Michael McGinley Hughes recently graduated from The University of Manchester, studying English Literature. He is a boxing enthusiast and enjoys cultural theory. This is his first article for Sonder Magazine.
Floyd Mayweather: The Willing ‘Bastard’ of Boxing
“There are people who think that wrestling is an ignoble sport. Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle […] [T]he public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing; it knows that boxing is a Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence.” – Roland Barthes
This quote is taken from Barthes’ essay ‘The World of Wrestling’ which is the first essay from ‘Mythologies’. In the essay Barthes examines wrestling (we are to think of WWE not Greco-roman) and draws analogies between it and Greek drama. He also juxtaposes it with boxing to highlight the differences between the performance of wrestling and the reality of sport. In this essay I would like to examine the collective disappointment in the recent super-fight between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao in respect to Barthes essay, and will posit that the disappointment stems from a misconception on the part of the audience. Whilst boxing is a sport with elements of the spectacular it remains a sport, and the construct of boxing as a spectacle can ultimately conflict with the reality.
Boxing as a Spectacle
Barthes posits that wrestling “represents a mythological fight between Good and Evil”. The characters become signs for opposing values (he adds that in American wrestling the “Evil” wrestler is often “red” and thus becomes a symbol of America’s ideological battle against communism). Boxing too can contain elements of this. There have been fights that have transcended boxing to take on a much greater political and social significance; two examples being ‘Joe Louis vs. Max Schmelling II’ and ‘Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman’. Firstly, the second heavy weight clash between the African-American Joe Louis vs. Germany’s Max Schmelling, which occurred in the years leading up to the Second World War, became symbolic of the ideological war between American democracy and Nazi fascism. The two pugilists formed obvious signs; Louis was the hero of black America whereas Schmelling was the symbol of Aryan superiority. The fight was cemented into boxing folklore when Louis knocked out Schmelling in the first round and thus “Good” was seen to triumph over “Evil”. The fight between Ali and Foreman (known as ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ as it was held in the Congo which was then known as Zaire) was not seen as a “Good” vs. “Evil” yet it was weighted with political significance. Whilst both fighters were African-American they represented two very different sides of African-American culture; Ali was the loud, brash, convert to Nation of Islam who had been stripped of the heavy weight championship for refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War (he famously responded to his draft that “no Vietcong ever called me a nigger”), whilst Foreman was the reserved Olympic champion who paraded round the ring with the American flag. The fight was retrospectively branded the greatest sporting event ever by many, it became known for Ali’s genius ringmanship as he employed a ‘rope-a-dope’ tactic to absorb the power of Foreman before countering when he eventually tired, and then knocking out an exhausted Foreman him out in the closing seconds of the 8th round.
I bring up these two examples as they embody the spectacle which Mayweather vs. Pacquiao promised its audience yet ultimately failed to fulfil. These fights are emblematic of a greater battle yet it is only in retrospect that these events have been constructed into the mythologized stories they are. Barthes argues that a “boxing match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time.” Wrestling is a spectacle made up of obvious signs, at each moment the audience is aware of what the physical performance is displaying, as the acts are “endowed with an absolute clarity”. It is only through looking at boxing matches in the retrospect that they can form a coherent story. Boxing is a story which writes itself in the present yet the two previously mentioned fights became stories which did justice to the occasion whereas Mayweather vs. Pacquiao did not. The humble philanthropist Pacquiao did not beat the odds to defeat the brash, vulgar Mayweather. The audience’s hero did not win.
The Bastard and the Concept of “Paying”
Barthes explains that the spectacle of wrestling relies upon a “bastard”, a figure that embodies the audience’s resentment. He posits that there is nothing more exciting to the crowd of a wrestling match than witnessing the bastard receive punishment. Barthes argues that wrestling is intended to display, on the simplest level, the moral concept of “justice”. And the idea of justice relies on the concept of ‘paying’. The audience desires to see the villain of the spectacle pay and he pays by receiving physical punishment at the hands of the hero. The two previously mentioned fights satiated the desire for justice; Louis knocked out the figure head of Nazi Germany, whilst Ali, the wronged former champion, regained his belt. The majority of the audience thought Mayweather losing was tantamount to justice as Mayweather is always presented as the bastard of the spectacle. Yet, I posit that rather than having this role projected on to him Mayweather assumes it, and exploits it, for his own benefit. Mayweather may be the best boxer in the world but he is not liked. He has a dark criminal history and is often insulting and derogatory to his opponents. Yet, this has not stopped him from becoming the highest paid athlete in the world. What Mayweather has is a rather unique selling point; spectators watch him in the hope that he doesn’t win. He trash talks incessantly before fights, he provokes the fury of Mexican crowds by walking to ring in a sombrero, and he arrived at the Manchester press conference for his fight with avid Manchester City fan Ricky Hatton in a Manchester United shirt. If you watch the press conference Mayweather literally acts like a sort of pantomime villain. Mayweather has also constructed himself as certain characters, with the first being ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’. His unmarked face, a benefit of his unparalleled defence, became the symbol of the audience’s disdain. The audience bought his pay per view fights in the hope that Mayweather’s face would more so resemble the battle scared faces of his fellow pugilists. Yet Mayweather has scarcely even shed blood in the ring. Then Mayweather changed character. He became ‘Money Mayweather’ and his character was based upon brash displays of wealth. Mayweather flaunted the millions of dollars he was paid to fight in the faces of those who paid it. What then became the dominant symbol which people paid to see vanquished was the zero on Mayweather’s record next to defeats. The audience does not care that he was paid upwards of a hundred million dollars to fight as the satisfaction of seeing the bastard punished is what the audience craves. Yet, the idea of Mayweather suffering a defeat has remained an idea.
Barthes names wrestling an “Exhibition of Suffering”, he argues that the audience experiences a type of “intellectual pleasure” in seeing the display of the “moral mechanism” (which is the bastard paying his debt) displayed so perfectly. Barthes describes how wrestling is constituted of obvious acts, like the “forearm smash”, which is accompanied by a “dull noise and the exaggerated sagging of [the bastard’s] vanquished body”. Boxing too can display this mechanism; seeing the villain of a fight knocked out with a clean punch to the jaw in an obvious sign that he is suffering. Yet, as boxing is a sport this is not always so, the reality of the situation is often void of obvious signs. And this is why Mayweather’s method of victory also infuriates the casual boxing audience. He does not win by ways of Rocky-esque knockouts, or by battling through a gruelling physical war to come out on top, he slips, holds, moves, and rarely throws more than one punch at a time. He simply lands punches on his opponent whilst they (mostly) miss punches on him. Mayweather himself regularly states that the point of boxing is “to hit and not be hit”.
Spectacle vs. Reality and Villains vs. Bastards.
The negative reaction to Mayweather wins are predicated on the confusion between the audience’s desire for justice and the reality that Mayweather is by some margin the best boxer in the world. Whilst boxing matches are marketed as spectacles the reality is that they are a sport played out between two adversaries. In the lead up to a fight promoters market fighters in specific ways or project a greater significance onto the fights. A recent example would be the upcoming middleweight clash between Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez and Miguel Cotto which is being sold as Mexico vs. Puerto Rico (two countries with illustrious boxing histories); the stirring up on nationalistic pride is often a selling point of boxing matches. This too was the case with Mayweather vs. Pacquiao. It was presented as a battle between Good and Evil, of a national hero versus a universally loathed fighter. The fairy tale ending would have been a Pacquiao victory however the reality was a fairly dull fight in which Mayweather won by a comfortable decision. The disappointment in the result is based upon the confusion caused by the presentation of a spectacle and the reality of boxing.
Another point of contention could be directed at Mayweather’s status as a villain and what separates him from others. In the world of boxing there are many high profile champions who could be construed as villains; Mike Tyson was convicted of rape, Bernard Hopkins was serving an 18 year prison sentence for armed robbery before his early release, Adonis Stevenson served time in jail for a plethora of crimes including pimping prostitutes. These are men who can certainly be presented as villains yet they do not fill the role of the bastard. When Tyson returned to boxing after his jail sentence there was not a desire to see him suffer (by the majority) but a desire to see Tyson do damage unto others. With Mayweather there is a visible will to see him go through the motions of the “Exhibition of Suffering” and no other fighter in boxing consistently plays the role of the bastard for the longevity which Mayweather has. So Mayweather’s status as a villain may not separate him from other pugilists yet it his willingness to be the bastard which does. And it is his performance outside of the ring, not inside, which earned him upwards of six million dollars a minute in his fight with Pacquiao.