- Tim Keown, Senior writer, ESPN.com
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THE SCENE in the parking lot of the Mayweather Boxing Club in Las Vegas has devolved into an extended documentary on the perils of celebrity. There's a betting slip on the loose worth $80,000, earned on the merits of the Miami Heat's first-half performance about two hours earlier on this Friday night, and the quest to find it has everything but a circus-music soundtrack.
It's not about the money. Really, it's not. Floyd Mayweather Jr. bets a lot, both in frequency and amount, and this betting slip is not extraordinary in any way. Just the night before, he lost $50,000 on the first half of the Thunder-Lakers game before doubling down on his beloved Thunder and winning $100,000 in the second half. This is a man who later that night will put on a pair of pants he hadn't worn in a while and pull four grand out of a pocket the way you or I might find a five in the dryer. Trust me: Eighty grand won't change his life.
Mayweather is standing next to his sleek four-door black Mercedes, one of the more sedate of his roughly two dozen cars, and is wondering out loud how many people he might have to fire over this debacle. A few leggy, extravagantly dressed women watch laconically, waiting to follow the champ to dinner. Curtis Jackson, publicly known as 50 Cent, sits in the passenger seat of the Mercedes, watching the events unfold with passing interest. Several members of Mayweather's loosely defined payroll are shuffling about in an unreserved panic, particularly those who were at one time in possession of the bag, the slip's last known residence.
The bag is important. The bag -- or The Bag, more like -- is a small leather duffel home to Mayweather's walking-around cash and gambling slips. Everyone must know where The Bag is at all times, for it is not unusual for the spirit to strike Mayweather and cause him to ask, with no warning, "Where my bag at?" The chain of custody is stricter than most evidence rooms.
The Bag is being scoured vigorously by Tom, one of many men who help Mayweather train by handing him his jump rope or tying his headgear or merely shouting compliments during a workout. He is at least the fourth person to riffle through The Bag, and he relays to his boss the obvious: no slip. The Mercedes trunk is popped, and a second bag is searched. This bag holds nothing more than 20,000 Mega Millions lottery tickets (prize: $656 million) bought by one of Mayweather's minions after he stood in line for more than two hours outside a convenience store in California. Imagine being the guy standing behind Mayweather's guy, there to buy maybe 10 tickets, waiting in line half the damned day only to watch the guy in front of you haul $20K in hundreds out of a bag. There are many Mayweather stories like this. It's easy to get sidetracked.
But back to the scene at hand. Because right now -- with the trunk open and the car doors flung wide and a now-silent Mayweather choosing to direct
search operations with nothing more than a glare -- is as good a time as any to ask a few important questions: What are we to make of Floyd Mayweather Jr.? What should we see when we see him? Is he to be denounced for his singular brand of narcissism, ego and greed, or praised for his clear-eyed ability to maximize his worth in the sports marketplace? Can you do both?
The history of boxing is a history of broken dreams. Young men, mostly black and Hispanic, start with nothing and appreciate anything. They're told when, where and how much, and they never look closely at the money generated by their sweat and risk. They accept what's offered because they are beholden to those doing the offering. It's an enterprise fueled by paternalism: I was there for you when you had nothing. The most successful live well for a short period before ending up broke and befuddled, their money taken by unscrupulous managers and unchecked spending, their brains taken by the rigors of the sport. Their lives travel a road from subservience to dependence before they can identify either one.
"I was in that position at one time," says Mayweather. "Not anymore. Now they" -- meaning the promoters who have long dominated the sport -- "don't like Floyd Mayweather to enlighten a fighter. I don't like it when they take a third from a fighter, then he has to pay his trainer 10%. After Uncle Sam, the man putting his body on the line gets less than 50 percent."
MONEY IS IMPORTANT, its outward manifestations even more so. Along with gaudy possessions and unlimited subservience comes something far more vital: self-justification. It's wealth as affirmation. A case filled with more than $5 million in watches is not a mere collection; it is a statement.
Mayweather grew up in a boxing family in Grand Rapids, Mich. His father, Floyd Sr., fought 35 pro fights, including one against Sugar Ray Leonard. His uncle and trainer, Roger Mayweather, was the family's first champion. Floyd Sr., known around boxing as Big Floyd, spent five years in prison for selling
drugs, and he's had a soap opera relationship with his son after training him through much of his professional career. Mayweather's mother was a drug addict, since recovered. Asked to describe his childhood, he grows defiant. "My father was a drug dealer," he says. "We didn't have nothing."
Echoes of Grand Rapids are in every six-figure bet, every exorbitant purchase, every angry defense of his place in boxing history. He's determined to shatter the paradigm of the ignorant, servile pugilist. His ability not only to understand but to capitalize on his value is unrivaled in the sport, an expansion of the models established by pioneers Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar De La Hoya. In a sport that historically -- and, at times, criminally -- takes advantage of its performers, Mayweather uses the power that comes with being boxing's most valuable commodity to control the industry. It helps, of course, not only to be 42-0 and a five-weight-class world champion but to exhibit an unapologetic brazenness that incites
allegiance and disgust in equal measure. Indifference, as any promoter will attest, is hell on sales.
"Love him or hate him, he's the bank vault," says Leonard Ellerbe, Mayweather's adviser and CEO of Mayweather Promotions. "Love him or hate him, he's going to make the bank drop." He is a one-man conglomerate, with a net worth -- not counting cars, jewelry and houses -- estimated at $100 million. Unlike manager- and promoter-dependent fighters, Mayweather dictates his share of fight revenue and his opponent's. He controls the gate receipts by setting ticket prices at the MGM Grand; for his May 5 light middleweight title fight against Miguel Cotto, they range from $200 to $1,500. He negotiates directly with HBO to set the price for the pay-per-view broadcast. HBO is advertising the fight for a "suggested" retail price of $59.95. (The Victor Ortiz fight, for which Mayweather earned $40 million, generated 1.25 million buys despite being pricey, at $59.95 for standard definition and $69.95 in hi-def.)
Mayweather resurrected the idea of renting movie theaters to show his fights live, and the Cotto fight is being aired in 440 theaters, most of which will charge about $20 per person. He helped HBO develop the idea for its 24/7 franchise, a documentary-style preview show that debuted for his 2007 fight with De La Hoya. The show is now a huge hit and standard fare for major fights.
"He's transcended the sport to become the franchise," Ellerbe says. "The business model is 100 percent his. When you're telling a guy, 'I'm making this, you're making this, we're doing it this way' -- well, when all that is in your hands, you're the one in control."
As Mayweather stands outside the Mercedes now, his jaw set hard against the anger in his eyes, he can be excused if he doesn't feel totally in control. It's a troubling time for the 35-year-old boxer. He has been unable, after repeated attempts, to reach an agreement to fight Manny Pacquiao, in what
could be the most lucrative matchup in boxing history. Instead, he is roughly five weeks away from facing Cotto and eight weeks from beginning a 90-day jail sentence for domestic violence against Josie Harris, the mother of three of his four children. The specter of those 90 days hangs over every early-evening workout, every seven-mile run down the Strip at 10 p.m. How will it tarnish his legacy? If past is prologue, not much. Mayweather has been mixed up in several violent incidents dating to 2002, when he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery after a fight with two women at a Vegas nightclub. None of it has affected his earning power. In the boxing business, fans don't expect purity. And the economies of both Las Vegas and his sport need him desperately. Perhaps that's why he was able to postpone his jail time until after the Cotto fight.
Control is no small concern. Mayweather's engine runs on it, along with equal parts confidence, machismo and flamboyance. During one of his recent workouts (he's known for his epic three-hour sessions), two long rows of folding metal chairs in the gym are filled. There are women in heels (stilts?) and painted-on clothes, children in shorts and tank tops, men who have somehow found their way into the inner circle. After a session on the mitts with his uncle Roger, the cheers reverberate from the margins of the ring. Floyd likes the gym hot, so the women are constantly fanning themselves or consciously not moving, anything to reduce the risk of having their makeup sweat down their necks. One of the women is Shantel Jackson, known as Miss Jackson. She is Floyd's longtime fiancée. She's wearing an engagement ring that has an 18-carat diamond with 10 one-carat diamonds dotting the shank. The main diamond is roughly the size of an unshelled walnut.
She's not the only one who's flashing. There's the omnipresent 50 Cent, who says of his relationship with Floyd, "It works because neither of us needs anything from the other." For Floyd's 35th birthday, 50 -- or "Five," in Floydspeak -- designed and commissioned an open-wheel Formula One car with a spaceship-style cockpit that seats two. Fifty claims it's street legal;
it's preposterously cool. The cost: roughly $500,000.
Then there's the biggest outlier in the gym today: a seaplane pilot who runs a fishing resort on Canada's Andrew Lake, near the Northwest Territories. He winters in Vegas and spends most evenings sitting on the apron of one of the rings watching Floyd train. How he came to be here every day is unclear, even to him.
A member of Mayweather's team confides conspiratorially: "All those people in the gym? Floyd takes care of almost every one of them in one way or another. He's generous to a lot of people."
Their job descriptions, however, are whatever he needs them to be at the moment, in any moment. His security crew routinely receives calls at 2 or 3 a.m. to accompany the nocturnal Mayweather to a local athletic club for weights and basketball. On this day, his regular workout finished, the champ tells one of his helpers to beckon two women from his entourage into his locker room. As he showers, he calls for one of them, a tall, dark-haired woman named Jamie, to soap his back while he continues to carry on an animated conversation with five or six men in the room. Dressed for the club, she complies while making it clear she will not get into the shower. It's an uncomfortable moment, especially for Jamie, who goes about her work rather perfunctorily. To break the tension, 50 Cent summons his best Chris Rock.
"Damn," he says. "The man needs a little help. You can't trust nobody nowadays. What if something bad happens?" Who should be fired? That thought runs nonstop through Mayweather's head as he watches the betting-slip seekers stumble around the parking lot outside the gym. Who? Not Dave, his main runner, because Dave is trustworthy and responsible. Floyd is kicking himself over the Dave thing, because none of this would have happened if he hadn't been a good boss and let Dave leave early for the
weekend (early in Floyd's world: around 7 p.m.) to be with his family in Los Angeles. "I didn't want him driving late," Mayweather says. "See what happens?"
The car idles with a throaty purr. The lot resembles an anthill in a tornado: Everybody's scrambling around trying to look busy, stopping occasionally to think ostentatiously, as if the spirit of the slip might divine itself onto their brains.
Mayweather keeps repeating the information as he knows it. Possession of The Bag went from Dave to Kip to Vito to Five-Three, or some variation thereof. He repeats the names in greater and greater volume as his anger rises. He's got Dave on the car speaker while he talks to Five-Three, so named for the car number from his days as a driver for a New York City car service. Five-Three politely but forcefully tells Mayweather that he handed him the slip, along with his car keys, and that Mayweather put it in the pocket of one of the many sweatpants hanging in the locker room.
Mayweather doesn't remember. He was busy at the time, talking about business, planning the rest of his night and occasionally walking out of the locker room to look at the Heat game on the television in the lobby to "check on my money." All he knows is he's wearing sweatpants and there's no betting slip in the pockets. In fact, that's all anybody needs to know.
As it becomes clear that the slip will not be found soon, Mayweather leaves the lot and drives toward the restaurant. A phalanx of cars follows.
The mood in the car is somber. Mayweather turns to 50 Cent and says, "Five, I think somebody stole the motherf--ing ticket." He doesn't want to believe it, but he's left with no other choice. The money, nearly quadruple the U.S. median salary, is insignificant compared with the prospect of thievery. Thievery opens up possibilities no one wants to consider. Fifty, whose
demeanor has not changed through the entire ordeal, turns his head slightly and says with languor, "I've seen stranger things."
Mayweather's brain, always active, goes into hyperdrive. He recounts the bag's chain of custody one more time, from Dave to Kip to Vito to Five-Three, as if sheer repetition can solve the mystery. He sets up hypotheticals, saying, "If Five gives me a bag, I ain't giving that bag to nobody else without asking Five for permission first." He tells Tom, sitting directly behind him, to make a call and tell the three guys involved that they can't come back to the gym until the slip is found.
"Okay, P," Tom says, using a nickname that refers to the Pretty Boy days, and one reserved only for those on the inside of the inside. Tom makes the call, delivering the news with all the emotion of a guy ordering a pizza. Mayweather says he's going to call the sportsbook and put a hold on the payout until the slip can be found, the same way someone might stop payment on a check. Fifty looks up from his phone and says: "Floyd, you don't make that call. That's not how it works. Have Dave call."
Mayweather, agitated, agrees with 50 Cent but decides to let it simmer. "We'll wait and see," he says.
CONQUEST BEGAT EPIPHANY. You don't just decide to make $40 million a fight. You don't just decide to be your own promoter and set ticket prices and pay-per-view prices; you have to put in the work in the ring. There are times when that ego comes in handy too.
After defeating Zab Judah in 2006, a fight in which Uncle Roger earned a one-year suspension for entering the ring and scuffling with Judah and his father, Mayweather did something unique in boxing: He became a free agent. For a guy who'd already built a 10-year résumé as an undefeated pro who put fans in the seats, this represented going all-in. He divorced himself from
promoter Bob Arum's Top Rank by paying out a $750,000 buyout clause. Arum had offered Mayweather an $8 million guarantee to fight Antonio Margarito. The fighter and the promoter disagreed wildly on Mayweather's worth, and Arum publicly scoffed at Floyd's contention that a fight with De La Hoya could earn him $20 million.
On May 5, 2007, in his second fight as his own promoter working in conjunction with Golden Boy Promotions, De La Hoya's company, Mayweather beat De La Hoya, the WBC light middleweight champ, in a fight that generated a record 2.15 million pay-per-view buys. It produced more than $200 million -- including a record $19 million live gate and $120 million on PPV -- and made Mayweather realize he could take economic control. He says he went from making $5 million to $7 million per fight to at least five times that in each of his five fights since splitting with Arum.
"Floyd's nickname before that fight was Pretty Boy Floyd," says Richard Schaefer, president of Golden Boy. "Afterward, he became Money Mayweather. That's no coincidence."
Behind the scenes, Mayweather took the necessary steps to maximize his financial power. He made an adviser out of music-promoter-turned-boxing-impresario Al Haymon, a famously reclusive, Harvard-educated marketing genius. Ellerbe, who runs Mayweather Promotions, takes the fighter's ideas to the negotiating table, with Haymon's guidance always a phone call away (they speak 12 times a day). Ellerbe is also the guy who spends seven hours in a Mayweather-Cotto marketing meeting in LA while Floyd trains.
It costs roughly $10 million in fees -- site rental, infrastructure, promotions -- to put on a big fight. Mayweather Promotions essentially fronts the money, paying Golden Boy on a per-fight basis to handle logistics. As Ellerbe describes the relationship, "If you run a construction company, you have to hire someone to pour the cement."
Says Mayweather: "I feel that sometimes my name is spoken in a bad way, but never in business. In business, it's spoken in a good way. I've always done good business."
HE HAS MADE $30 million to $40 million for each of his past four fights. His last three have produced more than a million PPV buys apiece, another record. He partnered with 50 Cent on a movie production company and has his own record label. He says he eschews endorsement deals despite many offers -- "I don't want to sell myself short for a company," he says.
The formula is obvious: Who makes money on Mayweather? Mayweather.
"In everything he does, Floyd's betting on himself." Ellerbe says. "He puts up the money, bets on himself and hits a home run every time."
And there's nothing Mayweather loves more than a sure thing.
Which brings us, inevitably, to Pacquiao, the one fight the world wants to see.
Mayweather contends he doesn't need Pacquiao as much as the Filipino fighter needs him. This, more than fear, seems to be the root of the disagreement. Why? Because Mayweather took control of his career, and he believes Pacquiao is working under the old paradigm, generating money but not realizing it. According to Mayweather, the $40 million guarantee he offered Pacquiao far exceeds whatever he's made in any one fight; how Pacquiao's camp splits it up is not Mayweather's business.
"The money that Floyd offered him, Floyd makes in every fight," Ellerbe says. "Factual." Michael Koncz, Pacquiao's adviser, met with Mayweather several times to try to hammer out a deal. "I was pleasantly surprised," Koncz says. "Floyd was very professional, very cordial and very knowledgeable. He's a good businessman, and there was not one curse word between us." Still, he says it would be stupid for his fighter, who is 54-3-2 in his career and an
eight-weight-class champion, to accept $40 million on a fight that will reach $150 million to $250 million in revenue. Take away roughly $10 million in fees and a 50-50 split means at least $70 million each. "Why would Manny accept $40 million?" Koncz asks.
Because, Mayweather says, Pacquiao can't get that much anywhere else. But Koncz says Mayweather's math is faulty when he says the two men earn at far different rates. "Floyd's not making more than us," he says. "People have convinced him that Manny's making much less, and that's not true."
The sniping, going on two years, is nasty and often sophomoric. Pacquiao is proceeding with a defamation suit against Mayweather in response to his rival's suggestions that Pacquiao's success is due, in some part, to performance-enhancing drugs.
It's the ultimate test of Mayweather's boxing ability--and his business savvy. Regardless of what Mayweather thinks of Pacquiao's tactics, it's clear his adversary is not the traditional subservient fighter. Pacquiao isn't taking what's offered with a smile and a thank-you. He and his people have watched Mayweather. They now understand a boxer's worth too.
During one of their talks, according to Koncz, Mayweather dropped his guard.
"What if I lose?" Koncz says Mayweather asked. Taken aback, Koncz answered: "Well, what if you do? Then we'll have a rematch and make even more money."
THE MERCEDES is stopped at a light across from the Wynn Country Club when Tom's cell rings. It's the first phone activity in the car since Tom, on Floyd's order, cut off gym access to the three workers. In those few minutes, Floyd's demeanor has gone from vocal agitation to quiet anger. The call returns everything to high alert.
"They found the ticket, P," Tom calls toward the front.
"Where was it?" Floyd asks.
Tom hesitates. He closes the phone and places it in his lap.
Should he say it?
A moment passes.
Floyd asks again.
Oh, what the hell.
"It was in the sweatpants, P."
Tom looks absently out the window. Fifty sneaks a glance to his left, a little smile on his face. The mood shifts. What now? The threat of a rat, or rats, has lifted. Three men are exonerated by a search of a pants pocket. At least one part of the champ's life has retained its order. Control is restored.
A Hayes song drifts through the cabin of the Benz.
What now? They await his reaction.
Mayweather gives a satisfied nod but otherwise doesn't respond.
Their restaurant of choice tonight is a Japanese place the fighter frequents with his crew. Inside, the mood lightens. Floyd's buoyancy returns. He addresses the group by telling his first-time visitors that he drops 10 grand a week in the place. "You order whatever you want," he says. "Everything's on me."
As the waitstaff scrambles to seat the party of 18 around two teppanyaki tables, Mayweather discovers that his favorite chef is not working. This
won't do. He calls the waiter over and speaks to him briefly. The waiter nods vigorously and pulls out his phone. Within 15 minutes, Mayweather's favorite chef is standing before him, smiling and bowing as he sharpens his knives and heats up the grill. The champ, it's safe to assume, is a good tipper.
Before the food is served, though, Five-Three and Vito arrive at the restaurant. They find their boss, leave a bag -- not The Bag, but a bag nonetheless -- next to his chair and depart quickly. Mayweather opens the bag and places the contents on the table: $80,000 in hundreds.
Mayweather smiles and nods. The slip was found, the money delivered. His friends surround him, honored to be in his presence. Kip the bodyguard patrols the parking lot outside the restaurant. The stack sits in front of Mayweather, another victory, its precision and order glorious in its symbolism. He looks down at it, pleased.
Love him or hate him, he is the champ, still undefeated.
In ESPN The Magazine, Tim Keown writes that Floyd Mayweather Jr. does the hiring, selling and boxing for every one of his fights. That's why he's money.