By Bryan Armen Graham
January 08, 2010

The many supporters of Floyd Mayweather Jr. choose to see one of boxing's all-time great small men and the most dominant pound-for-pound fighter in a generation, a fistic surgeon who's never been in trouble in his career, much less been defeated in 40 paying fights.

The skeptics choose to see a savvy practitioner of risk management, an untested fighter who's fed on handpicked opponents since moving up from lightweight in 2004, a shrewd businessman more concerned more with maximizing earning potential than satisfying boxing fans who want to see the best fight the best.

The supporters point to legacy-building victories over Diego Corrales, Jose Luis Castillo (twice), Arturo Gatti, Zab Judah, Oscar De La Hoya and Ricky Hatton -- not exactly the Bum of the Month Club. The skeptics point to the attractive matches that could or should have been made against thornier opponents like Kostya Tszyu, Antonio Margarito, Miguel Cotto, Shane Mosley and Paul Williams.

Ambivalent observers have struggled to reconcile these two Floyd Mayweathers for the better part of the past decade. That duality is no longer tenable, not since Manny Pacquiao's brutal stoppage of Cotto in November.

Pacquiao-Mayweather is no longer a dream matchup, it's an obligation: a fight the public has made. (Manny hadn't even left the ring after the Cotto win before the chants of "We want Floyd!" rang throughout the MGM Grand Garden Arena.) It wouldn't just be a showdown between the sport's two greatest pound-for-pound fighters, it'd be the most delicious clash of styles boxing fans have seen in ages: Pac-Man, the oppressive, slashing turbine of a boxer-puncher opposite Pretty Boy Floyd, the foremost defensive mastermind of our time, whose exquisite counter-punching skills and preternatural ring instincts have befuddled each and every opponent he's gone up against.

And so the moment of truth has come. Floyd Mayweather must fight Manny Pacquiao or risk a permanent stain on his legacy.

It seemed a done deal in December when the parties quickly moved past traditional sticking points like purse split, glove weight and ring size. But negotiations went kerplunk Wednesday thanks to Floyd's unprecedented demand for random blood testing all the way until the fight. After Team Mayweather turned down a series of reasonable alternatives from Pacquiao's camp, Bob Arum's comments that "Floyd never really wanted the fight" echoed the suspicions of millions.

Why wouldn't Mayweather want to fight Pacquaio and bank a surefire payday in the neighborhood of $40 million?

Perhaps, as some critics insist, because Floyd believes his legacy is dependent on his undefeated record.

Many pundits have said the obsession with the zero is what's wrong with boxing today. It's not Mayweather's fault. Blame the media, blame the managers, blame the promoters. Blame Rocky Marciano, really. Before the hard-nosed slugger from Brockton, Mass., retired as history's first and only undefeated heavyweight champ, the idea of a fighter calling it a career without a notch in the loss column was unheard of. Fighters never felt undue pressure to preserve an unbeaten record because it was often a telltale of inexperience.

Emphasis on the perfect record is a relatively novel trend as the business has sought ways to make saleable commodities out of ordinary products. When you fought every couple of weeks like the old-timers, a single loss was hardly the mark of shame it's become today; you couldn't win them all. It was considered standard and part of the natural progression for a fighter to lose and come back to seek redemption, sometimes within a matter of months. Losses didn't compromise the greatness of all-timers like Robinson, Ali, Leonard or Holyfield; in many ways they enhanced it. The record shows history's greatest fighters took on all comers and didn't recoil from about the blemishes on their win-loss ledger, because they could wear them like badges of valor.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with an undefeated record. But pure boxing fans respect the men who test themselves frequently against the best available opponents. The wins and losses become secondary plot points.

Mayweather, conversely, views the undefeated record as his essential selling point -- and many believe he'll stop at nothing to preserve it. The numbers don't betray the thinking. Fighting just five times in the past five years, Mayweather has generated 4.5 million in pay-per-view buys for $237 million in revenue. "I can't fight like Shane Mosley. I can't fight every four months," he told over lunch in Times Square in October. "When you're on that certain elite level, which I'm blessed to be on, [a Mayweather fight] comes around like the Super Bowl or an All-Star Game. It comes around once a year, sometimes twice a year."

Over the past decade, Mayweather has been able to sidestep opponents he's been loath to face. He turned down a then-career-high $8 million purse to fight Margarito in 2006 during his divorce with Top Rank, citing a hand injury. He's repeatedly spurned public and private overtures from Mosley, the quicksilver welterweight whose dubious value as a pay-per-view draw simply don't make sense for Mayweather from a risk-reward perspective. ("If I beat Mosley, they'll say he's over the hill," Mayweather said. "He's got nothing to lose.") He wasn't anxious for a rematch with De La Hoya after their 2007 fight was the most-watched pay-per-view event in history. Floyd even retired from boxing after stopping Hatton later that year, forcing the queue of challengers to disperse and seek other challenges.

But no sleight of hand can divert the public's eyes from Pacquiao-Mayweather, perhaps the biggest megafight since Leonard-Hearns.

Mayweather's concerns are legitimate in today's climate, even if Pacquiao has never tested positive for anything but hard work. Floyd tried to divert the blame Thursday in a written statement. "I am ready to fight and sign the contract," he said. "Manny needs to stop making his excuses, step up and fight." But history shows us one fighter who's dodged a handful of difficult fights and another who's built a legacy on taking the toughest opponents available in any weight class within driving distance.

If Pacquiao-Mayweather never happens, the perception will be it's because Floyd Mayweather didn't want it to happen, regardless of the culpability behind the scenes. Floyd must consent to terms with Pacquiao or risk being remembered less for the fortysomething fights he'll have won upon retirement and more for the one he turned his back on.

Only one Floyd Mayweather can make it through the crossroads. It's up to Money to decide which one.

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