On May 5th, Floyd Mayweather Jnr (37-0, 24 KO’s) challenges Oscar De La Hoya (38-4, 30 KO’s) for the WBC world light-middleweight title at the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas. Not only is Mayweather’s 100% professional record still intact, but he has won world titles in four divisions, from junior-lightweight to welterweight. De La Hoya has done so in six weight-categories. Both men are unquestionably hall of famers in waiting. Without meaning to add to the already unbearable hype, fights simply don’t come any bigger than this. Tickets sold out in three hours, grossing $19 million. The combined purse is something in the region of $35 million ($25 million for De La Hoya, $10 million to Mayweather). It seems entirely possible that this bout will also break the world record for pay-per-view buys. This contest is on a par with the Hagler-Hearns-Leonard-Duran superbouts of the 80’s.
But should it be? Many would argue that we haven’t seen the best of De La Hoya since he was a light-welterweight. His last truly monumental performance against a quality opponent was his stoppage win over Fernando Vargas in 2001. As for Mayweather, while he has improved with every fight, and has been positively sizzling hot over the last year (with outlandishly easy wins over Zab Judah, Arturo Gatti and Carlos Baldomir), many feel that the step up to light-middleweight is just one division too many. At 5’8″, he was a physically small welterweight. It’s reasonable to question whether we will really see the genuine De La Hoya or the genuine Mayweather.
Well, apart from the hype, and the raw pedigree of the principals, there are a number of reasons why this fight has generated such feverish interest. Let’s start with the love-triangle. Until very recently, Mayweather’s father, Floyd Snr, was De La Hoya’s trainer. He had trained his son until he was fired in 2001. Floyd Jnr felt that there were better trainers out there.
He was right about that.
So who did Floyd Jnr hire? Roger Mayweather, Floyd Snr’s brother. Confused? You won’t be, after this episode of Soap. A year earlier, De La Hoya had fired his Robert Alcazar and Gil Clancy. To this day, only he knows why. It was just one of those inexplicable career-moves. He took Floyd Snr on before the Vargas fight. The gamble seemed to work, but it often proves to be a curse if you win the first bet. It clouds your judgment. The result was that, for five years, De La Hoya’s technical repertoire disintegrated under the supervision of a man who seemed more interested in pop-psychology than fight-analysis. Anyway, in spite of the fact that they hadn’t been on speaking terms in that whole time, Floyd Snr was having ethical misgivings about training De La Hoya to fight his son. Not being one to imperil his conscience without very good reason, he made De La Hoya an offer – he was sure that he could stomach the moral qualms for $2 million, flat fee. The deal didn’t materialize, so Floyd Snr decided to patch things up with Floyd Jnr, the reunion being a very lucrative opportunity to shop De La Hoya’s trade secrets. No statement has been made as to how much he’s being paid for his involvement in his son’s training-camp. At the first face-to-face, De La Hoya said that he was glad he had been able to bring family together, “like it’s supposed to be.” You can see how he’s playing it – a nice Mexican-American kid with good manners. You could see him thinking, “What made me think it was a good idea to get involved with these people?” But that’s not just De La Hoya’s internal monologue – having lost some very controversial decisions, he’s painfully aware that politics can turn scorecards. If the Mayweather camp can be painted as the bad guys between now and May 5, it could make the difference. So, instead of ranting about the machinations behind the scenes, Oscar has made the tactically shrewd decision to play the nice, well-mannered Mexican kid. Not that he needs to try that hard – it’s been his public persona most of the time. Like everyone else, he’s become so good at playing himself that he’s forgotten it’s an act.
In spite of the secrets he possesses, many in the industry hold Floyd Mayweather Snr’s technical competence in such low esteem that they see his presence as a net weakness in the Mayweather training-camp. De La Hoya will be trained for this fight by Freddie Roach, Ring magazine’s Trainer of the Year in 2003 and 2006, and one of the most respected tacticians in the business. He’s boxing’s nearest equivalent to Arsene Wenger, or rather, Wenger is football’s nearest equivalent to Freddie Roach – he has an uncanny ability to recognize and polish under-rated rough diamonds, the Filipino southpaw featherweight Manny Pacquiao (dubbed ‘pacman’ because of his relentless walk-forward style) being perhaps the best example. In spite of having recently developed symptoms of Pugilistic Parkinson’s Syndrome as a result of his own lengthy career as a journeyman fighter, Roach is likely to be a major asset.
Another political angle in the build-up to May 5th is the question of whether either, both, or neither of them will retire afterwards. It was commonly assumed that this would be De La Hoya’s farewell fight. Then, at the post-Baldomir press-conference, Mayweather openly discussed the possibility of retirement. Those were badly timed remarks. De La Hoya immediately started thinking out loud about continuing his career after May 5th. Again, his thinking is shrewd – in the event of a close fight, the judges may side with the fighter likely to bring the bigger projected revenue-stream into the sport. Make the powers that be think that they’ve still got an investment to protect.
Okay, enough of all that. We should be focusing on what’s likely to happen on May 5th. Let’s compare them in various departments. Both men are dazzlingly fast, flashy combination-punchers, but at 29, Mayweather is still in his physical prime, so we can expect him to be very marginally faster, especially if we’re emphasizing reflexes over handspeed. De La Hoya has also developed a lot of technical flaws over the past few years – his head and upper body are now static targets, and he uses a lot of overhand right crosses which, while effective, have worked to the detriment of his once beautiful left hook. He just no longer seems to have the flexibility or lateral movement which used to position him for that left hand. Take a bow, Floyd Snr. It’s unrealistic to expect a trainer even of Freddie Roach’s stature to clear away all the sloppy habits in a little over two months. Admittedly, the left hook made a comeback against Ricardo Mayorga nine months ago, but Mayweather will be an altogether different prospect. On recent showings, I don’t see De La Hoya landing that left hook on anything even approaching a regular basis, and Mayweather’s upper body movement is likely to be easily good enough to slip the right cross. At this level, it’s almost impossible to win a fight with nothing but your jab. I emphasize the word ‘almost’. What De La Hoya has going for him is a significant advantage in reach and physique. Although, he is also two weight-divisions past his best work, he is basically big enough to be a light-middleweight. Mayweather, on the other hand, is a long, long way from home.
The question is whether or not De La Hoya can fully utilize those advantages. It will inevitably sound like a platitude, but both men have huge tactical dilemmas. De La Hoya must attempt to assert his physical advantages without attempting to chase Mayweather, a natural counter-puncher. But then again, De La Hoya is himself better at playing the mouse than the cat. His footwork is tidier when he’s going sideways rather than forward, and upper body movement is often less crucial on the outside because, not playing the aggressive role, you’re not required to slip your opponent’s jab as often. On the other hand, at 33, he should try to conserve energy by controlling ring-centre as much as p
ossible. Mayweather has the reciprocal problem: does he try to get inside in order to minimize his disadvantage in reach? That means that he’s not boxing according to his optimal style. It also makes physique a bigger factor in the contest. He probably won’t try to force his way inside that often, only the occasional raid in situations where his footwork has already outmaneuvered De La Hoya. So what this boils down to is that we’re unlikely to see a slugfest. More likely, we’ll see Mayweather working the outside of the ring most of the time, De La Hoya probing, but not chasing, from the centre – an extremely tactical fight with episodes of long-range pot-shotting. In such a scenario, the single most crucial factor would be the effectiveness of De La Hoya’s jab.
Another unquantifiable factor which may work in De La Hoya’s favour is the point that Mayweather has never fought another hall of famer. He’s had quality opponents, the likes of Jesus Chavez, Zab Judah, and Arturo Gatti, but he’s never fought a superstar who transcended the sport. De La Hoya has fought opponents of such stature on a number of occasions – most notably Felix Trinidad and Bernard Hopkins. Although he lost those fights, he was on the wrong end of a bad decision against Trinidad, and fought at middleweight against Hopkins. Then there were the fights against Shane Moseley, Fernando Vargas, Pernell Whitakker, and Julio Ceasar Chavez. Even if his record says that he’s lost four times, against the very highest caliber of opponent, he is vastly more experienced than Mayweather.
No strong consensus has emerged about which way this fight’s going to go, and with good reason. The romantics say De La Hoya, but Mayweather has been by far the more impressive in the past few years. However, the tactical scenario described above does give De La Hoya a realistic chance, if not a better than even chance. I’m calling it 70-30 for Mayweather, who cannot reasonably hope to stop De La Hoya, but will probably outpoint him 115-113. I recently asked a training partner at my own boxing-club how he felt about this contest. He answered “I feel like an eight year old two weeks before Christmas – it’s unbearable.” I could identify with that – this is worse than waiting for the World Cup. World Cups do come every four years, after all.