Top Rank boss Bob Arum has presided over two-thousand fight cards in the last five-plus decades, and although he was a part of 27 Muhammad Ali fights, he didn’t have the honor of promoting the “Fight of the Century” between Ali and Joe Frazier in 1971. That distinction went to Jerry Perenchio.
The 88-year-old Arum, however, can stake a claim for having the distinction in furnishing the “Financial Fight of the Century,” which took place five years ago Saturday on May 2 when Floyd Mayweather unanimously decisioned Manny Pacquiao in a welterweight unification showdown that was more than six years in the making.
The 16,219 pent up fans at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, the 4.6 million people who purchased pay-per-view in the United States and the millions of others who watched it around the world were anxiously anticipating bloodlust and a powder keg eruption in the ring after an incredible build-up. Instead, they were served a lukewarm showing between the millennium's top two fighters in what still stands as the richest fight in boxing history.
Over $600 million in revenue was generated from the fight — 60% for Mayweather, 40% for Pacquiao — and every record was blown out of the water along the way.
Pacquiao promoter Arum’s favorite memory through it all was when the fight and promotion was mercifully over.
“I don’t have good memories,” Arum told BoxingScene.com in an interview. “It was not a good experience. The promotion was a horror. [PBC head] Al Haymon and Top Rank were at each other’s throats throughout the entire time. Our relationship could not have been worse. Haymon had a hunk of money from the hedge fund and wanted to drive everyone out of business. We fought back. It was a brutal war.
“The fight filled me with a lot of angst. It was an absolute miracle that it did as well as it did financially because of all the time wasted fighting behind the scenes. Part of life is enjoying what you’re doing, particularly at my age. If I have to go through another experience like that, it would put me in retirement.”
Before Arum and Haymon evolved into the cordial business buddies they are today, as was the case most recently with an ESPN and Fox joint PPV between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder, they were cantankerous archenemies.
Arum has called Haymon every word in the book, including a cancer to the sport. Haymon prefers to operate behind the scenes and dodges press better than Mayweather did punches — he still has not spoken a word in over a decade as one of boxing’s leading impresarios.
Arum recalls sitting across from Haymon at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for the first time before the Wilder-Fury II promotion and Haymon saying, ‘Bob — I promise you what happened last time won’t happen again. We’ll all work cooperatively.’ He lived up to his word.”
In 2009, Pacquiao and Mayweather were at the peak of their powers, and conversations finally kicked off for a fight to take place.
Stephen Espinoza was the president of sports and event programming for Showtime when the fight was finally staged. Before that, he had his hands tied to the fight back in 2009 when he was a lawyer for Golden Boy Promotions, and when both fighters were tied to HBO.
Espinoza drafted the term sheets, which included a 50-50 split and sent it over to Top Rank. But a potential deal fell apart due to Olympic style drug testing at the behest of Mayweather, despite neither fighter having ever failed a drug test. Pacquiao agreed to a degree of testing but had to fight through the clouds created that he was suspicious, even filing a lawsuit in 2010 alleging defamatory statements accusing him of using PEDs.
“It was really the closest we got until 2015,” Espinoza told BoxingScene.com in an interview.
After years of acrimony, public and legal spats, Mayweather retirements and back-to-back Pacquiao losses in 2012, interest and negotiations still persisted.
Espinoza points to the chance encounter between Mayweather and Pacquiao on Jan. 27, 2015 at a Miami Heat basketball game that made clearing the final hurdling blocks a possibility. Pacquiao was in town to serve as a judge at the Miss Universe pageant; Mayweather was a courtside mainstay in South Beach. They embraced each other on the sidelines during halftime for a genial chat.
“Social media exploded,” said Espinoza, who was in Glendale, Arizona for Super Bowl XLIX activities and having dinner. Minutes later, he received a call from Mayweather requesting to FaceTime.
Espinoza could not cooperate because he had a BlackBerry. So he quickly borrowed a friend’s phone, and on the screen appeared Mayweather and Pacquiao together in a hotel room.
Mayweather wanted Pacquiao to hear from Espinoza directly, and the call ultimately proved to be pivotal.
“That’s what really streamlined negotiations, because there was a fundamental distrust between both sides,” said Espinoza. “That call sealed the deal.”
Eventually, both camps agreed to Olympic-type drug tests — as well as a cavalcade of other line items that become bargaining points in any mega-fight promotion. On Feb. 20, the fight was announced and an all-out promotional blitz ensued reaching international media. No manufactured buzz was needed, and a sole press conference in Los Angeles simply sufficed.
“This fight was a wake up call that we didn’t recognize at the time. We had to reach an audience outside of boxing,” said Arum.
Leonard Ellerbe, CEO of Mayweather Promotions, remembers the event as being the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals and World Cup all rolled into one. He would have loved to have another bite at the financial apple with a rematch, but he’s still pleased with Mayweather’s finest hour as a professional.
“Pacquiao did not want to agree to the drug test. It was simple why the fight didn’t happen sooner. That’s the sole reason. Period. It wasn’t meant to be made at that particular time,” Ellerbe told BoxingScene.com in an interview. “It took a little longer than we anticipated, but Floyd was always ready to go. He’s the best, and Floyd proved it in a phenomenal event. Manny is a legendary fighter who accomplished a great deal. He’s No. 2 right behind Floyd over the last two decades.”
Mayweather’s best attributes as a boxer and businessman was knowing when to take on a particular opponent. He picked Pacquiao at the perfect time. The fight played out as many would have expected. A 38-year-old Mayweather neutralized the 36-year-old Pacquiao and left him devoid of a backup plan. Pacquiao previously had difficulty fighting superior technical opponents, and he never showed the relentless aggression he was known for, which largely was due to a shoulder injury he suffered in camp and re-aggravated in the fourth round, as was revealed after the fight. The judges scored the 36-minute session twice 116-112, and 118-110, all for Mayweather.
Casual fans stepping into the sport expecting a Rocky movie left disappointed because it bordered on boredom for the nascent observer. Some even filed a lawsuit claiming Pacquiao's training camp shoulder injury was misreported.
“It was a much better fight than people say. It wasn't Ali-Frazier III. It was a good scientific fight,” said Arum. “From the standpoint of the ability of the fighters, they were on their downside. From an athletic contest, I would have absolutely loved for it to happen sooner. They were absolutely sensational fighters in their prime, but not in 2015.”
Arum believes the fight’s price point at $100 created additional disdain from a value proposition and eventually drove consumers away from future PPV fights.
“PPV boxing has pretty much been on a decline ever since that fight,” said Arum. “They felt it was not worth $100, which is a lot of money. It’s not affordable to the normal person. People talked about it for years and finally it happened and everybody tuned in. They were turned off that there wasn't a knockdown or a brawl. I never thought it’d be like that.”
Ellerbe said detractors with an axe to grind against Mayweather arrived in droves afterward to further drive an anti-Mayweather agenda.
“There were large portions of the media and a narrative who painted that Floyd was scared of Manny, and the fight was lackluster. The media said that because their guy [Pacquiao] didn’t win. It wasn’t a Fight of the Year, but it was a very good, entertaining fight,” said Ellerbe.
The astronomical numbers Money May and Pacman were responsible for almost never came to be.
As the main event inched closer, Mark Taffet, formerly HBO’s senior vice president of sports operations and PPV and essentially the creator of the PPV model for boxing in 1991, recalls being bombarded with text messages and calls from unknown phone numbers.
After piecing the clues together, Taffet realized that the bandwidth for PPV providers had hit a wall due to high demand and created a log jam derailing consumers from ordering the event.
“It occurred to me that we potentially had two million buys still in the queue with orders that were not yet processed,” Taffet told BoxingScene.com in an interview.
Taffet walked over to CBS CEO Les Moonves and HBO CEO Richard Plepler, both of which have since left their roles, and told them a 30-to-45 minute delay for ring walks was imperative in order to seize every possible purchase.
The network bosses were initially uneasy of the idea, pointing to the palpable buzz around the arena and pondered how they were going to tame the anticipation and kill time.
Luminaries like Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf, Jay Z, Beyoncé, Diddy, Clint Eastwood, Robert DeNiro, Denzel Washington and Justin Bieber and a host of others were among the celebrities seated ringside for the glorified cocktail hour.
Taffet countered saying there was potentially $150 to $200 million sitting in the queue. Heading into the fight, they found it difficult projecting anything more than 2.5 million PPV buys, and they could not pass-up on the unforeseen demand.
“Our computer spreadsheets did not even have four million buys or more on it,” said Taffet. “You don’t want millions of consumers missing out on a product they’ve been waiting for. An unfulfilled experience could lead to other catastrophic implications in your business down the line.”
Taffet and the team were able to delay the broadcast because they’d baked in the “Fan Man Clause” with the satellites.
In the 1993 rematch of Evander Holyfeild’s win over Riddick Bowe, a parachuter crashed into the ring and caused an unforeseen delay and almost caused HBO to lose its satellite feed during the middle of the fight. From there on out, HBO bought extra satellite time for their PPV shows, just in case it had to deal with emergencies.
“We made the right decision on the spot [with Moonves and Plepler] and successfully delivered the biggest fight and event in history,” said Taffet. “It was historic.”
The fight marked only the second (and last) time HBO and Showtime worked together on a joint PPV, with Mike Tyson versus Lennox Lewis in 2002 being the other.
“HBO and Showtime could not get along,” said Arum. “They were really petty. We were saddled with two premium networks that really had no business being in boxing. They were not sports networks — they’re unbelievable entertainment networks. They didn’t belong in boxing. There was no real marriage.”
Ken Hershman, head of HBO Sports from 2012 to 2015, and a top Showtime Sports executive before that, said that everyone eventually compromised and overcame challenges because there was too much money on the table.
“Ultimately the egos made concessions they weren’t thrilled about and tempered down their competitive impulses, but we did it,” Hershman told BoxingScene.com in an interview. “It transcended boxing, and sports. It became a cultural event, even though the fight underwhelmed from a competitive endeavor. Everything else was right and spot on.”
Added Taffet: “You had a lot of opinions and big egos at the table, from distribution, marketing to operations, but the mandate of delivering the biggest event in history kept us focused and brought us to the finish line.”
Hershman, now a partner of the esports global advisory Electronic Sports Group, and Taffet, currently the manager of Claressa Shields, among other fighters, each resigned from their roles within months after the fight, right before their contracts expired. They’d both reached the pinnacle of their careers and needed a new challenge. Three years later, HBO, the network who built Mayweather and Pacquiao into the stars they’d eventually become, was out of boxing altogether after a 45-year run.
Mayweather vs. Pacquiao was ordained to make or break the sport, a proclamation uttered many times throughout history, and one that usually never rings true in hindsight. Ultimately, the fight failed to live up to massive and difficult expectations from the fans, but it exceeded everything imaginable financially.
“The sales results were phenomenal, and it reminded everyone how great the sport can be at its best,” said Espinoza. “But I wish people walked away from the event with more satisfaction. There was a lot of grumbling. I’m not sure all of it was fair. With more time passing by, I think people have a different take.”
Mayweather vs. Pacquiao generated enough money to prove that any fight can be made in boxing no matter the promoter, network or levels of animosity used as reasons not to make a match. It’s a model that will be iterated for years to come.
The fight’s $72,198,500 gate at the MGM Grand competed with Super Bowl gates — with less than four times the capacity size of an average NFL stadium.
“We learned our lessons, and you’ll see a lot of joint promotions [with PBC] in the years ahead. We don’t attack each other anymore,” said Arum.
It’s difficult to determine whether Mayweather vs. Pacquiao had any long-lasting impact on pay per view, especially since it was followed by the blockbuster success of Mayweather’s TKO win over Conor McGregor in 2017 with 4.3 million PPV buys and $600 million in revenue.
The previous PPV record was to the tune of 2.5 million for Mayweather’s win over Oscar De La Hoya in 2007. Including international sales, which brought it over 5 million, Mayweather-Pacquiao doubled that.
PPV is star driven with fighters who have global appeal, and with the advent of DAZN and ESPN+, it’s even more fragmented today than it was five years ago. There aren’t many must-see TV fighters that garner mass communities to congregate.
Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin are the only other fighters to crack the seven-figure barrier since Mayweather retired, doing so once in 2017 with 1.3 million buys and again in 2018 for their rematch in 2018 with 1.1 million buys.
Wilder and Fury II generated nearly 850,000 buys in February with an unprecedented promotional push across hundreds of millions of homes via Fox and ESPN.
The figure meant that Mayweather and Pacquiao’s numbers will likely stand the test of time — at least for the time being — and the fighter who can perhaps come close to breaking it hasn’t made their pro debut yet.
Can the “Financial Fight of the Century” hold on to its billing for another 80 years?
“History has always proven that there is always another combination of fighters and circumstances that can lead to a new record,” said Taffet. “I have to believe that at some point there will be a phenomenon to exceed the performance of Mayweather-Pacquiao, and the records will be broken. There is always a next in combat sports.”
Manouk Akopyan is a sports journalist and member of the Boxing Writers Assn. of America since 2011. He has written for the likes of the LA Times, Guardian, USA Today, Philadelphia Inquirer, Men’s Health and NFL.com and currently does TV commentary for combat sports programming that airs on Fox Sports and hosts his own radio show in Los Angeles. He can be reached on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube at @ManoukAkopyan or via email at manouk[dot]akopyan[at]gmail.com.