Oscar De La Hoya,
the most acclaimed boxer of his era, has a loving family and a budding business
empire. He needs one more victory to gild his Hall of Fame career--and wants
one more whopping payday
Jr. , the best pound-for-pound fighter on earth, has a chaotic family, an
impish sense of humor and a willingness to play the bad guy. What he craves now
is the world's recognition
IN A LAS VEGAS gym,
far from the boardrooms, Floyd Mayweather Jr. chops at a heavy bag, slowly
circling it, punch by punch. "I like [whomp!] having [whomp!] $10,000
[whomp!] in my [whomp!] pocket." His personal videographer, who has eight
years' worth of film to edit so far, revolves with him, trying to keep out of
the way of Mayweather's personal photographer, who is in similar orbit. "I
like [whomp!] having a [whomp!] cook [whomp!]. I like [whomp!] having [whomp!]
a driver." Two assigned punch counters (one is counting by
hand--"seven, eight, nine, 2,000!"--the other clicking on a small
device for backup) move with him, adding to the effect of a small but
needlessly complicated planetary system. Mayweather chops away, narrating his
lifestyle, as if his work here requires explanation. "I like [whomp!]
having [whomp!] a big house." The entourage shuffles along in cycloid
congestion, documenting and affirming, until Mayweather suddenly drops his
arms, not so much because they are tired as because he has begun to repeat
himself. Above all, it seems, he likes having (whomp!) $10,000 in his pocket.
Everyone is pleased with the drill, clapping and whistling. The man with the
clicker shows me the count: 6,261. I remember now that Mayweather had,
altogether spontaneously, set out to "crack off" 1,000 straight
punches, to the delight and astonishment of the crowd gathered near the ring.
He has (whomp!) overshot.
As he moves off, a
dozen people trailing in his gravitational wake, I marvel at such wonderful
desperation. You see this only at the highest levels of performance.
Mayweather's drive is so deep-seated that at first it's hard to see the doubt
that inspires him, and he tends to come off as heedless, irrepressible and,
above all, childish. He never seems at work, but rather at play. In fact, the
day's training is in jeopardy when somebody produces a giant jar of Twizzlers.
The camp has taken on Mayweather's attention-deficit persona and is impossible
to keep on track for very long. Everyone dives into the jar. Crazy. How much is
at stake here? How many hundreds of millions? Then again, didn't Mayweather, at
3 a.m. this very day, spring upright in bed and send out a call to gather
everybody at the gym? I imagine that gloomy phone tree. It was, however, by no
means the first time that the gang had assembled in the Nevada moonlight.
Indeed, like firefighters wired to answer alarms, they do it all the time, only
these men are chronically attuned to whim.
If Mayweather is
truly desperate--and nothing else explains his fanaticism--this is good news
back in the boardrooms. His fight with Oscar De La Hoya on Saturday night at
the MGM Grand in Vegas will probably be boxing's last gasp, surely the last
bout that can produce anything like coast-to-coast appeal or, let's say, two
million pay-per-view buys. Unless De La Hoya is fighting, which has been seldom
of late and is about to become never, the sport exists on the fringes,
particularly in the U.S. The lower weight classes are dominated by Hispanic
fighters, and their fights, dramatic as they might be, are marketed almost
exclusively in the West, Southwest and some big cities elsewhere. The
heavyweight division, which traditionally galvanized the nation, is similarly
dominated by foreign fighters, but with the added disadvantage that they're not
In short, De La
Hoya-- Mayweather just might be boxing's last megafight, the last event of its
kind, the last time a bout features two widely known athletes and is a topic of
national interest. There will be boxing, and lots of it will be quite good, but
there may never again be a time when boxing penetrates this country's
indifference and causes a viral, all-consuming hubbub.
The reasons for
boxing's decline, or at least its transition to a specialty sport, have been
outlined in these pages before. The Olympics, once a springboard to stardom, no
longer provide boxing any exposure in this country. It's been a long time,
perhaps since De La Hoya won his gold medal in Barcelona in 1992, that kids in
this country could be goaded into a gym with the promise of glory.
Globalization, which ought to be good for boxing, a traditional melting pot,
has instead turned it into a nightmare of competing ethnicities, with niche
marketing now the norm.
ON TOP of all this,
there has been the sudden and surprising emergence of mixed martial arts. The
Ultimate Fighting Championship, which has been selling out Las Vegas arenas for
several years now, is lately making big bucks with its own pay-per-view shows.
It skews much younger, imbuing Gen Xers with an appreciation of leg sweeps
instead of left hooks. Boxing's demographic is increasingly made up of people
who eat early-bird specials and wonder what e-mail is. And it will get only
worse. "It's a bit like horse racing," says Marc Ratner, longtime
executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, which oversees
boxing in the state, "and you wonder about that." (Indeed. Ratner
recently switched sides and went to work for the UFC.) Saturday night's fight
will not change this but will instead represent something of a last hurrah. The
riches this bout will produce (the $19 million gate, the potential $100 million
PPV haul) will most likely not be matched. Not on one night, anyway.
In the boardrooms
there seems to be a reluctant recognition of this. While old boxing hands argue
that the sport is merely in a lull--"Boxing has gone through ebbs and flows
in its history," says HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg, whose network,
long among the sport's biggest boosters, is essentially promoting the fight and
televising it on PPV--there is nevertheless a sense of urgency. Blessed with
two remarkable fighters, terrific subplots and a looming deadline of De La
Hoya's expected retirement, HBO (which, like SI, is owned by Time Warner) has
pulled out all the stops. And that includes foisting an hourlong PowerPoint
presentation on a cadre of bewildered boxing writers.
according to the slide show, everybody's doing a lot of stuff. Here's some of
it: As the promoter of record, De La Hoya's company, Golden Boy, leased a pair
of Gulfstream jets to ferry the fighters on a nine-day, 11-city tour. The
stopovers served to remind the cable-ready universe that the 34-year-old De La
Hoya, only sporadically active (or successful) over the last several years, had
regained his appetite, his nerve and his megasmile. Also that Mayweather, 30,
undefeated and a champion for a decade, was not so intimidated by moving up
from welterweight to challenge De La Hoya, the WBC champion, at this new weight
of 154. "Golden Girl," Mayweather called him.