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It was only in the final round that the two fully engaged, when De La Hoya unleashed a desperate firestorm. That round proved crucial. Two of the three judges gave it to De La Hoya. Had the third also scored it for him, the decision would have been a draw. Still, as close as it was, there was not a lot of surprise or even outrage at the decision. It just seemed it could have gone either way, depending on whether you rewarded De La Hoya's body shots and his forcing the action, or Mayweather's superior accuracy. Oddly, the person who seemed most at peace with the verdict was De La Hoya. "I don't feel like a loser," he said. "I'm satisfied."
The prefight promotion, for its part, didn't lack for effort, or even innovation. In addition to the old standbys--an 11-city publicity tour, an itinerary of enforced aggravation, considering Mayweather's fabled impishness--there were corporate tie-ins, a striking array of sponsorships and a pretty good ad campaign. Tecate, one of those sponsors, said the partnership produced some of its biggest beer sales ever for a month. Presumably it worked the other way, too.
The newest trick for this old dog was HBO's decision to create a four-part reality show that aired after The Sopranos. The half-hour program, 24/7, showed each fighter during the routine of training camp. In De La Hoya's case that included delivering a cake and a Mariachi band for his wife's birthday. In Mayweather's, it involved the careful stacking of $100 bills on his kitchen counter. The show had a WWE genius to it, editing a hero and a heel out of its month of footage, as if those roles hadn't already been established. Mayweather has long since embraced his villainy and shrugged off HBO's reinforcing it. "I did wish they had showed me taking my kids to Chuck E. Cheese," he said before the fight. But how would that have sold the fight?
The show sure turned Mayweather into a star in the reality genre; he has been offered two additional shows. If he really does retire, he can devote himself even more fully to being Floyd, though he might never again have so many $100 bills to fling at the camera. Or he could focus on repairing the fragile relationships within the Mayweather family, which were further fractured during the lead-up to the fight. Floyd Sr., who trained De La Hoya until he demanded $2 million to remain in De La Hoya's corner, was replaced by Freddie Roach in January and tried to return to his son's camp. But Floyd Jr. already had his father's younger brother Roger, who resumed coaching his nephew after serving six months in prison for assault, in his corner. The two brothers, who haven't spoken in 10 years, commingled, however uncomfortably, in the gym in the weeks before the fight, as if in service of a single purpose.
But Mayweathers are like quantum particles; the act of observation alone is enough to throw the physics out of whack. And so 24/7, picking up on Floyd Jr.'s preference for his uncle's training style, drove another wedge between father and son. Floyd Sr. was out of the camp, and the loop, before the fourth episode aired. The estrangement prompted De La Hoya to offer his former trainer four ringside seats. "This man has trained me for six years," said De La Hoya. "It's the least I could do."
The idea of De La Hoya's working the situation to his favor--good guy again!--annoyed Floyd Jr. "Four seats," sniffed Mayweather at the weigh-in. "That ain't no $2 million, is it?" Floyd Sr. munched popcorn during the fight and hugged his son afterward. Then he said that he thought De La Hoya had won.
So many story lines ought to have been provocative enough to lure a record audience for a non-heavyweight fight. It will be days before HBO can tally the pay-per-view audience and determine if it outsold De La Hoya's 1999 fight with Felix Trinidad, when 1.4 million paid for the show, or the record 1.99 million buys for Mike Tyson's second fight with Evander Holyfield, in 1997. But early signs were good, whether it was a three-hour sellout of the MGM Grand or just the all-around buzz, especially in Las Vegas. While nobody was comparing this with Sugar Ray Leonard versus Thomas Hearns from 1981--arguably the most anticipated non-heavyweight fight of all time--everybody agreed it was a genuine megafight. When was the last time 5,500 people showed up for a weigh-in, with thousands more turned away?
That's why it was so important that the fight capitalize on such an investment of ingenuity and effort, because these unique resources and talents--whether it was Mayweather's hands and choice of infamy over De La Hoya's more carefully developed career and charisma--may never be gathered in one place again. And that's why this fight had to deliver more than just a super-high level of competence, an exaggerated degree of dedication, an honest display of skill. This fight delivered those, which is all you can normally ask, but these are more desperate times for boxing. Sadly, it failed to produce that hair-raising moment, the chill up the back of your spine that guarantees you'll be back for more of this, next time, whenever or wherever that is.