LAS VEGAS -- As a matter of perspective, consider that Floyd Mayweather Jr. made his professional debut less than one week after Bill Clinton was elected to his second term as President. To say that a lot has happened in the 17 years since those two historic victories (Clinton, headlining a heavyweight title tilt, won on a 379-to-159 decision over Bob Dole; Mayweather, in a lightweight prelim, on a second-round TKO over Roberto Apodaca) is, of course, an absurd understatement. But one thing that hasn't happened? Floyd Mayweather Jr. hasn't lost a fight.
Admittedly Mayweather's oft-cited 44-0 record (26 KOs) has its wrinkles: a perhaps overly-generous decision in his first win over José Luis Castillo in 2002; accusations that he has consistently "hand-picked" his opponents; the failure to make the longed-for superfight with Manny Pacquiao. But, really, by now those can be dismissed as mere quibbles. The man has done nothing but win for more than a decade and a half. He's closing in on legendary heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano's celebrated 49-0 mark. (To be fair, Marciano ran up his total in just half as long as Floyd has taken to reach his -- but then again the Rock padded his early résumé with a lot of Brockton cab drivers and by the time he got to the eight-year mark he'd taken enough punishment that he was ready to hang 'em up.) Make no mistake: Winning --and not losing -- means everything to Mayweather.
But the corollary to this unremitting success is that it has come to seem a given. Opponents, built up as worthy challengers in promotional tours and on HBO's and now Showtime's behind-the-scenes shows, have consistently failed to present any serious difficulties for Mayweather once they get in the ring. And so Mayweather wins again, usually with precious little drama (though often with a bit of controversy to keep things buzzing -- see: Ortiz, Victor.) Mike Tyson, in predicting a decision for Mayweather in Saturday night's fight, told the boxing website badlefthook.com, "Floyd stays in tip-top shape and is a very relaxed fighter." From a guy like Tyson, whose conditioning between bouts was notoriously hit-or-miss and who just may have been the least relaxed fighter in history, that's a very astute observation.
And so, here we are, looking ahead to tomorrow night wondering whether -- and many boxing fans, in their hearts, hoping that -- a) somehow, at age 36 and fighting after a shorter respite than he's been accustomed to, Mayweather will find himself in less than his usual shape and/or b) young, fast, hard-hitting Canelo Alvarez will somehow put enough pressure on Floyd to rattle the champion for once.
Certainly one or both of those things could happen. But the odds are against it. In a final conference call with the media on Thursday, Mayweather's advisor Leonard Ellerbe said, "Everyone knows this is the most anticipated fight in the history of the sport." Perhaps in the Alvarez household. Certainly it could wind up the biggest, or one of the biggest, in terms of revenue. But, when it comes to potential in-the-ring action and drama, the gulf in talent, preparation over the years, and experience between Mayweather and the 23-year-old Alvarez is prohibitive. Mayweather has the deepest box of tools in the sport; he's the best-schooled fighter of his generation. He's a defensive wizard who can turn an opponent's pressure into an avenue to pot-shotting punishment. And, as Tyson observed, Floyd is always in such intensely good shape that he can take even an opponent 13 years his junior into a quagmire of fatigue and vulnerability.
During the conference call Mayweather seemingly tried to downplay the obvious edge he will have, saying of the intense interest in Alvarez, "He's a good, strong, solid boxer and I mean, it's a very intriguing match up." He even added, graciously, if dutifully, "Any given Saturday, anything can happen. So I'm prepared for anything."
But Mayweather spent much more time during the call talking about the promotion of the bout and the projected pay-per-view buys (possibly approaching the record 2.5 million for his bout with Oscar De La Hoya in 2007), his own promotional company, his family, his eventual retirement ("After this fight I have four fights left"), and even tennis ("You have to take your hat off to Andre Agassi, Mr. Las Vegas along with Wayne Newton and myself"), than he did about the nuts and bolts -- or jabs and hooks -- of facing the guy everyone says is going to be his most dangerous opponent.
It was almost as though he didn't trust himself to get too deep into the particulars lest he end up undercutting the manufactured sense of his facing a real challenge. In the end, that's because for all the drama and hype and excess in every other part of his life, Mayweather is utterly at home and control in the ring. It's been that way for 17 years.