I drank the Kool-aid. Floyd Mayweather was clearly the superior fighter going into his September 14 match-up with Saul Alvarez, surpassing the man thirteen years his junior both on paper and in the highly scientific eye test.
Mayweather's resounding dismantling of Robert Guerrero in May revealed a fighter at or near his peak, unparalleled reflexes and impenetrable defense on full display. Two weeks earlier, Alvarez had squeaked past Austin Trout in a somewhat debatable decision that featured many positives but highlighted some alarming deficiencies as well. Based on track record and an examination of their previous fights, only one result could have logically been predicted, the same seemingly inevitable outcome that has rung true for the better part of a decade: Mayweather by decision.
Yet I believed what I wanted to believe: this would be a special evening, the night that Mayweather would finally relinquish his throne. Facing an opponent in his physical prime, the thirty-six year old would fall in boxing's smoothest possible transition of power, losing to a young, charismatic, good-looking fighter with an already sizeable fan-base who appeared to possess, if not elite skills, enough ability to credibly carry the sport's flag in the impending post-Mayweather era. I knew that believing in Alvarez to win wasn't any kind of objective assessment of the facts. I was taking a leap of faith, believing in some combination of Alvarez raising his game and an older Mayweather losing a step, with a dash of destiny and a whole lot of other cosmic crapola mixed in. If Golden Boy Promotions was PT Barnum, I was their sucker born every minute.
Floyd Mayweather has not been involved in a close fight in more than a decade. Saul Alvarez, who entered their fight with a shiny record of 42-0, an edge in size, power, and youth and boosted by a rabid fan-base cheering his every move, could ultimately do no better than a dog chasing a laser beam. A one-eyed, one-legged dog who had been shot with a tranquilizer gun.
The event ended up being the most lucrative boxing card in the history of the sport, netting Mayweather an estimated eighty-million dollars and counting and giving Alvarez a career-high payday well over eight figures. Despite writers and pundits overwhelmingly predicting Mayweather to win, as he has in every one of his fights since turning professional in 1996, there was something different here that captured the imagination of the wider sports world, ingredients that propelled this into stratospheric pay-per-view buy rates to rival Mayweather's 2007 clash with Oscar De La Hoya.
Alvarez was a legitimate draw in his own right, bringing 40,000 fans to his last outing, unlike Mayweather's previous foe Robert Guerrero. Alvarez was young and at his physical peak, undamaged coming off the biggest win of his career, unlike the older, war-ravaged version of Miguel Cotto who faced Mayweather in 2012. Alvarez appeared mentally tough, confident and mature, the polar opposite of Mayweather's 2011 sucker-punch victim Victor Ortiz.
There was something undeniably appealing about Alvarez as a Mayweather foil: maybe it was the unique juxtaposition of his red hair and Mexican heritage. Maybe it was the flowing bangs, the chiseled jaw-line, and the regal air with which he carried himself. Maybe it was that staggering-on-paper 42-0 professional record, almost equal to Mayweather's own 44-0 mark, a number that really didn't stand up to scrutiny but still worked as a major selling point to the millions of casual fans who don't have Boxrec as their homepage. The looks, the record, the popularity...none of that amounted to a hill of beans when Alvarez stepped in the ring and simply wasn't good enough to offer Mayweather even a remotely competitive fight.
Mayweather is the rare fighter who has no tangible weaknesses to exploit. He can box and move. He can stand in the pocket and trade. Since moving up from lightweight in 2004, the only thing missing from his repertoire is knockout power. Some of that comes from simply hitting bigger men who can take better punches, some from dealing with recurring hand injuries that have caused him to temper his blows, and maybe the strongest reason being that going for knockouts and stoppages often requires taking unnecessary risks for a guy who generally holds a commanding lead on the scorecards. The risk-averse Mayweather benefited here from an opponent unwilling to take the chances he needed to give himself an opportunity to win. Alvarez' strategy, based on movement, quickness, and timing, played right into Mayweather's hands. He executed a similar gameplan to the one he rode to victory against Trout, that of a cautious boxer-puncher, but against Mayweather the openings never came. Alvarez failed to land one meaningful punch over the course of twelve rounds.
For aficionados of the sweet science, there was a certain privileged awe in witnessing a bona-fide boxing savant completely undress and humiliate his younger, stronger counterpart. Utilizing perfect footwork, lightning-quick hands that exploited openings to land sharp punches, and the usual defensive wizardry of choreographed head movement and confounding shoulder-rolls, Mayweather reduced the proud Alvarez into a bumbling, ineffective, flat-footed mess of flailing limbs and dispirited gestures. For the casual fan, brought in by the massive hype machine touting undefeated records and historic stakes, this was likely a far less enjoyable experience. The most expensive boxing pay-per-view in history, with a hefty seventy-five dollar price tag, was expected, or at least desired, to produce more than a glorified sparring session. All credit to Mayweather for making it so and even more credit to Golden Boy Promotions for building this event into the colossus it became.
Nonetheless, it's tough to imagine this as anything but the worst possible result for boxing. Mayweather is playing out the twilight years of his career. This fight was the perfect platform to launch Alvarez into mainstream prominence as the face of boxing's next generation. An Alvarez win would have been a storybook coronation for the man thought to be at the head of the class in boxing's search for its next icon. Instead, the only star shining brighter at the end of the night was Mayweather's own. To the casual fan, Alvarez was marketed as something different, a worthy contender to Mayweather's crown. What played out was nothing more than a pale retread of the disappointing (economically and aesthetically) Guerrero fight in May. The problem with the limitless hyperbole Golden Boy Promotions spewed in the extravagant lead-up to the fight is they'll soon find themselves with a serious credibility problem when they rehash that same rhetoric for Mayweather's next opponent. Robert Guerrero was different, this is Canelo Alvarez! Well, forget about Canelo Alvarez, this is Danny Garcia! Come on, we were joking about Danny. Adrien Broner is boxing's next superstar!
Eventually, should he lace them up long enough, Mayweather will lose, more likely a victim to Father Time than any flesh and blood rival. If Mayweather ever does suffer his first defeat, it will likely be to a far less marketable opponent than Alvarez, written off to an aging great getting old overnight, and witnessed by far less people than tuned in for "The One". Someone will emerge as the greatest fighter in the post-Mayweather landscape. The difficulty, or so it seemed, was how would that person connect with fans and garner enough star appeal to carry the sport economically, in the tradition of Mayweather and De La Hoya before him and Mike Tyson before them. Alvarez was the opponent who had that hard-to-put-a-finger-on "It" factor. The hardest part for Alvarez was putting a finger on Mayweather when it mattered.
For all the talk of blueprints and legacies and torch-passing, the only thing that mattered in the ring was a genuine virtuoso putting on a clinic of offensive and defensive efficiency against an opponent unable to accomplish anything in the face of it. Floyd Mayweather is a great boxer and a great athlete, his perfect technique augmented by otherworldly reflexes, coordination and speed. He is near impossible to hit clean and he hits his opponents before they have time to react or see it coming. Mayweather may not have the striking, concussive power of many popular and great fighters, but his opponents' swollen faces at the end of his fights tell a story of methodical destruction.
The dream was dead. Any notions that the fight would live up to the event were gone by the end of the fifth round with Alvarez in way over his head and drowning fast. At moments, another even more unimaginable scenario emerged, the possibility of a Mayweather stoppage. But Alvarez weathered the various storms and ended the fight on his feet, ultimately declared the loser by majority decision, an absurdly favorable tally since by most accounts he lost almost every round. The ring tends to deliver hard doses of reality, not indulgence in fairy tales. The King, surrounded by an entourage of jesters, repelled the advances of the ambitious Prince, and sent him back to the middling pack of jacks and knaves, leaving no worthy successor in sight.
Though a fight devoid of drama is no palatable entree, the event itself was hardly unworthy. When was the last time the eyes of the entire sports world focused so intently on a boxing match? The pre-fight weigh-in was attended by more than 10,000 people, in other words, more people than bought tickets for all but a handful of actual fights in the U.S. this year. An unsatisfying consummation doesn't render moot the butterflies of the fresh and exciting courtship that turned this into the biggest spectacle the sport had seen in years. Saul Alvarez won't be taking over the boxing world anytime soon. But the passion and hope he represented and inspired, if only fleeting, were a nice respite from the cold, clinical dominance of the Mayweather era.