Fight fans presumed the chances of a Mayweather-Pacquiao showdown lay somewhere between slim and none on the spectrum of possibility. The two-horned unicorn doesn’t exist. The Bigfoot will never be seen. The Loch Ness Monster was only photographed as a shadow. But it’s happening. On May 2nd at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, the next great chapter in boxing history will finally be written. Will Floyd Mayweather remain undefeated? Or can Manny Pacquiao quiet the most boastful boxer in the sport? It’s a sporting event that almost never happened.
Manny Pacquiao (57-5-2) became a professional boxer in 1995, while Floyd Mayweather (47-0-0) turned pro the following year. Soon thereafter, it was clear the two fighters were the best in the business as each defeated opponent after opponent, Mayweather with a quick, defensive technique and Pacquiao with power and an aggressive style. Each boxer’s status grew, along with their bank accounts, but years went by with no face-off. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier squared off three times, including the world-famous Thrilla in Manilla showdown to cap their rivalry. So why did it take this long—many argue too long—for Pac-Man and “Money” Mayweather to lay gloves on one another? Because, now more than ever, business matters most in professional sports.
Do boxing fans want to see 38-year-old Mayweather and 36-year-old Pacquiao go toe-to-toe, nose-to-nose? Of course, but watching the talented duo fistfight in their mid-twenties instead of their late thirties is certainly a more appealing notion. Despite Mayweather’s claim that “Giving the fans what they want to see” is his main priority, greed, ego, and the complicated nature of professional boxing kept the two apart this long.
Boxing promoters come together to negotiate a money split before a fight is agreed to. The money can be split 50-50, but often times a larger percentage is given to the better, more popular boxer. Which dominant fighter would set aside ego to get the deal done? A 60-40 divide—one that has been agreed to for the upcoming bout—seems fair enough, but with a fight that could gross $400 million, Mayweather’s 60% slice of the pie will net him significantly more dough. A proposed fightback in 2010 called for a 50-50 financial split. Five years later, Mayweather won the ego battle. But boxer pride and money negotiations are nothing compared to the troubles caused by business factions within the sport.
Big-time boxers sign contracts with networks that produce and distribute pay-per-view telecasts across the globe. With Mayweather under contract with Showtime and Pacquiao dealing with HBO, it seemed unlikely the two would ever get a deal done. Boxers rarely fight across network lines. The last time it happened—for a Lennox Lewis vs. Mike Tyson matchup—was nearly 15 years ago. But the pressure to make the dream fight a reality before it was too late finally forced the two networks to come together for a joint pay-per-view event that could net upwards of $100 per television set. In professional boxing’s tangled web of promoters, television networks, and lax top-down structure, it’s a wonder the business side of boxing didn’t demolish all hopes of the dream bout.
Fans go on and on about the beauty and timelessness of sports—the tradition, the pageantry, the suspense, and the youthful exuberance are all on display. Analysts discuss the technical intricacies and stories—pitch framing, route trees, glorious dynasties, and bitter rivals. Players and coaches revel in the minute details—hard screens, crisp line changes, arching corner kicks. But owners, television executives, agents, lawyers, and promoters deal with professional sports behind the curtain. Someone has to manage the facts and figures, the ratings, and the dollars and cents that make it all worth watching. And somebody has to pick up the phone, engage in debate and find the compromise that makes both sides a little happy and a little frustrated.
Mayweather vs. Pacquiao isn’t happening because people hoped it to be so—fans have been after this fight for well over a decade with no result. The MGM Grand in Las Vegas will be filled on May 2nd because high-ranking HBO and Showtime executives met face-to-face earlier this year. The biggest fight of the twenty-first century is happening because the two fighters talked during, and again after, a late January Heat-Bucks game in Miami. And because of hours and hours of closed-door meetings, the world will witness a fight for the ages. Business matters in sports. Look at it another way, business helps make sports matter.