LAS VEGAS -- He is boxing's greatest heel since Jack Johnson, the undisputed king of convincing people to pay to watch him lose.
Only he never comes close.
Until Saturday night, that is.
Forced to weather his sternest challenge in years, Floyd Mayweather overcame a bloody nose, busted lip and unflinching opponent before rallying for a narrow -- but uncontroversial -- unanimous-decision victory over Miguel Cotto before 16,047 fans at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Two of the ringside judges had Mayweather winning 117-111, while the third scored it 118-110. (SI.com had it 116-112.)
All three gave the final four rounds to Mayweather, whose impressive finishing kick -- punctuated by a vicious uppercut that rocked Cotto in the final round -- precluded any shadow of doubt from the verdict. With the win, Mayweather added Cotto's WBA super welterweight title to a collection of eight belts across five different weight divisions from 130 to 154 pounds.
"I could have outboxed him and moved back, made it a boring fight," Mayweather said afterward. "But it's a recession, you guys spent your hard-earned money to see me, so I said f--- it: let me give you guys what you paid for."
No one incites more crowd reaction and real-life animosity than Mayweather (43-0, 26 KOs). The term in the pro wrestling business is "heat" -- cheers for the good guy, boos for a villain -- a sort of absolute value of passion. Or "relevance" as Mayweather has grown fond of calling it.
The more tangible metric by which Mayweather reckons his success -- more than the increasingly meaningless title belts -- is, of course, money. He earned a guaranteed $32 million for Saturday's fight, a figure nearly certain to swell to more than $50 million once the pay-per-view and closed-circuit receipts are tallied. (The fight was shown in more than 440 movie theaters across the country.)
It seems patently absurd for a fighter at the zenith of such earning potential to consider walking away from the sport, even if the 35-year-old is due to report to jail on June 1 for an 87-day sentence resulting from a domestic abuse case involving his ex-girlfriend and their children. Yet that's exactly what Mayweather, his face swollen from unprecedented facial punishment, suggested to a small group of writers after the post-fight press conference had concluded.
"More like 80-20," Mayweather said, when asked to handicap the odds that Saturday's fight would be his last. "I've been feeling that even before this fight."
The rare moment of sober vulnerability came 90 minutes after Cotto (37-3, 30 KOs), as much a future Hall of Famer as Mayweather, came nearer than anyone over the past decade to handing Mayweather his first career loss and derailing the highest-earning athlete in sports. A classy champion with titles at 140, 147 and 154 pounds, with 13 combined defenses across the three divisions, the 31-year-old Puerto Rican icon made demands of Mayweather few opponents have proven capable of asking.
Mayweather, making his second fight at 154 pounds (and first since outpointing Oscar De La Hoya five years ago this week), and to the dismay of a heavily pro-Cotto crowd, had all the answers.
After entering the ring accompanied by such eclectic company as teen idol Justin Bieber, pro wrestler Triple H and rappers Lil Wayne and 50 Cent -- yes, really -- Mayweather looked sharp early, scoring effectively with the jab and lead right. The naturally bigger Cotto did a good job of swarming and pressuring Mayweather up against the ropes -- half the battle against the most elusive defensive technician of his generation -- but wasn't doing much when he got there. Mayweather enjoyed his best sequence in the fourth, teeing off for nearly 30 seconds on Cotto with a flashy display of head and body shots.
Then came the fifth, when Cotto connected with a compact left hand on Mayweather's nose that started a trickle of blood, sending the crowd into hysterics. The middle rounds belonged to Cotto, as the partisan crowd seemed to raise the decibel level with every thudding body shot. During one memorable sequence, the emboldened Puerto Rican connected with no less than six straight punches against a slippery opponent who seldom is hit more than twice in succession. All three judges awarded Cotto the sixth and eighth rounds. The arena buzzed with an unfamiliar energy when the bell rang signaling the end of the eighth, with the crowd sensing the actual possibility of the upset.
Yet the final act showed why Mayweather has ranked atop or among boxing's pound-for-pound elite for the past decade. He used his speed and accuracy to close the show. Alternating shrewdly between aggressor and counterpuncher, Mayweather finally punctured Cotto's stingy defense with pinpoint head shots -- the best of which came in the final round and nearly stopped the Puerto Rican in his tracks. Most if not every fan in the building watched the final rounds from their feet, as Mayweather's pristine record hung in the balance.
"The judges said I lost the fight. I can't do anything else. I have to take my defeat," said Cotto, whose career-high $8 million purse (in addition to a modest cut of the pay-per-view revenue) was little consolation after his near-miss defeat. "I brought my best and I did my best every morning in training camp and I did my best tonight."
Until 2005, Mayweather was Pretty Boy Floyd, an extraordinary boxer with little profile beyond hardcore fight fans. Once he began to recast himself as a villain -- thanks in large part to the advent of HBO's 24/7 docuseries and his 2007 superfight with De La Hoya -- he became a crossover star. Mainstream-cracking appearances from Dancing With The Stars to WrestleMania soon followed.
Today, Money Mayweather is no more Pretty Boy Floyd than Don Draper is Dick Whitman -- a lucrative and irreversible reinvention only possible in America.
Yet Saturday night proved, despite Floyd's troubles, that Mayweather is better now than he's ever been. He remains a master craftsman and exquisite technical boxer. Only now he's standing in the pocket, going toe-to-toe and even walking down fighters. He's still counterpunching with unbelievable speed and precision, but the famously artful defense hasn't been compromised. He is a special fighter. It is the finest display of boxing since Roy Jones in his prime.
"His style today is a very fan-friendly style," De La Hoya said. "He believes in his abilities. He's a strong fighter. He believes in his conditioning. It's a beautiful thing for boxing."
Of course, what you think you hate about Floyd the fighter is a calculated business decision, no different than a shrewd viral marketing campaign or the price point of your Extra Value Meal. And it's worked. Mayweather has tapped the urban market like no fighter since Tyson -- and his net worth has only ballooned since making the choice back in 2006 to be the cowboy in the black hat.
"He's a tough competitor," Mayweather said of Cotto, who did not attend the post-fight presser, reportedly visiting the hospital for a precautionary exam. "He came to fight, he didn't just come to survive. I dug down and fought him back."
Although he called out Manny Pacquiao -- the other claimant to boxing's pound-for-pound throne -- during his in-ring interview with HBO's Larry Merchant, Mayweather seemed much more pessimistic about the prospective megafight during the post-fight presser.
"The fans and the public are being fooled. Bob Arum does not want to make this fight happen," he said, name-checking the Top Rank CEO who promotes the Filipino puncher. "It's not on me."
Mayweather said he called Pacquiao personally, offered him a $40 million guarantee and promised to wire him a $20 million advance within 24 hours. When Pacquiao demanded a 50-50 split of all revenue, however, Mayweather nixed the deal.
"Once he's free from Bob Arum, will the fight happen?" Mayweather asked rhetorically. "Absolutely."
Mayweather seemed as uncertain as ever about his future while speaking to a small group of writers before disappearing into the bowels of the arena. Kip Sweeney, Mayweather's nose-tackle-sized director of security, attempted multiple times to cut off questioning and escort the fighter away -- but each time Floyd calmly squeezed the bodyguard's thick forearm, a wordless appeal for more time, never breaking his gaze from the gallery.
"There's really nobody out there for me to fight anymore," he confessed. "I really can't say where my career is going to go from here."
If Saturday's fight is indeed the end for Mayweather, one of the most divisive figures in the sport's rich history couldn't have picked a braver way to go out. It was a fight anyone fortunate enough to witness will be talking about for years, the night he finally -- for all his counterintuitive bluster through the years -- actually gave the fans what they wanted.
"Forty-two fights, I could at least give the fans one toe-to-toe battle," he chirped, allowing a wry grin. "Why not?"