Floyd Mayweather vs Manny Pacquiao: The biggest fight of all time, or maybe just the most lucrative?

The hype generated by Mayweather v Pacquiao has been extreme, but beyond the eye-watering rewards, are we really awaiting a battle that bears comparison with the sport’s epic contests?

The huge billboards dotted along Las Vegas’ neon-lit Strip declare it “the Fight of a Lifetime” and the long-awaited coupling of Floyd Mayweather Jnr and Manny Pacquiao next weekend has the potential to be an epic confrontation.

The build-up has been enormous, with interest phenomenal on both sides of the Atlantic, while the Philippines is expected to come to a standstill as the icon worshipped by most of its population of 100 million attempts to be the first to overcome an opponent who considers himself the noblest artist of them all.

But it has also been labelled “the biggest fight of all time”. Can it really justify that? Having reported on the sport for more than 50 years, I would suggest that there has not been a boxing event of this magnitude since Muhammad Ali first fought Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden in March 1971. That first Ali-Frazier bout was arguably a bigger boxing occasion in terms of global interest because it was for the world heavyweight championship and was globally witnessed on terrestrial TV rather than subscription channels. But like that legendary encounter, this is a fight that transcends boxing. It is a classic contest between arguably the most talented boxers of the past two decades, even if both have seen better days. The two were hardly spring chickens when it was first mooted in 2009 when they were still in their pugilistic prime. Now Mayweather is 38 and Pacquiao 36.

 

But at least the fight is on. And when they touch gloves at the MGM Grand in Nevada’s casino citadel next Saturday night (around 4am Sunday morning here) one thing we will know for sure: it may or may not be the biggest fight of them all, but it is certainly the most lucrative.

It is expected to generate around $400m (about £260m) in ticket sales and global TV revenue, with a purse split 60-40 in favour of Mayweather, who will earn in the region of $150m with Pacquiao guaranteed $100m. From Mayweather’s gold-flaked gumshield to Pacquiao’s shorts – specially lengthened to accommodate more sponsorship room – this is unprecedented. Tickets cost from $1,500 to around $11,000.  There can be little doubt that this is a fight that has captured the public and media imagination. Yet ironically there will be few genuine fight fans in the house, such has been the clamour for seats among  A-list celebrities, high rollers and the otherwise rich and infamous.

Why the huge interest? Well, in boxing terms it is certainly something special. The Michigan-born Mayweather, full of bling and braggadocio, is the ring’s classic master craftsman, stylishly elusive and defensive, unconquered in 47 bouts through four weight classes stretching back to 1996. In all he has held 11 titles. He has estimated career earnings of $400m. A serious gambler and father of four, he owns 98 cars.

He considers himself the most gifted boxer since Sugar Ray Leonard and better than Muhammad Ali, saying only last week: “I’ve done just as much as Ali did. He called himself the Greatest so I call myself The Best Ever. I know there will be a backlash but I couldn’t care less.”

Pacquiao is a talented musician and singer, who is adored in his homeland. Since 2010 he has a served as a congressman in his home province of Sarangani and plans to run for the country’s presidency in 2016. “Manny is an icon,” says Philippine senator Sonny Angara. “When he fights, the streets are empty. Everything here is on hold so the nation can watch him on TV. He is huge, larger than life. He is our national hero.”

Pacquiao, who stands 5ft 6in, has won world titles in six weight divisions since turning pro at 16 in 1995 while living on the streets of Manila. He has career earnings of $300m. An ardent Anglophile – his fans include his pal Prince Harry and he has named one of his five daughters Queen Elizabeth.

His downside as a fighter is that he has been beaten five times in 64 contests and has had to fight his way back after two defeats in 2012, including a devastating knockout by Mexico’s Juan Manuel Marquez.

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Floyd Mayweather faces Manny Pacquiao on 2 May

There were many reasons for the delay in getting the two into the ring together. Mainly it was because Mayweather believed the longer they waited, the more money they would make. He also suggested that some of Pacquiao’s high-energy performances may have been enhanced by illegal substances – always vehemently denied. The issue eventually went to court in 2012 and subsequently both have voluntarily undergone regular blood and urine testing. After much haggling a breakthrough came in January this year when the two fighters met at an NBA game in Miami and exchanged telephone numbers. The fight was announced a month later, though such is the complex nature of top-level boxing that deals still had to be agreed about TV rights and ring announcers.

If Pacquiao is looking for a glimmer of hope it may be in the fact that Mayweather hasn’t stopped an opponent in his last five fights. But then, neither has Pacquiao, and the fact that he knocked down his last opponent, the fragile Chris Algieri six times but could not finish him off suggests he will struggle to stagger the steel-chinned Mayweather, who has yet to take a count.

For all that, and the fact that it may not be the fight it could have been five years ago, it is still boxing’s most mouth-watering match up for a generation, a throwback to the halcyon Seventies and Eighties, recapturing a glimpse of the sport when pairings of skill and will between the ring’s supreme gladiators such as Ali, Frazier, Tyson, Foreman, Holmes, Leonard, Hearns and Duran were the norm and not a novelty.

As sweet a scientist as he is, I would dispute Mayweather really is TBE, though he may be just up there in the mix of all-time greats. Outstanding as they have been for a couple of decades it is hard to find a place for either in the post-war pantheon alongside those ring legends. Even among welterweights Mayweather would scrape into my top 10 behind the two Sugars (Robinson and Leonard), Kid Gavilan, Emile Griffith, Oscar De La Hoya, Jose Napoles and Thomas Hearns. 

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Manny Pacquiao alongside Floyd Mayweather

So the $400m dollar question. Who wins?

If this is to be a great confrontation it will be because Pacquiao makes it so. He likes a free-flowing, open fight; Mayweather prefers commanding  the centre of the ring, or laying on the ropes, clinching and counter-punching. Referee Kenny Bayless, who has officiated in several title fights for both, needs to be strong.

On paper it is still a compelling contest. In the ring it may be different. “Mayweather can put the fans to sleep the defensive way he fights,” argues one of the great relics of that golden era, Marvin Hagler. ”It could be boring, an anti-climax.”

My own instinct has always been that Mayweather will prevail. Mayweather on points, then, possibly by a split decision, which would leave plenty of scope for Superfight II in the autumn. The biggest, richest re-match of all time.

So what was really the biggest fight of them all?

The promoter: Frank Warren

Ali v Foreman

(Kinshasa, Zaire, 30 Oct 1974)

This was the biggest fight of my lifetime. Nothing can equal the Rumble in the Jungle and the atmosphere of such a unique occasion. As a rain-stormed dawn came up over Africa Ali weaved his inimitable magic and regained the title by rope-doping, psyching out then knocking out  a surly slugger they said was invincible. What a night! What a fight!

The pundit: Alan Hubbard

ALI V FRAZIER

(Manila, 20 September 1975)

I wavered over the three great Ali fights but finally settled on the Thrilla in Manila, heavyweight boxing’s greatest grudge fight. “It was the closest thing to dyin’” gasped Ali afterwards. Smokin’ Joe’s compassionate cornerman Eddie Futch told his man: “Sit down son. It’s all over. But no-one will ever forget what you did here today.”

The boxing historian: Tris Dixon

ALI V FRAZIER

(New York, 8 March 1971)

Episode one of the Ali-Frazier trilogy was the first fight actually to transcend boxing, with its social and economic overtones. As an occasion it set the benchmark for the glitz and glamour that envelops the fight game, indeed all major international sport, today.

The boxer: Anthony Joshua

FOREMAN  v LYLE

(Las Vegas, 24 January 1976)

I am too young to recall personally some of the biggest fights of all time but from what I have seen on film this was the best. Ron Lyle was an ex-convict who came late to boxing and rained absolute havoc on the heavyweight division. This fight had everything you could ever want: will, determination and fitness.  

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