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29 AUGUST 2014

 

De La Hoya - Mayweather In Perspective


De La Hoya - Mayweather : HoganPhotos.com
De La Hoya - Mayweather : HoganPhotos.com

By Thomas Hauser: At 5:00 PM on Wednesday, May 2nd. Floyd Mayweather Jr. was holding court at the Mayweather Boxing Club, the storefront gym in Las Vegas where he trains. In three days, “Pretty Boy” would enter the ring to face Oscar De La Hoya. The final pre-fight press conference at the MGM Grand had ended several hours earlier.

“Oscar’s lip was twitching at the staredown,” Mayweather said gleefully. “We did eleven cities [on the pre-fight publicity tour], eleven staredowns, and Oscar was never like he was today. Oscar is worried; Oscar can’t sleep nights; Oscar knows he’s got a problem. And to me, it’s just another fight. I ain’t worried about Oscar at all.”

Mayweather grew up in a quintessential dysfunctional family amidst chaos and conflict. His mother was a drug addict. His father spent 5-1/2 years in prison for cocaine-trafficking. An uncle (Roger Mayweather, who is now Floyd’s trainer) recently served a six-month prison term for domestic violence. One of Floyd’s aunts died of AIDS.

“Before people criticize me, they should walk in my shoes,” Mayweather told the handful of people gathered around him by the ring apron. My mommy on drugs; my daddy a hustler. When I was little, I lived seven deep in a one-bedroom apartment. Seeing somebody shot, seeing a gun; that was normal for me.”

“Pretty Boy” struts and swaggers through life. He lives large and speaks his mind. Boxing is his enabler. He resides in a 12,000-square-foot-home, owns a dozen cars, wears millions of dollars worth of bling, and walks around with tens of thousands of dollars in his pocket on an average day. He’s a frequent visitor at the Las Vegas sports books, often winning or losing as much as $10,000 on a single football, basketball, or baseball game. His Super Bowl wagers run as high as $100,000.

Mayweather bristles when his chaotic personal life (and particularly his relationship with his father) is referenced in the media. “Me and my dad’s personal business is our personal business,” he said when the subject arose during a late-March conference call designed to promote his May 5th bout against De La Hoya. “When you interview me, I don’t ask you what’s going on with you and your dad or you and your mom.” At the final pre-fight press conference, he cautioned, “Before you guys judge me and write bad things about me, go home and look at yourself in the mirror.”

When Floyd looks in the mirror, he sees a man who pled guilty to two counts of domestic violence in 2002 and, two years later, was found guilty of misdemeanor battery for striking two women in a Las Vegas nightclub. A felony indictment for allegedly beating the mother of one of his children was dismissed in 2005 when the woman (who had filed a criminal complaint against him) refused to cooperate with the prosecutor’s office.

The knock on Mayweather is that he shows little respect for other people. But there’s one area where Floyd is reverential. He respects boxing and is totally dedicated to his craft.

Most great fighters define themselves by the sweet science. Muhammad Ali did when he was young. Roy Jones did (and still does). So does Mayweather.

At an age when most children are learning the alphabet, Floyd was being taught to box. The sport was his refuge from the world-at-large (which says all one needs to know about the world he came from). The only positive paternal attention that he received as a child and the only stability in his life revolved around boxing.

Mayweather has gymnastic-like coordination and strength. He’s not just always in shape; he’s always in fighting shape. Great athletes have a persistent work ethic. Michael Jordan was legendary among his peers for his training regimen. The same is true of Tiger Woods. Among today’s elite fighters, only Bernard Hopkins has a training regimen that rivals Mayweather’s. But Hopkins does it because he has to. Floyd does it because he loves to. “You have to be in the ring with him to appreciate his skills and understand how good he is,” Carlos Baldomir (who Mayweather defeated in November 2006) said recently.

“Boxing is an art, and I’m an artist,” Floyd says. “I’ve been boxing my whole life. I don’t know life without boxing. I’m an honest fighter; I work hard at it. I’m a student of the game, and I study the game well. My job is to go out there and be Floyd Mayweather.  Judge me for how I do my job.”

Standing by the ring at the Mayweather Boxing Club,” Mayweather was more than willing to assess his own job performance.

“They told Ali, ‘Joe Louis was better than you.’ They told Joe Louis, ‘Jack Johnson was better than you.’ I keep hearing about Sugar Ray Leonard. All Ray Leonard heard about was Sugar Ray Robinson. Twenty years from now, there will be another great fighter, and people will tell him ‘Floyd Mayweather was better than you.’”

Then came a question.

“Floyd; suppose you got in the ring on Saturday night; and, instead of De La Hoya, you were looking at a 22-year-old 154-pound Roy Jones Jr. What happens in that fight?”

Mayweather’s eyes lit up at the thought of the challenge.

“Wow, that’s a tough one. Roy’s height would be hard for me. Same for his speed and power. Mentally, I’d have the edge, and my fundamentals are better than Roy’s. But that’s a tough tough fight.”

“Who else would give you trouble?”

“Aaron Pryor at 140 pounds would have been tough for me. I do better against him at 147. And Pernell Whitaker in his prime would have been a challenge. Pernell knew the ring. He didn’t knock many guys out, but Pernell was beautiful.”

Welcome to “The World Awaits,” also known as “Golden Boy vs. Pretty Boy” and “The Fight to Save Boxing” – an event that witnessed fighters and promoters measuring themselves against history as much as against one another.

De La Hoya vs. Mayweather was boxing’s Super Bowl for 2007 and the first mega-event for the sport since Lennox Lewis battered Mike Tyson into submission five years ago. Security at the February 20th kick-off press conference in New York was akin to a presidential luncheon, and things got bigger from there. Oscar was the primary drawing card, but Mayweather did his part to stir the promotional stew. Among the words of wisdom that Floyd uttered in the weeks leading up to the fight were:

* “Lights and fame have nothing to do with boxing skills.  I’m the master when it comes to getting in that square circle. Everyone knows that Oscar is gonna get beat. The only question is how.”

* “This guy doesn’t pose no threat to me at all. De La Hoya’s got one style; he’s straight up and down. There’s nothing special about him, but he’s never seen a style like mine. I make A-class fighters look like D-class fighters. I’m a fighter with special effects.”

* “This ain’t Rocky. This is real life. I’m going to dominate. I’m the best at talking trash, but I’m also the best at going out there and backing it up. I’m gonna ice that motherfucker.”

There were personal assaults: “Oscar is about Oscar. He’s greedy; he’s ungrateful. Oscar ain’t real, but you all keep believing the stories he’s telling you. Any dirt on me, they put it on the front page. Any dirt on Oscar, they sweep it under the rug and seal it in court.”

And there was the allegation that De La Hoya lacked heart. In a pointed reference to the Oscar’s 2004 knockout loss at the hands of Bernard Hopkins, Mayweather declared, “There’s two things we know about Oscar. We know he gets tired and we know he will lay down. If you can bang on the canvas, you can get up.”

Needless to say, De La Hoya took offense at Mayweather’s remarks. “I truly feel that he needs a humbling experience,” Oscar declared. “He really is a little brat. Ever since we went on tour and he started talking all that trash, I’ve lost respect for him. He can get up on the podium and say a few nice things and then his real side will come out.  He starts talking about I’m nothing and I haven’t fought anybody and this and that.  It’s uncalled for; it’s unnecessary. What comes out of his mouth is garbage.”

“Then do something about it on May 5th,” Mayweather countered.
Whether Oscar would be able to do that something was open to question. De La Hoya didn’t become a star without being a superb fighter. But against Mayweather, he was still seeking the magnificent victory that had eluded him against Felix Trinidad, Shane Mosley, and Bernard Hopkins.

“Mayweather’s speed is his biggest asset,” Freddie Roach (De La Hoya’s trainer) said in an April 18th conference call. “He’s very very quick and he uses his speed very well, and speed will take you a long way. We have to set things up and take advantage of his mistakes at the right time.   We’re working on it every day.”

“We know he’s fast,” De La Hoya added. “But how fast is he at 154?  That’s something that we’ll see on May 5th.  People are talking about speed, how it’s going to be a big factor.  People are going to be very surprised at how I’ll be able to match his speed.”

But size and strength shaped up as De La Hoya’s biggest edge. It had been six years since Oscar fought at a weight lower than 154 pounds, while Floyd was fighting at 135 less than four years ago. Mayweather had never faced anyone who punched as hard as De La Hoya. And while Oscar would be fighting in the division that’s right for him, Floyd was moving above his best weight.

“It doesn’t matter,” a Mayweather partisan told Freddie Roach. “Floyd has a good chin.”

“How good are his ribs?” Roach countered.

Still, the prevailing view was that, when boxing’s biggest star faces boxing’s best fighter, the best fighter wins. Mayweather’s style in the ring is stick, move, and bang. He’s technically sound, and his speed makes him special.

In the weeks leading up to the fight, no one made the case for a Mayweather victory more vehemently than Floyd himself:

* “Strength doesn’t win fights. Weight doesn’t win fights.  Ability wins fights. Just because the other guy’s got more fat cells, that doesn’t mean he’s a better fighter.”

* “Oscar keeps talking about being in the best shape of his life. Before every fight, he says the same thing. He might come out fast; there are a lot of fighters that are front-runners. But Oscar gets tired, and there’s no gas station in that ring.”

* “My biggest asset is that I’m a thinking fighter. I’m smart; I’m intelligent; I know my way around the ring much better than Oscar. All the other fighters that Oscar beat; I’m a totally different fighter.”

* “Oscar can apply pressure. Oscar can throw the big left hook. It ain’t gonna work. He’ll never hit me with the hook. He’ll never hurt me with the hook. You all write, ‘This is gonna happen; that’s gonna happen.’ Trust me; it ain’t gonna happen.”

“You can apply pressure,” Emanuel Steward observed one day before the fight. “You can be aggressive. But if you can’t catch the guy you’re fighting or if the other guy gets off first, it won’t work. Speed has always given Oscar trouble, and Oscar has lost some of his own speed. That comes with age, and it could be a problem. Floyd’s speed might make Oscar look even older than he is.”

Mayweather is thirty. De La Hoya is 34. Floyd is at his peak as a fighter. Oscar peaked some time ago. Thus, it was instructive to compare De La Hoya with another mega-star who became a part-time fighter in his later years. Sugar Ray Leonard was 34 when he was knocked down twice and beaten up by Terry Norris.

And there was one more factor at work. For most of his career, Mayweather had chaffed at being number-two at Top Rank (which, for years, promoted both fighters). “I got sick of being behind Oscar,” Floyd said recently. “If I had the right promotion behind me from the beginning, I’d be as big as Oscar.”

With that in mind, consider Lennox Lewis pursuing Mike Tyson and Antonio Tarver’s obsession with Roy Jones Jr. Resentment over being number-two can be powerful motivation for a fighter. De La Hoya-Mayweather was the fight that Floyd had wanted for his entire professional career.

Meanwhile, as a commercial venture, De La Hoya-Mayweather was moving into the stratosphere. Boxing was hungry for a big event, and Golden Boy Promotions (together with HBO) had created the most extensive marketing campaign ever for a fight.

The 12,000-seat Mandalay Bay Events Center was sold out for a closed-circuit telecast of the bout. More than sixty percent of the seats in the MGM Grand Garden Arena had a $2,000 price-tag attached to them. There were more than 800 requests for media credentials. Three hours before the 2:30 PM Friday weigh-in (which was open to the public), 2,000 fans were standing in line to get into the arena. Ultimately, more than 7,000 people watched Oscar tip the scales at 154 pounds while Floyd weighed in at 150 (giving new meaning to the term “weight-watchers”). Several thousand fans were turned away.

“I like people,” Freddie Roach said. “But there are crowds everywhere we go and it gets to be a bit much. It’s okay for a while. Then you want to go back to quiet.”

Something special was building. But there was also a fear factor. Only a handful of mega-fights have lived up to their hype once the bell rang. And it was understood that De La Hoya-Mayweather might fall short of the mark as sports drama.

Floyd isn’t interested in entertaining; he’s interested in winning. That was also true of his pound-for-pound predecessors (Roy Jones and Pernell Whitaker), just as it’s true of Bernard Hopkins and Winky Wright. Winning is a champion’s bottom line.

Thus, speaking for many in the boxing media, Matt Wells wrote, “Expectations for the success of this fight seem to be running a notch too high. Or perhaps the excessive hyping is a sign of the desperation of boxing’s backers in the face of an increasingly disinterested sport-watching public. These two won’t collide in the center of the ring the way Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo did. This will not turn into the sort of brawl that non-boxing fans typically want. Tactically, it could be interesting; but a tactical fight is not worthy of the hype being generated by this event. In a cluttered media world, boxing does not have a lot of chances to get things right.”

In other words, no one expected Hagler-Hearns. But beyond that, there was concern that De La Hoya-Mayweather might be a lousy fight. One could envision headlines reading “Golden Boy Lays An Egg” and “Gold-Plated, Not Solid Gold”.

By fight night, the odds (which opened at 2-to-1) had dropped to 8-to-5 in Mayweather’s favor. In his dressing room, Oscar refused to get on the HBO scale. Presumably, there was a ten-pound weight differential between the fighters; maybe more.

Mayweather entered the ring first, accompanied by rap artist 50 Cent, who was performing his new song, Straight to the Bank, in front of a live audience for the first time. Floyd’s trunks and robe were red, green, and white (Mexican flag colors), and he was wearing a sombrero. The pro-Oscar crowd didn’t like it. Boos as loud as any that have been heard recently in Las Vegas sounded. Then, to the roar of the adoring crowd, De La Hoya came into view. “There were sixteen thousand people rooting for Oscar and three hundred rooting for me,” Floyd later acknowledged.

“The best fight I ever fought,” Oscar once said, “was my first fight against Julio Cesar Chavez. It was like in The Matrix where you could see the bullets coming. Everything Chavez did seemed like it was in slow-motion. I knew the punches he was going to throw before he threw them. That had never happened for me before and it has never happened since.”

It certainly didn’t happen on May 5th. To beat Mayweather, De La Hoya had to fight much of the fight the way he fought the last round against Ike Quartey; not the way he fought the last round against Felix Trinidad. It wasn’t to be.

Mayweather spent most of the night circling in the center of the ring (where his speed gave him an advantage) and getting off first when it mattered. If a superior boxer goes toe-to-toe with his opponent, it evens out the odds. Floyd had no intention of doing that.

Oscar moved methodically forward. When he did it behind his jab, he was effective. When he stopped jabbing, Floyd peppered him at will. On those occasions when De La Hoya got Mayweather against the ropes, he tried to maul him and hook to the body. But while Oscar threw more body punches than in any of his previous fights, Floyd blocked most of them with arms.

Mayweather landed the sharper blows; but at 154 pounds, he lacks concussive power. Also, while he often made De La Hoya miss (Oscar landed only 21 percent of the punches he threw), Floyd didn’t make him pay as often as he should have. A smirk is not a scoring blow.

After eight rounds, the fight was even on the judges’ scorecards. Then, as has happened before, De La Hoya tired down the stretch. Mayweather won a 116-112, 115-113, 113-115 split decision. This observer gave Floyd the nod by a 115-113 margin. Oscar made the fight with his constant aggression but Mayweather won it, outlanding De La Hoya 207 to 122 (70 percent more punches landed).

Floyd did what people thought he would do. Oscar did a bit more than was expected of him. It was a good fight, not a great one.

So; what did we learn from De La Hoya–Mayweather?

First, it’s clear that there’s still a market for properly promoted match-ups between quality fighters; particularly if one of the fighters is named Oscar.

One of the things that makes the business of boxing unique in the world of sports is that a promoter can conceive of a big fight (sometimes even a historic event) and bring it to fruition in a matter of months. Field of Dreams. Build it and they will come.

HBO reported on May 9th that De La Hoya-Mayweather generated 2,150,000 pay-per-view buys and $120,000,000 in pay-per-view revenue. Those numbers constitute single-fight records and vaulted Oscar past Mike Tyson into the number-one slot in terms of lifetime buys (12,590,000) and PPV revenue ($610,600,000). De La Hoya is the Golden Boy with the golden touch.

Second, we learned that Oscar is still a very good fighter. But he has won just seven fights over the past eight years and lost three of his last five. He’s competitive in mega-fights, but doesn’t win them. Budd Schulberg once wrote, “The great legends of boxing fought the last round as if their lives depended on it.” De La Hoya falls short of that standard. And he has never beaten a great fighter in his prime.

Mayweather showed the world that he might someday be a fighter of legendary proportions, but he’s not there yet. “It was masterpiece of boxing,” Floyd chortled after the fight. “I showed you why I’m the best fighter of this era.”

But like De La Hoya, Mayweather has yet to beat a great fighter in his prime. Seven years ago, Shane Mosley beat a 27-year-old Oscar more decisively than Floyd beat the 34-year-old model. And the jury is still out on whether Mayweather will be willing to walk through fire if that’s what it takes to win.

“I don’t want to have to prove my greatness by having my eyes bleeding and getting knocked down and having to get up to win,” Floyd told Tim Smith of the New York Daily News. “That doesn’t make any sense. People that talk like that just want me to take an ’L.’”

As for Mayweather’s immediate future, Floyd says that he’s retiring from boxing, but no one believes him. A rematch with Oscar is possible. If it happens, De La Hoya will be older, not better. Mayweather-Mosley is another possibility, but the fighters’ financial demands might outstrip their marketability. Floyd against Miguel Cotto is interesting (assuming Cotto gets by Zab Judah). So is Mayweather against the winner of Antonio Margarito versus Paul Williams (although the Cotto-Judah and Margarito-Williams winners will probably face each other first). Mayweather against Ricky Hatton (if Hatton beats Jose Luis Castillo) would be a big-money fight if not a competitive one.

Meanwhile, boxing is in better shape today than it was two weeks ago. A boring fight, a crazy stoppage, or an unjust decision would have further soured mainstream America on the sport. But most people were satisfied with what they saw. And for a while at least, the sweet science was front and center in the public mind.

Naysayers proclaim (and it’s true) that boxing has become a niche sport in the United States. But boxing isn’t dying. It’s a rapidly globalizing sport. Boxing in what was once the Soviet Union isn’t at risk. Boxing in Germany isn’t at risk. Boxing in the Philippines isn’t at risk. In those places, the sport is thriving.

In a way, boxing is like live theatre. When motion pictures became popular, social commentators warned that theater would die. It didn’t. Then television swept into American homes. Surely, that would be the death-knell for live theater. But theater survived.

So will boxing.

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com



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