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Friday, February 12, 2010

Cheated out of the ‘Fight of the Decade’

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It coulda been a contender - for ‘Fight of the Decade’. America’s Floyd Mayweather Jr, universally regarded as a unique talent, and Filipino star Manny Pacquiao, who has been absolutely sensational as he’s risen through the lower weight classes, are two boxers who appeared destined to meet in the ring. The fight was mooted, hyped, discussed, negotiated - and then collapsed.

The negotiations to make what would have been an extremely lucrative ‘superfight’ were surprisingly smooth until Mayweather’s team demanded blood tests for performance-enhancing drugs. Pacquiao, in perhaps not the most convincing statement in the world, refused because of his ‘superstitions’ about needles and not wanting to be weakened before a fight. However, despite insinuations emanating from Floyd Mayweather’s father that Pacquiao was a cheat (strenuously denied on all sides and now the subject of a defamation case), there is no reason to believe that Pacquiao is guilty of anything. Being an outstanding athlete, and being unwilling to submit to the kind of endless random testing that other athletes are accustomed to, does not mean that Pacquiao’s performances are chemically enhanced.

In any event, there are more effective ways for boxers to cheat - more of that later.

There is no doubt it would be fantastic to see these two in the ring and it is staggering that either man could walk away from the millions each would get for this fight. I wouldn’t fight Floyd Mayweather for $40million, but I definitely would if I was Manny Pacquiao. If the right to call yourself the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world means nothing, what happened to good old greed?

Some have argued that Mayweather torpedoed the fight to keep his perfect record and mighty ego intact. That doesn’t seem right to me, particularly as I’d pick Mayweather to win. Maybe he was trying to mess with Pacquiao’s head, dominate the negotiating process or perhaps project himself as a clean influence on the sport.

But Mayweather has shown himself to be pretty pragmatic when it comes to getting the right opponent for the right money. He’s even given a second chance to the current WBA welterweight champ and veteran of previous super-fights, ‘Sugar’ Shane Mosley. While the idea of Pacquiao being a cheat is nothing more than insinuation, Mosley has got form for it. He got caught up in the BALCO drugs scandal (which also saw the fall from grace of sprinter Marion Jones) and admitted ‘unknowingly’ taking performance-enhancing drugs in 2003 before beating Oscar De La Hoya.

Clearly Mayweather isn’t that concerned, then, about the issue of drug-taking. More likely, with Manny Pacquiao having lined up an exciting match against Joshua Clottey in March, Mayweather needed a new opponent and a big name to try to outstrip Pacquiao’s pay-per-view sales. Mosley represents a legitimate, high-profile opponent. Mosley has, of course, agreed to any testing regime Mayweather wants, as long as both fighters submit to the same tests.

All of this confirms that the negotiating process and business of making boxing matches is gloriously Byzantine. On the bright side, Mosley v Mayweather is a fight people have wanted to see for a decade. In the past, Mayweather has never sounded hugely enthusiastic about taking on Mosley. Mosley even leapt into the ring after Mayweather outclassed Juan Manuel Marquez last year to call out Floyd in what became a rather bad-tempered stunt. Mosley is now 38, but fought like a much younger man when he defeated Antonio Margarito to win the welterweight title in January 2009, putting on a storming performance to keep his name right at the top of the sport.

Mention of Margarito brings us back to the sticky subject of cheating. For years, Margarito had been a very good fighter and held the WBO welterweight title, but had never quite graduated to the really top drawer of marquee fights. In July 2008, he took on the highly rated Puerto Rican Miguel Cotto, winning the WBA welterweight title by absorbing considerable punishment in the early rounds but ploughing endlessly forward and wearing his opponent down to earn a surprise victory.

However, when he faced Mosley the following year, Mosley’s eagle-eyed cornerman noticed a plaster-like substance being applied to the wraps around Margarito’s hands, basically ‘loading’ his gloves to make them heavier. Margarito was forced to re-wrap his hands several times before being allowed into the ring. After his defeat, Margarito was banned for a year, which seems highly lenient when you consider the damage he might have caused. To my mind, cheating in boxing, a sport where the risks can be so high, is very serious. Some find it easy to call boxing barbaric, but I think it is heroic. However, to box is a choice and to make that choice every boxer must be as fully informed as possible about the risks they are running. In one sense, the rules of boxing are arbitrary. The thresholds for weight classes perhaps or, for example, having eight-ounce gloves rather than 10-ounce gloves. But the important point is that both fighters have the same setup. It seems to me that ‘loading’ your gloves, like Margarito did, is one of the worst crimes you can do in a boxing ring, because it is so effective.

Perhaps I am being naïve, but even though some of the sports biggest names have been caught with drugs in their system, I haven’t been too worried about boxers being ‘juiced’. If nutrition in the sport is anything to go by, I don’t think boxing, at least at grassroots level, is at the cutting edge of sophistication. Perhaps only the top boxers can afford the luxury of steroids. But I’m also prone to thinking that, unlike a sprint where tiny fractions of seconds count, the difference between winning and losing in boxing depends more on reactions, experience and timing. I’m not aware of any synthetic stimulants that can help you with that. Of course, having muscles that pack more of a punch will help, but you need to develop good technique to deliver a punch with any power. For those reasons, I fear it may be more in a boxer’s interest, if he’s inclined to win at any cost, to cheat Margarito-style.

Boxing as a sport has many afflictions. But I remain optimistic. At heart it’s about putting together prizefights. It does not have one single, overarching body that can lay down regulations for the game as a whole. There are different commissions, which have different requirements for getting a licence to box. Given this proliferation of rules and bodies, it seems reasonable to me for drug testing regimes to be agreed along with every other detail as part of the negotiating process, especially for the really big fights.

Boxing fans everywhere will hope that Pacquiao and Mayweather do eventually get it on. Pacquiao should drop his lawsuit and trust that the public are perfectly capable of understanding that someone, even a superstar boxer, is innocent until proven guilty. Let’s hope that the Fight of the Decade fell apart for no more complex reason than as the unintended consequence of neither side wanting to back down and expecting the other to relent. But I also hope that Floyd Mayweather can stop worrying about drug testing and learn to love the money.


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