The Sweet Science Takes Center Stage
“De La Hoya/Mayweather 24/7″ might be the most ingenious reality series ever produced. Imagine When We Were Kings in real time and with more twists and turns, a high-stakes version of The Contender, and a Shakespearean drama with equal elements of tragedy, history and comedy all rolled into one. The stakes couldn’t be higher or more historically significant. The stars couldn’t have been better cast for their roles. They are a true study in contrasts in everything from fighting to lifestyle. De La Hoya is the very quintessence of mainstream enterprise, American values, and the brighter side of the American dream. From his good looks to his polished mannerisms to his stable home life, De La Hoya sparkles as a perfect 21st Century stand-in for the Great White Hope. Meanwhile, his opponent, Mayweather, comes off as the latest in the long line of irascible, unpredictable balls of contradiction that have defined great black fighters dating back to Jack Johnson. He is a disciplined fighter with unmatched work ethic, and yet he is also a grotesquely puerile, vain, and gaudy young man. You genuinely want to root for him because he is a great fighter with a good heart, but then you can’t help but think his overblown ego could use a check. Even then, though, once you see where he came from, who raised him and how much of his childhood was taken from him for this thing called boxing, you see him as a child reliving the youth he never had, and you find yourself sympathizing with him all over again. Add into this already confusing mix, the father-son-uncle drama swirling around the Mayweather camp, and you start to ask yourself, is this for real? Am I really watching this insanity unfold before my eyes? It is, though, and you are.
Boxers are a unique breed. That’s the first thing you are confronted with watching the series. In order to reach the top of their particular line of work, they have to have more than talent, work ethic and a little luck. They have to be a little crazy. Locating the strain of madness in Mayweather isn’t all that hard. You meet his father, Floyd Sr., a grizzled, dread-locked bull-dog of a man in his fifties who is completely unable to see his shortcomings; a man who sincerely believes he has done no wrong in his life and that his son’s success is a testament to that. You also meet the father’s younger brother, Floyd Jr’s uncle and trainer, Roger Mayweather. Roger has been hit so many times and lost so many teeth that he sounds like he’s speaking a dialect of gibberish whenever he opens his mouth. But Roger believes he’s funny. He is constantly laughing and carrying on. He honestly thinks his brand of humor translates to the viewer. It does not. Floyd Jr. also believes he is as witty and charming as Muhammad Ali. He thinks his put-downs of De La Hoya are hilarious just because his yes-men laugh at everything that comes out of his mouth. He is wrong. He thinks saying his jokes louder than everyone makes them funnier. He is wrong. He thinks his “realness” excuses his juvenile obsession with money. He is wrong. He believes taking care of his kids and engaging in spontaneous acts of charity pardons his childish public behavior. He is wrong.
At the same time, watching all of three of these life-long fighters in and out of the ring, you start to understand that they have to be this way. Narcissism comes with the territory. Unshakeable belief is central to their livelihoods. There is no room for doubt, for questioning. In and out of the ring, instinct and intellect are one. The only code they know is kill or be killed; every moment of every day is combat; fighting is life. Together, the Mayweathers are as dysfunctional as The Soprano’s or any other screwy, but loveable family you’ll find on HBO. They are boxing savants who don’t know anything else, who you’d be afraid for if this one thing they do well in the world was ever taken away from them.
Locating that madness in De La Hoya is like searching for fingerprints on a gun that’s been wiped down by a master assassin. His madness, if I can call it such, lies in his obsession with his image. He comes off so polished, so Americanized, so “white-washed” that you can almost understand Mayweather’s disdain for him. There is something missing from De La Hoya, something that makes him ultimately uninteresting unless, like me, you make a habit of looking beneath the facade of the perfect life. Only then do you realize that he’s actually still fighting even though he doesn’t have to. De La Hoya has already generated $492 million dollars in pay-per view fight revenues alone. After this fight he will be the highest grossing fighter of all time. There is something to this otherwise unnecessary foray into the ring, something that speaks to either an unfulfilled longing inside, a maniacal drive for wealth, an almost slavish sense of obligation to his fans or all three.
In certain respects, the De La Hoya I’ve come to know through the series reminds of the Michael Jordan that came out of retirement to play for the Wizards— a man who has it all but still hasn’t had enough. Some might call it the competitive drive, but something De La Hoya said about his son in the third episode made me question that. Most athletes long for their sons to follow in their footsteps. Mayweather already has his in the ring with him. De La Hoya hopes his son doesn’t go into boxing. To him, fighting was a means to an end, a necessary evil, the grunt work of an outsider making his way into the idealized America. Listening to him talk about his son it almost sounded as if he is ashamed of his calling. But if he honestly feels that way, why is he fighting at all?
Therein, I believe, lies the conflict.
Ultimately, De La Hoya’s madness lies in his conflicted relationship with his calling. He seems secretly ashamed of what he has had to do in order to make his fortune, something Mayweather intuits and uses to provoke him to little avail because De La Hoya is virtually unflappable. Maybe I’m reaching, but notice his friends. Towards the end of the third episode he calls Michael J. Fox to personally invite him to the fight. I don’t know Fox, but how many boxers would you find hanging out with a forty-something actor whose claim to fame is a twenty-year old sitcom? While Mayweather revels in being “real” (ie. ‘I hide nothing. I am ashamed of nothing. This is who I am’), De La Hoya looks like the wide-eyed American idealist who grew up in the shadow of star-studded Hollywood, used his talent to get out, but is still a little insecure about his modest upbringing. In my estimation, both fighters come off as though they are trying too hard.
As I watched all three episodes this past weekend, I noticed how one minute I thought De La Hoya was going to kick Mayweather’s ass, and the next I swore Mayweather was going to dismantle De La Hoya. Every five minutes my mind was changing. What was different, for me at least, was that I wasn’t basing my judgments purely on whom I personally liked. Having learned about both men and watched the way they trained, I honestly believed they both had a chance. The show was like an equalizer, a playing field leveler. It removed my personal bias from the equation. I couldn’t just root for Mayweather because he was black or because he was undefeated or because he is supposedly the “pound-for-pound” best fighter in the world. I couldn’t just root against De La Hoya because I don’t personally agree with the assimilationist ideals he stands for. Instead, I was being drawn into the psychological element of the fight, all of the factors that can affect a fighter’s concentration.
The Promoters think they have a chance to come close to the record 2 million pay-per-view sales set in the second fight between Tyson and Holyfield. The fight will definitely be the richest non-heavyweight fight of all time, and could be the richest fight of any kind. If so, “De La Hoya/Mayweather 24/7″ will have to be credited with attracting a wider audience than expected. According to published reports, the first episode of the series was viewed by 1.4 million people, many of whom I imagine had either lost interest in the sport or never had any to begin with. HBO’s On Demand package offers tons of free bonus material to subscribers. You can watch old fights, short biographies, and greatest-hits videos at your leisure. Whether HBO has figured out a way to use this modern technology to revitalize a dying sport is still up for debate, but they certainly have help generate the buzz for this fight. I’m willing to bet that a lot of the people who tuned into the series these past few weeks will be watching the fight because of the series. I know I will. I have to see the fight now. I’ve invested too much time in watching the build-up. I’ve become too deeply intertwined in the stories surrounding it and with the stakes involved for both fighters (more is at stake for Mayweather) not to see it through.