The pandemic rages. California is literally on fire. A second American civil war, the collapse of the republic and the establishment of a fascist dictatorship all fall within the range of plausible outcomes for the months ahead.
Against this grim backdrop, the rumors of a boxing match between retired world champion turned CBD oil salesman Floyd Mayweather and YouTube megastar Logan Paul feel oddly note-perfect and right on time. Viddal Riley, a British cruiserweight in Mayweather’s promotional stable, confirmed talks between the sides were on in an interview with Sky Sports on Wednesday. At a time when everything is awful and America doesn’t need a diversion so much as an anesthetic, the dumbest imaginable sporting event for the dumbest possible timeline materializes unsolicited like a deus ex machina. Maybe we’re just lucky.
As an authentic sports experience, this one is barely worth discussing. Mayweather captured world titles in five different weight classes and was never in serious trouble in any of his 50 paying fights, much less knocked down or beaten. Paul is a celebrity vlogger with some 22m subscribers on YouTube who took the loss in his first and only professional bout against a fellow influencer named Olajide “KSI” Olatunji last year. While a Mayweather-Paul matchup would invite comparisons to Floyd’s hybrid fight with UFC star Conor McGregor under boxing rules in 2017, it would more likely play out in the low-stakes, hit-and-giggle spirit of his 2018 exhibition against Japanese kickboxer Tenshin Nasukawa, which saw him clear a reported $9m for 139 seconds of work.
So why on earth would anyone pay to watch it?
For starters, while Paul may be the special type of human garbage who once broadcast a dead man hanging from a tree for clout, he’s also one of the biggest Gen Z celebrities on the planet and, extrapolating from current societal trends, will probably be a major-party presidential candidate in the next 20 years. As for Mayweather, well, he figured out long ago there will always be a recession-proof market in the US for even the remote possibility of watching an unapologetic black fighter getting beaten. He’d been a world champion for nearly a decade before pivoting into a deliberately provocative, villainous persona with the understanding that more people would pay to watch him lose than to watch him win, following the formula over the second half of his career to more than $1bn in career earnings.
That Mayweather and Paul are two of the more odious personalities in American life is not a bug, but a feature. They’d form a lucrative partnership not for anything they can offer between the ropes, at least not collectively, but for their gifts as #content creators. The same brand of contrived bravado and race-baiting that lifted Mayweather-McGregor to record-breaking profits (like Tyson-McNeeley, Holmes-Cooney and Johnson-Jeffries before it) will in effect be the main event. There’s a transactional beauty to it, really: like how Floyd used to enlist Justin Bieber for his ring entrances in a reach for new demographics.
Predictably, rumors of the bout have been met with pearl-clutching and consternation in boxing circles, as if circus-like exhibitions like these are modern phenomena (they’re not) and the sport could possibly be further debased. They forget boxing is above all a business; if you don’t want to watch, you’re free to doomscroll right past it.
Matchroom Boxing supremo Eddie Hearn’s surprise move to promote Paul’s fight with KSI in 2019, surely the most watched double pro debut in boxing history, was met with public scorn by rival promoters, but the millions of concurrent viewers that tuned in to the live streams of the press events during the run-up only left them wishing they’d thought of it first. If nothing else, Hearn said, there was a redeeming value in positioning his fighters and boxing itself in front of the eyeballs that every other sport is falling over themselves to court. Far more alarming is what it would say about boxing’s ability to create new stars if a glorified sparring session between a 43-year-old retiree who hasn’t had a real fight in five years and a vlogger with one pro bout can become one of the most talked-about event of the year.
But the end of boxing? Doubtful. Do we forget Ali’s risible fight with Japanese pro wrestler Antonio Inoki in 1976? Or George Foreman, still nursing the psychological wounds of Zaire, taking on five hopelessly shopworn opponents in one night? Quick-strike money grabs like these are disposable by design, intended to be forgotten the minute they’re finished. If this sport can survive Evander Holyfield’s throwdown with a 68-year-old Mitt Romney, then putting it down for the count might be harder than it seems.