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May 2, 2015

Mayweather-Pacquiao: the Biggest Fight Since…? Part 2

by Matt O'Brien

In this two part article, I look at ten of the biggest boxing events from the last twenty-five years and consider their “super-fight” credentials against Mayweather-Pacquiao.

Part Two: The 90’s

Oscar De La Hoya vs. Felix Trinidad, 18th September 1999, WBC/IBF Welterweight Championship

In terms of a high quality, evenly matched, perfectly timed contest between two great rivals, this one was, hands down, easily the best in my years following the sport. A boxing purist’s dream and a fan’s delight between two undefeated icons at the absolute peak of their powers, it was a match made in heaven. A reported 1.4 million PPV buys made the event the biggest selling non-heavyweight fight ever – a record that stood until De La Hoya-Mayweather eight years later.

Going into the fight, the Olympic Golden Boy De La Hoya was 31-0 (25 KOs) and had already captured titles in four divisions. Trinidad, the Puerto Rican hero, was 35-0 (30 KOs) and had decimated all comers in a welterweight reign that stretched back six years, including 14 defenses of his IBF crown – 12 of which ended by knockout or stoppage. They entered the ring with a perfect combined total record of 66-0 (55 KOs), including 34 world title fight victories. DLH was a new breed of crossover star, a heart-throb to millions of young women, generating the kind of numbers never seen before outside of the heavyweight ranks. And yet, despite all the wonderful material riches the pop-star like status and numerous world titles had brought him, he still craved more than anything the one thing Puerto Rican assassin Trinidad had in abundance: the respect of the hardcore boxing community.

On paper then, the DLH-Trinidad match-up was just about the most competitive fight imaginable between two super-stars with dramatically different and yet equally captivating styles and characteristics, both in and outside of the ring. In short, it was precisely the kind of contest and mega-event that Mayweather and Pacquiao ought to have served up in March 2010 – had they not been too busy bickering about drug testing protocols.

Verdict: While the 1999 battle in the ring turned out to be the ultimate damp squib, we have to judge it on its merits going into the fight, rather than the excitement generated in the ring. And, considering its rare combination of star power and elite fighting pedigree, it’s fair to say that the magnitude of ‘the Fight of the Millennium’ remains unparalleled over the ensuing years. It deserves to be remembered as being a more meaningful super-fight than the May 2nd event, I think – simply because the participants met at the pinnacle of their careers rather than waiting until the match was five years too old.

Lennox Lewis vs. Evander Holyfield I, 13th March 1999, Undisputed (WBC/WBA/IBF) Heavyweight Championship

As with the Lewis-Tyson blockbuster, much of the intrigue in the Lewis-Holyfield bout stems from the gravity of the heavyweight title itself. Boxing had not seen an undisputed heavyweight champion since Riddick Bowe splintered the titles he won by defeating Holyfield way back in 1992 – when dumping the WBC belt in a trash bin in order to avoid facing Lewis. The careers of Brit Lewis and American Holyfield then snaked and twisted around one another, until finally, with Bowe out of the title picture and Tyson seemingly vanquished, they remained as the last men standing in what has to be one of the heavyweight division’s finest eras.

After drawing a very respectable 1.2m PPV buys, unfortunately the event became memorable for all the wrong reasons as the bout was scored a draw in what was widely viewed as robbing Lewis of a deserved victory. The controversial aftermath and the relatively underwhelming performance of both men in the ring should not blind us to the significance of the event going in though: make no mistake, this was the most important heavyweight title fight for a generation and carried with it a vast global appeal far outside of hardcore boxing circles.

Verdict: A close one to call. Mayweather-Pacquiao clearly has the edge in terms of the overall exposure it has generated, and arguably in terms of their current standing in the sport. We have to remember the context of the 1999 ‘super-fight’ though: going in to the bout, Lewis and Holyfield were largely viewed as competing for a place in the all-time pantheon of heavyweight greats. Overall, while a case could be made either way, I’d say the significance of the (attempted) unification of the fractured heavyweight title and the relevance of this fight to the story of its era put this one about on par with Mayweather-Pacquiao.

Evander Holyfield vs. Mike Tyson II, 28th June 1997, WBA Heavyweight Championship

To say that Holyfield and Tyson ‘had history’ between them would be an understatement. After sparring as amateurs, they should have met in a blockbuster bout back in 1990 when they were both still undefeated. Those plans were wrecked thanks to a Mr. James Douglas. The intervening years had required Holyfield to bounce back from a heart scare as well as three defeats in the ring – the last of which had been a KO at the hands of archrival ‘Big Daddy’ Bowe. Meanwhile, following a three and a half year incarceration, Tyson’s crushing 1990 defeat was now a distant memory; an aberration to be explained away. ‘The Baddest Man on the Planet’s’ invincible mystique was once again in full swing.

In November 1996, when they finally met in the ring for the first time though, someone forgot to read Holyfield the script. He proceeded to shock the world by smashing Tyson over 11 rounds, setting the stage for one of the most hotly anticipated rematches in boxing history. It generated a record-breaking box-office return of 1.99m PPV buys – an incredible tally driven in large part, no doubt, by the public’s fascination with the myth of ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson, and a general unwillingness to accept that he had been irrevocably exposed.

Verdict: Of course, historically this contest will always be remembered for Tyson’s disgraceful behaviour. It should also be remembered though that Tyson didn’t just rob Holyfield of a chunk of his ear that night – he robbed the fans of what should have been a fantastic contest between two great fighters for the heavyweight championship of the world. The immense shock Holyfield caused in the first fight combined with Tyson’s magnetic grip on our imaginations, means this one probably surpasses the May 2nd bout in terms of its overall impact on the sport and ability to capture the public’s attention.

James Toney vs. Roy Jones Jnr., 18th November 1994, IBF Super Middleweight Championship

Billed as ‘The Uncivil War’, this all-American clash of highly ranked pound-for-pound fighters looked like a phenomenal meeting of talents and egos – and indeed it was, even if the action in the ring, as is so often the case, failed to live up to the hype. Economically, the bout was a comparative minnow by today’s standards – generating a reported 300,000 PPV buys. In terms of establishing who would carry the torch for America’s elite around the middleweight ranks through the story of 90’s boxing though, this one is right up their for historical importance.

Unfortunately, Toney’s lackluster showing on the night, along with the fact that Jones made what should have been the most competitive fight in boxing look like a relative stroll in the park, have tended to dampen the significance of the contest somewhat in retrospect.

Verdict: A rare encounter between two of the most talented fighters of the last 25 years meeting in the apparent prime of their lives. That being said, while it was undoubtedly an important fight to the story of 90’s boxing, the lack of name recognition and wider public appeal of the bout mean overall it falls a couple of rungs down the ladder in comparison to the Mayweather-Pacquiao super-fight.

Pernell Whitaker vs. Julio Cesar Chavez, 10th September 1993, WBC Welterweight Championship

We have to go all the way back to the early 90’s to find the last time that the two men widely regarded as the no.1 & 2 pound-for-pound boxers in the sport faced off in a ring. They met in front of almost 70,000 partisan fans at the Texas Alamodome, in a mega-event billed simply as ‘The Fight’.

Chavez, the greatest Mexican fighter of all time and a cult-hero to his fanatical fans, was the most devastating offensive fighter in boxing and entered the ring with an incredible 87 undefeated fight record – an astonishing 75 of his wins coming by knockout or stoppage. He was also a five time, three-weight world champion seeking to become only the fourth man in boxing history to capture titles in four separate weight classes. Whitaker, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist and defensive maestro, was a former undisputed lightweight champion and like Chavez, also happened to have captured a total of five belts over three separate weight divisions. He carried a single, widely disputed and avenged points defeat against 32 victories on his résumé

Together, the combatants went into the bout with an unbelievable combined record of 119-1 (90 KOs) including 35 world title victories between them, in an encounter that can stand proudly beside any in history in terms of pure, pugilistic pedigree. Sadly, in what was considered an outrageous decision, the judges unforgivably let the event down by scoring what should have been a lop-sided points victory for Whitaker as a draw.

Verdict: In terms of economics and global appeal, Whitaker-Chavez didn’t come near the kind of profit or exposure that the May 2nd extravaganza likely will. That being said, from a purely boxing angle their fight was surely a more meaningful one, mainly because they met so much nearer their athletic primes (Whitaker and Chavez were 29 and 31 years of age, compared to Mayweather and Pacquiao’s 38 and 36, respectively).

Closing Thoughts

One sobering thought deserving of our consideration is how often boxing’s mega-events have failed to live up to their own hype in recent decades. One fears that with May 2nd carrying more hype behind it than anything before, living up to its billing will be a near impossible task. As always, the danger with high expectations is the repercussions for not meeting them. As boxing fans, perhaps then we should be wary of the backlash that will ensue from the mainstream media if their own excessive projections are not tempered in advance. Let’s hope that, at the very least, the fight can be remembered for something other than a horrendous judging decision, a foul-filled disqualification, or an otherwise controversial conclusion.

Another common theme that emerges in the above discussion is the timing of the May 2nd bout. Like me, most fans are just happy to see the protagonists in one of boxing’s longest running soap operas finally square off in the ring. Yet the years of monotonous back-and-forth bullshit from both camps and the now relatively advanced ages of the combatants have sapped the fight of much of its original luster – at least in terms of its significance to the sport’s history, if not to its wider public appeal and economic clout. Unfortunately, there is no escaping the fact that we’re witnessing a boxing match already five years past its “best before” date; if you listen carefully enough, you can already hear the impending and sadly inevitable cries of “My guy would’ve won in his prime…” – from both sets of fans.

So while the status of Mayweather-Pacquiao as an historic, record-breaking “super-fight” remains unquestionable, perhaps we should not let ourselves get too carried away with the hyperbole emanating from some sections of the media. After all, pointing out that it is not the “biggest” super-fight ever – or even the biggest since boxing’s last Golden Era – hardly amounts to much of a criticism. Rather, I would say just appreciate the fight for what it is: a fantastic contest between two great rivals that is coming a few years too late, but that nevertheless rightfully stands among (though not necessarily on top of) the biggest super-fights in recent memory.

This article was published by on April 23rd, 2015:

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