Rewatching old episodes of HBO's now legendary 24/7 reality series, it's hard to imagine that boxing fans didn't immediately take to Floyd Mayweather.
Whether rapper 50 Cent was popping up in Mayweather's Las Vegas mansion, on a Segway no less, or "Money" May was flashing the $10,000 in cash he claimed to always have in his possession, there wasn't a single moment that Mayweather didn't light up the screen.
He certainly did against Robert Guerrero at the MGM Grand on Saturday, winning a unanimous decision and dominating sports coverage from coast to coast.
Mayweather doesn't do "fights." He does events. With rapper Lil' Wayne in his corner, the pound-for-pound kingpin brought some Vegas-style glamour to the gritty world of boxing.
He always does.
When you think of boxing these days, something that happens less and less often as the sport continues a slow fade, he comes to mind. Mayweather represents a throwback to the days when boxing ruled the sports roost and Las Vegas was the arguably the destination of choice for sports fans the world over.
And yet for years, Mayweather was a disappointment at the box office. No one doubted he was an amazing boxer. His athletic pedigree, including three national Golden Gloves titles and a run in the 1996 Olympic Games, was unquestioned. But Mayweather just wasn't clicking with boxing fans.
Promoter Bob Arum saw Mayweather as the hero, a "Sugar" Ray Leonard-type figure, the archetypal technician who smiled wide for the cameras and treated opponents with respect. Arum wanted middle America and apple pie. He wanted "Pretty Boy" Floyd.
But that wasn't quite who Mayweather really was, and boxing fans have a sixth sense that catches a whiff of anything even slightly inauthentic. Mayweather wasn't ever going to be who Arum envisioned. The real Floyd was cocky, arrogant and insecure. He was hip-hop, conspicuous consumption, a man who partied as hard as he trained.
Arum wanted Isiah Thomas, smiling that fake smile, trying his best to make everyone comfortable. But Mayweather wasn't Thomas—he was boxing's Allen Iverson. He wasn't Grand Rapids, Michigan despite having grown up there. He was Las Vegas, all glitz, glitter and danger.
It was something Arum never understood. He blamed Mayweather's failures on the changing demographics of the fight game, claiming a black American couldn't make it big in the lighter weight classes where Hispanic fighters were the dominant product, both in the ring and at the gate.
"It's difficult enough to promote a non-Hispanic, nonheavyweight pay-per-view attraction," Arum told Sports Illustrated in 2000, complaining about the hip-hop influence. "But now, if he's going to keep turning people off, people will stay away."
Today, with the power of time, that sentiment seems ridiculous.
Mayweather is box office gold, one of the greatest pay-per-view attractions of all time. With a win over Guerrero in the record books, he has five fights remaining on a record-setting Showtime contract. When that contract expires, if not before, Mayweather will have likely taken his last step into a boxing ring as a professional. It's likely he will leave the game as the most successful fighter of all time, if the appropriate metric of success is based on the number of zeros on your paycheck.
Mayweather is more than just a wealthy fighter, however. His legacy is unquestioned. His skill is unsurpassed, at least in his era.
But it isn't what he's done in the ring that makes Mayweather such an influential figure in the sport. For all his skill as a defensive fighter, he's doing nothing that fighters like Pernell Whitaker haven't done before, and some would say done better.
It's outside the ring, jogging in the middle of the Las Vegas night, only neon and HBO lighting the way, that he's changed how we think about this sport. Mayweather, with his creation of the "Money" character in 24/7's inaugural season, reinvented boxing promotion for the better.
As a hero, Mayweather was nothing special. He was a great boxer, but lots of great boxers fail to maximize their earning potential.
So Mayweather sagely became the villain, a role he seemed to relish. With Al Haymon, a Harvard-educated consigliere offering wisdom he learned in the music business, Mayweather invented a new persona to help him sell himself and his fights.
"If I would have had Al Haymon from the beginning, I probably would be a billionaire right now," Mayweather told the New York Times.
"Money" Mayweather is crude, profane and often extremely funny. His family and entourage became stars in their own right, a combination of "yes" men and B-movie characters who make any Mayweather television appearance must-see TV.
Mark Taffet, an HBO senior vice president, may have coined the "Money" nickname for Floyd on a private jet as the two joined Oscar De La Hoya in an 11-city publicity tour for their 2007 fight. He told USA Today that Mayweather was larger than life, the kind of personality fans could love or hate, but not ignore:
He's got that larger-than-life personality, but it's amazing how generous he is to our camera people with the access and time he's willing to give us in the weeks leading up to the fight. That's what enables us to make the show so special. He brings the viewer into his life, his house and his training camp, and he is incredibly open and allows the viewer to get up-close and personal. As a result, a strong connection is created.
Is "Money" the real Mayweather? Many successful pro wrestlers excel when their character takes on elements of their real-life personality and then turns the volume up to 11.
"I like to bring entertainment to the sport. I don't think if I was loud talking and I wasn't backing it up—backing up all my loud talking, I wouldn't be where I'm at," Mayweather told the press before his fight with Victor Ortiz.
It's entertainment. It's fun. Just like 24/7. It's an entertainment show. If people are watching TV and all I'm doing is sitting at home and I didn't really have a story to tell or I wasn't entertaining, then they say, you know what, why is 24/7 even on TV?
Some of what you see on 24/7 and now, Showtime's All Access is undoubtedly as real as it gets. He really does spend money like it's going out of style. He really owns a fleet of all-white luxury cars and more diamonds than a Jareds. But those who know him well say the Floyd the boxing world loves to hate is not necessarily the real guy they've worked with over the years.
"The Floyd Mayweather I know is a terrific young man and comes across as very polite," Golden Boy Promotions CEO Richard Schaefer told Ring Magazine. "I just see a different person than is portrayed in the media. He is very quiet about what he does."
Slowly but surely, Mayweather is bridging the gap between the man Schaefer knows and the man television audiences watch with rapt amazement.
At 36, his reality television tomfoolery is being replaced by more scenes with family and friends. The excess is still there, but it's a more mature display of ostentatiousness. A different "Money" May would have lit into a disrespectful Robert Guerrero and his father Ruben. The new Floyd laughed it off and did his talking in the ring.
That's Las Vegas too. Beneath the glittering facades, a casino is a serious structure, all steel beams and steely-eyed commerce.
That's Floyd Mayweather too—the true heir to Las Vegas' rich boxing tradition and a bridge to the future for a sport that needs to remain young, vibrant and amazingly American.