Ready To Rumble: A Letter from the Curator by Nato Thompson

By the time the fight started on May 2nd, 2015 everyone had won. Labeled The Fight of the Century, the bout between undefeated division world champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. and eight division world champion Manny “Pacman” Pacquiao, obliterated historic box office and pay-per-view records. As promoters and cable channels alike anticipated, the entire globe tuned in to witness the brutal occasion. Two boxers of unparalleled records, reputations and brand recognition, were to, at last, meet in the ring, ‘mano y mano’, and use their fists and might to claim the prize as the last man standing.

To honor the occasion, the stars shone extra bright that night. Anything associated with the match would be on the front page of TMZ. News flash: Mark Wahlburg and Diddy made a $250,000 bet on the game. News flash: Justin Beiber crashes Mayweather weigh-in. On fight night, like bugs to a porch light, the celebrities came a-buzzing. Cramped in pricey concert seats, actors, sports stars, musicians, and anyone else who made money with their faces, dressed to the nines and put on their best smiles or glares. The list stretches long:  Denzel Washington, Clint Eastwood, Jake Gyllenhaal, Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, Tom Brady, Robert DeNiro, Claire Danes, Ben Affleck, Adrien Brody, Michael J. Fox, Paris Hilton, Charles Barkley, Mike Tyson, Michael Keaton, Drew Barrymore, Nicki Minaj, Meek Mill, Lil Wayne, Michael Jordan, Michael Strahan. And of course Jay-Z and Beyoncé. Queen Bey showed up wearing a deep-cut red cleavage-forward pantsuit, and news circulated widely that she was, in fact, the true winner of the fight.

And it didn’t stop there. The heralded ring entrance inevitably had its photo op opportunities, spectacle, and choreography. Mayweather, never a stranger to promotion, had last minute nixed his plan to enter with the Biebs and instead chose his coaching team, with one small exception: for the price tag of $1 million, Burger King had paid to have their crown-wearing creepy smiling mascot join the entourage into the ring. On the flip side, Pacquiao had written his own Eye-of-the-Tiger-sounding pop song ‘Lalaban Ako Para Sa Filipino’, which translates to “I Fight for the Filipino People.” Walking alongside Pacquiao was none other than television talk show host Jimmy Kimmel dressed in a Justin Beiber-inspired hat and hip-hop attire. And finally, to start the match itself, Jamie Foxx, who portrayed Ali’s corner man Drew Bundini Brown in the film Ali, sang the national anthem.

The event itself was an Alice in Wonderland of stardom, references, and of-the-moment clickbait.

Ultimately, Mayweather was ruled the winner by unanimous decision. Mayweather threw a total of 435 punches and 148 of them landed, Pacquiao registered 429 punches and only connected with 81. Mayweather’s signature defensive moves made it very difficult for Pacquiao to land punches and as far as a boxing match is concerned, the resulting product (the match) turned out to be a bit of a dud.

That said, the money had been made. HBO and Showtime teamed up for the pay-per-view broadcast with expectations that would make it the fight of the century. The fight itself was the highest pay-per-view event in history grossing $460 million in the United States alone. (For comparison the Super Bowl in 2017 made $720 million). The cost to watch per viewer was roughly $90, with higher prices for bars and restaurants reaching as high as $5,000. Half of every home in the Philippines watched the fight with most of them happening on pirate streaming services like Periscope. An estimated 4.4 million viewers paid to watch the fight.

Mass audiences, Mass infrastructure

When Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans in 2005, it caused 1,883 fatalities and an estimated $108 billion in damages. And furthermore, the only place most residents could seek shelter and ultimately assistance was the 83,000-person capacity Superdome (home of the New Orleans Saints). During the most recent Covid-19 pandemic, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center was retrofitted to become a makeshift hospital for Covid-19 patients. Yes, the U.S. Open was set to become a morgue. And just to throw in another sports tidbit, contrary to public belief, Disney corporation doesn’t make the most of its dough on Disneyland, Star Wars or Disney films, but instead its ownership of ESPN. As Michael Eisner stated, “The Protection of Mickey Mouse is ESPN.”

All this to say something, that is both known but also not fully appreciated in its grand totality, “Sports is big business.” It is macro business. Sports is a business that operates at such a profound scale, its intimate, bodily subject matter belies a massive nearly irrational economy worldwide. Cities pay exorbitant costs in subsidies to build stadiums for local teams and the results on local economies are nearly negligible (in the first decade of the 20th century, the total in the United States for stadium subsidies was $10 billion.) Sports television produces nearly 645 hours of content a week. A week! In 2015, 93 of the top 100 shows in a season were sports. To claim that sports is an industry is putting it mildly. Sports is THE Industry and yet, the rules of its behavior and backroom dealings remain opaque.

This piling of sports, economic and trashy People magazine data, sets the appropriate stage to introduce the genesis NFT project by seminal contemporary artists Paul Pfeiffer. In this epoch, dazzling and bewildering series, we are introduced to two boxing matches. The first, as discussed above, presents Floyd Mayweather battling Manny “Pacman” Pacquiao in 2015 and the second features the 2017 bout between Pacquiao and Jeffrey Horn, often referred to as The Battle of Brisbane. Pacquiao would go on to lose that fight by unanimous decision as well, but this time, the decision was marred in vast controversy. This artwork by Pfeiffer is part of a larger series of works existing under the umbrella title of Caryatids and they feature some part of sports found footage being erased or camouflaged by the background. In this case of Vs., both opponents of Pacquiao (Mayweather and Horn) have simply vanished. All that remains is the singular body of Pacquiao taking blows, bouncing around the ring, and the eyes of the crowd staring at this ghostly, and ongoing, pummeling.

A still from Paul Pfeiffer's genesis NFT collection Vs.

And with that simple gesture (well actually erasing a boxer takes painstaking frame-by-frame work), the viewer is confronted with a singular body. The image suddenly becomes bizarre, absurd, surreal. Suddenly, this normalized spectacle of violence is represented to us and we begin to take in all the other component parts. We become, yes, aware of Pacquiao the boxer, but also the background, the ring, the infrastructure itself comes slightly into view. By erasing, Pfeiffer reveals.

And part of that reveal hints at a pulling back of the curtain of the vast structures set up to allow us to gaze, gaze, gaze. In 2008, as part of the Sydney Biennial, Pfeiffer introduced his work. The eight-meter wide model presented what a million-person stadium could look like. It was a stadium for the globe. Working with the architects of the architecture team of the Olympic Stadium, the work nods to the infrastructure of spectacle and takes its name, of course, from the first century BC Roman architect Vitruvius.

Paul Pfeiffer's Caryatid (Duhaupas), 2016 digital video loop chromed 21" color television with embedded media player, 21 × 20 x 19 in. (53.3 x 50.8 x 48.3 cm)

And of course, the term caryatid as well is pulled from antiquity and again, carries architectural references. A caryatid is an architectural female support structure often used as a pillar. It’s not the most obvious term for this series of sports-focused works, but clearly, there is more going on than sports here. For the term is taken from ancient Greek architecture and a caryatid is a body that holds up a temple. They are figures of beauty whose grace upheld tremendous weight and social infrastructure. With that in mind, we are clearly asked by Pfeiffer and the artworks in question, whose body and whose temple? The eight-meter wide model presented what a million-person stadium could look like. It was a stadium for the globe. Working with the architects of the architecture team of the Olympic Stadium, the work nods to the infrastructure of spectacle and takes its name, of course, from the first century BC Roman architect Vitruvius.

The Temple

To sum up, then, sports and religion are, theoretically, ‘soul mates,’ as athletes, fans, and believers alike ‘recite similar liturgies,’ ‘divide the world into winners and losers’, ‘require total commitment of body and mind,’ and are ‘bathed in myth and sustained by ritual." Michael Serazio, The Power of Sports, Media and Spectacle in American Culture

More than an industry, sports is a temple. It is not only economically irrational (cities lose money on them, fans splurge on them) but they are also subject to laws of devotion that exceed many other forms of cultural identity. The sports fan, and even those in their orbit, are nearly cult-like in their affections. The easiest corollary is religion itself. For the desire to belong, and identity, to wear colors, and claim mascots, to bring a sense of belonging to an alienated populace is the kind of sociological work often done by one’s god, priest, temple and church.

This temple is not just one of sports per se, but more importantly, one of belonging. It is one of collective viewing. Not surprisingly, Paul Pfeiffer has an equal fascination with large-scale religious services, and sees, and feels in the big church culture, a direct connection with his interest in sports. The operatic collective moment of devotion and ritual in the age of mass spectacle and culture making machines has become his subject of cultural ethnography.

As we look at this work Vs. by Pfeiffer, we are struck by the intensity of the eyes of the crowd (both in the room and the implied, television broadcasting to the world). We are not only viewing, but with his painstaking intervention of erasure, Pfeiffer has the viewer view the apparatus and social implications of viewing itself. Tongue twister yes. We are caught up in the moment of a gladiatorial battle with pageantry, music, devotion, and heartbreak. And in this experience of collective awe, fascination, primal collective visual culture, we also are part of the wave of global attention spans that says more about our need for myth, totems, and ritual than our modern philosophy would have us believe.

The temple is not only a physical place of collectivity, but perhaps more importantly in the digital dematerialized age, we are temporally together. The boxing match (like all sports) is an event of the ever-powerful, ever-galvanizing, now. The collectivity of the watching, the at-the edge-of-your-seat feeling, is not only a seductive deployment of the ritualistic needs of a global populace, but also a commercially and intentionally directed use by a vast infrastructure of sports. The now has power and the new, in and of itself, produces a temporary, and important, temple.

The Body

"Physical pain always mimes death and the infliction of physical pain is always a mock execution" — Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World

Sports are also about bodies and none more so than boxing itself. “I like boxing because the figures are nearly naked,” Pfeiffer said to me during a Twitter spaces. The eye naturally relates, sympathizes, and is affected by bodies. Particularly in the work of Pfeiffer, as one boxer has been removed, we become acutely aware of a singular body, that of Manny Pacquiao, moving, diving, ducking across the ring. As a viewer, one cannot help but be caught in the peculiar experience of identifying with both the body of Manny as well as the attacks of the invisible foe. We are both punisher and punished as we see the numerous punches land on the physical form of this everyday man from the Philippines.

A still from Paul Pfeiffer's genesis NFT collection, Vs.

Sports are physical by nature and what that says about a global population that experiences much of the world through its eyes, is telling. In American football, large men bash into each other with such severity that concussions are a regular part of the sport. Despite ongoing documentaries and studies on the effects of concussions resulting in chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the world of American football remains an ongoing juggernaut of ratings and advertising. In boxing and ultimate fighting championship, faces dripping with blood are a regular part of the viewing experience. In basketball, elbows fly, knees crash, and balls are slammed into a net.

In the Mayweather/Pacquiao fight, Pacquiao landed 81 punches and Mayweather 148. Throughout his heralded lifetime, Pacquiao has had 72 fights and has been knocked out three times. In an average boxing match, Pacquiao receives about 80 punches so after 72 fights, this man’s body has been pummeled, beaten, bloodied, and bruised for the world to witness, enjoy, and pay to see.

In short, we remain, as ever, in the age of the gladiator and mass spectacle.

The Body Digital

"Images are sent and received instantly by every handheld device around the globe in the blink of an eye. The recent electoral cycle in the US reveals the extent to which people live in siloed realities. The algorithmic filtering of information and viewpoints forms a structure of self-encapsulating feedback loops. Isolation bubbles." — Paul Pfeiffer, Aperture Magazine, August 2021

Most notably, and importantly, the artwork Vs. by Paul Pfeiffer is his genesis NFT drop. And as we interrogate the role of the body and sports in digital circulation, we can’t help but consider what this means as the speed, technologies, and distribution techniques of web3 offer a new vehicle for the body to circulate. For certainly, just as in the age of televised media, and then streaming media, sports and the role of the physical body offer an important, and powerful, device by which to understand the transformation of our mediated landscape. In Pfeiffer’s Caryatid series, and Vs. in particular, we find an opportunity to witness the body again in motion under new conditions.

Unsurprisingly but tellingly, sports and NFTs early on have had a deep and currently unfolding relationship. Launched in 2020, Dapper Labs, the creators of the seminal NFT project CryptoKitties, made a splash with the launch of their digital sports card company, NBA Top Shots. Sports fans and NFT collectors alike are able to buy, sell, and trade their favorite tokenized video clip whether it is LeBron James making slam dunks or a classic Stephen Curry three-pointer.

Additionally, the notion of utility of the user (a phraseology that has become a part of the NFT experience) has perhaps found its most traction with sports fans, who are already waist-deep in digital ticketing and collectibles. NFTs have been widely embraced across every league within the span of about two years.

And finally, the connection between fantasy football (or perhaps more generally sports betting) and the namesake of the web3 generation degen (as in degenerate gambler) cannot be ignored. The power of the now to produce analyzation, data accumulation and ultimately, speculation is part and parcel of this dematerialized temporarily urgent culture. In October of 2022, the premier fantasy football sports betting app, DraftKings, adopted NFTs into their digital repertoire. The power to make a bet is baked into sports and web3 in no uncertain terms.

A still from Paul Pfeiffer's genesis NFT collection, Vs.

And this is all to say something at the root of the Caryatid series and all the more so with the genesis launch of Paul Pfeiffer’s Vs., that this entire infrastructure of the now, the speculation, and the spectacularization rests, hard, on the vulnerable and physical body. The attention span of the globe turns to watch the pummeling, beating, and light bulb flashing, and in so doing, Pfeiffer asks us to also turn that camera lens back on the ring, the stadium, the streaming, the crowd, the spectator.

Paul Pfeiffer's genesis NFT collection Vs. launched on Artwrld's platform on June 7, 2023. The collection consists of two long-form video works (each an edition of 5 plus 1 AP) and 150 short-form clips (each unique and variable in duration).