New York Yankees righthander Don Larsen, who had gone 3-21 just two seasons earlier with the Baltimore Orioles, had only minutes earlier finished pitching the first – and to date, only – perfect game in World Series history, a 2-0 masterpiece over the Brooklyn Dodgers in Game 5 of the 1956 Fall Classic in Yankee Stadium. Trying to make sense of the seemingly miraculous feat he had just witnessed, Joe Trimble of the New York Daily News struggled to find just the right words to begin his story. Dick Young came to his colleague’s rescue, typing in the seven-word opening paragraph that became one of the most famous leads in newspaper sports journalism.
“The imperfect man pitched a perfect game.”
Boxing and baseball are different sports, to be sure, but to the casual observer it would appear that Floyd Mayweather Jr. has surpassed “imperfect man” Larsen in at least one respect. Where Larsen went 27 up, 27 down on one magical afternoon, Mayweather – whom many have proclaimed as the “perfect” boxer – has gone 46 up and 46 down as a professional, with Argentine tough guy Marcos Maidana (35-4, 31 KOs) likely to be become his 47th consecutive victim Saturday night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. It’s a rematch of their March 5 fight in which Mayweather was pressed far more than usual in winning a 12-round majority decision, the type of give-and-take affair in which he is rarely obliged to engage.
The television ads for the Showtime Pay-Per-View do-over loudly proclaim the previous close call as “Mayweather’s toughest fight,” which it really isn’t. If you want to see Mayweather truly pushed to the limit, YouTube his Dec. 7, 2002, unanimous decision over Jose Luis Castillo, which remains the ultimate litmus test for someone who guards the “0” in the loss column of his record as if it were the gold in Fort Knox. That is an appropriate analogy when you consider that Mayweather – and he is not the first superstar athlete to think this way – regards his enormous earning power as further certification that he is unique and unlike anyone who came before him, or might come at some later date. He has earned a reported $350 million in boxing, more than any fighter ever has, and with three more bouts before his lucrative six-bout deal with Showtime expires, the man they call “Money” could well push that figure close to $500 million by the time he hangs up his gloves. He has announced – and, really, there is little reason to doubt him this time – that 2015 is the final year in which we will see him as an active fighter before he devotes himself to the next phase of his boxing life as a promoter and entrepreneur.
But, upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the Mayweather we have been told is singularly distinctive has been glimpsed before, at least in part, in the person of at least one predecessor of fairly recent vintage. Even the stories about Mayweather now being authored have a sameness that call to mind individuals that came before. That is not necessarily a negative, but it is a reminder that, in boxing as in Hollywood, there are only so many original ideas that can be conceived before the recycling process kicks into gear.
A lengthy profile of Mayweather by the Washington Post’s Rick Maese in advance of the second Maidana fight touches on all the pertinent facts, and is indicative of the writer’s skill as a wordsmith. But even Maese finds it difficult to come up with anything that hasn’t been written before about a famous fighter who has been psychoanalyzed more than the sum total of Sigmund Freud’s case studies. Consider how Maese concludes his story, with Mayweather leaving his gym in Las Vegas to head off into the artificiality of the neon-lit gambling mecca the world’s current pound-for-pound champ, who was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Mich., has made his home.
“For Vegas and for Mayweather, it’s all choreographed, shimmering and plastic and contradictory at even turn,” Maese observes. “The money rolls in faster than anyone can count; air is pumped through the vents; entertainment is available at all hours. There’s no clock or rhyme or reason to anything, and everything under the sun can be bought. It’s all fueled by money and whim. Indulgences are the norm, excesses expected, and no indiscretion is ever judged.
“It’s the perfect city for an imperfect man.”
Somewhere, if Don Larsen were to read that description the puncher and the gaudy town that has so embraced him, you’d have to figure he’d have to crack a smile.
The Maese piece on Mayweather also examines the seeming conflict between “Money’s” swaggering, arrogant belief that he is unbeatable in the ring with the self-doubt that the fighter, at least to the writer’s way of thinking, apparently is harboring.
“Everything about Mayweather screams of insecurities: the way he flashes money, plays for cameras, seeks attention,” Maese writes. “But he says he’s completely comfortable with who he is, with what he has and with what he doesn’t. The real Mayeather is `a family man,’ he says, `a person who likes to give back, a great heart, loyal and honest.’ The cocky, flashy portrayal the world sees is apparently just a carefully crafted projection.”
It became clear to me that the Mayweather that Rick Maese sees is, in many ways, a replication of the Roy Jones Jr. that I perceived to be not so very long ago. Similarities between the two most naturally gifted fighters of their respective eras? They are plentiful: almost surrealistic talent, a fixation with image, the delineation between public and private personas and, as their reputations became increasingly outsized, a hesitancy to venture into the deepest and most treacherous waters of a shark-infested occupation.
It is tricky business when a writer, any writer, seeks to find real honesty in the morass of lies and half-truths swirling within a carefully orchestrated setting in which elite fighters, and their publicists, seek to cultivate public opinion to the purpose of generating maximum exposure and profit. Consider this, which I wrote about an in-decline Jones in November 2008:
“I’m not a psychologist, so I won’t attempt to go all Freudian in analyzing why Jones has been as disappointing in some regards as he has been exhilarating in others. I do think he has harbored a fear of being seriously hurt because of the state of living death in which his friend, Gerald McClellan, has existed for these past 13 years. It’s a gut reaction that most human beings can understand; prizefighting is a dangerous occupation most sensible persons wouldn’t dare attempt.
“It does seem apparent to me, though, that Jones is a mass of conflicted emotions, a preening show of bravado on the outside and a gnawing core of self-doubt on the inside. Teddy Atlas told us years ago, before Mike Tyson’s comeuppances at the hands of Buster Douglas, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Danny Williams and even Kevin McBride, that the self-proclaimed `baddest man on the planet’ was a bully who would not know how to react when someone had enough gumption to stand up to him.”
There are obvious differences between Mayweather and Jones, of course. From a technical standpoint, Jones – like the young Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali – did everything wrong, but it turned out right, at least for a long time, because of his superior physical gifts. The young Ali and the young Jones could drop their hands to their sides, lean straight back, throw punches off the wrong foot and get away with it because of their remarkable reflexes and sense of timing. They were, in a manner of speaking, like gifted jazz musicians, playing riffs that only they could hear in their heads. But when the pace of the music changed, along with their reactive speed, their results took a decided turn for the worse. Mayweather, on the other hand, possesses some of Jones’ instinctive moves, but his technique is far more polished and fundamentally flawless. He does everything right, and so far it keeps turning out right.
The other difference is the fact that Jones, who at 45 is a mere shadow of his former greatness, has eight defeats on his record, four of which came on knockouts. Mayweather is fixated on the notion of retiring undefeated, convinced that an unblemished record will – must – elevate him above even great fighters who have had to swallow the bitter pill of occasional defeat.
Like Jones, who liked to tell everyone that there was a marked difference between nice-guy Roy and the badass “RJ” who was his version of Dr. Hyde to the more frequently witnessed Dr. Jekyll, Mayweather has subdivided himself into family-man Floyd and “Money,” who is that much more brash and presumably more difficult for outclassed opponents to deal with in the ring.
“RJ is a bad dude,” Jones said after the first of his three bouts with Antonio Tarver, which he won on a close decision, his only victory in the trilogy. “I don’t like to mess with him too much. But my subconscious, which is where he usually dwells, seems to be jacked up … You don’t get to see me like that often.”
“You have Floyd Mayweather and then you have Money Mayweather,” both personas’ friend and longtime business associate, Leonard Ellerbe, is quoted as saying in the story by Maese. “Money Mayweather is what the fans see.”
Sometimes, though, it is difficult distinguishing Floyd from Money. For someone who has made such a point of his devotion to his family, Floyd/Money has been involved in domestic violence cases in which he is alleged to have struck Josie Harris, mother to three of his four children, and, more recently, fiancée Shantel Jackson. There have been other dustups outside the ring, creating the impression of someone who is at least periodically out of control. In the wake of the domestic-violence incident that got Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice drummed out of the NFL, Mayweather again flouted convention by rising to Rice’s defense, saying that “I think there’s a lot worse things that go on in other people’s households. It’s just not caught on video, if that’s safe to say … Like I’ve said in the past, no bumps, no bruises, no nothing. With O.J. and Nicole, you seen pictures. With Chris Brown and Rihanna, you seen pictures. With (Chad) Ochocinco and Evelyn, you seen pictures. You guys have yet to see any pictures of a battered woman, a woman who claims she was kicked and beaten (by Mayweather).”
Pretty repellant stuff, but then allowances always have been made in boxing for even the outrageous of statements and actions. Mayweather’s tacit if not outright acceptance of his semi-villainous reputation isn’t likely to affect his box-office and PPV clout. He doesn’t much care if fight fans buy his fights to see him win or lose, so long as his take-home check has enough zeroes on it.
“Whether my hand is raised or not, winning is giving it 100 percent, but if I make $70 million or $80 million, guess what? I’m a winner,” he says in the Maese piece.
If that were the case, however, Mayweather would understand that his fattest payday, and his best opportunity to embellish his legacy, would be to simply end the interminable suspense of his circle dance with Manny Pacquiao and sign for the fight that everyone most wants to see. Who’s right and who’s wrong no longer matters much; fighting Maidana, Amir Khan or anyone else whose name has been floated for the Floyd’s Farewell Tour is no longer sufficient to fully secure the 37-year-old Mayweather’s place in the annals of boxing. Nor can he continue to casually dismiss Pacquiao as a “little yellow chump” who somehow is unworthy to swap punches with him simply because “Pac-Man” is promoted by Bob Arum, who once promoted Mayweather and is the object of some of Money’s most virulent ire. The old, tired excuses not only don’t fly anymore, they can’t even get airborne.
I don’t believe that Mayweather is afraid of Pacquiao, whom I have long admired as a fighter. In fact, I would have picked Mayweather to win years ago, and I’d pick him to win now. But his inclination to play it safe, relatively speaking, in the maintenance of his undefeated record as his career winds down also calls to mind one of the less praiseworthy aspects of the Roy Jones Jr. that once occupied the pinnacle upon which Mayweather now is perched.
“Roy Jones,” former HBO senior vice president Lou DiBella once noted, “is the most careful great fighter I’ve ever seen.”
Added Seth Abraham, the onetime HBO Sports president: “(Jones’) drive was to do things that were of interest to him, but not necessarily to fight the very best middleweights, super middleweights and light heavyweights who were out there. I think Roy’s legacy in the sport absolutely will suffer because he chose not to do everything he could to make himself as great as he might have been.”
Jones is a future first-ballot inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, his recent stumbles notwithstanding, and so is Mayweather. A loss to Maidana – and, let’s face it, Mayweather is no more resistant to the aging process than any other fighter, although Bernard Hopkins might qualify as an exception to the natural laws of diminishing returns – won’t change that. But the window of opportunity is closing fast for him to do the right thing and stare across the ring at Pacquiao, rather than to trash-talk him from a distance.
Hopkins has correctly noted that there are things even more precious to a fighter than immense wealth, which is why the 49-year-old ageless wonder has elected to test himself in a Nov. 8 unification matchup with the most devastating puncher in the light heavyweight division, Russia’s Sergey Kovalev.
“I want to fight the best,” reasoned Hopkins, who added that “history don’t go broke,” which is more than can be said about athletes with profligate spending habits who eventually find themselves destitute. It is the reason B-Hop will be remembered fondly even if he is beaten bloody by Kovalev. The old guy at least will have taken his best shot at making more history, and therein is a nobility that is indisputable.
Forget the veneer of faux perfection. I will be watching Mayweather-Maidana II, like a lot of other people, but only as it serves as a hopeful step toward Mayweather-Pacquiao. And if that fight never happens, it will be a hundred times worse than Roy Jones Jr. declining to bite the bullet, travel to Europe and mix it up with Dariusz Michalczewski.
Fight fans deserve something better than consolation prizes from someone who insists he isn’t merely the best fighter of today, but the best ever. So Floyd – or Money, whomever he chooses to be at any given moment – is almost obligated to do the right thing, if not for our sake than for his own peace of mind.
Because not only is it time, it’s long overdue.