LAS VEGAS — They barnstormed 11 of the country's major cities, dredged up family rifts, aimed scorn at each other, flashed cash and smiles on an HBO reality series and delivered a selling point that no real sports fan can ignore: the world's most popular fighter against the world's best pound-for-pound boxer.
The injection of hype that tonight's super-welterweight title fight between Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr. at MGM Grand Garden Arena brings to boxing is exactly what the faltering sport needed.
But fulfilling the expectations of a great fight along the lines of Ali-Frazier or Hagler-Leonard won't be easy. Questions remain whether the styles of Mayweather and De La Hoya will result in a fight that will be remembered as a classic.
Mayweather's most recent fight against Carlos Baldomir was an impressive showing of superb punching speed, quick footwork and defense, but it lacked the compelling drama that comes with toe-to-toe action.
He clinched victory by decision using an elusive style that drew late-round boos and provided further ammunition to younger fight fans who point to that type of play-it-safe performance as a reason for their exodus to the intense mixed-martial-arts battles of Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Boxing for a judge's points no longer cuts it with fight fans, who also remember De La Hoya's infamous late-round backpedaling during a loss to Felix Trinidad in a 1999 pay-per-view mega-fight.
De La Hoya (38-4, 30 knockouts) vows he won't engage in a repeat effort, especially with a large chunk of the world watching tonight.
The World Boxing Council title fight sold out 16,200 tickets in less than three hours. Ringside seats have been listed for sale on the Internet for $35,000 each, and $54.95 pay-per-view buys are expected to exceed 1.5 million, with thousands more paying $50 to watch closed-circuit broadcasts of the fight at surrounding Las Vegas casinos.
"It's up to us to perform, this is what the sport needs," De La Hoya said. "All eyes will be on that ring, and I hope that Mayweather understands he has to fight; that this is a big fight, a big event. He has to understand that for the sake of boxing, hey, let's fight our hearts out. I hope that's what this is. That's what I want."
Mayweather (37-0, 24 KOs) told the masses at Wednesday's news conference that he's "willing to die in the ring."
But in a quieter moment, before a workout session at his Las Vegas gym Tuesday, he talked of success by another means.
"All it's about is this: It's not cool to take punishment," Mayweather said. "You look at guys' careers after they took the punishment: [Parkinson's-stricken Muhammad] Ali, [Arturo] Gatti. How they ended up isn't cool.
"Dominating is cool. That's what I'll do. Dominate."
That's the thinking among Las Vegas bettors. The safest parlay wager is that Mayweather wins by decision.
Mayweather, 30, said if the 34-year-old De La Hoya "goes for broke," he'll fatigue.
"There's no gas station in the ring," Mayweather has said more than once this week. "The guy always gets tired."
Former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis praised the strategy of Mayweather sticking to his successful formula. De La Hoya, after all, has never fought an opponent this fast.
"You can apply pressure and be aggressive, but if you can't catch the person, you're in deep trouble," Lewis said.
Yet the potential of a great chase, warned the fighters' former promoter Bob Arum, is a "boring" and "technical" fight.
De La Hoya, who has a powerful left hook that helped him win his last fight against Ricardo Mayorga in 2006, said his work with veteran trainer Freddie Roach has left him "prepared to fight in the center of the ring or to chase him."
While Mayweather's refrain has been "size doesn't win fights," this will be his first fight above 147 pounds. Mayweather weighed in at 150 pounds Friday and De La Hoya was 154. Tonight, Mayweather is expected to enter the ring almost 10 pounds lighter than De La Hoya.
"I'll beat him on his terms," said Mayweather, a former super-featherweight and lightweight world champion. "Oscar has a good left hook, but Floyd has a good left hook, right hand; I can out-slug, out-punch and counterpunch better than [he can]."
Leonard Ellerbe, Mayweather's advisor, notes that De La Hoya is fighting for only the third time in 35 months and calls him "a part-time, one-punch fighter."
Mayweather's speed advantage is a concern for De La Hoya, who has suffered two defeats by decision to another faster opponent, Shane Mosley.
"I'm going to be the more aggressive fighter ... cut off the ring and attack," De La Hoya said.
"... Mosley was fast, but he'd throw four or five punches at a time and he hits hard. Mayweather throws one, two sneaky punches and ducks out. I talked to Baldomir about it. He said, 'Don't worry about [Mayweather's] power.' "
Mayweather's Achilles' heel is his hands, which have given him problems since a 2001 victory over Diego Corrales. In 12 fights since, seven of Mayweather's victories have been decisions.
De La Hoya also points to his experience advantage in major boxing shows.
"I see a lot of little nerves running through his body," De La Hoya said. "The way he talks all the time; he can't handle this. There's no fear whatsoever from me. I've been in many big fights."
Countered Mayweather: "I ain't worried about the lights and the fame. Once I get in that squared circle, I know what to do. I always knew this day would come."