In sports there are few more provocative figures than Floyd Mayweather Jr. Everyone with a passing interest in boxing, and many besides, has an opinion on the man. To boxing fans, he is a troublesome presence. On one hand his skills have to be respected, few boxers have ever shown such mastery of their craft, the ability to nullify dangerous, aggressive fighters, toy with them and walk away victorious. But he is no people’s champion. The praise afforded to him is often begrudging, an acknowledgement of an inconvenient but sadly undeniable fact. Floyd wins, but many onlookers wish he didn’t.
Some criticise the way he wins. He avoided the fighters who could challenge him, they say. Or else he fought the best only when he sensed some advantage, when they were past their best (Pacquiao), or yet to enter their prime (Canelo).
His more vehement critics don’t recognise skill in his style. They see cowardice. Floyd, in their view, wins fights because he doesn’t fight. “Running” is the term most frequently and disdainfully used. This viewpoint can be seen repeatedly and passionately expressed under the Youtube videos of the Mayweather v Pacquiao highlights:
“TBRE “The Best Runner Ever”
“The Mayweather “sweet science” run, duck, shove, grab, push, and last but not least have the Las Vegas judges in your back pocket. Effective.”
“mayweather is a fuckin pussy”
Floyd’s supporters often dismiss the idea that he’s afraid to fight or that he ducks opponents as casual’s talk. The bleatings of people whose boxing knowledge is built on Youtube clips of young Tyson and Rocky. People who think the sport should be a Hollywood brawl and regard a comfortable points victory as some sort of deeply shameful cop out. People who show a tragic lack of comprehension of boxing’s underpinning principle: hit and don’t get hit.
But this is an easy out. Not all Floyd’s critics are 12 year olds who believe Anthony Joshua to be the greatest heavyweight of all time. He is masterful at what he does, some are willing to concede, as they listen to commentators sing his praises. But dull nonetheless.
Perhaps Mayweather would get more benefit of the doubt if he was a different person. Perhaps his legacy wouldn’t be under constant assault by legions of detractors if he wasn’t the man he is, with the personality and the past he has.
But he is Floyd, and people, a lot of people, don’t like Floyd.
The bragging, the ostentatious flaunting of wealth, the demeaning of opponents. All of this contributes to the perception of Mayweather as an arrogant, petty man, unworthy of his position as the face of boxing or the riches it has granted him. Ali was hardly a monk, but their was always a charm behind the arrogance.
Ali’s elegies to his own greatness and put downs of rivals were legendary for their wit and humour. Mayweather’s own statements less so; “De La Hoya a ho, flat out. He gay and he a ho. Victor Ortiz a ho, too.” Ali’s baiting of Frazier is boxing and pop culture folklore. It’s hard to imagine “once I stomp the midget, I’mma make that motherfucker make me a sushi roll and cook me some rice,” as Floyd said of Pacquiao, being quoted with quite the same misty eyed nostalgia.
Insults and braggadocio are par for the course in boxing though. Most fighters have the odd regrettable outbursts. In a sport full of explosive characters, it’s often a forgivable flaw. The same can’t be said of Mayweather’s reputation for domestic abuse. To attack a woman is a pretty fatal blow to any man’s public perception. When that man is a boxing champion, one whose profession is to inflict pain and must be fully aware of his ability to do so, the level of contempt is on another level. One such incident is enough to permanently be labelled a pariah, and Floyd’s three convictions for striking women suggest some deeper issue than a momentary loss of control.
Mayweather has become a figure of hate because he offends people’s sense of justice. He represents the inverse of the “good champ;” the role model, the good and virtuous man whose success is a reflection of his character. Floyd’s antics and trash talk provoke dislike. He takes every opportunity to showcase his vast wealth. He strips boxing of its romance, the idea that it represents something deeper about humanity, that there is something profound and honourable at the heart of it. Bullshit for the most part maybe, but it is a myth that fans buy into but that Floyd denies them. Even Mayweather’s nickname, “Money,” suggests something shallow and greedy.
He is a man who has committed crimes that provoke revulsion. Yet there is no karmic justice for Floyd. In 2012 he went to prison for beating the mother of his children in front of his son. Less than a year later he was making millions and winning again. He would go on to defeat his greatest rival in the most lucrative bout of all time and retire an undefeated world champion and one of the richest sportsmen on earth. There was no great reckoning. Nothing he does to outrage public opinion seems to put any dent in his phenomenal success.
No one understands this better than Floyd does. He is the villain and he knows it. He also knows how to exploit it to stunning effect. The irony of Mayweather’s career is the more intolerable he becomes to the audience, the more anger he inspires, the more successful he becomes. Despite how widely his style is derided, how much opprobrium is heaped on his character, he remains the biggest draw in combat sports.
There is no attempt to rehabilitate his image, play the remorseful, humble, deserving champion. He does what he always does, he talks and he plays up for the cameras, with money always front of centre. The viewers seethe. And then they pay $100 dollars to watch him win again.
People want to believe justice will be restored. Each new challenger gets talked up. This guy can solve the puzzle, he’s too fast, too strong, too aggressive. This time Floyd can’t run. This time its all going to catch up with him. Finally we will get what we want, for Mayweather to lose publicly, embarrassingly and hopefully painfully.
Then the judges decisions come in and we realised we’ve been played again. Mayweather beams. He’s pulled off his trick to perfection. Another victory. He’s dangled the prize in front of us and now he’s snatched it away, only now he’s richer, thanks to our money. The bars, post fight interviews and internet forums are filled with howls of indignation. Cheat. Coward. Runner. It’s not just that Mayweather wins, it’s how easily he seems to win, how he avoids the brawls. There’s no knock outs usually, no spectacular moments, just one long drawn out accumulation of points. He’ll probably do it against McGregor too if it comes to it.
The McGregor fight is a dream for Floyd, a perfect opportunity. The rewards are huge. The risk is minimal. McGregor is a great UFC fighter, were Floyd to get in the octagon and play by the Irishman’s rules, the results could well be humiliating. But Floyd wouldn’t go near something like that. This is a boxing match, where Mayweather has spent years perfecting his skills as one of the greatest defensive boxers in history.
On paper it’s a miss match. McGregor’s fans talk up his power, say it will be too much, that he can overwhelm Floyd. But Mayweather has made a career and a killing out of diffusing dangerous punchers, men who came forward aggressively only to find they couldn’t make it count. McGregor’s power is stunning, but means nothing if he can’t land clean enough to use it. To think that McGregor can strut in to a boxing ring and knockout a man who has frustrated top level opponents for years solely by virtue of a big left hand is naive to say the least. Perhaps he is irreverent and unpredictable enough to find some answer where so many others have failed, it’s not impossible. But the odds are stacked against him. On top of that it’s just a bizarre fight in general. People on both sides of the UFC/boxing divide have described it as a freak show fight, a circus act to capitalise on name recognition.
That is presumably exactly what has apparently motivate Mayweather to consider reemerging from retirement. McGregor is a genuine superstar, the most talked about fighter in the world in any discipline, by far. There is no better opponent for Mayweather, the villain. Here is someone who’s name attracts unparalleled hype. A name that even those with the loosest of interests in fighting sports would recognise. Who wouldn’t tune in to a fight like that? Especially when the prospect of Mayweather getting what he deserves is in the mix.
As much as pundits sneer, the fight would generate an obscene amount of money. It could well even outdo the vast sums involved in the last and possibly most underwhelming super fight of all time; Mayweather v Pacquiao. When you step back and just think of the rewards both men stand to make from the venture, the idea of it actually happening becomes less ridiculous.
It’s hard to imagine that if the bout does go ahead, Mayweather won’t find someway to win. Even if McGregor comes out swinging and proves he can hold his own in a boxing ring, history says Mayweather will ride out whatever comes at him and do enough to collect a points victory at the end of the night. It’s also hard to imagine the sheer level of fury that would greet this outcome.
Humans love stories and those stories almost always include a villain. Mayweather is a character straight out of a cliched Hollywood boxing film. He is a real life, more swaggering, less likeable Apollo Creed. The reality of sport is rarely as clear cut or as satisfying to our sense of a happy ending, but it is still a stage filled with heroes and villains. But unlike in the movies, in reality, in Mayweather’s reality, the villain rides off in to the sunset with the money and the belts.
In boxing, careers, even for the most beloved fighters rarely end happily. The greatest, Ali, carried on too long and was a shadow of his incomparable self when he finally retired. Ricky Hatton suffered successive brutal defeats followed by a long battle with his own personal demons. Just two examples amongst countless other tales of fighters who burned bright in their heyday but whose career’s fizzled out amongst decline, unexpected defeats, financial issues, legal problems or just pure bad luck.
Mayweather meanwhile, who has played the role of villain longer and louder than perhaps any other boxer in the history of the sport, did get his happy ending. His record is perfect. He has never had to suffer the ignominy of defeat in front of a jeering crowd. There are no endlessly played replays of him falling to the canvas, vanquished at last by a superior fighter. He is spectacularly wealthy, as he likes to remind anyone when ever the opportunity arises. Perhaps this makes him even more infuriating to the crowd. He succeeded, for his faults, where so many others, despite their qualities, failed.
Some say there is justice in the end though. That for all his success, he will never be embraced as a true great. Mayweather does not seem perturbed by such comments, arguing that in hindsight, people will appreciate his talent. It is true that underneath the public image, Mayweather is a master in the ring. If we judge him solely as a boxer, his skill can’t be denied.
But Mayweather is too far gone. There seems little chance of a miraculous return to public favour after years of resentment. For his part though, Mayweather is happy to keep playing the role. Here he is once again, at the centre of everything, the same taunting grin. He knows people won’t be able to resist tuning in for one last chance to see that smirk wiped off his face. He’s banking on it.