Brunt: If a punch lands in the forest…

Floyd Mayweather Jr. is the best boxer alive, a true giant of his sport. It’s too bad he’s fighting in the wrong era.

There is an aesthetic element in every sport, a line where an exhibition of physical skill morphs into something resembling art. Beyond the obvious—say, figure skating in all its kitschy glory—that is most true in boxing.

Non-enthusiasts are scoffing here at the notion that two people pounding on each other can represent anything other than the lizard brain in action, and non-enthusiasts form the majority in an era in which the sport has fully departed the mainstream. There are fewer and fewer folks around who recognize, let alone celebrate, the nuances of the sweet science.

But once upon a time, you didn’t have to go far to find plenty of people who could look at Sugar Ray Robinson’s perfect left-hook knockout of Gene Fullmer and see in it precise and beautiful movement of which Nijinsky would have been proud.

Which brings us to Floyd Mayweather Jr., a historically great practitioner of that pugilistic art doomed to be underappreciated in a philistine era.

In his fight earlier this month against Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, a 23-year-old redhead of considerable promise who had been packaged and marketed brilliantly by Mexican television and Oscar de la Hoya’s promotional company, Golden Boy, Mayweather conducted a master class.

The judging was horrific—one of a long list of reasons why so many have been turned off by boxing—especially a ridiculous card handed in by one C.J. Ross that had the fight a draw. The fact is, Mayweather didn’t lose a round—didn’t lose a minute of any round—and did so not with a display of brute force and not by running away from a younger, stronger, heavier opponent, but by parking right in front of Alvarez and hitting him while not being hit.

Yes, that’s the object of the game, but it’s devilishly difficult, especially while standing in the “pocket,” within an opponent’s punching range. Mayweather employed a series of subtle shifts, moving his head, rolling his shoulder, feinting, blocking punches with his arms, all the while landing his own shots with pinpoint accuracy.

There wasn’t a single moment in the fight where it looked like Alvarez was going to be knocked out, but that wasn’t the point. In boxing, it can be—and of course the KO is the sport’s most spectacular punctuation—but there are other ways to win, all of them available to the maestro.

Mayweather, the latest and best product of a boxing family, grew up in the gym and learned those subtle skills from his father, Floyd Sr., and uncle Roger, who they used to call the Black Mamba. In that sense, he’s as old school as they come, fully dedicated to training and to the craft, a throwback to a time when becoming a fighter required a long apprenticeship, when knowledge was passed down from trainer to trainer in an unbroken line stretching back to the days of Jack Johnson and beyond.

That’s mostly gone now, as the fight game shrinks in North America (it’s still pretty vigorous in Europe), as the brilliantly packaged instant gratification provided by mixed martial arts—the cheeseburger to boxing’s gourmet meal, though there are times when a cheeseburger absolutely hits the spot—gives the people what they want.

Being a boxing genius today is like being a builder of great cathedrals: There’s just not much call for it.

Which leaves Mayweather a man out of time.

He’s still making buckets of money, as he’s more than happy to tell anyone who follows him on social media. He has still been part of some of the most lucrative sporting events of all time. In the interests of promotion, he is happy to wear the black hat, to play the villain opposite a Canelo, or a de la Hoya, to do just about anything to sell a fight. (Wonder why he had Justin Bieber walk out with him the other night? Look at the size of the kid’s Twitter following.)

But earning a fortune in this case isn’t the same as being loved or admired.  There are even hard-core boxing fans who don’t much like him, turned off by his brash, preening, vulgar personality (there are also legitimate reasons why an otherwise unbiased observer might find him unappealing, most notably a domestic violence charge that landed him in jail).

Mayweather seems doomed, like many a great artist, to be fully appreciated only after he’s gone—perhaps not even then, as the art form he practises lurches even closer to extinction.

Most of those folks died penniless (occasionally earless), which Floyd Jr. probably won’t. But it may be that by the time you’re telling your grandchildren that you saw him, boxing will be a museum piece.

Just understand that today, he is the best, that over the sport’s long history, he is among the best, and that genius, so often, is found among the details.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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