One could construct a fairly compelling argument that undefeated junior welterweight Tim Bradley is deserving of his June 9th match with Manny Pacquiao. It’s not merely that Bradley is undefeated in 28 professional bouts—prudent matchmaking can insulate even mediocre fighters from the threat of defeat—but the quality of his opposition that justifies seating Bradley in executive class. Bradley has defeated Junior Witter (in a fight many thought he wasn’t seasoned enough for), Kendall Holt, Devon Alexander, and recent Amir Khan conqueror Lamont Peterson. The Palm Springs fighter has the best resumé at 140lbs; his ledger is embossed by the fact that, while Pacquiao fights at welterweight, he has the frame of a junior welterweight. It can then be argued that Bradley has defeated the best 140lb fighters in the world, with the exception of Manny Pacquiao. This ascension via gauntlet in an era where the path of least resistance is beaten smooth, strikes as being deserving of reward. Twentieth century political philosopher John Rawls would agree.
Rawls would argue that Bradley is justified in expecting the fistic and financial opportunity of a lifetime. Having satisfied one of the criteria for reward (strength of competition) while operating according to the rules and procedures of professional boxing, Bradley has “legitimate grounds” for feeling entitled to the Pacquiao fight. This rationale would seem to be supported by the principles of professional boxing: the development of a fighter is guided by a risk/reward algorithm intended to produce maximum financial reward. Bradley’s taken the risks to justify the reward he’s been granted on June 9th.
However just the above explanation may appear, there are grounds for challenging whether that’s the rationale that delivered the fight. It’s just as likely that it was Bradley’s recent move to Top Rank—no doubt motivated by the opportunity to face Pacquiao—that made him a viable contestant for Pacquiao. The absence of any other realistic opponent probably also had more to do with the fight coming to fruition than Bradley’s “legitimate grounds.” This isn’t to say Bradley isn’t deserving, it’s just that desert isn’t the determining factor.
The role of desert appears in the other consolation bout of the summer: Cotto – Mayweather. Cotto has earned the gold watch that is his payday against Mayweather. Like Bradley, Cotto’s strength of opposition is a virtue: the Caguas fighter’s ledger boasts stronger competition than both Bradley and Mayweather. But his opposition—which has declined in deed if not name in accordance with his diminishing capacities—isn’t what delivered this fight to Miguel Cotto. Nor is it the fact that Cotto, as both the rebound relationship after the departure of Felix Trinidad and a captivating fighter in his own right, is an established draw. While it is as a draw that Cotto can set “legitimate expectations,” his devout following is much like Bradley’s strength of competition: it’s the bewitching veneer that masks the principal motivation behind the matchmaking.
Mayweather chose Cotto because, while he remains a draw, he is unquestionably an impaired menace. That Cotto recently out-boxed and stopped nemesis Antonio Margarito is more a verdict on Margarito’s deterioration than it is Cotto’s rebirth; that the victory has spawned prognostications of a competitive bout with the best fighter in the world only makes the selection of Cotto as an opponent more ideal. The gold plating that was the Margarito performance helps to conceal the reality of the swindle. At his apex, Cotto was an established gate attraction and a legitimate threat: he had both the fistic and financial justification for fighting Mayweather. Now that the threat has been deemed easily surmountable, Cotto is getting his opportunity.
With Bradley and Cotto, the notion of desert can be applied sophistically to explain their upcoming fights. But there is another potential fight that more strongly dispels the notion that desert factors into matchmaking: a fight between middleweight champion Sergio Martinez and cultural treasure Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.
Sergio Martinez has earned the distinction of undisputed middleweight champion, having beaten Kelly Pavlik and Paul Williams, who were considered two of the best middleweights in the world at the time. Yet he is unable to get a fight with marketing phenomenon, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. Martinez has earned this fight just as Bradley has earned his, and the “legitimate expectations” are established. These expectations mean very little however, as has been shown. Martinez continuously performs before the type of sparse crowds that turn out to watch cover bands in Las Vegas casino lounges. It’s this second characteristic of the middleweight champion that undoes his fistic qualification. The risk he poses completely overwhelms the reward he promises. That he is, as sovereign, deserving of a fight with anyone in the division, is irrelevant. The same business logic that is keeping Martinez from Chavez Jr is keeping a deserving opponent like Dmitry Pirog from Martinez.
Finally, consider the rematch between Lamont Peterson and Amir Khan. Given Khan’s protracted, petulant tantrum—enabled and abetted by his promotional company—Peterson has justifiable grounds for ignoring Khan’s wailing for a rematch. Others will argue that the closeness of the affair is why Khan deserves the opportunity to regain some hardware. Ultimately, it’s the most lucrative fight available to Peterson, which is probably why it’s happening.
This is not to say that Tim Bradley doesn’t deserve the opportunity to test himself against Manny Pacquiao, and to reap the financial benefits that accompany the risk. Nor is it to say that Miguel Cotto, who has helped buoy the sport throughout his career, isn’t deserving of the opportunity to produce the only pustule on Mayweather’s record. These are deserving men, as are Martinez and Khan. But in prize fighting “legitimate grounds” stand for very little, and desert is a variable removed from the equation.