Floyd Mayweather And Boxing’s Millennial Generation

In the spring of 2011, a news story broke about how Rutgers University paid Jersey Shore star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi $2000 more for a campus visit than they were paying Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison for her 2011 commencement address. That a celebrity commands more for a public speaking event than a literary figure shouldn’t surprise anyone, and wasn’t the detail that made it newsworthy. What stood out was that Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi isn’t famous for a hit record, or because of her acting, or even because she’s particularly attractive. The source of her fame—the hit reality television show ‘Jersey Shore’—is televised debauchery, public displays of post-adolescent irresponsibility. Many see her as a beneficiary (or victim) of the “famous for being famous” phenomenon, supposedly an epidemic among young people born between 1980 and 1996, the so-called “millennial generation.” 

Polizzi might be applauded for turning her five minutes of fame into a lucrative career. We can’t pretend to know her personally, and should view her success as the result of a savvy young person seizing an opportunity. She is, however, synonymous with the mechanism driving the fame machine of many young people today, the product of an allegedly hyper-narcissistic, attention-starved and delusional generation. What sounds like a standard older-folks pile-on actually has evidence to support it, and manifests in many arenas: the professional world, relationships, and popular culture. 

Always a microcosm for society, the sports world has been forever changed by millennial culture. A generation obsessed with attention loves to make soap operas out of sports figures like never before. While Michael Jordan’s surly personality was transparent to those who studied him closely, he played in an era when faults were relatively easy to mask. Lebron James, on the other hand, has a public persona that has consistently swung on a popularity pendulum between beloved and villain, the public’s addiction to narratives partly the culprit.

Boxing is no different. One might argue, in fact, that boxing’s individualistic nature and history of colorful characters were a sitting duck for millennial influence. 

Imagine, will you, Muhammad Ali with a Twitter account, able to post a new poem every week. 

Imagine Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns or Roberto Duran caustically taunting opponents on YouTube.

Picture “Iron” Mike Tyson’s Instagram account: the snapshot photos of him at his mansion parties, posing in front of every one of his cars (100 in number, says the folklore).

If you are wincing at the thoughts (and most of you probably are), remember that all of the above would absolutely be the case if the times were rearranged. This is because the attention-mongering ethic of millennials is lucrative business. With several million Twitter followers, Muhammad Ali’s fights would be in even greater demand. A soft drink company could sponsor Roberto Duran’s YouTube rants. A luxury automobile company would pay young Mike Tyson to feature their automobile in his next Instagram photo. And while boxing has always been a business, no fighter (or athlete) has made mastered this epoch, spun it in their favor better than Floyd Mayweather Jr. 

While Floyd Mayweather Jr. was technically born on the tail end of Generation X (1977), his understanding of millennial culture is the engine behind his rise to best compensated boxer in the history of the sport. While his ascent to mogul status has been well documented, everything changes when you reflect on his decisions through the prism of millennial culture. Mayweather has only been a megastar for six or seven years, during the time when Facebook and Twitter were born and raised. In 2006, Mayweather had none of the following of Oscar De La Hoya or other boxing stars. He lacked any of the essential superstar elements: (a) presence in the heavyweight division, (b) knockout power (c) membership in a nationalistic ethnic or geographic group.

Even more troubling for his star potential was the fact that Mayweather was widely understood to be a sensitive, perceptive, overall nice guy who could talk smack before fights but was always gracious and friendly with opponents after fights. It’s safe to say that prior to 2006, Mayweather had far more friends than enemies in boxing. 

With intentions on moving up in weight (which almost always diminishes punching power), and no ways to switch ethnic groups overnight, Mayweather took on the villain role. Gone was the “Pretty Boy” Floyd moniker, replaced by the smug “Money” Mayweather. And everyone fell for it—for over half a decade, the boxing community has hissed and fussed and called him names, nitpicked his opponents, criticized his antics. Mayweather responded with victory after victory, laughing all the way to the bank.

And other fighters were watching. The twitter accounts exploded, the reality TV style videos propagated. The strategy grew a tail, and the attention mongering grew exponentially. Fighters like Paulie Malignaggi, a good fighter, used his Italian-ness, Brooklyn-ness, fashion flair and witty persona to build the celebrity of a great fighter (despite being one of the most technical, least powerful punchers in all of boxing).

The millennial era has created a need for a more attentive, more responsible boxing scholar. The puzzling response to Adrien Broner’s December 2013 loss to Marcos Maidana, for example, exposed a titanic gap in understanding between the public and the millennial-era fighter. I’m not sure who profits from this gap more—like professional wrestling, ignorance is bliss, and believing everything you read and hear (in this case, Broner’s deplorable internet behavior) makes the sport more entertaining. And while no fighter likes being defeated, Adrien Broner’s promotion team must revel in the fact that his loss caused such euphoria—Broner’s millennial-era antics worked in creating a bankable star, even in defeat.

In the end, boxing writers and fans can feel however they want—if they can’t resist the urge to loathe a fighter based on their social media behavior and manufactured attention mongering, good for them. But to those of us who understand the times in which we are embedded, a different approach is more prudent: focus on the sport and let the antics, for the most part, occupy a different neural niche. The antics can make us shudder or smile, but they are so essential to fame building that we can almost never separate fact from fiction, genuine from contrived. 

Such a perspective doesn’t make us morally bankrupt, but rather, familiar with the age we’re in, when the ability to attract attention is essential to creating wealth, fame, and superstardom. And this fact of millennial-era life applies to the talentless, the gifted but unproven, and legends just the same.

Follow Cheekay Brandon on twitter @Cheekay98

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