Mayweather-Pacquiao: Dud of the Century

May 3, 2015 in Best Of, Boxing, Sport

Manny Pacquiao failed to deliver two promises on Saturday evening at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The first was that he would hand Floyd “Money” Mayweather his first defeat in 48 professional fights. The second was that he would give fans an exciting fight. While he could blame Mayweather for failing the first promise, Pacquiao was just as much to blame for the second. And so after five years of speculation, close calls, failed negotiations, name-calling, lawsuits and serendipitous meetings at Miami Heat basketball games, the so-called Fight of the Century turned out to be one huge stinking dud.

Before the Fight

The atmosphere before the fight lived up to the hype. Just about all the biggest names in sports and entertainment were there (see this link for a full list with pictures), either due to their connections (ie, Floyd’s buddy Justin Bieber, Showtime stars like Claire Danes, boxing royalty like Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, or sponsor-related celebs like Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s there to promote his new boxing flick Southpaw) or their huge wallets capable of paying the exorbitant ticket prices (Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, Andre Agassi, etc). It was the richest gate in sports history (ticket sales alone generated US$74 million), with even the shittiest ticket in the nosebleeds section costing just under US$3,000 according to StubHub.

The PPV numbers are not yet available, but they are expected to blow away the record of 2.48 million buys from the De La Hoya-Mayweather fight in 2007. The actual money amount will be astronomical, considering PPV prices are also significantly higher than for other bouts, with people paying US$90 for the fight (and US$100 for it in HD) in the United States and slightly cheaper prices in most other places on the planet (only a handful of countries such as Mexico, China and the Philippines aired it for free).

PPV

The demand was so high that the start time of the actual main event was delayed by approximately 45 minutes due to troubles encountered by people trying to order the PPV from their providers.

I was rooting for the Filipino and predicted a Pacquiao victory not just because he apparently possessed all the tools on paper to give Mayweather trouble (southpaw, speed, power, footwork, stamina, high work rate, awkward angles), but also because the American seemed to be genuinely spooked by the occasion. Mayweather appeared nervous at all the public events and even told reporters he no longer had the passion for the sport and was looking forward to retiring after one final fight in September.

He was uncharacteristically polite and passive, a far cry from his old ways of trash talking and acting brash and disrespectful towards opponents, and he continued to be plagued by reports that dredged up his history of domestic violence. It seemed like Pacquiao, who acted relaxed and confident throughout the promotion, had won the psychological battle, and I felt the Mayweather camp was rattled judging from the last minute reports claiming that it had tried — unsuccessfully — to block Pacquiao from using his commission-approved gloves for the fight. It also didn’t help that reports surfaced today alleging that Mayweather attempted to block certain female journalists who harped on his domestic abuse charges.

Pacquiao also appeared to land the first blow — figuratively speaking — when he entered the ring smiling and with plenty of confidence as his coach Freddie Roach snapped a selfie on his phone. He even allowed talk show host Jimmy Kimmel to take an unsubtle jab at Justin Bieber, who is part of Mayweather’s entourage and infamously crashed the introductory press conference a couple of months ago.

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Jimmy Kimmel joins Manny Pacquiao’s ring entrance entourage on May 2

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Justin Bieber pops out of nowhere during the kick-off conference in March

The Fight

Everything I said above may have been true, but none of it mattered once the two fighters got into the ring. I hate to break it to those still in denial, but the fight wasn’t close. You can hate on Floyd Mayweather Jr all your want, but you can’t deny his skills. Tonight, Mayweather proved he was the best boxer of his generation. Five years ago, who knows what the outcome would have been, but all that matters is what actually happened. For the record, I believe the outcome would have been the same because Mayweather’s just that much better and his physical advantages are too difficult to overcome.

Freddie Roach claimed that he had the perfect game plan — one he had been honing and perfecting over the past five years — and that Pacquiao was probably going to win every round. Well, it became clear after round one that Pacquiao had an uphill climb ahead of him. The Filipino needed to get off to a good start and probably should have rushed Mayweather from the opening bell to assert himself, but instead he was overly passive and spent too long posturing and feinting. Mayweather won the first three rounds, or at least two of the first three, with his accuracy, counterpunching, and ability to dictate of the pace.

Pacquiao had his moments in the next three rounds, but only when he managed to trap Mayweather against the ropes so he could launch his patented flurries. Most of the heavy blows, however, were either blocked or deflected. In terms of jabs and single shots in the middle of the ring, however, Mayweather dominated. It was simply a master class in how to control distance and range. Mayweather perfected using his 5-inch reach advantage to keep Pacquiao at bay, and clinching or arm-locking whenever Pacquiao got too close. Having referee Kenny Bayless, who typically allows Mayweather to get away with a certain amount of holding, didn’t help matters. It was frustrating and boring, but it was a brilliant strategy.

Before the fight, I thought Pacquiao had a decent chance because of his volume punching. I believed if he kept punching and overwhelmed Mayweather’s output he would be favoured by the judges. But against Mayweather, his punch rate suddenly came crashing down. It’s not an anomaly because it’s happened to every volume puncher Mayweather has ever faced. It goes back to Mayweather’s ability to control range, because Pacquiao knows there’s no point in throwing punches that have no chance of landing. It also says something about Mayweather’s underrated power. If those counterpunches didn’t sting, Pacquiao wouldn’t have grown so reluctant in coming forward. He knew he couldn’t be reckless and try to walk through Mayweather’s punches in order to land his own because he knew those shots could hurt him.

Mayweather’s not the same type of counterpuncher as Juan Manuel Marquez, the man who gave Pacquiao fits in their four fights and brutally knocked him out in their last matchup. JMM takes huge risks and gambles on his counters, which is why Pacquiao’s had success against him too, but Mayweather is a counterpuncher who plays it safe because he can.

The result was as one-sided as many of Mayweather’s other fights. 118-110 one one scorecard and a generous 116-112 on two others for a unanimous Mayweather victory. I had it 117-111 on my sloppy unofficial scorecard. Here’s how the judges scored each round.

mayweather pacquiao official scorecard

Anyone claiming that Pacquiao won — including himself — or that it was a close fight is deluding themselves. Your eyes or heart may deceive you, but the stats don’t lie. Compubox is not a perfect science, but in this case it’s an accurate indication of what took place.

floydpac compubox

Mayweather landed 67 more punches than Pacquiao at 15% more accuracy. The most startling stat is that Mayweather ended up throwing more punches than Pacquiao did overall. In a fight where just about everyone thought Pacquiao would need to throw 800 punches to win, he ended up throwing barely half that. Full credit to Mayweather for turning the usually tornado-like Pacquiao into just another fighter who thought he could outbox the master.

I mistakenly predicted a Pacquiao victory partly because big boxing matches usually turn out to be unpredictable, but the it ended up being one of those rare fights where everything pretty much went according to how fight experts predicted it could go. Pacquiao would have his moments early, when his best chances were available, but Mayweather would eventually figure it out — as he always does — and dominate the rest of the way. The only thing unexpected was that Pacquiao would be so passive to start the fight and allow Mayweather to claim those precious early rounds.

Unfortunately, Mayweather’s dominance — and Pacquiao’s reluctance — turned the Fight of the Century into a total bore. Brilliant performance? Sure. Exciting? Hell no. I can appreciate technical skills better than most, but for a fight of this magnitude the fans deserved more. A lot more.

Boos rained down on Mayweather when he proclaimed victory at the end of the fight and when they announced the decision, and while some of them were aimed at him as a person, I believe a lot of them were directed at the way he turned the fight into a snoozefest. There was no genuine action, no serious exchanges, nothing close to resembling a knockdown, and no one was ever in serious trouble or hurt from a big shot. Mayweather danced around, held, and ran some more, not just avoiding action but actively preventing it from happening. There may have been some natural tension early on, but even that evaporated as Mayweather’s tactics became a predictable pattern.

Mayweather deserves the bulk of the blame because that’s his style, but the typically exciting Pacquiao isn’t fault-free either. Perhaps it was his brutal KO loss to JMM a couple of years ago that made him so wary, but when the fight was clearly getting away he didn’t exactly go for broke either. With US$100 million-plus heading into his bank, Pacquiao probably decided it wasn’t worth risking his health for glory. I would have much rather seen him get knocked out trying to score the knockout himself rather than trying to feint Mayweather to death. And that’s what 80%-90% of the fight was: feinting and posturing. It was a chess match that was more boring than watching actual chess matches.

After the Fight

Everyone was disappointed. “Underwhelmed” was an extremely popular word on Twitter. I may have rooted for Pacquiao but the thing I wanted above all was an exciting fight that would come at least 70% to meeting expectations. This fight was about a 15%.

There were the Pactards and blind boxing novices claiming that Pacquiao had been robbed, that the sport is corrupt, etc, with some even going as far as slamming ESPN’s post-fight interviewer Max Kellerman for daring to press Pacquiao about how he could have possibly thought he won. Can you imagine the same thing happening if Mayweather was in Pacquiao’s position? Not hating, just pointing out the hypocrisy.

The internets was flooded with the same arguments Mayweather has faced for years — that he ran like a coward and didn’t dare to exchange in a real fight, like a real man. But that’s where his genius and understanding of the rules of boxing come into play. Do you think his career would have lasted as long as it has if he decided to go toe-to-toe with every foe? Do you think there would be as many people hoping that he would get knocked out every time he stepped into the ring?

The biggest flaw with the running argument, at least in this fight, is that Mayweather was actually more active than Pacquiao. Forget that he landed nearly twice as many punches. He actually threw more punches than Pacquiao. If he simply ran, how could he have won? It wasn’t as though the judges awarded Mayweather for evading Pacquiao’s punches. He landed a lot more at greater accuracy in almost every round. End of story.

That did not stop the excuses from rolling in immediately after the verdict. The Pacquiao camp revealed that the Filipino fought with a tear in his shoulder and that he was denied an anti-inflammatory shot before the fight. Not to be outdone, Mayweather claimed that both his arms and hands were injured either prior to or during the fight.

My Facebook feed became flooded with articles slamming Mayweather’s character and his woman-beating tendencies, and claims that he will never be respected no matter how many Manny Pacquiaos he beats. I suppose it comes with the territory of having been a complete prick for so many years, but even I felt all the media attacks in the aftermath of a career-defining victory were below the belt.

I haven’t had a chance to watch the fight again and I’m not sure I want to put myself through the pain for a second time. Big fights often disappoint; I can think of a few I was really amped up for that failed to meet expectations, but none were as disappointing as Mayweather-Pacquiao. Accordingly, my final impression of the fight will likely be Mayweather’s best blow of the fight — when he thanked God first in his post-fight interview. As someone irked by Pacquiao’s repeated “God will deliver him into my hands” remarks before the fight– no offense intended to any of my lovely Christian friends — I kinda liked that final insult to cap off all the stinging right hands and counters he fed Pacquiao all night.

Where to Now

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Mayweather insists he will fight just once more, this September, before riding off into the sunset for good. He seems genuine about this, and I believe he will carry through with the promise unless he desperately needs money again in the future — which is quite likely if you’ve heard the stories about his spending habits. Potential opponents include American young gun Keith Thurman, a 26-year-old heavy-handed fighter also with an unblemished unbeaten record (25 wins, 21KOs and 1 no contest — from an accidental headbutt in the first round), as well as Brit Amir Khan, who has a glass jaw but the height (5’9″), reach (71″), speed and boxing skills to potentially give Mayweather trouble on paper. Personally, I’d like to see him take on both guys to erase all doubts and retire at 50-0, breaking Rocky Marciano’s celebrated record.

As for Pacquiao, he said he’ll take a break and leave the rest to his promoter Bob Arum. To be honest, this loss doesn’t affect his legacy all that much. He lost to a better boxer on the night, not because he’s over the hill or a shot fighter. He’s still loved in the Philippines, where he’ll probably become president one day, and people still love to watch him fight. Against the right opponents there’s no reason why he won’t still be a massive PPV draw.

Roach and Pacquiao said they would like to push for a rematch in light of the shoulder injury revelation. There’s no rematch clause in the contract, but considering how much money the two will make (estimates for Mayweather are as high as US$180 million), the temptation must be there to do it all over again. Given how one-sided this fight turned out to be — and especially seeing that Pacquiao no longer has one-punch knockout power to give himself a puncher’s chance — it’s not something I want to see.

PS: The most exciting fight of the night was actually on the undercard. Vasyl Lomachenko, Ukranian amateur star, proved once again that he’s going to be the next P4P best fighter on the planet with his impressive destruction of the game but outgunned Gamalier Rodriguez. It was just Lomachenko’s fifth professional fight and the featherweight displayed an offensive aggression reminiscent of the Pacquiao of old and the technical brilliance and precision of Mayweather. Check out the highlights from that fight.

‘Dreams from My Father’ & ‘The Audacity of Hope’ by Barack Obama

August 5, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews

Dreams_from_my_father

My plan to read a lot of books this year was derailed by Barack Obama. I started tackling his first book, Dreams from My Father (published way back in 1995), in early June, and I didn’t finish his second book, The Audacity of Hope (published 2006), until this week.

Like everyone fascinated with Obama’s rise to become America’s first black president, I had wanted to read both books for years, but I have to admit that I found parts of them, in particular Dreams, to be a little dry. Having said that, there are some marvellous insights and ideas in these books that help shed light on the type of man and leader Obama is, and the things that have shaped his political philosophies (which I admit I find myself aligned with regularly). And so I thought I’d tackle the reviews in a single post so I can compare and contrast them a little.

For starters, both books were written before Obama was first elected president in 2008. Dreams from My Father was offered to Obama because he had been elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, and written at a time when he was just about to embark on a serious political career. It is first and foremost a memoir, a 442-page epic that traces his mixed-marriage birth, his unconventional upbringing in Indonesia and Hawaii, as well as his African heritage.The latter portions of the book are about his foray into politics at the grassroots level, through community organizing and church groups.

It’s not entirely chronological and it’s also not a blow-by-blow account of Obama’s life, but you do get bits and pieces of information that paint a (somewhat incomplete) picture of his life. The subtitle of the book is A Story of Race and Inheritance, so naturally race is a central theme of the book that fuels much of the discussion he has with his readers.

Hope, on the other hand, at a leaner 363 pages, came about because Obama had become a US Senator and a rising star in the Democratic Party. It would be two years before he would rise to the presidency, but I assume at the time the book idea was tossed around it was envisioned that Obama would eventually run for president, with a solid chance of making history.

It’s a completely different book to Dreams in that it’s less about Obama’s life and upbringing and more about his political and spiritual beliefs as well as his views on different aspects of American culture. He doesn’t shy away from the controversial issues such as homosexuality, abortions and religion, not to mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and he admits to taking drugs, including cocaine), though some readers may be frustrated because most of the time he simply outlines the complexities of the issues without expressing a clear cut view or providing concrete solutions (but let’s face it, who can?). The last chapter on family is really the only time in the book that Obama divulges sizable chunks of his personal life (only snippets before this), but it’s arguably the most honest and heartfelt chapter of both books.

True to their respective titles, Dreams is more more personal and centered around family, with a more contemplative, reflective tone, while Hope is more about his audacious vision for the country and filled with optimism about the future.

And so it was an interesting experience reading both books in the context of when and why they were written. It’s interesting because we know who this man will eventually become, and even in the decade or so between the two books were written we can see how much he has matured and evolved as a politician — from someone with grand ideals but apprehensions about a political career to someone who is all-in and much more aware of what compromises he has to make both in the office and at home to make it to the top. It also made me wonder what type of book Obama would pen now if had the opportunity, and whether he is now a lot more cynical and disillusioned with the whole thing.

But if Obama didn’t become the most powerful man in the world, would the books be just as interesting? Of course not. It’ll just be the life and opinions of another intelligent, articulate black man. It would still be insightful, but not nearly as exciting or compelling.

Obama’s writing is solid. He’s an excellent writer on a word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence level, but his ability to piece together a clear narrative thread is sometimes lacking, particularly in Dreams. He also tends to be, as he admits, verbose at times, meaning the experience could be lacking if you are stuck reading a topic you don’t have a real interest in. These are common issues for most writers, especially first-time writers, which is why I feel Hope is the superior book. Given that the subject matter is more defined and written more like a series of essays rather than themed-biographies (ie, more up Obama’s alley), the voice is much stronger and more confident. You can tell he is trying to craft the persona of a future president, and when I read his words I could almost picture Obama saying them to a crowded room.

So, Dreams could have been even more personal, insightful and captivating, while Hope could have been bolder and contained more innovative solutions, but on the whole they are solid reads I’d recommend to people anywhere along the political spectrum, and together they paint an illuminating picture of who Barack Obama is and what he stands for. You might not agree with what he says or believes in, but anything that encourages positive political debate and discussion can’t be a bad thing.

Ratings:

Dreams from My Father – 3/5

The Audacity of Hope – 3.75/5

Comprehensive Review & Analysis: ‘Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth’ by Reza Aslan

January 28, 2014 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Religion, Reviews

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Like everyone else, I found the title Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth too provocative to ignore. “Zealot” carries certain negative connotations, and the use of the word in the title is clearly by design, intended to stir up a shitstorm which it of course did upon its release.

But beneath all the controversy, Zealot is actually a fairly readable, robustly researched academic work that makes a strong case that the Biblical Jesus Christ is a very different person to the historical Jesus of Nazareth. This is probably already something a lot of non-Christians, and even some more liberal Christians believe, but what this book does is flesh out all the arguments through an analysis of historical documents and the Bible itself, stringing together a narrative that delves into how the religion of Christianity was created in the first place.

Zealot is written by Iranian-American Reza Aslan, who coincidentally shares the same name as the lion from CS Lewis’s Narnia books, which are allegedly veiled Christian stories where the lion is actually God! A lot has been made about the fact that Aslan is a Muslim who converted from Christianity and that he currently works as a creative writing teacher. Both are accurate but overblown because he is also a scholar of religions, someone who holds a PhD in the sociology of religions from the University of California. And really, all you have to do is read a few pages of Zealot to realize that this is not some fanciful creative writing project of some Muslim nut trying to destroy Christianity, but rather a thorough academic work from someone who clearly knows what he’s talking about, or at least projects that image anyway. The Da Vinci Code this is not.

Of course, this is not to say Aslan’s theories about the life of Jesus are correct or that he doesn’t have an agenda (of course he does, and I think it’s motivated by $$$ more than anything else), but most of the accusations that have been hurled his way are pretty embarrassing.

Contrary to some reviews I have read about the book, Zealot is not a straight, blow-by-blow chronological biography of Jesus of Nazareth. The first couple of chapters set up the all-important historical background that helps readers understand the type of world Jesus was born into 2000 years ago, after which each chapter of the book tackles a different aspect or period of Jesus’s life through analyses of the Bible and other historical records. The final chapters, which I found the most fascinating, deal with the resurrection, followed by how Christianity as we know it came into being.

Zealot is also not a piece of “historical fiction” as some have suggested. Granted, Aslan does occasionally delve into what can be described as “creative non-fiction” in some of his descriptions, but to say he is just making things up is a gross exaggeration. For the most part, the book is driven by critical analysis that points out what was likely and what was not likely based on what we know about that time today.

Review

First and foremost, it is important to remember that Zealot is essentially an academic work that has been written with a wider audience in mind. There is accordingly a certain level of historical and religious detail and complexity in what Aslan writes, a lot of which would be difficult for the layman to follow, let alone fully comprehend.

It is a difficult book to get through at times because he blows through a lot of names of people and places very quickly, and people who don’t have at least a bit of knowledge about the Bible or this period of history could find most of it flying straight over their heads. Compounding the situation is that a lot of people back in those days have the exact same names, which means you might have to re-read certain sections if you want to fully understand all the details. I’ll admit I couldn’t be bothered most of the time.

Considering what a tough job it is explaining such a complicated part of history and the need to do it well, Aslan does about as well as you could have expected in keeping the narrative relatively simple and flowing. It is not easy to strike a balance between being comprehensive and informative against being readable and accessible, and I think the fluidity of the narrative and the confident voice with which the story is told is a testament to Aslan’s impressive knowledge of the subject.

The problem with Zealot is that the whole book is written under the presumption that Jesus was not, and could not have been divine, and the narrative is built entirely around the premise that the Biblical Jesus and the historical Jesus are two completely different people. What I mean by that is instead of analysing the available and reliable historical information to reach certain conclusions, Aslan appears to cherry pick parts the Bible and other ancient documents to back up his preconceived conclusion.

Another major problem, which Aslan highlights in the first few pages of the book, is that because there is insufficient information on certain details of Jesus’s life, he is often forced to make “educated guesses” on what was most likely under the circumstances. However, as he appears so self-assured about everything he says, it becomes difficult to distinguish between when he is making a statement based on irrefutable “facts” and when he is making a “guess”, which, even if “educated”, could be biased or skewed so that he can reach certain conclusions that suit his agenda.

To get a clearer picture of how much guesswork was actually involved, you’ll have to rummage through the extensive notes section at the end of the book, which adds about another quarter to a third of the book’s overall length. I would hardly call this section compulsory reading because the majority of it is just additional sources for interested readers to explore. That said, there are some interesting bits in there that elaborate on a lot of the arguments Aslan makes throughout the book, though sometimes they actually undermine his theories by making you realise that there are equally convincing counterarguments.

Of course, if everything was as obvious as Aslan paints it to be, he wouldn’t need to write a book about it. I’m sure plenty of Christian scholars and apologists already have and will continue to poke holes in his so-called “facts” and “educated guesses”, which is simply something that comes with the territory when writing about stuff no one can really know about for sure.

On the whole, Zealot offers no earth-shattering revelations, but it is nevertheless a well-written book with a strong central argument. While not exactly a page turner because all the context and background it needs to constantly provide, readers interested in who the “historical Jesus” might have been should find it an educative and fascinating read.

Key arguments of the book

Aslan essentially summarises the central argument of Zealot in this paragraph: “The firstcentury Jews who wrote about Jesus had already made up their minds about who he was. They were constructing a theological argument about the nature and function of Jesus Christ, not composing a historical biography about a human being.”

What he is saying is that the Bible is far from inerrant (as some loonies claim) and is likely skewed by evangelists with an agenda. He does a great job of providing the context in which the Biblical stories of Jesus came into being, explaining to readers that it was a very different world back then where 97% of people were illiterate and driven by superstitions. His analysis suggests that certain parts of the gospels were likely to have been completely made up by the writers or at least twisted to make Jesus’s life fall in line with Old Testament prophecies.

One technique Aslan employs is to compare and contrast the the gospels to show how the later gospels may have built on myths created by an earlier one. For example, he suggests that John the Baptist apparently once had a huge following as well, with some believing he was even greater than Jesus, but the gospels intentionally tried to lessen his influence and make it abundantly clear that, despite being a great man himself, John was nothing compared to Jesus. Aslan illustrates how through time, John goes from the one who baptizes Jesus to just bearing witness to Jesus’s divinity, when historical records suggest that Jesus likely began his ministry as just another one of John’s disciples and only built his own after John was arrested.

By the way, none of this suggests that Jesus is not who the Bible says he is. But what it does argue is that any suggestion that the Bible is an inerrant document is a joke, and that in reality it is a very flawed book driven by different agendas and plagued with historical and factual inaccuracies and contradictions.

So how did the documents that make up the Bible become this way? Aslan points the finger at Paul, a former Pharisee who never met Jesus when he was alive but inexplicably became a believer after a supposed miraculous meeting with a divine, post-resurrection Jesus, after which he started declaring himself greater than the 12 Apostles and as the one chosen by God to build a new religion.

According to Aslan, Paul (who is painted as a bit of a nutcase) had a different agenda and beliefs to the rest of the remaining members of the 12 Apostles and Jesus’s brother James, who advocated something much closer to what the real life (and non-divine) Jesus preached. Paul’s version of a divine Jesus was completely different and often contradictory to the Jesus who lived. It does not narrate a single event from Jesus’s life and provides little insight into who the living Jesus was — nor did he seem to care.

The two sides actually battled bitterly over Jesus’s legacy, leading to the Apostles demanding that Paul come to Jerusalem to answer for his deviant teachings in 57CE. It was not only the destruction of Jerusalem, which destroyed just about all records of Jesus’s life and link to Judaism, that Paul’s side emerged victorious.

“The transformation of the Nazarean into a divine, preexisting, literal son of God whose death and resurrection launch a new genus eternal beings responsible for judging the world has no basis in any writings about Jesus that are even remotely contemporary with Paul’s (a firm indication that Paul’s Christ was likely his own creation).”

Aslan goes on to claim that the only writings about Jesus apart from the so-called Q document that existed in 70CE were the letters of Paul, which became the primary vehicle for the Christian movement and a heavy influence on the gospels. Tellingly, more than half the 27 books that make up the New Testament are either by or about Paul. Two millennia later, as Aslan says, “the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history.”

To be fair to Aslan, he is reasonably objective when it comes to certain aspects of Jesus’s life that might suggest divinity. For example, he admits that there is ample historical evidence that Jesus healed the sick and performed “miracles.” Aslan does, however, place Jesus’s remarkable feats in context by pointing out that so-called miracle workers were very prevalent back in those days (in fact, there was an entire industry), with the only difference being that Jesus did not charge for his services.

On the pivotal question of the resurrection, Aslan is unable to answer definitively, saying that it is a “matter of faith,” though he argues what is clear is that  if Jesus did rise from the dead he did not do so “according to the scriptures” (ie, it was not prophecized) as claimed in the Bible.

Aslan also concludes that the resurrection as described in the Bible is “not a historical event” because by the time these stories were written, six decades after the event, the evangelists had heard “just about every conceivable objection to the resurrection, and they were able to create narratives to counter each and every one of them.” The result, Aslan claims, is that the resurrection as described is not a historical event but “carefully crafted rebuttals.”

Having said that, Aslan also recognizes the wealth of evidence supporting the resurrection. “However, there is this nagging fact to consider: one after another of those who claimed to have witnessed the risen Jesus went to their own gruesome deaths refusing to recant their testimony,” Aslan admits in the book. As he points out, these people died not because they were asked to deny matters of faith, but because they were asked to deny something they themselves personally, directly encountered. 

This may come as a disappointment to some readers hoping to find something that will challenge what are arguably the most incredible claims in the Bible, but full credit to Aslan for admitting that there is insufficient evidence to reach the conclusion that these miraculous things can be dismissed outright.

Other claims

Some of the other arguments Aslan makes and “facts” he points out in Zealot include:

– The term “zealot”, in the context of Jesus’s time, is someone who believes in only the one truth god and no others. That’s the “zealot” he is referring to in the title of his book.

– Practically every word ever written about Jesus of Nazareth, including every gospel story in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, was written by people who, like Stephen and Paul, never actually knew Jesus when he was alive.

– No one has ever seen the originals of the gospels and it is generally accepted that the gospels (with the possible exception of Luke) were not written by the people after which they have been named. Accordingly, it’s impossible to tell whether the copies (even the oldest one we have) that are in circulation now have been tampered with.

– People back in Jesus’s time did not have a sense of what the word “history” meant, meaning they were not documenting things for future generations, and what the writings meant was more important to whether they were factually accurate.

– 97% of people back in Jesus’s time (including possibly Jesus himself) were illiterate and prone to manipulation.

– “Messiah” did not necessarily mean “God” back in those days as the prophecies in the scriptures were not clear and were confusing and contradictory. There were in fact many messiahs throughout history and even just in Jesus’s time.

– The narrative of Jesus’s birth is riddled with problems and contradictions, including claims in a couple of the gospel that he was born in Bethlehem as opposed to the obscure village of Nazareth. Aslan says Jesus almost certainly had many brothers and sisters, which shoots a big hole in the Catholic claim that Mary was a virgin for life.

– Jesus started off as merely just another disciple of John the Baptist. Jesus’s earliest disciples only started following him after John was arrested.

– Contrary to claims, Jesus was in fact very aware of the political landscape. Aslan tears down the image of a Jesus who only cared about preaching the word of God. He claims that Jesus’s prophecies about being arrested, tortured and crucified could be seen as either made up by future generations or simply “predictable” because that’s what happened to every self-proclaiming messiah who dared to challenge Rome.

– Jesus’s so-called trial before Pontius Pilate was a complete fabrication as Pilate would have never given Jesus the time of day given that at least a dozen similar “trials” were conducted on the same day. Likely also to be a fabrication is the entire narrative from the Last Supper to Jesus’s arrest up until his crucifixion.

– The story that it was the Jews who wanted Jesus crucified made absolutely no sense. It was likely made up for a Roman audience and thus tried to shift the blame away from Rome, though as a result it has sparked 2,000 years of anti-Semitism.

– Jesus was crucified alongside other lestai, which Aslan claims actually means other revolutionaries like him, rather than the general “evildoers” used in Luke’s gospel because he was uncomfortable with its political implications.

– The truth is that Jesus was executed for sedition, not blasphemy for claiming he was divine as the gospels claim, as the laws state clearly that the punishment for blasphemy is death by stoning, not crucifixion. Aslan says the “flagrant inaccuracies” of the procedures and rituals and traditions in Jesus’s trial and execution show a complete lack of understanding by the early evangelists.

– Jesus’s predictions about the the arrival of the Kingdom of God and a new world order never arrived. In fact, Aslan claims that “Kingdom of God” back then did not mean “heaven” as we know it and actually referred to a Jewish realm on earth where people followed the rules of a deity as opposed to a human king. The suggestion is that Jesus wanted to crown himself “king” of the new order, but a king who will serve the people as opposed to the other way around.

– Jesus did not perceive himself in the way early church leaders did. He never openly referred to himself as messiah or the Son of God (he actually called himself, ambiguously, Son of Man), which in any case did not mean that he was literally God’s offspring but was instead the traditional designation for Israel’s kings. Even King David was called Son of God multiple times in the Bible.

– Stephen, the first person to be martyred for calling Jesus “Christ” and stoned to death for blasphemy, had never met Jesus, was never involved in his life, nor witnessed his death. In addition, Stephen was not a scribe or scholar and did not know the scriptures well, plus he preached to an uneducated and illiterate crowd.

– Luke attributed a long speech to Stephen which was likely to have been made up. Luke says Stephen looked up to the heavens and saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God, which became a favourite image of the early Christian community — and that was how Jesus became God. As Aslan writes: “One can say that it was not only Stephen who died that day outside the gates of Jerusalem. Buried with him under the rubble of stones is that last trace of the historical person known as Jesus of Nazareth.”

– The original Aramaic-speaking followers of Jesus, including remnants of the 12 Apostles, clashed with the Greek-speaking Diaspora Jews, the ones who claimed Jesus was God. And it was their conflict that resulted in two competing camps of Christian interpretation in the decades after the crucifixion, one led by Christian convert Paul and the other by Jesus’s brother James. Paul’s version of the divine Jesus won out after the destruction of Jerusalem.

– The story of how Paul met the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, including his blinding and subsequent cure, is “a bit of propagandistic legend created by the evangelist Luke, one of Paul’s young devotees,” Aslan contends, as Paul himself never recounts the story of being blinded by the sight of Jesus nearly a decade after the crucifixion.

– There are some great stories about the boy Jesus in the gnostic gospels, especially The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, in which a petulant Jesus flaunts his magical powers by bringing clay birds to life or striking dead neighborhood kids who fail to show him deference.

Conclusion

The ideas in Zealot will be debated to death and I don’t have the requisite knowledge to throw in my two cents about what I think of Aslan’s arguments, as compelling as they are. At the end of the day, no one really knows, or else there wouldn’t be a whole market of books advocating and dissing the truth of Christianity. What Zealot does do very well, however, is provide an alternate version of events to the Bible and point out likely fallacies of the Holy Book, which Aslan paints — at the very least — as an unreliable or undependable account of historical events. Ultimately, what you believe about Jesus remains a matter of faith, though having said that, Zealot could go a long way in helping you make or prevent you from making that leap.

Rating: 3.5/5

Breaking Bad finale: perfect end to a perfect show

October 1, 2013 in Best Of, Reviews, TV

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(Warning: it would be a dick move for me not to mention that there are potential MINOR SPOILERS ahead)

Last night I watched the series finale of Breaking Bad, episode 62, the aptly titled “Felina” — an anagram for finale and representing the three chemical elements Fe (Iron = “blood”), Li (Lithium = “meth”) and Na (Sodium = “tears”). See? Even the title is genius.

While Felina is probably not the best episode of the series (that title could go to “Ozymandius” or one of the other season 5 episodes), it is the best ending of any TV series I have ever seen — no hyperbole. It was a perfect conclusion to a show that’s as perfect as any that has ever been on television. Just about every loose end was tied up with the right amount of neatness and open-endedness. It flowed nicely, in pace and in tone, with the rest of the series, without trying too hard to be drastic or different so it could “go out with a bang”. There was nothing outrageous or jarring about it at all. A show like Lost overstayed its welcome and trapped itself with too many unanswerable loose ends, whereas every little thing that happened in Breaking Bad was planned well in advance and with an explanation or resolution in mind. The difference is startling. It’s a weighty affirmation of what can happen when a TV series has a finite life and brilliant writers who know precisely where they want the show to go and how things will turn out.

Having been through some horrible series finales in recent years (Lost, Gossip Girl, Dexter), my expectations for Felina were kept in check. I avoided all commentary and predictions and didn’t think much about it myself, wanting to go in with a clean slate and the mentality of just going along with the ride. The only things I expected to happen were that Jesse would live and Walt would die, though I wasn’t really sure about either.

The introductory scene with Walt in the snow-covered car set the pace for the rest of the episode. With so many loose ends to tie up, I had expected it to burst out of the gate and sprint all the way to the finish, but instead show creator Vince Gilligan let his audience know that the show was going to finish on its own terms. I had expected the show to start winding things up with about six episodes to go because it felt like there was so much that still had to happen, but it remained steadfast in its conviction and continued to progress at its finely tuned, intentional speed, picking up at times but cooling down at others while maintaining the tension all the way through. Then I thought it had to start winding up with five episodes left, then four, then three, then two. When we hit the final episode I decided there was going to be no way all the loose ends would be tied up and resigned myself to an unsatisfactory conclusion.

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But somehow, like magic, the loose ends were dealt with, one by one: his former business partners Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz (in a brilliant, clever scene), Lydia (that chamomile-plus-soy-milk-drinking bitch), Skyler (plus, in a way, Hank) and Flynn (the epic scene with Skyler was the whole crux of the episode, or even the entire show, IMO), the crazy Nazis (including Todd, hands down the creepiest character in the whole show), and finally, Jesse. The only question outstanding was whether Huell was still waiting in that motel room!

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The amazing thing about Felina was that there was really nothing hugely surprising, and yet you couldn’t say that anything in it was expected. All the flash forwards from earlier episodes — the ones that sparked a cascade of speculation online — were catered for, and none of the resolutions felt forced or contrived. There were of course some implausible things in the episode (and these will no doubt be discussed at length online), and some people might think the ending was too neat for a show like this, but it was the satisfying conclusion that the audience — and Walter White — deserved.

Vince Gilligan said the idea of the show was to turn Mr Chips in Scarface — and he essentially achieved that several episodes out from the finale. The last couple of episodes were really about Heisenberg’s redemption — despite all the horrible things he had done, he had to be the antihero we rooted for until the end. There was no turning back for Walter White, but he wasn’t simply going to limp off into the sunset with a whimper (like Dexter). He’s the one who knocks, and we better damn remember it.

I intend to watch it again soon, but right now there is nothing I would change about how Breaking Bad finished up.

If the first six episodes of season five were good enough to win it the Best Series Emmy (I was surprised this was the first time the show won it), then it should be a foregone conclusion that the last six episodes would win next year’s award too, as well acting gongs for Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, and either Aaron Paul or Dean Norris. That said, it could be difficult given that the show would have lost a lot of momentum by this time next year. (I didn’t like it at the time, but I think it turned out to be a good idea to split the final season in two because, let’s face it, it was really like two separate seasons.)

How will Breaking Bad be remembered? As the greatest TV show ever? That’s what a lot of people are saying, which is astounding considering it just ended and these kinds of superlatives usually start in retrospect years down the track. Season five received 99/100 on Metacritic, the highest rating ever, and it makes you wonder which douchebag it was that prevented it from getting full marks. Has there ever been a show that is so cinematic, so beautifully shot, so dramatically epic, so wonderfully written, so amazingly performed and so perfectly ended? I can’t think of another.

I believe Breaking Bad is a show where all the stars aligned at the right time and everything just fell into place. AMC was brave enough (ans smart enough) to pick up a show about a chemistry teacher turned meth cooker. Bryan Cranston fell into the role of a lifetime. Aaron Paul, who was supposed to be killed off in the first couple of episodes, became arguably the second most important character on the show and established himself as one of the best young actors of this generation. The supporting roles were cast perfectly — especially Bob Odenkirk (Saul Goodman), Giancarlo Esposito (Gus Fring) and Jonathan Banks (Mike Ehrmantraut). And from every interview I’ve seen or read, the cast and crew all loved each other and the chemistry (no pun intended) onscreen was undeniable.

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It’s a strange comparison to make, but I’m going to make it anyway. My favourite comedy of all-time, Seinfeld, is another one of those shows where things kind of just fell into place. Even when things go wrong they are somehow right. The cast always refer to season three’s “Parking Garage” episode when they realised they had something special going on. The premise was that Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer couldn’t find their car in a parking garage and spend the entire episode looking for it. The episode concludes when they finally locate it, but when Kramer tries to start the car it stalls, ending things on a perfect note and providing possibly the biggest laugh of the entire episode. The thing is, the car stalling was never part of the script — it actually happened. (Oh, and let’s not forget, Cranston’s previous role of a lifetime was as dentist and infamous re-gifter Tim “schtickle of fluoride” Whatley on Seinfeld).

A young Heisenberg as Tim Whatley

A young Heisenberg as Tim Whatley

This kind of good fortune can be found in Felina too. I was watching the post-episode chat show Talking Bad, and guests talked about the brilliance of a tiny reflection of Anna Gunn’s face (she has her back to the camera) in her epic scene with Bryan Cranston. When I watched it I thought it was intentional too, but as it turned out Vince Gilligan (who directed the final episode) had no idea until his editor pointed it out to him. Similarly, the scene when Walt took off his watch and placed it on top of the payphone has been dissected by fans, most of whom point out that the watch was a gift from Jesse and it represented Walt finally letting him go. But as Vince Gilligan explained in Talking Bad, that scene was added purely for continuity purposes because Walt was not wearing the watch in the flash forward scene from earlier in the season. The show is so good that even the unintentional things are being interpreted as intentional brilliance.

Now that the show is finally over a lot of cable subscriptions will be cancelled, TVs will be thrown out and illegal internet downloads will drop dramatically. TV without Breaking Bad is frightening because it’s likely everything we watch for a while will seem bland and lacking in awesomeness by comparison. Nonetheless, we should be grateful that we were able to experience something so close to perfection at all. Thank you Vince Gilligan. Thank you Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul and the rest of the cast. Thank you Breaking Bad. Life (in front of the TV, anyway) will go on, but it won’t be the same without you.

PS: I’ll finish up with Grantland’s wicked in memoriam tribute to the show. It contains spoilers from the final episode — you’ve been warned.

Dexter Finale: Everyone’s favourite serial killer limps off with a whimper

September 24, 2013 in Best Of, Reviews, TV

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It’s kinda sad that I watched the series finale of Dexter as the appetizer to last night’s main course, the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad. I didn’t watch it first because I wanted to see it more — it was because I had accepted that, given the way this final season 8 has played out, the ending of Dexter would be an inevitable disappointment. And if I had watched (the newly crowned best series Emmy winner) Breaking Bad first, the contrast between the quality of the two shows would have been even more depressing.

NOTE: There will be spoilers about the final episode in this rant: you have been warned.

I first got into Dexter while the show was in its fourth season (2009). I had heard rave reviews about it from a friend — a serial killer protagonist with a sense of righteousness working as a Miami Metro blood splatter analyst — and decided to start right from the beginning, binge watching the first three seasons in a matter of days. As it turned out, season four was probably the apex of the entire series thanks to John Lithgow as the Trinity Killer, arguably Dexter’s biggest nemesis. By the time I got through season four, which had one of the best finales ever (with Dexter coming home to find his wife dead and his son in a pool of blood), I was convinced Dexter was one of the best shows on TV.

What was so good about it? For starters, the writing was amazing (emphasis on WAS). Dexter was charismatic, awkward, hilarious and lovable. He killed people who deserved it and you rooted for him to get away with it. The supporting characters were awesome too. Masuka, the pervy lab geek, provided a lot of laughs, and Dexter’s sister, Deb, was a foul-mouthed breath of fresh air. The fact that Dexter had to maintain his disguise as a family man added a whole other dimension to his character. And most of all, the villains were formidable and made you feel as though Dexter was in real danger. That was the most appealing and compulsive aspect of the show — that he was constantly hunting killers while also being hunted by killers and law enforcement; he was regularly pushed into a corner and forced to make difficult decisions,  leading to cliffhanger after cliffhanger.

Unfortunately, when you reach a height like the show’s makers did in season four, the only place to go is down. Season five was a bit of a downer despite the introduction of Dexter’s first partner in crime, Lumen (Julia Stiles), but it was still compelling television for the most part. Season six, to be honest, is a complete blur. I don’t remember much about it except that it starred Colin Hanks, son of Tom. Season seven was more of the same despite an attempt to change things up introducing a new killer love interest (pun intended) in Hannah McKay and having Deb in on the secret. You would think that would keep the show interesting but the changes never had the intended effect as the show kept getting flatter. The only good thing about the whole season was killing off the annoying LaGuerta.

And so as we ventured into season eight, the final season, there was some hope (albeit low expectations) that the show would give Dexter Morgan the sendoff he deserves.  By this stage, Dexter had become one of those shows that outstayed its welcome and only hung on because of loyal fans like myself. I did the same thing for Smallville, which was pretty much trash by the time it hobbled into the 10th season, and I stubbornly kept watching the final seasons of Prison Break (despite it becoming laughable), Heroes (which got so bad it was abruptly cancelled), and to a lesser extent Lost (the ending of which I am still trying to figure out).

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Season eight, as it turned out, was one of the worst, if not the worst seasons of the show. It was as though the writers were as sick of the show as we were and decided to just get it over with. Phone it in. The story wandered aimlessly, directionless, unsure of what it wanted to do or say. It felt like they were winging it, episode to episode. Was this final season about Dexter finally letting go of his Dark Passenger? Was it about him becoming undone? Was it about him coming to terms with who he is? Was it about love and sacrifice? Was it about all of these things or none of these things? No one could tell.

The structure was all over the place. We started off with Deb reeling from killing LaGuerta and Dexter trying to keep everything together. He then meets Charlotte Rampling, who reveals herself as the woman who essentially created him and his code. Quinn starts a relationship with Jamie, the babysitter. Masuka discovers he has a daughter (this strand never got resolved — in fact, Masuka is left out almost completely towards the end). Hannah McKay returns. There’s some kid who reminds Dexter of himself. And as it turns out the final villain is Rampling’s son, who doesn’t even appear in the season until the final episodes and is a bit of a piss-weak ultimate boss.

My head hurts from thinking about all the things that went horribly wrong in the final episode:

1. Deb’s arbitrary death — she dies because someone important has to die the finale; I just wish she could have had a better send off, rather than succumbing to some lame post-surgery complication and being carried out from the hospital and dumped into the ocean, somehow without anyone seeing it.

2. Batista and Quinn doing basically nothing. I can’t even remember seeing Masuka in the episode.

3. Saxon, the final big boss, going down in the lamest way possible — first being arrested without a struggle, and then killed with a pen. I feel bad for him.

4. Dexter somehow keeping his Miami Metro ID despite no longer working for them, and using it to first trick a stewardess at the airport and then getting into Saxon’s cell to kill him. And then inexplicably gets away with it.

5. What was Dexter trying to do in the end? Kill himself or fake his own death? If it was the latter then isn’t driving a boat into a tidal wave a bit too much of a risk?

6. Pretty dick move by Dexter leaving his kid with Hannah. I don’t know who to feel more sorry for.

7. So Dexter’s solution is to let people pretend he is dead and just live out the remainder of his existence in some isolated place like Walter White in a cabin? But as we see in the epilogue, there are still people around, and he is a serial killer by nature, so how does that really solve anything?

8. No humour at all. What made Dexter so great was its dark humour, and the final episode (final episodes, in fact) had none. Waaay too serious.

My theory is that the show began falling apart when Michael C Hall and Jennifer Carpenter split up but were forced to continue playing brother and sister on the show. They are great actors, but the chemistry was off, and since their relationship is the core of the show that affected everything and everyone else. The alternative theory is that the show just went on for too long and the writers got fatigued and ran out of good ideas.

The show’s producers have a different explanation — it was all part of their grand plan.

Nonetheless, I’ll still remember Dexter fondly for the first four seasons. I just wish it could have been more like Breaking Bad, a show that knows exactly what it’s doing and knows when to wrap things up. Can’t wait for next week’s finale!

PS: I’ll finish off with this legendary season eight promo, which was probably better than the entire season put together.