What Is Dead May Never Die
Last Saturday was supposed to be the greatest day in sports.
The Kentucky Derby, the NFL Draft, Game 7 of Clippers-Spurs, and of course, Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and Manny Pacquiao’s supposed “Fight of the Century” all fell on the same day, an embarrassment of television revenue and gambling odds and ticket sales and hashtags just for us. All four events were wildly hyped, to the extent that everybody and their mother who turned on the TV in the past week probably knew about at least two of them, and had definitely seen at least one asinine ESPN special related to one of the four.
What we were promised as sports fans seemed too good to be true. And it was.
Only three of the events (May-Pac, the Derby, and Clips-Spurs) were particularly interesting.1 Only two of the events delivered on what they had promised, considering that the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight felt more like the “Fight of Last Month” than the “Fight of the Century.”2 And, depending on how you feel about sporting events that last about as long as the last time you went for a ride, only the Clippers-Spurs elimination game (the least heralded of all of Saturday’s events) provided a drawn-out, compelling, and deeply satisfying result.
What unified all four events was the day they took place and the volume at which we talked about them. What differentiated the four was the product they put on display, how each sport referenced itself, and how we as fans perceive of the sport.
Let’s start with the first event of the day, Round 3 of the NFL draft. One sure sign of the NFL’s preeminence in the hearts and minds of Americans is the three day extravaganza that brought hordes of people into Chicago’s Auditorium Theater and many more at home to look forward to a season that’s still 5 months away. It’s the NFL’s annual victory lap that proves, even during the heart of the NBA and NHL playoffs (and with the MLB season underway), that there’s no denying which league is the top dog in America. The NFL can take up three whole days for a television spectacular devoted to determining which young men are going to go where in order to service our morally questionable, insatiable appetite for football… and still attract millions of viewers.
But there’s something about having football and boxing, the sport whose complex fall from preeminence is most frequently held up as a cautionary analogy for what could happen to professional football in this country, share the weekend’s national marquee that feels vaguely ominous.
At this point of its dominance in both sports and pop culture, the NFL feels more and more like the pre-Watergate Nixon administration.3 It’s characterized by a hubris so pervasive that it seems like sometimes the league has come to believe the very narrative it’s constructed around itself, the assumption that, despite obvious problems with the sport and its leadership that are readily apparent, the league will continue to reign as the dominant sport in America for forever and all time.
That might be true, but it also might just as easily take only one major controversy to blow the whole thing off its hinges.
The Kentucky Derby, and horse racing by extension, feels like almost the complete opposite of the current-day NFL. Rather than a national, comprehensive scope, it’s local — Southern — in culture and specific — rich — in fandom. Horse racing’s glory days are long behind it, but the Kentucky Derby has retained its magnitude for the past century and will continue to do so for as long as the state of Kentucky, Jim Beam, and Vineyard Vines stay in existence.
The Derby isn’t concerned with the future, because the Derby 100 years from now will look almost identical to what the Derby’s looked like for the past 141 years: hats, bow ties, mint juleps, and a lingering aftertaste of American exceptionalism, racism, and class structures.
Don’t get me wrong — the Kentucky Derby is an incredible event, and witnessing the race first-hand from the sea of sundresses and croakies that is the infield is an awesome thing to behold. However, the past dominates so much of the Derby that it’s even impossible to talk about your actual experience without referencing the traditional narrative that’s been constructed julep by julep over more than half our nation’s lifetime.
The Derby is the most exciting two minutes in sports. The infield is a heinous mess. The hills of Kentucky are blue and rolling. The Kentucky Derby is decadent and depraved. These are self-evident, self-referential truths — they’re true irrespective of your individual experience, they just are, always have been, and as a viewer either at home or in Louisville you’re merely partaking in an experience that’s never going to change. And there’s power in all that tradition, an enjoyable and intoxicating sensation that feels like you’re taking part in something special and witnessing a cultural institution that’s been passed down for years. But there’s a sense of stagnation in that tradition,4 a stagnation that acquiesced awhile ago to the end of horse racing as one of the most popular sports in the free world, even as Churchill Downs remains as resplendent as ever.
And that’s okay — the Derby is what it is (which is substantial). Nothing more. Nothing less.
It’s fitting, then, that the jaw-dropping spectacular that was Game 7 of the Los Angeles Clippers’ hard-fought first-round victory over the San Antonio Spurs, two teams more than accustomed to being overshadowed by premier names, was practically drowned out by all the noise surrounding everything else.
Sandwiched as the game was in between the Derby and the eventual start of Mayweather-Pacquiao, you’d be forgiven if you missed the game that reaffirmed everything there is to love about sports: A realization of the potential to witness the epic, the amazing, the culmination of 48 minutes of butt-clenching tension as two teams transcended to a higher state of competition in a prizefight that went down to the wire and gave fans far more edge-of-your-seat, screaming-at-the-television, tweeting-like-a-Kardashian, hugging-themselves-like-Steve-Ballmer bang for their buck than the welterweight match that would come.
Basketball is a game built for the modern era of sports, a perfect fit for our frenetic thirst for Vine-able moments and celebrity sightings, all wrapped up in a sport that people of all racial and class backgrounds will be playing for years to come (which is certainly more than football or boxing can claim).
Post-MJ, basketball seemed to have hit its decline after years of explosive growth. Now the game is more popular than ever with no reason to expect that popularity to slow, especially when we’re treated to games as special as two teams playing until the final bell, a dynasty looking for one last shot at a title versus a young team growing disillusioned after years of frustration, both seeming to care more about the legacy they’d leave after the final buzzer than anybody else I saw on television yesterday.
And so after all that.
After all those years. After all the interviews, all the thinkpieces, all the talk, all the TV spots, all the bets, all the waiting, all the cash dropped, all the promises of what we would witness.
36 minutes and that was it. All those hours of waiting and dollars spent on pay-per-view to see two past-their-prime men dance around each other for 36 minutes, collecting a mind-boggling $138,000 per second, and at the end all there was, all that we should have expected in the first place, was an unsatisfying win by technical decision5 and the realization that we were played.
We wanted this fight to be something more. To mean something, because a fight this big for such ungodly money should mean something. The supposed last great boxing fight should have left us with something more than Mayweather admitting it was a cash grab and Manny disingenuously answering self-satisfied questions from a ringside announcer who knew that he might never take part in a fight this big again.
We wanted to say that we witnessed something special, either something amazing like those watching the Clippers-Spurs game, or at least an event that’s just one memorable stop on a never-changing line segment of glorified tradition like the Kentucky Derby. Instead the fight turned out to feel like the death-rattle of a sport that still couldn’t come to terms with its place in the cultural landscape, and that boxing was trying to find its way out of the ditch it dug itself into by digging even harder.
Like everything in Vegas, the fight was based on the fleeting promise that maybe this time will be different, maybe all this glitz and glam and talk means something, maybe just one more shot at an epic boxing match will leave you satiated or finally win back all the money and time you sank into this. Maybe this fight would make it all worth it.
And that’s why Mayweather-Pacquiao wasn’t the last great fight of our generation. Because although boxing is dead, it might never die. There will always be the tantalizing promise of just one more, one final fight that will give you something to tell your kids about, and we’ll think that witnessing that match will have meant something — because we imbue it with meaning. The most important reason we watch sports is the promise that maybe we’ll witness something incredible, something that can bring us all together and affirm that, yes, we were alive and we saw something spectacular together.
All four events yesterday made that promise. And no matter whether or not they lived up to it, we’ll be back next time around. It’s too good of a promise.