"He's a bum."
Time was when this simple insult was sufficient to every circumstance, from the waning days of a tight election to the promotion of an upcoming fight. Spoken by an angry mother-in-law, a squarejohn DA or some lunchdrunk publicist, and directed at a featherweight or a stool pigeon or a philandering husband, "He's a bum!" was an all-purpose indictment of a man's moral, physical and hereditary fitness; of his low prospects and dire history; of his ruined hopes and rotten hygiene; of his bad marriages and broken promises; of his prodigal sons and beatnik-dating daughters. A global blow to ego, it was the sum of all failures in only three syllables. "He's a bum" telegraphed a fortune's worth of insults in all tenses, past, present and future, and condemned a man complete.
Post-racial, post-colonial, colorblind, classless, irreligious, apolitical, "He's a bum" has the genius of brevity, and the virtue of being easily understood by everyone everywhere, of being verbally nonlethal and, in mankind's fallen state, of being universally true.
A bum. The echt expression of the ur insult can be found here in its pure, Platonic form.
But in this pretentious century, with all of us wallowing in excess, including our excess of time, vanity, technology and self-pity, simple insult has faded out of fashion. In the same way our ever-bigger houses suggested our ever-smaller souls until the housing market bustout, the more we speak the less we say.
As Floyd Mayweather's baroque soliloquy last week reminded us.
Floyd Mayweather is a prizefighter. A much-decorated champion in several of the ittier-bittier light-, feather- and welterweight classes, he was monologuing online to call out teensy-weensy Manny Pacquiao, his elusive, erstwhile, or perhaps next or maybe never opponent. For this reason or that reason -- every reason being nonsense in the long tradition of boxing nonsense -- Manny and "Money" and their people haven't been able to "put together" the Big Fight. This being the "once-in-a-lifetime" bout that promises to "save boxing." It won't, of course. Only a great heavyweight champion can save boxing now. Well, maybe several great heavyweights. Several great heavyweights with access to a time machine could save boxing. Only several great heavyweight champions with access to a time machine and a vast unicorn army can return boxing to its glorious past.
In the meantime, Mayweather versus Pacquiao -- when or if -- is spoken of as a very big deal among the shills and touts in the velveteen sportsbooks out on the Strip or at the Lindy's up on 33rd Street. Especially at a time when boxing is bleeding fan base to mixed martial arts. MMA is fantastically popular with people who don't know any better because let's face it, who wouldn't tune in to see a guy James Toney's size and shape last nearly four minutes in the ring before the folks from Greenpeace push him back into the sea? Good thing he was wearing that MedicAlert bracelet.
Help! I've fallen and Randy Couture won't let me up!
Was the boxing kangaroo already booked?
Anyway. Floyd went all stream-of-consciousness and blue and viral the other night. Himself the size of a wedding cake topper, Floyd called Pacquiao out for being small enough to wear as a boutonniere, and further asserted that Pacquiao is chicken, or can cook chicken or could maybe just bring some chicken to the table. Floyd did not just use the F-word. He used all the F-words.
The unedited thing -- with me and the smiling ghost of Mr. Walt Disney himself issuing you this special, personal, all-caps warning w/exclamation point WARNING! for fantastically immature "mature content," and for bad language and bad faith and poor grammar and brainless Not-Safe-For-Work-Or-Play racism and miserable homophobia and smug condescension and irredeemable self-regard -- well, I still can't link directly to it even with all of those disclaimers. I'm confident you'll find it.
And let me just say that if that's what it takes to save boxing, let it die. In fact, grab that pillow and help me smother it on its deathbed.
So. I was going to throw down a thousand words for today on feuds and sports and language, on anger and prejudice, on violence and rivalry and smallness of moral purpose. I'd have cited maybe Ohio State and Michigan; Frazier and Ali; Connors and McEnroe; Steinbrenner and Martin, Steinbrenner and Berra, Steinbrenner and Jackson, et al.; the Hatfields and McCoys, Montagues and Capulets, Jets and Sharks, and so on, but just as I was working myself up into a red hot lather of feigned righteousness, Mayweather went back online and apologized.
The abridged version of which is here. Legend has it that the full-length, art house director's cut of Mayweather's "apology" runs more than half an hour. If so, it is the "Berlin Alexanderplatz" of apologies.
Weirder still, it's not really even an apology.
It's a soft, scented blanket of universal affirmation. A warm cardigan of responsibility not taken. A floral non-denial denial that might or might not explain or excuse or perfume anything Mr. Mayweather has ever said or done to anyone anywhere in regard to anything or anybody else -- be they Hindu or Inuit or Man in the Moon or short of stature or bird in the sky or creature of the deep or rider on this roller coaster we call Life, etc., and so forth, it's all good, all about The Love, World Without End, amen and aaah-choo! It's the Internet Escape Clause, the rambling, inch-deep, mile-wide "I'm sorry you were offended," rather than "I'm sorry for what I said because what I said is indefensibly evil and wrong;" a content-free greeting card pouring saccharine into the lap of whomever makes the mistake of opening it.
So this isn't a sports feud at all. Nor is it even a successful promotion for that Mayweather/Pacquiao fight "everyone" wants to see. It's just another vanity project gone wrong, another midnight video someone shouldn't have posted, another example of empty self-expression gone wrong in the age of empty self-expression.
Floyd Mayweather manages to make of himself just another radio talk show host or politician with nothing to say and a million ways to say it trying to walk back a gaffe after the gaffe has done its work.
Which is about half heartbreaking. In the same way that the cheesecake at Lindy's lost all its flavor somewhere on the journey into the 21st century, boxing lost the courage of even its lousiest, most cynical convictions.
The first rule of a real feud? Never apologize, never explain. Rush Limbaugh and Rahm Emanuel both know this.
So which was real? The angry rant? Or the generic walkback? Thursday's diatribe from Mayday Mayweather of the Late Night Rave? Or the Friday syrup Reverend Mayweather ladled over it to make the worst of it go away?
Boxing as hateful and insincere as American politics? Even the phony bombast is inauthentic in this disappointing century.
Next time just say, "He's a bum."
Politician or prizefighter.
He's a bum.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.