It might not be the easiest thing in the world to do, but it is possible to made semi-radical revisions to a fighter’s style. A good coach can polish up the defense of a face-first brawler, for instance. Buddy McGirt got himself voted Trainer of the Year by the membership of the Boxing Writers Association of America for doing just that with the late Arturo Gatti, who relatively deep into his career came to discover the benefit of actually slipping a punch every now and then.
But completely altering a human being’s natural personality … well, that’s a more daunting challenge. One of the rare boxing examples of such a transformation is George Foreman, who was an unsmiling, remorseless wrecking machine prior to his 1977 upset by Jimmy Young, but, following a 10-year retirement, returned to the ring as a charismatic charmer equally adept at pitching grills on TV as he was at still knocking out opponents. The change in Big George was so complete, it was almost like watching Sonny Liston morph into Sonny Bono.
Like Foreman, Floyd Mayweather Jr. has a smile – when he chooses to flash it — that can light up a room like a 200-watt bulb. At 35, he still has the boyish countenance of a grown-up Emmanuel Lewis, the cute kid who starred in the sitcom Webster in the 1980s. You can almost imagine Little Floyd climbing onto Alex Karras’ lap for a reading of his favorite bedtime story.
But Mayweather’s childhood was hardly of the fairy-tale variety. His mother was drug-addicted, and his father, Big Floyd, sold the stuff, conveniently hidden in detergent boxes. The father was convicted of cocaine trafficking in 1993, when Floyd Jr. was 16, and he served four years before being released in 1997. Even when Floyd Sr. did return home, he had virtually no interaction with his son that did not involve the advancement of Little Floyd’s boxing career.
Now, with the younger Mayweather (42-0, 26 KOs), widely regarded as the finest pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, set to challenge WBA super welterweight champion Miguel Cotto (37-2, 30 KOs) Saturday night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, the effects of that dysfunctional family life are there for all to see. Yes, “Money” Mayweather has done his share of good deeds, from paying for the medical expenses of a sick child – a stranger, really – to contributing to Habitat for Humanity, but the better angels of his character are forever in conflict with his inner demons, frequently resulting in the sort of negative publicity that give the impression that he is not just a wannabe thug; at times he really is one.
Regardless of the outcome of his much-anticipated showdown with Cotto, Mayweather is scheduled to serve three months in the Clark County Detention Center in Vegas. He pleaded guilty on Dec. 21 to a reduced domestic battery charge and no-contest to two harassment charges as part of a plea deal that dropped felony and misdemeanor charges that could have sent him to prison for up to 34 years. The case centered on an incident with Josie Harris, mother to three of Mayweather’s four children, which began as an argument and escalated to physical violence.
That transgression was one in a laundry list of scrapes Mayweather has gotten into with the law. At various times, he has been ordered to undergo impulse-control counseling and convicted of misdemeanor battery stemming from a fight with two women at a Las Vegas nightclub. In 2010, he was accused of assault with a deadly weapon for trying to force another drive off the road, according to a Las Vegas police incident report.
Mayweather’s ring skills are such that he might win nearly every round on boxing judges’ scorecards whenever he fights, but, in his everyday life, his success rate with the kind that wear black robes and wield gavels isn’t nearly as impressive.
It should be noted, however, that his image as a villain, regardless to the degree to which it is merited, has not damaged Mayweather’s earning power. His most recent ring appearance, a fourth-round knockout of Victor Ortiz on Sept. 17, generated 1.25 million pay-per-view buys; the one before that, a wire-to-wire pasting of veteran Shane Mosley, was purchased by 1.4 million homes.
Leonard Ellerbee, CEO of Mayweather Promotions, acknowledged that a lot of people want to see Floyd Jr. lose, presumably because they dislike what he purports to represent, but that they pay to see him fight anyway.
“Floyd is one of the most despised athletes in the world, but he’s also the most talented athlete in the entire world,” Ellerbee said. “What other athlete do you know who has dominated his sport for 16 years?”
Interestingly, it was eight years ago that a pair of women’s hair-care magnates from suburban Philadelphia sought to soften Mayweather’s more jagged edges, the better to make him more acceptable to mainstream America. It was an experiment that probably was doomed to fail, but It speaks volumes as to how athletes are packaged and sold for widespread consumption.
After ending a four-year contract with his then-manager, rap mogul James Prince, Mayweather was casting about for someone, anyone, who could make him a superstar attraction in correlation to his talent. He was still being promoted by Top Rank then, but his feeling was that he’d never be No. 1 in Bob Arum’s stable with Oscar De La Hoya was around.
Enter Neal Menaged and Lewis Hendler, entrepreneurs who turned the Original Scrunchie, which was first sold in 1989, into a $250 million-a-year empire. Menaged and Hendler wanted to branch off into the boxing business, and they saw Mayweather – with a bit of tweaking – as their express ticket to the top.
“Look at George Foreman and what he has done with his life inside and outside the ring,” Menaged said before Mayweather’s May 22, 2004, bout with DeMarcus Corley in Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall. “He built that grill thing into a company with $400 million annual sales. Why can’t the same thing happen for Floyd? He’s talented, he’s good-looking, personable. There is no reason he can’t become well-known in consumer products away from the ring, which is where our expertise is.”
Added Hendler: “Our plan is not to tap into the thug image as a way to build Floyd up. We’d like to see him make the transition to mainstream, rather than pin himself to a particular culture which is fairly limited in terms of marketing potential.”
Mayweather’s association with Menaged and Hendler proved brief, the split brought about in no small part because the fighter’s discomfort with disavowing much of that which had helped make him who and what he was.
And if somebody out there doesn’t like that, Mayweather said, that’s not his problem. He knows he can’t be all things to all people, so he might as well feel comfortable in his own skin.
“Everybody has his own opinion of me,” Mayweather noted. “It’s, like, Catch-22. I’m damned if I do something, damned if I don’t. So I got to be who I am.
“When I go into an arena and the fans cheer, that’s a great thing. And if they boo, that’s a great thing because they are letting me know that I am relevant.
“If they make no noise at all, I would have a problem with that. But regardless if they cheer or boo, they know who I am. They’re paying attention to me.”
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