Punching for Jesus: Will God Take Sides in the “Fight of the Century”?

Boxing and religion have often intersected in dramatic fashion, far beyond the thanks winning fighters routinely give to God. Perhaps the former Cassius Clay provided the most famous incidence of this in the mid-1960s when opponents, journalists, politicians and the public generally mistook accepting his name change as endorsement of his adopted strain of Islam. (Sportswriter Jimmy Cannon, for instance, claimed the heavyweight champion becoming Nation-of-Islam adherent Muhammad Ali amounted to turning the sport into “an instrument of mass hate” and a “weapon of wickedness.”) Ali was later stripped of his heavyweight title over his refusal to enter the military for religious reasons. George Foreman, who Ali defeated in 1974 to reclaim the championship, experienced what he called a near-death experience after a later fight and subsequently became an ordained minister and the reverend of the Church of Lord Jesus Christ in Houston.

The May 2, 2015, bout between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, however, rivals any Ali or Foreman fight as the bout with the most hyperbolic religious bluster. One fighter has exclaimed that God is on his side and will surely lead him to victory, while the other, no less sure of God’s unconditional love, has been characteristically unwilling to share credit for his confidently predicted win.

Underdog Pacquiao, an evangelical Christian, hopes to curry favor with his savior by stepping into the ring at the MGM Grand casino in Las Vegas tomorrow. “I want to please the Lord, my family, and my fans with this fight,” he told The Christian Post. “I want them to know I fought for God and my country, to bring them honor and glory.” Who dares contemplate how much that honor and glory would be diminished by the wrong outcome in the skirmish in Sin City? (The fight is variously being called “The Fight of the Century” and “The Battle for Greatness.”) Pacquiao generously added that he prayed for Mayweather as well as for himself.

More than that, Pacquiao expressed hope that he could bring Mayweather around to his beliefs. “I want to share my faith with him,” he told reporters after a training session, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer. He explained that if Mayweather, who has faced charges for domestic violence several times and served a few months in jail for it, “changes his ways and follows God, he will inspire many people and the Lord will be happy.” He made no mention of whether God was saddened by Mayweather’s forty-seven wins prior to their upcoming fight—Pacquiao’s chance to put a smile on his savior’s face. (Mayweather, who likes to call himself “Money,” has frequently been seen smiling in the lead-up to the clash with Pacquiao, no doubt because he could make as much as $200 million once pay-per-view revenues are added to his earnings for the fight.)

For his part, the welterweight champion Mayweather already considers himself comfortably among the faithful. “I believe in God, I love God,” he declared, according to a Daily Mail report. “I’ve been blessed all my life.” Yet the never-defeated boxer, who with understatement could be called cocky, insisted he would prevail without divine assistance. Although Pacquiao, who hails from the Philippines, said of Mayweather, “I believe God will deliver him to my hands,” the American fighter countered, “I don’t think God takes sides. Whether you’re American, Filipino, African, Dominican, Asian, we’re all God’s children. I don’t think he roots for which of us he wants to win.” Whether the champ sincerely believes in a remote God with a hands-off policy or not, Mayweather, who began calling himself “the best fighter in the world” just two years after turning professional in 1996, exudes certainty that he can handle Pacquiao all on his own.

Alas, the profound theological implications of what’s expected to be the most lucrative title fight in history will not be settled in Las Vegas. Questions about whether any deities were satisfied by the outcome will undoubtedly persist, even if the fight ends with a convincing knockout rather than a controversial decision by the judges. One thing’s for certain: despite the relentless media scrutiny of every aspect of the match-up and the countless interviews with various members of each fighter’s entourage, Jesus will be unavailable for comment.

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