Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather Jr has finally set up the biggest fight in boxing history. But is his bout with Manny Pacquiao for glory – or business? Kevin Mitchell reports for ShortList
Floyd Mayweather Jr is more than just a phenomenal fighter; he is a phenomenon who fights. He is a mass of contradictions, the super-rich ghetto kid who struggles to take the discipline he has learned in the ring into his private life, which always hovers on the edge of anarchy.
The 38-year-old five-division world champion is not just an unbeaten, maturing genius who compares himself favourably with Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard. He is a bling-addicted duke of his manor, worth an estimated $400m, who owns three Bugattis, three Ferraris, a Lamborghini, a Porsche (total value: $7.3m) and a private jet.
He lives alone in a luxurious Las Vegas man-cave where acolytes flock to applaud him.
“When I was growing up,” he said once, “seven of us lived in one bedroom. I got a closet now that’s bigger than that bedroom was.”
Yet he trains in the desert capital’s lowly Chinatown in a hardcore gym packed with the city’s boxing faces. He is the highest-earning athlete in the world but is not garlanded with endorsements – “I sponsor myself,” he says. He is the marquee name in a sport perennially fighting for mainstream acceptance, his wealth deriving from boxing’s internal cash-creating mechanism, a closed world where the powerful are unimaginably rich and the masses permanently disillusioned.
Where Mayweather differs from every boxer who has gone before him, however, is his total control of his career and his sport. He is the most powerful individual in the fight game, in much the same way that Tiger Woods, until his decline, was bigger than golf.
Mayweather is also paranoid about losing his unbeaten record, his ‘0’, which underpins his self-worth. So gripped is he by the fear of joining the beaten herd he has extended the negotiations for his upcoming fight with Manny Pacquiao to the point where he calculates the 36-year-old Filipino’s skills have faded enough to make for a less dangerous night than it might have been six years ago, when the fight was first mooted.
We will discover at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Mayweather’s hometown on 2 May if the smartest fighter in boxing has guessed right. It is this uncertainty, as much as the pedigree and titles of two exceptional welterweights, that gives the event an edge.
Above all, this is a showbusiness superfight that is more about Mayweather than Pacquiao, who grew up in even more grinding poverty in the Philippines and is happy to get his shot, given he has a multimillion-dollar tax bill to address. The American, meanwhile, has his fingerprints all over the promotion. If he didn’t want the fight, it wouldn’t happen, as Pacquiao’s trainer, Freddie Roach, concedes. In making one demand after another – from Olympic-style drug-testing to the bigger slice of a pot estimated to be worth $300m – Mayweather has, since 2009, frustrated his opponent, boxing fans around the world and the TV execs of HBO and Showtime, who will pool their resources and briefly set aside their own rivalry to show the most lucrative fight in boxing’s history.
Paradoxically, the hugely anticipated collision of two fighters from impoverished backgrounds will take place in front of an audience of mainly rich and famous celebrities capable of paying as much as $100,000 for a ringside seat. On a specially designed, one-off pay-per-view channel, fans at home will spend $100 or more for the privilege of saying they witnessed a slice of boxing history. And it’s possible the fight could be a disappointment: Mayweather running, Pacquiao chasing and nothing conclusive decided after 12 rounds.
How did this curious state of affairs come about? Why did they not meet when they were both at, or near, their peaks in 2009 or 2010? If the answer has to be reduced to one call, it would be Mayweather’s stubbornness.
What he enjoys almost as much as ‘Money’ – his enduring nickname – is control. His desire to be in charge of even the most minor financial or logistical detail of his fights is at the root of the serial delays to the most anticipated contest since Leonard out-ran and outpointed Marvin Hagler at Caesars Palace in 1987.
Mayweather even gets revenue from the fight-week ads on the ‘Do Not Disturb’ signs on the bedroom doors of the MGM Grand. He has veto on the pre-fight promotional film. He will probably say which celebrities sit ringside.
Yet, as much as he is a control freak, he cannot disguise his vulnerability. His troubled upbringing has informed his development. Floyd is the son of Floyd Sr and part of boxing’s most infamous dynasty, but was given his mother’s maiden name, Sinclair, at birth in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He saw drugs and violence growing up, most infamously when his mother’s brother shot his father in the leg, while Floyd Sr held young Floyd in his arms.
When his one-time friend and partner, 50 Cent, questioned his literacy skills last year and challenged him to read a page of Harry Potter for a $750,000 donation to charity, Mayweather replied by boasting about his wealth, his eternal refuge, saying, “I’d be perfect at reading if it was how I had to feed my family.”
He added: “Our company... we have been donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to different organisations for years without getting credit.” Knockout. He told the author Thomas Hauser years ago: “Some people say I’m an asshole, but I don’t hurt nobody. I got a heart. God must love me, because look where I’m at.”
Box office hit
Yet Mayweather does not respond kindly to even mild criticism. I recall one tetchy exchange with him, a week before his rematch with the Argentinian Marcos Maidana last September. Given his assertion that he deserved to be regarded as The Best Ever (prominent now in his TBE marketing), I wondered if he did not envy the likes of Hagler, Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran, whose legacy has long been guaranteed because of their willingness to test themselves against each other, creating a rivalry that celebrates them still as the Four Kings. As with the famous shoulder roll that has dodged a thousand dangerous missiles in the ring, Mayweather proved elusive. “There is a total difference,” he said. “I make A-level and B-level fighters look ordinary. I take my hat off to all those guys. They paved the way for me to be where I’m at. All those guys were remarkable fighters and I respect them.”
His celebrity-packed life is dramatic, glamorous and chaotic. In December, the rapper Earl Hayes killed himself and his wife Stephanie Moseley shortly after saying goodbye on FaceTime to Floyd, who apparently tried to talk him out of it. Mostly, the famous flock to him, including Justin Bieber (who has carried his belts to the ring), Lil Wayne and a string of rappers, as well as some unlikely friends. When the 84-year-old philanthropist Warren Buffett (worth $73bn, according to Forbes) dropped into his gym, Mayweather said, “We talked about how we could turn $100m of my assets to $1bn. Mr Warren Buffett is just one of my billionaire buddies.”
Mayweather is as complicated to understand outside the ring as inside it. He can be immensely generous, supporting charities for homeless and underprivileged people in Las Vegas. There are a lot of poor people away from the bright lights who worship him.
All that aside, what defines Mayweather as an athlete is his inherited and crafted talent to punch people in the head while avoiding the best efforts of all 47 opponents so far to reciprocate. He thinks he is unbeatable. Others are not so sure.
Skip Bayless and Stephen A Smith have a double act on ESPN where they pronounce with certainty on every sport from basketball to boxing. Bayless declared recently: “There is only one reason I would pick Floyd Mayweather Jr to win this fight, and that would be if you told me he was wealthy enough to afford a hot-tub time machine to take him back 10 years to age 27 [actually 28].”
In fact, Floyd 10 years ago had yet to meet the opponents against whom he would define his greatness: Arturo Gatti, Zab Judah and Oscar De La Hoya. In 2005, he was a different fighter altogether, tiring of the grind and ready to quit the sport. He contemplated retirement, fighting just once in more than a year before returning to beat De La Hoya, knocking down Ricky Hatton in 2007, then disappearing again for nearly two years. In 2015, Mayweather is a more complete, if careworn, practitioner.
He began training for Pacquiao on Tuesday 3 March, a week after his 38th birthday, and looked in amazing shape. Pacquiao, who had been tuning up in the Philippines, arrived in Los Angeles at the start of that week to hook up with Roach at his Wild Card gym in Hollywood. He, too, was primed.
Roach was in no doubt about who would win when we spoke before Christmas. “I’m convinced [Mayweather’s] legs are shot. Great fighters in later years often go to the ropes as they slow down, but he got into trouble there [in the Maidana fight].” Roach added recently: “The guy’s all done. He says he’s better than Sugar Ray Robinson, because [Ray] lost fights. Does anyone really think that? Not real fight people, no.”
De La Hoya has had the best view of both fighters, having dropped a split decision against Mayweather and being forced to quit after eight rounds against Pacquiao in 2008, his final fight. “It’s going to be such a great fight because of their styles,” said the head of Golden Boy Promotions. “Pacquiao is going to force the fight. It’s a matter of if Pacquiao can cut the ring off and connect.”
As for the finances, Pacquiao’s promoter Bob Arum has to hold his nose when dealing with Mayweather, who paid him $750,000 to extricate himself from their mired promotional contract in 2006 after nearly a decade together. However, he acknowledged who was the draw when cornered for a comment on ESPN’s Friday Night Fights: “I think the [money] to distribute will be $300m, 60 per cent for Mayweather and 40 per cent for Pacquiao. I’ve been offered top ringside seats for $100,000, I mean that seems to me to be crazy.”
Arum predicted the fight would smash the pay-per-view record of 2.45 million buys (Mayweather vs De La Hoya), possibly going as high as five million. If they get greedy (or greedier), the PPV ask of customers around the world could reach $100. As the Americans say, do the math on that one.
Yet, even as the suits were nearing closure, the bickering continued. In January, Mayweather told a hip-hop DJ friend on radio: “I’ve been saying this for a long time, Pacquiao has no say because he fights for [Arum’s] Top Rank. He’s not in a position to call the shots. He’s not the A-side. I have Mayweather Promotions, it’s my company. I don’t want to point the finger at Pacquiao. It’s not him, it’s his promoter.”
Publicly, it seemed Pacquiao’s association with Arum was the last hurdle. Yet Arum – who once compared Mayweather to Nazi propaganda puppeteer Joseph Goebbels – was quoted as saying: “I’ve never had a problem with Floyd. A lot of people made an issue of this great feud that Floyd and I had with each other, but that wasn’t the case.”
Sealing the deal
It was a chance meeting between the fighters at a basketball game that sealed the deal. As Stephen Espinoza, executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports (with whom Mayweather has two bouts left of a six-fight deal), said in an international conference call the day after they signed: “The meeting between Floyd and Manny at the Miami Heat game [on 27 January] greased the wheels in getting through the final stages of the process. It certainly wouldn’t have happened that quickly... It possibly wouldn’t have happened at all.”
Espinoza’s HBO counterpart, Ken Hershman (who once worked for Showtime), agreed. “It’s a credit to Floyd and to Manny that they pushed their respective teams and networks to get this done,” he said. Nevertheless, at the time of writing, there were some important loose ends to resolve.
In the UK, Sky is strong favourite to pick up the rights ahead of BT, BoxNation, ITV and Channel 5. But would Michael Buffer of HBO, or Showtime’s Jimmy Lennon Jr (or both), introduce the fighters in the ring? What will the PPV ask finally be? There is no rematch clause, but would they do it all again if it turns out to be a classic fight?
“If it’s something the fans want,” Espinoza said, “and it’s something the fighters want, the networks will find a way to make it happen.”
After six years of waiting, so many questions linger. But the biggest is: who wins on 2 May? Having watched both fighters for nearly two decades, all I can say this far from the big night is, if it’s close, start saving for a September rematch.
Kevin Mitchell is the boxing correspondent for The Guardian and The Observer, @kevinmitchell50
(Images: PA/Getty/Mayweather Boxing Club/Twitter)