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The evolution of the boxing diva

2/13/2013 - Boxing

Four muscle-bound men dressed in ancient Egyptian costumes carried what looked like a gilded throne down the aisle toward the boxing ring inside the Mandalay Bay Event Center. Standing on the gaudy contraption and wearing faux Roman garb, complete with breastplate, was Floyd Mayweather Jr. He had a red-plumed helmet tucked under his arm and an imperious look on his youthful face, seeming oblivious to the laughter and catcalls that accompanied his grand entrance.


Nobody asked Carlos Baldomir what he thought of Mayweather's regal rigmarole. The beefy Argentinian was probably too busy anyway, trying to figure out how he was going to survive the coming ordeal with his dignity still relatively intact. Against all odds in their Nov. 2006 welterweight title bout, he managed just that. Floyd flitted his way to a virtual shutout in a fight that went exactly the way you figured it would. Afterward, an overwrought Mayweather broke into tears and informed the media that they might have just seen his final fight. They hadn't, of course, and in his very next bout Mayweather bested Oscar De La Hoya in the largest-grossing fight in boxing history.

We've come to accept Mayweather's ostentatious and sometimes obnoxious conduct as part of the package that also includes one of the finest fighters of our lifetime. We can't have one without the other, so it's not surprising that Floyd has blossomed into a full-fledged diva, a role that seems to come naturally to him and that has helped raise his public profile. People either like Mayweather or they don't, but practically everybody knows who he is.

Traditionally, the term diva was applied exclusively to female singers and was most famously associated with opera star Maria Callus. Over the years, however, the word has morphed into a two-syllable description of any woman who exhibits certain behavioral traits. Most women who achieve diva status wear it like a badge of honor, but for a male sportsman, being called a diva is generally considered an affront to his manhood. Even so, that sort of old-school thinking is gradually crumbling as supremely egotistical athletes proliferate at an alarming rate. They are, whether we like it or not, already the new normal.

True divas are bossy, spoiled, selfish and demanding. They talk down to the people who work for them, think too highly of themselves, belittle others, want to be treated like royalty because of their status and fame and money, must always have their way, and are overly dramatic. Sound familiar?

Mayweather certainly checks many of the boxes: He surrounds himself with sycophants, talks down to sparring partners, belittles adversaries prior to fights, demands that opponents submit to drug screening not required by boxing commissions, and showers strip-club patrons with hundred-dollar bills in what seems a juvenile attempt to prove how rich and cool he is. And that's just for starters. Two of Mayweather's most egregious examples of diva behavior were buying his way out of making weight for his bout with Juan Manuel Marquez and whining about being unable to drink bottled water while serving jail time for a domestic-violence conviction. These are actions most fighters throughout history wouldn't dream of doing, but times have changed, and so has what is considered acceptable behavior for modern athletes.

Mayweather already has an heir apparent in Adrien Broner, a multitalented lightweight with a similar style and a personality to match. He talks the talk and has somehow galvanized fans by having his father brush his hair for him in the ring before and after fights. It's a simple but effective shtick that harkens back to professional wrestler Gorgeous George, one of Muhammad Ali's inspirations.

Actually, one might be tempted to blame Ali for the advent of boxer as diva, and while it's true he was guilty of some of the same questionable conduct as Mayweather, there was usually a playful undercurrent to Ali's antics. With Mayweather, you seldom get the impression he's joking. There's no denying that Ali set new standards for loquacious self-promotion, but he always maintained the common touch. Until he became physically unable, he frequently waded into crowds of admirers to shake hands, give hugs and do the Ali shuffle. A true diva doesn't hang with the plebes.

From Gutenberg's printing press to the Internet, the forward march of communication technology has always brought changes to society. But nothing has altered the way we live and think as much as television, and the sports world is no exception. The launch of the ESPN network in 1979 had a profound effect on sports, some of which has resulted in unintended consequences. Perhaps the most significant was featuring the most spectacular highlights of the day on "SportsCenter." This gave athletes a new goal beyond winning and helped usher in a generation of self-absorbed, look-at-me showboats. To hell with Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame, if you're good enough you can be on "SportsCenter" on a regular basis. It is a mindset, when coupled with exorbitant salaries and extravagant lifestyles, that creates a fertile environment for diva-like behavior to flourish.

By and large, boxers were late to the party compared to athletes competing in mainstream sports such as baseball, football and basketball, many of whom enjoyed preferential treatment from an early age. Fighters, on the other hand, frequently come from disadvantaged backgrounds and have to overcome severe hardship just to have a fighting chance of succeeding. Most are unassuming, pragmatic and appreciative of whatever attention they can garner, but that outlook is under attack by an overripe field of self-absorbed blowhards.

"Prince" Naseem Hamed's over-the-top personality could be fun at times, but he was also guilty of the most distasteful diva behavior. Gavin Evans, the author of "Wicked: The Prince Naseem Phenomenon", recalled an unseemly episode that took place in the dressing room prior to Hamed's 1997 bout with Jose Badillo: "Steve Holdsworth, a former professional boxer working for Eurosport, was interviewing Ryan Rhodes after his fight, when 'Naz' stormed up, pulled out the TV cable and screamed: 'Everybody f--- off! I'm the f---ing star, so the rest of you can f--- off!' And then he went over to Holdsworth and launched a karate kick at him that stopped just short of his nose. 'Hi Steve, my mate,' he smirked. 'Hope this helps.'"

During his prime, Roy Jones Jr. also succumbed to the diva's siren song. He referred to himself in the third person, was often haughty with the media, and was famous for blowing off appointments, including HBO production meetings -- a failing that led to a lengthy interruption of his broadcast career with the cable TV giant. Roy's attempt to be a rap artist was nothing more than vanity and never really took off. Today, Jones seems less impressed with himself, most likely the result of suffering a number of knockout defeats. There's nothing quite like a good tail-kicking to bring a diva back down to earth.

Thanks to the hip-hop culture, social media and an overall shift in the sport's ethos, Mayweather has been the right fighter at the right time. What makes his accomplishments even more startling is this: He is a defensive fighter, usually a drawback at the box office and among potential pay-per-view customers. But he has made it work to the tune of untold millions of dollars.

It would, of course, be a dangerous mistake to think a line of bull and a flashy (or trashy) lifestyle is all you need to make it big in boxing. The common thread running through the divas under discussion here is the undeniable fact that they are (or were) very special fighters. That's the engine that drives everything else. Anything less is burlesque.