The last great American prizefighter
Floyd Mayweather still spends big and draws big. But for how much longer?
ESPN The Magazine: Floyd Mayweather Jr. Feature
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Sept. 16 Fighting Issue. Subscribe today!
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Sept. 16 Fighting Issue. Subscribe today!
HE IS STANDING in a jewelry store that caters to the top sliver of the top one percent, wearing nearly $3 million in platinum and diamonds around his neck and wrist, surrounded by at least 20 of his associates, one of them hugging a Nike duffel that contains ziplock bags filled with forearm-thick knots of $100 bills and enough jewelry to satisfy the sartorial whims of its owner for an 11-city press tour. There are people outside on the New York City street with their faces smeared against the windows of the store, standing a few feet from a seven-deep black-Suburban-and-Escalade motorcade. There is a Gulfstream IV and a Gulfstream V gassed up and waiting for him and his entourage on the tarmac across the Hudson at Teterboro.
Show him the money
On the road with Floyd Mayweather. Gallery
And it is here, at this moment, amid the self-inflicted chaos of his life, that Floyd Mayweather Jr. demands the attention of everyone in the room: the people eating out of Styrofoam boxes, the jewelers chiding him for scheduling his next fight on Yom Kippur, the reporter and photographer and camera crew there to document moments just like this one. "Listen listen listen," he says, the word like a bad case of hiccups. "Listenlistenlisten." The room falls into an obedient quiet. He lifts his arms to his sides like a preacher giving thanks. "You know how much I'd like to have a normal day? One normal day? No pictures? No autographs? A normal day?"
There is a pause in the room. This is a man who wears his boxer shorts once before throwing them out. This is a man who wears his sneakers once before leaving them in hotel rooms for housekeepers who might have a relative in need of a size 7½, who keeps his head shaved yet travels on a private jet with his personal barber, who has two sets of nearly identical ultraluxury cars color-coded by mansion to help him remember -- white in Las Vegas, black in Miami -- where he is.
One normal day? The moment of silent disbelief ends with a few forced laughs emitted by those employed by the man and wishing to remain that way. The response is muted and brief -- the room returns to its default mayhem setting almost immediately -- because what Mayweather has just said, his stated desire to be normal for even one day, is perhaps the most outrageous statement this singularly outrageous man has ever made.
ESPN: The Mag
Chad Millman talks to Tim Keown and Ben Lowy about their time embedded with Floyd Mayweather during his training.
The Mayweather experience is an invitation to cede control of your life, to simply hand over everything -- where you go, when you sleep, even what you eat -- to Floyd Mayweather. If you're accustomed to even the slightest measure of self-sufficiency, it's a bit of an adjustment. By the end of the second day of my time on tour with him, I stop asking the one question that's constantly on my mind: What are we waiting for? The answer, from any number of people, is either a shrug or a sleep-deprived "Floyd." No explanation needed.
Mayweather is the modern embodiment of what Gay Talese, in describing Frank Sinatra, called "the fully emancipated male." He can do whatever he wants whenever he wants with just about whomever he wants.
He is the last of boxing's old-school, carny-barker showmen, the last of the third-person narcissists, the last of the great American prizefighters. He attracts and repels in equal measure. He is bigger than his sport, usually the highest-paid athlete in the world, and watching him preen his way from New York to Washington to Grand Rapids, Mich., to Chicago and back home to Las Vegas -- cheered and jeered in equal measure -- feels like the beginning of the end of an era. He is 44–0 and one fight into his six-fight, 30-month, potentially $300 million deal with Showtime. If he wins them all, he will be 38 and 49–0, the same record as Rocky Marciano, the mythical champion of champions. A 49–0 record without a contract would leave him free to negotiate an ungodly amount for a 50th fight. Through smart business, shrewd scheduling and the decline of Manny Pacquiao, Mayweather is boxing's final megastar.
The bout with Alvarez will be the richest gate in the sport's history, and yet it highlights an inherent problem for Floyd and his profession. With contenders scarce, boxing's resident firestorm is in danger of running out of fuel. For a run at 50–0 to be appreciated, his relationship with his opponents, starting with Alvarez, must become more symbiotic than adversarial. In other words, it works in Mayweather's best interest for Alvarez to prove credible.
But right now, Floyd has more immediate concerns: He is cold. Mayweather's preference for heat is famous among his crew; the gym in Vegas is always warmer inside than out, regardless of season. He asks the flight attendant to bump up the heat and says, "You can't cook with cold grease, baby."
HE IS SITTING at a table in the G5, eating Twizzlers and talking about his father. A thought occurs: Who is he? It's an honest question, because it's difficult to delve beneath the flash and money and human insulation. Nearly everything -- workouts, interviews, even conversations -- is conducted in a group and for the benefit of the group. He speaks to rooms rather than individuals, making every discussion a form of performance art.
But there are signs that Mayweather, at 36, has acquired a measure of introspection. The fact that it was forced upon him shouldn't diminish it. After his May 2012 win over Miguel Cotto, he spent two months in solitary confinement in the Clark County Detention Center on a domestic violence conviction. He was kept away from the other prisoners and was allowed outdoors one hour a day, five days a week. The rest of the time he found himself in a highly unusual circumstance: alone with his thoughts.
They've always had a tempestuous, complicated relationship. When Floyd was a toddler, Big Floyd used him as a human shield to avoid being shot in an altercation with a shotgun-toting in-law. It didn't work -- Big Floyd got shot in the calf anyway -- and on the tour stop in Grand Rapids, Floyd halted the motorcade to point out the house where it happened. Big Floyd, a former welterweight contender who once went 10 rounds with Sugar Ray Leonard, taught his son the family business before being sent to prison for drug trafficking when his namesake was a teenager. Since being released in 1998, Big Floyd has been in and out of his son's camp as his trainer, and their clashes were often public and nasty.
The thought process behind those 13 crumpled, unfinished letters -- that father and son needed to reconcile -- brought Big Floyd into his son's corner. He is back training Floyd Jr., and their relationship seems to have found a relaxed angle of repose. They greet each other warmly before every workout and speak calmly about strategy throughout. Big Floyd is a master defensive tactician, and Mayweather felt he took unnecessary punishment from Cotto, but the reunion was more than a business decision.
"I'm not saying it was good that he went to jail," Big Floyd says. "But I'm saying it was good for him. It was something that he needed. He got a chance to look at a lot of things, to think about a lot of things. He got a chance to study things, and he got a chance to be secluded where nobody could think but him."
There are signs of a calmer, more peaceful Mayweather. Before his most recent fight -- against an overmatched Robert Guerrero on Cinco de Mayo weekend -- Guerrero's father interrupted a news conference with a crazed diatribe, calling Floyd a wife-beater and suggesting he learned it from his father. A younger Floyd would have unleashed a vicious response. This time, however, he looked down at his phone, unresponsive, as if Ruben Guerrero weren't there at all.
Is this the New Floyd? The better son? The man who spent nights in jail writing heartfelt letters to his family?
"You could say I'm at peace," Mayweather says. "But people get the wrong idea. Just because you're quiet doesn't mean you're humble. Humility is knowing where your blessings come from."
HE IS STANDING on a curb in the parking lot of Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. It is after 1 a.m. -- late for most people, midday for Mayweather -- and he has just finished playing more than two hours of basketball beneath the cicada hum of the orange lights of a gym that's seen better days. Nearly everyone on the Money Team, as Floyd calls his crew, is here, and they are standing on the sidewalk, waiting. Several of the motorcade cars sit idling and empty, drivers at the ready, but nobody moves toward them. Everyone stands around, bovine and obedient, until Floyd announces each person's vehicle and seat assignment.
This is simply the way it works. Nobody knows what will happen next, but everybody knows Floyd will provide. There is a pecking order, and this is yet another way for Mayweather to send subtle messages to his crew. The sooner your name is called, the higher your standing. He is not big on delegation.
"We don't know what we're doing until we do it," says one of his assistants. "You get used to it."
There is a psychology behind the entourage. Even when Floyd fights twice a year, which he will do this year for the first time since 2007, there's a lot of downtime. He begins training roughly two months before every fight, which leaves eight months of free time in a two-fight year. Outside of training, he has no set schedule. Paying people to hang around means he's never without company, never waiting for someone to run an errand or head to 24-Hour Fitness to play some hoops at 2 a.m. Many of their roles are undefined. Some live in the many homes he owns in Vegas. Some are employed by Mayweather Promotions. All appear to be compensated in varying degrees, though what's not always clear is how. In Floyd's loose corporate structure, there's one guarantee: He's never sitting around waiting for someone to get off work.
HE IS STANDING in a Foot Locker in the Woodland Mall in Grand Rapids, shortly after his plane has landed. The amount of commerce taking place around him is astounding. Mayweather has decided he wants to play basketball at his old high school but doesn't want to check into the hotel and change first. The obvious solution: Take the crew, including a number of friends and family members from his hometown, into the Foot Locker to purchase the gear necessary to head straight to the gym. Shoes, shirts, shorts, socks -- they're being grabbed and tried on and brought to the register without conscience.
It had just been suggested that Floyd's visits to Grand Rapids could be pinpointed through an uptick in county sales tax revenue when he calls me over. He looks around to make sure nobody is watching before holding out a slip of paper cupped in his right hand. It is a bank slip, and Floyd is watching me watch it as my eyes attempt to focus on the balance. I look at the numbers spread out across the thermal paper. I had heard that Floyd does his banking the old-fashioned way: going inside, talking to a real-life teller. He is also known to be a big proponent of maximum liquidity. Still, the amount of digits spread across the bottom-right corner doesn't seem possible.
I look up to see Floyd smiling. He begins to laugh. I say something unintelligible about too many numbers. I'm not sure what prompted this. Perhaps he mistook my look of fatigue for disapproval? Given his spending habits, is he concerned with pre-empting the inevitable talk that he will end up broke? Or is it simply one more example of the man's hubris? I look down one more time to make sure I got it right. And yes, it's right there, 11 numbers long.
There is more than $123 million in Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s bank account.
He nods, folds the slip and says, "One account, baby."
HE IS IN the ring at his gym in Vegas working with his uncle and former trainer Roger Mayweather, whose role has been reduced partly because of health problems related to diabetes. Floyd is wearing striped socks straight out of 1979 and chomping on a clump of bubble gum. He will throw somewhere in the neighborhood of 8,000 punches in the course of a normal session. At this moment, as Uncle Roger waves the mitts in front of him, Floyd's eyes are closed. And yet, somehow, he manages to hit each one squarely. Roger moves the mitts as fast as sign language, and still Floyd hits every one without the benefit of sight. It's sorcery.
Mayweather's dominance has been so complete and his personality so outsized that sometimes the craft gets lost. His speed and defensive abilities have frustrated 44 opponents and kept him outwardly unscathed. "Ain't nothing cool about taking punishment," he says. "People can say, 'He's a runner,' or whatever they want. Truth is, I've been at the top for 17 years. You think I could say that if I just stood there and traded punches?" Still, there are exceptional defensive fighters and there is Floyd. His head bobs out of trouble before trouble is even a gleam in his opponent's eye. He talks about playing "chess, not checkers," but the way he moves suggests something closer to wizardry.
His eyes, when open, see everything in the gym. One day his personal assistant, Dave Levi, had a brief conversation with a friend in the back of the gym while Mayweather was sparring. After the workout, Floyd asked him what they were talking about. "It blew me away," Levi says. "I don't know how he could have possibly seen us." Perhaps it's no surprise that in the ring, during a fight, he picks up the slightest changes in his opponent's approach. It must feel like fighting a machine.
It's difficult to imagine that anyone near his weight class -- including Alvarez, maybe especially Alvarez, who has never seen anything like this before despite a 42–0–1 record -- can be patient enough and observant enough and opportunistic enough to find the infrequent cracks in Mayweather's defense and exploit them long enough and well enough to beat him.
There is an undercurrent in the Mayweather camp that the 23-year-old Alvarez is getting ahead of himself with this bout. They might understand the strategic importance of the square-headed Canelo doing well enough to at least merit a rematch, but they're having a hard time faking any emotion over him. For the most part, Alvarez's record is met with shrugs. "Tell me 10 world champions he fought," Floyd says at one tour stop. "All I'm asking for is 10."
Alvarez is a sturdy fighter, far bigger than Mayweather. The fight is at a 152-pound catch weight, and Mayweather -- with his hummingbird metabolism and activity level -- will struggle to maintain that weight. During training, he had to cancel workouts because he felt too light. Alvarez, on the other hand, will weigh in near 152 on Friday and rehydrate to at least 170 when the bell rings the next night.
Mayweather's preparation for Canelo's size is limited to his choice of sparring partners. Most are bigger, in the 160- to 170-pound range, and Mayweather spent eight weeks avoiding their punches and knocking them around the ring. Boxing, or at least Mayweather, remains old-fashioned. There is no film studyor scouting report.
"I seen Canelo fight one fight and that was enough," Big Floyd says. "I seen what can be done. He got tired and nobody even hit him to the body. When he gets hit in the body and the head, trust me: It won't last 12 rounds."
Floyd has a simple reason for not watching film of Canelo's fights: Alvarez has never fought him. "When you fight Floyd Mayweather, you have to come with a different game plan," he says. "It doesn't do me any good to watch him fight somebody else."
HE IS IN the ring in Vegas, unleashing a series of combinations on the welcoming face of Ramon Montano, a sparring partner forced to go round after round with Mayweather after it was decided that another boxer was leaving too much blood on the canvas. Generally, Mayweather's sparring sessions consist of two or three fighters alternating rounds, but Montano is on his own. Floyd punctuates every well-placed jab with a perfectly timed "Shut up."
The gym is full. There are at least 100 people here to watch him train -- women trying to attract attention, men auditioning for anything available. There is a man best described as outside the inner circle with floyd tattooed on the right side of his neck. He has his young son with him. The boy's name? Floyd.
As the depth and breadth of Montano's punishment unfolds, the reaction goes from wincing compassion ("Ooh") to outright mockery. A member of Floyd's security detail issues a succinct analysis: "Shit's fucked up. This guy ain't going to be able to talk by the time he's 40, but people shouldn't be laughing at him."
After the workout, Montano stands in the parking lot, the heat rising from the asphalt on a 106-degree day. Floyd's bodyguards sit bored in folding chairs on the sidewalk outside the gym, and one of them tells Montano: "Don't worry about that. None of those other people were in there like you were." Montano is 17–10–2 as a pro fighter but spent most of the past three years as a sparring partner. He has worked the camps of 23 champions, including Pacquiao, Zab Judah and Jose Luis Castillo. "Nobody compares to Floyd," he says. "He's the most unique fighter on the planet. Every time I spar with him, he's different. If I fought tomorrow with him, he's totally different. He's the best, and I make my best money with him."
Back inside, Mayweather hits the speed bag for about a minute, the sound thrumming through the gym like automatic fire. When he finishes, he stares at the poster of him and Alvarez that hangs on the wall next to the bag. He calls cut man Rafael Garcia over and tells him to bring tape. At Mayweather's direction, Garcia tapes a large X over one of Alvarez's eyes, then the other. Floyd steps back and takes a look, ignoring the professional laughter in the room.
"Now tape his mouth shut," he tells Garcia.
The place erupts in hooting. Mayweather remains serious. He shows Garcia exactly how he wants the tape to run across Alvarez's mouth.
Mayweather nods. He appears pleased.
HE IS FAST asleep in the G5, Doralie nodding off at his feet, a $1.6 million necklace pooled on the couch next to him, a ziplock containing five or six knots of hundreds on his chest. This is the way to live, baby.
Still, there's something vaguely dispiriting about the scenes on the tour. For one thing, Mayweather has difficulty summoning any disdain for Alvarez. On the flight from New York to DC, he suggested that someone design a shirt with the redheaded Canelo as a mash-up of Dennis the Menace, Chuckie and Raggedy Andy, but that's about as cutting as he gets. Mostly, he repeats a boilerplate line: He respects Alvarez for his achievements and the journey he's taken. For Floyd, it's the verbal equivalent of whatever. The New Floyd appears unwilling to reflexively embrace the role of the villain. "The kid can't speak English," Mayweather says. "He wouldn't know what I was saying anyway, so what's the point?"
There's a nostalgic, postmodern, final-throes-of-an-empire feel to Mayweather's final run. He's Crazy Horse refusing to die on a white man's bed, Tony Soprano playing the mob boss in a postmob world. It is both a celebration and a requiem.
On a Friday night six weeks before the fight and after a long workout, Mayweather leaves the gym on foot, bounding like a deer through a miniature Chinatown before hanging a left on South Valley View toward strip mall/working-class Vegas.
A pickup carrying his videographer and two of his bodyguards trails him, hazard lights blinking, trying to anticipate his course. Another car, carrying one of his assistants, follows the pickup, creating a contrail of angry drivers and near crashes along the way.
Three men sitting on the front porch in this grim neighborhood see Mayweather coming up the street and stand to look. As he gets closer, they lean on a railing and begin to chant:
They are loud and insistent, bordering on vicious, their vehemence startling amid the droning hum of traffic. Floyd never breaks stride, his chin held high as he inhales the last of his sport's oxygen in the dying light of a summer evening.