CHICAGO – Inside the ShowPlace ICON Theater on Saturday, hundreds scrambled toward their seats, buckets of popcorn in hand, the anticipation high. At first, it seemed like we were headed toward the same place, auditorium No. 7 to watch Floyd Mayweather Jr. against Andre Berto in what Mayweather had billed as the final fight of his career.
Not exactly, it turns out. The people near the entrance? They were headed to the movies. Mayweather’s supposed swan song took place in front of a half-empty theater, with an audience half asleep by the fight’s end.
That wasn’t surprising, because this was the most Mayweather fight ever: underwhelming opponent selection, lopsided action, the outcome never in doubt, Mayweather complaining about hand pain, dancing away, patrolling the ring, his defensive mastery on display, his undefeated record safe throughout. It ended the same way that all of Mayweather’s fights end now, in a unanimous decision that left most everyone unsatisfied, everyone except Mayweather, who insisted afterward that this is it.
If so, it’s probably for the best, for Mayweather and for boxing. As the fight neared its obvious and inevitable conclusion, Mayweather wagged his tongue and danced around the ring. He fell to his knees and looked skyward. His longtime cutman Rafael Garcia planted a kiss on his left cheek. He hugged his mom. Kenny Bayless, the referee, raised his hand. He thanked God and his voice cracked.
Mayweather was clearly emotional, but it seemed difficult for the crowd that watched him here to match his level of emotion. Sure, they clapped politely, and even a few cheered. But it was at best a muted celebration, more like the ending to an OK movie–that was good, what’s for dinner?–than the ending to an undefeated career.
“It’s official,” Mayweather told Showtime broadcaster Jim Gray inside the ring.
More disinterested claps from the crowd. Some had already left. Others were in the process of streaming toward the exits. “There’s nothing left to prove,” Mayweather said.
He’s right about that. There’s no one left for Mayweather to fight, no boxer in or around his weight class he won’t make look ordinary, no potential scrap that would end any way other than the same way every Mayweather fight ends, with a unanimous decision and a bevy of complaints lobbed in his direction. (Forget, by the way, about Gennady Golovkin. If you think Mayweather runs from welterweights, how do you think he’d approach a true middleweight with Golovkin’s power? It’s an unreasonable ask.)
The takeaway from his recent fights is not exactly fair to Mayweather. But that’s where we are now. That’s the truth. Between Mayweather’s long history of domestic violence, the cash he’s flashed for decades and his own disinterest in the sport he has ruled for 19 years, the interest has waned. It’s the same story, different fight. It feels familiar: same setting, same setup, same skills, same somber celebration. Mayweather is a brilliant boxer. But lately, to watch him, it can be boring. He’s that good at removing his opponents’ strengths and that good at staying out of trouble and that good at making someone like Berto sound formidable when he’s simply not.
I thought maybe the theater would be different. But it was quieter than Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas after the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight ended to the sound of a sad trombone. When the Pay-Per-View undercard started, there were only a handful of people in the theater, and they had to walk by another auditorium that featured the movie Trainwreck, an entertainment option not unlike the main event.
One guy wore a tuxedo. Another guy wore sunglasses indoors. What was most strange was that the audience was about half women, and they didn’t seem to care that a) Mayweather has been jailed for domestic violence or b) that he was fighting at all. It was mostly just silence, the athletic equivalent of Ambien. There were yawns. And that one dude in the row behind me who fell asleep, mouth open.
I went with Michael Cohen, a talented young Packers writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Over deep-dish pizza before the fights, we talked about the rematch between Roman “Rocky” Martinez and Orlando Salido and how that would likely be the best bout of the night. It was. It ended after both men had been knocked down and a knot had formed on Salido’s forehead and the boxers were bloody and bruised and the crowd stood up and cheered. Salido, a 34-year-old with 13 losses, had taken control of the fight but ended up with a draw that felt more like a loss. But it was the action that the crowd desired, the action that it cheered for, the action that has rarely been injected into Mayweather’s fights. He comes from the hit-and-avoid-hits school of boxing, which can be poetic, but not to the casual sports fan.
When Mayweather and Berto came on next, the air left the auditorium. The energy was gone. “Who is Mayweather fighting?” asked one woman.
And that was it, precisely. It didn’t matter. It doesn’t matter now.
In some ways, it’s sad to watch the end of Mayweather’s career. The character he crafted, the wads of cash he waved around, the women he surrounded himself with, the outrageous quotes–he still tries to be that guy, but it doesn’t seem like his heart is in it anymore. Same with boxing. He’s still the best boxer of his generation, still a defensive wizard. But he doesn’t seem to enjoy like he did even a few years back. It’s a job. Same as any job.
The sadder part is he’ll be back. They almost all come back. And everyone who paid $25 to watch Mayweather on the big screen will likely come back, too. The result won’t change, nor will the millions that Mayweather pockets. That’s his legacy: the money, the undefeated record, the feeling that somehow it doesn’t all add up to his claim as the greatest boxer of his time.
It’s self-perpetuating, this cycle, hype into hysteria into disappointment. What Mayweather needs is a break. And boxing needs one, too.