On 2nd May, 2015 Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, the pre-eminent boxing champs of their generation, faced each other in the most lucrative boxing match in history. At the end of the match, which Mayweather won, both the ringside and television audience delivered a scathing judgment of the champ’s performance. They had expected Mayweather to throw punches the same way they had thrown their money but he had proved too economical with his punches; and each time Pacquiao attacked, they had expected the champ to stand his ground and absorb Pacquiao’s punches the same way they had absorbed the astronomical match fees, but Mayweather was having none of that: whenever Pacquiao advanced with a flurry of punches, he would hug him, bid him goodbye, and then skip to safety in the furthest corner of the ring.
To an audience eager for vigour, the fight no doubt serves poorly as a match model. I soon found, however, that it serves beautifully as a medium for assessing managerial savvy. All you have to do is to ask a subject to evaluate Mayweather’s performance, and then award them marks based on a scoring scheme drawn from Sun Tzu’s Art of War, the peerless text on strategy in human contests be they martial, sports, or business contests. So without further ado, let’s get Master Sun Tzu and our subject into the ring to do a post-match analysis of the fight. I will use Thomas Cleary’s translation of Tzu’s classic.
Here is the dialogue outlining the litany of complaints against Mayweather’s fighting style.
Subject: “Mayweather was not aggressive; he was too defensive”
Sun Tzu: “In ancient times skilful warriors first made themselves invincible, and then watched for vulnerability in their opponents. Skilful warriors are able to be invincible, but they cannot cause opponents to be vulnerable: that is why it is said victory can be discerned but not manufactured.”
So in contest, the first and most important thing is to establish invincibility: that is, you must know how to protect yourself whatever your opponent throws at you. A good defence strategy is the foundation of invincibility. Mayweather acquitted himself with distinction in this respect.
Subject: “Mayweather’s victory was not achieved with a good display of skill nor was his courage evident”
Sun Tzu: “Victories of good warriors are not noted for cleverness or bravery. Therefore their victories are not flukes. Their victories are not flukes because they position themselves where they will surely win, prevailing over those who have already lost.”
So in contest, victory comes more easily to those who know how to pare down onerous problems to the point where they can be overcome without courage or great skill. Mayweather did this to Pacquiao—all to his credit.
Subject: “Pacquiao was not in perfect health: he had a shoulder injury”
Sun Tzu: “Those who win every battle are not really skilful—those who render others’ armies helpless without fighting are the best of all.”
The lesson is that in contest, the less physical struggle you have to do, the better. This is only possible if you can induce your opponent to work himself into a disadvantage even before you meet them in the arena. Mayweather’s reputation and mind games forced Pacquiao to overstretch himself in training, hence his injury. Pacquiao would never have suffered that injury if he was training for a fight against me. So the fact that Mayweather defeated an injured Pacquiao does not detract from the victory. As someone said, “If you find yourself in a fair fight, it means you did not prepare well.”
Subject: “Even though he lost, Pacquiao’s face looked fresh with no injury at all”
Sun Tzu: “The general rule for use of the military is that it is better to keep a nation intact than to destroy it; better to keep an army intact than to destroy it; better to keep a division intact than to destroy it; better to keep a battalion intact than to destroy it; and better to keep a unit intact than to destroy it.”
In contest, the best strategy is to gain victory without destruction—another positive accomplishment by Mayweather.
Verdict: A true and complete champion, this Mayweather fellow. If you did not appreciate his style, take that as a cue to polish your sense of strategy.
And one last thing: the fight I paid most attention to was the heavyweight contest between the two pugilists’ accountants, which ended in a purse of $200m for Mayweather. That to me was the real fight of the century.
What was your assessment of the fight? Tell us in the comments lot below, and let’s get a conversation started.
(Author-poet Agona Apell is the author of The Success Genome Unravelled: Turning men from rot to rock)