In boxing's defense

LAS VEGAS – It's a fight that sold itself: one of the most famous and polarizing athletes in the world against a craftily marketed, slightly mysterious young guy from the most boxing-mad country on earth. The contrast couldn't be any easier to define. They're both undefeated, too, and one of them happens to be among the richest and most ostentatious men on the planet.

The promotion was easy – from a narrative standpoint, anyway – and it was done the old-fashioned way, with a barnstorming press tour and the kind of advertising campaign that drenched every outlet but PBS. But now, as the hype fades and Saturday night's fight Dopplers its way into view, the hard part begins. Can Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Canelo Alvarez live up to the hype? Doubtful, simply because it could be an epic fight and still fall short of the hype. Besides, the entire living-up-to-the-hype exercise seems pointless, given the subjectivity of the premise and all.

But it clearly needs to be more than an average fight. Mayweather, whose personality and talent have propped up boxing's mainstream appeal for quite some time, is in danger of completely obscuring the sport. He needs Alvarez to be competitive; in fact, it's imperative if Floyd wants to continue to make the kind of money his six-fight deal (now down to five) could create. Another fight like the noncompetitive snoozer he fought in May with the overwhelmed Robert Guerrero – perhaps the only living fighter who wasn't presented at Friday's bass-heavy weigh-in – and it's going to be a lot harder to pry $64.99 out of the casual fan next time around. Most likely, that guy will pass on the fight and watch college football.

And that, inevitably, leads to this: boxing's future, especially in this country in a post-Mayweather world. The debate tends to arise every time a megafight rolls around, partly because it's the only time boxing draws the attention of the non-boxing press (guilty as charged) and partly because nobody questions the long-term viability of the sport when they're watching a couple of subpar fighters smack each other around in the ballroom of an Indian casino outside of Fresno.

This week has occasioned a new round of arguments and counterarguments. Those who know and love the sport point to the unprecedented excitement generated by this fight as proof that boxing is alive, well and just entering the first blush of youth. And while there is no denying the incredible attention and anticipation leading up to Saturday night, it's also true that a Mayweather fight is not a referendum on the health of the sport.

There isn't another fighter with Mayweather's star power, obviously, but that's just the beginning. There might not be another American athlete who moves the needle like him. Mayweather transcends boxing; his polarizing persona manages to tap far below sports, deep into the crazed celebrity culture. People who wouldn't step outside to watch Andre Ward fight in their driveway will pay $64.99 to watch Mayweather fight Alvarez. And that's not meant as an insult to Ward – a tremendous fighter and gentleman – or the sport of boxing. However, it is precisely the reason you can't judge the health of boxing based on the interest in this fight.

There might be an argument to be made, but it's not here. Not this weekend.

There is room for a reasoned discussion, isn't there? There's no denying the appeal of boxing. It's tremendous theater, and a huge fight is unlike any other sporting event. The adrenaline that will run through the MGM Grand Arena when the bell rings Saturday night can't be matched. Super Bowl, World Series, Final Four – nothing gets to the same place.

But boxing doesn't exist in a sealed environment. We've spent the better part of the last two years discussing the long-term sustainability of football – the biggest and baddest sport in the country – because we know more and more about head trauma. Will parents stop letting their kids play? Will it become uninsurable? Will the knowledge of what happens to the participants when they finish playing gradually erode interest? Will rule changes designed to make it more palatable ruin the sport's basic appeal?

Amid this backdrop, are we to believe that boxing is immune from the same societal pressures? Football's rules can be altered to discourage the type of contact that creates vicious or repeated blows to the head. It can't eliminate it, but it can discourage it. Boxing, obviously, presents a tougher problem. The object of the sport is predicated on fists hitting heads.

Mayweather has become more and more concerned with what happens after he's finished. His liquid quickness and sharp mind have enabled him to avoid the pounding most fighters take over the course of 44 professional fights. Still, he brought his father back as his trainer partly because he believed he needed to get back to the type of defensive strategies his father coaches so well. Mayweather said he took too many shots – unnecessary shots – against Miguel Cotto last year. "There's nothing cool about taking punishment," he says.

Can Floyd lose? Despite the concerted effort to build Alvarez into a viable opponent, I don't think so. At least not this time around. At his training camp six weeks ago, I asked Floyd the same question. He said, "I win either way. I could make $100 million from this fight."

But what about his undefeated record? What about Marciano and 49-0? What about history?

He smiled and repeated himself: "I could make $100 million from this fight. I don't think you could call someone a loser if they make $100 million in one day."

This is one of those cases where you take Floyd seriously at your own risk. History is more important to him than anything but the money. For that reason, he needs to come away with something more than a monstrous payday on Saturday night. He needs a fight – and an opponent – that creates the kind of buzz that takes him through this fight and into the next one and the one after that. Not too many people enjoy watching someone running alone, lapping the field.