For those of us who long for the days when boxing was the sporting world's crazy uncle, the past few weeks have provided us with a nice hit of nostalgia. Scurrilous allegations, defamation suits and a heavily tattooed man claiming a fear of needles -- Mayweather-Pacquiao isn't Tyson-McNeeley, but it'll do.
Maybe it had to be this way. It's the one fight everyone wants to see, the one fight that could put boxing on the big stage for a solid week in March, and the one fight that could create a Super Bowl-like buzz on a spring Saturday night. So maybe it's fitting that it might not happen over a move straight out of boxing's crazy old days. Floyd Mayweather Jr. is demanding that Manny Pacquiao prove himself innocent of a transgression that only Mayweather and his people are alleging.
This is a tactic worthy of the best disinformation campaigns. You issue a damning proclamation and then stand back and let everyone else deny it. This is what Mayweather's people seem to be doing by asking Pacquiao to submit to random blood testing to prove that he's not using performance-enhancing drugs, whether it be steroids or HGH. And since Pacquiao refuses to consent to anything beyond unlimited urine tests, Mayweather's people can sit back and say, "See? See what we're talking about?"
I know what you're thinking: If Pacquiao doesn't have anything to hide, why doesn't he agree to blood testing? That's become the default position in today's society. Stop at this checkpoint, walk through this machine, hold your arms out for the wand. Not to get too broad here, but we've become so accustomed to proving our innocence in everyday life that we forgot how the system is supposed to work.
This isn't a guy looking to board a plane. This is a guy who is being accused of a crime by the other side, and he's being called upon to prove his innocence despite the complete absence of evidence suggesting guilt.
They cite Pacquiao's ascent through weight classes as circumstantial evidence, but going from a 106-pounder at 16 years old to a 147-pounder at 31 isn't unprecedented. In fact, Mayweather has made a similar run through weight classes starting from his Golden Gloves days. As a 16-year-old in 1993, Mayweather won the national Golden Gloves at 106. The next year, he won at 112; and in '96, he won at 125. Despite the Mayweather camp's insistence on a "level playing field," this isn't similar to a guy hitting 73 homers after never having hit 50.
Clearly, nobody wants to discuss civil liberties; the presumption of guilt is easier and more convenient. Pacquiao's people have cited a dislike of needles as a reason for his refusal to submit to blood testing, and that point has been justifiably mocked by those who cite his obvious like of tattoos. More than needles, it's likely Pacquiao dislikes being singled out, and dislikes being presumed guilty despite never failing a drug test.
This isn't to say that it's totally out of the question that Pacquiao is juicing, or HGHing, or blood-doping, or ingesting something a chemist in the Philippines just realized can make a man's punch mimic a donkey kick. He's got motive (his own legacy) and opportunity (more than enough money), but you could say the same about Mayweather or any other big-time athlete. It's one thing to wonder without proof, another to openly allege without proof.
(Mayweather's people did agree to pay a $10 million fine if he comes in overweight, but that clause came about because he did come in overweight for his last fight, against Juan Manuel Marquez. There is no correlative concerning Pacquiao and performance-enhancing drugs. And that's why Pacquiao filed a defamation suit on Jan. 1.)
There should be a consistent system in place to test boxers -- it's a safety issue as much as anything. And yes, Mayweather is agreeing to the same blood testing his people are demanding of Pacquiao. But I don't blame Pacquiao for rebelling against an arbitrary system that is accompanied by underhanded suggestions that he owes his success to cheating.
Even though most of our innocence has been shredded by the past 15 years of enhancement, there is such a thing as natural greatness. There are people who do things nobody else can do. Both of these guys fit the description.
I've spent time with both men, having been fortunate enough to hang around in both camps as a fly on the wall while reporting profiles for ESPN The Magazine, and their actions in this nutty back-and-forth are perfectly consistent with their personalities.
Mayweather is a gamesman, a master tactician in and out of the ring. He talks a lot and manages to infiltrate the minds of his opponents before they step into the ring. He's all flash and dash, but he studies the game and is fiercely proud of his legacy as an undefeated fighter. He has a reputation for ducking lesser fighters than Pacquiao to retain that distinction. But this fight is so big, and the potential payoff so preposterous, that Mayweather almost has no choice but to take it. That has led some in the Pacquiao camp to conclude that Floyd is using the drug issue as a straw man either to get out of the fight or to use as an excuse if he were to lose.
While I was with him in Las Vegas before his fight with Oscar De La Hoya, in the spring of '07, for no apparent reason Floyd began counting out $100 bills on the apron of a ring at his training camp. Coupled with his ceaseless, caustic banter, it managed to be hilarious and slightly sad at the same time. His almost fetishistic relationship with money -- acquiring it and spending it, reportedly at roughly the same rate -- creates the impression of a shallow man. When it comes to boxing, though, he trains maniacally to preserve his legacy.
Mayweather's sense of his own importance is epic, even amid the false-idol world of the superstar athlete. Among his contingent of helpers was a guy whose only apparent responsibility was to start Mayweather's car so that it was running when he got in.
Pacquiao has a contingent, too -- family members and friends who live with him and rush around to be first to cater to his next need. When he was training for the Ricky Hatton bout last March, I spent a few hours in his Beverly Hills apartment watching people bring in groceries and cook while Manny sat on a couch getting a massage. The competition for relevance among Pacquiao's people is so great that some of them battle to see who can sleep on the floor at the head of his bed.
In other words, they both live in worlds far removed from yours and mine, which makes it difficult to ascertain their thoughts. Even venturing a guess is like taking a trip through an alien world. One thing is for sure: Mayweather is the bigger man and the bigger draw and the bigger personality. He has more to lose than Pacquiao. Much like his fighting style, he is poking and prodding, careful to stay just out of reach. Mayweather has always been the master technician. This time, the ring is optional.