Nick Butler

There was a mad idea at insidethegames at the weekend to set our alarms for 4am and find somewhere to watch the Floyd Mayweather Jnr-Manny Pacquiao fight before travelling on to the office for a day of work. Considering a distinct lack of sleep the night before, I’m not sure how this would have ended and, with the plan eventually abandoned due to a total lack of places in the area showing the fight, I don’t feel I missed too much.

Hyped as it was, the showdown was always destined to be anti-climactic, and, while people were hoping for a knockout or Rocky-style slugfest, even the most casual of boxing fans knew deep down a Mayweather-points victory was always the most likely outcome.

Under the heading “Vintage Mayweather”, the New York Times described how the 38-year-old “ducked under Pacquiao’s flurries, side-hopped out of the corner when his opponent tried to lunge at him, and every now and then, swept his left glove across the side of his face as if clawing skin from Pacquiao’s cheek”.

In a sport where the basic aim is to punch and avoid being punched, the American is a master of the latter; the art of defence, of rarely inflicting a knock-out but always outlasting his opponent with a blend of insurmountable physical, technical and tactical brilliance.

This all stems from his upbringing into the sport, apparently, when his father and uncle taught him defensive techniques such as the "shoulder roll", in which the lead shoulder is raised high on the cheek in order to cover the chin and block punches and the right hand is positioned to block punches coming from the other side.

The defensive style of Floyd Mayweather proved too much for Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas ©AFP/Getty Images
The defensive style of Floyd Mayweather proved too much for Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas ©AFP/Getty Images

This proved too much for Pacquiao and, much as the Filipino huffed and puffed, he came nowhere near to blowing the Mayweather-house down, and no amount of blaming injuries afterwards could hide the fact the Congressman was outclassed in almost every department.

In Britain, Mayweather has been called the “Chelsea of Boxing” after the recently crowned Premier League football champions, with their defensive-minded style showcased in recent weeks somewhat boring but ruthlessly efficient.

But, when you think about it, this shift towards defensive efficiency over attacking ingenuity is a prevalent trend across many other sports as well.

Take tennis for example, where in the last decade defensive sluggers Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, and to a lesser extent Andy Murray, have taken fitness, baseline-rallying and tenacious retrieval skills to new highs. Such has been their success that a sustained volley-heavy game is almost becoming a dying art and other players, like Roger Federer, have had to adapt their tactics to keep pace.

In cycling, we have Team Sky, who propelled future knight of the realm Bradley Wiggins to the 2012 Tour de France title with a strategy focused around blistering average paces to prevent others breaking clear before using time trials to build a lead, more than the kind of solo crusades seen in the past.

In athletics, there is Mo Farah, preferring to sit in the pack and burst clear on the final lap, in rugby there is Ireland, winning the Six Nations title this year with a territorial, kicking-heavy concept, and to return to football, there is Germany, winning the World Cup with at times some beautiful attacking football, but more than anything else some Mayweather-esque efficiency and nous.

The list could go on. And others who have failed to focus on defence, such as Brazil at the World Cup or, in recent weeks, Manchester United, have paid the consequences (something that is also relevant in sports administration, where Marius Vizer has since suffered for his explosive and overwhelmingly non-defensive remarks about the International Olympic Committee during last month’s SportAccord Convention.)

Tennis player Novak Djokovic is another great defensive-orientated athlete ©Getty Images
Tennis player Novak Djokovic is another great defensive-orientated athlete ©Getty Images

Of course, there are exceptions. While rugby union in its professional era has become more about strength and physicality than ever before, the best teams - New Zealand’s All Blacks, for instance - still produce sensational attacking rugby.

Table tennis is perhaps the only sport where a defensive style, in which players retreat from the table and use copious amounts of backspin to return the ball into play, is more entertaining to watch than an attacking one. And while this is now a dying art, you could argue that this is in some ways a more attack-minded philosophy than the ruthless topspin-dominated game of the Chinese, illustrated so brilliantly by world number one Ma Long in his World Championship victory yesterday, based as it was around power and grinding down the opponent.

A better counter-example comes in cricket, where the dawn of Twenty20 has produced ultra-attacking styles which have trickled up to longer forms of the game. At this year’s World Cup, scores of around 300, previously well above-par in 50 over cricket, were chased down with consummate ease through a blistering array of unorthodox shot-making by players like AB De Villers of South Africa and Chris Gayle of West Indies.

Attack minded captains, like Australia’s Michael Clarke and New Zealand’s Brendan McCullum, have also tended to be more successful than conservative and defensive ones, like England’s Alastair Cook. And in football, whatever the tactics adopted by teams, the most sought-after players are still attacking ones, and in Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo our era is blessed with two of the all-time greats.

But at some level, there is certainly something in this idea that sport is more defensively-orientated today.

So why is this?

Professionalism is certainly one reason. Fitness levels of players, like Nadal and Djokovic, are so brilliant, that players can no longer afford to commit all-out to attacking strategies because they can be soaked up all too easily. The old amateur-ethos of “winning in the right way” is well and truly extinct.

Science has also made a difference; with teams like Team Sky calculating the most efficient way to maximise energy and talent, particularly in an era in which decreased doping deems solo explosions up the steepest climbs all the harder.

Team Sky have prioritised consistent pace over sudden bursts in recent cycling stage-races ©Getty Images
Team Sky have prioritised consistent pace over sudden bursts in recent cycling stage-races ©Getty Images

It is possible also that having more prize money, and thus more to win by winning, has made people more ruthless and pragmatic in the strategies they pursue, although it is obviously ridiculous to claim athletes in the past were not as bothered about winning.

Added to all of this is simply the propensity of success-driven individuals like Mayweather and Chelsea-boss José Mourinho, who are determined to win at all costs and are not at all ruffled at allegations they are “boring”, or somehow not giving the fans their monies-worth.

We may not always like this, and if sports like boxing are going to reach out to new audiences, greater aggressive and explosive intent would clearly be a better way to catch the eye.

But as sport-purists we must appreciate seeing greats at work however they play, and we will therefore have to accept that for every Messi run from the halfway-line, and for every solo breakaway up Mont Ventoux, a Mayweather shoulder-roll or a Chelsea 1-0 win is just as glorious.

And, as every commentator says over and over again, 20 years from now it is the results that will be remembered rather than the way the battle was won.