastically to this fight thanks to the remorseless hype, it was deficient.

We could marvel at the brilliance of Mayweather’s evasions, which allowed Pacquiao to connect with just 81 of 429 punches, but we had come in anticipation of a blood-and-thunder slug-fest, not a clinical act of containment.

In the audience there was, to be sure, the most exotic constellation of luminaries ever assembled outside the Oscars red carpet. Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro and Ben Affleck scattered the mandatory Hollywood stardust, while Michael Jordan, ‘Magic’ Johnson and Tom Brady — the legendary quarterback who had flown straight here from the Kentucky Derby — led the firmament of American sports stars. There were some conspicuous absentees, however, not least CNN reporter Rachel Nichols and ESPN’s Michelle Beadle, who allegedly had their fight credentials revoked for daring to refer to Mayweather’s history of domestic violence.

That dark past, which encompasses seven claims of physical assault against five different women, is central to the sense of alienation that many feel from Mayweather.

Laila Ali, daughter of Muhammad, offered an especially withering assessment. Mayweather was vocal throughout fight week in arguing he was the finest boxer of all time, greater even than Ali, but Laila, a retired and undefeated fighter who trained under the guidance of Floyd’s father and uncle, claimed that he was a “broken person”.

She told CBS: “When you have money and you have power, you don’t have somebody to pull you aside and give it to you straight. I dislike the way that he treats people, and I’m definitely not down with this beating up on women. That’s very cowardly.”

To see Mayweather imploring the high-rolling fans to adore him, beating his chest as he clambered upon the ropes and screamed “I told you” was to see a man confused and, yes, slightly wounded by the lack of recognition.

For if ever you sought a template for his signature deconstructions of lesser fighters, here it was. In triumph, his face remarkably unmarked, he looked as if he had just come through a moderately taxing sparring session.

He should have basked in glory, given that every detail of this occasion — from an 11th consecutive appearance at the MGM Grand, in his adopted hometown of Las Vegas, to the fact that his dressing room was four times the size of Pacquiao’s — had been plotted to his prescription. But still large sections of the arena booed him as if he were the villain of the piece.

Mayweather exited the stage a study in defiance. He brushed off the characterisation of this fight as one of good versus evil by saying: “Everybody makes mistakes.” True, but the mistakes in his life might explain why this crowd was less than fulsome in acclaiming his achievement.

He showed against Pacquiao that he was a brilliant pugilist, and then reminded us by his obsession with having earned $5m a minute that he was also a tiresome braggart.

“I want y’all to write you came here non-believers, and you left believers,” he taunted at his press conference.

That conversion, to judge from the lukewarm response to a fighter undefeated since he was 19 years old, could still be some way off. 

(© Daily Telegraph, London)


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