America has a funny attitude toward its athletes and whether they ought to "win at all costs." (For all I know, so do other countries. I just haven't studied them as closely.)
Take Michael Jordan. In his long list of game-winning buckets, none might be more etched into our memories than the last one of his Chicago Bulls days, when he finished off the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. What most people overlook is that just prior to that shot, Jordan flagrantly, blatantly shoved his defender Bryon Russell aside. It was a foul. He indisputably broke the rules, although the referees completely ignored it. If any fans acknowledge this maneuver at all, it's usually with this endorsement: "But that's what made Jordan great: He was an assassin, someone who would do anything to win."
Last night, Floyd Mayweather, Jr. did anything to win. As Ortiz was apologizing for a head butt, Mayweather tagged his defenseless opponent and knocked him out. That what Mayweather did was perfectly legal, perfectly within the rules, is virtually without dispute. Instead, the debate has centered on whether Mayweather, as a great fighter, should have had to do such a thing to score a victory. He was roundly booed by the audience during his post-fight interview.
Mayweather's offense, if any, was of a lesser degree than Jordan's. The difference, of course, is that Mayweather is a villain, a role he plays to the hilt, and Jordan was a national hero, however much his "white hat" was an act he was putting on for the masses. Whether we want our athletes to win at all costs, it seems, depends on what we think of the athlete.
The outcome of Saturday's welterweight clash has ramifications for more than just Mayweather's reputation. Some might say it has ramfications for boxing as a whole, but every time something controversial happens in boxing, "some" say that. It all warrants a long look at what happened, how it happened and what it means.
Victor Ortiz And Joe Cortez
That Ortiz showed mental toughness in big win over Andre Berto earlier this year said good things about whether he was capable of exhibiting such a quality, given how he quit in his fight against Marcos Maidana. What he showed against Mayweather wasn't so much a lack of toughness but a sign that he still doesn't precisely have the mindset of a fighter.
It's not clear to me why Ortiz head butted Mayweather. Some have proposed that he was frustrated with how the fight was going. But at that precise moment, Ortiz was having some success against Mayweather, and HBO's team saw growing confidence in the young man in that 4th round. I don't know; I really don't. But I don't know what's in Ortiz' head half the time. Sometimes, I doubt even he knows. Maybe, sometimes, he's just not thinking at all.
I'm all for sportsmanship. But one apology is plenty. He hugged Mayweather and kissed his cheek, and that should've done it. Then, as Cortez was leading him around the ring to deduct a point, he reached over and touched Mayweather's glove by way of a second apology. Right before the moment he got tagged, he was once more trying to hug Mayweather for apology #3.
If you have seen any Mayweather fights, and I'm assuming Ortiz had, you know he's not big on getting friendly in the ring, or waiting for his opponent to be ready before he punches them. Against Arturo Gatti, as Gatti turned away in the 1st round, Mayweather punched and dropped him. In Mayweather's last fight, against Shane Mosley, he tagged Mosley as Mosley was trying to make excessively nice touching gloves. Why would Ortiz think he could combine both those missteps into one dumb sandwich and not get smacked?
Ortiz' account afterward about what happened just doesn't fit the footage. He claims he was looking at referee Joe Cortez and Cortez said, "'Break,' or something." No. Cortez, after deducting Ortiz a point, motioned to both boxers to resume the fight. Cortez, from that moment on, stopped looking at the two boxers, apparently trying to make sure the timekeeper had restarted the clock. Ortiz himself was looking directly at Mayweather with his hands down -- not Cortez -- from the moment he obeyed Cortez' orders to resume fighting until AFTER he got that Mayweather left hook to the mug. When he got the left hook, THEN he looked at Cortez, his hands still down. What goes through someone's head at a moment like that, to get punched cleanly and then look at the referee instead of the man punching you? Was he already concussed?
Maybe, sometimes, he's just not thinking at all.
He wants a rematch. From a sheerly competitive standpoint prior to the head butt, he might deserve one. The 1st round was Mayweather's, but Ortiz hung tight. The 2nd was also tight, but I liked Ortiz' combinations and hard shots. The 3rd was a Mayweather wipeout. The 4th, prior to the foul, was close -- I had it for Ortiz at the time, but probably should've had it for Mayweather. Accounts that Mayweather was thoroughly dominating Ortiz and making him look bad and rocking him (I didn't see him get rocked once) and lumping up his face ignore that Ortiz had some real success, not that it was sustained enough for anyone to assume he was going to win or come close. Ortiz passed on opportunities to punch Mayweather when they were in close, where he had Mayweather trapped on the ropes and in the corners where he needed him, and that hurt Ortiz' chances of victory.
Would the controversy sell a rematch? I suspect not. My guess is the ending left a sour taste in a lot of people's mouths and nobody wants a do-over. And enough people are turned off by Ortiz overall that it's hard to say when he'll get another fight that anyone truly wants to see. Not that his strange brain cares. It's one thing to smile all the time, through good and through bad, but he's a weird, weird dude to say things like this about his loss: "You know, whatever. Bottom line, I had fun."
Cortez is taking a lot of the blame for what happened Saturday. He certainly did suck. He's sucked as a referee for a long, long time now. He should've been paying attention to what was going on inside the ring once he told the fighters to resume action. Instead, he was looking away, probably at the timekeeper -- but if he was looking at the timekeeper, he should've separated the men until he got the clock under control. And maybe if he was watching what happened, Mayweather wouldn't have attacked when he did, but I doubt it -- he's punched defenseless opponents before when the referee was looking right at him. Nope, this isn't about Cortez. He has a bit role in all this. This is about Ortiz and Mayweather.
Or maybe it's about boxing?
The "boxing gets another black eye" trope has already been rolled out a little bit. And yes, because Mayweather is a villain and his actions will be viewed by many as the act of a villain, I suppose some could be turned off by this. And yes, it was an unsatisfactory conclusion to the fight, to say the least. But as I said at the beginning, others in different sports have outright cheated more flagrantly than anything Mayweather did wrong.
So no, Mayweather-Ortiz wasn't ABOUT boxing.
This was absolutely one of the most bizarre endings in boxing history, at least on the big-fight level. You have to go back to the days of Mike Tyson to find such oddities. How can something so unique say anything at all about the sport as a whole?
Maybe for the fans who just tuned into their first boxing match the other night, this won't convert anyone. The undercard fights, which were largely excellent, might or might not have compensated for any sourness these hypothetical boxing virgins have from the main event. But to anyone who's seen more than one boxing match, they ought to know that this isn't the norm.
Of course, I can't control, nor predict, the perceptions of casual fans. Maybe they won't see the difference between Mayweather-Ortiz and every other fight, ever. Maybe they'll be drawn in further by the controversy. Who knows? I just don't think they should judge boxing based on this one peculiar occurence, and if they want to fit it into a pattern of boxing being controversial, they'll have to go back more than a decade to find anything comparable that happened inside the ring.
It just so happens that I'm not afflicted by the philosophical inconsistency I set out at the very beginning. I happen to dislike both Jordan and Mayweather. I prefer sportsmen like Manny Pacquiao who prove that you can win with grace. I sort of grudgingly admire how driven Jordan and Mayweather are, and their immense talents. But I admire Pacquiao, too, and more.
I don't condone what happened Saturday night. A classier athlete, a more honorable athlete, doesn't do what Mayweather did. It's not just about Ortiz getting what he deserved for his head butt or stupidity. There are ways of taking vengeance on someone without punching them while they're apologizing. And as commenter justininsly said in the recap post, Mayweather didn't just take advantage of the rules. He flat out made it look to Ortiz as though he was embracing him back, then sucker punched him. Ortiz should have known better, and he got KO'd legally. But Mayweather was uncool. If there's a difference in what Jordan did vs. what Mayweather did that makes Mayweather look worse, it's that one was a touch more sinister in its intent.
Boxing-wise, for all the talk of Mayweather's master class, I saw vulnerability in Mayweather's performance Saturday night. Ortiz' size, along with his speed, combinations and perhaps his southpaw stance, gave Mayweather a little trouble. Yes, Mayweather was landing his lead right and jab at will, and I think ultimately that he would've won the fight. But that's a separate question than whether he was vulnerable. And it was the kind of vulnerability that made me think Pacquiao really would be competitive with Mayweather and perhaps even beat him, since Pacquiao is faster than Ortiz, punches better in combination, hits harder and is a southpaw -- although he lacks the superior size of Victor.
Naturally, that gets us to wondering about what's next for Mayweather, and how it would go.
If there's a rematch of this fight -- which Mayweather said, right afterward, that he would grant -- then I would still favor Mayweather, and maybe even by a wider margin because he's good at figuring out his opponent. The rematch doesn't do it for me, anyway. I'm still interested in Mayweather fighting middleweight champion Sergio Martinez, but his promoter Lou DiBella's offer to face Martinez at 164 pounds or less (Ortiz' weight on fight night) doesn't sound like the kind of thing that would thrill Floyd. Maybe he fights Amir Khan sometime in 2011.
More likely than not, Mayweather will go into another of his long lulls, the kind where he sits around and counts his tens of millions of dollars. If he ever fights Pacquiao, it will be after Pacquiao looks extremely vulnerable, because that's Mayweather's m.o. for choosing opponents. (And please, media, stop letting Mayweather say, unchallenged, that he'll fight Pacquiao when he agrees to "take the test," i.e. the Olympic-style drug testing he wants from Manny. Pacquiao has agreed to all of Mayweather's original terms, and several subsequent additional demands.)
If Mayweather doesn't fight Pacquiao soon, it will be too late. That betrays a lot more horrible traits in his makeup than anything he did Saturday. And unfortunately enough, if anyone wants to take boxing's inability to make Mayweather-Pacquiao happen as a broader indictment of the sport, they'd be right.