Pac-Man, boxing, horse racing, and God’s glory

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Saturday could be the most eventful day of the year in sports.  In the afternoon, the Kentucky Derby, perhaps the most competitive in decades, and in the evening, a title match between the best pound-for-pound fighters of their generation, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao.

For those unable or unwilling to give $100 to view the most compelling bout of the 21st century, we settle for Derby of the Century and playoffs in pro basketball and hockey.  Plus the 4th-through-7th rounds of the NFL Draft and a full slate of baseball, which, like racing and boxing had its glory in the 1950s.

Last year’s Kentucky Derby was the story of easy-gliding California Chrome, from a fledgling ownership duo calling themselves Dumb-Ass Partners.   The modestly bred chestnut colt won the Derby and then the Preakness before his unlikely bid for a Triple Crown was thwarted at Belmont Park, in part because he cut a foot departing the gate.

Now we have a race with at least three horses that are probably superior to the sparkling Chrome:  American Pharoah, Dortmund, Firing Line.  Gary Stevens, 52-year-old Hall of Famer who rides Firing Line, has twice lost by a head to the unbeaten (6-0) golden giant, Dortmund.  Stevens called this “the best group of 3-year-olds I can remember.”

There’s more debate over the significance of Mayweather-Pacquiao.  Mayweather boasts  of being a better boxer than Muhammad Ali.  Mayweather does have the better record, 47-0, but he’s faulted for ducking his main challenger, Pacquiao.  The world wanted this welterweight match six years ago, when both athletes were in their prime.  Now they’re well past it, Mayweather being 38, Pacquiao 36.

This rendezvous was delayed by, among other things, disputes over drug-testing protocol, splitting of revenue, and procedures in staging the event.  In fact, it was in jeopardy until Wednesday, when the contract with the Las Vegas MGM Grand was signed, to lock in a date that everone thought was set two months ago.

So, 11th-hour histrionics aside, the fight will go on, and Vegas will collect bets of at least $50 million — more action than any boxing match has ever drawn.  Which is reassuring to me.  Given that both boxers will earn far more than the total betting pool, there can be little financial incentive for a fix.  Pardon me for being cynical.

But hey, if you can’t be cynical about boxing, what else is there?  Well, maybe horse racing. 

Boxing’s demise dates to 1947, when former middleweight champ Jake LaMotta, the  celebrated “Raging Bull,” confessed to throwing a fight to Jimmy Fox in order to please the Mafia.

From then on the sport’s been wrapped in sleaze, though America gave it much love in the 1960s (Gillette’s Friday Night Fights) and ’70s with the immensely charismatic heavyweight champions, Ali and Smokin’ Joe Frazier, and even into the ’80s with a magnetic middleweight, Sugar Ray Leonard.

Since then, the sport has been burdened by such sordid champions as the cannibal/rapist Mike Tyson and convicted woman-beater Mayweather.  Boxing has fallen to the fringe of the sporting world.

Meanwhile, horse racing has ebbed right along, being also a victim of excess corruption.  Race fixing, electrical buzzers, drugs and strange milk shakes pumped into horses.  Like the boxing ring, the racetrack has long been perceived as unsavory.  What these two troubled sports have in common: no ruling body, no commissioner, much less a czar.

But that’s not to say they can’t produce a spectacular show in spite of themselves.  They’ve combined, in their own separate ways, for a Super Saturday.  Pacquiao’s marketing team did make a linkage by sponsoring a Derby runner named Itsaknockout.  The colt will be in the paddock wearing a blanket advertising Mayweather-Pacquiao.

The fight will be the richest in history, and most of the hype has been all about the money, not about the sport itself.  Pacquiao posted the contracts on his website, as if these are his proudest achievements.  Pay-per-viewership will surpass the 2.4 million who watched Oscar de la Hoya in 2007.  Mayweather is, according to Forbes, the world’s highest-paid athlete.

Mayweather is looking at a $180 million payday, Pacquiao at least a hundred mil.  Makes the Kentucky Derby, with its $2 million purse, look like a church raffle.  

But the Derby’s 140-year history, its pageantry, its high-voltage electricity, its global connections, set it apart.  It’s America’s most iconic sporting event: twin spires, blanket of red roses, ladies decked out in wide straw hats and sipping icy mint juleps.  It’s a fashion show, a celebrityfest.  As many women view it as men.

College kids still drive a thousand miles to jam the infield.  From where they will see about 1.5 seconds of the race and won’t hear the track announcer calling it.  Trust me, I’ve been there.  It was anything but Sport of Kings.  I’ll never forget this unusual warning:  “If that sink’s been pissed-in once, it’s been pissed-in a hundred times.”

But say this for The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports: for $35 you can be one of the crowd of 165,000 at Churchill Downs.  If, on the other hand, you’re a fan of boxing and you weren’t among the thousand or so people who were offered an opportunity to buy tickets – at $1,500 and up —  well, you’re excluded from this scene.

Considering the inexorable decline of aging athletes, this has to be the most overpriced sports event ever.  Which is not to say it won’t be fascinating to watch, being a matchup of opposites, the puncher vs. the couterpuncher.

Mayweather is significantly bigger: 160 pounds to 147.  But Pacquiao’s left hand is a sledgehammer, and his powerful legs allow him to attack relentlessly from multiple angles, while Mayweather is the clever dancer and dodger.  Can Pacquiao summon the blurring combinations that left him three years ago?  How quick can Mayweather still be in eluding them?

Mayweather said in the pre-fight hype that Pacquiao “is very, very reckless.  Every move I make is calculated.  I’m always five to ten steps ahead of my opponent.”

No one doubts his ability to strategize, but some wonder if he’s overconfident.  Reports from the training camps indicate Mayweather is working hard, as usual, but that Pacquiao is in another world of conditioning — 2,500 situps per day to Mayweather’s 1,000.  The Filipino claims to be “in the best shape of my life.”  He’s Instagramming photos of abs like he’s never shown before.  

On his narrow shoulders: the weight of his poor, storm-bashed homeland that hasn’t had a lot to cheer about in the past several centuries.

Whenever he fights in Vegas, he’s greeted by fans waving their sunburst flag and yelling, “Win it for the Philippines!”  I hope a few of them could scrape together enough pesos to get into this one.

Having visited that scenic, if jungly, archipelago, I can assure you Pacquiao is THE national hero.  He’s a congressman and likely presidential candidate.  In a country of 100 million people and 7,000 islands, he’s admired as a world champ of eight divisions and beloved as a philanthropist.  He gives away millions because he’s smart at making them, as he wants us to know.  He will earn $5 million off recent deals with Nike and Nestle.

Mayweather, by contrast, earns nothing off endorsements, because his favorability ratings are shot, what with all the bombast and multiple convictions of assaulting women.  Hard to live down three months of living in a prison cell. 

Pacquiao’s trainer, Freddie Roach, who’s known for his ability to simplify things, pronounced Saturday night’s fight as “good vs. evil.”  Pacquiao played his role by promising someday to reach out to Mayweather “to share the gospel of God.”

To us cynics, Pacquiao seems a bit sanctimonious.  But as far as we know, he lives the Christian life he preaches, once you get past the ironies of punching people senseless, for entertainment, and being a very rich, if slender, man squeezing through the eye of a needle. You also might wonder if Jesus would like this choice of venue, the national gambling capital.

With his otherwise clean living pairing seamlessly with his hellbent boxing (38 knockouts, a 7-year win streak), the Pac-Man was once a darling of Madison Avenue.  That changed in 2012 when he lost to Timothy Bradley and a 38-year-old Juan Manuel Marquez, though the Bradley decision is an enduring mystery of this mysterious sport.

Now Pacquiao tries a comeback that’s historic and lucrative beyond imagination.  Forbes quoted an advertising expert saying, “If Manny wins, things could go really crazy.  Most companies are apprehensive about boxing, but they love Manny Pacquiao.”

Most men who’ve stepped into the ring with both Pacquiao and Mayweather say the American has the edge, especially in his home country and what is now his home town.

But whatever the little Filipino has left, he’s bringing it all.  While Mayweather likes to say, “Money is the only thing,” I’d like to think Pacquiao is fighting not just for $100 million, but for 100 million people, all glory to God and Jesus of course.

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