How does boxing creep back into the cultural consciousness after a five-year dizzy spell? Easy. Take the sport's most talented fighter, Floyd Mayweather Jr., 30, a self-described "hustler" who was nearly gunned down as a baby and is, kindly, referred to by one promoter as "a huge pain in the ass." Pit him against the sport's last glamour boy, Oscar De La Hoya, 34, bred tough in East L.A. but now a clean-cut corporate sweetheart whose broad, boyish smile has made millions swoon into his corner. Naturally, his charm has also turned off others who would love a guy like Mayweather to coldcock that grin off his face. De La Hoya, an Olympic gold medalist who has won titles in six weight classes, is the aging underdog. He could be building his burgeoning real estate and publishing careers, but he needs this one last shot to prove he is the best. Or at least to prove his dealmaking ability, given the $23 million purse he'll collect.
So boxing is back, at least for a night. De La Hoya, who has won 38 bouts and lost only four, and Mayweather, undefeated in his 37 times in the ring, will square off on May 5 in Las Vegas for the super welterweight (no more than 154 lbs.) championship. The fight will be shown in a record 176 countries and may become the most watched pay-per-view matchup ever--at $55 a pop in the U.S.--perhaps topping the 1.99 million buys to see Mike Tyson bite off a chunk of Evander Holyfield's ear in 1997. Arena tickets sold out in three hours, generating $19 million, a Nevada boxing record. "This could be the night that saves boxing," says Richard Schaefer, CEO of De La Hoya's company, Golden Boy Promotions, which is staging the clash.
Boxing needs something to rescue it from years of disorganization. There are now 17 weight divisions, none with a unified champ among the sport's four sanctioning bodies. Scandalous match decisions have worn out boxing's aging base and turned off younger fans. Though the sport's migration to pay-per-view television has enriched fighters, it has cut off the sport's access to a broader audience.
This morass has fueled the stunning ascension of mixed martial arts and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Though derided as "human cockfighting," the UFC feeds the video-game bloodlust of young fans and has ripped market share from the sweet science. "If boxing were a stock," says veteran boxing historian and television commentator Bert Sugar, "I'd sell it short."
De La Hoya--Mayweather, however, has the potential to remind the world why boxing was once a sport that mattered. The match offers a compelling contrast in both personality and fighting styles, plus a healthy dose of family psychodrama. Mayweather grew up fighting in Grand Rapids, Mich., where his father, Floyd Sr., taught him how to punch in his stroller. When Floyd was a year old, his mother's brother pulled a gun on his dad. "I told him, 'If you're going to kill me, you're going to kill him too,'" says Mayweather Sr., who was holding his son. "'That's all I got in the world.'" Honoring Mayweather family values, the uncle then shot Floyd Sr. in the leg.
The family drama was just beginning. In 1997 Floyd Sr. returned to training his son after serving 5 1/2 years in prison for trafficking in cocaine. But young Mayweather, who turned pro after winning a bronze medal at the 1996 Olympics, soon found his father overbearing and evicted him from his house. Uncle Roger, Floyd Sr.'s brother, took over as trainer. Floyd Sr. found a new client: Oscar De La Hoya.
This history rankles De La Hoya, whose clear distaste for Junior's trash talking-- Mayweather labels De La Hoya "fake" and "boring," among the printable adjectives-- feeds the intrigue. "What kind of son kicks his father out of the house and leaves him in the street?" De La Hoya asks. "He's a brat that needs a reality check." These words ignite Mayweather. "Oscar doesn't need to be in me and my dad's personal business," he barks. "I'm going to say a prayer for Oscar tonight. Like I do every night."
De La Hoya can't match that kind of familial dysfunction, even though he imported some of it for a while. Floyd Sr., torn about training De La Hoya to bludgeon his son and unhappy with his salary, split with De La Hoya in January. He is now back advising Junior, to the dismay of head trainer Roger, his brother, who, incidentally, just finished a six-month jail stretch for battery. The brothers aren't speaking. "Why would I have to be concerned about my brother's thoughts or feelings?" asks Roger during a Mayweather workout in Las Vegas. He is wearing a T shirt with Sesame Street characters, except Bert is chugging a 40-oz. beer, Oscar is flipping the bird and Big Bird is smoking. The shirt reads: DONTMESSWITME STREET.
As for the fight, De La Hoya's accurate blows and powerful left hook could wear Mayweather down--if he can catch him. Mayweather zips around the ring like a mosquito, throwing quick punches and darting backward before his opponent can counter. De La Hoya's trainer, Freddie Roach, is teaching his fighter to attack when Mayweather crosses his feet, which puts him slightly off balance. "Floyd is so fast, Oscar has to react to it right away," Roach says.
Throughout his career, critics have knocked De La Hoya for lacking aggression. "My style is going to be totally different," he says. Mayweather's taunts have clearly irked him. "Everybody in life needs a humbling moment," De La Hoya says. "On May 5, it's my job to give Floyd Mayweather that humbling moment." Floyd Mayweather will be hard to make humble. But boxing needs both fighters to deliver that moment. [This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine.] Tale of the TapeDe La Hoya Mayweather 5 ft. 11 in. Height 5 ft. 8 3/4 in. 164 lbs. Weight* 152 lbs. Recorded an album that was nominated for a Latin Grammy in 2000 Music Men CEO of hip-hop record label Philthy Rich Records Once trained by Mayweather's dad;TKOed his uncle Jeff Family Ties Trained by his uncle Roger; advised by his dad
* As of April 5, 2007