Floyd Mayweather Jr

GQ, Mar 2006

Las Vegas Lip: Floyd Mayweather Jr. may be the most talented fighter of his generation, but he’s far from the most popular. Why?

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Floyd Mayweather Jr, the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world, is bounding around his house like a kid on a sugar rush. A TV crew has come over from HBO to shoot a promotional piece about his Las Vegas lifestyle and it has got him all excited.

“Man, I’m born for the TV!” he yells. “I’m flamboyant. I’m Pretty Boy Floyd. I’m one of the coolest motherfuckers. I’m a get me my own TV show after this. Here give me that.” He grabs my recorder out of my hand, flips his baseball cap and does a lap of his living room, shouting. “Mic check, mic check, coming to you live from my house. Fly guy, mack of the year, undefeated. We doing it real big this year. You know how we do. Pretty Boy Floyd, always flashy….”

The HBO producer tries in vain to get the light welterweight champion to settle down and show him around. Mayweather’s docile handler, Leonard Ellerbee, just shrugs and says “that’s Floyd”. The fighter’s mother Deborah is busy pouring some more Hennessey into her red plastic cup, as is Mayweather’s giggling cousin and business partner Damien. And sat among them is a rapper who describes himself as “the future”, working intently on a rhyme. I forget the first line, but it ends with “I get more ass than a roll of tissue.”

“I don’t even know how much this is,” Mayweather says, pulling a wad of hundreds from his pocket. “I always carry five, ten thousand dollars on me. I seen football players and basketball players who say they do it for the love of the sport. But that’s what they want you to say. That’s what they want you to hear. I do it for the money. I fin to make $10 million this year. And that’s just from fighting. Just wait till my music takes off…”

When Mayweather eventually slows down, and gives us a tour of his house – which, he adds, “cost three point five, all paid off. Cash” – he shows us his red Bentley, purple Rolls, yellow Ferrari, Benz and Hummer; the money counter in his bathroom and his collection of cut glass crystal; his belts, his screening room, his mink trunks and chinchilla robes; the paintings both of himself and of horses all over his house; and the huge horse-shaped diamond-encrusted medallion swinging from his neck.

Why horses, I ask him.

“What’s more beautiful than a horse?” says Mayweather. “That’s why they call girls ‘stallions’, like, ‘she a stallion’.”

But surely stallions are boy horses? “Tch. Would you listen to me? That’s what y’all say. I’m talking ebonics.”

The HBO team is happy now. This is the Mayweather they were after. The bling parody – all ‘ice’, jive and swagger. He shows us his shoe closet – a room, really – at the end of his house, filled floor to ceiling with sneakers and a few pimp-style gators thrown in. “I got like 1700 pairs,” he says. “Yeah, and I only wear ’em once. Then I put them on the internet. If I bought them for $100, then I sign them and sell them for $400. We doing big things this year.” Behind his back, the TV crew snigger and give each other a thumbs-up. “This is great stuff!” the producer whispers to his associate. “Hey Floyd, let’s move onto your clothes.”

But Mayweather isn’t finished. “Hold on, hold on,” he says, looking offended. “You guys need to get the whole story.” And so we wait while he goes through his shoes, shelf by shelf, enthusiastically name checking all his “people” along the way.

“These are my G-Units right here – 50 Cent’s my boy. I got my Phat Farm, my Bathing Apes, Sean John, but hold on, make sure you get these Pro-Keds, I got to show some love to my man Damon Dash, he sent me 30 boxes of Rocawear clothes…” “OK we get the idea Floyd,” says the producer, looking at his watch. “What – you don’t want the full story? I got all these shoes I haven’t talked about…”

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Of all the current champions in boxing, Mayweather holds the dubious distinction of showing the greatest disparity between his talent and his popularity. The gulf is common enough in a sport where the size of fanbase is seldom a function of ability. Just as a past-it Tyson or a hapless Bruno had no trouble filling stadiums, the sport’s most dazzling artists like the early Cassius Clay or Roy Jones Jr are often shunned and loathed. As a rule, the public tend to prefer fighters who take a few to give a few – or as trainer Buddy McGirt says “put them nuts and guts on the line”. Maestros, however, don’t get hit. So in terms of fighting style alone, Mayweather joins Clay and Jones in the tradition of the brilliant and the unloved.

Of course, most UK readers have never even heard of Floyd Mayweather Jr let alone witnessed his talent, because his reign coincides with the demise of the sport on terrestrial television. Ever since Frank Warren joined with Don King to sign a UKP50m deal with SKY in 1995, the likes of Mayweather, Roy Jones Jr, Felix Trinidad, Oscar de la Hoya, Marco Antonio Barrera, Eric Morales and Bernard Hopkins – hall-of-famers to a man – have had little or no public profile across the Atlantic. And yet these are the fighters – not Robin Reid or the lamentable Audley Harrison – who are responsible for a golden age in boxing, an era on a par with the halcyon days of Hagler and Hearns or Ali and Frazier. And of them all, Floyd Mayweather Jr at 34-0, sparkles brightest, like one of his diamond pendants. He is the sport’s reigning virtuoso, its boy wonder, its Mozart.

“I shock myself,” he says with typical modesty. “I think I’m great, but honestly – even I don’t know how good I am.”

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His pound-for-pound crown is based not on his chin, which remains untested – he is yet to be hurt or marked in a fight, let alone stagger to his feet for an eight count. Nor does it relate to his courage, though Mayweather has never shirked from the toughest matches. It’s his astonishing speed and skill that set him apart. His reflexes are so sharp that his defensive style would be suicidal for most fighters. It involves standing within range, holding his back hand by his chin and rolling his leading shoulder this way and that. Against the South African Philip Ndou, who had a 94% knockout percentage in 32 fights, he retreated to the ropes and let Ndou unload 40 or so shots, deflecting them all with a bemused grin on his face. Once the storm blew over he then finished Ndou off with a triple right hand combination, each deadly accurate. Only the quickest fighters can land leading rights from an orthodox stance. Mayweather landed three and knocked his man out.

He’s so fast, he relaxes in fights, so much so that he can not only hear what commentators are saying ringside, but he even joins in the conversation. Against Goyo Vargas in 2000, he overheard HBO announcer Jim Lampley say that he had switched to a southpaw stance for the second time in the bout. Mayweather leaned ringside and said, “It was the third time.” Against Henry Bruseles in 2005, Lampley was talking about who he fancied for the Superbowl and Mayweather interjected “the Patriots” – and hit Bruseles with a straight right. Akin to a Formula One driver chatting on his cell phone, it’s the kind of extraordinary moment that spangle the careers of great sportsmen – like Sugar Ray Leonard’s bolo punch or Roy Jones Jr putting both hands behind his back.

And we can expect more of the same – unbeaten at 28, with the experience of 11 title defences, the most talented fighter in the world is at the peak of his powers. Roy Jones once found himself in such a position but struggled to find worthy opponents. Mayweather on the other hand has no end of marquee fighters to show off against. He’s even talking about challenging the best at 11 stone – the likes of Winky Wright and Oscar de la Hoya – a huge leap considering he began at Prince Naseem’s weight of 9 stone 4. But first he has his own division to clear up, and it’s a tantalizing prospect – Miguel Cotto, Kosta Tszyu, Zab Judah and not least, Manchester’s Ricky Hatton, probably the toughest fight of the bunch. Yet Hatton will be in no rush, not after Mayweather’s most recent demonstration that speed kills – the flawless six round punishment in June of Arturo Gatti a pugnacious Rocky-style crowd-pleaser from New Jersey. The slow motion replays are sobering – in the time it takes Gatti to launch a hook, Mayweather weighs up his options, moves out of range and hits Gatti twice upstairs with pinpoint accuracy.

The Gatti fight, however, also illustrates Mayweather’s weakness. It was Mayweather’s first pay per view fight, and then only because he was riding on Gatti’s popularity – Mayweather could never sell a place out. So the fight took place in Gatti’s home town, before Gatti’s fans and Gatti, being the main draw, took most of the purse. The enormously popular Hatton could surely do the same – insist that Mayweather fight him in Manchester at the MEN arena, for a smaller cut and with a Mancunian roar behind him. But all of this begs the question – why does the sport’s most brilliant practitioner have so few fans? Is it really just his fighting style?

My chance to put this question to him comes when we set off for the studios of Philthy Rich, his rap label – Mayweather in his Rolls, HBO in their rental van and Leonard Ellerbee and I in his shabby little Hyundai. (Clearly Mayweather’s number two wears his shoes more than once). A small box of an office couched in a dingy strip mall on the outskirts of the city, Philthy Rich is the cornerstone of what Mayweather hopes one day will be a business empire to rival P Diddy’s or Jay Z’s. “If I wasn’t a fighter, I’d be the CEO of something,” he explains, strutting through the door. “This is the future right here. Everybody had their turn and now it’s ours. We going to ride it till the wheels fall off.”

By the looks of things, the wheels are yet to be fitted – after five years in business, Philthy Rich still hasn’t released its first record. And it shows. A far cry from the flash and sparkle of Floyd’s home, the reception is a pokey and tube-lit with grey carpets, grey walls, low ceilings and a couple of arcade games blooping in the corner. To one side is the boss’s office – the door reads “Floyd ‘Making Millions’ Mayweather – CEO”. A stack of sampler CDs is strewn over his desk. Called “Street Paper”, the cover design is a sheet of $100 bills. But at half the size of his shoe closet at home, it’s just too cramped to do our interview, so Mayweather pulls up a chair in front of the huge TV in the reception where he can watch the basketball game (he bets heavily on sport) and get his hair trimmed by his homeboy Rico while some eight or nine of his Philthy Rich crew sit around in silence. On the wall behind him is a framed magazine clipping of Mayweather in his mink coats and flashy cars. And beside that, a poster of Muhammad Ali, the only other fighter on his walls beside Floyd himself.

“So, come on with your questions,” he says, not taking his eyes off the screen.

I ask him what he has in common with Ali. “He stood for a cause,” says Mayweather.

“He stood for his people. He also believed in what he believed in. And what I believe in is what I believe in.”

And what’s that? “I believe a lot of things and I care about a lot of things.”

Like what?

“I care about my family. Hold on, Rico, cut me real low like last time.” And while Rico lines up his hairline he falls silent. Minutes pass. There’s nothing to do but watch the Detroit game. Look, they’re making a substitution.

When Rico’s finished, I ask him why he has struggled to win over the public. Immediately, he bristles. “You can’t say that, uh-uh,” he says. “I should have been a pay per view attraction back in 1998. I feel that for my talent, I should be getting the big paydays and the things I really deserve. But nobody put any money behind me.”

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This is classic Mayweather – when he’s not boasting about how much money he has, he’s complaining that it’s not enough. This ‘sore winner’ side emerged first in 2000 when he signed a five fight $12.5 million deal with HBO and loudly complained that it was a “slave contract”. He was comparing his deal to the $48 million deal that was offered to Prince Naseem, and in terms of ability, he had a point – Mayweather would have embarrassed Naseem in the ring. But slavery?

Nevertheless, he still feels hard done by today, and typically, he blames his promoter, Bob Arum. “He caters more to Hispanic fighters,” he protests. “Eric Morales fought on pay per view. Oscar de la Hoya fought on pay per view. The last time he had a black fighter fighting on pay per view, he was fighting one of his Hispanic fighters. I need to be promoted in the urban areas. Now I’m a promote myself, it’s going to be crazy. I think my team could have done a much better job. By this time in my career I could have made probably $100 million.”

Arum sighs when I tell him of Mayweather’s complaint. A veteran of the sport, he has promoted Ali, Leonard, Chavez, no end of legends in his time. “What Floyd doesn’t understand is the Hispanic market is fervent about boxing, but the urban market is much more reluctant to spend money,” he says. “All the major African-American fighters we promoted since the 1970s, their fan base came not from the urban market but from white Anglos – they had mainstream appeal which Floyd lacks. He gets that chip on the shoulder attitude. He gets embittered and angry at the world. And the public doesn’t accept it. It turns people off.”

For a promoter, Arum is surprisingly candid. Though fighters and promoters often have a strained relationship, they still tend to present a united front where the press is concerned – they have a common interest after all. But Arum freely admits that promoting Mayweather is “rarely a pleasure. He thinks because of his great talent that it doesn’t matter what he says or does, that he can always fight his way out of it. And there’s a cultural difference here between black and Hispanic fighters. It’s more related to environment than to race, but the typical African-American fighter comes from either a one-parent or no-parent home. And the typical Latin fighter comes from a 2 parent home where the father is the disciplinarian. So the black fighter doesn’t accept male authority and he’s very difficult to control. But if a black fighter grows up in a 2 parent home, like Shane Mosley, then he’s fine.”

Mayweather’s upbringing holds a few clues as to how the prodigy got his attitude. Certainly his relationship with his father is a regular soap opera in boxing circles. The two haven’t spoken in nearly four years and spend much of their airtime squabbling. For years Floyd Sr, a former fighter, was his son’s trainer – like Oscar de la Hoya, Roy Jones Jr, Shane Moseley and Felix Trinidad, Mayweather Jr proves that great champions tend to have a fighting father in their corner. And Floyd Sr was always a hard taskmaster, taking him to the gym in Grand Rapids, Michigan, from the age of four.

“Honestly, I was forced into boxing,” says Floyd. “My dad was always on my case saying ‘you not good enough’. That’s all I heard when I was a kid.”

When Floyd turned 16, however, his father was sent to jail for smuggling cocaine in detergent boxes – he served five years. Prison wasn’t exactly uncommon where he grew up. Though he doesn’t describe his childhood as poor – despite a couple of years spent sharing a one-bedroom apartment in Jersey with his mother, two uncles and his two sisters – it was always rough. “I had about 100 street fights growing up,” he says. “My father got shot by my mother’s brother when I was about six. I was standing right there. But those type a things happen on the regular in the ghetto, so it wasn’t nothing big.”

But while his father was locked up, Floyd’s training fell to his uncle, Roger Mayweather, a former two time world champion himself. Another uncle Jeff Mayweather, a lightweight, became his manager. (The Mayweathers are full of fighting DNA – Floyd Jr’s talent is no accident). And until the age of 21, Uncle Roger steered Floyd successively through five national championships, his Olympic disappointment in 1996 (bronze, a robbery), and his turning pro months later. He was verging on his first title shot when his father returned from prison to reassume control. It was a fractious reunion.

“He never let me become a man,” says Floyd Jr. “When he came back, I was calling the shots, I was doing what I wanted and it’s hard for someone to come into your life, live in the same household as you and tell you when you can and can’t go out.”

Becoming a man for Floyd Jr entailed accumulating a large entourage, hiring West Coast rap impresario James Prince as his manager and embracing the shallow hip hop culture of bragging and jewellery. Since Floyd Sr didn’t hide his scorn for his son’s new crowd – particularly after James Prince replaced him as manager – their relationship deteriorated until finally, in 2000, Floyd Jr not only fired his father as trainer, but allegedly kicked him out of his home and rehired Uncle Roger in his stead. Floyd Jr denies going so far today, but the rift and bitterness is still fresh. When Oscar de la Hoya hired his father as a trainer last year, Floyd Jr was quick to call out the Golden Boy. (The match may yet happen, though it’s unlikely de la Hoya will accept the smaller man’s challenge – he has everything to lose and Floyd Jr has everything to gain.)

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“A lot of the times when I fight, my daddy is at the back of my mind,” says Floyd Jr. “Because he’s waiting for the day I lose, so he can say ‘I told you you’d lose’. I know he is. He just jealous because his career didn’t go nowhere and mine did.”

It’s not the fighting, however, that has been Mayweather’s greatest challenge of late. In keeping with his hustler image, he has had his share of run-ins with the authorities. In 2003, Josie Harris the mother of three of his children, claimed that Mayweather kicked her, punched her and pulled her hair outside a Las Vegas nightclub. “She never had no bruises and no marks,” he insists. “She just wanted money, just like any other woman.” Mayweather was acquitted in July this year. Earlier in February, however, he was fined and ordered to perform community service after pleading no contest to a charge of misdemeanor assault and battery for a bar fight in Grand Rapids. And last year, he was convicted of misdemeanor battery stemming from a fight with two women at a Las Vegas nightclub. He received a suspended one-year jail sentence and was ordered to undergo “impulse-control” counseling.

“There’s so many cases with the clubs,” says Mayweather, dismissively. To his mind, he did nothing wrong, rather he is the victim of predatory lawsuits. “They just obstacles God put in front of me. One time the guy says I hit him with a bottle and the club’s got what – 1500 people? He got one witness. One. Another time I’m not even in the guy’s first statement. But as time went on he said he noticed my diamond belt buckle. He saw that on BET [Black Entertainment Television]! But you know the crazy thing about the whole situation? I never got sued by nobody white. It happened in all black clubs.”

I want to ask him about this – it seems such a bold statement – but Mayweather is distracted again. It seems one of his lackeys has lost his betting slip, and a row has erupted – “You had it, I gave it to you”. Mayweather, disgusted with it all, grabs a clatter of jewellery out of his safe and heads for his Rolls. He’s off clubbing tonight. First to Caesar’s Palace, and then onto a strip club – he loves strip clubs.

As frustrating as it is to have our interview disrupted, it’s a relief to leave Mayweather’s world – his relentless boasting, his joyless obsession with money, the petulant gripes of a multimillionaire. I had hoped that the artistry he displays in the ring would bleed into his character, if only by accident, and that his mindless bling mania was at root a knowing pose, a joke, that he was lampooning himself. But even in his quieter moments, there’s no evidence that Mayweather appreciates irony, nor that he cares for anything but his ego and his money – not the sport of boxing, nor the people around him.

I asked his mother which fighter her son reminded her of, and she said “Muhammad Ali because you know, he fast. Talk a lot of trash and backs it up.” But Ali’s trash-talking was delivered with humour and cheek. He went through a humbling change. He allied himself with the common man and harnessed his talent to fight for more than his own interest in the ring – a true sporting hero. Mayweather, on the other hand, regards arrogance as a virtue. And as Nietzsche said in Human, All Too Human, “arrogance on the part of the meritorious is even more offensive to us than the arrogance of those without merit.” For all his God-given ability, Mayweather maintains a sense of entitlement. Rather than identify with fight fans, he distances himself with diamonds; rather than give back to those less fortunate, he flaunts his wealth and demands more.

The last time I speak to Mayweather is on the phone a week later. It’s a difficult conversation from the start. When I suggest that maybe he would earn more money if he took a leaf out of Oscar de la Hoya’s book – after all De La Hoya was the sport’s biggest earner after Tyson – he cuts me off abruptly. “I don’t want to hear nothing about de la Hoya,” he snaps. “This ain’t no de la Hoya article. This is my article. You need to talk about me. Let’s talk about me.”

He wants to talk about his problems with lawsuits in black clubs. “I’m a cash cow, I’m a money sign,” he says. “They see them Benz, they see them Ferraris, they see that ice. They know how I am and they don’t like it. They want to walk in my shoes but they can’t. It’s jealousy most of it.”

I ask him, “Don’t you think people would be less jealous if you didn’t show off your wealth so much?” And the phone goes dead. He hangs up. Minutes later, Leonard Ellerbee calls up to say “Floyd doesn’t like your line of questions.” After I assure Ellerbee that I mean no harm, Mayweather returns to the phone, laughing, pretending that he didn’t hang up, it was just Leonard trying to protect him.

This has long been the pattern with Mayweather. He seems to know deep down that he needs to be nicer, more humble and personable as his promoter Arum has constantly advised him. He seems to understand, if only in flashes, that by appealing to the media, and so the public, he stands to enjoy more of what he really wants – higher fees. But it doesn’t last. All too often he slips back into his babyish bling routine. “We’ve tried to work with him, but Floyd is Floyd,” says Arum. “The good Floyd understands that he has to control himself but then something sets him off that nobody could predict and the bad Floyd emerges.”

For now, though, the good Floyd has inched to the front, grimacing. “I love your questions, man, come on, ask me anything,” he says.

So I ask him again – wouldn’t a more understated approach mean less lawsuits? “Look,” he says. “I’m only doing what I was put here to do. God blessed me. He put me in the position to have the finer things in life. It’s not my fault. If God made me a flashy guy, then I’m a flashy guy. When you’re born, your whole life is already mapped out. And I’m a king. I feel that I’m a young king. So you know…. Whatever. I respect Sugar Ray Leonard, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson, Hagler, I love those guys. But I feel like I’m the greatest ever.”

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