There’s something not quite right about people in their late 70s dropping the phrase “It’s all about the Benjamins” into casual conversation. But that’s precisely what 78-year-old Bob “B. Diddy” Arum did when chatting with 79-year-old Larry Merchant at a dinner some months back.
And those five words were rattling around in Merchant’s mind when he came up with his latest bit of imaginative matchmaking, the Manny Pacquiao vs. Saul “Canelo” Alvarez idea that he tossed out from a deep corner of left field at the conclusion of the Nov. 27 HBO boxing broadcast.
Merchant has done this before. He suggested Oscar De La Hoya vs. Shane Mosley to Arum back when Sugar Shane was still a lightweight, and it came to fruition about a year later as a marquee event and a magnificent fight in which the guy given little chance by most of the public ultimately prevailed. And Merchant conceived of De La Hoya vs. Pacquiao when the fighters were three weight divisions apart, and once again enormous revenue was generated and conventional wisdom was upended in the ring.
Because of Merchant’s track record, broadcast partner Jim Lampley, despite his countenance contorting with bemusement, resisted the urge to laugh in Merchant’s face on the air when the veteran color commentator suggested Pacquiao-Alvarez. In the living rooms of fight fans the world over, the reaction was generally more dismissive. Of all Merchant’s hare-brained schemes, his notion of pound-for-pound king Pacquiao facing neophyte Alvarez a year from now seemed the most hare-brained yet.
But as with De La Hoya-Pacquiao, if you give it time to sink in, it actually makes an awful lot of sense. I’d prefer to see it in 2012 rather than 2011, but the bottom line is this: I’ve come to believe Merchant is really onto something.
“Having star potential is about some combination of elements that goes beyond what you do as a fighter,” Merchant explained to me when I asked how the unproven Alvarez flew onto his mega-fight radar. “Being a star is rarer than being a champion—especially these days, when hardly anybody walking isn’t a champion in boxing. There are many champions, very few stars and fewer superstars. Alvarez is a kid who has that superstar potential.
“Whether he has the ability to maximize it remains to be seen.”
This past Saturday night, Canelo took a small step toward convincing the public of his ability with a workmanlike, one-sided 12-round decision win over sturdy vet Lovemore Ndou that was televised by HBO Latino. This came on the heels of a spectacular knockout of Carlos Baldomir, a former lineal champion who hadn’t been knocked out in the previous 16 years, and before that, solid TKO wins over Luciano Cuello and Jose Miguel Cotto.
Alvarez still hasn’t tangled with a world-beater, but over the course of 12 successive fights prior to taking on Baldomir, his opponents had a combined record of 212-19-8. For a fighter who turned 20 in July, Alvarez most definitely is not being matched soft.
But a prospect making progress does not necessarily a challenger to the best fighter in the world make. Especially when that prospect is slow-fisted and Pacquiao happens to be fast enough to flip off the light switch and have his opponents asleep before the room goes dark.
Whether Alvarez can beat Pacquiao in a year (or two years) is only part of the equation here. For Merchant, the idea grew out Arum’s pursuit of Benjamins and Arum’s promotional rival De La Hoya’s insistence that Alvarez is transcending boxing in Mexico by bringing female fans into the arenas.
What’s hot with Mexicans typically becomes hot with Mexican-Americans, and we’re seeing that with Alvarez, who was clearly the most popular fighter with the crowd at Los Angeles’ Staples Center when he fought Baldomir underneath the Shane Mosley-Sergio Mora main event.
HBO executives have indicated they’re interested in featuring Alvarez three times in 2011, and that’s precisely how you elevate a fighter’s name into the Pacquiao discussion.
So whatever you think of a then-21-year-old Alvarez’s chances of being competitive with Pacquiao, you have to admit that, from a marketability standpoint, Merchant’s idea isn’t far-fetched.
And I’ll take it a step further and say that, if timed correctly—again, I like spring or fall of 2012 over fall of 2011—Pacquiao vs. Alvarez could be the best possible thing for the health of boxing.
It’s undeniable that the two biggest pay-per-view attractions in boxing right now are Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather. What do they have in common? Both were passed the torch of superstardom by De La Hoya, the man who carried the PPV industry below the heavyweight division for the better part of 13 years. Normally, a torch is passed from one champion to another, but in this case, “The Golden Boy” passed half of it to one conqueror and half to another.
Well, neither Mayweather nor Pacquiao are going to be around forever, and in a perfect world, they’ll pass the torch and transfer superstardom to someone younger before they go.
Nobody knows when or if Mayweather will box again. If $40-million-plus doesn’t make him want to end his vacation, it’s hard to guess what will. Plus it’s hard to pass your torch from jail. (Feel free to insert your own “pass your torch” prison-sex-euphemism joke here.)
So that leaves Pacquiao as the stronger candidate to anoint boxing’s next superstar by losing to him. Maybe Alvarez can be that guy and maybe he can’t, but wouldn’t you be excited to see a fight with those sort of stakes? Wouldn’t it be meaningful to watch Pacquiao, before his career is complete, face a couple of guys like that instead of riding into the sunset on a string of only Margaritos and Mosleys and Marquezes?
Of course, there’s one potential hiccup that could render moot any discussions of the competitiveness of the fight or the public’s interest in: Pacquiao-Alvarez would require Top Rank and Golden Boy to work together.
Specifically, it would require Top Rank to risk its biggest star and Golden Boy to risk its biggest potential future star.
If Alvarez is seen as a real threat to Pacquiao in 2011 or 2012, would Arum be willing to let Golden Boy’s hot shot bump him off? If Pacquiao is still seen as too much for Alvarez in ’11 or ’12, would GBP sacrifice him like that just for one big payday?
On the flip side, would anything give Arum greater pleasure than to watch his guy ruin Golden Boy’s most golden of boys? And even if he’d be a big underdog, wouldn’t the upside of an Alvarez win over Pacquiao (plus the one-night payday) be worth the risk for De La Hoya and company?
There might be specific conditions required for Arum to be make the deal, such as him needing to be the lead promoter and/or him having reason to believe Pacquiao is a fight or two from retirement at that time.
As far as Golden Boy’s potential hesitations, they should remember: Ray Mancini’s popularity and career weren’t adversely affected at all by his defeat at the hands of Alexis Arguello. If anything, his popularity grew and the narrative of his attempt to win a title for his father was enhanced.
Ultimately, Pacquiao-Alvarez is a little bit out there, but not a lot out there. It is a realistic possibility to consider, even if it didn’t seem that way at first blush.
“Jim [Lampley] seemed dubious when I said it, but that’s okay,” Merchant said. “His reaction was sort of, ‘Why don’t you quit while you’re ahead?’ Well, that’s not the way it works. Look, I have a tendency to think in a different way sometimes. Maybe I’m a little too eager to look for the next guy and the next guy. Or maybe this idea is premature by six months or a year; maybe 2012 is more realistic.
“But maybe if you wait that long, Pacquiao has already been beaten. You want to capitalize on this moment because however great Pacquiao is, somebody’s going to beat him if he’s out there long enough.”
Until a few days ago, nobody would have considered Alvarez as a candidate to be that “somebody.” And perhaps most of you reading still don’t think he’d have a prayer.
But be honest: How many of you said the exact same thing about Pacquiao until the bell rang for his fight against De La Hoya?
• In case you’re curious whether Alvarez’s performance against Ndou impacted Merchant’s point of view in any way, here’s what the Hall of Fame broadcaster had to say on Sunday: “I haven’t seen as complete a 20-year-old fighter in some time. His technical skills, both on offense and defense and how they flow from each other, his presence in the ring, how he intuits what’s going on and what his opponent is doing, his strength and will and courage and desire—they’re all on the high end. Whether that translates into greatness or something approaching that, we really don’t know. But he’s fought two old pros, both of whom came to try to win, and he beat them decisively.”
• Sometimes you can be wrong and still be right. On last week’s episode of Ring Theory, I predicted a victory for Urbano Antillon over Humberto Soto and I predicted that Wladimir Sidorenko would last the distance against Nonito Donaire. Those were both incorrect. But I also said Donaire had top-five pound-for-pound talent and came out looking good on that one, and I declared that Soto-Antillon would be a magnificent fight. Not to mention, fights like Donaire vs. Fernando Montiel and Soto vs. Brandon Rios being on tap for 2011 confirms my theory expressed over the summer that 2010 will go down as a “rebuilding year” in the sport.
• Hopefully Nate Campbell’s retirement will be one of the few that sticks, and here’s an idea to help prevent him from returning for financial reasons: Hire him as Brian Kenny’s permanent studio co-host on ESPN2’s Friday Night Fights. The outspoken and intelligent Campbell has a chance to be the Charles Barkley of boxing.
• I never thought I’d say, “Please put that fight in a stale casino setting,” but when it comes to Tim Bradley vs. Devon Alexander, I’m saying it. The Pontiac Silverdome held 93,173 for WrestleMania III. Could anything be more depressing for boxing than an HBO broadcast of a fight with 90,000 empty seats?