LAS VEGAS — For so long, Floyd Mayweather has lived by one ethos: Love me or hate me, just keep paying to see me. It's what has given him license to behave boorishly, to devolve promotions into deeper and deeper depths of ugliness. From his days swiping Oscar De La Hoya's luggage to his belittling of Ricky Hatton to his homophobic, racist rants against Manny Pacquiao, Mayweather has masterfully cultivated an image as boxing's biggest villain. A profitable one, too: Since 2006, Mayweather has generated 12.8 million pay per view buys and more than $800 million in revenue.
There is a marketing genius in Mayweather, a deep understanding of what it takes to build his brand. He has seized a foothold in young urban markets, appealed to a middle-aged men and women with appearances on Dancing With the Stars and Wrestlemania, attracted the, well, whatever crowd it is that listens to Justin Bieber by inviting the teenage pop star to walk to the ring with him.
Every move is calculated, every decision has a purpose.
"His genius is in being brave enough to expose a bizarre lifestyle," said Ross Greenburg, former president of HBO Sports. "He says, 'Here I am, this is who I am, this is how I live my life.' Every great one, whether it is George Foreman and his [grill], Oscar De La Hoya and his pretty boy image, Sugar Ray Leonard, who was everyone's hero, Muhammad Ali and his brashness, all the really great ones who went to the next level were marketing geniuses. Floyd looked at who he was and the kind of life he led and took it to the extreme."
This week has been no different. With little buzz fight for his upcoming fight with Marcos Maidana — no promotional tour and the dwindling chances of a showdown with Pacquiao will do that — Mayweather declared this fight could be his last. The message: Watch me now or, maybe, never watch me again. Nevermind the tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars more to be earned over the next two years. When the NBA announced it would strip Donald Sterling of ownership of the Clippers, Mayweather submitted himself as a potential bidder. Nevermind that Mayweather's YouTube-immortalized bile toward Pacquiao makes him radioactive to a league desperately seeking a cleaner image.
With a couple of quick soundbites, Mayweather went from off the radar to on the ESPN ticker, from boxing blogs and websites to the New York Times and USA Today.
Then there was this: On Thursday, Mayweather posted on his official Facebook page a sonogram purportedly of his former fiance, Shantel Jackson, and announced to the world that she had aborted his twins. "I'm totally against killing babies," Mayweather wrote. "She killed our twin babies." A deeply personal decision was seemingly now public fodder, a woman Mayweather claimed he once loved was now exposed.
Within hours, the post was deleted. But the damage was already done and the outrage quickly bubbled to the surface.
"It's appalling that Floyd Mayweather would use his fame to expose the personal decisions of someone he was once close to," said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "We don't know the reasons behind this woman's decision, and neither does anyone else except her. Everyone has a right to express their opinions and feelings about abortion. No one has a right to attempt to publicly humiliate another person for making decisions that are best for them. Floyd Mayweather should keep his bullying tactics in the ring."
With so much of Mayweather's personal life deliberately put on the table, it was fair to ask: Could this have just been another way to promote? Could the scorn of a pro-choice community, of millions of women everywhere been just a depraved method of getting attention? Would the looming possibility of a civil suit for emotional distress be worth the opportunity to pump up a pay-per-view? Those close to Mayweather swear it isn't, that the shock of learning of the abortion sent him spiraling into a bad place. But it is difficult to differentiate the real from the manufactured with Mayweather, hard to see when the hurt is genuine.
Intentional or not, Mayweather's public spat with Jackson has inspired another narrative: Is Mayweather distracted? Mayweather poured his heart out — we think — in a rambling 30-minute interview with Atlanta radio station V-103, where he likened Jackson to a living Humpty Dumpty, someone with a figure that, post child birth, he could have put back together again. Twitter has buzzing with his comments and the talk shows that packed radio row at the MGM Grand relentlessly pushed the topic. A layer of intrigue was added to a $65-a-pop fight against Maidana (Showtime PPV, 9 pm ET) that most astute observers see as one-sided, the possibility, however improbable, of a Mayweather loss introduced to a fight many believe Maidana can't win.
Here comes Mayweather, and once again nobody can truly figure him out. The most complicated figure in boxing has once again manufactured controversy, become a lightning rod in one of this country's most intense and personal debates. No man in sports is more controversial. Not coincidentally, no athlete today rakes in more money.