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Undefeated, Unafraid, Unpopular

June 27, 2005
June 27, 2005

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June 27, 2005

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Undefeated, Unafraid, Unpopular

This Saturday night, the ultratalented Floyd Mayweather Jr. will fight Arturo Gatti for the super lightweight title. It's his biggest bout yet. Few will be rooting for him

At a recent boxing awards dinner that brought together past and present champions in Las Vegas, undefeated lightweight champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. took the opportunity to annoy one of his elders. This is, more or less, a life's work for Mayweather, who, after all, once fired his father as trainer and then kicked him out of the house. There is almost nobody he can't annoy, or worse, once he puts his mind to it. So here was Mayweather, barking at Sugar Ray Leonard of all people, reminding him that in his prime he couldn't even beat a lightweight. Roberto Duran! C'mon!

This is an article from the June 27, 2005 issue Original Layout

And on and on. Leonard at first seemed amused and then, like everybody else who crosses paths with the 28-year-old Mayweather, annoyed. Going on worse.

A bystander felt the bantering was escalating into dangerous territory and worried that Mayweather might draw the 49-year-old Hall of Famer out of retirement. But things soon simmered down, to the point of playfulness, and the two hugged. Leonard was asked afterward if it wouldn't have been nice to be 25 again. Prideful as ever, he said that 32 would have done the trick in Mayweather's case. Mayweather, meanwhile, feeling he'd settled the great Leonard's hash, departed the scene in a mood of triumph, and in the wee hours, was on his way to ... the gym.

And that's why we can't simply disregard boxing's biggest pill. He drives us crazy with his various feuds and civil disturbances, popping off at any show of authority or common sense. Yet he remains stubbornly dedicated to his sport, the one guy taking on all comers, winning impressively, winning always. He's the only elite fighter who's still undefeated (33-0, with 22 knockouts). And as Mayweather prepares to fight for Arturo Gatti's WBC super lightweight championship this Saturday in Atlantic City--Mayweather's first bout on pay-per-view--there's a feeling he could be on the cusp of greatness, about to be anointed boxing's best, pound for pound.

There is no discounting his talent, which has carried him almost effortlessly through 13 title fights in two weight classes. It's interesting to remember that Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo, who in May fought what many believe is the fight of this young century, were mere fodder for the up-and-coming Mayweather. "I don't see anybody," says his promoter, Bob Arum, "who can be competitive with this kid." And that probably includes Gatti, whose only chance may be to lure the much slicker Mayweather into another of his gory brawls.

Still, Mayweather remains something less than an attraction in this sport, less desirable than almost all the Latin boxers. "His talent is astounding," says Lou DiBella, a promoter who, while at HBO, tried to sign Mayweather to an $11.5 million, six-fight contract. "But his recognition has not matched his talent. He can't sell tickets. Anyone who thinks he's the A side of this promotion is crazy. It's a Gatti event." And Mayweather knows why: "I got a big mouth." Just ask Leonard.

It's too bad, because Mayweather should be a fighter who compares favorably with Leonard, rather than the one who simply peeves him. He is not nicknamed Pretty Boy for nothing; his smile, at least, could go up against Leonard's anytime, watt for watt. But Mayweather starts from the assumption that everybody is arrayed against him; thus he tends to shoot wildly from the hip. He decried HBO's first, overly generous contract offer as "slave wages" and rejected it, only to sign for similar terms a year later. DiBella, who didn't speak to him for several years after that slight, believes Mayweather has matured somewhat. Yet Mayweather is still capable of insulting his elders, sometimes in the time it takes to snap a jab.

While sitting for an interview in Arum's Top Rank Gym in Vegas, he happened to announce the imminent firing of Arum as well as another business associate. Seconds later Mayweather said he might rehire Arum and that the associate did have good qualities. (Actually, Mayweather didn't dismiss either one.)

To the extent it bubbles up in interviews, Mayweather's anger is simply comic, in the boxing tradition of fighter paranoia. However, his anger also can be the kind that finds its way into police reports, doing damage to his career. In June 2004 he was convicted of assaulting two women in a club; he received a suspended one-year jail sentence and was ordered to get counseling. Four months ago, after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor assault charge for kicking a bouncer, Mayweather received a 90-day suspended sentence. In August he must appear in court to face a domestic-abuse charge stemming from a December 2003 incident involving Josie Harris, the mother of three of his four children.

Nobody can find excuses for this behavior (except Mayweather, who always maintains his guilt is strictly by association), but it's not hard to trace its roots. Start with his childhood back in Grand Rapids. Although his father, Floyd Sr., may have established a template for a boxing wunderkind--Senior was a respectable welterweight in the 1970s and '80s--he also provided a rather weird upbringing. This might not be the defining moment (Junior was only one at the time), but it has to be telling: Floyd Jr.'s uncle Tony, in a beef with Floyd Sr. over an eviction, argued his complaint behind the barrel of a shotgun. Senior, holding Junior at the time, said, "This is all I got in the world--my son--so if you're going to kill me, shoot." Tony did. Floyd Jr. was unharmed, but Floyd Sr. suffered the loss of a chunk of his lower left leg.

Floyd Sr. fought six more years before retiring, then devoted himself to the instruction of Floyd Jr. in the art of boxing. He also dabbled in the distribution of cocaine in detergent boxes. By the time Floyd Sr. was convicted of cocaine trafficking in 1993 and sentenced to 5 1/2 years, Floyd Jr. was already a star in the making at 16, headed for the '96 Olympics (bronze).

Don Hale, a Grand Rapids businessman who managed fighters, took Little Floyd in while Big Floyd was in the Big House. It struck him as odd that no Mayweathers protested the move, not even Floyd Jr.'s beloved grandmother, who was helping raise him. Hale treated him like one of his sons, albeit a slightly wayward one, and continued the grooming of a future champion.

"Floyd [Jr.] had a lot of issues," Hale says, "but I believed we were making headway." Hale says he worked to keep him in school--got him within a credit of an adult education degree--and ironed out every scrape he got into. He even took Floyd Jr. to see his father in prison. "He didn't want to go," says Hale. "Their relationship was all boxing, nothing else."

Hale would have loved to have been Mayweather's manager when Floyd Jr. turned pro after the Olympics, but Arum and competing manager Shelly Finkel wooed Mayweather hard in Atlanta, and the fighter ended up with Arum.

Say what you will about the Mayweathers, but they are not greatly discouraged by upheaval. Floyd Sr. got out of prison in 1997 and pronounced himself his son's trainer. That arrangement lasted about three years, until the father's overbearing ways wore down Floyd Jr., who by then was the family breadwinner. "Lasted longer than I thought," says Hale. Undeterred, Floyd Sr. morphed into a trainer-poet, hooking up with Oscar De La Hoya and enlivening many a press conference with ridiculous and self-congratulatory rhymes. "I'm proud of him," says Floyd Jr., "but always remember: I put my dad in the position he's in."

Their relationship is not exactly estranged--they talk, and Floyd Sr. sees his grandchildren--but it's not the final reel of a Hollywood movie either. Little Floyd, who rarely resists making a crack at his father's expense, ensured another generation's worth of familial fissures by naming his uncle Roger (Floyd Sr.'s younger brother) his trainer.

And in an attempt to reach the urban audience, Floyd Jr. enlisted rap-album producer James Prince as his manager late in 1999, but that ended after four years. He then threw in his lot with a couple of Philadelphia businessmen who made a fortune selling the Scrunchie. That ended quickly. However, Mayweather has not despaired of achieving greatness, or even love, or maybe lots of money, but will simply do it in his own time, his own way.

Later in the evening, at midnight actually, a call goes out through the gym, rousing Mayweather's hangers-on, sparring partners, trainers, hand-wrappers, drivers. Mayweather suddenly wants to run, and so he does, eight miles in the cool desert air, the moonlight on his back.

He drives us crazy with his various feuds and civil disturbances. Yet he remains STUBBORNLY DEDICATED to his sport, the one guy taking on all comers, winning always.
FOUR B/W PHOTOSPhotographs by Clay Patrick McBrideCOLOR PHOTOWILL HART/HBOPOUND FOR POUND... Mayweather (right) has used his power and 72-inch reach to turn back all foes, like Castillo in 2002. COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Clay Patrick McBrideBIG GLOVES TO FILL Like their father, Shamaree (left), 4, and Koraun, 6--two of Floyd's four kids--can pose like winners.