LAS VEGAS — Inside a half-empty auditorium, surrounded by his most loyal lieutenants, Floyd Mayweather, after 19 years in boxing, said goodbye. Not officially—that, according to Mayweather, will come Saturday, after Mayweather (48-0) faces Andre Berto (30-3) at the MGM Grand. No, this goodbye was reserved for the reporters, for the cameramen, for the dedicated diehards who streamed his press conferences. “Welcome to the last Floyd Mayweather fight week of his historic career,” Mayweather Promotions CEO Leonard Ellerbe said, and more than a few people in the subdued room exchanged sighs of relief.
If this is the end for Mayweather—and there are many, including some in his inner circle, who doubt that it is—it will be an uncomfortable one. It’s hard to pinpoint anything remotely comparable. When Derek Jeter retired last year he was treated to a seemingly endless ovation in his final game at Yankee Stadium and to thundering applause from Red Sox fans at Fenway Park a few days later. When Reggie Miller played his final game in Indiana, in 2005, Pistons players hustled to the Pacers sideline to join a gut-wrenched crowd in saying goodbye.
Mayweather? He will likely exit to a cacophony of boos, the standard response from an angry Mayweather fight mob that rarely gets its money’s worth, that forks over gobs of cash to him for the chance to see him lose. Athletes have been reviled before. But rarely, if ever, have we seen an athlete so good so universally disliked. He’s Tom Brady if New England suddenly turned on him, LeBron James if Northeast Ohio decided it had had enough.
It’s a feeling Mayweather intentionally provokes, of course. The WWE-style heel Mayweather created in 2007 turned him into a lightning rod, and his play-it-safe style in the ring infuriated fans further. The approach made him rich—he is the undisputed king of pay-per-view, with nearly a billion dollars in total revenue generated—but it has also made him loathed, and that he is a thrice-convicted domestic abuser only adds another layer to that odium. The constant web of easily refutable assertions spun by Mayweather and Ellerbe has sabotaged Mayweather’s relationship with the media; neither is credible, which is why so many, including the fighter's own father, have strong doubts that this will be the last time we see Mayweather in the ring.
“Most fighters, that’s what they always say, that they ain’t going to fight,” Floyd Mayweather Sr. said. “Then you look up and another year, two years, they are fighting again. I hope that he is done when he says he is done. There [isn’t] a reason to do anything else. There is nothing to fight for anymore ... but all those fighters come back. I don’t know why, but they do.”
Maybe Mayweather will stay retired. If he does, boxing will ultimately be the better for it. The sport will miss Mayweather’s talent but it can do without his superior attitude, without his unwillingness to face the best except on his own terms. Mayweather’s résumé is filled with big names but far too few—especially after his ’07 win over Oscar De La Hoya, which made Mayweather a star—in their primes. He fought Shane Mosley, but he should have done that sooner. He fought Miguel Cotto, but that fight was years too late, too. He eventually squared off with Manny Pacquiao but that victory did nothing to answer the question of who would have won in their primes.
The sport won’t miss all the negativity, and this is an important point. Mayweather, his team, his publicists, even Showtime execs, chide media and fans alike for being too critical of Mayweather. It’s unfair, they say, which is ludicrous. Mayweather’s abhorrent treatment of women outside the ring and his frequent cherry-picking of opponents in it make it difficult to focus on anything positive. Think the media wants to dust off the Floyd-behaving-badly column a couple of times a year? Think reporters take pleasure in dumping on a fight? Most don’t, this one included.
Mayweather invites—nay, creates—the negativity with his actions, then fumes when the media actually, you know, covers them. He claims to love all the press coverage—“Good or bad, it keeps me relevant,” Mayweather has said—but rarely misses a chance to chide those who doubt him. He expects you to believe he’s the best ever (he’s not), that he always fights the best (he doesn’t) and that the backlash would come regardless of what opponent he picked. He’s wrong. Had Mayweather demanded a fight with Tim Bradley—a welterweight titleholder and the top 147-pound fighter out there—the crowds in Vegas on Wednesday would have been thicker and the narrative would have been about how Mayweather is closing out his career against a formidable foe.
Soon Mayweather will be gone, and the focus will shift to fighters in position to help boxing the most. The spotlight will move to Saul Alvarez, a throwback superstar with De La Hoya-type potential. It will shine on Gennady Golovkin, the Kazakhstan-born wrecking ball who packs arenas in New York and L.A. and has dared anyone in and around his weight class—including Mayweather—to fight him.
Boxing will belong to them soon. On Saturday, Mayweather will collect win number 49, likely by a lopsided decision over a hopelessly overmatched opponent. On Sunday, he says, he will walk away. Maybe we will appreciate Mayweather more in five years, when his Hall of Fame induction is due. For now though, as much as Mayweather needs a break from boxing, boxing needs one from him, too.