God, like everyone else who can get a ticket, is coming to Las Vegas.
On 2 May, surrounded by the usual cast of sinners, he will hear his name invoked again in a boxing ring, American sport’s altar to excess.
If he wins, Floyd Mayweather Jr will interrupt the TV interviewer (sadly it won’t be Larry Merchant) to, “thank God and my team”. If Manny Pacquiao wins, he will raise his hands to the heavens and give thanks. These are the rituals of the fight game, especially in Vegas, where Godliness is next to the cash machine, and Floyd and Manny will do the tradition proud.
The God Thing reached a ludicrous pitch at the MGM Grand in 1996, the night Evander Holyfield, a 6-1 underdog, beat Mike Tyson for the first time. Both combatants called down the Lord in their cause – Mike was on his third religion, from memory – but Evander, who was being schmoozed by yet another TV evangelist as his considerable fortune was ebbing through his fingers, hit a peak of absurdity afterwards in what YouTube describes as, “the worst interview ever”.
Holyfield’s gratitude was understandable. He claimed God had healed him of the “stiff heart” which forced him to retire two years earlier after he lost to Michael Moorer.
Tyson, meanwhile, must have been disappointed that his prayers went unheeded. He was five fights into his comeback – after serving three years for the rape of Desiree Washington – and looked restored to full power, with Islam his post-prison enthusiasm. Clearly, he had not been praying hard enough.
The unnerving aspect of this attachment of temporal fortunes to a higher authority is that it is so widespread and entrenched in American culture.
A nation that embraces hedonism and the pursuit of Mammon so enthusiastically has no problem calling God an American. It is as if fight fans are signed up for a rolling exhibition of righteousness, happy to acknowledge that the man with the most prayers will get the most points.
Pacquaio and Mayweather are every bit as fervent worshippers as are Holyfield and Tyson – not to mention Pastor George Foreman, Islam’s most famous son, Muhammad Ali, and a whole parade of other saved fighters down the years. For many, religion is a refuge from the anxieties of a business built on humbug.
Pacquiao a couple of years ago upset his mother when he abandoned his Catholicism to declare he was born again, a decision partly inspired by what he has described as a very real sighting of Jesus Christ. According to Manny’s trainer, Freddie Roach she was as much worried about the impact of the Congressman’s decision on his electoral chances in the overwhelmingly Catholic Philippines as on his path to the Promised Land.
Freddie, a long-lapsed Catholic from Boston, has had a near-perfect working relationship with Pacquaio for 14 years, one in which the Filipino has won world titles of varying worth in eight weight divisions. They respect each other’s beliefs, or lack of them. It seems to work.
When we spoke recently, Roach said of Pacquaio’s faith: “It’s fine. If it helps him, I’m good with that.” And he reflected on how it had calmed him down after years of wild living.
Now Pacquaio has a new friend in Jesus: the out-of-contract NFL star Tim Tebow, whose religious fervour matches his own and who was born in the Philippines in 1985, where his parents worked as Baptist missionaries.
Last week Tebow had a three-hour audience with Pacquaio in his Wild Card gym in Hollywood, a rare honour during a typically intense buildup to a major fight. He watched the WBO welterweight champion spar seven rounds then do eight rounds with Roach on the mitts.
“It was the first time they had ever met and yet it seemed they had known each other forever the way they immediately embraced each other,” Pacquiao’s promoter, Bob Arum, said.
Dyan Castillejo, who filmed the meeting for the Filipino television network ABS-CBN, told the fighter’s publicists: “After training they had lunch next door until 7pm. They have so much in common in terms of religious beliefs, philanthropy, being professional athletes and their Filipino backgrounds.”
None of which will matter a jot when Mayweather slips Pacquiao’s first charge and counters with a long right – or when Manny backs Floyd into a corner and crashes a left hook on his opponent’s 38-year-old jaw. Because the real limits of their achievement will be determined not upstairs but by their own hard graft.
Nevertheless, Floyd and Manny, two poor boys who got rich with the God-given ability to knock people about in a boxing ring, will walk up their own Calvary on the weekend of Cinco de Mayo celebrations and remind us again that they did not arrive here alone, while all around them in the temple of gambling a warm glow will emanate in the hearts of less spiritual wise guys.
This article was written by Kevin Mitchell, for theguardian.com on Monday 23rd March 2015 18.48 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010