By Thomas Hauser
The tagline for the fight (“The World Awaits”) is a bit pretentious. The world hasn’t paid much attention to boxing lately. The days of Louis-Schmeling II and Ali-Frazier I (when the world really awaited a prize fight) are gone. But boxing is waiting for Oscar De La Hoya versus Floyd Mayweather Jr like a drowning man who sees a log floating in his direction. The log won’t solve all of his problems but it will keep him afloat for a while.
Oscar De La Hoya is the last of boxing’s crossover stars. He won a gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and has compiled a professional record of 38 wins against 4 losses with 30 knockouts. Mayweather settled for bronze in 1996 in Atlanta, but is undefeated in 37 fights with 24 knockouts as a pro.
De La Hoya and Mayweather each won his first world title at 130 pounds; Oscar in 1994 and Floyd in 1998. Mayweather has captured belts at 130, 135, 140, and 147 pounds. Oscar has annexed belts in the same weight divisions plus 154 and 160 pounds. Some of their titles lacked credibility. For example, De La Hoya’s middleweight laurels (WBO version) were overshadowed by the fact that Bernard Hopkins held the WBC, WBA, and IBF crowns at the same time. But Oscar is a superb fighter and one of boxing’s greatest attractions ever, while Floyd is regarded in most circles as the sport’s reigning “pound-for-pound” monarch. Their May 5th match-up is likely to be the biggest event that the sweet science hosts for a while.
De La Hoya versus Mayweather will feature boxers with contrasting personalities and markedly different ring styles. When Oscar turned pro, promoter Bob Arum christened him “The Golden Boy,” a name that dates to a 1937 play about a violin-playing boxer and a 1939 film of the same title that made William Holden a star.
Despite the demands of his trade, De La Hoya works hard to cultivate a clean-cut corporate-friendly image. He wears impeccably-tailored suits, is unfailingly polite, never swears in public, and eschews bling. He’ll be paid roughly $30,000,000 for fighting Mayweather, but two other incentives are also on his mind.
First, for all his accomplishments, De La Hoya has never been acknowledged as boxing’s “pound-for-pound” king. A victory over Mayweather could earn him that honor. And second, Oscar loves the limelight, the big event. And right now, it doesn’t get any bigger than De La Hoya versus Mayweather. As Patrick Kehoe wrote recently, “These bits of stardust are what Oscar lives for.”
Mayweather, by contrast, cultivates a gangsta persona that, by some accounts, is more than just image. He goes by the nickname “Pretty Boy.” That’s a tip of the hat to Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, a Depression-era bank robber. But Mayweather takes his craft seriously and is a fervent defender of the sweet science. “Anybody can put tattoos all over his body and go out and street-fight for twelve minutes,” Floyd says of mixed martial arts. “It takes dedication and talent to be a professional boxer. It’s an art.”
Mayweather is also conscious of his place in history. “In basketball, you get a new record every year,” he observes. “In football, you get a new record every year. In every other sport, you get a new record every year. In boxing, your record stays with you forever.” And it aggravates him that, despite being undefeated and “pound-for-pound,” he has been accorded second billing to an opponent who has won only two fights (against Felix Sturm and Ricardo Mayorga) over the past four years.
“I’m a throwback fighter,” Mayweather says. “I’m always in shape. I bust my ass. I work hard. I’ve dedicated my life to boxing. You could have Bill Gates’s money, and you couldn’t buy this talent. I’ve never lost, never been down, never been hurt. Like me or not, you got to respect my fighting.”
Mayweather is enjoying the promotion for the May 5th fight. And he’s bringing a decidedly different vibe to the proceedings than Oscar is. On February 20th in New York (the first of eleven kick-off press conferences), Floyd gyrated down the red-carpeted runway at the Waldorf Astoria, wearing black pants and a multi-colored warm-up jacket. Then Oscar entered, looking very much like the successful businessman that he is. As De La Hoya approached, Mayweather took off his jacket. Now he had a different look. Black jeans and a black T-shirt. Seconds later, Floyd removed his shirt. His message was clear: “I’m here to fight.” In response, Oscar took off his jacket and lifted his shirt to show off his abs. But that meant, for the rest of the press conference, the Golden Boy sat at the dais with his shirt hanging out of his suit.
“Shit happens,” Mayweather told the assembled media. “Floyd Mayweather gives it to you raw and uncut. If you want fake shit [he pointed at Oscar], here it is. If you want real shit [pointing to himself], here it is.” When it was De La Hoya’s turn to speak, Floyd mocked him with physical gestures and repeatedly interrupted him. Oscar cut his remarks short after thirty seconds.
Then came the posed staredown, and Mayweather was in De La Hoya’s face; pushing forward chest-to-chest, touching, trash-talking. Oscar stayed calm. By his reckoning, “Things like this get my blood boiling and motivate me.” But to most observers, it seemed as though Mayweather had won the round by taking Oscar out of his game plan and having his way.
“I had to tone it down a bit to get him to take the fight,” Mayweather said afterward. “Once I got his name on that contract, it freed me.”
As for the fight itself, Mayweather has opened as a 2-to-1 betting favorite. “I’m going to stand toe-to-toe with Oscar,” Floyd says. “He has my word on that. I’ll be right there in front of him. It will be a toe-to-toe battle and, absolutely, I’ll knock him out.”
But as a general rule, one can discount (if not totally disregard) anything that a fighter says about strategy prior to a fight. No one expects Mayweather to stand toe-to-toe with De La Hoya. He simply has to outbox him.
De La Hoya has been in the ring with the likes of Pernell Whitaker, Fernando Vargas, Ike Quartey, Felix Trinidad, Shane Mosley, and Bernard Hopkins. But the results have been mixed. He has three wins and four defeats against those fighters in the seven biggest challenges of his career. He triumphed over Whitaker, Vargas, and Quartey, but lost to Trinidad, Hopkins, and Mosley (twice). One can argue that Oscar deserved the decision against Trinidad and Mosley (the second time around). But one can also argue that he lost to Whitaker and Quartey.
Mayweather is faster than any of the aforementioned fighters (including Mosley, whose quickness gave Oscar trouble). He’s smaller than De La Hoya, but here the thoughts of Emanuel Steward are instructive. “I know people are saying Oscar is the naturally bigger man,” Steward said last month. “But he’s never been a particularly physical fighter. Even at 154 pounds, Floyd Jr. is as physically strong as Oscar and maybe even better suited for any rough stuff.”
Also, De La Hoya has won only one fight since decisioning Felix Sturm almost three years ago. That was his May 6, 2006, knockout of Ricardo Mayorga. Did Oscar look good in that fight? Absolutely. But Mayorga is the perfect opponent for building illusions.
“I don’t care what big fights Oscar has been in,” Mayweather says. “I could have done the same thing to an old Camacho. I could have done the same thing to an old Whitaker. I could have done the same thing to an old Chavez. Oscar is straight up and down with no special effects. And he’s never been in with Floyd Mayweather Jr.”
“Oscar has never fought anyone like Floyd,’ adds Leonard Ellerbe (Mayweather’s friend, confidante, and assistant everything). “There isn’t anyone like Floyd. Besides, Oscar is a parttime fighter. How the hell is a parttime fighter going to be competitive with the best fighter in the world?”
However, the other side of the coin is that Mayweather isn’t invincible. He battered Diego Corrales, beat Jose Luis Castillo twice, and did nicely against Zab Judah. He would like fight fans to believe that he’s the second coming of Sugar Ray Leonard. But Floyd hasn’t had the inquisitors that Leonard had (Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran, and Marvin Hagler). It’s a reasonable assumption that De La Hoya would have beaten all of the men that Mayweather has fought. And where common opponents are concerned (Genaro Hernandez and Arturo Gatti), Oscar disposed of each man more quickly than Floyd did.
De La Hoya - Mayweather is a step up for Floyd. It’s easy to say that he’ll outspeed and outbox Oscar. But De La Hoya has experience and power. He’s tougher than a lot of people give him credit for being. Floyd’s hands might cause him trouble, as they have in the past. And Mayweather is coming up in weight. Oscar found that his power didn’t carry well to 160 pounds (he couldn’t hurt Sturm or Hopkins). He believes that Floyd will suffer from a similar fate and that this is an instance where a younger smaller faster man will be beaten by size and strength.
To neutralize Mayweather’s speed, De La Hoya will have to attack, apply pressure, and make Floyd fight. He must be in shape to do it for twelve full rounds. And he has to be willing to walk through fire, which means taking two or three punches on occasion to land one.
But there’s a story-line to De La Hoya versus Mayweather that goes beyond the actual fight. The bout has the potential to become the most lucrative event in boxing history.
Let’s start with some numbers. The previous record for a live gate was $16,860,300 for the November 13, 1999, rematch between Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield. For De La Hoya-Mayweather, the MGM Grand Garden will be configured to hold 15,799 customers. Tickets are priced at $2,000, $1,500, $1,000, $750 and $350. Most of those tickets were purchased by the MGM Grand, competing casinos, and sponsors before any public sale. Others were reserved for HBO, Golden Boy, and the Mayweather camp. On January 27th, the remaining tickets went on sale to the public and sold out within three hours. Golden Boy says that the live gate will be $19,300,000.
The all-time pay-per-view buy record for a fight is 1,990,000 for the 1997 rematch between Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson. Lewis-Tyson came close with 1,930,000 buys and grossed a record $112,000,000 in pay-per-view dollars. Oscar De La Hoya versus Felix Trinidad generated the non-heavyweight-record of 1,400,000 buys. Three other De La Hoya fights (Mosley II, Hopkins, and Vargas) also eclipsed the one-million-buy mark.
“Our goal,” says Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer, “is to break all records. This fight will be unlike any fight anyone has ever seen. The promotion of this fight, from the initial press conference to fight night will be unprecedented in its scope. We have no doubt this will be the biggest boxing event of all-time.”
Thus, in early February, the world was treated to Oscar and Floyd at the Super Bowl. HBO announced its intention to air a four-part prime-time countdown series in the weeks leading up to the fight. On February 20th, the fighters appeared at the New York and NASDAQ stock exchanges.
The New York City kick-off press conference opened with Schaefer talking, not about the competitive merits of the fight but about dollars. First, he cited the live gate. Then he moved to television. The bout will be seen in 176 countries. In addition to regular pay-per-view, it will be shown at 1,200 closed-circuit locations in the United States. A $17,000,000 marketing budget is expected to generate hundreds of millions of impressions. Tequila Cazadores is the presenting sponsor. The secondary sponsors are Tecate Beer, Rockstar Energy Drink, and Southwest Airlines. Merchandising sales are expected to top $3,000,000.
Money was also the focal point of bickering between De La Hoya and his now-former trainer, Floyd Mayweather Sr.
Floyd Sr was in prison on drug charges when Floyd Jr competed in the Olympics. He trained his son early in his pro career, but was replaced by Roger Mayweather (Floyd’s uncle), who is now in jail on domestic abuse charges. Uncle Roger is expected to be released before the fight.
Fathers coach against their sons in team sports from time to time, but boxing is different. That plus the much-publicized estrangement between Floyd Sr and Floyd Jr offered the promotion yet another marketing angle. But Mayweather Sr (who had received a reported $250,000 fee for each of Oscar’s previous eight outings) decided that he wanted $2,000,000 to train Oscar to fight his son. De La Hoya countered with an offer of $500,000 plus a $500,000 bonus if he won. That led to some unscripted media outbursts.
“Oscar and little Floyd are getting much more than they normally get, so why can’t I get mine?” Floyd Sr told TheSweetScience.com. That was followed by a statement to MaxBoxing.com: “These motherfuckers must think I’m crazy. A million dollars ain’t shit these days. I told them to give it to somebody else and have a good day.” USA Today was advised, “If Oscar doesn’t use me, it won’t be because I’m not a great trainer. What I’m asking for is nowhere near what he’s going to make. There’s too much money for me to take chits and bits.” There were also words for the Las Vegas Review-Journal: “It’s obvious that Oscar is super-tight. What comes first in this particular situation; greed or the fight?”
On January 30th, 140 members of the media listened in on a teleconference call to hear De La Hoya announce that Freddy Roach would be training him for the fight.
“Oscar did not want to be in a position where he added fuel to the fire of a father-and-son dispute.” Richard Schaefer explained to the media. Schaefer added that Floyd Sr being in the corner opposite his son would have introduced an unwanted “circus atmosphere” to the proceedings.
De La Hoya, for his part, said that the economics of Floyd Sr’s $2,000,000 demand had “no impact whatsoever” on his decision to work with Roach. Rather, he took the demand as a sign of Floyd Sr’s ambivalence with regard to training a fighter to beat his own son.
Mayweather Sr (who bills himself as “the world’s greatest trainer”) derided the choice of Roach as “a move from first class to coach” and appeared at his son’s side when the press tour reached Las Vegas. It’s unclear what role, if any, he will play with regard to Floyd Jr’s preparation for the fight.
Over the next two months, interest will rise as De La Hoya versus Mayweather draws closer. Newspapers that haven’t staffed a fight since Lewis-Tyson in 2002 will start paying attention. Casual sports fans who rarely follow boxing will become at least vaguely aware that a fight of significance is about to happen.
But a word of caution is order. As a fight, De La Hoya–Mayweather is no more important than De La Hoya-Trinidad, Lewis-Tyson, Holyfield-Tyson, Lewis-Holyfield, Trinidad-Hopkins, or a half-dozen other encounters of the past decade. It’s also unclear how good a fight it will be. Some mega-fights live up to the hype. Others don’t.
However, as an event, De La Hoya-Mayweather is exceedingly important; primarily because today’s heavyweight division is in such poor health. “This fight,” says HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg, “has the potential to break through and reconnect boxing with sports fans around the country.” Toward that end, it’s important that De La Hoya–Mayweather be seen as a platform for boxing to build on, not an end unto itself.
No one begrudges Golden Boy its high ticket prices for the fight. The market bears what the market bears. Similarly, $54.95 is a bit much for pay-per-view, but no one is required to buy the fight unless he or she wants to. If the sponsors are willing to part with millions of dollars, fine.
But a lot of writers who’ve covered Golden Boy since its inception (and are one of the reasons for the company’s success) seem to have been left to fend for themselves when it comes to securing rooms for fight week. Others are concerned that they might not be credentialed for the fight. There have been lavish promotional expenditures in some areas and some questionable cost-cutting in others. If Golden Boy’s intention is to squeeze every last dollar out of De La Hoya versus Mayweather without regard to the future, it might wind up strangling the goose that lays boxing’s golden eggs.
One important decision that Golden Boy will be called upon to make in the weeks ahead concerns the quality of the May 5th pay-per-view undercard fights. The prevailing wisdom in boxing is that only the main event matters when it comes to engendering pay-per-view buys. Of course, that might be because fight fans have grown accustomed to lousy undercards featuring boring mismatches that showcase several of the promoter’s fighters at little cost or risk.
De La Hoya versus Mayweather would be a good time to break that mold. One reason for the success that professional wrestling and UFC have had on pay-per-view is that fans have a reasonable expectation that, for their money, they’ll see entertaining undercard fights. Regardless of what happens in the main event, they receive good value for their entertainment dollars.
Unlike professional wrestling, boxing is unscripted. But that shouldn’t keep Golden Boy from putting its best foot forward. A riveting undercard would encourage fight fans to buy more pay-per-view shows in the future. And wouldn’t it be nice for Oscar De La Hoya to be able to say that his promotional company has set a new higher-quality standard for other promoters to follow.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com