The last fight that really mattered happened in Memphis, Tennessee. Well, the last boxing match that mattered happened here, at the Pyramid, on June 8, 2002, when Lennox Lewis defended his heavyweight title with an 8th-round knockout of the newly face-tattooed Mike Tyson. That fight serves as a decent allegory for the sport of boxing itself. Like Tyson, boxing once stood larger, stronger, even louder than any rival in the land.
Particularly during the first half of the twentieth century, all eyes turned to the ring — or ears to the radio — when Fight Night arrived. Cassius Clay took world interest even higher upon his arrival in the 1960s and, as Muhammad Ali, became the most famous human being on the planet in the 1970s. But Ali met his end against Larry Holmes, and Tyson met the canvas under that pointed roof 13 years ago. The heavyweight division — and boxing in general — has been blurry, at best, ever since. (Quickly: Which Klitschko brother has held the crown longer?)
But boxing’s back, at least for one night, this Saturday in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. The two men generally considered the best boxers of this century — Floyd Mayweather (47-0) and Manny Pacquiao (57-5-2) — will (finally) get into a ring together and settle the bar-stool debate. They’ll officially fight for the WBC welterweight belt (the actual belt is valued at $1 million and features the faces of both principals), but at stake is so much more. After the two men have cashed their eight- or nine-figure checks (estimates say the fight could gross as much as $400 million, thanks in part to a pay-per-view fee of at least $89), a long-asked question will resurface: Is boxing still relevant?
There was a time — since Ali retired — when a Super Fight was as attention-grabbing as the Super Bowl, much bigger than the NBA Finals or any other annual sporting event. Four legendary boxers, none of them heavyweights, spent the 1980s beating each other silly every year or so. It started in 1980 when Olympic hero Sugar Ray Leonard fought Roberto Duran for the first time (Duran won a decision in Montreal). A year later, Leonard knocked out Tommy Hearns in an epic bout and was named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated, surely the last time a fighter will receive that honor. Marvin Hagler was the fourth member of this menacing band, beating Duran (in 1983) and Hearns (their 1985 fight was among the most violent three rounds in history) before losing a controversial decision to Leonard in 1987.
I didn’t see a single one of those fights live. And that was part of the magic. Each event was so big — and so distant from my family’s living room — that imagination and anticipation became part of the package. And my parents weren’t going to spring for the pay-per-view, so there was a forbidden quality to each confrontation. (I’d wait for HBO to air the replay a week later.) You picked a fighter to support, your friends picked a fighter, you debated the merits and frailties of each. On Fight Night, you were sure your guy would win. (I still can’t believe Leonard beat Hagler, and when I watch the film, I’m not sure he did.)
Mayweather-Pacquiao feels like a Super Fight, and it has since they announced the bout in February. Ten thousands fans have spent $10 each to attend this Friday’s weigh-in. (Proceeds will go to charity.) Gate receipts alone are estimated to be more than $70 million. Pacquiao’s following, needless to say, grows more passionate the further you get from Las Vegas, making the bout truly international in scale. (If you don’t like politicians, this may be the bout for you. Pacquiao is a member of the Philippine House of Representatives.) Mayweather says he’ll wear a mouthguard made partially with diamonds and gold, valued at $25,000. A mouthguard! When (if?) Pacquiao lands a shot to Mayweather’s jaw, will we see sparkles?
I will watch this fight live. First-round knockout or split decision, it will be the only event that matters Saturday night. (My pick: Mayweather wins a unanimous decision.) Whether anyone will care about the result come Sunday morning ... that remains to be seen.