By Jason Keidel
So seven days from now, a seismic sporting event will take place in Las Vegas — a place prone to hyperbole.
And while countless people — pundits, cable executives, media and the masses — are taking credit for the occurrence on May 2, the credit goes to two men, and to the historic happenstance of meeting not inside a ring, but rather in a basketball arena.
Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao are surrounded by lawyers, minions and yes-men whose job it is to make them a lot of money, and to spend their money. But more than any man, it was the boxing gods who arranged this on a stormy night in Miami, when Manny and Mayweather bumped into each other at a Miami Heat basketball game, which took them from the bumpy shores of South Beach to the parched, barren land of Las Vegas. One random lottery led to another.
Vegas will be the epicenter, vortex, aorta and main nerve of sports, for perhaps the last time in mankind’s existence.
For all the opulence, lights, bells and bank, Las Vegas can be a rather daunting and haunting place. In the predawn murmur of the desert, before the first clogs click on the casino’s marble floors like seconds on a clock, the lights of the Strip conceal what Vegas really is — a desolate, cavernous hole in civilization.
Drive just a few miles from town, and you notice how quickly all the noise, static, hustle and bustle fades and the chilling silence takes over. You wonder where all the bodies are buried, if the vultures are circling you or some poor soul that was “whacked” decades earlier, in some makeshift tomb among the cacti.
The desert is a perfect metaphor for Vegas. Makes you wonder which is more unforgiving — or which is less forgiving, if you prefer — the man-made, noisy nuisance of the Strip or the frightening silence of the desert.
And this isn’t your daddy’s Vegas. It’s not the one-horse dust bowl that Bugsy Siegel discovered in 1946. It’s not the hallucinogenic mess Dr. Gonzo (Hunter Thompson) contorted in 1971. And it’s not the mobbed-up monarchy that I discovered when my dad took me for the first time in 1987.
The City of Las Vegas is literally a mirage, an oasis for a beleaguered populous that is looking for something, anything, other than the template machinations of life. It’s the ultimate escape, the ultimate fantasy, and, at times, the ultimate lie.
Plopped down in the desert is an illusion. It sells the ideal, the fantasy, that just one dollar plunked down into the right machine will make you rich, that some padded stool awaits, where you will squat and watch your life mutate into an endless madness of unlimited wealth. The one-armed bandit… indeed. They even tell you in advance that you’re there to be robbed.
But deep into the fantasy are certain, meat-hook realities. Losing your mortgage money at the craps table. The lint you pull from your pocket after succumbing to temptation, be it in the deep carpets of the casino floor, the green felt of the poker table, or the more seductive creatures who roam the Strip.
And the fight on May 2, between Floyd Mayweather Jr and Manny Pacquiao. Deep in the desert, the mirage, will be a glowing orb inside the MGM Grand, where the best boxers on the planet — perhaps the last two icons in a struggling sport — will bump heads, fists, egos and legacies. For what? For the right to claim the mystical title of the greatest, for the lordship over the other’s soul.
You could not find two different men — in appearance, cadence and countenance. Mayweather is brash, bold and bombastic. Pacquiao is laconic, bearded and born again.
But perhaps it’s what they have in common that brings them together. Both men have an insatiable desire for violence, for greatness, for immortality. If man is an amalgam of his appetites, then Manny and Mayweather are perfectly suited for the sweet science, for their visages to be etched into boxing lore.
If you’ve covered these men, their lives and their careers, you’ve seen that there’s nothing abstract about their respective paths to prominence. Both come from the abject poverty of their native soil. Mayweather overcame the galling crime of Grand Rapids and the typical boxing tableau of a father who found his way into prison. Pacquiao came from the cockfighting capital of the planet, where people will fight animals, and each other, for the simple pleasure of dinner.
And both men have the audacity and audacious, unapologetic trainers who are as loquacious as their fighters.
Only in boxing do relatively small man loom so large over the sports world. Manny and Mayweather barely break 145 pounds. Neither man cracks six feet in height. But both have epic bankrolls, and both are banking on their reputations as supreme pugilists.
Two small men are breaking the bank, and smashing every record in sports history, making a fight that smashes every monetary metric in history. One night, one fight, no more than 36 minutes of work, will produce a purse of nearly $300 million, and an overall gross of perhaps a half-billion bucks.
For all the lies Las Vegas sells you, it’s also the vortex of a stark, dark reality. Two men will enter a ring, a cube of canvas and three ropes, and one will leave with his legacy forever tattered, while the other moves up the totem pole as the greatest fighter in history.
For that, they have the right to charge six-figures for ringside seats, the right to charge you $100 to watch it at home, and the right to leave the arena with nine-digits in their checking account.
For all the absurdity, machismo, and outsized mantras each camp flaunts, the matter will be solved in the ring. That’s when boxing is at its best, when it keeps its prerogative as fight night, when it drains your adrenal gland like no other sport, when months of hype is distilled into heft.
When one king, in the sport of kings, is crowned.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.