Mayweather-De La Hoya: Don’t Let the Flurries Fool You
If last night’s super welterweight fight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Oscar De La Hoya had been judged solely by crowd reaction or by how active each boxer’s fists were, then the outcome would have been different. I’d even go so far as to say the sport’s popularity among lay audiences would go through the roof if those were the deciding factors in a fight. After all, campy crapola like “American Idol” has managed to remain disturbingly popular not because of the talent on the show or even because of Simon’s antics. It’s remained popular because people can call in and vote and see their perspective reflected in who stays and who goes. Imagine what text message voting would do for boxing? Then imagine what it would do to boxing. Then thank God there are judges who, for the most part, know what they are doing.
In sports like basketball, football, soccer and baseball, the scoreboard never lies. If you’re down twenty at halftime, you know that you’re being outplayed. You can take heart in the effort you’ve put forth, but you can’t tell yourself you’re winning. Boxing is different, though. Fights are won and lost on the basis of technique and strategy, on how well one fighter not only imposes his will but manages to repel the imposition of his opponent’s will.
But while these ingredients inform the “science” of the sport, how they play themselves out in the mind is anything but certain. In boxing a guy – Oscar De La Hoya, in fact – can fight 12 rounds and be soundly beaten in at least half of those rounds and still say afterwards, “I landed the harder, crisper punches. I felt when I landed my punches I could see I was hurting him.” In what other sport does what the athlete ‘feels’ count for anything other than an excuse for a crappy showing or an explanation for a stellar one? In boxing, another guy – Floyd “The Predator” Mayweather Sr. – can stand next to Larry “The Lush” Merchant and say, “If you go by a points system, you have to give it to Oscar,” after his victorious son publically pronounced his respect and appreciation for him. In what other context does what a jilted and arguably deranged father has to say carry any credibility when it comes to analyzing an outcome in which he is personally invested? In boxing, still another guy – Brian Denny – can conclude that because De La Hoya threw 106 more power punches “the fight was one round from being a draw.” In what other sport can the outcome be legitimately questioned and that questioning become the basis for serious doubt and debate? I mean, would we have called the Dallas-Golden State series a draw if the Mavericks had taken more shots than the Warriors?
“Science” of any kind is a dangerous instrument in the wrong hands. Just look at what the phrenologists of the 19th century were able to do by ‘scientifically’ proving black people’s brains were smaller than white’s brains. As for those who specialize in sports style hatchet jobs, “science” is the perfect tool for the task. Brian Denny and Floyd Sr. (for different reasons, I’m sure) rely on the stats that favor their prejudices to decide their version of the outcome. Meanwhile, the far more discerning statistics get closeted. Fact is, Mayweather landed 207 of 481 punches to 122 of 587 for De La Hoya. Mayweather also landed more power punches than De La Hoya, outscoring him 138-82.
Clearly, De La Hoya’s strategy was to throw punches. The technique he used for carrying out this strategy included a heavy dosage of jabbing early on and a series of semi-successful body shots later in the fight. Equally evident was Mayweather’s strategy: to actually land punches. His technique called for less swinging, more deflecting, and a series of precisely timed attacks. Both fighters gambled. De La Hoya banked on connecting. Mayweather banked on finding his openings. You can’t help but compare their styles to that of the superpower and the guerilla warrior. One sought to overwhelm (“shock and awe,” perhaps) his adversary in hopes of drubbing him into servility. The other attacked quickly, retreated, eluded, then repeated. The irony is that De La Hoya’s aggressive offense was really his best defense, while Mayweather’s defense opened the door for his most damaging offense.
Round 5 was the turning point of the fight, when it seemed to dawn on everyone that Mayweather had an actual fight plan. Before that, it appeared as though De La Hoya was dictating the fight primarily because he was the aggressor. With just two stiff rights to De La Hoya’s dome-piece, though, that all changed instantaneously. All of a sudden, we saw that Mayweather was allowing De La Hoya to back him into the ropes, letting him work himself into a frenzy, and that he was waiting for the right moment to damage him before receding yet again. It wasn’t always a perfectly executed plan, but for the first two-and-a-half minutes of each round he never strayed from it, and in round 5 it paid off handsomely.
Was it the most exciting fight? Probably not. Too methodical. Was it a great fight? A great fight requires drama in the ring not just outside of it. There was no serious threat of a knock-down, much less a knock-out. Neither fighter bled or suffered serious swelling. At fight’s end, De La Hoya looked like he’d just finished a morning jog, and he was the loser. It was a good fight, not a great one. Did people get their money’s worth? Let’s see, the fight went 12 rounds. Both fighters were in top form. Both fought with purpose. And by the middle of the 12th round the crowd of 16,200 was on its feet. I’d say it was worth it.
About the split decision. For the winner, it’s a step up from kissing a sister, but just a step. For the loser, it’s like losing a girlfriend to another girl: not as painful as it would be had it been a guy. Mayweather gets to walk out with the belt, but with the gnawing sense that at least one judge (Tom Kaczmarek) thought he lost. Meanwhile, De La Hoya gets to walk out with his self-respect in tact and the respite of knowing at least one judge saw the fight as he saw it, even if they are both wrong. There really is no comparison to the split decision in any other sport. It’s not a tie. It’s not a buzzer beater or a last second field goal or the ninth-inning homer. With those you either get unmitigated elation or incredible despair; you get last-second heroics or unparalleled choke artistry; you get a “W” or an “L” when all that matters is winning. Despite anything they might say right after the fight, the split decision leaves both fighters a little unsatisfied, a little irked. One guy wants to lick the other without qualification; the other believes he was so close that he can’t help but want a second crack. Most importantly for the sport of boxing, though, both fighters might just be motivated enough to hold off on retirement for one more payday.