Boxing And The Indy 500: Strange Bedfellows

One is arguably the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world today. The other is “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

One is 32 years old. The other is 100 years old.

One features flailing fists. The other features land-based missiles skimming across asphalt at 225 mph.

On the surface, it appears that Manny Pacquiao and the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race have almost nothing in common. But as someone who follows and loves boxing and also has worked for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR for 13 years, there is one huge similarity between Pacman and the “500” – both are the ultimate shop windows for their respective sports.

When Manny Pacquiao fights, more people pay attention to boxing than at any other time during the year. He is the epicenter of the sport, the supernova. He is the only active fighter – sorry, Floyd Mayweather may don prison blaze orange before he wears satin trunks again – who has the name recognition to cement the attention of the mainstream sporting world. What other active fighter has been featured on “60 Minutes” in the last year?

When the Indianapolis 500 runs on Memorial Day weekend, it’s the one time that many people watch IndyCar racing – possibly any form of racing – all year. The race commands the highest television ratings and the largest one-day crowd – north of 250,000 – of any open-wheel race in America.

There was a time when the Indianapolis 500 was far and away the most popular race in America. It had the biggest TV ratings and most media coverage. Winners such as A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Rick Mears were household names and graced the cover of mainstream magazines such as Sports Illustrated.

No longer. A costly 13-year split between open-wheel sanctioning bodies from 1996-2008, a battle over money and power, splintered the sport and helped NASCAR and the Daytona 500 continue their rocket ride to American racing dominance.

Sounds a lot like boxing. The sweet science used to be a first-tier sport in the American sporting consciousness. But the alphabet soup of sanctioning bodies diluted the impact of true champions and hurt the sport, and the Golden Boy-Top Rank feud helped UFC gain more of a toehold recently in combat sports.

But unlike boxing, the Indianapolis 500 and sanctioning body INDYCAR are learning from their mistakes. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR are going all-out with their sponsor partners and promotional teams to ensure the “500” is a spectacle that not only thrills the fans in the massive grandstands at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and watching around the world but also creates a rising tide that hopefully lifts the entire sport.

People in the sport know Indy must be the grandest stage, with a race and surrounding trappings worthy of that title.

Quite a far cry from the “f*ck the fans” mantra of Bob Arum and Top Rank.

This ugly head of this attitude once again surfaced like the Loch Ness Monster in late December when Arum proudly announced that Pacquiao’s next bout would be against Shane Mosley on May 7.

The fans wanted Pacquiao to complete his trilogy with Juan Manuel Marquez or take on untested and protected welterweight belt holder Andre Berto. A Marquez fight would be all action, superb entertainment for $54.95. HBO touts Berto as one of the top young stars of the sport even though he has fought virtually no one, so why not test him against the best fighter on the planet? Will a loss to Pacquiao really shatter his career, especially if Berto fights well?

Instead, Arum offered fans the less-than-appetizing entrée of the fading 39-year-old Mosley, who looked terrible in both of his 2010 fights, a comprehensive defeat to Mayweather and a desultory draw against Sergio Mora.

This would be the equivalent of putting speed governors on all of the engines at the Indianapolis 500 so the cars couldn’t exceed 200 mph, nearly 30 mph slower than normal. Or preventing three-time winner Helio Castroneves or fan favorite Danica Patrick from competing in the race this year.

It would drain life from the “500,” drop it from an event to just a race. It would deflate the entire sport of open-wheel racing in North America at a time when it’s somewhat ascendant due to new series title sponsorship from IZOD and new leadership from CEO Randy Bernard, who came to the sport with fresh ideas from his stint as CEO of Professional Bull Riders.

Yet that’s exactly what Arum is doing by putting Pacquiao into a fight that few want to see.

Hardcore fight fans know this fight is a mismatch. And Pacfans might need to start warming up their defense mechanisms if Manny continues to fight this diminished competition. His two bouts in 2010 came against Joshua Clottey, who refused to fight through 12 tedious rounds, and Antonio Margarito, who proved that he is nothing but a one-dimensional, strong-chinned fighter without plaster of Paris.

The Shane Mosley of 2011 probably falls into the same outmatched category as Clottey and Margarito. P.T. Arum sold the Clottey and Margarito fights with dual dollops of matching hype, Pacquiao’s smaller stature and the magnificence of the facility where the bout took place.

Clottey and Margarito are much larger men than Pacquiao, but that size means nothing against a fighter with the speed, whirling-dervish workrate and skill of Pacquiao. That promotional angle won’t work again.

Arum also sold non-fight fans on the idea of seeing Pacquiao take on Clottey and Margarito in the glamorous new Cowboys Stadium. The sheen on that polished pitch already is dulling, as Margarito drew 10,000 fewer fans than Clottey even though Clottey is from Ghana and Margarito hails from neighboring Mexico.

Casual boxing fans or non-fight fans who tune into a Pacquiao fight should see competitive action, not the tedium bred by Clottey’s refusal to fight or the outright barbarism to which the plodding Margarito was subjected. They want to see Khan-Maidana, Williams-Martinez I or II, Marquez-Katsidis, Soto-Antillon. If the casual or non-fight fan sees a dull show, they will continue to tune out the sport.

Pacquiao probably only has three or four fights left in his career before he retires. He does not need to “marinate,” to use one of P.T. Arum’s favorite terms. Pacquiao needs to be put into the front shop window for every fight. He needs to fight Juan Manuel Marquez. Andre Berto. Amir Khan. The winner of Timothy Bradley and Devon Alexander.

Every time Manny steps into the ring, it should be an EVENT, not just a fight. There should be a compelling storyline that deals with a competitive matchup, not some carnival freak show of physical stature or a promotional angle about the building in which the fight is taking place.

Manny Pacquiao attracts eyeballs. It’s important for the health and growth of the sport that he is put into compelling fights that could be classics talked about for decades.

The Indianapolis 500 will feature the best open-wheel racers in North America racing wheel-to-wheel at 225 mph on Sunday, May 29 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Can boxing fans honestly say Shane Mosley is the most elite opponent Manny Pacquiao can face May 7? Does anyone think this is going to resemble one of Pacquiao’s wars against Marquez or Erik Morales?

Maybe boxing can learn something from its unlikely bedfellow, IndyCar racing.

About Tim Starks

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