LAS VEGAS — Shortly before 2 p.m. here Wednesday, the trainers for the first fight since 1993 to pit the top two boxers in the unofficial but respected pound-for-pound rankings sat down to meet reporters. But a room that had been full moments earlier largely emptied as reporters raced for their laptops.
News had just broken that Floyd Mayweather — widely recognized as the best boxer of his generation — struck a deal to fight UFC megastar Conor McGregor on Aug. 26 in Las Vegas.
Nicole Duva, vice president of marketing for Main Events promotions, looked dismayed as she called for the attention of those few left.
“If you want him, here he is,” she said, gesturing toward John David Jackson, who trains Sergey Kovalev, the No. 2 ranked pound-for-pound boxer in the world according to Ring magazine.
Duva’s anger was palpable. Main Events, Kovalev’s promoter, has tried for months to generate hype for Saturday night’s showdown with Andre Ward, who holds three title belts and is ranked No. 1 in Ring’s pound-for-pound rankings. For aficionados, the light heavyweight showdown at Mandalay Bay Events Center warrants plenty of attention. Last November, Ward (31-0, 15 knockouts) eked out a unanimous 114-113 decision over Kovalev in an entertaining bout that many thought Kovalev won. It was a close, controversial match fought at the highest skill level between two men now ranked by the industry’s most widely recognized publication as the very best.
And yet the announcement of Mayweather vs. McGregor, a contest that boxing insiders are dismissing as a sideshow, has sucked all the oxygen out of Ward vs. Kovalev 2.
The idea that McGregor, who has never fought a professional boxing match, could legitimately compete with the 49-0 Mayweather is laughable to many boxing experts. But perhaps owing to their personalities as much as their combat sports ability, the prospect of Mayweather and McGregor squaring off has captivated the public in a way that Ward and Kovalev simply haven’t.
Kathy Duva, chief executive of Main Events, credited Mayweather’s willingness to put his private life on full public display in various series for HBO and Showtime as a primary reason for the interest in that bout.
“The fighters that have been the ones that have amassed mega-audiences — Muhammad Ali, Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao — their lives are performance art,” she said. “They’re not just fighters who speak to their fans when they feel like it or when it makes sense.”
She added, “If you want to get 4 million pay-per-view buys, you’re pretty much going to have to do what Floyd Mayweather does.”
The first Ward-Kovalev bout generated approximately 160,000 pay-per-view sales, according to reports. Both fighters appear unwilling to change their ways.
On Thursday, Kovalev (30-1-1, 26 knockouts) skipped a planned media obligation and later walked out of a news conference.
“My fists will say it,” Kovalev, 34, said Tuesday. “I’ve already said enough.”
Ward, who hails from the Bay Area, appears content to stay out of the limelight. Seemingly unbothered by the Mayweather-McGregor news, Ward — who is putting his World Boxing Association, International Boxing Association and World Boxing Organization titles on the line Saturday — believes Mayweather’s standing in the sport gives him license to command the spotlight whenever he pleases.
“He can put one Instagram video out, or one Instagram post out, and it’s national news for the next two, three days,” Ward said. “He’s earned that right and that position.”
But Ward, 33, is among the few involved with this weekend’s fight not perturbed by the Mayweather-McGregor announcement. Kathy Duva, for one, called it “a kick in the teeth.” She believes it’s made her job drawing attention to Saturday’s fight that much more difficult.
“They announced this circus that’s going to happen in August,” she said, dismissively. “That is on the front page of everything.”
Michael Yormark, president of Roc Nation Sports, which promotes Ward, echoed Duva’s disdain. Referring to Ward-Kovalev 2, Yormark said, “The table has been set for what we believe will be the fight of the year, not a money-grabbing spectacle that will take place later this summer here in Las Vegas.”
There was already festering anger among the principals in this fight before the announcement Mayweather vs. McGregor. Ward and Kovalev don’t like each other, and that dislike has filtered down to the two teams.
“There is no hiding the truth and fact that there is dislike throughout these camps,” Yormark said.
Each side has pointed fingers at the other for not doing enough to promote the bout, with both camps claiming that the other was at fault for the collapse of a high-profile joint interview for HBO, whose pay-per-view arm will telecast the card starting at Saturday at 9 p.m. Eastern time for $64.95.
Before he left his news conference Thursday, the Russian pointed at Ward and offered a parting shot.
“You,” Kovalev said. “Be prepared.”
And then, Kovalev and the rest of his team stepped down from the dais and marched out of the room.
“Keep it moving,” Ward said.
The fear among those with a financial interest in this bout is that the public will follow Kovalev’s lead.