Whether or not the fight takes place on the original March date is still up in the air as of this writing and as the day went on there were reports that the hard-line stance had softened somewhat. Even if the fight eventually gets finalized I believe boxing’s powers-that-be have already missed a prime opportunity to make Pacquiao-Maywether everything it could possibly be.
Sure, the pay-per-view numbers will be outstanding – and perhaps record-breaking. Sure, the fight will generate massive publicity from sources that normally treat boxing and boxers as athletic outcasts. We might even be treated to a fight worthy of all the hype. And yet it will be missing something, something that could be vital to the sport’s future.
The proper stage.
For weeks the battle to host Pacquiao-Mayweather between Cowboys Stadium in Dallas and the MGM Grand in Las Vegas was just as compelling as the fight itself promised to be. Each succeeding day brought offers and counter-offers that shifted the momentum from one city to the other and back again. All the while, hard-core fans – including this columnist – awaited final word with pins-and-needles anticipation because if ever there was a fight that called for something beyond the usual, this was it. After all, it isn’t every day that the two best fighters in a given era occupy the same weight class and rarer still when they agree to settle the argument in the ring, so when it does happen the situation calls for measures beyond the tired-but-true. For many, this was personified by the choice of venue.
With Christmas closing in, boxing fans hoped that the powers-that-be would grant them a holiday miracle – a superfight in a stadium setting that would have allowed tens of thousands of real fans to see the fight in person. With a capacity of 111,000, Cowboys Stadium – the largest domed stadium in the world – would have been the definitive stage for this once-in-a-generation happening. Hopes ran high for a while but in the end, it appears this most extraordinary fight will follow a rather ordinary formula by being staged in Las Vegas – again.
What a shame.
Of course, there are solid financial reasons for this choice. The casino era has been a boom for those in the boxing business because the venues pay the promoters a site fee instead of promoters having to pay a stadium rent for the same privilege. The casino can do this because they make up their investment – and more – on the backs and wallets of unlucky high rollers. On the surface, everyone wins – everyone except the most vital demographic of all.
More often than not, virtually every seat is reserved for everyone other than the people who want to be there the most – the hard-core fans. These are the people who pay the freight, whether through buying every pay-per-view telecast, paying tickets to see smaller local shows, buying various books and magazines as well as frequenting web sites such as this one. They serve as the lifeblood of the sport because they fuel the revenue streams from which everything else must flow. Yet when the biggest and best events come about they are often shut out of the process, either because a precious few seats are made available or that said tickets carry a prohibitive price tag. Because of this, they choose to stay home and enjoy the action through the magic of television.
That might not have been the case had Cowboys Stadium been chosen, and Jones went the extra mile by not charging rent but rather offering a site fee of his own that topped $25 million – a record, by the way. More than one message boarder has declared that he would crawl through broken glass – or at least drive hundreds of miles over it – to get to Jerry-Wood to see this fight, exorbitant ticket prices be damned. Real fans can sense potential history and as such they would want the right to declare to their friends that they were there the night Pacquiao destroyed Mayweather’s perfect record or the night that "Money" completed his quest to regain the pound-for-pound crown. With the hype machine expected to run at full steam, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Pacquiao-Mayweather would have established a new Cowboys Stadium attendance record.
Which brings me to my next point – even though decades have passed since its invention television remains the most powerful medium known to man. The phrase "a picture is worth a thousand words" applies to sports as much as anything else and as such television can inspire feelings and send messages beyond what is beamed onto the screen. Just imagine the power of seeing 111,000 cheering fans jammed into an ultra-modern stadium, the largest monitor in the world carrying the fight action and the ring looking like a postage stamp in comparison to the awesome spectacle surrounding it.
As a viewer, such a scene would have told me that (a) this is a monumentally important sporting event, (b) boxing can still draw huge audiences when packaged and marketed properly and (c) the sport is on a level with its more celebrated peers. Jerry-World is scheduled to host a Super Bowl, has already featured concerts by Paul McCartney, U2 and George Strait and was the site of a recent college basketball game between the Texas Longhorns and the defending national champion North Carolina Tar Heels. If Cowboys Stadium is good enough for these events, why not Pacquiao-Mayweather?
I don’t know if this was coincidence or not, but last week I reached the point in my collection where I transferred the last "one versus two" showdown between Pernell Whitaker and Julio Cesar Chavez in September 1993. While the main event’s ultimate result – a disputed draw that "Sweet Pete" should have won – turned stomachs and inspired righteous outrage, the atmosphere in which it took place couldn’t have been better.
More than 63,000 stormed into San Antonio’s Alamodome to witness the best fight boxing had to offer. It was one of the first mega-events held at the state-of-the-art venue, which opened less than four months earlier to great fanfare. Don King Productions had the good sense to realize that Whitaker-Chavez was not just a fight, but rather a spectacle that needed a venue to match it. What better vehicle to drive home that point than the shiny new Alamodome, the most recent evolution of what sports stadiums should be? By latching onto that image, Whitaker versus Chavez became even more of a "must-see" event. The people responded by buying tickets in droves and they did so because they knew they would get the chance to physically be there to see boxing history unfold. In other words, this was a "people’s fight" and by choosing the Alamodome it guaranteed that those who wanted to see it saw it.
The panoramic shots of the crowd during the pay-per-view broadcast delivered an immensely important physical and psychological message. Not only did this mass of humanity radiate the gravity of the event in a sporting and financial sense, it also showed the TV audience that boxing was still a sport capable of attracting huge crowds and drawing mainstream media attention. Aesthetics is just as important as athletics when staging an event and those who put together Whitaker-Chavez did everything they could to put their best foot forward.
As a boxing historian, I’ve often marveled at the giant crowds that stampeded into various outdoor stadiums. I saw pictures of the 120,767 that saw the first fight between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney at Philadelphia’s Sesquicentennial Stadium, the 104,943 that witnessed the rematch at Chicago Stadium and the 88,150 that saw Joe Louis destroy Max Baer at Yankee Stadium. Championship fights regularly drew more than 50,000 in the Golden Era and, when done right, they can still amass gargantuan figures. For example, Luisito Espinoza versus Cesar Soto in 1996 drew an estimated 300,000 people to Luneta Park in the Philippines while 136,274 poured into Azteca Stadium in Mexico City to see Julio Cesar Chavez destroy Greg Haugen in five rounds. Sure, most of the tickets carried very low prices and some sneaked in without having to pay, but the point is that boxing can still do the job despite the sport’s marginalization by mainstream media outlets and free over-the-air network executives.
But these outlets aren’t the only culprits. Many times the short sightedness of maximum profit motive overshadows the big picture. A fight such as Pacquiao-Mayweather has the power to create new fans, fans that are currently drawn to mixed-martial arts because of its affordability and availability on various television platforms, including free over-the-air television and basic cable. While it would be wholly unrealistic to put Pacquiao-Mayweather on free prime-time TV – although it would achieve monster ratings – the organizers could have placed this bout in a venue that would have housed thousands upon thousands of potential new fans, fans that would ensure boxing’s viability for another sporting generation. By putting it at the MGM Grand and following the same restrictive formula, the money will be overflowing but it’ll be just another big fight night instead of the transformative event it could have been.
More than one boxing fan from previous generations was drawn to the sport by parents who took them to live fight cards. That’s how HBO’s Larry Merchant and Harold Lederman were introduced to the sport and that early exposure was vital to their lifelong passion for "The Sweet Science." Perhaps this could have happened for Pacquiao-Mayweather at Cowboys Stadium, but not with the strictures that come with boxing cards held in Sin City.
Make no mistake, as a boxing fan I am thrilled and thankful that this fight is so close to being made at all, and although this week’s developments have stoked plenty of fears, I suspect this is just a bunch of peacock strutting. I believe the issues eventually will be settled to everyone’s satisfaction because there is simply too much money to be made for everyone concerned. On fight night – whenever that is – I will, God willing, be ready to enjoy the experience from the comfort of the Home Office. As pumped-up as I will surely be, there will still be a part that can’t help but wonder how this fight would have looked in front of a larger live audience occupying an appropriately grander stage.
To paraphrase Sugar Ray Leonard to Marvelous Marvin Hagler during his first retirement announcement – "unfortunately, that will never happen."
The Mail Pouch Returns
After an absence of several weeks – because mail flow is rather slow – the Mail Pouch makes its return. This letter is in reference to the "Reality Check" column that was posted this past Tuesday.
Excellent article (as usual).
Might I also refer to you the cut glove incident in the first Ali-Cooper fight (which, according to a BBC analysis many years later, added on only a few seconds), Peter-Toney I (which I scored for Peter comfortably and so was astonished at the controversy). I’d also be interested in whether you think Nigel Benn should have been counted out in the first round of the fateful Gerald McClellan fight.
You are correct about Clay-Cooper I. For those of you who may be too young to know to what Stephen is referring, Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) was floored by Cooper’s famed left hook in the closing moments of round four. The heavily pro-Cooper throng was near ecstasy as Clay walked rockily to his corner. According to the myth, trainer Angelo Dundee prompted a delay lasting several minutes by purposefully embellishing a small tear in the glove with his finger, allowing his fighter ample time to regain his equilibrium and stop Cooper on cuts in the following round. The reality is somewhat different: Yes, Dundee did worsen the tear but following a review of the videotape the between-rounds period lasted just seven seconds longer than normal. Yes, it was a slightly lengthier break, and an immaculately conditioned fighter could have benefited marginally from it, but it wasn’t the high injustice it was made out to be.
I don’t remember how I scored the first Toney-Peter fight, but I did run the numbers in the wake of the controversy. They were illuminating to say the least – Toney actually out-landed Peter 239-175 despite throwing 241 fewer punches (560 to 801) while out-jabbing "The Nigerian Nightmare" 129-64 and landing 43 percent of his power shots to Peter’s 26 percent in losing by a slim 111-110 in actual connects. Toney fights are always tough to score because "Lights Out" takes plenty of "Time Outs," allowing his opponents to out-hustle him round after round. I thought he lost the Tiberi fight and the McCallum rematch handily and the punch-stats bore that out as well, But Toney has a way of catching the judges’ eyes with his solid counterpunches and that has allowed him to grab just enough rounds to get by. He must have been a tightrope walker in a previous life.
Finally, a fighter who gets knocked out of the ring has 20 seconds – not the usual 10 – to re-enter without assistance. Benn scrambled back into the ring at referee Alfred Asaro’s count of nine, a smart move just in case Alfaro didn’t know the rarely applied rule. So not only did Benn beat the 20-count rule, he did one better by beating the normal 10-count.