It was an overcast day in Anchorage, like most days are there. A sea of sheet clouds unfurled across the sky, indeterminate in its heading. Did they come from the interior downward, the first blast of winter rolling in unadulterated from the Arctic Circle, or did they roll in from the Pacific Ocean and all of its wrinkled bays to the south? The summer sky in Alaska always has a silver-grey tint to it, with golden-purple undertones when the sun musters the strength to nearly break through the clouds. The angles of the sun this far north are unreal, and they give the air an uneasy color that makes people from normal latitudes dizzy. They also lead to lots of rainbows, because almost any time it rains (which is very often), the sun is at enough of a lateral angle that rainbows explode from the horizon in every direction.
It was on this day when my sense of diaspora reached a crescendo, when all of my sense of belonging in the final frontier yielded to the gentle tug of the comforts of home and the mindless groupthink of the internet. For all my efforts to stay off the computer and all of the isolation stemming from a phone didn’t work for days on end, I could not escape one thing: a boxing match between the two cockiest men alive. One, a boxer who wisely only books matches he knows he will win. The other, a Guinness-fueled loose cannon who had never boxed a professional match in his life.
I had perhaps never watched a professional boxing match in my life, though I’d met Paulie Ayala a few times. My childhood neighbors somehow knew him, and after he’d had the shit beat out of him a thousand and one times, he would come over to their house for the sorts of events that people in west Fort Worth seem to have often in the summertime. They invite a minor celebrity to a party, only the party is really about the minor celebrity. At least to every guest except the celebrity himself. They hire valet parking which is staffed by TCU students who smirk at the twenty-dollar tips as they idle the King Ranch Edition pickups down the block. They polish the house to a Southern Living sheen, and they shoo the kids out except for that one moment where they all make their choreographed greetings to a dizzying array of names and faces, before being whisked back away to the neighbor’s house by a nanny. I had a pair of Ayala’s autographed boxing gloves hanging in my childhood bedroom, and an autographed photograph of Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier in a training facility hung in the bedroom of my cheap rental house in east Austin before I moved out. It was one of those things your parents buy at a charity auction before realizing a sports photograph does not fit their décor aesthetic whatsoever, so it winds up on indefinite loan from their collection to join the wrinkled concert posters and photographic prints from a girl you always loved and never kissed on your walls.
Still, I felt as though I had to watch the match. The hype that surrounded it was unprecedented in my lifetime. To miss it would be to miss something far bigger than boxing itself, and on my solipsistic journey through time and space, I couldn’t bear to miss the first total solar eclipse in decades and the boxing match of the millennium in the same week. And so, after spending a week on the Kenai Peninsula feeling even further away from the rest of the world than I actually was, I arrived on the outskirts of Anchorage on Saturday night and snagged a room in a rundown motel. I needed a break from the elements, and Hank was tired of being soggy 24/7 from a combination of swimming and rain and the incessant humidity in my truck. We settled into a fitful sleep, interrupted by a 3 AM pounding on my door, an angry woman demanding to speak to someone after insisting that she knew exactly what we were up to in there. I moaned that she had the wrong room, which did little to stop the indignant yelling. Then I spoke up and it struck her that perhaps she had the wrong door.
“Oh, that’s my bad,” she yelled through the still-locked door.
My concussed brain reeled and Hank let his one perked ear relax as I climbed back into bed.
The next morning, I woke up and drove to my favorite coffee shop in Anchorage and sat down to write—and also to connect to the internet to do some idle browsing as if I were somewhere other than Alaska. The match was that night, or in the case of Alaska time, that early afternoon. I swore I didn’t care and noted with idle fascination the drama that was unfolding across the world wide web while I sat at a café in a half-tamed city and watched the relatively normal Sunday morning events unfold in a place that was rather unlikely to have any people in it at all.
Suddenly, my phone lit up. It was a picture of the inside of the T-Mobile arena, a boxing ring dramatically spotlit in the center. I studied the image for a moment and wondered if it had been taken with the very cell phone that sent it to me. Another text appeared, a selfie with the same scene in the background and the match’s referee in the center. My college best friend drove out to Las Vegas with one of his old high school buddies and snuck into the venue, and some piece of me ached for a life of whimsical, constructed drama. I had grown used to a constant sense of danger and vulnerability, the reality that virtually every animal and body of water and careless mistake in Alaska could kill you efficiently and leave little for people to find, if any other human ever stumbled upon the spot where you slipped up. But it had been a long time indeed since my drama had involved manmade constructs like paid admission and assigned seating, structured competitions with referees and calculated trash talking. I texted back a picture of Hank with a bald eagle swooping overhead and sighed. I was going to find a place to watch the match in Anchorage—a cultural experience in more ways than one.
A quick Google search showed that only twelve bars in the entire state of Alaska were showing the match, three of which were in Anchorage. And because we were on Alaska time, the leisurely evening start time for the undercard was an urgent afternooner in Alaska’s biggest city. I scrambled back to the motel to get Hank out for a quick run, then hopped in the Land Cruiser to try to find a stool to watch “The Biggest Fight in Combat Sports History.”
The first bar I stopped at had the vague air of a gentleman’s club. A large, standalone building clad in the outdoor stucco equivalent of a popcorn ceiling, painted in a horrible shade of blue. The parking lot was overflowing, with lifted bro-y pickup trucks parked in all of the grass and shiny aspirational Camaros paralleled in the fire lines out front. I found a dubious place to wedge my old Cruiser in a few blocks away, then I walked down to the front doors which had large bouncers who reinforced the gentleman’s club vibe. I produced my ID, to which they simply responded, “Will Call or VIP?”
“Oh, I just want to come in and watch,” I said.
“Can I buy a VIP ticket then?”
“No, sold out.”
“So there’s no—?”
I turned around, feeling far more defeated than made sense. So did a large group of young urbanite couples behind me.
“Who knew?” I said to them.
I walked back to my truck and scanned Google for the other two bars showing the match. The second one was a solid fifteen minutes back across town, and when I pulled up it was so over capacity that I knew it wasn’t even worth trying. The closest parking space was probably a ten-minute walk away from the front door and the line wrapped around the building. Time for round 3.
The third venue was the most promising—a large, iconic bar and grill on the outskirts of town, part of a kitschy complex that appeared vaguely touristy but seemed to be much more of a local hangout. It had multiple entrances and short lines and I felt optimistic.
“Ticket?” the bouncer asked me.
“Can I buy one?”
“No. We’re at capacity.”
“Any chance I can get in?”
“I doubt it.”
The scene felt strangely familiar—I could have been in any seedy city in the Lower 48. People vaped in the parking lot and scantily clad women coasted past the bouncers without any exchange whatsoever. I didn’t know a soul within two thousand miles, didn’t have a favor to call in, didn’t even know what to do instead of loitering in that parking lot. I walked the entire perimeter of the building a few times, trying to identify a way in. If my friends could sneak into the venue itself, surely I could find a back door to a cheesy bar in Anchorage, Alaska. I’d even pay for a beer and French fries. No such door appeared, and the one spot I thought I found appeared to be a back door entrance for homies and hot girls. It was manned the entire time I watched it.
Every time the doors opened, I could hear the lively buzz of the crowd and the affected intonations of the announcers. I knew that I had to make a decision soon or I’d be sitting behind the wheel of my truck neither enjoying Alaska nor watching the match, which had suddenly taken on a stature far larger than its significance, even among true fans of combat sports. I drove back to the motel, paid for Wi-Fi, then started Googling how to stream the match. The sunk cost fallacy was hard at work that Sunday. I found the streaming service that offered paid online viewing and promptly dished out eighty nine dollars and ninety five cents to sit in my dingy room on the crinkled, plasticky floral bedspread so I could at least say I saw it. And this way, Hank would get to see it, too.
Almost immediately after paying, I could hear the announcers’ voices. The screen became radically pixelated, silhouettes of people multiplying and skipping their ways across the frame. Alaska is infamous for having bad internet, as are cheap motels. Combine the two, and it was more like listening to an AM radio broadcast on the fringes of its coverage zone.
I waited through an undercard match that meant literally nothing to me, trying to squint through the buffering and figure out what it was my mind had built these pay-per-view boxing matches up to. Some sort of swirling, shadowy secret that involved otherworldly sights and sounds.
Instead, I saw two scantily clad men feebly punching each other in the face and chest while wearing padded gloves. The crowd was full of hoi polloi who probably knew no more about boxing than me. They all talked and ignored the non-headline action. Then, after yet another commercial break, they returned for the twenty minute dramatized introduction and leadup to the title fight. The broadcast got worse, then seemed to play in fast-forward as my half-frozen stream fought to catch up to the information it was receiving from Nevada via God Knows Where. The set start time came and went while the announcers continued to banter and build up hype. Outside in the parking lot, a car honked repeatedly. Floyd Mayweather’s guaranteed purse was over one hundred million dollars, while McGregor’s was north of thirty million. Just for being there. It was hard to imagine two people trying very hard at anything after being paid that much to show up. A quick search on my phone showed mass public outrage at poor broadcast quality and buffering issues. The networks had delayed the start time “to address the issue.” My broadcast never got any better, but an hour after the proposed start, the two men took the ring.
I was astounded at how little action there was. McGregor was constantly whistled for using UFC moves in a boxing match. Mayweather stood there smirking, taking the occasional punch while bobbing and weaving his way around most of them. He shrugged off some early direct hits, then he took over. As if by script or perhaps legitimate talent, he beat McGregor down ruthlessly. It did not appear to be all that rough, yet in a matter of minutes, it was over. Mayweather was three hundred million dollars richer. McGregor was a hundred million dollars in the black. I was a solid hundred twenty dollars poorer between gasoline, internet, and streaming rights. And I’d spent several hours of my life caring about something that I would have fully ignored had I been in the lower 48, or else would have incidentally watched for free at some friend-of-a-friend’s Sunday evening house party.