Floyd Mayweather Vs. Marcos Maidana: Opening Bell

So begins our marathon coverage of one of the biggest bouts of 2014, Floyd Mayweather vs. Marcos Maidana, on May 3 on Showtime Pay-Per-View. Next: the undercard, previewed.

This Saturday, the sport’s most recognizable name and its finest practitioner, Floyd Mayweather, is set to take on perhaps his most obscure opponent since his rise to enormous fame in 2007, and the biggest underdog Mayweather has fought for whom Las Vegas was willing to permit betting: Marcos Maidana. There are nicer things you can say about the fight than that — that Maidana is eminently deserving in many ways, that he hits harder than anyone Mayweather has faced in years. But those former set of conditions are something of a problem.

Once Mayweather left HBO and signed a six-fight, three-year deal with Showtime to shake up the business of boxing, it was inevitable that he would have “down” bouts against opponents of lower profiles, like the first opponent of his deal, Robert Guerrero, the only man to contend with Maidana since ’07 as a Mayweather foe on the obscurity scale. Every other Mayweather opponent from Oscar De La Hoya until now has been at least vaguely familiar to the casual fan, or else had demonstrated considerable star power within the sport, like Shane Mosley, Ricky Hatton and Miguel Cotto.

And that phenomenon is exacerbated by Mayweather’s refusal to fight anyone promoted by Top Rank, which further shrinks the universe of high-profile opponents he could face. Mayweather is the #1 welterweight; three other top five welterweights are with Top Rank, one of them being Manny Pacquiao, the highest-profile and best 147-pounder he could face, but that particular dream fight drowned long ago.

Maidana is #6 at welterweight, with Shawn Porter, #5, himself a potential opponent for Mayweather before long. We ended up with Maidana because the option Mayweather was looking at — Amir Khan — sparked a fan revolt. Khan actually beat Maidana in 2010, but their fortunes have moved in opposite directions since. What’s more, Khan is despised by significant swaths of boxing fandom, who find his brand of arrogance even more insufferable than Mayweather’s. Mayweather’s website made a big show of taking a poll that Khan won on that site, but when other sites put up their own Khan vs. Maidana polls, Maidana won them all.

So this is the headlining fight we get for our $75, if we want to see Maidana flail against the odds in spectacular high definition ($65 if you prefer your  flailing more pixelated). There are a few storylines worth exploring in this fight, despite the odds.

Who Is Marcos Maidana?

Most hardcore fans know and love Maidana — nothing inebriates that audience like big punching power, especially when wielded by a taciturn tattooed badass with a knack for being in thrilling fights and providing needles for various balloons.

He emerged on the scene in 2009 by being the first to pop the Victor Ortiz balloon. The Argentinian had established a considerable knockout record already, but South American punchers tend to go one of two ways when they step up in competition: they prove to have inflated records against terrible competition, or they prove themselves to be tormentors of the Chosen Ones, the boxers heralded as the future by the powers that be. Maidana went to a split decision loss with junior welterweight contender Andriy Kotelnik just before he met Ortiz, so perhaps Golden Boy Promotions had underestimated the kind of threat he would pose to 2008 Prospect of the Year. The two would go on to trade knockdowns in the opening round. It’s just that Maidana was made of a more resilient fabric than Ortiz, who grew tired of all the trading and quit the whole fight to give Ortiz his first loss and Maidana a big win.

His next balloon-popping adventure came against Khan in 2010. In the end he didn’t quite finish the job, but he certainly deflated Khan a great deal. To this day, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more miraculous recovery from a sure-fire knockout liver punch than the one Maidana got up from in the opening round against Khan; I might have been less surprised to have witnessed an actual resurrection. And by the end of the fight, Maidana nearly had knocked out Khan for the win, who spent the 10th round unconscious on his feet. Khan got the deserved victory, yet Maidana came away from the fight in higher esteem than when he arrived.

His next two big fights would diminish Maidana’s stock: He waged an entertaining and surprisingly competitive war with Erik Morales in a fight many thought in advance was a disgrace, given that elderly Morales’ best days were at featherweight and this bout was happening at 140 pounds. That Morales was able to contend with (although not beat) Maidana with what amounted to pure guile and toughness exposed the depths of Maidana’s rudimentary technique. Maidana would move up to 147 to face Devon Alexander, a quick boxer with above average skills by modern standards, and Alexander cruised to a win. Not only did Alexander outbox Maidana and smother him in clinches, but when Maidana did land, his punches did no damage, as if the added seven pounds had sapped his greatest weapon, his power. And he appeared disinterested.

A new trainer proved just what Maidana needed, as he joined up with Robert Garcia and went on to win televised slugfest with Jesus Soto Karass and Josesito Lopez. Besides the return of his power, his skills showed much-needed advancement — although we’re talking about a leap up in his caveman abilities from “unable to fashion a crude spear” to “capable of building a workable stone wheel.”

Despite all the love, he has never proven a big ratings draw as an A-side. South American fighters rarely draw a big crowd in the North, unlike Mexican fighters who rally big American crowds.

What Mayweather-Maidana Offers Mayweather

Maidana’s win over Adrien Broner won him the biggest payday of his career against Mayweather. Broner had been hailed as Mayweather Lite both inside and outside the ring, with Mayweather himself going so far as to semi-adopt him as his “little brother.” Broner imitates Mayweather’s shoulder roll defense and thrives on speed, like Mayweather, and he took Mayweather’s bad boy act to a new level by performing cunnilingus on a stripper in public, flushing money down the toilet and biting people in nightclub brawls. When Maidana, as a big underdog, proceeded to beat Broner down and humiliate him, he popped the biggest balloon of his career and won a new level of adoration from the hardcore fans who despised everything about Broner.

So it’s not just that Khan, through his unpopularity, lost out on the Mayweather fight. Maidana earned it with a big win, one that gave a storyline to Mayweather-Maidana: Floyd would avenge Maidana’s defeat of his “sibling.”

Mayweather has been unusually respectful of Maidana, refusing to ridicule him the way he does so many others. This has inspired some discussion of the old “Is Mayweather trying to become a good guy now?” debate. More likely, Mayweather realizes that he should be hyping the threat posed by Maidana’s power and toughness, which he has complimented considerably. That power is the biggest reason anyone should give Maidana a chance in the fight, if they do at all. Mayweather also is probably genuinely respectful of that power. Mayweather has faced big punchers in his life — Diego Corrales, Mosley — but Maidana is up there among the biggest. But he usually survives and dismantles them because he’s careful not to get hit by them, even more careful than he usually is defensively. If Mayweather is to cater to the audience that despises him and wants him knocked out, it’s to his advantage not to diminish Maidana’s ability to do so.

Mayweather has been accused of cherrypicking opponents for much of his life, especially since departing lightweight, and Mayweather-Maidana is no different. He has indeed frequently picked opponents who are too small, or too old. Maidana, at least, is neither. He’s in his physical prime and coming off his career-best win. Yes, the skill gap is as big as any we’ve seen in a Mayweather fight, and this fight fits the Mayweather mold of picking an opponent who’s at a high point in his perceived danger who nonetheless poses almost no danger at all. Of course, almost no one poses any danger right now to Mayweather at all at 147 or 154, which is Mayweather’s fault only insofar as he’s so much better than everyone else. But at least he’s not deliberately handicapping Maidana the way he has others. Any time Mayweather fights a quality fighter in his division who’s not over the hill, it’s harder to attack him as a cherrypicker (his ongoing avoidance of even a diminished Pacquiao being the biggest exception, of course).

The card as a whole is meant to give Mayweather options. The rejected Khan is taking on Luis Collazo, and a win could go a ways toward convincing fans that Khan is deserving of Mayweather after all. Broner is appearing on the undercard as well, and no matter how much the pair insists they won’t fight, Mayweather-Broner is a potentially marketable fight down the road if Broner can get his act together.

But almost everything about this card is a tremendous step down for Mayweather. His last opponent, Canelo Alvarez, was a massively bigger name than Maidana, a much better boxer than Maidana, and was a strong, naturally larger junior middleweight than Mayweather. His last undercard was significantly better: Danny Garcia-Lucas Matthysse was, for many fans, a more appetizing fight than Mayweather-Canelo. Mayweather-Maidana was signed very late in the process, meaning it wasn’t given the usual promotional push, and for that reason and others (the undercard, Maidana’s obscurity, Maidana’s odds) it is likely to do Mayweather’s worst PPV buy numbers since 2007.

The best you can say about Mayweather-Maidana comes down to this, as I wrote when the bout was signed:

“In a year where boxing is off to a slow start, you could play the optimist and celebrate that between his two choices, Mayweather made the right pick. Or you could play the pessimist, and shake your head that boxing’s in such a state where you’re mildly pleased about an outcome like this. Or if you really wanted to get fanciful, you could play the dreamer, and imagine a world where Maidana takes out two of boxing’s biggest villainous characters in succession.”

If you’re an idealist, it’s a fight that shouldn’t be happening. If you’re a realist, you know it could be worse. As the week goes on, we’ll be assessing how worthwhile it is to be a dreamer.

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.