Barthes, “Money” Mayweather, and the Spectacle of Performance

Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao boxing press conference, Los Angeles, America - 11 Mar 2015

“We are all working from the same dog-eared script” (Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl). I’m certain Roland Barthes, forty-some years ago, would have said the same. And although Floyd “Money” Mayweather may not express this in quite the same terms, he certainly performs it.

The historic (though anti-climactic) fight between Mayweather and Pacquiao this last Saturday reached proportions of a lesser National holiday.

In his essay The World of Wrestling, Barthes differentiates boxing from wrestling, saying that while the former is a proper sport, something one can bet upon the outcome, wrestling is pure spectacle, not far removed from the Greek tragedies of Old. I’d argue, however, that boxing (along with other spectator sports) has long since merged with performance theory. In wrestling, Barthes continues, “as soon as the adversaries are in the ring, the public is overwhelmed with the obviousness of the roles” (17). This is of course perfectly punctuated by the boxers’ entrances and attire–the choice of music, the trunks, the characters in their retinue. While Pacquiao had on a simple T-shirt with his Christian rhetoric (“Jesus is the name of the Lord,” I think it was?), Mayweather had on gaudy gold and silver gem-studded robe and trunks. Manny took a selfie with his life-long trainer and emerged all smiles. Floyd came out frowning–and sparkling (fitting, given his moniker)–flanked by such celebrities as Justin Bieber. I still don’t get how Bieber lends any kind of cred to Mayweather’s persona, but there it is. This is just a culmination of countless documentaries that detail Manny’s humility and Floyd’s grandiloquence (to borrow from Barthes). Their identities have been commodified–Manny as the under-dog most people root for, Floyd as the one you’d actually put your money on, no pun intended.

This is how the “mythological fight between Good and Evil”(23) occurs–the quintessential battle between the Good of modesty and the Evil of greed and excess (though we as a nation fall prey to it as much as people like Mayweather perpetuate it). So it is that the villain becomes the victor in spectacle, for they can “irritate or disgust, [but] he can never disappoint” (24). They are the ones we love to hate. One thing we cannot deny him: he certainly is a shrewd business man–builds up hype, sustains the image, draws out the awaited night.

This is a big, sordid “what if,” but indulge me: What if Mayweather only plays the asshole card? What if his egregiously misogynist and puffed-up persona is just a caricature–one that sells tickets rather well?

This performance is inclusive of Pacquiao. The walking embodiment of modesty, the Filipino Rocky, a boy from the streets who rose to stardom, who can take hit after hit and is honored to do so. Add to this a Christian fanaticism that places him as the protagonist of some Messianic narrative within the boxing genre.

If news networks have turned from real journalism to sensationalism for the sake of ratings, is it so hard to believe that two boxers would do the same–that is, go from sport to theatrics? It is Greek tragedy disguised as boorish sparring, framed in its own micro-economy of million-dollar bets. At the center of the drama is the “good guy” versus the “bad guy,” a duality that has stood, and continues to stand the test of time.

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