How will boxing’s landscape look Sunday morning?
Manny Pacquiao (left) and Ricky Hatton bask in the glow of the crowd's adulation at the weigh-in Friday. Photo / Chris Farina-Top Rank
LAS VEGAS — The buzzards are circling, waiting for a chance to descend on boxing’s carcass now that its most bankable star has retired from the ring. But the most resilient of sports has postponed its demise yet again, employing perhaps the oldest of promotional ploys – a good fight that people want to see.
As the first superfight of the post-De La Hoya Era, tonight’s Ricky Hatton-Manny Pacquiao bout at the MGM Grand Garden Arena has been deemed the bellwether for the fight game’s immediate future. And that’s fair enough, as far as it goes.
The match features the two most popular active fighters in the world, a duo whose styles virtually guarantee a violent struggle. Moreover, both men are extremely likable, inspiring incredible passion among their fans. The Sweet Science could not ask for a better pairing to test the market at such an uncertain time.
While a new era could dawn Saturday evening, it’s just one fight. Assuming there’s a clear-cut conclusion, how is the boxing landscape going to look Sunday morning?
Would it be better for boxing if Hatton were to win? Or would a victory for Pacquiao give the game a bigger boost?
And what about the fighters? What would victory or defeat mean to them as individuals in terms of career and legacy? Who would benefit the most from winning? Who would better weather a loss?
If Hatton-Pacquiao really is the best way to measure the pulse of boxing, these are questions worth pondering. For no fight or fighter exists in a vacuum; one bout follows another as surely as the right hand follows the jab. And if the immediate fate of the sport is currently tethered to “The Battle Of East And West,” so are the destinies of Pacquiao and Hatton.
For a peek at the financial ramifications, we turn to Mark Taffet, HBO senior vice president of sports operation. Taffet has been involved with the network’s pay-per-view arm since the format’s first blockbuster (the 1991 heavyweight championship between Evander Holyfield-George Foreman) and understand that everything in this business is relative.
“Only three fighters have ever sold a million pay-per-view buys in the U.S. – Oscar De La Hoya, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield,” said Taffet. “The definition of a pay-per-view mega-fight is 500,000 buys or more, so it will be interesting from a business point of view to see if the definition is still the same in the post-De La Hoya era as it has been historically.”
It would be a shock if the fight didn’t surpass Taffet’s definition of mega-fight, but it won’t be judged on its own merits. Fair or not, there will be no escaping comparisons to the approximately 1.25 million PPV buys generated by Pacquiao’s fight with De La Hoya last December. But two days before Hatton-Pacquiao, even the most optimistic pundits weren’t predicting that sort of jackpot.
“Anything over 800,000 buys in the United States will be (a success),” said Bob Arum, Pacquiao’s promoter.
Regardless of what the total is when all the money is added up, the fight’s PPV performance will, as Taffet said, “impact how deals are made going forward, whether or not certain fights are pay-per-view or not.”
Taffet does not, however, believe the health of the boxing industry hinges on who wins, thanks mainly to the popularity of both men and an abundance of attractive matches to be made between 140 and 147 pounds.
“All we need Saturday night is a great fight,” said Taffet, “regardless of the outcome. Fans just want to get their money’s worth, and when they do, they can’t wait for the next big fight.”
Generally speaking, that’s true, but let’s take a closer look at some of the possibilities awaiting the winner. Maybe it’s not that simple. Let’s not forget that there’s a wildcard waiting just off stage by the name of “Pretty Boy” Floyd Mayweather, whose comeback could complicate matters somewhat.
Pacquiao’s predecessor as pound-for-pound king will announce his return from self-imposed exile today. What is more, Mayweather’s first fight since he flattened Hatton on Dec. 8, 2007, will be against Juan Manuel Marquez, THE RING lightweight champion of the world and the man rated second to Pacquiao in THE RING’s pound-for-pound rankings.
This is a scenario that seems to favor Pacquiao. If Mayweather were to beat Marquez, a showdown between the former and current pound-for-pound kings would have an excellent chance of joining that exclusive million-buys club. And if Marquez sends Mayweather back into retirement, a third fight between the Mexican and the Filipino would be hotter than ever.
Events following a Hatton victory would not necessarily dovetail quite so seamlessly. Even if the Manchester “Hitman” were to knock Pacquiao into the third row, a rematch between Hatton and Mayweather would be a much tougher sell than Mayweather-Pacquiao.
Hatton-Marquez? Intriguing and possibly explosive, but somehow lacking the cache of a third installment of Marquez-Pacquiao. Both of their fightsÔÇöa sizzling draw in 2004 and a debatable decision in Pacquiao’s favor in 2008ÔÇöwere terrific and left fans eager for a third.
In fact, if Hatton should prevail against Pacquiao, a match with British rival Amir Khan might be the smart way to go. Khan, who’s been fighting at lightweight, is moving up to challenge WBA 140-pound titleholder Andreas Kotelnik on June 27, and should he succeed, a showdown with THE RING junior welterweight world champions would fill any stadium in the UK.
Regardless of who emerges victorious and how high the Hatton-Pacquiao soars into the PPV stratosphere, there is no reason to believe either man could carry the sport on their back for as long as De La Hoya. “The Golden Boy” rose to a lofty plateau much earlier in his career than Hatton and Pacquiao, both of whom are currently well into their second decade as a professional prizefighter.
Pacquiao’s trainer, Freddie Roach, has said he would like to see Manny retire after two more bouts. But as long as he’s winning, continuing to fight might be a better option for Pacquiao than running for elective office, the career path most expect him to take when he hangs up his gloves.
There are, however, reasons to believe that Pacquiao might not be as eager to enter the political arena as generally assumed.
Pacquiao’s 2007 campaign for a congressional seat to represent the first district of South Cotabato was far from a pleasant experience. Not only did he lose the election and a lot of money, his bid was unpopular with many Filipinos who didn’t want their hero wallowing in the quagmire of Filipino politics.
One insider with links to the current administration told THE RING that Pacquiao’s first bid for political office was motivated by more than his sincere wish to help his people. Philippines President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo needed the seat in her party’s camp to help maintain a grip on power, and Pacquiao was allegedly told it was time to pay back some favors.
It is also the unique position Pacquiao holds in Filipino society that would make a loss on Saturday night tougher on him than it would on his opponent. While Hatton has the hearts of his followers in his hands, Pacquiao seems to have fought his way into the very souls of his compatriots.
“If Manny gets completely dominated and loses a lopsided decision, or the fight gets stopped early, the reaction here will be merciless,” said THE RING’s Philippines correspondent, Ted Lerner, speaking from his home in Angeles City, about 60 miles outside of Manila.
“At first there will be a collective shock throughout the country. Then that shock will quickly turn to questioning Manny himself, and I suspect much of that will not be kind. In particular fans will hammer him for having too many hangers on, and for what some Filipinos see as a bit of arrogance in the way he does business.”
Hatton, who is almost as popular and famous in the UK as Pacquiao is in the Philippines, finds himself in a much less complicated a situation. Providing he goes down swinging, a loss would not affect his standing among his constituency to such a large degree. That was proven when a crowd of roughly 55,000 fans turned out in Manchester for his first fight following the Mayweather debacle.
Hatton’s lengthy reign as the legitimate 140-pound champion is no small accomplishment, and his willingness to test himself against the best has endeared him to the fans just as much as his everyman persona. Obviously, a victory over Pacquiao would enhance his legacy, but win or lose Hatton has earned the permanent affection of his countrymen.
“Ricky’s fans support him because of who he is,” said Claude Abrams, editor of the British weekly, Boxing News. “He has a unique relationship with them. They think of him a superstar, but he treats them as equals. For them, it’s like they are going to see their brother fight. People support him because they love him, win or lose. It was similar with Frank Bruno, the people supported Frank to the very end, and they will absolutely continue to support Ricky regardless of what happens in the Pacquiao fight.”
On the other hand, for all its fervor, Pacquiao’s demigod-like status has a transient quality to it that could evaporate if he no longer embodies the hopes and dreams of his impoverished nation. In a crisis, this knowledge may very well be his greatest weapon. And maybe boxing’s too.
Nigel Collins is the Editor-in-Chief of The Ring magazine and can be reached at [email protected]