/ 16 September 2011

Money talks in the ring of hard knocks

The man they once called Pretty Boy sinks his bruised hands into a steel bucket filled with ice. In a stifling gym behind a grimy side street in downtown Las Vegas, Floyd Mayweather Jr bows his head as the cold eases the hurt in his knuckles and joints. As the world’s best boxer, Mayweather’s fists have dazzled every one of his opponents while compiling a perfect 41-0 record that stretches back 15 years.

After an intense afternoon of sparring the only sound that can be heard is the soft crunch of ice as Mayweather looks up with a curious smile. In the mood to be as charming as he is compelling, the fighter shows me his glistening hands. They look surprisingly small.

“Yeah,” Mayweather says. “These are very small hands.”

They still earn him millions every time he fights. This Saturday, at the MGM Grand in Vegas, Mayweather will serve up a timely reminder of why his nickname these days is “Money”. Pay-per-view figures for his WBC world title welterweight bout against Victor Ortiz, who, at the age of 24, is 10 years younger, will ensure Mayweather racks up another multimillion-dollar purse.

He will seem a long way then from the sickly hookers and junkies who limp down the street a block beyond the boxing gym he owns. Mayweather finds refuge here from his trouble in real life. His most obvious problems are listed in the unresolved charges of assault, battery and coercion laid by several people — from the estranged mother of his children to security guards who claim to have been punched by him. He is also embroiled in an epic war with his father, Floyd Sr.

The scars of their relationship run deep — and can be traced back to the moment when Floyd Sr, then a professional boxer, held up baby Floyd as his shield when he was shot in the late 1970s. Years later Big Floyd ended up in jail, after being busted for cocaine dealing, and he had to allow his brother, Roger, to become Pretty Boy’s trainer. The wounds have never healed.

Mayweather Jr now has different matters on his mind. “I’m going back to business with these hands,” he says, returning them to the ice-bucket. “They let me live my life.”

A few hours earlier, “Money” Mayweather had won a big bet. “A hundred thousand dollars,” he murmurs with husky drama. “But I once won a million dollars on a bet. Yeah, I’ve lost a few big ones. Once I lost two hundred thousand dollars. It’s my money. I can do what I want with it. But you can tell by my boxing record what I’m more used to doing.”

We are jammed together on chairs so close, nose to nose, that it is hard to stop sweating — even if Mayweather has more of an excuse after a riveting display of his training regimen during the preceding 90 minutes. His iron discipline contrasts with the chaos that threatens to engulf him outside boxing.

Mayweather has been accused of many crimes and lapses in decency, but few fighters can match his dedication. Even when out of the ring, as he has been the past 16 months, he is never much over his fighting weight. And he is rarely far from the gym –no matter how many court orders are heaped on him. Such impressive commitment has flowered out of a desolate place inside him.

“Exactly,” he says quietly. “You know, as a young child, I lay in my bedroom and I swore to myself then: ‘I’m not going to smoke and I’m not going to drink.’ And I said I’m not going to just say that when I’m a kid. I’m going to stick to that as an adult. I kept that in mind my whole life.”

His mother was ravaged by drug addiction and her plight hardened his resolve. “My mother, you know, had a difficult time. She drank. She smoked. She was on drugs. Of course, my dad was a drug dealer. A hustler. You know my background. But it’s not so abnormal. Most young black people go through that same life.”

Mayweather’s eyes glaze briefly. “I would lie in bed, and I was nine years old, and say to myself: ‘I want to be the richest man in the world.’ I’ve come a long way from there. Yeah, I’m loud. But I’m backing it up. I’m still hungry, dedicated. I’m one of those very strong individuals.”

Mayweather denies the allegations against him, insisting that the legal cases are motivated by vengeance or greed. “My mentality is the same — always. It comes with the territory. All kinds of things have been said and I just believe what will be, will be. If I’m guilty, come get me. If I’m innocent, it all melts away. I know the truth and I’m not worried. You have ups and downs, but I’ve got the right lady in my life now [his fiancée, Shantel Jackson]. When we’re alone, she talks to me about certain things and only wants the best for me. Some people are just right for you.”

Waiting for Ortiz, his dangerous opponent, does not seem to unsettle Mayweather. “Boxing is real easy,” he says. “Life is much harder. That’s why there’s a difference between being talented and being God-gifted. That’s one of the gifts God gave me: to be the best. I feel a responsibility to live up to this gift. I ain’t got nothing against other legendary champions before me. But I’m the king of my era.”

There is another king of the ring right now. Manny Pacquiao is a real-life governor in the Philippines as well as the only fighter who cuts as riveting a figure as Mayweather. Pacquiao appears to be his opposite in many ways — he is humble and beloved, softly spoken and self-sacrificing. He is also a real fighter, a threshing machine in the ring, while Mayweather is an artist, a defensive master whose boxing skills bear comparison with some of the greatest names in this battered old business. Mayweather, however, needs to fight Pacquiao in a showdown that would test him like no other.

It would be the richest fight in boxing history, but negotiations have broken down repeatedly — partly because of Mayweather’s insistence that Pacquiao should be subjected to random drugs testing. Both men have risen through the weight divisions, but Mayweather argues that Pacquiao’s extraordinary climb needs closer scrutiny. Last month they reached another impasse, with Pacquiao’s lawyers asking a Nevada court to “issue a default judgment” after efforts to subject Mayweather to charges of defamation failed.

His trainer, uncle Roger, escalated tensions by claiming that Britain’s Amir Khan, who trains alongside Pacquiao while emerging as a credible opponent for Mayweather, must be on “the same juice”. Khan has vehemently denied the allegations. Does Mayweather Jr share his uncle’s highly dubious view of Khan? “It’s not my place to speak, because you know how fighters are these days. They get the lawyers into court real quick. They go crying to the courtroom. But you know what? My courtroom is that ring.”

Will he ever settle his differences with Pacquiao in a fistic courtroom? “I couldn’t care less,” Mayweather sighs. “I already know I’m the best.”

I think Mayweather would beat Pacquiao, but some experts disagree. “They’re wrong,” Mayweather says, pointing to Pacquiao’s record. “With three losses and two draws, he’ll never be in my league. He’s just a fighter who has been unbeaten for six years. I’ve been unbeaten [for] 15 years.”

It’s difficult to believe Mayweather and Pacquiao will not eventually fight. Ortiz, an aggressive southpaw who pressurises his opponents, could offer Mayweather the perfect preparation for his defining contest.

“They say I have problems with southpaws,” Mayweather grins. “Well, the last time I checked I was 41 and 0. So it’s obvious I’m doing something right. I make good fighters and even great future Hall of Fame guys look ordinary. But if I beat a guy that is 10 years younger than me, they’ll say, ‘Floyd, you had too much experience.’ If I beat a guy around my age, they’ll say he’s over the hill. I never get my just due.”

He would get deserved credit if he fought Pacquiao or, failing that, Khan. Mayweather against Khan should happen — partly because the American is so smitten with Britain and thrilled that Saturday’s fight will be screened there. He describes his British fans as the world’s boxing connoisseurs. “I am blessed to be embraced by them.”

His love of Britain extends to the three Rolls-Royce cars he owns. He has driven his cream Rolls to the gym today and, as the sun sinks across Vegas, Mayweather walks to the car in the company of three bodyguards so huge we are dwarfed by their shadows. After showing me around his car, he reflects again: “I still think of that nine-year-old kid,” Mayweather says, remembering his boyhood. “Lying on my bed. My mom strung out in trouble. A whole lot of trouble going on with my dad. But I pulled myself out of that place. I found dedication and discipline as a fighter. I’m proud of that.”

What would he say if his son wished to become a fighter, following the cracked family path of Little Floyd and Big Floyd? Mayweather shakes his head. “It won’t ever happen. My kids come from a totally different background. They know nothing about poverty. They know nothing about hardship. And that makes me happy. I’m glad they haven’t seen the things I did. I’m glad they don’t live the same life I did.”

Mayweather offers his hand, stressing with a light laugh that I can squeeze as hard as I like. “My hands are fine,” he says, the ice having eased the hurt in fists he will shut tight again on Saturday night.

A few minutes later the man called Money opens the blackened window of his cream Rolls. He flashes a winning smile and lifts his hand in farewell. The Rolls slowly picks up speed, heading towards Mayweather’s mansion and away from the strip joints and lonely junkies staring at him on the corner adjoining his gym. “There’s Money,” one of them suddenly shouts. “There’s Pretty Boy, living the life —” —