How surprised are you that Mayweather and Pacquiao finally agreed to fight? Was there ever a point in the last five years where you gave up hope that this would ever happen?
Yes. I turned to the “it-will-never-happen” position partially out of continued frustration and disappointment that it wasn’t taking place. On my HBO studio show, The Fight Game, I called it the “low-anxiety conclusion.” The advantage of choosing the conclusion that it wouldn’t happen was that it would get me out of the grocery store or the barbershop or the shopping mall faster rather than try to continually come up with intelligent, logical, meaningful answers as to why it wasn’t taking place.
There’s been a lot of talk about how important this fight is for the sport of boxing. Do you agree with that sentiment?
No. Because we don’t know what the fight will or won’t do for the sport. It’s an extraordinarily large event. Is the fight going to change the public perception or the media perception about boxing? No, it’s just one fight. What if it does not provide thrilling entertainment that people dream about when they pay $90 for the pay-per-view? What if it’s mostly a tactical fight? What if it’s a chess match? Then you have people sitting around on Monday saying, “Why did I pay $90 for that?” It isn’t necessarily a bonanza for boxing. …
Until the fight takes place, you never know the exact significance. The best illustration of that is in the nearly 30 years of calling fights, if you ask me right now, what is the most significant fight historically that I’ve ever called, it was a relatively unanticipated, unheralded, utterly perfunctory Mike Tyson title defense in Tokyo against a guy who didn’t have a chance. To this day, Tyson-Buster Douglas is the most important fight I’ve called, and nobody would have expected that going in.
You’ve heard all the naysayers who claim boxing is dead. How would you describe the current state of the sport?
Not the same as it was 125 years ago. We’ve been on the critical list as long as people have reported on the sport. It’s a feast-or-famine sport, and the focus is always going to be on one fight at a time and not on an ongoing regular schedule—because there is no ongoing regular schedule. [Imagine the NBA] in which the Heat and the Spurs win their conference championships and make it to the level where they should play for the championship and the Heat, if they wanted to, could just turn around and say, “We don’t want to play the Spurs. We want to play the Hawks.”
The public is always going be somewhat suspicious of a sport which is so entrepreneurial and so governed by strange magic that they don’t really understand it … but it’s also always going to be ready to coalesce and rise up in enormous excitement when the two best people in the sport face each other. It happened with Ali-Frazier. It happened with Leonard-Hearns. It happened with Leonard-Hagler. It happened with Mayweather-De La Hoya. And now it’s happened with this.
There’s obviously a lot on the line for both fighters—most notably Floyd’s perfect record—but who needs this more for his legacy?
Floyd needs it more because his career time line is not marked by the constant approach to risk that shows up in Pacquiao’s time line. You look at what Pacquiao has done, there’s an extraordinary level of risk in all of the choices he’s made, particularly since moving beyond 135 pounds and deciding to fight a series of significantly larger men. It cemented forever the notion that this was a guy who understood the public hunger for risk and was really dissatisfied.
Mayweather’s career is a managed career. Mayweather understands that Americans are obsessed with this notion of perfection. He has built it into something that the general public appreciates far more than the boxing establishment appreciates it. And it’s one of the reasons that he has more at stake fighting Pacquiao. Pacquiao has lost fights before. He’s not going to be changing the historical perception or the public perception of who he is if he loses the fight. But Mayweather’s identity changes if he loses.
Mayweather wins if …
He is able to maintain defensive control and limit the amount of action and intensity in the fight.
Pacquiao wins if…
He is able to force Mayweather into a kind of firefight that he has avoided for his entire career, and hurts him with power, which no one else has been able to do.
What are the odds we’ll see a rematch?
If Mayweather wins a one-sided unanimous decision and wins 9-10 rounds, and he might, then it’s hard for me to understand why anybody would be demanding a rematch. If Pacquiao knocks Mayweather out, then I don’t think there’s much question we’ll see a rematch, because they might make even more money the second time around.
This has been the toughest ticket to secure perhaps in sports history. How many people have asked you to hook them up?
I’ve gotten a few requests here and there, mostly from people who are generally out of the loop or have been out of the loop long enough not to understand and realize exactly what it was they were talking about. But anybody with any knowledge of the current scene knew there was no point in asking.