Apart from the result, two things will be remembered most about the first and possibly last fight between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao -confirmed at last on Friday for 2 May at the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas.
One is the sheer financial scope of the event, with a total pot of at least £250m, the richest single occasion in the history of the sport. The other is the part played by social media, from professional journalists to eager amateurs, in stoking those numbers. We have seen nothing quite like it before.
When Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier were scheduled to meet at Madison Square Garden in 1971 in an extravaganza every bit as big as this one, a New York newspaper strike threatened to cripple the promotion. However, in an age before instant communication, Ali's peerless selling skills, out on the street talking to people, in front of every microphone, not only saved the show but made it one of the most memorable sporting events of the 20th century, one in which a drunk Norman Mailer was ejected from a press conference, Diana Ross tried to pinch a precious media seat and Frank Sinatra was grateful to get a gig as a ringside photographer.
Ringside seats went for what seems now a paltry $150. The fighters got a record $2.5m each. The live worldwide audience was estimated at 300m. That’s how big The Fight of The Century was.
This time, a hundred sweating fingers, ready to feed the clickbait frenzy, were poised over keyboards across the fevered landscape of social media for every hour of every day of every week of the saga, determined not to miss a Mayweather heartbeat (as desperate as Mailer, Ross and Sinatra were to be part of history).
Boxing writers fell over themselves trying to insinuate themselves into the narrative on a daily basis. Some made claims based on the trusted whispers of long-time sources, only to be serially disappointed; others regurgitated second-hand rumours as fact. Nobody really knew – not the whole story, anyway. Negotiators used them to drip-feed tidbits to a potentially vast pay-per-view audience willing to pay $100 a shot for the privilege. It all kept the story bubbling. Journalists lost a lot of sleep.
All the time, of course, Mayweather, the only man who could sign off the deal, waited, soaked up some rays in Miami, watched some basketball in New York and spent some money (£450,000 on jewellery for his friends, a la Mike Tyson, as well as picking up a two-door £250,000 Rolls Royce Wraith for his 14-year-old daughter).
Pacquiao kept his distance and a dignified silence. He'd retreated to his mountain training camp in Manila, chatting on the phone occasionally with his trainer, Freddie Roach, who kept telling visitors and callers to his Wild Card gym in Hollywood that the fight had to happen because Floyd wanted it to happen. There was never any question about who was driving this crazy story. Roach and Mayweather knew that better than anyone.
The one party reluctant to accept the mind-blinding reality was Bob Arum.
He and Mayweather had been implacable rivals since the fighter left Arum’s promotional embrace after all but a handful of fights together up to 2005, and the Harvard alumni, once a confidant of presidents, fought hard to retain a slice of influence and dignity here for his company, Top Rank.
The head-butting between Mayweather and Arum (who'd parted acrimoniously) began in 2009. Mayweather had come out of retirement to knock out Ricky Hatton in 2007, then quit the sport again, this time for nearly two years.
Arum had shifted his allegiance to the sport’s other claimant to being the pound-for-pound best in the world, Pacquiao.
Now knocking people out with spectacular ease, the little Filipino with the big smile was preparing to do the same to Hatton on 2 May, 2009, Cinco de Mayo, when Mayweather arrived at the MGM Grand to steal his thunder with a press conference announcing his comeback, against Juan Manuel Márquez later that year.
From that point on, the battle lines between Mayweather, increasingly in control of his own management and promotion (to the point where he is now the most powerful single individual in boxing), and the gnarled East Coast lawyer Arum, who recently celebrated his 83rd birthday, were struck in cement.
Ego and self-interest drowned out common sense as one effort after another to match Mayweather and Pacquiao, the game’s unrivalled drawcards, foundered.
Mayweather made the first approach in the summer of 2009, but Arum called him “delusional” for demanding an equal split of revenues. How he must wish he’d accepted.
By the end of the year, Mayweather, his father, Floyd Sr, and other members of his entourage were hinting loudly and publicly that Pacquiao's supplements were not as legitimate as implied by his back-up team, headed by the controversial and confrontational Alex Ariza.
Nevertheless, they came to a tentative agreement: Mayweather and Pacquiao would fight the following March at a venue to be decided. Predictably, the niggling was instant: Mayweather, the bigger man, insisted Pacquiao move up from 147lbs to 154lbs and use 10oz gloves (against the game’s normal practice for the lighter weights), obviously to nullify the Filipino’s power.
Those were minor irritants, though, compared to the main Mayweather demand: Olympic-style drugs-testing. Pacquiao, miffed at the innuendo surrounding his training practices, refused – and took legal action, eventually getting an apology from the Money Team and their acolytes. The fight was off.
From that point until last September, hurdles went up as if they were constructing a Grand National run. There was talk of talks between them in 2010, never properly verified. Another couple of lost years passed as they each sought different career paths and it was not until early 2013, after Pacquiao had begun to show signs of decline, when they engaged again with any serious intent.
What certainly persuaded Mayweather to contemplate a Pacquiao fight was the devastating one-punch knockout Juan Manuel Márquez inflicted on him in December 2012. While it would have been a career-finishing blow for anyone but the resilient Pacquiao, it dramatically undermined his bargaining power.
He rebuilt his career – alongside the one he was establishing as a Senator in his homeland, while simultaneously dealing with a crippling tax bill in the United States and fighting in Macau, away from the grasp of the IRS – but there was no question now of parity: Mayweather was the man.
Arum had very few cards to play with; he would have to swallow a lot of pride to secure one mega payday for his fighter, and Pacquiao made it clear through his financial adviser, the mysterious Canadian lawyer Michael Koncz, that he wanted this fight very much indeed. Egos would have to be parked at the door, deals done – and lots of money made.
And so Mayweather and his paymasters Showtime (and their owners CBS), Pacquiao and his long-time TV bank HBO, as well as Arum, who loathes Mayweather, and Mayweather's key confidant, Al Haymon, whose thoughts on anyone beyond his own office are not known, would be forced by circumstance to make one last grab at cashing in.
If such a denouement seemed inevitable in any other walk of life, in any other sport, no such guarantee was ever forthcoming in boxing. As ludicrous as it seems, it was not inconceivable at any point over the past few months that either side would walk away from the biggest money-making proposition in their sport’s history, a business that has been designed through a century and more of artful compromise for the specific purpose of making money.
What both sides had to deal with was an obvious dilemma, one of their own making: selling what five years earlier had been the sport's most anticipated event since Sugar Ray Leonard fought Marvin Hagler at Caesar's Palace 28 years ago, but with two combatants whose skills had demonstrably faded.
The wise men’s gamble was that a gullible public they had consistently toyed with in the past would now provide the funds at the pay-per-view gate to sustain the commercial logic of their blatant opportunism.
Against all odds, defying all logic, it seems it was a well-placed wager.