Why Floyd Mayweather – Juan Manuel Marquez Matters

So begins our marathon coverage of one of the biggest fight of 2009, Floyd Mayweather (above left) against Juan Manuel Marquez (above right), culminating in a live blog of the bout Saturday. Today — the importance of Mayweather-Marquez. Tomorrow — a look at Mayweather’s weaknesses, such as they are.
What originated in February as an apparent attempt by Juan Manuel Marquez to humiliate Manny Pacquiao into a third bout — an attempt that most everyone laughed off at the time as quixotic in several different ways — is finally here. It started when Marquez called out Floyd Mayweather, Jr. after beating Juan Diaz, saying that Mayweather, not Pacquiao, was the best fighter on the planet, and as of today he’s less than a week from getting his wish.
The Sept. 19 pay-per-view battle is viewed by most now, as when first conceived, as a mismatch. Marquez was at his best at featherweight, and has been pushing his upper limits as lightweight champion; Mayweather has fought capably as high as junior middleweight. When Marquez has to put on nine more pounds than he’s ever carried into the ring against Mayweather, Marquez’ current #2 pound-for-pound ranking on most lists isn’t enough in the eyes of many to make Mayweather-Marquez into anything more than a tune-up for Mayweather’s return to boxing after two years off, yet another low risk/high reward/”sucker born every minute” kind of fight for the former pound-for-pound king.
But dig a little deeper. This fight ultimately ends up being a good deal more than that. Even with all its disappointed-head-shaking elements, its outcome has tremendous consequences for each man, and, to a lesser degree, for boxing itself.

At Stake For Both

Pacquiao is almost unanimously the top fighter on the planet now, of any size. But you can make the case that the winner of Mayweather-Marquez deserves the pound-for-pound #1 slot. I wouldn’t make the case for Mayweather, personally, but it goes as follows: Mayweather was the #1 man before he “retired” in 2008, having last fought in 2007. Beating the #2 man on the planet right now, Marquez, would propel him into the #1 spot again. I disagree; I see little that Mayweather would have accomplished by beating a man who’s completely unproven at his weight to neutralize everything Pacquiao has done in his career and in the two years since Mayweather last fought. But there will be people who put Mayweather #1. If Marquez wins? I can make that case, actually. Marquez has a draw and disputed loss to Pacquiao, plus over two years his resume outside the individual match-ups is stacks up well against Pacquiao’s —  wins over Diaz, Joel Casamayor for the lightweight championship, Marco Antonio Barrera and Rocky Juarez. If he beats Mayweather, he will have beaten a fighter better than anyone Pacquiao ever has.

It may not be academic for long, because the winner of Mayweather-Marquez would be in strong position to fight the winner of the November Pacquiao-Miguel Cotto fight. That would settle things, especially since, were Cotto to beat Pacquiao, he, too, would be in line for pound-for-pound #1 consideration. But there’s more at stake for both men than popular opinion; there are the giant stacks of money. Mayweather-Pacquiao, in particular, would end up being the biggest fight in going on, well, decades. Decades. Two men with legit claims to being the top fighter in the world — and the top fighter of 00s — you’re kidding, right? Nothing comparable has happened since Julio Cesar Chavez-Pernell Whitaker, in 1993. Pacquiao-Marquez III is the fight I want to see more than any other — both were crazy classics, and I’m a huge Marquez fan who thinks he deserves another chance — and you’d have to think a Marquez coming off a win over Mayweather would be a much bigger star than before, which would make Pacquiao-Marquez III a blockbuster, albeit a smaller one than Pacquiao-Mayweather. It would also mean a great deal to Marquez personally to get that rematch, as it’s arguably the only reason he’s fighting Mayweather to begin with. Mayweather-Cotto is the fight I wanted to see second-most before Mayweather retired; Marquez-Cotto would be a major Mexican-Puerto Rican showdown, always good for the box office.

At Stake For Mayweather, Specifically
No more than five minutes go by in any Mayweather interview, public appearance or reality television show without him mentioning how much money he makes. Mayweather fancies himself a mega-pay-per-view attraction, whereas skeptics note that he’s only done big pay-per-view numbers against Oscar De La Hoya and Ricky Hatton, because of Oscar De La Hoya and Ricky Hatton. He’s definitely the “A-side” in this Marquez fight, so if it does well, or if it does poorly, he’ll take the credit and/or blame. Rival promoter Bob Arum predicts the fight will do poorly because people have now seen Mayweather on the big stage a few times and they now know he doesn’t fight to entertain; he fights with an abundance of caution so as to keep his perfect record intact. Indeed, ticket sales remain somewhat underwhelming. Furthermore, there’s the disinterest from some fans because of the perceived mismatch and the fact that this is a match-up between natural counterpunchers, not always a recipe for a good fight. On the other hand, there’s no American-born fighter right now who’s half the star Mayweather is, so his name alone will bring people out. And Golden Boy Promotions insists that this will be the biggest fight of the year, just you watch.
I do think there are two factors that could water down Mayweather’s culpability in either a dramatically high or dramatically low pay-per-view buy rate, both of which I’ll touch on more in a moment. The first is that the bout is being shown in select movie theaters around the country. I’m not sure how much it’ll affect pay-per-view buys, but you figure, 170 theaters, $12.50 – $15 a ticket versus $55 for watching it at home, it’ll have some impact. Some have speculated that the movie theater idea is a deliberate attempt to cast doubt on expected low pay-per-view numbers. The second is that Mayweather-Marquez is a pay-per-view that, for once, has a very nice undercard. I have heard from some people who were resistant to buying Mayweather-Marquez because they were skeptical of the main event that the undercard would push them over the edge. But either way, the bigger the pay-per-view numbers for Mayweather-Marquez, the better argument he’ll have for a larger chunk of the purse against Pacquiao.
You know what else? Marquez is probably the best opponent of Mayweather’s life. Who else would it be — Jose Luis Castillo, maybe? Oscar De La Hoya, even the aged version he fought? If only Mayweather and Marquez were remotely the same size, beating him would mean so much more. Still, it’s another sure-fire Hall of Famer on his resume.

At Stake For Marquez, Specifically

It is only in recent years, as he has become more of a warrior and less of a technician, that Marquez — for all his greatness — has begun to win over Mexican fans. Even then, there does still seem to be some reluctance to embrace him. But I can’t even kind of imagine what kind of star Marquez would become with Mexican fans if he beats Mayweather. I’ve seen Mexican fighters go from popular to massive on the strength of one win, such as when Antonio Margarito defeated Puerto Rican Miguel Cotto last year. That Marquez is the underdog fighting a former U.S. Olympian? Man, that would be a sweet win in Mexico. I’ve tried to research some Mexican boxing history, searching for a win that would be comparable. Most of the best Mexican boxing wins came, though, in relatively evenly-matched bouts. I’m not saying Marquez beating Mayweather would be the biggest win by a Mexican boxer ever — I honestly can’t think of anything quite like it, so there’d be some apples and oranges here — but it would have to count amongst them.
Marquez would become beloved by more than just Mexicans, too. Lots of people despise Mayweather. I’m sure a good number of people who will be tuning in will be doing so to see Mayweather beaten. He’d be a hero to Mayweather haters worldwide.
At Stake For Boxing
In ways both real and perceived, Mayweather-Marquez is a test case for a few things in the boxing world.
It’s going head to head with a UFC event, and mark my words, if Mayweather-Marquez does worse PPV numbers than UFC 103, the mixed martial arts world will crow from here to eternity. But you won’t catch me crowing if Mayweather-Marquez beats UFC 103. I recognize that neither UFC 103 nor Mayweather-Marquez is either sport putting its best foot forward; there are fans of each sport that are unenthused by either event. It is my suspicion based on some anecdotal evidence that those in the middle will gravitate toward Mayweather-Marquez because of Marquez’ name, but I could be wrong. All that you’ll hear me say if Mayweather-Marquez “wins” the night is this: It is evidence that people who say boxing is dead because MMA is ascendant aren’t right. It won’t prove that boxing as a whole “beat” MMA as a whole or anything. Just that reports of boxing’s death are greatly exaggerated, is all, because if boxing’s R.I.P., then any MMA event should beat any boxing event, right?
Should Mayweather-Marquez sell better because of a good undercard as
opposed to a bad undercard, I do think we’ll end up seeing more of that kind of thing. Again, I maintain that a strong undercard builds brand loyalty, builds up young fighters, sets up future fights, etc. more than it might translate into specific numbers. But Mayweather, to his credit, did something interesting here: He agreed to take a smaller flat payment for the fight so that better undercard fights could be made in exchange for a bigger portion of back-end pay-per-view sales. If boxers can be convinced that this is a good way to make money, you bet your ass it’ll happen again. And that’ll be good for the health of the sport as a whole. Time and again, I’ve said that MMA undercards are better than boxing’s, and that the overall feel of watching/attending an “event” is one of the main attractors for MMA fans. Boxing should have learned that lesson a long time ago, but if what it takes is raw cash to grasp something that’s a little more nuanced, so be it.
Finally, Golden Boy has rolled out a variety of ambitious marketing techniques for this fight, such as the movie theater idea. This is an area where boxing also has, frankly, sucked. There are excellent motivators behind Golden Boy’s push. One, Golden Boy’s Richard Schaefer wants to get young viewers’ eyes on this fight. It’s crucial for the future of the sport to build future boxing fans, obviously, but it’s also a demographic favorable to advertisers. Two, and related, is that Schaefer sees big-name sponsors as boxing’s pathway back to the Holy Grail, network television. Schaefer’s obsession with sponsors has been called silly by some, but I see the logic. My only worry is this: If Schaeffer has spent a ton of capital with those sponsors, convincing them that Mayweather-Marquez will pay off for them… and then it doesn’t, because of the aforementioned lack of fan affection for this fight that results in poor PPV sales, or because the fight sucks and nobody wants to watch the next big boxing match… well, I think there would be some justifiable second-guessing that Schaefer bet on the wrong horse. But if he’s right? Let’s just say I really, really, really want him to be right.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.