Floyd Mayweather Jr. has never lost. We know that because he’s reminded everyone for years now. Forty-seven professional fights. Forty-seven victories. All from the boxer who rarely ventures into public without a hat that announces his take on his place in boxing history, with three letters (TBE, or The Best Ever) capitalized and splashed over his forehead. Subtle, he is not.
In recent years, though, as Mayweather’s age climbed to 37 and his career entered its final stage, he also couldn’t win. He fought young boxers and veterans, southpaws and right-handers, big names like Shane Mosley, presumed successors like Canelo Alvarez, and tough guys like Marcos Maidana (twice). And yet, the boxing public nitpicked each lopsided victory. The opponents were always wrong: too young, too old, too slow, too soft; they didn’t punch hard enough; they didn’t counter well; they kissed Mayweather on the cheek (yeah, that happened); and, above all else, none of them were Manny Pacquiao, the other generational talent in the welterweight division.
That became Mayweather’s curse and Mayweather’s contradiction. Mayweather never lost. And Mayweather could not win.
On Friday, Mayweather and Pacquiao announced perhaps the most-anticipated bout in their sport’s history. The statement, expected for weeks, all-but-certain for days, almost broke the Internet. The two are scheduled to meet May 2 in Las Vegas, six years after their first round of negotiations fell apart at the last minute over drug testing.
Make no mistake: Mayweather’s legacy is the single biggest reason the fight (finally) came to fruition. It’s the scab Pacquiao picked at in recent months. It’s why Mayweather came around. Because how he will be remembered matters to Mayweather more than any athlete I’ve ever covered. They all care, on some level. But Mayweather is obsessed. His clothes even make his case.
“He can see the end,” Stephen Espinoza, Showtime’s boxing czar, told SI.com in a quiet moment amid the chaos of Friday evening. “That may have forced him to consider what it would be like to end his career without fighting the one guy that everyone wants to see him fight. That caused him to redouble his efforts.”
It’s strange sometimes how we look at Mayweather’s career. Unfair, too. Forget, for a moment, about the legal troubles, the domestic violence charges, the run-ins with police. Just focus, for a moment, on the boxing.
Mayweather captured his first world title in 1998. He’s been a world champion for 18 years, or basically half his life. He beat 20 other title holders. He should already be considered among the greatest talents to ever step inside a ring. But people, even boxing insiders, doubt him in ways they don’t doubt boxers with inferior talent.
Mayweather brought much of that on himself. He made the decision mid-career to transform from Pretty Boy Floyd into one of boxing’s all-time villains, Money Mayweather, the heel who flashes cash and talks trash and generally lobbies for another title to add to his belt collection -- the least likeable star athlete in sports. He did that on purpose, inspiring much of the hatred lobbed in his direction in the name of profit. And boy, did he.
His in-ring style doesn’t help, either, outside of the aficionados who can appreciate the tactical brilliance of a boxer like Mayweather. He was never a knockout artist, never a big-puncher. He overwhelmed opponents with speed of all kinds: foot speed and counter speed and an innate ability to process how opponents planned to stop him and adjust mid-fight, or even mid-round. He’s the best defensive fighter in recent memory, by a landslide.
But where Pacquiao rose to boxing prominence with knockouts and faces bloodied and rearranged, Mayweather made elite fighters look ordinary by comparison. There’s an art to that, and it’s the one thing about Mayweather that’s subtle. He made Alvarez in particular look slow, vulnerable, green. Consensus afterward centered on Alvarez not being ready for that type of mega-fight. He was too young. So he took the loss and went back to knocking out opponents, and in each subsequent Alvarez victory, Mayweather won again. Because Alvarez is that good. And Mayweather made him look that bad.
“He’s a victim, in some ways, of his own performance,” Espinoza told SI.com. “It’s a little strange to even be talking about this but that’s the kind of doubt Floyd Mayweather encounters. This fight provides him an opportunity to silence everyone and remove any doubt about where he ranks in the history of the sport.”
There will be people who argue that that Mayweather-Pacquiao will take place too late, after both fighters are past their respective primes. There’s an element of truth in that, but only an element. This is still a transformational event that will shatter Pay-Per-View and revenue records and attract a mainstream audience, many of whom will watch only to see if Pacquiao can knock Mayweather out, or hand Mayweather his first defeat. It’s still must-see sports, the biggest bout in years, maybe the biggest fight of all time.
That’s why Mayweather won on Friday without stepping foot inside a ring. He won because he put his legacy in real danger – although he’s still the favorite – in order to solidify his place among the greats. Maybe he shouldn’t have to. But he did. Late, too late, way too late – who cares? It’s done.
The argument for Mayweather as TBE will be, if not proven, then bolstered, should he manage to beat Pacquiao. This fight (or fights) will define Mayweather’s legacy.
Just ask him.