LAS VEGAS -- Boxing is at a crossroads. Yes, another one.
Much of the last month has been filled by the promotional noise of Saturday night's Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Miguel Cotto super-welterweight bout.
We are told the tickets are "virtually sold out," which apparently is similar to being almost pregnant. Also, the pay-per-view is "certain to be" the second-biggest take since Mayweather and Oscar De La Hoya did a reported 2.4 million buys in 2007. That's like the Memphis Grizzlies' 27-point second-half lead the other night was certain to be a victory.
Because it is boxing, we know to wear rubber boots to all media gatherings. It is not offensive. It is traditional, almost quaint. We know that the pre-fight characterizations of what will happen seldom do. On a sports integrity scale, boxing narrowly separates itself from pro wrestling by not predetermining the outcomes. We are "virtually certain" of that.
So, we accept that what we are sold can fall short of what we get. For a while.
But Mayweather-Cotto comes on the heels of a pair of smelly shoes.
The first was last September, when Victor Oritz head-butted Mayweather, then felt so badly about it that he kissed Mayweather on the cheek. That was quickly followed by an oblivious Ortiz, thinking the action was still halted by the referee, taking two huge (and legal) sucker punches from Mayweather. The fight was over, Ortiz was out, but some of the best action had just begun. Mayweather refused to talk to HBO interviewer Larry Merchant because he said Merchant had been negative about him. Merchant, 80, declared that, had he been 50 years younger, he would have kicked Mayweather's butt.
Picture the average Joe, sitting at home, having paid $50 or $60 to see this, scratching his head and asking anybody within earshot, "What just happened?"
Two months later, we had Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez. It was their third fight. The previous two had been hotly contested and both Pacquiao victories had been controversial. This time, because Pacquiao couldn't figure out Marquez's style and speed -- even though he had spent an entire pre-fight promotion telling everybody he could -- we had another close fight, but minus the usual Pacquiao action. The Pacquiao decision was decided on the judges' cards and was as unpopular in the stands as it was on press row.
Mayweather and Pacquiao have carried the sport for some time now. They inherited it from De La Hoya, who carried it for more than a decade. The heavyweight division, the only place where the public really takes notice of a star, has two of them in the Klitschko brothers. They spend the bulk of their time in Los Angeles but have taken their game and fame mostly to Europe.
That leaves Mayweather and Pacquiao, both nearing the end of their careers, to keep the light burning. Boxing is not dying. But without entertaining efforts featuring the standard-bearers -- Mayweather versus Cotto and Pacquiao versus Tim Bradley on June 9 -- there may be some serious withering on the vine. You can't keep selling diamonds and delivering rhinestones.
These two fights are already going head to head for public attention with the NBA playoffs, plus a baseball season just picking up steam. Two more fights bringing mainly shrugs will do serious damage.
The hard-core boxing follower will continue to get excited about Amir Khan versus Lamont Peterson May 19, or Ortiz versus Andre Berto June 23. But it takes Mayweather and/or Pacquiao to stir most fans.
No less than De La Hoya spoke to that, immediately after a news conference in which the only highlight was when a butterfly landed on the "N" on a Corona beer girl's halter top and had to be shooed away by Richard Schaefer, Golden Boy Promotion's chief executive.
"People ask me on this fight, who am I going for," said De La Hoya, Golden Boy's owner. "I always tell them, neither one. I just want a good fight. We need a good fight."
After Mayweather is done with Cotto, he heads to jail June 1 for 90 days on a domestic violence conviction. Pacquiao, after he is done with Bradley, returns to the Philippines, where he is a congressman. If they leave behind a couple of stinkers, victories with no flair, boxing's niche gets smaller.
They could, of course, fight each other. But mere talk of that, long tuned out by the public, achieves little. It would take two signatures on a contract to re-stir boxing's pot.
Excluding that -- and without an attention-getter in the next five weeks from at least one of the sport's two superstars -- boxing will be, at least temporarily, on the ropes.
It's a virtual certainty.