DePaul economist Rafael Tenorio wrote a 2006 paper codifying what boxing fans already knew: This is the only sport that rewards its top competitors for avoiding competition. It makes economic sense for elite fighters to keep battling beatable opponents, rake in heavy paydays, and leave their drawing power untarnished. This trickles down to impede boxers of Mayfield's caliber as well. There is, Tenorio says, little incentive for established boxers to take on dangerous, "dark-horse-type fighters."

Between other fighters' trepidation at facing Mayfield and his own reticence to put his undefeated record on the line in short-notice fights for small potatoes, he fought just 10 times between 2007 and 2009. Frustrated, he dropped manager Jackie Kallen in late '09 — and fought twice in the next 18 months. The situation is perhaps best summed up by former promoter Stewart Katz, who abandoned the fight game for the saner world of criminal defense law. "Boxing," he says, "is just a fucked-up sport. Honestly."

It's 9 a.m. on a Saturday, several weeks prior to the Lopez fight. Karim Mayfield is fast asleep in his car following an unanticipated journey to Redwood City to drop off his son at 6:30 a.m. for a pee-wee football game. As a result, everyone clambers up the gym's stairs before Mayfield — Bautista, three amateur sparring partners, and Ken Watson. A former San Francisco prizefighter, Watson blames "the temptations of the street" for the six losses that closed out his career after five opening wins. He introduces himself as Mayfield's "guru" and predicts his pupil will be champion of the world. "He loves God. He's got a good spirit. And I'll tell you something else he has that I didn't have — me!" The future world champ groggily ascends the staircase. Watson smiles and calls out a mantra: "Bruce Lee. Ali." Mayfield finishes it: "And me."

Bautista imparts much of his coaching without even uttering a word; a raised eyebrow or scowl speaks volumes. But exhausted fighters holding one another up is too much for him. "Quit hugging and start mugging!" he commands his boxers. Until the fighters are ordered to break, time spent in a clinch not working over the opponents' kidneys, shoulders, and ears is time wasted.

With one minute left in the final round of the day — "One minute and there's victory in it!" chants Bautista — Mayfield and sparring partner Troy King get their second winds. They lay into one another for 60 electrifying seconds, jolting Bautista up to his feet. He swings his fists at an imaginary opponent and hops onto the ropes. "Way to thug! We got thugs up in this motherfucker! Thug it out! Thug it out! Thug it out!"

Boxing culture tends to work to the eventual detriment of the boxer.


In 2010, the nearly 400 pro boxers in Nevada earned $38,655,936, an average of more than $98,000 a bout. Not bad — but declaring an "average" boxing payout is a bit like stating the average height of LeBron James and a jockey is 6-foot-2.

In fact, most of that money — $22,224,850 — went to one man: Floyd Mayweather. Perhaps this explains his incendiary tendencies. All told, the 20 highest-paid boxers earned 93 percent of the money — leaving the remaining 370-odd fighters to tussle for $2.6 million. That's an average of $7,070 a bout. But even that payout is overstated: Median compensation turns out to be just $2,375. Last year, after beating Mario Ramos in Reno, Mayfield pocketed a $2,425 net contestant's share.

Boxing, it turns out, is a striking example of what economist Sherwin Rosen dubbed "the economics of superstars," where certain fields are dominated by a handful of elites. In such a scenario, even marginal differences in talent result in massive disparities in compensation. Hypothetically, it would mean a lawyer who wins 5 percent more of his cases than the average attorney would command far greater than 5 percent above the average compensation. And while Pacquiao isn't 2,000 times more talented than Mayfield, he did earn 2,000 times more from his last fight.

In sports and culture, the monopolization of earnings is an accepted reality — and it's growing. Princeton economist Alan Krueger calculated that the top 1 percent of musicians amassed 26 percent of concert revenue in 1982, and 56 percent in 2003. In the book The Winner-Take-All Society, professors Robert Frank and Philip Cook argue that the harsh inequalities of superstar economics are now firmly entrenched in the American mainstream. Income disparities are skyrocketing — and are doing so within many professions. Per the World Top Incomes Database, the income share of the nation's wealthiest 5 percent has jumped from 21 percent in 1978 to 33 percent in 2008. Both Frank and Cook tell SF Weekly that the American economy is growing more like boxing.

And most of us will never win that belt.

The Fitzgerald Casino resembles Costco with fairy tale towers — a Disney castle as imagined by Le Corbusier. Mayfield's path here, to Tunica, Miss., began when he signed on with Memphis-based promoters Prize Fight Boxing in May. "Without a promoter coddling him and taking care of him, it was impressive for Karim to stay undefeated," says Nate Yoder, Prize Fight's vice president. "When you don't have a promoter willing to pay the bills, a lotta times you sit when you're a puncher like Karim."

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Cassandra Flipper
Cassandra Flipper

A well-written story about an unusally focussed and disciplined young man who has courage, principles and dignity.

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