Marketing Floyd Mayweather: What is the Appeal?
By Steve Lewis: The buzz lately has been the perceived “progress” in the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao negotiations. We do not know yet what the terms are of the deal, so it would be prudent to reserve judgment or opinion as to whose court the ball is on at this point. Regardless of when this super fight will take place (whether it will be before or after the Philippine elections), it is being projected as the biggest moneymaker in boxing history.
On that note, it is interesting to revisit how Floyd Mayweather, Jr., a slick, technically savvy, defensive-oriented, safety-first fighter became such a box-office attraction, which was not the case prior to his fight with Oscar De La Hoya in 2007.
Now, for hardcore followers of boxing, Floyd Mayweather was already a noted commodity since 1996, having been a member of the U.S. Boxing Olympic team, earning a bronze medal in Atlanta, and then later, becoming the WBC jr. lightweight champ in 1998 by defeating Genaro Hernandez, a title which Floyd would later vacate in 2002 to pursue the WBC lightweight title from Jose Luis Castillo.
Despite a war with Diego Corrales, a tiff with Arturo Gatti, and a comical encounter with Zab Judah & family, Floyd did not really capture the big-time PPV limelight until his fight with the Golden Boy. It helped that Oscar was the reigning pay-per-view king, and Floyd’s colorful personality was highlighted by the newly created HBO series, “24/7.”
So what changed? What was it about Floyd the boxer that captivated a wider, bigger audience? Was it his superb, technical boxing skills? The excellent defense? Is it all about the pure “Sweet Science?”
Sure, there are those true aficionados out there who can appreciate the shoulder roll defense and classic counter-punching. But that’s not what draws most people’s attention to Floyd. It is his larger-than-life persona, the brash personality, the “heel” factor. There is something very basic & innate in all of us that can identify with the good guy vs. bad guy paradigm. And Floyd can play the bad guy to a tee!
Obviously, this is nothing new, that people tune in to hopefully see Floyd get his come-uppance, but what surprises me is what a lot of his supporters say as to why they like Floyd. They cite to his skills as a true “boxer,” preferring his style over those of his more exciting colleagues.
Again, there are those who genuinely appreciate Floyd’s skills, myself included, but a large segment of Floyd’s fan base is of a younger, urban constituency. This is the “hip-hop” crowd. By no means am I intending to lump everyone together, but the hip-hop crowd generally loves flashy things. Floyd loves flashy things: from blinged-out watches, to 20+ inch rims, to tricked out rides. “It’s all about the bling-bling.”
But despite everything that Floyd personifies, he is the exact opposite in the ring. Conservative. Overly cautious. Peck and run. Safety first. Defense, defense, defense.
Floyd’s lack of a finisher’s mentality has often garnered him some criticism, his fights often labeled as “boring,” or not “fan-friendly.” But if it is effective, why not?
So in this fast-food era of bling-bling flashiness, how did Floyd manage to market himself to join the ranks of PPV stalwarts like De La Hoya, Mike Tyson, and a prime Evander Holyfield? By being the bad guy, the heel. Because if he relied solely on his boxing skills as a marketing tool, he would be another Winky Wright or a pre-lightweight Juan Manuel Marquez.
Winky Wright has always been a vastly underrated boxer. Granted, he is now past his prime, but in his younger days, he was as slick and as skilled as any of the top dogs in the game. But his lack of “flash” and a much more toned-down personality relegated him to B-side attraction. Had he been boisterous, rebellious, and over-the-top like Muhammad Ali and Floyd, Winky would have been bigger in the fight scene.
For years, Juan Manuel Marquez lurked in the shadows of his more “exciting” counterparts, Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera. He was among the top counter-punchers in the featherweight division, yet never garnered the same command that his compatriots had. It took wars with Manny Pacquiao and a more “aggressive” style to garner more fame.
So this brings us back to Floyd’s main constituency: the hip-hop crowd who loves the flash and the bling-bling in every other aspects of life, but all of a sudden, prefer the more scientific and refined boxing skills of a pure technician like Floyd.
So what gives? Why one particular standard for one thing, and a different one for another?
Floyd is essentially the 1950s Boston Celtics of boxing. He is the Princeton University basketball team. He is the classic Brazilian jiu jitsu practitioner, lord of the ground game. And there is nothing wrong with that!
In other words, Floyd is the effective, technically sound, and fundamental boxer, albeit less exciting. He is not your guns-a-blazing, all-out action brawler.
But Floyd’s hip-hop constituency will be hard-pressed to sit and watch old footage of Bob Cousy and the 1950s Celtics dribbling around the court and milking the clock. They probably prefer the razzle & dazzle of the 1980s Showtime Laker Basketball, or the above-the-rim, up & down action of today’s NBA. They will not stomach watching coach Pete Carril and his Princeton Tigers play half-court basketball. They would probably prefer watching the And1 MixTape Tour Streetball on ESPN2.
Again, I am sure there are those who truly appreciate fundamentals. But if Floyd’s constituents really appreciated “fundamentals,” then they would appreciate the WNBA and Division 3 college football. If you care about teamwork and fundamentals, that’s where you can find it. You would be studying the skills of a George Mikan rather than a Shaquille O’Neal.
Now don’t get it twisted. I am not trying to imply that the NBA have less skills than the WNBA, or that being flashy means you can’t be good, or that you can’t appreciate both flash and fundamentals. All I am saying is that Floyd’s boxing skills or “specialty” is contrary to what his constituency would normally prefer. This is “unconscious justification.”
If Mike Tyson was still in his prime, these same Floyd admirers would be supporting Tyson as well, but would probably be hesitant to jump on the Wladimir Klitschko bandwagon (or any of the Soviet bloc heavyweights, for that matter). So it can’t be solely due to “technical” skills. I am a boxing fan, but I would be remiss if I said I didn’t enjoy two-way stand-up brawls, alley-oops, 360 dunks, and shotgun football. Yes, a Jiu Jitsu practitioner can probably trip a brawler to the ground, and roll around with him on the mat until the bell rings, and win due to the control he imposed, but it does not mean it is the most enjoyable and most captivating thing to watch.
So I think that for a good chunk (not all) of Floyd’s fan base, this “I-like-Floyd-because-of-his-skills” is malarkey. His fan base supports him because he represents them from a socio-cultural aspect. With the lack of dominant American heavyweights, Floyd is the best out there that they can identify with. They relate to the lifestyle, the flash, and the culture. It is no different from Filipinos rooting for Pacquiao, or Mexicans rooting for Marquez or any other Mexican fighter. But all this talk about admiration of technical skills is mere pretext.
If Pacquiao was more about “technique” and less about “savagery,” Floyd’s fan base would still support Floyd, and Pacquiao’s fans would still support Pacquiao. Or conversely, if Floyd was exactly like Pacquiao’s style, with the same accomplishments, do you really think the Floyd fan base would be as dismissive of him? I bet they would be whooping it up just as much, if not more.
It is unfortunate that Floyd has to rely on his outside-the-ring antics to market himself and sell his fights. Pacquiao, despite a language barrier and being a foreigner, has been able to become a solid attraction, based on his ring performances. It is hard to gain cross-over appeal when English is not even your first language. Yet, Pacquiao has relied more on action than on words to get there.
A lot of people will be tuning in to hopefully see someone serve Floyd some humble pie. The jury is still out whether it will happen in the next fight. But that’s why people are watching, and that’s why Floyd’s fan base stick by him. We are, after all, talking about entertainment. And boxing, for most, is about entertainment. Otherwise, Olympic gymnastics would be more popular.
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