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Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Updated: December 3, 9:43 PM ET
Where does Floyd go after a win?

By Brian Campbell
ESPN.com

There are plenty of boxing observers willing to give Canelo Alvarez at least a chance to upset the apple cart Saturday by handing Floyd Mayweather Jr. his first defeat.

One would be hard-pressed, however, to find someone who predicts an Alvarez victory, which is understandable considering "Money" Mayweather's advantages in speed, skill and experience.

But if Mayweather scores a clean victory free of controversy, with no immediate need for a rematch, it's only natural to wonder what comes next.

At 36, with an unblemished mark improved to 45-0, what might be Mayweather's best financial and legacy-friendly exit plan? Outside of avoiding injury and slowing down the effects of aging, what would Mayweather have to do to run the table and retire unbeaten? And is it worth it?

We must first take stock of where Mayweather stands historically to calculate why continuing to fight – outside of fulfilling the requirements of the six-fight, 30-month deal with Showtime/CBS he signed in February – would be necessary.

Without argument, Mayweather has established himself as one of the best defensive and counterpunching fighters in history, one with few rivals in speed and intelligence. He's also the greatest showman in the sport, the best boxer of his era and the richest athlete of his day.

But a gray area emerges when the debate turns to the quality of his opposition after he became a pay-per-view attraction; many have critiqued not just the timing of his opponent choices, but the ones he conveniently never fought in between year-plus sabbaticals from the ring.

It isn't that Mayweather lacks a strong résumé – in fact, with victories over 18 current or former world champions, including a number of sure-fire Hall of Famers, it falls somewhere between very good and pretty darn great. But it's not all-time great, filled with the kind of daring challenges on par with his transcendent level of talent.

It's easy for a dominant fighter who doesnt score knockouts to have his craft taken for granted when the talk after each victory is centered more on his opponents not having been as good as advertised, instead of his own brilliance.

The impact of that gap – which rubs like sandpaper against his own incessant claims of being the best ever – makes it difficult to launch him into the lonely company of history's upper-room elite.

In his defense, time has a way of forgetting the exact circumstances of when a fight took place, lending greater credence to the sight of names such as De La Hoya, Marquez, Mosley and Cotto on Mayweather's final ledger. But time is equally less forgiving when it comes to a fighter avoiding the best of his era when he had the chance (Manny Pacquiao).

Ducking Alvarez the same way would have destroyed the credibility of Mayweather, who is more of an interested student of his own place in history than his interviews would admit. Instead, defeating the very opponent his detractors said he wouldn't face, in a division in which he hasn't looked his best, would help Mayweather earn not only respect but also a temporary amount of immunity if he matches himself softer in his next few fights.

Whether you believe Mayweather was pressured into taking the Alvarez fight after disappointing sales against Robert Guerrero questioned the relevancy of his brand, a similar scenario is unlikely to unfold again, especially if the fight approaches pay-per-view records. Mayweather has too much control over his career – arguably his greatest accomplishment considering the sport's unforgiving history toward its participants – and has made a fine living not worrying about who his critics prefer him to fight.

Alvarez isn't a threat to outbox Mayweather -- and to be honest, neither is anyone until "Money" pushes closer to 40. But considering we won't be seeing Mayweather in catch-weight bouts against the likes of middleweight titlists Sergio Martinez and Gennady Golovkin, Alvarez is extremely rare among realistic Mayweather opponents because of the real danger Alvarez presents thanks to his youth, size and power.

Floyd Mayweather
Floyd Mayweather Jr. claims being the best ever, and has the victories to prove it.
Mayweather knows more than anyone that a marketable run at besting Rocky Marciano's celebrated feat of retiring with a 49-0 record (in Marciano's case, as heavyweight champion) is an endeavor that sells itself. And a victory this big over Alvarez, in only the second fight of Mayweather's Showtime deal, would give "Money" the perfect springboard for a run at perfection.

For a fighter of so much substance, Mayweather has relied on his villainous personality and the boasting of his unbeaten record as marketing tools to cover up his lack of in-ring excitement. Fans have purchased his fights as much to see him lose as to marvel at his one-sided skill.

Yet the suspense of watching Mayweather deal with the realities of age against a slew of younger opponents might begin to finally endear him to his critics. Whether fair or not, the greatest thing he can do to enhance his legacy in lieu of taking on tougher challenges is being forced to overcome adversity on the public stage. It's the human, vulnerable element his unblemished career has lacked.

It's easy for a dominant fighter who doesn't score knockouts to have his craft taken for granted when the talk after each victory is centered more on his opponent's not having been as good as advertised, instead of his own brilliance. And if Mayweather continues fighting into his late 30s at a brisk pace of twice a year, true adversity of some kind will inevitably find its way into the ring with him.

While you likely don't agree with Mayweather's claims of being the best ever, if he's going to go down swinging with that line of testimony in an attempt to convince others, he could do worse than to eclipse a ceremonial mark as revered as Marciano's to top off his argument.

Winning five more fights won't be easy, however, nor will enduring the pounding of staying so active. But the opportunity to do so is there for a fighter of Mayweather's acumen. He can rely on his intelligence, defensive style and spotless technique as his speed and athleticism fade in the same way that Bernard Hopkins – who lives a similarly Spartan lifestyle – has preserved himself.

There are also a fair number of equally flawed and marketable options for the final four fights of Mayweather's Showtime deal, from the winners of Devon Alexander-Amir Khan and Danny Garcia-Lucas Matthysse to whichever Golden Boy fighters are coming off the biggest win at the moment, similar to how Victor Ortiz and Guerrero once earned their shots.

But if Mayweather gets that far, the fun will come in the pairing of his climactic 50th fight, when the free-agent Mayweather hits the open market to find the highest bidder. Maybe he'll stun us all by taking record money to fight on network television in a ratings bonanza. Or maybe he'll finally get into the ring with the one guy he has absorbed the most criticism for never having fought: Pacquiao.

It would be pretty ironic, don't you think? As would a fighter who claims to have broken every record in boxing to so passionately pursue Marciano's mark, which really isn't a record at all.

Making a run at retiring unbeaten certainly isn't an authentic replacement for the perceived holes in his résumé. But it does represent the perfect climax for a fighter who has worked so hard to control his self-narrated place in history.