A Villain's Worth

On the substance of Floyd Mayweather's persona.
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Photo via Wikimedia Commons

After the Miami Heat dealt the Knicks a double-digit loss on February 23, the first person to congratulate LeBron James as he walked off the court was Floyd Mayweather. There was nothing too odd about that—Mayweather loves to sit courtside for marquee matchups and no doubt finds something of a kindred spirit in the Heat, a team so packed with talent and swagger they’ve become the natural villains of their sport.

But this game wasn’t just about the Heat beating the Knicks—they were Jeremy Lin’s Knicks. In the bombast of Linsanity, Floyd Mayweather tweeted that “Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he’s Asian. black players do what he does every night and don’t get the same praise.” The tweet about Lin said much about Mayweather, epitomizing his public persona (unnecessarily confrontational, Floyd has a special gift for tactlessness). But at least it achieved two of the boxer’s main goals: generating attention and creating enemies.

As Floyd high-fived LeBron, it looked like he was congratulating James less on the win than on vindicating Mayweather’s philosophy—talent trumps likability. That aphorism could be Floyd’s slogan to his not-yet-scheduled fight with Manny Pacquiao, the matchup every boxing fan wants. That fight may well be the sport’s last moment in the spotlight. And when the final bell rings on boxing’s relevance, the bad guy could be left wearing the crown.

As boxing fades, UFC has the most to gain. MMA delivers more extreme violence at a faster pace, and seems to have boxing in its crosshairs. (It’s no coincidence that one of the most vocal condemnations of Mayweather’s Lin tweet came from UFC president Dana White.) Mayweather is exactly the type of fighter UFC would now woo away, if only he had been born a little later and not into a boxing family. It’s not hard to imagine him fitting in with the sport’s flaunting of pomp and punishment. After all, he did make an appearance at WrestleMania, where Floyd chose to play the heel replete with brass knuckles and folding-chair sneak attacks.

A wrestling heel seems to be where Floyd gets most of the inspiration for his persona. Whether it’s spending the HBO documentary Mayweather/Ortiz 24-7 counting (and talking through) stacks of money, taking his uncle’s confrontational and confusing nickname “The Mexican Assassin” when going against fighters from Mexico, the cheap shot on Victor Ortiz in his last fight, or the exceedingly insane post-fight interviews with analyst Larry Merchant, Floyd’s moves are calculated to offend, more in the vein of the Million Dollar Man than Muhammad Ali.

Mayweather is considered the best fighter of his generation and his name is brought up in the conversation of best pound-for-pound fighters of all time. Why play the heel? Why play up the “me against the world” angle? Why make an appearance on WWE? Probably because, unless you are one of the dying breed of true geeks of the sweet science, you wouldn’t care about him otherwise. Mayweather in the ring is the counterbalance to his outside the ring persona. Where he is combative, offensive, and quick-tempered in public, his fighting style is all defense, agility, and patience. He is a pure boxer—an expert of shoulder rolls and blink-and-you-miss-them jabs. In other words, it’s boring for casual fans of boxing to watch. So if Mayweather wants to lure in the viewers and bring in the cash (and as his nickname Money May would suggest, he is a fan of cash) he’s got to attract attention by playing the villain, which just so happens to comes naturally.

The only other aspect Mayweather can market is his undefeated record. It’s why he has more to lose in facing Pacquiao, who currently has three losses, and therefore less incentive to schedule the fight. It’s also why he’d rather face good but not great fighters like Cotto in the meantime. Once Mayweather’s streak is over, will his enemies still have a reason to root against him?

Yet before he was known as Money May, he was Pretty Boy Floyd. The nickname came from his days as an amateur boxer, when he was rarely blemished by the competition—though if it were for his looks and bright smile it wouldn’t be inappropriate. As an up-and-coming boxer, he’d tried to play an entirely different, more positive role than the one that has brought him so much attention.

During Floyd’s Pretty Boy stage, he scheduled a few fights in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The matches were essentially public relations moves by Mayweather, a chance to showcase his skill in front of a presumably favorable audience and gain some fans. He may have been reborn as Money May in his spiritual home of Las Vegas, but he was born in a conservative Midwestern town, and his cautious fighting style reflects his hometown’s sensibilities.

On May 26, 2001 Mayweather defended his WBC superfeather weight title in Grand Rapids. He faced Carlos Hernandez, who would years later hold the IBF super featherweight belt. At the time, Carlos was a worthy but non-threathening challenger. Floyd decided to up the ante by promising the fans a knockout. It was strange for Floyd to make such a statement when he only had three KOs in his 25 fights as a professional at that point. He wanted to impress and knew the quickest way to win over a crowd was with one decisive knockout punch.

Instead, fans were given a clinic in defensive boxing, and they weren’t impressed. If anything, Hernandez seemed to land the more impressive blows. The crowd got restless, yelling for a knockdown. In the sixth round they would get it, but not the one they wanted. Mayweather connected with Hernandez’s head and reacted instantly in pain. His hands, which had always been questioned for their strength, gave out on him. His glove touched the canvas and the referee gave a standing eight count. It’s still the only knockdown Mayweather has suffered in his career.

Mayweather won by unanimous decision with only one usable hand. It was an amazing performance, smart and brave. However, those in attendance felt cheated. Mayweather had tried to make a spectacle of his boxing and failed. Soon after, he learned how to make more of a spectacle of himself.

Mayweather’s can justify any criticism of his tarnished personal life and bad-guy persona with his perfect record. The world wants to see Mayweather fall, but what’s most important in that statement is that they want to see Mayweather.


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