So begins our marathon coverage of one of the biggest fights of 2011, Manny Pacquiao-Shane Mosley on May 7. Now: the stakes of the bout. Next: a Pacquiao-Mosley-themed Open Thread.
Indubitably, Manny Pacquiao vs. Shane Mosley this weekend is the biggest boxing event of 2011 so far. It has a strong chance of being the biggest-selling pay-per-view by the end of 2011, too. But there are only two reasons it really matters: One, it’s a Manny Pacquiao fight. These days, that’s good enough. He’s the biggest star among active boxers, without question, the only truly transcendent figure who reaches into the mainstream in any significant way. And two, it’s not airing on boxing’s most powerful entity, HBO — it’s airing on Showtime, with a boost with its parent, CBS. It’s rare for a bout of this caliber to air on the much smaller Showtime, and the fact that the deal involves CBS has prompted speculation of boxing’s long-coveted, transformative return to network television.
Mosley is something of an afterthought. He’s a 6 to 1 betting underdog, a fighter who has spent much of the past decade-plus as one of the 10 best fighters in the world, but who hasn’t been one over the last year. One year ago yesterday, Mosley scared Floyd Mayweather, Jr. in the 2nd round by nearly knocking him out, but then proceeded to disappear for the rest of the fight en route to the most lopsided loss of his career. He might have escaped that loss with his reputation intact if not for a lackluster showing in his very next fight against Sergio Mora — at best, a decent contender — that ended in a disputed draw. This 0-1-1 run from a 39-year-old fighter, in bouts where Mosley’s stamina faded badly in both bouts, is enough for many to presume Mosley well over the hill.
Beating Mosley, then — at least, this version of Mosley — does very little for Pacquiao’s already considerable legacy. At best, most observers hope Mosley is competitive for a few rounds, because if he is, this could be a real slugfest for a while; both Pacquiao and Mosley are quick, hard-hitting, offensive-minded fighters who aren’t afraid to mix it up and almost seem to prefer it. Indeed, the only real drama of the fight itself is the chance that Mosley pulls off the massive upset. It would shake up the sport something crazy, for Mosley to defeat the top pound-for-pound fighter today.
The Manny Pacquiao Show is the biggest show going these days, and it’s a pretty good show. In the ring, he always fulfills his part of the bargain: He wins, and he does it in so enthralling a way that even non-fans can watch him and go, “Oh, I like THAT.” Occasionally, his opponent takes a battering and decides to play keepaway, and those are the only times his fights are less than wonderful. He’s the only fighter to ever win four true, lineal championships in four divisions, he’s beaten good-to-great opponents in most every division from 108 pounds to 154 pounds, he’s the Fighter of the Decade for the 00s and he’s the best there is right now. Outside the ring, he’s a bit of a static interview — “I fight to make the people happy” is his rote answer to virtually every question — but his story, as a boxer/Filipino congressman/singer/all around idol, make him plenty interesting even if what comes out of his mouth isn’t.
He has, unfortunately, developed a habit of not fighting the best available opponent at any given moment. In at least one case, it is most definitely not his fault. He and his team have made all manner of attempts to compromise with Mayweather for a fight that would be the Super Bowl of boxing, but Mayweather’s side keeps moving the goalposts, and Mayweather seems far more content to trash talk from the sidelines than get into the ring at all. In early 2010, Pacquiao fought Joshua Clottey when the Mayweather fight fell through, and that felt like an acceptable thing to do — Clottey was a legit top-5 welterweight, and Pacquiao’s recent run of competition had been nigh impeccable. The Antonio Margarito fight to close the year was a bit less defensible. Yes, Margarito was his biggest phsyical opponent ever, but he’d done nothing to earn the fight coming off a beating from Mosley then one lackluster comeback win, and he’d been caught loading his gloves before the Mosley fight.
In both of those cases, Pacquiao could have done better, and he could have done better than Mosley, too, in terms of an opponent who makes the most competitive sense. Prior to Pacquiao signing this fight, Andre Berto was the higher-ranked opponent at welterweight, and was younger and fresher. One of the few things Mosley does for Pacquiao’s legacy — outside of claiming the scalp of a future Hall of Famer on the decline — is that Mosley is a black American fighter, and some of Pacquiao’s critics believe he’s avoided that kind of opponent. Beating Berto would have given him that mark on his resume, too, but without the asterisk that he was over the hill. Juan Manuel Marquez at 140 — to settle the score in a rivarly where Pacquiao went 1-0-1 — would have been better than Mosley, too, given how Marquez has maintained his standing as one of the five best fighters in the world as lightweight champion. But Pacquiao has a tendency to fight whomever his promoter, Top Rank, tells him to fight. Top Rank’s Bob Arum wanted Mosley, which we’ll get to a minute, and so that’s who Pacquiao took.
Whatever the opponent — and this is both a good thing and a bad thing about Pacquiao — he’s going to do huge business. It’s a bad thing because it means he can keep fighting less than the best opponents and still sell plenty of tickets and pay-per-view buys. (It’s not like he’s fighting downright awful opponents, either — Mosley, Margarito and Clottey each presented legitimate dangers, betting odds aside.) It’s a good thing that Pacquiao does such boffo box office because it means anytime Pacquiao fights, it’s a big deal for the sport as a whole, and as leading men go, you could hardly do much better than Pacquiao.
When Top Rank took Pacquiao-Mosley to Showtime and CBS, it sent shockwaves through the boxing business. HBO pay-per-view has always been the home of the biggest events. Showtime has been the scrappy network that does more with less, and rarely over the past few years has it even gotten involved in pay-per-view distribution. Combine the Showtime-over-HBO decision with CBS’ involvement in promoting Pacquiao-Mosley — including airing episodes of a preview series, Fight Camp 360, on CBS proper — and it looked downright revolutionary.
Since then, it has looked less radical and more incremental. Those episodes of Fight Camp 360 aired in ghetto time slots on CBS, like Saturday afternoon. Ratings for one such episode were very good, but not eye-popping. There was talk that CBS’ next move would be to air Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr.-Sebastian Zbik on the network, which would have been a huge deal since it would be an actual boxing match on network television, rather than merely a boxing documentary/marketing tool like Fight Camp 360. Instead, HBO snapped up that fight. The best version of this “incremental” take: Maybe the involvement of Showtime/CBS will expose boxing to some small number of people who usually wouldn’t see it because they don’t have subscription cable channels.
Since this Kevin Iole piece, though, expectations might again be on an upswing. “I want you guys to figure out how to help me get boxing back [on network television] on Saturday night,” the piece quotes CBS’ Les Moonves as saying to Top Rank officials (although it appears to be a second-hand quote). This Sports Business Daily piece, sent out via news release to boxing writers, further elaborates and plays to the “hopeful” side of things. It goes something like this: If Pacquiao-Mosley sells really well, and early indicators are positive, it is probably because of CBS. And if it does sell really well — and nobody’s said what the magic number is — maybe CBS takes another step forward next time out.
I honestly can see this thing swinging either way. There are so many variables. The ambivalence about the match-up, Pacquiao’s growing popularity, Mosley’s relative lack of popularity, CBS’ marketing strength compared to Showtime’s smaller operation in comparison to HBO… A former CBS executive producer quoted in the Sports Business Daily piece said it best, I believe. “I think Bob [Arum] is right in every way when he says this could be the kick-start,” the former CBS executive producer, Rick Gentile, said. “Having said that, I can see the corollary. Nothing could happen. We’ll see.”
Mosley is considered a good guy and a sportsman, but he was also embroiled in the BALCO scandal. He’s many of the things boxing fans say they want — willing to fight anyone, and once in the ring, more than willing to slug it out — but the respect he has from many hardcore fans has rarely translated into him being a big draw. And yet somehow, after years of being ducked by any number of big names, by Saturday his career will include bouts against the three biggest stars of the last decade-plus: Oscar De La Hoya, Mayweather and now Pacquiao.
Early last year, Mosley was the last man Pacquiao’s trainer Freddie Roach wanted anything to do with. He saw Mosley’s size, strength, power, speed and ability to take a punch as all wrong for his protege. It’s telling that since then, Roach’s reservations are long gone. Mosley ended up with this fight because he has grown suddenly toothless. OK, not entirely toothless — but all he’s hanging on to are a few snaggled incisors. Although he was fearsome early against Mayweather, he’s delivered 22 consecutive tepid rounds since then. And I’m one of the people who thought he beat Mora easily. He just didn’t look good doing it. He looked tired, and old. Arum said so after the Mora fight himself: Pacquiao-Mosley was not viable. But the moment Mosley freed himself from Arum’s arch-rival Golden Boy Promotions, suddenly Arum was interested in Pacquiao-Mosley. This is not the recipe for a competitive opponent.
He’s looked tired and old before, of course. Several times, in fact. And then, out of nowhere, he’ll turn in a vintage Mosley performance, like with his destruction of Margarito in 2009 coming off an inexplicably close bout against the eminently defeatable Ricardo Mayorga. He usually has an explanation. These days he’s saying that Mayweather and Mora were boxers and runners with whom he had difficulty, but that Pacquiao’s aggressive style feeds right into his. Except Mosley has sometimes had trouble with aggressive fighters, too, like, well, Mayorga.
When the most dramatic thing about a fight is it’s on a certain channel or that a big name is participating in it, it takes the unexpected for something REALLY dramatic to happen. Although you’ll find some boxing writers calling the upset and picking Mosley to win, there aren’t very many who think he stands much of a chance. We’ll spend the days ahead figuring out whether Mosley has what it takes to go from the afterthought to the one we’re writing all the story about Sunday morning. In a year where boxing has delivered upsets one week after the other, Mosley defeating Pacquiao would be the most important one of them all.