Mayweather, Pacquiao must pass torch
If Manny Pacquiao vs. Floyd Mayweather Jr. never happens it will be a tragedy, but the reality is that not making the match wouldn’t greatly damage the sport in the long term. Both boxers are already mainstream celebrities that can draw huge pay-per-view audiences against relatively unknown and unfancied opponents.
Both of their boxing careers are winding down, with Pacquiao increasingly preoccupied with his political career while Mayweather has already retired once to preserve his unbeaten status. Should Pacquiao and Mayweather finally meet next spring, it may well be the final fight in both men’s illustrious careers.
Now that would be an unmitigated disaster for boxing.
Today, a boxer can only become a superstar by beating an established superstar. Mayweather and Pacquiao are the perfect examples of this with both having spent years failing to translate their victories into commercial success.
Mayweather’s first three HBO pay-per-views averaged only 343,000 buys while Pacquiao’s debut at lightweight against David Diaz was only purchased by 250,000 people. Back then, Mayweather and Pacquiao were victims of boxing’s broken business model. With the best fighters locked behind HBO’s and Showtime’s payroll, mainstream outlets are disinterested in a sweet science they no longer have a stake in. This meant that the performances that should have won Mayweather and Pacquiao new fans were only being seen by a small, specialist audience.
Worse, with the sport’s championships being as meaningless as they are numerous, their hard-earned world titles had little cache with a rightly jaded public.
What turned both fighters into the mainstream celebrities was being given the chance to square off against the then biggest star in the sport, Oscar De La Hoya. Against a prime De La Hoya, Mayweather went from failing to convince 400,000 Americans to pay for his fights to being on a pay-per-view that drew 2.4 million buys. Also against De La Hoya, Pacquiao did five times the PPV buys of his previous fight. And in defeating De La Hoya both fighters established themselves as crossover stars.
Today, the likes of Paul Williams, Andre Berto and Tim Bradley are in the exact same position that Mayweather and Pacquiao were before they faced De La Hoya. They are excelling athletically but struggling to capture the attention of the general public. Just being in the same ring as either pound-for-pound king would give them a level of exposure they have never received before. A close defeat would win them thousands of new fans while a victory would turn them into the sport’s next crossover star.
We have seen with the destruction of the heavyweight division the damage a dominant boxer can do by retiring as champion. Without meaningful world titles, boxing relies on generational “passing-of-the-torch” fights to create new stars. Never defeating Lennox Lewis greatly diminished the credibility of the Klitschko brothers in America, denying them the superstar aura to go along with their in-ring dominance.
With Mayweather famously obsessed with preserving his unbeaten status, and Top Rank boss Bob Arum robustly dismissing the possibility of Pacquiao facing Williams or Bradley on the grounds that he doesn’t want to give another promoter’s boxer a "free ride" to mainstream success, there is a very real danger that the same thing will happen again.
If Mayweather and Pacquiao do walk away without losing to the next generation’s leading boxers the damage done will be incalculable.