“There are people who think that wrestling is an ignoble sport. Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle […] [T]he public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing; it knows that boxing is a Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence.” – Roland Barthes
This quote is taken from Barthes’s, ‘The World of Wrestling’ the first essay from Mythologies. Barthes examines wrestling (WWE rather than Greco-roman) and draws analogies between it and Greek drama. He also juxtaposes it with boxing to highlight the differences between the performance of wrestling and the reality of sport. In this essay, I examine the collective disappointment that greeted the 2015 super-fight between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao in respect to Barthes’s essay, and will posit that the disappointment stems from a misconception on the part of the audience. Whilst boxing contains elements of the spectacular, it remains a sport, and the construct of boxing as a spectacle can ultimately conflict with the reality.
Boxing as a Spectacle
Barthes posits that wrestling “represents a mythological fight between Good and Evil”. The characters become signs for opposing values, and he adds that in American wrestling the “Evil” wrestler is often “red” and thus becomes a symbol of America’s ideological battle against communism. Boxing too can contain elements of this. There have been fights that have transcended boxing to take on a much greater political and social significance, such as ‘Joe Louis vs. Max Schmelling II’ and ‘Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman’. The second heavy weight clash between the African-American Joe Louis and the German Max Schmelling, which occurred in the years leading up to the Second World War, became symbolic of the ideological war between American democracy and Nazi fascism. The two pugilists formed obvious signs: Louis was the hero of black America whereas Schmelling was the symbol of Aryanism. The fight was cemented into boxing folklore when Louis knocked out Schmelling in the first round and thus “Good” was seen to triumph over “Evil”. The fight between Ali and Foreman, known as ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’, as it was held in the Congo, then known as Zaire) was not seen as a “Good” vs. “Evil”, yet it was weighted with political significance. Whilst both fighters were African-American, they represented two very different sides of African-American culture: Ali was the loud, brash, convert to the Nation of Islam who had been stripped of the heavy weight championship for refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War, and famously responded to his draft that “no Vietcong ever called me a nigger”. Foreman, by contrast, was the reserved Olympic champion who paraded round the ring with the American flag. The fight was retrospectively branded the greatest sporting event ever by many, and became known for Ali’s genius ringmanship as he employed a ‘rope-a-dope’ tactic to absorb the power of Foreman before countering when he eventually tired, and then knocking out an exhausted Foreman in the closing seconds of the 8th round.
I bring up these two examples because they embody the spectacle that Mayweather vs. Pacquiao promised yet ultimately failed to deliver. These fights are emblematic of a greater battle, yet it is only in retrospect that these events have been constructed into mythologized narratives. Barthes argues that a “boxing match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time.” Wrestling is a spectacle made up of obvious signs and at each moment the audience is aware of what the physical performance is displaying, as the acts are “endowed with an absolute clarity”. It is only by looking at boxing matches in the retrospect that they form a coherent story. However, whereas the two fights mentioned became stories did justice to the occasion, Mayweather vs. Pacquiao did not. The humble philanthropist Pacquiao did not beat the odds to defeat the brash, vulgar Mayweather. The audience’s hero did not win.
The Bastard and the Concept of “Paying”
Barthes explains that the spectacle of wrestling relies upon a “bastard”, a figure that embodies the audience’s resentment. He posits that there is nothing more exciting to the crowd of a wrestling match than witnessing the bastard receive punishment. Barthes argues that wrestling is intended to display, on the simplest level, the moral concept of “justice”, which in turn relies on the concept of “paying”. The audience desires to see the villain of the spectacle pay by receiving physical punishment at the hands of the hero. Louis knocked out the figure head of Nazi Germany, whilst Ali, the wronged former champion, regained his belt. The majority of the audience thought Mayweather losing was tantamount to justice because Mayweather is always presented as the bastard of the spectacle. Yet, I posit that, rather than having this role projected on to him, Mayweather assumes it and exploits it for his own benefit. Mayweather may be the best boxer in the world but he is not well-liked. He has a dark criminal history and is often insulting and derogatory to his opponents. Yet, this has not stopped him from becoming the highest paid athlete in the world. What Mayweather has is a rather unique selling point; spectators watch him in the hope that he doesn’t win. He trash talks incessantly before fights, he provokes the fury of Mexican crowds by walking to ring in a sombrero, and he arrived at the Manchester press conference for his fight with avid Manchester City fan Ricky Hatton in a Manchester United shirt. If you watch the press conference, Mayweather acts like a sort of pantomime villain. Mayweather has also constructed himself as certain characters, the first being ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’. His unmarked face, a benefit of his unparalleled defence, became the symbol of the audience’s disdain. The audience bought Mayweather’s pay-per-view fights in the hope that his face, someday, would more closely resemble the battle-scared faces of his fellow pugilists. Mayweather has scarcely even shed blood in the ring. Then he changed character. He became ‘Money Mayweather’, his persona based upon brash displays of wealth. Mayweather flaunted the millions of dollars he was paid to fight in the faces of those who paid it. The dominant symbol which people paid to see vanquished was the zero on Mayweather’s record next to defeats. The audience does not care that he was paid upwards of a hundred million dollars to fight; all they wanted was the satisfaction of seeing the bastard punished. The idea of Mayweather suffering a defeat has remained just that.
Barthes names wrestling an “Exhibition of Suffering” and argues that the audience experiences a type of “intellectual pleasure” in seeing the display of the “moral mechanism” (which is the bastard paying his debt) displayed so perfectly. Barthes describes how wrestling is constituted of obvious acts, like the “forearm smash”, which is accompanied by a “dull noise and the exaggerated sagging of [the bastard’s] vanquished body”. Boxing too can display this mechanism: seeing the villain of a fight knocked out with a clean punch to the jaw in an obvious sign that he is suffering. Yet the reality of boxing as a sport is often void of obvious signs. And this is why Mayweather’s method of victory also infuriates the casual boxing audience. He does not win by way of Rocky-esque knockouts, or by battling through a gruelling physical war to come out on top. He slips, holds, moves, and rarely throws more than one punch at a time. He simply lands punches on his opponent whilst they (mostly) miss punches on him. Mayweather himself regularly states that the point of boxing is “to hit and not be hit”.
Spectacle vs. Reality and Villains vs. Bastards.
The negative reaction to Mayweather wins are predicated on the confusion between the audience’s desire for justice and the reality that Mayweather is by some margin the best boxer in the world. Whilst boxing matches are marketed as spectacles, the reality is that they are a sport played out between two adversaries. In the lead up to a fight, promoters market fighters in specific ways or project a greater significance onto the fights. Mayweather vs. Pacquiao was no different, presented a battle between Good and Evil; a national hero versus a universally loathed fighter. The fairy tale ending would have been a Pacquiao victory, but the reality was a fairly dull fight in which Mayweather won by a comfortable decision. The disappointment in the result is based upon the confusion caused by the presentation of a spectacle and the reality of boxing.
In the world of boxing there are many high profile champions who could be construed as villains; Mike Tyson was convicted of rape, Bernard Hopkins was serving an 18-year prison sentence for armed robbery before his early release, and Adonis Stevenson served time in jail for a plethora of crimes including pimping prostitutes. These are men who can certainly be presented as villains yet they do not fill the role of the bastard. When Tyson returned to boxing after his jail sentence there was not a desire to see him suffer (by the majority) but a desire to see Tyson do damage unto others. With Mayweather there is a visible will to see him go through the “Exhibition of Suffering” and no other fighter in boxing consistently played, and played up to, the role of the bastard like Mayweather. His status as a villain may not separate him from other pugilists, yet his willingness to be the bastard certainly does. And it is his performance outside of the ring, not inside, which earned him upwards of six million dollars a minute in his fight with Pacquiao.
Michael McGinley-Hughes holds an MA in English Literature from The University of Manchester. He writes about boxing at Rumble, Young Man. Rumble (IG: rumble_youngman).