How I Learned to Stop Hating and Admit Floyd Mayweather's a Boxing Revolutionary

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterAugust 23, 2017

FILE - In this May 2, 2015, file photo, boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr., celebrates his unanimous decision victory over Manny Pacquiao, from the Philippines, after their welterweight title fight in Las Vegas. Plaintiffs who claim the May 2 Las Vegas fight between Manny Pacquiao and Mayweather Jr. was a fraud and they deserve their pay-per-view money back will argue their cases in front of a federal judge in Southern California. Judge R. Gary Klausner, the same judge hearing arguments in cases filed against the Sony movie studios related to that company’s computer hacker attack last year, will decide if the Pacquiao cases are granted class action status before any trial proceeds. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)
John Locher/Associated Press

Floyd Mayweather is really rich. You may have heard that already. Probably from him. 

Money, for the famously undefeated boxer, is not just something he makes—it's a lifestyle, nickname and friend. It travels with him in huge bricks, sometimes in a duffel bag, sometimes laid out in front of him on a private plane, his ever-present raison d'etre.

But, as he waits in the green room for an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, finally getting an opportunity to answer my inquiries, Mayweather doesn't seem particularly keen on discussing his taxes, investments or vast wealth. How much money is Floyd Mayweather worth? How many properties around the country does he own?

"It’s a lot," he tells Bleacher Report. "... It is all about diversifying yourself and seeing an opportunity when it comes across your desk. I get a ton of offers to invest in various entities and pick the opportunities I am comfortable with and see future potential with."

His hesitance to go into detail is OK with me. Because Floyd Mayweather isn't just some rich guy jetting around the world doing rich guy things. Mayweather, at 40, remains the most polarizing figure in sports.

"There are those who don't like his persona and consider him a villain and want him to lose," Showtime Sports executive vice president Stephen Espinoza says. "There's a part of the audience that wants to see success and hubris collapse upon itself. 

"Others love him. This is a guy who has flaws like all of us do. But he took himself from the humblest of beginnings to record-breaking wealth. In less than one generation. And without the help of a major sponsor. He's a relatively small, African-American boxer who doesn't knock people out. The fact that, without any corporate support, he has generated the amount of wealth he has, is remarkable."

Going into his fight Saturday against UFC star Conor McGregor, he's staked his reputation on perfection. His prizefighting record stands at 49-0. One more victory will leave him alone on the mountaintop, above even the great Rocky Marciano for all eternity. When the bout is over, promoter Leonard Ellerbe tells me, his career earnings will exceed $1 billion.

This success, and his unyielding desire to tell you all about it, hasn't made Mayweather beloved. In fact, the popular consensus is that he's a boring fighter, a runner. A criminal and a coward

"I don’t have time for negative people or thoughts in my life," he says. "I will continue to enjoy my success and live the way I want to. I wish everyone the best in what they have and do with it too."

There are dueling narratives competing to tell Mayweather's tale. In one, he's TBE. The best ever. Yes, that includes Muhammad Ali. Yes, that includes "Sugar" Ray Robinson. If anyone reading is old enough to care, yes, that includes Joe Louis, too. 

Others proclaim him a carefully manufactured myth, a good fighter, sure, but nothing special when judged against historical peers. 

Which is true?

The latter seems to be winning the war in the public's consciousness. But is it fair? Are we critical of Mayweather by rote, accepting a story that is, in the parlance of our times, little more than fake news? 

Who is Floyd Mayweather? How did he, a small, unlikable African-American stylist in a sport increasingly dominated by ethnic heroes and knockout artists, become the biggest star in the game? How did we find ourselves here, on the eve of a bout many consider little better than spectacle and far from the hallowed days of our youths, when, in our hoary memories at least, this all meant something? 

That's five question marks in a row with nary an answer. Perhaps then, this is an issue that requires more robust study. On the eve of his final bout, let's look back at every Mayweather fight, from first to last, with fresh eyes, discovering the truth, if such a thing exists, in the process. 

Boxing promoters lie. In many ways, it's central to the profession. They lie to fighters, to television executives, to each other and, ultimately, to themselves.

Most often, the public is their willing patsy. We know they score lower than "used car salesman" or "congressman" on any metric of integrity. We fall for them anyway, trudging into the trenches again and again to have our hearts broken. 

See that lumpy former college football lineman? Totally the next Tyson. This kid over here with passable speed? He's the next Willie Pep.

Boxing promoters lie. But sometimes, whether an accident of the universe or an intentional glimpse behind the curtain, a truth escapes into this world, slipping out of the torrent of never-ending hokum and inanity, waiting to be discovered.

Mayweather and Arum in happier times.
Mayweather and Arum in happier times.JAE C. HONG/Associated Press

Which was true when promoter Bob Arum called Mayweather "the successor in a line that starts with Ray Robinson, goes to Muhammad Ali, then Sugar Ray Leonard" after a 1998 fight? It's hard to say. On the one hand, Mayweather was less than two years into his pro career. On the other, he had dispatched respected super featherweight champion Genaro Hernandez in just eight rounds.

It was clear, whether he was the next Leonard or not, that Mayweather was on track to become something special.

"He was praised as a likely savant early on because he was lightning quick and had great hands," boxing historian Patrick Connor says. "Many recognized that kind of precognitive ability to defend and counter. And as it became more clear that we had an actual great fighter on our hands and not just some guy saying he was great, more scrutiny came with that."

Watching Mayweather's career, especially in his formative years, is a revelation. Today's Mayweather, so cool and calculating, can be seen only in glimpses. Instead, an apex predator lurked in the ring, diving in with left hooks and straight right hands, willing to exchange when reward outweighed risk.

In the first defense of his title, he faced down Angel Manfredy, who walked to the ring carrying a devil mask and accompanied by Kid Rock. He walked out with only shreds of his pride. Manfredy was supposed to provide a stern test. Instead, in a bubble tent set up in the parking lot of a Native American casino in Miami, he provided an object lesson—speed kills.

"At 130-135 pounds he was wrecking shop and seemed able to hurt most opponents," Connor says. "That changed as he moved up, and especially at welterweight. The jump from 140 to 147 has always been considered a huge one, historically. And when the welterweight division is thick, even more so."

In the ring, he made even the toughest bouts look comically easy. Against "Goyo" Vargas, a former featherweight title holder, he even took time out to correct HBO play-by-play man Jim Lampley as he claimed Floyd had switched to southpaw for the second time in the fight.

"Third time," Mayweather, who happened to be in the corner near the announce team, replied.

"Thanks for the correction," a bemused Lampley replied.

That fight, cakewalk that it was, is a turning point in Mayweather's career. He injured his hands in the bout, a problem that would plague him throughout his career. By the time Mayweather made the move to 140 pounds and above, he was a different fighter. 

"His bad hands likely played a part. How much isn't clear," Connor says. "But I also think, as Floyd understood that keeping his 0 intact became important to how he sold himself, adopting a style that protected that even more was likely an attractive option for him."

To an opponent looking to do him harm, modern Mayweather is little more than a mirage, a wisp of smoke so delicate that he dissipates as punches move nothing but the air around him. Lots of pro boxers play defense with their feet, turning a 36-minute bout into a half-marathon. Mayweather, especially as a young man, could play that game with the best of them.

But, despite his reputation, he's rarely been that kind of fighter. He doesn't have to be. And, perhaps, that disdain hurts his foes even more than losing—he's so overwhelmingly confident, so in control of a boxing ring, that he doesn't even do them the courtesy of running. 

He stands right in the pocket, or even back against the ropes, still as a statue, all but begging to be demolished. In theory, this gives his opponent a chance.  But in reality, as HBO commentator Larry Merchant pointed out during the Vargas fight, "they have Mayweather right where he wants them."

Once there, finally free to unleash their pent-up fury, they find Mayweather has disappeared. What makes it a magic trick is that his body rarely moves at all. He's there somewhere behind a barrage of forearms, shoulders and endless right hands, mind racing, eyes darting, processing information at a faster rate than anyone else in the sport.

Mayweather is cable internet, his foes a squawking dial-up connection still trying to connect while Floyd is already in motion.

What makes him great is incremental. He never flails out of the way in panic mode, no matter how dark the heart of the man standing in front of him, quarters so tight that he can feel each breath that escapes his opponent's body.

He moves his head exactly as much as he needs to for a punch to miss, remaining close and composed enough to strike back, right hand darting out like the tongue of a snake, retracting before anyone ever knows he's moved at all. 

You can watch in slow motion as the great Miguel Cotto comes a centimeter from a devastating, fight-changing blow, only to fail miserably and pay a stiff price. Witness Phillip N'dou throw six, eight, 10 punches in vain, Mayweather watching each subtle change in body position and reacting accordingly, there to be hit but not.

These moments, over 49 fights and two decades, are nearly endless. Over and over again, we've seen him take the best fighters in the world, from the swaggering puncher Diego Corrales to the quietly confident Juan Manuel Marquez, and make them look human. Hall of Famers, men like Arturo Gatti, appear helpless before his superior, well, everything.

Even then, Mayweather is rarely satisfied. The great ones never are.

"I don't even watch the fights because it's hard for me to watch," he told reporters on a conference call last week. "It could be any of my top fights that people say that they love the most, but I say I could've been better. I could have done that better because I'm critical of myself and I feel like there's never been enough. When I go out there and compete, I could've done something better, I could've been better. So, it's good to not even watch it."

Somehow, because we never know what we've got until it's gone, this routine excellence has become predictable and even a little dull.

Boxing is an ugly business. Calling it the sweet science seems a particularly cruel joke. Most fighters leave the ring without even the pretense of hope for a bright future. Those few who manage to walk away with pockets bulging don't tend to hold on to it for long.

No one expects a happy ending.

Inside the ring, too, boxing is a brutal enterprise. It's mostly an endless grind of punching the air, punching a bag and, finally, punching another man. Most fights, too, are a repetitive slog, forward and backward shuffling occasionally interrupted by a punch or two. The best-case scenario, for the spectator at least, is two men foolishly risking their long-term health to prove a point to the other fighter or, more likely, to themselves.

Beauty, true beauty, is rare. Against this stark, grim landscape, it's almost off-putting and unwelcome. And few have been more beautiful in the ring than Mayweather. His is an artistry unmatched in this era, an ability to judge distance, time and geometry and then make the right decision in the amount of time it takes most people to even register a punch has been thrown. 

"I don't think that I'm the same Floyd Mayweather that I was 10 years ago," he says. "I'm not even the same Floyd Mayweather that I was five or two years ago. But I still said that I still have a high IQ in that ring. And I said experience-wise, it leans towards me, just period. 

"Most times when I go out there and compete against any fighter, experience will always lean towards me because I've been in the ring and been at such a high level for so long."

Mayweather is often accused of being a defensive fighter, boxing's original sin. Sure, we give lip service to the idea that the point of the sport is to "hit without being hit." But no one truly believes it. 

In his first reign as champion, Muhammad Ali was fast as a hiccup, capable of shutting down opponents with disturbing ease, talking to them the whole time. 

No one loved him for it.

Only after time revealed him to be human, after sacrificing his body in endless battles of attrition, did the public truly come to admire him. 

Mayweather never made that concession to boxing fans. He never had to. Hiding in his defensive shell, left arm carefully covering his belly, right hand protecting his chin from a left hook, shoulder and preternatural reflexes there to guard against anything else that might come his way, Mayweather fights only when he wants to. He'll poke his head out to throw a speedy right hand, then retreat back inside to do it again and again.

Truly gifted defensive fighters rarely sit the throne in the sport of boxing. Sure, they are appreciated by hardcore fans, the kind who make lists dating back a century, then argue about them on the internet. But their bouts take place either on the undercard of true stars or in front of a sprinkling of fans on cable television when they venture out on their own.

That was true of Mayweather, too. It wasn't, however, a fate he was willing to accept. He knew more was possible, that crossover attempts with the hip-hop community were poorly executed and conceived. He knew he could be the biggest star in the sport if just given the chance. 

"I always believed in my abilities and knew I was going to be able to have substantial financial success in the sport," Mayweather says. "I just felt that in order to do that I had to take matters into my own hands. The whole time, and in the early stage of my career, I started and stayed paying attention to what they were doing and how they were doing it. I knew with the right people around me, like Al Haymon as an adviser, I would be able to do it myself."

Almost no one else believed in him. HBO offered a deal he called a "slave contract." He feuded with promoters, partners and even his own family. Something better, he knew, was out there for him. He was intent on finding it, even if he had to make the journey by himself.

In 2006, Mayweather bought Arum out and went it alone. 

"He bet on himself early," Espinoza says. "There aren't many guys, at that stage of his career, who would write a check to a promoter for $750,000. With nothing waiting on the other side. He essentially bought his freedom, with the confidence that there were not just greener pastures waiting for him, but enough opportunities to recoup that $750,000 many, many times over."

It wasn't, however, his work in the ring that made Mayweather boxing's top attraction overnight. He was distinctly the B-side in both the Oscar De La Hoya fight and his next bout with English sensation Ricky Hatton. It was his willingness to embrace change and reinvent boxing promotion for a new generation that earned him a seat at the table as seven-figure paydays turned to eight and then nine-figure events.

"What Floyd and his partner Al Haymon recognized early on, was that there was a tremendous opportunity if they could set up a business model that did not rely on a promoter as a sort of middleman," Espinoza says. "So, rather than the typical boxing model, which has the promoter at the center, taking in all the revenue, paying the fighters and making a hefty profit for himself, Floyd's business model put himself at the center. He collects all the revenues and hires a promoter, paying him a portion of the proceeds. But he remains the master of his domain.

"Floyd doesn't have to negotiate with anybody what share of the proceeds he's getting. He knows that, whatever is left after expenses and after the opponent is paid, is all his. There's no split with a promoter. That put him ahead of the game and allowed him to control his own destiny and his revenue streams." 

Mayweather wasn't just next in a long line of stars. He was the first of his kind, building on the framework De Le Hoya had created when he went into business for himself at the tail end of his career and formed Golden Boy Promotions. Mayweather took that template even further, becoming more than a fighter—he was a budding mogul, both salesman and product, an industry unto himself.

The first time Floyd Mayweather spoke into the camera on HBO's 24/7, the message was simple and stark.

"Look me in the eyes, Oscar. Look me in my eye. I'm going to kick your ass."

Ten years later, it seems almost trite—the flashy bravado, the money thrown at the camera, the fast cars and lavish lifestyle paraded out for a generation of budding retail addicts looking for a fleeting thrill.

At the time, no one had seen anything like it. Mayweather took fans behind the scenes into his life, both the bright and shiny exhibitions of excess and the dark corners where family business was laid bare and insecurities came scuttling to the surface and into the slightest sliver of light.

"I was sitting around one day and it came to me that why not show the fans the whole picture of my life, in and outside the boxing ring," Mayweather says. "It brought the fans closer to boxing’s own version of reality television and I was the star. Why not give them something different, something they could feel they were part of? That is what we did back then and still doing it with Showtime All Access now."

It was magical television.

"Success has many fathers," Espinoza says. "When the book is written on Floyd's career, I'm sure many will claim part of the credit. But, ultimately, Floyd created Floyd and Floyd built Floyd through his connection with the audience. He was willing to embrace the villain character, the 'Money' character. Which isn't necessarily a character—it's a version of himself. He was the perfect personality to come along with the rise of social media. And he took advantage of it like no other.

"The blueprint was created by Floyd. His intuitive sense of the market and the audience is uncanny. He doesn't talk in terms of things like brands, branding and being authentic. He doesn't throw around buzzwords. But if you look at what he's done in establishing this persona, he's a genius. It comes naturally and intuitively without anyone having taught him about handling the media and marketing. Those are just things he understands intuitively."

Strangely, the more Mayweather revealed, the more opaque he seemed. He allowed a glimpse—but the real man also seemed just beyond reach, shadowed no matter how bright the lights. Mayweather has a pretty smile and an easy laugh. His eyes, too often, tell another story, though, one that reflects his hard-knock early life. Floyd may flash a smile, but danger lurks there just beneath the surface. 

All of this keeps it interesting, text and subtext colliding, hours of reality television creating a fascinating portrait of a man. It's why, against all odds, he's become the biggest attraction in all of athletics.

Where does all this leave us? Likely right back where we started.  

Critics, like Deadspin's Charles Farrell, will never be satisfied, yearning for a different time and place when boxing was a different animal and it didn't take more than 20 years to amass 50 fights:

"Floyd Mayweather, Jr. is an unembellished fighter who, these days, knocks no one out. His unprecedented market value comes more from his mouth than from his fists; his slogan of 'the best ever' can gain currency only with an audience that didn't come up seeing legitimately great fighters, and doesn't quite have the critical thinking needed to assess greatness. Floyd has hammered home his point about being undefeated so relentlessly that boxing fans have bought it. Being undefeated for nearly 19 years must make him the greatest fighter ever. Or at least one of the top two or three."

True believers will go right on believing, holding firm to the notion that even a victory against a fighter without a single professional bout is one for the ages. There is no bridging this gap. 

On Sunday morning, the Mayweather era will be over, but the conversation will never be finished. That, more than anything else, is a sign Mayweather was one for the ages—when discussing the greats, you have to reckon with his legacy. He matters. And that is enough.


Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.


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