Leading With The Chin: Finally…

Better late than never.

Tomorrow night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather will face off in what is expected to be the most lucrative boxing match in the history of the sport. An event five years in the making, this fight pits the two biggest attractions in the sport, who happen to be, in the opinion of most people, the two best boxers as well. While each man is at least a shade past their best days, it’s still by far the most interesting and competitive match up for both men. And each is expected to earn a nine-figure payday for their labors.

It could have been worse.

The fight is so big there are more preview programs on various cable networks than any gainfully employed person has the time to watch. As someone who has spent far too much time thinking about this fight from 2010 until giving up on it ever happening a little over a year ago, I can’t imagine there is anything on those programs that will enhance my experience as a spectator on Saturday. But those shows aren’t geared toward people who follow the sport closely, they’re manufactured to educate casual fans and drum up pay-per-view buys, which are estimated to come in at around 3 million, which would shatter all PPV records.

Money Makes The World Go ‘Round

In 2010, back when this fight was first proposed and then negotiated, it seemed like a no-brainer. Just like now, both fighters were the two biggest attractions in the sport, and they were also neck-and-neck atop everyone’s mythical “Pound For Pound” list. They routinely did huge PPV numbers, and were at or very near their athletic primes. Negotiations fell apart primarily over disputes about drug testing time tables and protocols, and both guys went their own ways. Between then and now Mayweather fought a lower caliber of opponent in 7 fights, not surprisingly remaining undefeated, while Pacquiao engaged in 9 fights, two pair against top 5 “Pound For Pound” fighters Juan Manuel Marquez and Tim Bradley. Pacquiao went 7-2 in those 9 battles, “losing” a bogus split decision in the first Bradley fight, and getting knocked out cold for several minutes in the 6th round of his thrilling fight with Marquez.

The century is young, but there you go.

Over the course of those years, it seemed inevitable that Mayweather and Pacquiao would eventually lace up the gloves and meet in the ring in the fight everyone wanted to see, simply because there was too much money to be made. Even with the ugly promotional/network “cold war” that raged early in this decade and continues to this day, boxing history is replete with examples of business interests who plainly hated each other putting aside their personal beefs for the sake of their own self-interest.

These guys hated each other as much as any two people in history, but when it mattered most, they put aside their differences and made fights happen.

So for four years heated debate continued on the internet about who would win the fight, how it would happen, who would “win” the negotiations; all of that and so much more crap was debated by fans in ways that would shame sentient beings to relive.

This appeared to be the final nail in the coffin of the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight.

Sometime in early 2014, many hardcore boxing fans seemed to give up on the prospect of this fight ever happening. I was among them. Pacquiao’s scary KO loss to Marquez in December 2012 made people wonder if Pacquiao would ever fight again, and if he did, would he be the same guy? That, combined with all the idiotic and convoluted shifts in the boxing business, made it seem impossible to imagine the two sides ever coming to terms and making the fight happen. Pacquiao’s PPV sales decreased sharply, and his promoter, Bob Arum, began having him fight in Macao, China, where the site fee paid by the casino freed him from having to sell a lot of PPVs to make a tidy profit. It appeared Pacquiao was being cashed out by Arum, while Mayweather, bereft of compelling opponents, was reduced to conducting fan polls on his website about who he should fight next, with the only two choices being the crude and limited Marcos Maidana, or the chinny Amir Khan.

It almost always comes with great responsibility.

A confluence of events propelled both sides toward each other, as Mayweather’s two fights against Maidana last year (the first one was unexpectedly very close, the second one was not) did numbers we can only assume were insufficient in the eyes of CBS/Showtime executives to justify the enormous amounts of money Mayweather was guaranteed. We don’t know what the PPV numbers were, because Showtime decided at that time it was in their best interests to enact a new policy that didn’t include making those numbers public. What we do know is Mayweather was guaranteed $32 million per fight, and people familiar with the PPV business commonly believed one million buys were necessary to turn a profit on those events. Showtime had signed Mayweather in early 2013, and no doubt were banking on getting the Pacquiao fight at some point, so with no opponents left who possessed the right blend of ring aptitude and marketability, the man many said Floyd was ducking loomed larger than ever.

This is what happens when you run out of credible opponents.

Though “loom” is a peculiar verb to use for a guy who was having his own troubles. Last year it was reported that Pacquiao, who supports a notoriously large entourage, was in serious tax trouble in both the US and his native Philippines. And since he’d avenged his “loss” to Tim Bradley in very convincing fashion, and nemesis Juan Manuel Marquez seemed completely uninterested in fighting Pacquiao a 5th time, Pacquiao was reduced last November to fighting a guy named Chris Algieri. Hardcore fans know Algieri had made a name for himself earlier last year by almost being knocked into the middle of next week by Ruslan Provodnikov in the first round, then got up and ran and jabbed his way to a debatable victory; casual fans either don’t know him at all or perhaps saw a bit of something on TV about a boxer going to fight in China who lived in his parents’ basement on Long Island.

Canelo Alvarez deserves a bit of credit for helping make this fight happen.

Another less pressing but nonetheless significant factor was Canelo Alvarez’s switch from Showtime to HBO last year. Alvarez instructed his promoter, Oscar De La Hoya, to book him to fight on Cinco de Mayo weekend. It looked like Canelo, arguably the sport’s 3rd biggest attraction, was going to fight the next biggest attraction, Miguel Cotto, in a classic Mexico vs Puerto Rico battle that would have surely done big PPV numbers. Mayweather, who has cashed several extremely large paychecks fighting PPV fights on Cinco de Mayo weekend for 4 of the past 5 years, would have had no choice but to fight Pacquiao if he wanted to compete head-to-head with that fight and still make money.

This chance meeting set the wheels in motion.

With Mayweather and Pacquiao both hard up for opponents and facing different financial pressures, it only took a fortuitous meeting at a Miami Heat basketball game for the two fighters to talk face-to-face and make this fight finally happen. The fighters worked things out on their own, and the big money network guys behind them basically told the problematic promoters/managers of the fighters to put their bullshit aside, that there was too much money to be made, and the fight was going to happen.

Past The Due Date?

Pacquiao won a clear decision, but after being robbed in the first fight you’d expect him to take it out of the judge’s hands.

Some things get better with age, but that doesn’t frequently apply to boxers. This is undoubtedly the biggest fight that can be made in the sport, but there’s no denying that from a purely competitive stand point, this would’ve been a lot better in 2010 or 2011. While both guys are chronologically 5 years older, it’s indisputable that Pacquiao has the harder miles on him, particularly in that time period. There’s evidence one of the effects of the devastating KO he suffered at the hands of Juan Manuel Marquez in 2012 is a reduced zeal to finish his opponents. Nobody expected him to knock out the iron-chinned Brandon Rios in his next fight 11 months later, but in his victory in the Bradley rematch last April he occasionally tempered his attack after eating some of Bradley’s haymakers, and Bradley’s not a guy with a lot of power. Then last November in the Algieri fight, Pacquiao battered the overmatched Long Islander all over the ring for 12 rounds, knocking him down several times, and won by the widest scores you’ll ever see in a 12 round fight (119-103 twice, and 120-102), but was unable to finish him off. Does anyone believe a pre-KO Pacquiao wouldn’t have knocked Algieri into the middle of next week before the final bell?

There’s no way a younger Mayweather would’ve been in this situation against a fighter of Maidana’s style and caliber.

As for Mayweather, he’s extraordinarily well-preserved, though at 38 years old he’s definitely lost some of his hand speed and foot speed. As any NBA player in his mid-30s will tell you, one of the first things that goes with age is lateral movement. While Freddie Roach would like you to believe Mayweather’s legs are “shot,” he doesn’t appear to have lost much foot speed, aside from the initial explosiveness on his first step. Once he gets moving, he’s as swift and graceful as ever on his feet. His two most recent fights, both against Marcos Maidana, illustrate this well, as he had trouble getting off the ropes in the first half of their first fight, which ended up being close, then managed to stay off them for most of the second fight, which was a wide UD victory for Mayweather.

He’s all business for this one.

So the fight isn’t what it would’ve been in 2010, and that’s good for Mayweather, as Pacquiao was at his absolute peak at that time, while Floyd was staging exaggerated sparring sessions on PPV against guys like Victor Ortiz. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t a good fight now. Pacquiao is unquestionably the most dangerous opponent out there for Mayweather today, and you need look (or listen) no further than to the curious silence coming out of the Mayweather camp leading up to this fight for evidence of that. For years Mayweather has sold himself on the aura of his undefeated record, using a mixture of rare skill, hard work, and carefully chosen opposition to keep his “0” intact. During a 21 month “retirement” toward the end of last decade, he participated in a WWE exhibition that set the blue print for his subsequent marketing of himself and his staging of his fights. Mayweather brought all flashy showmanship and traash talk of the WWE to his promotional efforts, and in lieu of being able to stage scripted combat, he frequently chose opponents who stood no better chance than a WWE actor playing the losing role. All of the salesmanship and trash talk is gone from the build up to this fight; there are no disparaging comments about Pacquiao, no drama with family members, no clowning for the press. Mayweather is all business and focused entirely on his training camp, because this is the first time in many years he’s faced an opponent he knows demands this level of his attention. This is the biggest fight of his career, and while many people have ridiculed him for being illiterate and socially retarded, inside the ring and within the business world of boxing you’d be hard pressed to find a more adept intellect.

POSSIBLE OUTCOMES

Mayweather by Decision – 40% chance.

This could very easily be a typical Floyd fight; he checks out what Pacquiao has to offer the first two and a half or three rounds, ceding those rounds to him, then starts countering Pacquiao to win the middle rounds in increasingly comfortable fashion, though maybe Pacquiao is able to steal a close 7th round by landing something significant in the last 10 seconds. Going into the 10th round, Floyd has a lead, Pacquiao turns up the heat and wins a couple more rounds on activity and aggression, but Mayweather emerges victorious by close decision, 115-113.

Pacquiao by Decision – 25% chance.

See the scenario above, with Pacquiao winning the first 3 rounds, one middle round, and all 3 late rounds, maybe even scoring a knockdown along the way for a 10-8 round.

Draw – 20% chance.

A lot of people in Vegas are taking this bet, as the odds are favorable and in a fight this lucrative there is an obvious built-in incentive for a rematch. I’m not saying judges will go out of their way to make it a draw, but it wouldn’t at all surprise me if this were the result. It would basically look like the two outcomes described above, but with a handful of rounds that could go either way.

Mayweather by KO – 10% chance.

In 2010, this would’ve been the least likely outcome, but if you factor in the size difference (Floyd is significantly larger) with Pacquiao having suffered a frightening KO two and a half years ago that has changed his psychological approach to combat, it’s not hard to imagine a fight where Floyd has built sizeable lead that leaves Pacquiao no choice but to go for the KO, opening himself up for an exquisitely timed 2-3 combo that sends the Filipino Senator to the canvas. I don’t think Floyd will score the “lights out” KO Marquez did, but I can see him dazing Pacquiao, then hitting him with an unanswered flurry until Kenny Bayless steps in and stops it.

Pacquiao by KO – 5% chance.

This is the least likely scenario, as Pacquiao isn’t nearly as aggressive as he was 5 years ago. The Marquez KO lurks in the back of his mind, and Floyd has only been shook once that I can remember, and that was in the 2nd round against Shane Mosley. I don’t think it’s too far-fetched Pacquiao wobbles Mayweather at some point with a left hand high on the head, or even scores a flash knockdown, but he’s become more of a volume puncher than the KO machine he was until the end of 2009. In 2010 this would have been at least the 2nd most likely scenario, but now this is only more likely than a DQ win for either guy.

Prediction

Although he’s 22 months older than Pacquiao, Mayweather is the fresher physical specimen, he’s more focused than ever, and perhaps most importantly, he’s simply the bigger guy. He’s an inch and a half taller, has a 5 inch wing span advantage, and is a more natural welterweight. The old adage about a good big man beating a good smaller man applies here. Mayweather’s size advantage will mean less offensively than defensively, as the shoulder roll he employs is extremely effective against punches coming from a lower trajectory, and he will, as usual, be able to dictate distance with his jab, even if it’s only being thrown at the right shoulder of the advancing southpaw.

Once he’s figured out what you do, you have to do something else.

Additionally, Pacquiao doesn’t have the size to back Mayweather up to the ropes and keep him there the way Maidana did in their first fight. This fight will be fought primarily at ring center, where Mayweather thrives. Neither man has tended to start fast in recent years, and I don’t expect them to behave any differently tomorrow night. Mayweather will spend the first three rounds getting down Pacquiao’s hand speed and the foot movements that tend to precede particular attacks, and he will figure out how to neutralize and counter those tendencies. It will cost Mayweather at least two rounds, probably the first three, then he will apply his craft and enter his comfort zone, effectively countering the smaller southpaw’s lead left hands and then wheeling out of danger to reset the distance. By the midway point the fight will be even on the scorecards, but Mayweather will clearly have the momentum.

Pacquiao has underrated accuracy, and going into a shell against him is a very bad idea.

By the 7th or 8th round, Pacquiao will realize he has to change up his game plan and will become more aggressive. Mayweather will still land some effective counters, perhaps the more obvious head-snapping shots, but Pacquiao’s busier work rate and hard, accurate lefts that come behind jabs and left feints will produce a bit of blood from the mouth or nose of Mayweather. Not fond of the taste or sight of his own blood, Mayweather will revert to what he does best, which is retreat and counterpunch the suddenly more confident and assertive Pacquiao, and pick his spots to get in the pocket, throw combos, and get out. This will be the telling moment in the fight, because if he can do this without getting caught himself and turning this into more of a firefight, he will regain control of when and how they exchange blows. If he does get caught with more of Pacquiao’s left hands, and especially if Pacquaio can follow those with right hooks, Floyd will have to go deeper into his tool box than he’s had to in many years, and will have to be more active throughout the fight than he’s been since he fought as a lightweight. I suspect Mayweather will succeed at this point in the fight and be able to dictate the action. He’ll cruise for the last few rounds, Pacquaio will win a late round or two on sheer aggression, and Mayweather will win a close split or majority decision, which will lead to a rematch in September.

Will he agree to a rematch if the fight is close?

Overall, I don’t expect the action in the ring to live up to the hype surrounding the event (how could it?), but I do expect to see a very high level of skill displayed by both fighters, and there will be more exchanges than we’ve seen in a Mayweather fight in a long time; it will be the kind of performance appreciated by hardcore fans, but not as much by the many casual fans who will be shelling out serious money to see the fight. If Pacquiao wins, he’s contractually obligated to a rematch, while Mayweather is not, but it’s hard to imagine there not being a rematch in September if the fight is close.

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