Late tomorrow night, a little after 11 Eastern time, the super-fight between Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr. - finally - will be about the actual sport of boxing.
Up until now it's been about everything else.
It's been about the paydays the fighters will receive - at least $25 million for De La Hoya and $10 million for Mayweather. It's been about the massive revenue the event will produce. The $19 million in ticket sales at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas is the biggest live gate in boxing history, and a potential record pay-per-view audience expected to near two million buyers at $54.95 each would add $109 million, for a total that in one night would surpass Spider-Man 3's opening weekend.
It's been about the relentless marketing that seeks to recapture a bygone time when the world got excited about boxing matches. (The fight is even titled "The World Awaits.") De La Hoya's company, Golden Boy, which is promoting the fight along with HBO, in February rented two Gulfstream jets to fly the fighters nationwide on an 11-city promotional tour, during which they began their canned trash talk to stoke the fire.
De La Hoya, in his pre-fight tradition, labeled his opponent a disrespectful punk who makes his blood boil and needs to be taught a lesson; Mayweather questioned De La Hoya's skills and manhood, and it went from there.
For weeks, HBO has been running a documentary/infomercial series called De La Hoya Mayweather 24/7 right after the cable network's hottest hits, The Sopranos and Entourage.
Mark Taffet, who is in charge of pay-per-view promotions for HBO, recently described the perfect boxing promotion as "creating almost a mini-movie in consumers' minds," giving people a sense that they are becoming part of an event, not just buying a product. So while the TV series doesn't show much boxing, it develops fascinating story lines for viewers to embrace, including Mayweather's squabbles with his father, who made him start boxing as a toddler before he could read and who also used to train De La Hoya.
The media frenzy, a huge one for boxing, has been largely about the media frenzy itself. A Time magazine story last week was headlined "Will the De La Hoya-Mayweather Fight Save Boxing?" The cover of the current Sports Illustrated shows both fighters with a similar theme, "The Fight to Save Boxing." Yes, those magazines are owned by the same company that owns HBO. But rival ESPN the Magazine has Mayweather on its cover too, only the second boxer on the cover in the magazine's nine-year history.
Richard Schaefer, the former banker who is De La Hoya's partner at Golden Boy, says that, adding up the number of public exposures to the fight via television shows, sponsors and media coverage, "it's close to a billion consumer impressions." Each is an enticement for people to press the $54.95 "buy" button on their TV remotes. "It's like the Super Bowl of boxing," Schaefer says.
Will it be like the Super Bowl in the ring? If it is, start by thinking of Mayweather as the Colts and De La Hoya as the Bears. Mayweather has been about a 2-1 favorite in betting lines.
Mayweather, 30, is 37-0 and almost untouched by human hands as a pro. With dazzling hand speed, he'll deliver two or three sharp shots in the time most boxers land one.
His extraordinary conditioning regimen involves throwing 1,000 punches in a session, sparring for seven-minute rounds, and doing an insane type of sit-ups in which he raises himself to a standing position each time up.
Though he has to move up to 154 pounds for this fight, he has beaten up bigger guys all his life (he started boxing when he was 3) and has feasted on guys who walk in toward him without enough aggression, as De La Hoya often does.
"He's straight-ahead stiff," Mayweather says. "I'm a fighter with special effects."
De La Hoya (38-4), an Olympic champion who started boxing professionally in 1992 at age 19, is 34 now. He's always been a more brutal fighter than he gets credit for, and his left hook can still take ordinary men down. But his last fight was a year ago (also on Kentucky Derby Day), a win over a well-chosen opponent (Ricardo Mayorga) who thought he could stand close enough to smell De La Hoya without needing any defense. De La Hoya wrecked Mayorga.
Before that you have to go back to 2002 to find a major-league opponent (Fernando Vargas) that De La Hoya legitimately whipped. Most experts believe his only chance is to pressure Mayweather against the ropes, cut off his movement, and bang on him.
Still, after all the hype, the fight for De La Hoya's WBC junior-middleweight title could be a strategic chess match that fails to inflame the passions of the casual fans it is attracting. An even stronger favorite than Mayweather in betting lines is that the fight will go the distance. Mayweather's speed may prevent the tenacious De La Hoya from doing much damage. Yet Mayweather's chronically injured hands have prevented him from finishing off opponents lately (six of his last 10 fights have gone all 12 rounds). The rugged De La Hoya has been stopped only once in his career.
Who wins? After all the hype, it's hard to say that it even matters to most people. Each fighter has said this could be his final fight anyway. But we'll see. What are the odds that promoters are already thinking about the rematch?
De La Hoya's 5 Greatest Fights
Rafael Ruelas, May 1995, TKO 2: Ruelas had lost only once in 44 fights and was expected to mount a stern challenge. But De La Hoya took less than five minutes to secure victory in his pay-per-view debut and unify the IBF and WBO lightweight titles.
Julio Cesar Chavez: June 1996, TKO 4: This is the night when De La Hoya seized his chance to emerge as the preeminent lower-weight fighter in the world. His scything hands tore the legendary Chavez's face to ribbons over four one-sided rounds, until the bout was stopped on cuts.
Felix Trinidad: September 1999, L 12: De La Hoya believed he had produced a masterful jab-and-move performance to negate the power of Trinidad. However, the ringside judges thought otherwise and made Trinidad a highly contentious winner on points.
Bernard Hopkins: September 2004, L KO 9: Moving up to meet one of the great middleweight champions was always likely to prove a test too far - and it did. But in defeat, De La Hoya underlined his desire to cut through politics and never shirk a major challenge.
Ricardo Mayorga: May 2006, TKO 6: The trash-talking Nicaraguan promised to effectively end De La Hoya's world title career. But the "Golden Boy" retained his poise during the prefight hype and did his talking in the ring with a classic stoppage.
Mayweather's 5 Greatest Fights
Genaro Hernandez, October 1998, TKO 8: Mayweather emerged as a future superstar by dismantling veteran champion Hernandez, using his blazing hand speed to rip apart his opponent and claim the WBC super-featherweight title.
Diego Corrales, January 2001, TKO 10: Too brave for his own good, Corrales had boiled down to the super-featherweight limit and was mercilessly punished by Mayweather, who put him on the deck five times before Corrales' chief trainer had the contest stopped.
Jose Luis Castillo, December 2002, W 12: Eight months after his first controversial decision over the Mexican, Mayweather repeated the feat, skating away to another win on points, which earned boos from the crowd and sealed his reputation as a champion the public loved to hate.
Arturo Gatti, June 2005, TKO 6: The defenseless Gatti was turned into a punching bag by Mayweather, who ruthlessly exposed his opponent's come-forward, brawling style by subjecting him to a punch-perfect performance that ended with Gatti on his stool.
Carlos Baldomir, May 2006, W 12: Mayweather appeared to be taking a calculated risk by moving up to welterweight to meet the No. 1 challenger, a rock-hard Colombian. But it was ridiculously easy as Mayweather won every round on two of the judges' scorecards.
On the Undercard
Featherweights Rocky Juarez and Jose Andres Hernandez will fight for the vacant WBA Fedelatin featherweight title on the undercard of the Oscar De La Hoya-Floyd Mayweather bout.
De La Hoya and Mayweather will fight for the WBC junior-middleweight crown tomorrow night in Las Vegas. The fights will be on HBO pay-per-view.
Also on the undercard will be junior featherweights Rey "Boom Boom" Bautista and Sergio Medina.