So begins our marathon coverage of one of the biggest fights of 2013, Floyd Mayweather vs. Robert Guerrero on Showtime pay-per-view May 4. Now: putting Mayweather-Guerrero in context. Next: the undercard, previewed.
Some of the basics of the Floyd Mayweather story leading into his battle Saturday against Robert Guerrero are unchanged: He's still the consensus best fighter in the world, his opponent is a considerable underdog and he's still the premier pay-per-view attraction in the sport. It's the world around Mayweather that has shifted dramatically.
Manny Pacquiao, Mayweather's rival for so many years for best/biggest, is no longer a rival for either title, having lost two in a row, the second a savage knockout by Juan Manuel Marquez of the variety that can end careers. Mayweather has switched trainers from uncle Roger to father Floyd, Sr. And Mayweather has departed the company of HBO, the undisputed industry giant, for the company of Showtime, which is now challenging HBO's supremacy with the move that could be the richest for any athlete ever by the time the deal concludes.
It is understandable, then, that much of the focus on Mayweather-Guerrero has been on how the bout has been promoted by Showtime and parent company CBS; whether Mayweather has reached a saturation point and how much he interests people as he now stands inexorably separated from the name "Pacquiao;" and on what's next for him after Guerrero.
We'll examine the merits of Mayweather-Guerrero here some, but reserve some of that for later coverage. For right now, we'll mainly try to place Mayweather-Guerrero in the proper overall context.
In short, Guerrero belongs here. There were few more available, appealing opponents than Guerrero. A Pacquiao fight, never likely to happen anyway, was spoiled by February, when Mayweather signed up to face Guerrero. Junior middleweight Saul "Canelo" Alvarez would've been bigger because of his immense popularity; Alvarez just got the top win of his career over Austin Trout a couple weeks ago, but Guerrero was more accomplished when Mayweather signed to face him. Mayweather has already beaten Marquez. Timothy Bradley might have a better welterweight resume, but he's with Top Rank, the promotional enemy of Mayweather's de facto promoter, so forget about it. Middleweight champ Sergio Martinez would've been willing to shed a few pounds to face Mayweather and would've been better than Guerrero in every way — the only clear-cut better option in every way, and one who's no longer as viable going forward after his showing the past weekend.
When Guerrero first began talking about fighting Mayweather, it was laughable — he was a one-time featherweight who had swiftly moved up to junior lightweight and lightweight, with some stumbles along the way, like a loss to borderline contender Gamaliel Diaz (later avenged), a loss to Orlando Salido (later overturned when Salido flunked a drug test), a no contest against Daud Yordan where many thought Guerrero used the head butt-induced cut as an excuse to lobby his way out of a bout where he was struggling and a knockdown by ancient Joel Casamayor. There were some impressive performances sprinkled throughout, like the domination of Michael Katisidis or the swift knockout of Martin Honorio during a time when his wife's struggle with leukemia was at its peak.
Then he moved up to welterweight and proved in two performances that he belonged. He didn't just beat Selcuk Aydin and Andre Berto — he imposed himself on them physically, bullied them, took the ostensibly bigger men's punches in a way that suggested he was no blown-up featherweight. In so doing, he became a top-5 welterweight, and a top-20 pound-for-pound boxer regardless of weight. He hasn't faced anyone even in Mayweather's ballpark, unlike Mayweather's last opponent, Miguel Cotto, who had taken on a number of pound-for-pound level fighters, win or lose. Guerrero is more like Mayweather's opponent previous to Cotto, Victor Ortiz, in that he's inexperienced at the highest level but young and talented. Guerrero doesn't have Ortiz's natural speed and power, but then, nor does he have the same tendency toward inexplicable flakeouts, despite some uneven performances dotting his record. He's also a southpaw like Ortiz, a stance that has given Mayweather spots of trouble, and he has an ability to maul and pressure that has given Mayweather spots of trouble.
Guerrero is about a 5-1 betting underdog. A few years ago, though, Guerrero wouldn't have even been that. But Mayweather is 36 now, and while still the best — some would say super middleweight Andre Ward has taken that designation — he is older, with slower legs. Cotto hit Mayweather plenty. Ortiz, some would say (including myself) was getting increasingly competitive with Mayweather just before the bout ended on that weird head butt/knockout sequence. Shane Mosley had him nearly knocked out early. Mayweather had been a good deal more untouchable more often than not prior to those three bouts. Three is definitely a trend. That's one of the reasons why he's switched from Roger to his pa, given his pa's emphasis on defensive training. Whether his dad's tutelage can make up for what's happened to Mayweather's legs, we'll find out soon enough.
Set-Up For What?
Mayweather-Guerrero, though, is a fight that transpires in something of a void. The question asked here is relevant: Will people care about Mayweather as much now that there's no measuring stick in Pacquiao? After their initial failed negotiations, I lost hope that Mayweather-Pacquiao would ever happen years ago. But boxing history is such that a fight of Mayweather-Pacquiao's size — at its peak, it would've broken PPV records — almost always has happened eventually, no matter the reasons the two originally stayed apart. That was enough for many people to hold out hope that it would occur, and because they inhabited the same weight class and pound-for-pound neighborhoods, it was always the discussion taking place as a central feature of any Pacquiao or Mayweather bout.
Somewhere along the way in the aging process, both Mayweather and Pacquiao stopped dominating their opponents so easily, and that led to more competitive (and therefore more interesting and dramatic) fights that stood on their own to a greater degree. In a void, Mayweather vs. X and Pacquiao vs. Y still held interest, and that's why Mayweather-Guerrero has some. Mayweather, too, is a fighter people follow for reasons unrelated to prospects for competition. When you're as good as Mayweather, some fans will watch no matter who you face, just to see someone that good doing what he does so well. And Mayweather's personality appeals to some, repulses other, but attracts a significant number of both audiences.
Will Alvarez now be the boxer whose name hovers over every Mayweather bout? He certainly is no equal for Pacquiao in that regard. And unless Mayweather hopes he eventually gets there, Mayweather might be wise to take the challenge of Alvarez sooner rather than later. Alvarez is a 22-year-old who's getting better all the time, but who is already massively popular with Mexican fans and has crossover appeal with audiences of every nationality, including the female audience that helped make Oscar De La Hoya bigger than everyone else for a long spell. If Mayweather waits too long, the naturally bigger Canelo might get dangerously too good very soon, and then we'll be hearing again about Mayweather ducking Canelo like he ducked Pacquiao. Maybe that's what Mayweather wants. But as of the Guerrero fight, anyway, there's no "other" for Mayweather.
The Promotion, The Test, The Oversaturation?
Mayweather's accumen for the business of Floyd Mayweather, boxer, is unparalleled — it's true that while Top Rank built up his career to a degree, it took off after he became a free agent — so the degree of control he has in promoting the Guerrero bout is something I have trouble questioning based on his track record. But if you look at this promotion, it borders on hagiography. The countdown show produced for Mayweather-Guerrero actually calls Mayweather "an American patriot." The image Mayweather wants to present, he presents; the "Mayweather" documentary produced by Ross Greenburg features approximately five straight minutes of Mayweather counting his money. He bristled at how HBO's 24/7 show presented him by the end of his run, and we're seeing now a Mayweather-centric product with All Access.
Maybe some of that Mayweather-centricness is for the best. Guerrero was brought in as the white hat to Mayweather's villain, a devout Christian whose wife's illness made him a sympathetic figure. But Guerrero has rubbed some non-religious people the wrong way, talking about God more than any fighter I can remember, and some find that level of preachiness a huge turn-off. Then, the "good guy" got busted with a gun in a New York airport, and Guerrero's prospect for a long jail sentence no longer contrasted so neatly with the recently-jailed Mayweather. This all could still pay off, mind you, but it isn't exactly as originally planned — perhaps Guerrero's guns and God thing will reach a red state audience and test how big of a constituency they can be. That Guerrero has derailed the good/bad set-up is probably why Mayweather is increasingly hammering away at Guerrero, even suggesting he has used his wife's illness to get fans. (He has. But every boxer sells his "story." No shame in that.) He's also criticized Guerrero as some kind of hypocrite for loving God and having guns (echoes of candidate Barack Obama?) and liking Marilyn Monroe (OK, I don't get that). Maybe Mayweather is playing up the red state/blue state divide, maybe he's trying to make himself more villainous than Guerrero, maybe he's merely trying to get into Guerrero's head.
Whether any of that Mayweather-focused marketing works will be a test of his new deal with Showtime and CBS. People are already wondering whether the bout has been OVER-promoted, whether Mayweather has reached the point of oversaturation. And it's a potentially six-fight deal. How well this all goes for Mayweather-Guerrero will either reinforce the formula or, if it fails, the second-guessing of Showtime giving Mayweather such a massive deal will begin. Critics are already looking for signs of failure; I'm with Michael Woods here in thinking the "Mayweather" doc that aired on Showtime was more of a ratings/marketing success than a letdown. But Mayweather has reached the point where merely cracking a million PPV buys is not an achievement. With as much muscle and money as has been put into Mayweather-Guerrero, even with Guerrero as a less-recognizable opponent than a Mosley or Cotto and perhaps therefore less buzz, even without the spectre of Mayweather-Pacquiao, this is a fight that will be judged by a different, higher standard.