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Where Does Boxing Go After Mayweather?

At the age of 40, after a 21-year career and a 50-0 record, Floyd Mayweather, the greatest prizefighter of his era, has walked away. He peddled the most lucrative act in the history of not only boxing, and not only sports, but entertainment.

When Mayweather fought Manny Pacquiao in 2015, he earned over $200 million for hardly breaking a sweat. The audience who witnessed those 36 minutes had the star power of the Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, ESPYS and White House Correspondents’ Association dinner — combined. Some seats at the MGM Grand sold for $350,000 a pop. The fight obliterated records for gate and pay-per-view numbers. And why not? Mayweather had proven himself the most exciting fighter in the history of boxing — that is, until he stepped into the ring. After the opening bell sounded and the crowd had its chance to lean in toward the “Fight of the Century,” most recoiled before the first round was over, as though reacting to the stench of a spoiled carton of milk. Despite the ensuing bitterness and buyer’s remorse, only two years later, against Conor McGregor last month in Las Vegas, Mayweather was able to both earn and generate nearly as much money — although final estimates have yet to be released — fighting an opponent who had never boxed professionally.

Mayweather is gone. Pacquiao had his bite at the Mayweather apple and is now intent on becoming this generation’s answer to Muhammad Ali, hanging around too long at the fair. So what now? Mayweather was a lightning rod for the sport — many loved him, more loved to hate him, and he defined the big-money barometer of boxing success. Without this conduit, where does boxing’s energy flow? We might glimpse the future this weekend over 12 rounds in Las Vegas.

Two international fighters are ready to assume the mantle of the Face of Boxing. This Saturday, three weeks after the sideshow of Mayweather-McGregor, Mexican phenom Saul “Canelo” Alvarez squares off against undefeated Kazakhstani knockout artist Gennady “Triple G” Golovkin for the WBA, WBC and IBF middleweight titles in one of the most combustible matchups in decades.

After Mayweather, Alvarez has established himself as the sport’s most bankable pay-per-view star, albeit with far smaller numbers. The only blemish on his record is a 2013 defeat to Mayweather himself,1 which nearly broke what was then the all-time pay-per-view record Mayweather set against Oscar De La Hoya in 2007. Alvarez has fought seven times since, mainly against stiff competition, and steadily improved with each outing. Golovkin, meanwhile, is mounting his 19th-consecutive title defense.

But how much will the public care? In the U.S., this fight, more than any on the horizon, will prove a bellwether for what the health and complexion of boxing look like in a post-Mayweather era. Examining the top pay-per-view fights over the last couple of decades provides some useful clues and insights into the evolution of what the public sought from boxing and, ultimately, what it got for its money.

Long before Mayweather-McGregor infected the water supply, Mike Tyson single-handedly set boxing on course where spectacle would supplant substance. After serving a three-year sentence for rape at Indiana’s Plainfield Correctional Facility, the former champion emerged from prison more popular than ever, facing off against a walking punchline named Peter McNeeley, in 1995. The fight was billed with the line “He’s Back,” with Tyson playing the role of the “Jaws” shark and McNeeley the teenager wandering into the ocean with a surfboard. The resulting 89-second disqualification (McNeeley’s manager jumped into the ring) became the most lucrative fight in boxing history and Tyson was again one of the highest-earning entertainers on earth. Tyson offered a poignant assessment of the American public’s frightening fascination with him: “I can sell out Madison Square Garden masturbating.”

Tyson was a box-office behemoth after that. He continued to generate big numbers the next year when he faced Frank Bruno and the 25-1 underdog Evander Holyfield, who shockingly knocked out Tyson. Their rematch broke records yet again, before Holyfield’s ear was bitten off and spat out into the public consciousness. Only Van Gogh’s might be more famous.

Tyson lost his boxing license for just over a year. All he really had left in his career was offering the public his comeuppance against Lennox Lewis in 2002. It didn’t matter that Tyson was 35, more than a decade past his prime, and fighting one of boxing’s most menacing and dominant heavyweight champions. The public’s infatuation with Tyson ensured that the fight would set the pay-per-view record as the highest-grossing fight in boxing history. Only three years later, in 2005, a worn-out, broken-down Tyson quit on his stool against an Irish journeyman named Kevin McBride. Two hundred and fifty thousand people still paid to watch.

In 2007, two years after Tyson retired, Mayweather had fought on pay-per-view only three times and produced underwhelming numbers, never reaching even 400,000 buys. But the public spent $136 million on Mayweather-De La Hoya, and Mayweather used the opportunity to usurp his opponent’s considerable fan base. If he couldn’t win them over with his style in the ring, he would entice them to pay even more money, exploiting his undefeated record and willingness to play the “heel” role. “Pretty Boy” Floyd became “Money” Mayweather, and he dipped his toe into “Dancing with the Stars” and the WWE to gain even more exposure and cultural purchase. It worked like a charm. A decade after fighting De La Hoya, only 11 fights later, before Mayweather was done — not including the astronomical figures yet to be crunched from the McGregor bout — there was $1.3 billion in revenue from more than 19.5 million pay-per-view buys.

Mayweather tapped the post-prison Tyson business model of packaging hype and spectacle in ways that transcended the sport. But operating on a different plane during the same era, Pacquiao assumed the pre-prison Tyson business model. Pacquiao earned legions of devoted fans by becoming the most devastating fighter in the sport who would steamroll opponents with almost cartoonishly iconic knockout victories. As a result, from 2008 to 2012, there were six Pacquaio fights on pay-per-view that earned more than 1 million buys.2

Which brings us to boxing’s next chapter. The story on these pages is a new one. Although Golovkin and Alvarez may be the two most exciting boxers in the sport, neither has crossed the blockbuster threshold established by Tyson. Among the 22 fights estimated to have yielded more than 1 million pay-per-view buys, only three didn’t involve the names Tyson, Mayweather or Pacquiao: De La Hoya versus Trinidad and Holyfield’s fights against George Foreman and Lewis. Canelo’s six non-Mayweather fights on pay-per-view have averaged 575,000 buys and Golovkin’s two each earned fewer than 200,000.

The potential for a great fight is no guarantee that we’ll get one. Andre Ward demonstrated this last year in his pay-per-view disaster against Sergey Kovalev. Ward inherited the pound-for-pound crown from Mayweather, is sponsored by Nike’s Jordan brand, in his prime, and the last male American to win an Olympic gold medal. He challenged an undefeated knockout machine in Kovalev in one of the best 50-50 fights on paper in decades. Nobody cared and the fight generated anemic numbers. Their rematch this year produced even worse numbers.3

Both Golovkin and Alvarez are in their primes. They aren’t marketing this fight with dog whistles toward racism, homophobia or misogyny, or with cynical appeals to the lowest common denominator. They simply are offering what promises to be one of the best fights in years. Is that enough? In today’s America, nothing is taken seriously that doesn’t sell. And after years of being hooked on the antiheroic narrative, is America in our modern age willing to pay to watch a fight without one boxer wearing the black hat?

Footnotes

  1. Not counting a 2006 draw to Jorge Juarez in his fifth fight.

  2. Against De La Hoya, Shane Mosley, Miguel Cotto, Antonio Margarito and two against Juan Manuel Marquez.

  3. The first fight had an estimated 165,000 pay-per-view buys; the second got 130,000.

Brin-Jonathan Butler is a freelance journalist and boxing trainer in New York City. His memoir, “The Domino Diaries,” was short-listed for the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing and was a Boston Globe “Best books of 2016” selection.

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