(This story was original posted on February 25th, 2015)
Historically fighters of color have been placed in two personality categories: the brash and the humble.
In truth, to be ferocious in the ring, both qualities are necessities for finishing off an equally skilled opponent; however, story lines are built on contrast. With the formal announcement of Floyd “Money” Mayweather versus Manny Pacquiao now branding May 2nd as the biggest day in boxing history, we must look to the past and one of the last times a Super Fight of this magnitude occurred to give this upcoming fight real perspective.
The climate during the first quarter of 1971 was hostile and rife for race baiting, which a 29-year old Muhammad Ali recognized all too well. The fighter from Louisville, KY had shocked the world by defeating Sonny Liston (twice), changing his name from Cassius Clay to a Muslim one and had just gotten off a forced suspension due to his refusal to be drafted by the American Selective Service.
Ali was already known for his ability to promote a fight via a blitzkrieg of comical anecdotal evidence about his opponents. Normally he leaned more towards the rhyming shtick from he and speechwriter, Drew “Bundini” Brown, coining the infamous, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” taunts towards Sonny Liston. However, when the undefeated Ali met the equally undefeated "Smokin'" Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden on March 8th, 1971, a lot more racial animosity trailed them amid their respective corner men and the fans that supported them.
Joe Frazier couldn’t be any more different than Ali except in the ring. Frazier was the reserved, willful pugilist that wished to train, perform and enjoy the spoils of his success. He didn’t wax poetic about America’s backwards racial and economics policies under Richard Nixon or the brewing tumult of the seventies; he just fought. As a result, Ali painted a vision of him as an “Uncle Tom”, a docile black man that followed the conventional rules while he was bold enough to scorch them in front of the world. This incited a back lash against Frazier from the black community that resided in the center of the popularity of the event.
Their first historic fight was a cauldron complete with every story line imaginable. Black power vs. non-violence. Malcolm vs. Martin. The militant Negro vs. the house Negro. White collar vs. blue collar and the tensions between the pro-US military and the anti-war protesters. The event was a fashion show, complete with furs, bell bottoms, suits and outfits straight out of every Blaxploitation movie imaginable. But the fight also held significance overseas. 298 million people outside of North American would be watching the fight live and in places of of civil unrest, like Belfast, Ireland, the fighting ceased so that everyone could watch the super fight. It was so much more than two men in the ring for 15 rounds of boxing. It held significance in almost every aspect a global scale.
Fast forward 44 years and many of those same elements are evident in the May 2nd bout. The fashion, the celebrities, the money, the global audience, the future peace treaties being exercised across the globe, the sides taken by race and social class, the racially charged comparison of good vs. evil and so much more (strange that Floyd's incidents make headlines and position him as the bad guy yet the numerous allegations of cheating attributed to Pacquiao seem to take a back seat to his greatness in the ring). This makes the similarities between the fight and fighters so much more significant and apparent.
To call Floyd Mayweather the new Ali would seem like a reach in many people’s minds. Ali’s legacy as a Statesman through boxing promotion is now seen as brilliance, but during that time it was considered lunacy. When Mayweather switched his persona from the self-absorbed “Pretty Boy” to the even more vainglorious “Money”, a silent salute at Ali’s strategy was given and this groundbreaking fight against Manny Pacquiao set up his opponent as the perfect visage of Joe Frazier.
Mayweather, who doesn’t court corporate sponsorship, runs his own promotional company and has the best deal in pay-per-view boxing, is the ultimate renegade. His statements are gaudy and his presentations are superfluous but Mayweather’s greatest statement is in his ability to mobilize his fan base and hater base to control their purchasing power annually. Fighting only two times a year (May and September) Mayweather effectively raises all the hotel and table/bottle service rates in Las Vegas with his fight announcements. He sells his own merchandise, “The Money Team” aka “TMT”, and frequently makes stars out of his friends and children’s mothers whom he has businesses with. Currently, Mayweather is the highest paid athlete on the planet.
Pacquiao, although a politician in his native Philippines, is less loquacious and more an icon of positive reinforcement. His story of a being extricated from a poverty stricken life through boxing is well known and Manny has always represented the prototype good guy boxer. Still under a promotional contract with Bob Arum, Pacquiao prefers to fight and not step into the owner’s box.
Mayweather had a bitter break up from Bob Arum early in his career, supposedly over a dispute on how to promote him to his core black audience. The result was emancipation from his Top Rank contract and the successful creation of The Money Team brand. Mayweather has stated in the past his negative feelings towards Bob Arum and the old boxing vanguard, and certainly in the coming weeks he will begin his carefully crafted bad guy act towards Pacquiao and his numerous supporters. In kind expect Pacquiao to be relatively silent, opting to let his hands speak on May 2nd.
Still in the era where making a super fight is damn near impossible, it is hard not to see the thin yet poignant comparisons and label this fight the millennial Ali-Frazier I. The new court of opinion lies on social media websites like YouTube, Instagram and Twitter, where Mayweather again reigns as King. The fight that many thought would never happen, and took 5 years to actually make, doesn’t feature two undefeated fighters like Ali-Frazier I, as only Mayweather holds an unblemished record. The two fighters are past their prime, unlike Ali and Frazier, but the bad words, mainly from Mayweather who famously labeled his opponent “Poochiao” on All Access specials, have been spewed for years.
A win by Mayweather will solidify an unblemished professional legacy and cement him as the greatest fighter-business man ever. That is its own revolution by itself. Ali lost that fight to Frazier via unanimous decision due to the ferocity Frazier showed in the ring and the vicious left hook served up by Frazier that knocked Ali down in the 15th and final round. Joe let his hands do the talking as Pacquiao famously does as well. A win by Pacquiao would set up the biggest rematch in history and yet another statement making moment for both fighters.
Either way, with this battle finally on the horizon, the real winner will poignantly be the fan. It's too bad Joe isn't here to witness history revisited.