LAS VEGAS - A lot of people were calling it the fight that might save boxing, but it was no more that than WWI was the war to end all wars.
Even had Saturday's much-hyped matchup of WBC super welterweight champion Oscar De La Hoya and pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather Jr. been as much of an artistic bust as it was certain to be a financial bonanza, boxing was bound to survive because, well, it always does. Oh, sure, the 21st-century version of the fight game has been described as a dinosaur, and everyone knows that dinosaurs perished during the last ice age, but the common cockroach survived. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from that.
The ice age predicted by some to grip boxing might yet come, but on this glorious night in the southern Nevada desert, which served to remind everyone of what it was like in the good old days when big fights mattered, two super welterweights bestrode the earth like a couple of T-Rexes. And if they only temporarily eased the myriad ills of a sport with a persistent cough, so what? One bright turn in the international spotlight is an elixir that at least can ease the symptoms, if not provide an outright cure.
"I thought it was an excellent fight between the best fighter in the world [Mayweather] and the most popular fighter in the world [De La Hoya]," Larry Merchant, the 76-year-old boxing commentator who reportedly is nearing the end of his own professional life cycle with HBO, said after Mayweather won a flawed but nonetheless entertaining 12-round split decision.
"Was it filled with drama and knockdowns and all that good stuff? No, but it was a good representation of what boxing is like at the elite level."
As the history of the Super Bowl suggests, so-called ultimate matchups often fail to meet expectations. Given boxing's penchant for screwing up even a one-horse parade, there were concerns that Mayweather (38-0, 24 KOs) and De La Hoya (38-5, 30 KOs) would engage in a dull, tactical affair, maybe topped off with the sort of bogus controversy that leaves everyone angry and/or disenchanted.
There were one or two minor subplots that 16,700 spectators at the MGM Grand and a worldwide audience in the millions could have done without. But for the most part, this was a very entertaining scrap that wasn't as good as it might have been, but was probably better than many anticipated.
It's difficult to find too much fault with a two-way rumble so closely contested that it was decided by a single point. Judge Tommy Kaczmarek scored it 115-113 for De La Hoya, while Chuck Giampa and Jerry Roth submitted cards favoring Mayweather by margins of 116-112 and 115-113, respectively.
Had Roth - who gave the 12th round to Mayweather, which is not how his colleagues saw it - gone along with the majority opinion, De La Hoya would have retained his title on a split draw.
"I came in on top, I'm leaving on top," said Mayweather, whose reiteration that he will retire at 30, still in peak form, likely will last only until some promoter comes along with an offer of an eight-figure purse. "I've done everything I wanted to do in the sport. I beat the best at 130 [pounds], I beat the best at 135, I beat the best at 140, I beat the best at 147. Oscar was the best at 154, so I beat the best at 154, too."
De La Hoya, who has now lost three of his last five bouts dating to 2003, is 34 and slipping, but he sounded like someone who plans to stick around at least for the foreseeable future.
"I don't feel like a loser," he said. "I felt I won the fight. I landed the harder, crisper punches."
If HBO Sports executives have their way, and they often do, a rematch could be in the offing. Interest in this fight was as high or higher than for any in recent years, in part because of unprecedented corporate sponsorship and a relentless get-the-word-out campaign that began months in advance of the first punch. But it was the stark contrast between the principals, more on a personal level than a boxing one, that hooked and reeled in the public. Simply put, America and 176 other countries that received the HBO feed picked sides and cultivated ardent rooting interests.
Mayweather raised the ante by making his ring entrance, accompanied by rapper 50 Cent, wearing a huge white sombrero and trunks of red, white and green, Mexico's national colors. That served to incite a pro-De La Hoya crowd largely comprised of Mexican and Mexican-American fans.
"It was Cinco de Mayo," Mayweather's attorney, John Hornewer, impishly said of the date. "It also marked Floyd's bid to win a fifth world title in a fifth weight class. We looked at that as Cinco de Mayweather."
As had been widely predicted, De La Hoya was the aggressor throughout, seeking to use his size and strength advantages to bully the smaller, quicker Mayweather to the ropes. He was able to do that on occasion, but "Pretty Boy Floyd" made the fight in the center of the ring often enough to establish his own comfort zone.
Punch statistics are always an iffy proposition, since they are a measure of the quantitative and not the qualitative. Although De La Hoya was busier, firing 587 punches, he connected on only 122 of those, a piddling 21 percent. Mayweather was 207-for-481, a much more accurate 43 percent.
"Look at the punch stats," Mayweather said. "I could see his shots coming. I stayed on the outside and made him miss. I was, like, 'Damn, it's easy to hit him in the face. How'd he beat all those guys when he don't move his head?' But Oscar is a good fighter. I can't take nothing away from him."
De La Hoya figured the fighter who attacks should be more rewarded in the scoring than the one who retreats.
"When I landed my punches, I could see I was hurting him," De La Hoya said. "I was pressing the fight. If I hadn't pressed the fight, there would have been no fight."
It didn't help De La Hoya that he virtually abandoned his jab, which might be his most effective weapon, in the later rounds.
"I wanted to try to stop him," De La Hoya explained. "I wanted to try to close the show."
What he and Mayweather did instead was to raise a curtain, providing boxing with some much-needed momentum.