Thursday, August 11, 2011

On Floyd Mayweather's Popularity

Unquestionably one of the top-two attractions in boxing, Floyd Mayweather, Jr. generates the highest American pay-per-view numbers in the sport.  He has built an international following.  Every time he laces up the gloves, he earns tens of millions of dollars.  

However, there exists a significant historical disconnect between Mayweather's cautious or deliberate approach to boxing and his widespread acclaim.  In examining the star attractions of boxing over the last 40 years, the popularity of Mayweather stands out as all the more unique, in that, unlike most of the international stars of the sport, Mayweather boxes in a cerebral manner that doesn't necessarily lend itself to memorable fights or obvious entertainment value.
If you consider the most popular fighters of the last 40 years – Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Tommy Hearns, Marvin Hagler, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Roy Jones, Oscar de La Hoya and Manny Pacquiao, to name a few – all of them had ring identities which easily translated to their enormous out-of-the ring popularity.  

The appeal of these fighters is obvious.  Leonard, Jones and Pacquiao featured unique, athletic gifts and damaging power.  Hearns, Duran and Tyson were destroyers.  Holyfield and Hagler fought the best of their era, and if they lacked flash, their willingness to engage in wars won them over to large audiences.  De la Hoya was not as talented as the others on the list, but he took on all comers and participated in some classic battles.  Even a problem fighter like Lennox Lewis, who often fought passively, could galvanize with memorable knockouts.

Mayweather possesses none of these qualities.  Sure, he administered a beatdown of Diego Corrales and ended Ricky Hatton's night with a perfectly-placed left hook, but a normal Floyd Mayweather fight consists of him winning a decision of something like 119-109.  In the last ten years, he has fought 17 times and has only scored 7 knockdowns, with most of them over fighters well beneath his skill level, such as Henry Bruseles and Phillip N'Dou.  There have been many occasions where he seemingly could have knocked out his opponents (Shane Mosley, Juan Manuel Marquez), but he chose not to take pursue those risks.  

His ring craft is built on discipline, technique, defense and counterpunching.  Those four attributes do not often convert new people into boxing fans.  Yet, Mayweather's following has steadily risen without a signature win or even a great fight.  He pot-shotted his way to victory over Oscar de la Hoya.  He used Arturo Gatti's face as a human piƱata.  Mayweather landed the great hook against Hatton.  He survived a tough battle in close quarters against Jose Luis Castillo and knocked down a weight-drawn Diego Corrales repeatedly.  Sure, some of these were great performances, but not one of these bouts was a fight-of-the-year candidate or, to put it another way, how many of these fights would be shown on ESPN Classic?  What would a "Best of Floyd Mayweather" DVD even look like?

However, it is incontrovertible that Mayweather has crossed over to casual and general sports fans.  His fights have generated hundreds of millions of dollars of economic activity.  He has appeared in Sprint commercials and was a contestant on Dancing with the Stars.  Even with sports fans' frustration over the failure to make Mayweather-Pacquiao, a fight which would determine the best boxer in the sport, Mayweather's status continues to ascend.  

Outside of the ring, he is a polarizing figure, featuring a killer smile, acts of good deeds, but also a nasty streak.  He has been involved in several legal proceedings over the last decade, many of which have involved battery or assault.  He has also made many outlandish remarks regarding his opponents.  Mayweather apologists would like to dismiss these comments as "braggadocio" or "trash-talking," but he has insulted races, implied illegal wrongdoing and has made disparaging statements about fighters' wives and families.  

Mayweather is a fascinating figure who changed his moniker from "Pretty Boy" to "Money."  In previous generations, this form of immodesty would be anathema to a culture that prided itself on hard work and middle-class values of family and decency.  Yet, Mayweather clearly represents a modern archetype that has captivated his followers.  He typifies the athlete-as-businessman.  Mayweather has no boss.  He fights who and when he wants to fight.  Because of his refusal to have long-term promotional contracts, he likely receives the most generous apportionment of fight-related revenues of any top-tier boxer.  No promoter or network dictates to him; he sets the agenda.   

Even though the total package of Floyd Mayweather features a number of negative qualities, how he has fashioned his career contains many aspirational components.  He may say unpleasant, if not awful, things to his opponents, and yet he guarantees them the highest paydays of their respective careers.  His significant financial demands have helped to create larger platforms for the sport's exposure.

As inconceivable as it would be to imagine great technical boxers of the past like Pernell Whitaker or Mark "Too Sharp" Johnson becoming elite attractions in the sport, Floyd Mayweather has transcended this supposed limitation, having millions watch his superior displays of defense, ring generalship and expert punch placement.  If boxing or sports fans at-large have been disappointed by Mayweather's entertainment value in the ring, they certainly haven't indicated any displeasure via the marketplace; even after two prolonged absences from the ring, he is bigger than ever.

Because of Mayweather and only Mayweather, millions of boxing fans are buying pay-per-views and tickets to watch pure boxing matches, not wars or slugfests.  This dynamic is strange for boxing's powerbrokers to comprehend; they often feel insecure about their product and continually worry about the supposed decline of the sport.  Yet Mayweather has consistently delivered outstanding revenues for the boxing industry.

Mayweather's personality and out-of-the ring attributes have certainly contributed to his lofty economic perch, but, make no mistake, boxing fans know they are watching excellence.  Consumers recognize Mayweather as a special boxing talent.  Even if many watch in hopes of seeing him lose, all can acknowledge that they are seeing greatness of a certain stripe in the ring.

No, technical boxers will not become the next flavor-of-the-day for television executives and the big money interests in boxing, but they should understand that people gravitate towards transcendent athletes.  Golf's revenues exploded when Tiger Woods was decimating his competition.  Barry Bonds filled ballparks throughout his career.  Millions paid to see Michael Jordan and the Bulls crush their local teams.  In this context, Mayweather's popularity can be comprehended.  He has established a rarefied level of excellence, and the public has responded accordingly. 

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