is in a bad place. Since the fall of Mike Tyson
and the rise of mixed martial arts, fans of the “sweet science” have seemingly dispersed. Boxing is no longer on the mind of the casual sports fan the way that football and its stars are today. If you stood at the mouth of a Wal-Mart
, clipboard in hand, and took a survey of the public’s opinion on Peyton Manning
and Tom Brady
, you’d likely receive lively comments from the majority of passersby. If you offered a similar survey involving instead, say, Floyd Mayweather
and Manny Pacquio
, two of boxing’s greatest fighters and opponents in an upcoming mega-fight, you’d undoubtedly end up staring into a lot of blank faces.
It wasn’t always this way. The twentieth century is littered with fights that transcended the boxing world. There were matches that left street corners and office break rooms abuzz with chatter and opinions on who the better fighter was, the better man, and who deserved to win and why.
No fight provoked more debate than “The Fight of the Century,” the first time Muhammad Ali
and Joe Frazier
met in the ring, in 1971. Charged with social, racial, cultural and sporting significance, Ali/Frasier I had the entire nation talking: Two undefeated opponents with wildly different styles — in the ring and in life — both with legitimate claims to being the heavyweight champion of the world, going to go toe to toe to settle any dispute. The first of the Ali vs. Frasier fights is the kind of moment that defines boxing.
The real-deal fan can watch with great enjoyment as two welterweight amateurs beat one another senseless, but it’s the placing of two celebrity athletes alone in a ring with the idea that they’re going to fight one another until one of them is beaten, grand fanfare going on all the while, that has the power to captivate a nation whether you give a hoot about the sport or not.
The Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao fight, scheduled for May 2, is an attempt to regain some of the magic that boxing has captured with its greatest brawls. And they’ve done everything they can to make this bout feel important; the spectacle that was the televised red carpet show preceding a joint press conference was proof of that.
It’s true that this fight will decide the greatest boxer of the current era, but that’s not enough to build a legend around. There are so many reasons that this fight will pale in comparison to some of the greatest tussles of the past.
When Ali met Frasier in the first of their trilogy, they were both in their late twenties, their fighting primes. Mayweather is currently 38 years old and Pacquiao is 36, both decidedly past their respective primes. If they wanted to fight twice more, per boxing tradition, Manny and Floyd would both likely be in their 40s come time for the third bout.
The country was in a very different place in 1971. Ali was pegged a draft dodger during a then-still-raging Vietnam War
. He was considered anti-establishment, talkative and flashy. There were a lot of people that wanted that type of man to win, to be triumphant while representing his ideologies. But there were a lot of people still that wanted that type of man to be thwacked in the kisser and knocked out cold, and hoping that Frasier was the man to do it. The reasons for choosing Pacquiao or Mayweather as the favorite are decidedly less loaded.
With millions upon millions of dollars to be made, and lacking any real, historical significance going into it, the May 2 fight at the MGM Grand
feels more like a money-grabbing sideshow than a cultural cornerstone. Mayweather and Pacquiao are the only people that can alter that. And they can only do it in the ring.
A lot of eyes will be watching this fight, even if for different reasons than back in 1971. With the exposure, the hype and our modern media culture, there’ll be no shortage of viewers. If those two men step into that ring and prove by way of relentless, prideful effort that they want to win and not just go through the motions and collect a check, then this fight could shift from being a symbol of how far boxing has fallen to a symbol of its cultural resurrection. But if the final bell rings and the world is left feeling like they just watched two old men soft-punch their way to a humongous payday, the sport may never recover.
Nic R. Krause was born a cranky, curmudgeon of a child in a Minnesota suburb. He was plucked from the muggy tundra and relocated to Colorado Springs 22 years ago. From intramural jai-alai, to his complicated relationship with the Minnesota Vikings, Nic, plainly stated, is bonkers for sports. Follow him on Twitter @NicRKrause.