So begins our marathon coverage of one of the biggest fights of 2013, Floyd Mayweather vs. Canelo Alvarez on Showtime pay-per-view Sept. 14. Now: putting Mayweather-Alvarez in context. Next: a special TQBR Radio program preview.
If you haven't heard before that boxing is dead or dying, it's probably because you haven't been paying attention for the last nearly 100 years. You could even hear it this past week from ESPN's PTI or its magazine, that the sport has one foot in the grave. Besides these pronouncements being wrong, like they always are, they're ironic, because boxing happens to be putting its best (and its most jewel-encrusted) foot forward on Sept. 14.
Saturday on Showtime pay-per-view, boxing's best fighter and its biggest star, Floyd Mayweather, steps into the ring with Saul Canelo Alvarez, arguably its most popular up-and-comer. It's a serious fight for a bevvy of reasons, which we'll explain shortly, and not nearly as asterisk-laden as Mayweather's usual fare. It is quite simply the biggest fight in the sport, and one of its most desirable. As if that weren't enough, the undercard has another of the year's most desirable fights, Lucas Matthysse-Danny Garcia, a match-up of unprecedented quality over the last half-dozen or more years for a PPV undercard. Both fights are meetings of the two top fighters in their division, best vs. best, for the true championships of the world. This is the ideal conjoining of merit and commerce. It's almost everything boxing should be, when it's doing it right — and, admittedly, it often isn't.
Naturally, then, in eye-rolling fashion, this is the moment lazy sports journalists trot out the old, familiar boxing tropes about a sport dying, about the "last gasps of oxygen" — at the moment when it's breathing so hard it's nearly hyperventilating, and in a bit of contradictory marketing where they're so eager to sell us on how dead the sport is that they have magazine covers devoted to a dying sport, because everyone knows how well dying sports move magazines. Not that they don't kick it while it's down, too, like, say, when Manny Pacquiao got knocked out last fall.
You can be assured of what they'll say afterward, no matter the result. "That was the end of that, sayonara, boxing." If Mayweather loses? "Boxing's last big star just left the stage," they'll say, never minding that Canelo Alvarez drew approximately 40,000 live American spectators to his last fight and will get the bump every fighter gets from beating the incumbent PPV king, as both Mayweather and Pacquiao did from beating Oscar De La Hoya. "There's nobody left for Mayweather to fight," they'll say, if Mayweather wins, neglecting to notice how the winner of Matthysse-Garcia will present himself as a viable opponent right underneath their noses, neglecting that Mayweather is 36 years old and will only get more vulnerable to make his dangerous opponents that much more numerous, neglecting that a few years ago Alvarez was 19 years old and nobody, present company included, saw him as anyone who could one day be a competitive match for the likes of Mayweather.
Like religious cults that keep forecasting the end of the world, only for the world to keep not ending on the due date, mainstream sports journalists will probably never learn. In the meantime, people will keep watching boxing, keep savoring its highs. This is how, and why, Saturday is bringing us one of its most dizzying.
Mayweather is the defining talent of his generation, definitely its biggest star, if not its defining fighter. Pacquiao still has beaten the better and riskier opposition, has the more impressive historical marks; but with Mayweather-Alvarez, Floyd is closing the gap. It's a gap that has long frustrated boxing fans who can, in an open-minded fashion, simultaneously admire what he's accomplished in the ring, despise him personally and wish he'd done as much as he could have had he taken on the best available opponents.
Saturday is the first time since 2002 that Mayweather has taken on the unquestioned best possible opponent he could face. Shane Mosley, in 2010, came close, but Manny Pacquiao was better by two standards, financially and merit-wise. Alvarez is at least the most dangerous opponent on paper since Mosley, maybe even since 2002 when he fought Jose Luis Castillo twice. Mosley only was able to give Mayweather a couple rounds worth of danger, in reality, and Miguel Cotto gave Mayweather a tougher overall fight, somewhat unexpectedly to most analysts. In a sport where entertainment value is often equated by journalists strictly with brawling slugfests, it's impossible to underestimate how much the Mayweather-Alvarez dynamic sells the fight. People would love to see Mayweather — who plays the villain role in every fight, and clutches his undefeated record to his chest like his childhood blanky — lose. And even seeing Mayweather challenged is loads of fun, as the Cotto fight showed. A Mayweather exhibition of greatness can entertain in its own way, or else past expected mismatches wouldn't have sold at all, but Mayweather-Alvarez is infinitely more desirable a match-up for competitive reasons than Mayweather-Robert Guerrero was.
Mayweather has made something of a habit of catching fighters at the moment when they are maximally marketable but diminished in danger, as with Mosley, De La Hoya, Cotto or Juan Manuel Marquez. The first three were on the downside of their careers. The last was moving up two weight divisions, and was no spring chicken himself. In his last three fights, Mayweather has gone after younger types, between Guerrero, Victor Ortiz and now Alvarez. If you're going to work an angle, and Mayweather always is, better to catch a fighter young and inexperienced than experienced and ineffective.
Alvarez is young and relatively inexperienced, although he just beat a fighter with a style not dissimilar to Mayweather's, Austin Trout, to become the #1 junior middleweight according to the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. He has improved from fight to fight, demonstrating improved speed and defense to go with his fearsome combination punching. He is also huge. As hard as it is for most casual fans to believe when this happens, Alvarez will gain nearly 20 pounds from the weigh-in Friday to fight night Saturday. Mayweather very well might be outweighed by an equal amount. Mayweather has struggled in his previous voyages to junior middle compared to welterweight and below, against De La Hoya and Cotto. And Alvarez is a physically strong junior middleweight by his division's standard, far stronger than Cotto and certainly fresher than De La Hoya was. Still, by virtue of his win over Cotto, Mayweather holds the #2 spot in the junior middleweight division, which means that this bout meets the high standard for filling a championship vacancy set by the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, which insists that the only way to become champion in a division is to beat the champion or to pit the two best in a weight class against each other.
This being Mayweather, there has to be an asterisk of some kind. The asterisk is the catchweight of 152 pounds. Two pounds might not seem like a lot, but when you're accustomed to getting to 154, the last two pounds are usually pretty hard already, and an extra two are going to be that much harder. When you are so physically big that you can eat a couple heavy meals and rehydrate from 154 to 170 the way Canelo did for his last fight, you're talking about a naturally larger person shrinking his body into a frame where it doesn't belong. At first, Mayweather's team tried to play a game where they pretended as though Canelo's team requested the catchweight, except for there's a difference between "willing" and "sought." Eventually, Mayweather's team acknowledged they were happy to have an advantage and took it, despite their previous stance on the impropriety of catchweights.
With reports of big financial penalities if Alvarez doesn't make the 152 pound limit, it's unlikely that he'll blow it out of spite, the way Mayweather did on the catchweight he exceeded against Marquez. It would be a kind of karmic retribution if he ignored 152, beat Mayweather and used the notoriety to become boxing's biggest star. The thing is, Mayweather would've been the favorite under any circumstances. He is simply that good. He's about a 5 to 2 betting favorite as-is, which sounds about right. All we can hope for should the favorite win is that Alvarez doesn't look dry and gaunt and fade over the course of the bout, thereby proving that the catchweight was a handicap and rendering a Mayweather win diminished.
Because for all the gripes I have about Mayweather's record of opposition post-2002, as much as it frustrates me that he didn't face Pacquiao when that fight meant more than this one ever could, he has built up a record as one of the all-time greats. He's probably not top 20 in my book, but he is on his way. One of the reasons Pacquiao is top 20, in addition to his best wins eclipsing Mayweather's, is that he became the first ever — ever — fighter to win four true, lineal championships in four different divisions. That's a feat Mayweather can equal Saturday. I have difficulty rooting for someone as obnoxious as Mayweather, someone who has been convicted of domestic violence and repeatedly accused of it. But as a boxing fan, I do want to see greatness in motion in my lifetime. A win that cannot be questioned this weekend is better evidence of it than one that can.
That is just the back of the napkin version of the competitive merits of the fight, at least by the wordy standards of this site, and we'll have far more on the ins and outs of the match-up later. Here's the back of the napkin version of Matthysse-Garcia, which also will get fuller treatment later: Matthysse and Garcia are the two indisputable best junior welterweights in the world, with that division one of the best in the whole sport. Matthysse is one of the most dynamic fighters in boxing right now, a power puncher par excellence. Garcia is an all-around talent, and mentally tough. Most people favor Matthysse in this fight, although based on resume, opinions vary on which of them is #1 at 140 and which of them is #2. (Some might dispute Mayweather's placement at #2 at junior middleweight, given his bouncing back and forth between welterweight and junior middleweight, but he is only one fight removed from the Cotto win, and Cotto had done enough to rise to the #1 spot himself prior the the Mayweather loss in a division where there were few clear candidates for the position.) It's rare enough for a division to crown a new champion on any given night; there are only five TBRB champions in the 17 divisions right now. Two more will be a healthy percentage increase, and two happening on one night is fantastic.
Boxing has the purest free market in all of sports, for better or for worse. Showtime made a big gamble on a multi-fight, multi-year, exceptionally rich deal to bring Mayweather over from HBO. It is commonly thought that the first fight in the deal, Mayweather-Guerrero, did poor enough business that it forced everyone's hand to make a fight that could do much bigger business, with the attendant risk. Enter Mayweather-Alvarez. Thanks, Showtime, for making a screwed up deal that forced everyone's hand into making a really good fight (and card)!
The predictions from Golden Boy were that this bout had a strong chance to break the PPV buy record of Mayweather-De La Hoya, 2.4 million buys. Maybe it will happen. It seems more likely that it enters fourth place (more than 1.59 million buys) and challenges for second or third (getting toward 2 million). That is, if we ever get solid numbers; Showtime never officially announced a figure for Mayweather-Guerrero, which suggests it was more like the sub-1 million figure that some boxing reporters got and less like the 1 million-plus figure Showtime unofficially estimated.
Showtime seems to be doing everything possible to help break that record. Xfiniity has a commercial running where you can get three free months of Showtime for buying Mayweather-Canelo. Considering that the card could cost as much as $75 (for those buying it in high definition), those kind of give-backs can help make it more worthwhile. So can the undercard, which probably won't affect the overall buy rate much but will make the customers who buy it happier than they often are with a big main event and crappy overall show, which could ensure a higher buy rate in the future, given how a happy customer who felt like he/she got his money worth is more likely to come back for more.
Those free three months have another effect: It feels like Showtime is doubling down on its plan to invest heavily in Mayweather upfront in hopes of boosting its overall ratings long-term. It's a risky plan, one akin to the WCW buying up all the WWE's (older) talent in the 90s at a high cost, only for the WWE to develop bigger, better, fresher talents. That said, allying themselves with Mayweather and Mayweather adviser Al Haymon and promoter Golden Boy means a stable of young fighters, too, among them Canelo, so it's not exactly parallel.
That exorbitant cost of the PPV card means the show could break the gross record for PPV dollars spent. That's one of those good/bad evidentiary measurements. That people are willing to spend more money than they ever had on a boxing match, even when adjusted for inflation, means that boxing isn't, in fact, dead or even close to it. But it also means people are spending a huge amount of money on boxing, and that means a smaller potential audience for those who can't afford it and won't hunt down illegal streams. The same goes for the live gate, which also has already broken records, and Mayweather's alleged $41.5 million guarantee, also also record-breaking.
Whether it goes beyond the records already broken depends somewhat on how much more it can get done this week. I've not heard "record-breaking PPV buy rate" with the chatter on the Internet so far, or among my friends who follow boxing casually or not at all. There's more planned, though, from print ads in major publications to ads during the day Saturday during a big college football game. All of these sound like wise moves to me. It's true that the promotion has suffered a bit from the CBS-Time Warner Cable feud, which recently ended, because the ratings for the Showtime All Access hype show haven't been seen by a significant number of people who haven't had Showtime during the blackout.
As much as I hate Mayweather boasting about all the money he has made, Saturday brings us a card where I have few reservations about paying the man. He's taking on a tough challenge, asterisk or no. He and his allies are giving us an undercard that is worth caring about, and that gives us insurance in case the main event doesn't live up to expectations. There is bloat in there, there is greed in there. But if it adds up to a win for boxing — and I think it will — by all means, Floyd "Money" Mayweather, enjoy your namesake.