The countdown to boxing’s Fight of the Century is almost over. Even in a sport under-pinned by hype, the showdown between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas this weekend has gone beyond exaggeration. The most conservative forecasts suggest each man will earn in excess of $100 million, making it the richest fight in history – by some margin.
“If the numbers turn out to be what we hope they are,” says Bob Arum, Pacquiao’s promoter, “each fighter will make more money in a single night than a complete season’s payroll of most Major League baseball teams in the US.”
Tickets for the fight, at the MGM Grand hotel, will generate the highest-ever gate for a professional boxing contest. The cheapest seat, in a venue housing 15,000, costs $1,500, rising to $7,500 for a perch at ringside. Come fight night, some tickets may change hands for more than $40,000 each.
The title Fight of the Century was first widely used for Muhammad Ali’s encounter with Joe Frazier in 1971, for which each was paid $2.5m. But Mayweather v Pacquiao is the first super-fight of the social media age, with technology harnessed to maximise revenues. In the US, the cost to viewers watching in HD will be $99.95, so if three million people sign up, the pot will be almost $300m. When foreign TV rights, sponsorship and so on are added, the boxers’ extortionate purse becomes feasible.
Now aged 38, Mayweather has 5.7m followers on Twitter and posts regular video updates from his training camp. Pacquiao is fêted with religious fervour in his native Philippines, where the bell for the first round will ring at around lunchtime on Sunday and massive crowds will watch on huge screens.
Two weeks ago, I visited them both at their respective gyms, Mayweather in Vegas and Pacquiao in LA, and the frenzied atmosphere made it one of my toughest ever assignments on the road for BBC Sport. The boxers had agreed to stage workouts for the media and in each gym, the scramble for position close to ringside resembled the stampede on the first day of the January sales. “Three questions each” was the limit barked at us by the media managers as first Mayweather, then Pacquiao a day later, made their way around the four sides of the ring before demonstrating, in cameo style, breathtaking skills with their fists. In all, they engaged in more than a hundred interviews in sweltering conditions.
So why all the fuss?
Well, it’s rare for two all- time greats to emerge in the same era. It’s even more unusual for the boxers concerned to be fighting in the same weight division – in this case, welterweight.
Mayweather and Pacquiao have featured in 43 world title fights between them, across an unprecedented range of weights. And for boxing fans there is a coiled-spring effect: the contest almost took place in 2010 and the wait has only increased the demand, the desire and the drama.
“It’s a bigger fight because it’s had five years to build,” says Arum. “That’s not saying it’s a better fight, but it’s certainly a bigger fight.”
Arum is now 83 and has operated at the sharp end of promotion for 50 years. A lawyer who worked in the US Justice Department under Robert Kennedy in JFK’s administration of the early 1960s, he was tempted away by boxing and, in particular, Muhammad Ali. Arum has prompted many of the greatest boxers of the past half-century.
“For a fight to be this big, there has to be a cultural statement. It’s not necessarily whose left is better than whose right. To get this level of attention, it has to cross cultures. I put it as a culture clash between ostentatious materialism on the hand and religious, Christian values on the other.”
Mayweather flaunts his Bentleys and Bugattis and until recently showered nightclub patrons with dollar bills. Such behaviour is a long way from– and perhaps influenced by – his child- hood. He was one of six children raised in one- bedroom apartments in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and later New Brunswick, New Jersey. His father dealt in drugs and his mother was addicted to them.
In Vegas recently, Floyd Sr (Mayweather’s trainer) told me an alarming tale illustrating the mayhem in which his son grew up. It was January 1979, Floyd Jr was not yet two years old and about to be deployed as a human shield. Tony Sinclair, Floyd Jr’s uncle, got into an argument with Floyd Sr over a drug deal. Sinclair pulled out a gun.
“I’m sat there with my son, who’s the nephew of the guy who’s going to shoot me,” said Floyd Sr. “My wife was yelling, ‘Give me my baby, give me my baby!’ And he’s got the gun pointing at me, just waiting. So who would be crazy enough to say, ‘Here, here’s the baby’?
“And then he shot a big hole in my leg. And I’m telling you that that woulda been right here in my chest or in my head.” Sinclair was jailed for six months for that altercation and Mayweather Sr was himself imprisoned, for drug offences, in 1993 – which mean he missed his son winning a bronze medal at the Atlanta Olympics three years later. Mayeather Jr has never lost a fight since.
Pacquiao, now 36, also comes from humble roots. He was raised by his mother Dionisia and in 2010 he told me how he had spent much his childhood sleeping in cardboard boxes and surviving on bowls of rice mixed with water.
Born on the southern island of Mindanao, he eventually moved to the capital Manila to support himself and to forge a career in professional boxing. Never have I met a sporting personality who commands such claustrophobic attention at home. When Pacquiao fights, it’s said the crime figures across the Philippines drop dramatically.
In 2010, he was elected as a Congressman to the Philippe House of Representatives and re-elected in 2013. His ability to merge the roles of politician and boxer is one of the most remarkable stories in sport. He, too has faced controversy, with accusations of womanising, gambling and tax evasion. He talks of becoming a born-again Christian and transforming his ways.
For the past decade, he has based his training in Los Angeles under the tutelage of Freddie Roach, who is concerned that Pacquiao may have lost the killer instinct: “He told me he doesn’t have to hurt his opponents, just beat them. He says he just wants to do enough to win. I think religion has a lot to do with it. He just wants to be a nice person.”
Pacquiao has lost five times in 64 flights. Mayweather, a defensive genius, remains unbeaten in 47. “I think a lot of Floyd’s movement has declined and movement is more important for the defensive fights than the offensive one,” according to Arum. “But Mayweather is extraordinarily talents. So will it affect his performance? “We’ll see.”
The Fight of the Century is on Saturday 2nd May at midnight on Sky Sports Box Office