Back in November 2003, when I was working on what was to become a major section of my doctoral dissertation, I saw a poll on the Edmonton Oilers website about the Heritage Classic that struck me as a little odd. The poll asked respondents something to the effect of “Where will the Heritage Classic place in the history of the National Hockey League?” The multiple choice responses ranged from “most historic even ever” to “not very historic” or something of the like. The strange aspect was that, at the time of the poll, the Heritage Classic was still weeks away from happening so, of course, it was impossible to assess the event’s historical significance (and, as it turned out, took over a decade until it’s legacy could be examined.)
I was thinking about that poll and our predilection – particularly in sport – to anticipate the legacy of a particular event before it has happened as I scrolled through the coverage of this weekend’s heavily anticipated Mayweather versus Pacquiao boxing match. The fight was built-up as the Match of the Century, with many anticipating that it might be the most important boxing match in history. Certainly, the amount paid by spectators and pay-per-view viewers suggests that much of the appeal of the fight was to see “history made.” HBO’s pre-fight coverage, to their credit, did attempt to separate the different “histories” from one another, arguing that the fight would be historic in terms of its revenue, as well as the fact it was the first major match of the social media era, but that it was far too soon to assess its historical importance, both within the sport itself or within a broader social, cultural, and political context (a-la the infamous “Rumble in the Jungle“). Their assessment – at least as far as the different histories are concerned – reflects the “heritage of sport” and “sport as heritage” argument Sean Gammon and I made in our “More than just nostalgia” article, specifically that some sport heritages are self-contained within the sport themselves while others transcend the sport and become part of a wider cultural heritage.
In any event, the idea of anticipating what the history, or legacy, of an event might be may not be a recent phenomenon, but perhaps it is simply a part of our rapid consumption of culture – that we expect we can assess the cultural and historical worth of something either beforehand or immediately after (as some have done mere hours after the fight). Again going back to my doctoral years, I recall reading Arthur Danto’s Narration and Knowledge as part of a Philosophy of History course and remembering his thoughts about how we talk about the past, specifically that time and distance are required to assess the importance of an event and that we, while living in another era’s history, cannot possibly understand what is and is not of “historical” value. Mayweather versus Pacquiao may very well fit the moniker of “Fight of the Century” and it may reveal something about the social, cultural, and political context of 2015. Or it may mean nothing. We may simply have to wait to find out.