Here's a question: if we're critical of Floyd Mayweather for being boring, are we allowed to absolve UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre of similar blame?
If you watched Mayweather positively rout Robert Guerrero last Saturday, there are some of you who are going to admit the bout was boring. I am one of them. In fairness, taste is subjective and Mayweather is a boxing virtuoso. There's a particular joy in watching him execute his craft. There were also plenty of people who enjoyed the contest on their own terms.
But there's also any number of us who felt the affair to be dreadful. Boxing scribes and fans will tell you that bearing witness to Mayweather's technical genius is a sight to behold. They're not wrong, but a true showcase of talent in combat sports comes when a fighter is pushed. Generally speaking, it's when a combatant is forced to use the full resources of their offensive and defensive arsenal in a bout where they're threatened do we get to see the true measure of a fighter's greatness. It's not coincidental that game seven of the NBA finals is a bigger attraction than behind-the-back passes at Harlem Globetrotters vs. Washington Generals games.
Whatever else one wishes to say about Mayweather, he was not pushed against Guerrero. Then again, neither was St-Pierre against Nick Diaz, which leads us back to the original question: if we're right to say Mayweather can be boring, shouldn't we be forced to extend some of those criticisms to St-Pierre?
I suppose the answer is no if one doesn't like boxing, but the parallels between the two are hard to ignore. First, Mayweather and St-Pierre possess a level of technical mastery and athletic gifts that place them far above their peers. Second, both have cultivated a style that seeks to control for chaos in a bout. Third, both have achieved a level of success where hovering in their current space is sustainable with (relative) ease and valuable to their financial well-being and career status.
In short, the central problem with Mayweather and St-Pierre is that they're too good for anyone to really force them out of any real comfort zone. And without said push, neither is likely to leave it on their own because there's little to no incentive to do so. That is not the case with every elite-level, longstanding champion. While UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva has had his share of bouts that follow this pattern as well, he has also shown more willingness to dispatch with unfitting opponents with impunity, e.g. Stephan Bonnar, James Irvin and others.
Mayweather and St-Pierre may be at their technical and career peaks, but there's an open question regarding whether we're getting the best of them now. They key, it seems, was to catch them on the way up as they were forced to prove their worth, not sustain their rank. One wonders if Mayweather's bouts with Emanuel Augustus and Jose Luis Castillo, and St-Pierre's run through Frank Trigg and Jon Fitch were the true highwater marks of both fighters despite whatever measure of financial comfort and celebrity they currently enjoy.
It deserves to be said not every recent Mayweather or GSP fight is no fun. Miguel Cotto made things interesting throughout much of the early and middle rounds against Mayweather. Carlos Condit's pressure from guard and third-round head kick created for plenty of excitement at UFC 154.
The two fighter's situations also aren't entirely overlapping either. Guerrero wasn't even close to Mayweather's level and was about as good an opponent as one could find under the political boxing circumstances, but Mayweather clearly has a greater hand in his own matchmaking than St-Pierre (at least historically speaking).
The point, though, is this: if left to their own devices against outmatched opposition, both are liable to use just enough of their tremendous skill and ability to look just good enough to not risk everything they've built at this stage of their careers. There's nothing hugely objectionable about that. I am not calling on either to do anything differently. I am simply asking for the freedom to acknowledge their greatness, but not be forced to pretend every expression of it is some sort of revelatory and celebratory moment. I can't speak to the frequency of it, but it is possible for greatness and entertainment to be mutually exclusive.
Their success is not accidental and no one will hold onto what they've built if they're unwilling themselves to protect it. We're negligent if we don't acknowledge both are respective emperors of their sport. But while they are emperors, as far as personal entertainment tastes are concerned, they're often ones these days who have no clothes.