A common aphorism around professional prizefighting states it is nothing more than a means to an end. Boxing as a career, rather than mere spectacle, is a route out of poverty and societal neglect open to those willing to offer up a grizzled part of themselves. In times of great hardship, so the greatest fighters are born; those willing to stare down insurmountable odds in pursuit of better, willing to risk it all for the promise of something more. But what happens when the peak has already been reached, when the summit gazed down from and the scale of what lies below laid bare? If not dollars and cents, what do those at the top have left to fight for?
The fight of the century is just days away, and for the first time in over a decade the eyes of the world are again fixed upon the dinginess of boxing. It’s a surreal time for those unaccustomed to fair weather, full of outlandish predictions, celebrities turned analysts and hurriedly pieced together lists of all time greats. The most significant match-up since Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier over 34 years ago, the riches are enormous for the winner of Mayweather vs Pacquiao. But can things be confined merely to numbers in an accountant’s ledger?
Despite the gargantuan pot of gold, likely to be in the region of $400 million, there is more at stake than mere fuel for the jets and diamonds for the entourage. Each man fights for legacy, however contrary that may run to their espoused priorities and purported motivation. While it might seem contrite, or even greedy, to look past the date of May 2nd and the fight itself, doing so can perhaps reveal a little more about what each man truly seeks.
Emmanuel Dadipran Pacquiao
To put it simply, winning cements the Filipino’s legacy as the most significant of his generation. It really is that cut and dry. Already Fighter of the Decade for the 00s, victory against the most skilled boxer of his era would give Pacquiao the best single W of anyone active in the sport. It’s been said before that Frazier’s win over Ali in their first meeting was so good, and at such a high level, that it trumps entire careers on its own. Handing Floyd his first defeat, especially if the outcome is relatively uncontested, would grant Pacquiao a similar badge of honour.
This, when added to the small matter of his 10 previous world titles across eight weight classes (four of which were lineal), would see him set amidst the uppermost eschelons on lists that measure all-time credentials. He would also return to the summit of the contemporary pound-for-pound rankings which, though it may seem arbitrary and merely a footnote in the grand scheme of things, would break the Mayweather monopoly on the top spot, a position he has held (faux-retirement notwithstanding) for well over a decade.
Conversely, in coping with a loss, Pacquiao and his legion of fans would be left with little choice but to accept their position as the silver medalist of their epoch. Phenomenal, but not quite without equal. It would mark a glittery, but nonetheless disappointing finale to an extraordinary career. One which would, in all likeliness, find its conclusion in the aftermath of defeat this weekend.
But that’s not to say he wouldn’t have plenty to celebrate after coming up short. Alongside the undying adoration of his people, Pacquiao could continue to boast of the unprecedented run through the divisions, inevitable status as a first ballot Hall of Famer, and historic position as the greatest Asian fighter of all time. He would stand in Floyd’s shadow, certainly. But history is likely to be kind to the Pac-man when future generations come to analyse his remarkable trajectory and all-action fighting style. To observe the distance he has run is perhaps the most awe-inspiring thing of all, and something upon which the result of May 2nd will have no bearing.
Floyd Joy Mayweather
It almost goes without saying, such is his personal attachment and the degree to which it is lionised by his supporters, but a win on Saturday keeps Floyd’s “0” alive. With Manny vanquished, so goes the biggest obstacle to Floyd’s retiring undefeated. Beating Pacquiao not only guarantees hundreds of millions in the bank, as well as an end to all but the most vociferous critics of his matchmaking philosophy. It also enables him to take a giant step towards eclipsing Rocky Marciano’s record of 49 wins no defeats, to recording a half century of victories while maintaining a loss column untouched.
Furthermore, the path would be cleared for him to surpass Pacquiao’s achievements across four weight classes and claim an unprecedented fifth lineal crown, via a future middleweight title challenge, assuming the undersized Miguel Cotto keeps hold of the mantle. In other words, at least in terms of the legacy he leaves behind, this fight is a cornerstone in his pursuit of history. Win, and the remaining distance is relatively smooth sailing. Lose, and things get really interesting…
So we arrive at the juiciest part of the equation: the prospect of a Mayweather loss. The intrigue may be in part sadistic, fueled by jealousy and a lingering resentment at seeing the bad guy’s arm raised time and time again, but the prospect of how Floyd will react to his shattered dreams of unblemished retirement is a truly fascinating one. The man who has built the majority of his career (and virtually all of his renown) on never tasting defeat may disintegrate as his dream dies, or he may come back stronger, set free by the obliteration of all that he was built for.
Roy Jones, a man who was no less dominant than Floyd Mayweather in his prime, also shared dreams of retiring undefeated. He too blazed a trail to the apex of pound-for-pound lists and drew lofty comparisons with the giants of the past. That is until he ran into an odd, cagey fighter named Montell Griffin and was disqualified for hitting his opponent on the floor. His dream dead, a DQ loss besmirching his record, Jones spoke of what he described as the need to “shift gears,” to achieve the exceptional in an altogether different way. First making a path towards the light heavyweight title, Jones then moved on to the heavyweight belt itself, mirroring a feat that had not been achieved by a natural middleweight for 106 years when he outpointed John Ruiz in 2003.
It remains to be seen whether Floyd would be inclined to use the disappointment of his first career loss as fuel to achieve something even more extraordinary in the sport, or whether he would sink relatively without trace, in the manner of so many fighters bereft at the loss of their aura of invincibility. Perhaps we’ll never find out, but it remains arguably the most intriguing question of all.
(Photo: Pacquiao takes a selfie with media and fans behind him during a fan rally at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center Tuesday; Ethan Miller/Getty Images)