Mayweather Jr.-Pacquiao fight packs a wallop with hype, excitement

Mayweather Jr.-Pacquiao super-fight goes beyond sports in generating attention and excitement

Women in white fringed bikinis danced onstage, swaying to the drumbeat of a marching band. There were flashing lights and thousands of cheering fans.

If Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s arrival at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas this week seemed a bit extreme — the undefeated welterweight champion pounding his chest and flashing victory signs — it suited the moment.

Mayweather's bout against Manny Pacquiao on Saturday night has become something more than a sporting event.

"When you get women and nonfans talking this much about a boxing match, then you know you've got something," said Mike Silver, an author who has written extensively about boxing. "It becomes a happening."

The so-called "Fight of the Century" is expected to set records with $74 million in ticket sales and more than 3 million households spending $90 to $100 to watch on pay-per-view. Las Vegas casinos are predicting $80 million or more, nearly what they get for a Super Bowl.

Those numbers are particularly impressive for a sport whose popularity has waned over several decades. People in and around boxing say it takes a rare combination of hype and historical context — not to mention contrasting styles in the ring — to generate this kind of excitement.

"There is a tangible feel," said Jay Kornegay, a veteran casino executive. "There's a buzz that something big is happening."

The appeal of Saturday's fight begins with simplicity.

Mayweather and Pacquiao rank as the best boxers of their generation. The winner will consolidate the WBC, WBA and WBO titles.

"Fans of boxing and the fans outside boxing want this," Pacquiao said.

Speed, smarts and defensive skills have carried Mayweather to a 47-0 record. He is expected to move and dodge against the hard-charging Pacquiao, who has gone 57-5-2 with the sheer volume of punches he throws.

These divergent styles served each of them well in big-time victories against a common opponent, Oscar De La Hoya, that cemented their reputations.

The differences extend beyond the ring. Mayweather has blended talent with arrogance while Pacquiao has played the role of the smiling, good-natured type.

The excitement around Las Vegas in recent days, the chatter in packed casinos and long lines outside restaurants, suggests that both men have succeeded in marketing themselves to a larger audience.

People outside the sports world got to know Mayweather a little better in 2007 when he appeared on "Dancing with the Stars," lasting several weeks with partner Karina Smirnoff.

Pacquiao became more famous a couple of years later when Time magazine listed him among its "People Who Mattered." Socially active in his native Philippines, he was elected to the House of Representatives in 2010.

"The money made on this fight will not come from boxing fans," said Silver, who wrote "The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science." "The money will come from general sports fans and people who have heard about the fight and gotten caught up in the build-up."

Over the years, only a handful of fights have caught the world's attention in this way.

In 1910, issues of race swirled around champion Jack Johnson, who was black, and his white challenger James J. Jeffries. The rise of Nazi Germany added greater import to a 1938 matchup between American champ Joe Louis and German-born Max Schmeling, who would later serve with his country's military.

More recently, in a trio of superfights in the 1970s, Muhammad Ali embodied the liberal left — he had been a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War — while Joe Frazier was seen to represent blue-collar America.

So where is Mayweather-Pacquiao in this historical context?

"Those other fights had political overtones that transcended sport," Silver said. "I don't think this one has the gravitas."

Purists might also note the 38-year-old Mayweather and the 36-year-old Pacquiao are a few rounds beyond the prime of their careers. But, in pure boxing terms, the passage of time could benefit this fight in two ways.

With age robbing some of Mayweather's movement, there figures to be more toe-to-toe action. And years of on-again, off-again negotiations have served to heighten the anticipation.

"Everything in life is timing," Mayweather said.

While he was making his splashy entrance at the MGM Grand, his rival showed up at a hotel across town without benefit of bikinied girls or a horn section.

Still, Pacquiao's fans cheered every bit as loudly, screaming for a fight so long in the making. The boxer held up his fists and shouted to them over the din: "Are you excited?"

Pugmire reported from Las Vegas and Wharton reported from Los Angeles.

david.wharton@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesWharton

lance.pugmire@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimespugmire

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