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Failure to Launch
May 14, 2007
The two most compelling boxers of their time. A $19 million gate. Jack and J-Lo. Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s victory over Oscar De La Hoya had everything boxing could want--except for the thrills inside the ring that could revive this sagging sport
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May 14, 2007

Failure To Launch

The two most compelling boxers of their time. A $19 million gate. Jack and J-Lo. Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s victory over Oscar De La Hoya had everything boxing could want--except for the thrills inside the ring that could revive this sagging sport

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And so, having finally attracted a little mainstream attention again, has boxing squandered another opportunity. With all eyes upon the sport--well, more eyes than usual--it produced an event of not much drama, little excitement and no satisfying conclusion. And even for somebody who found the semispectacle satisfying, there was no possibility of another one with even this much promise. The winner immediately announced his retirement, and the loser, who doesn't fight much anyway (or win much anymore), was ambivalent about his future in the ring. � Boxing used all possible means of promotion, even inventing some new ones along the way, to create the kind of anticipation that might attract fans beyond its core audience. It banked on the best the sport could offer: a WBC super welterweight title bout between Oscar De La Hoya, the best-known and loved athlete still in a ring, and Floyd Mayweather Jr., the consensus pound-for-pound champion, last Saturday at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. This was an honestly intriguing match, artfully built up, everybody tweaking story lines to the breaking point. And what did we get?

Not a complete fizzle, with De La Hoya surprisingly competitive and Mayweather appropriately combative. The sellout crowd of 16,200, stuffed with celebrities sitting ringside ( Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio were in the first row, Helen Mirren sat behind Will Ferrell, who was next to John Cusack, who was perched behind Jim Carrey, most of them ogling J-Lo), was enthusiastic enough. Their rousing response at the fighters' ring walks, that keening howl, was reminiscent of some of the superfights of the 1980s, when the Hollywood royalty descended on these happenings to certify their importance, and the hoi polloi followed suit. But Mayweather's split decision was scant payoff for the record $19 million gate. As close as it was-- De La Hoya was one round away, on one scorecard, from getting a draw--there did not seem much appetite for more. Not even De La Hoya, who has now lost five of his last 12 fights, bothered to agitate for a rematch.

Worse even than a lack of fireworks for a Fourth of July kind of crowd was the feeling that conditions would never again be quite this right to rejuvenate a sport that is increasingly marginalized and fragmented. Boxing has become so globalized that American fans have few rooting interests anymore (especially in the all-important heavyweight division). It might be impossible ever to produce even another Mayweather, much less a De La Hoya, who both had Olympic and free TV exposure in their career infancies. The pay-per-view model that boxing now favors is fatally shortsighted; it produces unimaginable purses for the elite few but further constricts the fan base to the purist. No fighter again will have the wide recognition of these two.

Afterward, Mayweather insisted anew that he was taking his wealth and fast hands to some other platform of fame--record producing, perhaps. "I came in on top, I'm leaving on top," he said. No pugilist in recent history has left the game undefeated at the age of 30, drawing a $10 million payday in his final fight. But Mayweather, a five-time champ in five divisions, just might be contrary enough to do it.

As for the 34-year-old De La Hoya, whose charm and left hook have earned him more than $500 million in pay-per-view buys--probably more than even Mike Tyson or Evander Holyfield after Saturday's haul is finally counted--the future in the ring is even less certain. As valiant as he was in his underdog role against Mayweather, he has now lost to almost every great fighter he's faced: Felix Trinidad, Bernard Hopkins, Shane Mosley. His crossover appeal is such that he will remain an attraction long after he can honorably compete, but let's not forget that he is more businessman than fighter these days (his company, Golden Boy, promoted the fight) and, more important, that he fights only every year or two.

If the match didn't live up to expectations, it might be that those expectations were unreasonable. It wasn't the fault of the fighters, who came into the bout in sensational shape. Mayweather is always in condition. But De La Hoya, whose interests are more varied as he pursues mogul-dom, has been known to run out of gas in the late rounds. That he displayed rippling abs at the weigh-in bespoke his renewed dedication to the sport.

So there was a lot of honest effort involved. Early on, De La Hoya seemed to have a game plan for an upset, using his larger frame to bully Mayweather into the ropes and punish his body. And whenever De La Hoya used his jab, he found his mark. But he neglected the weapon as the fight wore on and afterward was at a loss to explain its failure to deploy. "My jab just didn't come out," he said.

Mayweather, meanwhile, having agreed to move up to 154 pounds to meet De La Hoya--in fact, having agreed to every condition the belt holder set, including accepting less than half the champion's $25 million purse--was able to deflect most of the punishment and, on those occasions when he halted De La Hoya in the center of the ring, used his fabled hand speed to clip him with clean rights.

Common wisdom held that De La Hoya couldn't penetrate Mayweather's buzz saw counter-punching, but the fight went back and forth, De La Hoya winning the early rounds when he unfurled his jab and set the pace, Mayweather responding with torrid counterpunching. De La Hoya may not have hurt Mayweather at any point, but his aggression was certainly bold. And his swarming of Mayweather on the ropes, which Mayweather at first permitted, may have helped him to steal a couple of rounds.

But the decidedly pro-Oscar crowd--there is hardly anything more traditional in boxing than a Cinco de Mayo event headlined by De La Hoya--just couldn't get any traction. And it wasn't because Mayweather had purloined their affections with his playful decision to wear a huge white sombrero into the ring. De La Hoya simply failed to mount a sustained attack and was too often caught up short by Mayweather's snapping fists. In the 10th round, for example, De La Hoya was slugging along when Mayweather simply popped him flush in the face with a right hand, driving him backward. So much for that.

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