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12 Brutal Rounds on SportsCenter: When Floyd Mayweather fought Brian Kenny and not Manny Pacquiao

This week marks the five year anniversary of one of the most memorable and entertaining interviews ever conducted on ESPN. Promoting his return fight from a brief retirement, Floyd Mayweather took to SportsCenter in hopes of drumming up interest for his bout against Juan Manuel Marquez. Fireworks ensued as Mayweather’s interview with SportsCenter anchor and boxing aficionado Brian Kenny became combative as the conversation shifted to boxing’s new rising star – Manny Pacquiao. At the time the sports world was yearning to see the two best pound for pound fighters go toe to toe in what would have been one of the biggest fights in the history of the sport.

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Tim Starks of The Queensberry Rules retraces boxing’s steps leading up to the famous Mayweather-Kenny bout that did happen and the dream fight between Mayweather and Pacquiao that never did.

In the scope of the history of boxing in the United States, it wasn’t so long ago – more recently than when Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth lived in the same sentence as larger than life sports idols, more recently than when Muhammad Ali captivated the planet – that boxing was something more than a niche business.

In the 1980s, Sugar Ray Leonard was a household name; Tyson rivaled fellow Michaels Jordan and Jackson as the most popular entertainers in the world. Even as late as the 1990s and early 2000s, boxing giants (both literal and figurative) roamed the mainstream media landscape frequently, with Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield and what remained of Tyson stealing headlines and SportsCenter segments for the heavyweight division.

During its mid-2000s funk, American boxing was helmed by Roy Jones, Jr., a once-in-a-lifetime talent who nonetheless never connected with casual fans for a whole host of reasons, and Oscar De La Hoya, a pay-per-view star who galvanized the Hispanic fan base in directions both positive and negative yet who, even with his appearances on the Tonight Show and Grammy nomination, couldn’t quite capture an audience as broad as the likes of Tyson.

It got so bad that when, in 2005, Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo squared off in what many boxing writers consider the best fight ever, period – rivaling Ali and Joe Frazier’s “Thrilla in Manila” and Marvin Hagler’s war with Thomas Hearns – no one much outside of boxing’s insular hardcore fanbase noticed. Contrary to the rote declarations that boxing was dead, it was thriving periodically within U.S. borders and spectacularly in many other countries, such as Mexico. But if it was not dead in America, it might as well have become invisible.

It would take the emergence of Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao in the late 2000s for boxing to again have crossover stars on domestic soil, with both feasting, vampirically and in the tradition of pugilism’s history, on the blood of the previous era’s superstar, De La Hoya. Yet even they have not restored the sport to anything like a simulacrum of its glory days or full health because the two stars never crossed paths inside the squared circle, missing an opportunity for the sport to reclaim a sliver of the prestige and interest it once had.

* * *

Insofar as boxing could rebound, it started to do so in 2007, and it began with Mayweather.

Mayweather had long been considered one of the best fighters alive, dating to a historic run at junior lightweight at the turn of the century. But with his cautious, defensively brilliant technicality in the ring, and with his chafing against attempts to market him as a bright-smiling star, he labored under Top Rank to become a fan favorite.

Mayweather’s flirtation with outright villainy, accidentally and intentionally, had begun under Top Rank. Before he fought Corrales in 2000, he wore the white hat, saying he would beat Corrales on behalf of battered women everywhere, since he had been accused at the time of assaulting his pregnant wife. Boxers have a unique way of being a walking contradiction. Two years later, Mayweather pled guilty to two charges of misdemeanor domestic battery.

By 2005, he was wearing the black hat with gusto, ridiculing the popular Arturo Gatti ruthlessly before they fought. In 2006, his contract with Top Rank over, he had fully embraced the notion that people would pay in hopes of watching him lose just as much if not more than his fans would.

Now established as a pay-per-view force to be reckoned with, albeit a second-tier one, Mayweather finally had given De La Hoya a reason to face him, and to get himself the dream fight and payday he’d long coveted.

De La Hoya might have had the bigger name, but Mayweather’s newfound mastery of self-promotion and his eagerness to play the bad guy to De La Hoya’s movie star good guy persona did just as much to sell the pay-per-view. What’s more, Mayweather played pioneer in the new HBO 24/7 documentary series, his insufferable arrogance and flashy hip-hop lifestyle popping off the screen.

Bill Simmons called De La Hoya-Mayweather boxing’s “last Big Fight, period.” It would go on to set a PPV buyrate record, surpassing even the heavyweight division denizens who had long ruled the format. Simmons, of course, was wrong – Mayweather just last year, against Canelo Alvarez, nearly equaled his PPV buy rate with De La Hoya, becoming just the second card to top 2 million buys.

But in between, Mayweather disappeared. Following his win over De La Hoya with a knockout of Ricky Hatton, he then bailed out of a planned De La Hoya rematch and abruptly retired. It’s still not entirely clear why; at 31, he was at the peak of his earning power, and Mayweather never tires of declaring how much he loves his money. He said he had lost his love of the ring and wanted to focus on other business enterprises. Some thought, rather, he was avoiding particular challenges – at the same time Mayweather had bolstered his profile, he had resisted the notion of facing a handful of especially dangerous welterweights. At the top of the list of potential Mayweather dream fights was Pacquiao.

In a post-retirement interview, he said of beating Hatton, “As soon as I beat him, it was, ‘What about this guy?’ and ‘What about that guy?’ It’s never good enough. Some boxing people weren’t going to be happy until I take a loss, and that’s not ever going to happen. I achieved all I wanted to achieve.”

Like many boxing retirements, Floyd Mayweather’s was merely a temporary sabbatical. Perhaps his ego couldn’t stand the talk of his performances being surpassed. Perhaps he always planned to un-retire — boxers are rivaled only by rappers in going back on pledges to leave their professions. Or maybe it was the problem Mayweather had developed with the IRS: a $5.6 million-sized problem. Whatever the reason, Mayweather ended a 21-month absence from the ring against Juan Manuel Marquez in 2009.

On the eve of Mayweather’s comeback, the fighter sat down for an interview with ESPN’s Brian Kenny on SportsCenter. The interview on May 20, 2009 was meant to publicize Mayweather’s upcoming bout against Marquez, but quickly took on a life of its own.

It turned into 13 minutes of unbridled, broadcast sports journalism havoc.  A mano-a-mano slugfest that boxing fans have yearned to see from Mayweather inside the ropes.

Only a handful of interviewers have so agitated Mayweather, a defensive genius in the ring used to controlling fights completely. One was HBO’s Larry Merchant, who famously concluded a hostile in-ring interview with Mayweather by declaring, “I wish I was 50 years younger and I would kick your ass.” Another, less known encounter was a radio debate with rapper RA The Rugged Man.

The SportsCenter interview of Mayweather by Kenny, who now works for Showtime and MLB Network, would quickly go viral; it sits at 1.8 million views on YouTube.

“Even now when I walk around Showtime Boxing, I still can’t believe how many people bring it up – in ballparks, everywhere, how many people will bring that up,” Kenny said.

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About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C., where he is a staff writer for CQ Roll Call.

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