Scenes from the Fight of the Century
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Scenes from the Fight of the Century

A weekend in Las Vegas turns extra surreal thanks to the biggest fight ever and some unexpected guest appearances from boxing's vaudevillian underbelly.

This past Friday afternoon, as fans filed into the MGM Grand Garden Arena for the Weigh-In of the Century, Mitchell Rose set up shop on the concourse. He commandeered an out-of-use food cart and set a stack of books upon it, and beside them a 24-ounce paper cup full of beer. He draped a green championship belt over his right shoulder, and as the sold-out crowd flowed past, he allowed the belt to do its work.


Rose is 46 years old, about six feet tall, and wide enough that when he told approaching fight fans why he was in Las Vegas walking around with a title belt, nobody doubted him. Twenty years ago, on the undercard of an Oscar de la Hoya fight in Madison Square Garden, he became the first person to defeat Eric Esch, the boxer known as Butterbean, backing him into a corner in the second round and throwing right hands until the referee stopped the fight. By then, Butterbean was already on his way to straddling the line between cult famous and regular famous. Fat, bald, and white, he would go on to win his next 51 bouts, and become the face of boxing's vaudevillian underbelly.

Rose, on the other hand, went onto a record of 2 wins, 11 losses, and 1 draw. Besides boxing, he has been a street vendor and a liquor store owner. The second biggest highlight of his career, he said, came when Mike Tyson attacked him outside of a Brooklyn nightclub in 2002, and ripped his mink coat. That was the subject of Rose's first self-published book, "Mike Tyson Tried to Beat Up My Daddy." His second was called, "The Man that Beat Butterbean But Now Has to Beat These City Streets." He was in Las Vegas now to sell his third, "Liquor Store Blues," for 10 bucks a copy. I bought one.

The jeweled center of Rose's championship belt had his name written on it, and the phrase that had been Butterbean's nickname: "King of the 4 Rounders." None of boxing's alphabet soup title-granting organizations award a 4-round championship for heavyweights or any other division. But the belt served its purpose. Curious onlookers flocked to Rose and chatted him up and posed for photos. He sold a few copies of "Liquor Store Blues," handed out business cards (he is also a paralegal), and declared that he wanted to challenge Butterbean to a rematch, even though he had already won the first contest.


"I'm a hustler," Rose said, explaining that he knew where the real money was: movie rights. "This is what I do."

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Inside the arena, the pre-weigh-in festivities got underway. The place filled up with people who could afford 10 dollars for the pleasure of watching Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather strip down to their underwear and stand on a scale, but for the most part, not the thousands it would cost to actually see them fight in the same building the following evening. Doug E. Fresh emceed, beseeching noise and reading sponsorship promos, and mostly filling dead air in the room between hip hop acts and video vignettes.

"Enjoy your time out in Vegas and definitely, definitely, enjoy your life," he said like he really meant it. "Life is short."

Las Vegas always has the feel of a place people come looking for something: a certain feeling or lack of feeling, a run of luck that can change everything, a night of partying so long and thunderous that just thinking about it makes the following year of cubicle monotony a little more tolerable. But this weekend, the Strip had the feel of a place where people came to be near something. Not in the holy sense like Jerusalem or Mecca, but in the communal one. On Saturday night, perhaps the two most famous boxers in the world fought each other. For all of the artifice, that simple fact gave Mayweather-Pacquiao a sort of magnetism. The fight became a light to which we moths were all stupidly and self-destructively drawn.


It was still undecided which of us would be granted permission to sit ringside the next night, and which of us would be watching on closed caption. But I was feeling fairly certain that I would not be among the chosen ones. The one public relations associate I knew working the fight was a friend of my brother's. Above his paygrade, he said. So I began to come to terms. After all, I wasn't there to cover the fight. I was there to try and make sense of the spectacle. I had even left my computer at home, figuring the more time I spent on it, the less time I would spend immersed in whatever was coming.

After the weigh-in, a few dozen fans lingered outside the arena's back entrance. I was there, too, unsure where else to be. It was 90 degrees out, and the Las Vegas sun was still coming down so hard it almost hurt, but there they were, the weirdos and memorabilia hunters, second cousins and hangers-on both affiliated and not. "I'm a grapher," said one man trying to sell a Manny Pacquiao-signed boxing glove to another out of a backpack. "That's what the fuck I do." Mitchell Rose was there with them, waiting for something to happen, for some recognizable face to emerge. When one did, in the form of WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder, Rose lifted his green title belt in the air and walked straight through the crowd.

"Hey champ!" he called out. "You want some of this?"


Back in my room, the local news was showing a report about a group of protesters who'd been outside the MGM earlier that day, demanding Floyd Mayweather answer for his serial abuse of women. Maybe it was the way the cameraman captured them against the bright sky and the emerald backdrop of the hotel, but all I could think about was how futile it made them look, as though they'd be forgotten about as soon as the segment ended and the anchor's tone shifted.

Out on the strip, an old man too talented to be working the street belted out "Try a Little Tenderness" on a corner between two of the skybridges that keep drunks from walking into traffic. On a sidewalk near the Flamingo, a little person dressed up as Manny Pacquiao, headband and painted-on goatee and all, stood before a stand selling fight merchandise and taking pictures with drunk passers by.


His name was Ezequias, he was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, and he had a brother named Ezequiel. To avoid confusion, he usually went by Arnold Virgen, which was his stage name as a lucha libre wrestler and bullrider. (The bulls, he explained, were miniature.) He had come in from San Bernardino, recruited by a friend of a friend to pose as Pacquiao and draw attention to the merchandise booth. There wasn't much of a natural resemblance, but nobody seemed to really care.

For a small donation that went directly into the pocket of his gym shorts, Arnold would pose with anybody, and withstand any abuse. He was used to it, he said, but people were meaner here than they were at lucha libre events, where fans were accustomed to little persons. He couldn't care less about boxing, he said, but this was a good gig. When Mayweather fans walked by, he would shout "Pacquiao!" and try to draw them into taking a photo. He would work until about 11, and then all day tomorrow as well, when a Floyd Mayweather impersonator was scheduled to join him. In the meantime, the money kept coming in.

In the Casino Royale, a young bachelorette in a black dress with a little white veil tied to her hair walked up to a $5 minimum craps table and begged everybody playing to please show a little more spirit, have a little more fun. For a few minutes, they obliged her. Across the street, for the eighth and final time that evening, a fake volcano shot fire into the sky at the Mirage. Down the strip, a formation of Black Hebrew Israelites set up their camp on a sidewalk and began to preach about the 12 tribes. On the floor of the MGM Grand casino, a group of strangers followed boxer Adrien Broner's entourage all the way to the elevators, looking to fight. "They're just trying to get a lawsuit," one of the entourage said. Broner, in sunglasses and gold chains, didn't say anything at all. At the precipice of a nightclub called Marquee, men with perfectly groomed beards and no socks sized each other up.


There was a full moon over the Excalibur when I made it back. In one of the lounges off to the side of the casino, a Filipino cover band played the theme from The Bodyguard. I sat at the bar and opened an email confirming that I would be indeed be watching The Fight of the Century from outside of the arena.

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On the day of the fight, the Mayweather Boxing Club, which is located in the back of a huge strip mall in Las Vegas's Chinatown, was officially closed. But carloads of fans were there, streaming through the parking lot, taking pictures out front. Almost none of them—and this was evident among Mayweather fans I saw all over Las Vegas—were white.

A handful of members of The Money Team (TMT) were hanging out in the gym's front room ordering a pizza and discussing post-fight party plans. A few more stood out front, offering impromptu tours. If you wanted to see where The Best Ever (TBE) trained, you could do so for $50 cash, just half of what that night's fight would cost on Pay-Per-View.

Inside, the gym looked just like it did on television: sterile, modern, and boring. Some of the side rooms were decorated with framed photos of Mayweather (including a couple that featured him dressed as a 1920s gangster, pinstripes, Tommy Gun, and all), but the walls in the room where he actually trained were blank. From the inside, just as from the outside, the Mayweather gym looked like a place of business. Nothing more. It didn't even smell like a boxing gym.


Outside, I caught up with a group of guys who had just taken the tour. They turned out to be four cousins who lived in different corners of the country and had come together in Vegas for the fight. All four were big Mayweather fans, and I asked them something I'd been asking people since I arrived: Why? What drew them to a fighter like Mayweather? The simple answer was that he was the best. They said they loved boxing and they appreciated his genius.

Did it matter to them that he had repeatedly beaten and threatened women? It did and it did not. They were aware of it. They were repulsed by it. They tried not to think about it. They were just fans of the boxer, they said. One could find an artist abominable and still appreciate his art, right? Standing in the parking lot of his gym, having just walked through the room where he trains, having just handed over $50 each, that person, Floyd Mayweather, remained something of an abstraction to them. Mayweather will continue to exist whether we are watching or not, goes the thinking. He will likely continue to be great. So why not watch?

I asked the cousins where they would be watching the fight. They weren't sure, they said. They had come all this way without making plans. On the strip, the fight was only showing in closed caption at viewing parties that they thought were too expensive. They were thinking about going to a sports bar in Henderson, where it would only cost $100 per person. For them, the fight was an excuse to get together. It was an excuse to be in Las Vegas. Even if they did end up in the suburbs.


Beyond the big hotels, Las Vegas is kind of like a less pretentious version of Phoenix. Subdivision after subdivision. Long, wide blocks. Chain link fences and signs faded by the sun. Two miles west of the Mayweather gym on Spring Mountain Road, past block after block of similarly dreary buildings decorated with the same Chinese flourishes, is a corner with a CVS and Walgreens across the street from one another.

Nanay Gloria is a hole-in-the-wall joint tucked into the strip mall behind the Walgreens. It's an all-you-can-eat buffet: home-cooked Filipino food for less than 10 bucks, pay when you finish. On Saturday afternoon the place was packed, but hardly anybody was eating at the buffet. A pair of old tube televisions mounted on the walls were turned to a war movie on GMA Pinoy TV. As customers waiting in the long line watched soldiers shoot each other up, the bottom of the screen was graced with a Go Manny Pacquiao chyron.

Las Vegas is home to more than 100,000 Filipinos—they are one of the largest Filipino populations in the country, and one of the largest minority populations in Las Vegas. In the kitchen, half a dozen people scrambled to fill scores of to-go orders as that population prepared to watch their countryman in the biggest fight of his career. An entire wall was covered with order tickets, as of yet unfilled. Pacquiao, though, had become more than a countryman. He had become the countryman. What kind of person he actually was behind the soft smile and constant Bible quoting was less important than the folk hero people saw him as.


I filled a plate at the buffet and watched as the cashier scrambled from order to order, back and forth from the kitchen to see how things were coming. I stuffed my face and watched carts loaded up with aluminum trays piled high with lumpia, pancit, adobo, and more rolled carefully out to waiting cars in the parking lot, bound for homes and who knows where else. The restaurant felt like a house does in the hours before Thanksgiving dinner: all the last minute preparations and anxiety that would soon give way to camaraderie and excitement. The only question was what came after that.

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Not that it was ever much of a question. Every Mayweather fight, I try to to convince myself that he can be beaten. Maybe Canelo is strong enough to bully him, I tell myself. Maybe Maidana actually has him figured out. Maybe Manny Pacquiao is quick enough, wily enough, crazy enough to draw him into a brawl. It begins in the days before the fight, and then as the event actually approaches, that optimism fades.

Physical proximity to Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao did not change this for me. As I wandered through the broadcast center beside the entrance to the arena in the MGM, the dull inevitability of what was to come became more and more apparent. Not only was Mayweather the better fighter throughout their careers, but Pacquiao, even two years younger than Mayweather, was further removed from his prime. His last opponent had been Chris Algieri. Who the hell was Chris Algieri?


Ex-fighters like Mike Tyson and Erik Morales were paraded through a Mexican bar across from the entrance to the arena to take pictures with the Tecate logo. In the casino, there were people showing off their money, people showing off money they didn't have, and people so rich they didn't have to show anything at all. There were Metropolitan police in khaki and security guards in highlighter green and undercover FBI agents in not-fashionable-enough suits.

In the restroom, a custodian whispered advice to two men about how they might walk past all that security and right into the Fight of the Century. They were dressed for the occasion, sipping on cocktails, button-up shirts tucked into jeans, ready to fit in with the rich and un-famous. One of them was a former MGM employee, the other a buddy of his. You can come, too, they told me, if you buy the drinks.

We walked through an inconspicuous door near the arena entrance, and then through a quiet lobby, and into a hallway lined with offices, at the end of which, we knew, was the arena itself: the Fight of the Century. But as we crept into the hallway, a confused looking man carrying a plate food stumbled out of one of the offices. A moment later, we were back out in the crowd. A moment after that, there was a uniformed police officer standing before the door.

I wandered into the Convention Center in time to to catch Vasyl Lomachenko knock out Gamalier Rodriguez in the ninth round on one of five massive projector screens. It was a wide, carpeted room full of people who had spent $400 to watch the fight on television while drinking unlimited vodka cranberries. They got all the booze they could drink for that, but still had to pay a little extra to buy hot dogs and popcorn if they were hungry.


Still, better to be amongst the people, I told myself. But then, just as Floyd Mayweather made his entrance to the ring, trailed by a fastfood chain mascot, I got a text message. If I was willing to wait until after the second round to enter, the PR associate who was friends with my brother had an unused ticket for me.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Streaks of purple light angled down toward the ring inside the arena, shining on Floyd Mayweather's bald skull. Good and evil looked more like childhood against adulthood. Pacquiao was inconsistent: hyperactive and then sullen. Mayweather was his usual steady self, balanced and fluid and unwilling to be drawn into any uncomfortable exchanges. He was unperturbed by Pacquiao's minor flurries. He could have just as easily been fighting somebody else.

As the fight dragged on toward its inevitable whimper of a conclusion, refusing, as all Mayweather fights do, to yield to the desires of the crowd, I spotted a moth diving down from the rafters, through the spotlights, and into the ring, where it landed gracefully for a brief moment on the side of Manny Pacquiao's head. Referee Kenny Bayless seemed to see it too, and as Pacquiao attempted to back Mayweather into a corner, Bayless seemed tempted to shoo it away. But before he could, the moth fluttered away, unsatisfied.

Afterward, the people booed. But it was unclear whether they were booing the judges, who saw what most of the world saw, the boxers who both looked as though they could easily go another half dozen rounds, or themselves for falling for it once again. It was only the Fight of the Century until they got in the ring. Mayweather mugged. Pacquiao blew kisses as he marched back down the tunnel and into the dressing room. Both the same, but that much richer.

Later that night, Mayweather re-entered the arena for his press conference. The ropes had been removed from the ring and a dais set up in the middle. He stood up there for what felt like a long time, framed by a pair of smiling Tecate girls, talking a little bit about the fight, and a lot about himself, rambling from one subject to the next. Listening to him was like listening a cult leader, equal parts self-aware and delusional, talking to a room that he was certain would never contradict him. He taught a lesson on parenting and rejected the notion that he was a bad person. He believes in the big man, just like Pacquiao, he said. He loves his family, he said.

He did not seem happy, per se, but he did seem satisfied. Mostly, he seemed pleased about the paycheck. Nine figures. That paycheck had been his ultimate goal in boxing, a sport he confessed to no longer loving, or even especially liking, and now he had his paycheck, had literally held it in the dressing room. And here we all were, emissaries of the society that wrote it for him, and had written 47 smaller paychecks like it, and would write another one in September. But it wasn't about the money itself so much as the idea of the money.

"Once you get to a certain point, you can't buy nothing more anymore," said Mayweather.

The next afternoon, I sat waiting for my flight at the Southwest terminal of the Las Vegas airport. Slot machines rang between the gate announcements and so did the voice of a man sitting at a 25-cent machine while he waited for his flight.

"Get. That. Money." He said, each time he pressed the button. "Get. That. Money."