One of the most expensive pieces of cloth on Earth right now spent the week stuffed in a small box inside the production office at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The box itself is small, only two feet by two feet, and the cloth inside is not made of silk or soft fabrics. Inside the box is a rugged square of canvas, covered in fresh paint. It will be used as the ring mat for tonight’s fight between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, a long-awaited bout expected to be the most lucrative in boxing history, generating over $300 million in revenue.
The canvas is the backdrop for the fight, and sponsors have paid $12 million to have their names on it. That’s roughly 40 times what advertisers typically pay to have their logos on the ring canvas, but despite the incredible price tag, the pay for the man who paints the cloth is the same.
Colin McRae doesn’t care how big the fight is or which fighters are trading punches on top of his work. Most important is that sponsors give him the correct logos to use, in the appropriate formats, and that he and a team he works with out of a nondescript shop in Las Vegas have enough time to paint the logos and get the canvas to the arena before the fight, and that the paint on them has enough time to dry (if it doesn’t it might bleed, or the boxers might slip on the logos). But because boxing promoters often wait to the last minute to haggle for the best price from sponsors, ring mat painters like McRae are used to the constant rush of changing, last-minute decisions from promoters on artwork and placement. As of late Wednesday night this week, McRae had yet to receive the final decision on which logos would be where on the canvas. While Tecate is the main beer sponsor of the event, outbidding rival Corona — reportedly shelling out more than $5 million for the honor — there are other sponsors, too, bidding for their place in history.
McRae, a soft-spoken artist with stubble on his cheeks and a poof of hair under his lip, was not worried that not a drop of paint had gone onto the canvas with only two days before the main event.
“This is normal,” he said, inspecting the cloth coverings on the ring ropes and buckles, and the ring apron, which he and his team would also be painting.
McRae never imagined the canvases he’d be painting would be stretched on boxing rings. Raised in a remote town in Montana, he was drawn to painting Western scenes like ranchers playing poker and cowboys roping steers. He lived in the mountains there and struggled to make a living. Eventually, he found himself at Dyess Air Force Base, doing the awful task of polishing cement there. A friend invited him to Las Vegas, and he found work doing sign work and designs at the Hilton.
His break in boxing came two decades ago. Don King was in town, promoting a boxing show at the Hilton, and in desperate need of a ring canvas and someone to paint. McRae was tapped, and over the years King gave him a nickname: “Picasso.”
For three decades, McRae has handled every boxing mess there is. He’s spent so much time on his knees that he now has two new ones, made from titanium. He’s spent the nights in arenas, painting canvas before the fights the next day. He’s painted and flown last-minute canvases to fights in Texas, New York, and Mexico. He doesn’t like to talk about his work. He doesn’t want to reveal any trade secrets. He also prefers the anonymity, and there’s not time to talk much. He has two other canvases to paint this weekend.