Before Floyd Mayweather’s seismic showdown with Manny Pacquiao on May 2, Tris Dixon – author of a forthcoming Mayweather biography – gets behind the personae of the world’s highest-paid athlete.
The name Floyd Mayweather Jr conjures different things to different people. Joe Public sees the fast cars, dapper suits, private jets and briefcases of cash. Fight connoisseurs see a quite brilliant talent, one of the best of his era, who has sublime skills, superb defensive qualities and a long, glossy undefeated record.
Then there’s the braggart, the controversial and boastful egomaniac as presented to audiences through behind-the-scenes TV shows such as 24/7 and All Access – programmes that Mayweather has a significant say about his portrayal in.
There is also an underrated persona to factor into the equation: Mayweather the businessman. He knows what sells and he knows how to sell himself.
He has created a character, content to play the bad guy to any opponent’s good, safe in the knowledge that his yin and their yang can create a potent box-office force. All the while, or in recent years at least, the spectre of the biggest rival of his near two-decade professional career has loomed large, in some respects ominously.
With Filipino icon Manny Pacquiao in the opposite corner from him inside the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on May 2 – in a fight the boxing world begged, cried and cheered for over the past five years – the Mayweather myth could grow even larger. Or the bubble might finally burst.
A world champion from super-featherweight to light-middleweight, a dominant force in the brutal science, Mayweather has crossed into the mainstream via social media, as well as appearances on shows such as Dancing with the Stars and WWE programming. There’s also the high-profile celebrity friends, from Kobe Bryant to Justin Bieber and just about every A-lister in between.
Whichever persona you see first, make no mistake that there, beneath everything – including the perfect record – is a man. Just a man. He has his weaknesses. There are multiple chinks in the Mayweather facade. First, he’s an ex-con.
"Boxing is real easy," he once said. "Life is much harder." His potential to earn mega-millions, however, saw judges allow him to delay a prison sentence for domestic violence – not the first blotch on a very imperfect record – so he could fight Miguel Cotto in a Las Vegas money-spinner. City officials pleaded to the authorities that Vegas, struggling in a double-dip recession, needed the injection of finance that Mayweather-Cotto would – and did – bring.
But while Sin City was on the ropes, Mayweather’s income boomed. Routinely, annually dubbed the world’s richest athlete, the Vegas resident signed a groundbreaking deal with Showtime after jumping ship from HBO in February 2013. The competitor TV networks have combined to make Mayweather-Pacquiao happen, the same way they conspired to join forces and rake it in when a veteran Lennox Lewis teed off on a shopworn Mike Tyson in 2002.
It’s back in Vegas, too, where the lure of big-time betting regularly entices Mayweather to the sportsbook – or at least a place where he will send a flunky with rolls of cash. He’s a gambler, winning and losing millions on football and basketball games. He doesn’t bet on boxing. Nor does he bet on himself.
Cynics might argue that’s why he did not fight Shane Mosley in his prime, why he fought Juan Manuel Marquez at a heavier weight than the Mexican was comfortable at, and why he never fought Paul Williams or Antonio Margarito when he was being accused of ducking the gangly southpaw punching machine and the Hispanic firebrand respectively.
The gambling can be traced back 20 years to 1996, when Mayweather was part of the US Olympic team for the Atlanta Games. He won a bronze medal, losing to Serafim Todorov in a close one during a championships that saw the USA do well without quite repeating their astonishing success of the 1976 or 1984 Games.
Mayweather was convinced he was robbed. Others agreed.
That is often the case, but the team’s boxing coach, Al Mitchell, remembers assembling a bunch of mean kids from ghettos across North America, eventually turning them into a cohesive unit. He did that by rewarding and punishing them as a team. Sometimes the squad was reprimanded for gambling. On one occasion, Mitchell confiscated all of the money that was up for grabs and went and bought flowers for the fighters’ dorms.
The inclination to part with his money has always been there for Mayweather. It’s just he has far more to be separated from these days.
That Showtime TV deal was worth $200m, for starters. By the time the cash registers stop ringing with joy for the Pacquiao fight, he might earn that for just this one bout.
It’s hard not to keep reverting back to money. But beneath the green paper surface, beneath the diamond-encrusted apparel and behind the $25,000 mouthpiece he is going to wear on May 2 is not just a man, but a fighter. He calls himself TBE: The Best Ever. That’s quite a claim when the sport has spawned the likes of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson.
Whether he believes it or not is another matter. Plenty contend that a fight between the now 38-year-old American and the 36-year-old ‘Pacman’ will register only with an asterisk beside it, because both have declined since their peak more than half a decade ago. Mayweather, shaken by Shane Mosley back in 2010, was also rocked by crude Argentine Marcos Maidana in his previous fight after toiling through their first encounter. Meanwhile Pacquiao, who has not knocked out an opponent since Miguel Cotto in 2009, was ironed out by the aforementioned Marquez in their fourth battle and then outscored, albeit dubiously, by Timothy Bradley in a defeat he has since avenged.
Maybe Floyd simply wants to prove the naysayers wrong. A competitive fire has long burned within. Old amateur rival Augie Sanchez and he were friends until Mayweather moved up to his weight in the unpaid ranks and promptly stopped speaking to him. They were only teenagers.
USA teammate Nate Jones, who now wears the bodybelt for Mayweather in training camp, thought he was close to Floyd. Yet when he was selected for the national A-string and Mayweather made only the B-squad, Floyd stopped talking to him, too – even though they weren’t even in the same weight division.
Behind it all – the money, stardom, fame and this huge showdown on May 2, which will decimate every pay-per-view record combat sports has ever known – is Mayweather’s need to prove himself. Why? Maybe he wants to show the fans. Maybe he wants to prove something to himself. Perhaps, after everything, he wants to prove to his father, Floyd Mayweather Sr, that he has fulfilled his potential.
The Mayweather family has long been boxing’s equivalent to The Jerry Springer Show and the two Floyds have fallen out and patched up more times than anybody cares to remember. Father now trains son. Once again.
But when the youngster was barely a year old, Floyd Sr used his boy as a human shield when the baby’s uncle (on his mother’s side) came seeking retribution after a fall-out. He hoisted Floyd Jr into the gunsights, forcing the assailant to lower his sights and shoot Senior in the leg instead. What was left of his own fizzling career is not worth the ink. But, over the next several years, before he was banged up on drugs charges, Senior cloned young Floyd into a fighting wizard. He programmed perfection. He wanted his son to be the best, and Floyd Sr used tough love.
Floyd’s childhood was brutal. His mother was a drug addict, his father was a loose cannon, his uncles Roger and Jeff were both fighters and he eventually stayed with his grandmother, a cleaner who worked all hours.
“When people see what I have now, they have no idea of where I came from and how I didn’t have anything growing up,” he said. The one constant was boxing, and the standards set for him were impossibly high. He had gloves on before he could walk. He was stood on milk crates so he could use the speedbag. He was not just a child prodigy, but a boy who constantly fought for his father’s attention.
So now, behind the man, behind the fighter, is a hard, diligent trainer. That work ethic still exists today. He’s almost peerless in that regard. He spars lengthened rounds. He runs through the night. His sessions last for hours. He aims to satisfy.
Who does this skilful enigma please? Cynics would say only himself. Others might point to his father. He says he does what he does for the fans. Not many buy into that, but they all pay to watch him. One way or another, it’s all about ‘Money’, regardless of the face you see when you look at Floyd Mayweather.