A bad guise
By defeating Oscar De La Hoya in a May split decision, Floyd Mayweather Jr. not only confirmed his stature as the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world, he won on a stage that drew a record 2.4 million pay-per-view buys.
Mayweather played the villain in the fight’s promotion, repeatedly goading De La Hoya with press tour antics that were often criticized as childish, flashing lavish jewelry, pricey cars and bundles of cash on the HBO reality series “24/7,” and dressing in a sombrero and the colors of Mexico’s flag for the bout.
Now, as the unbeaten Mayweather, 30, nears a Saturday night World Boxing Council welterweight title defense against undefeated Ricky Hatton of England at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, he seeks not only a victory in the ring, but a further boost in his efforts to become a crossover celebrity.
“I told you guys -- I’ll be a mega-star,” Mayweather said to reporters Wednesday at a pre-fight news conference.
Against De La Hoya, Mayweather (38-0, 24 knockouts) again displayed the skills of an exceptional boxer whose defensive quickness and supreme fitness have made him a six-time world champion in five weight classes.
No one had questioned Mayweather’s boxing gifts, but as he drew pre-De La Hoya fight pay-per-view crowds of 365,000 against Arturo Gatti, 375,000 versus Zab Judah and 325,000 in a yawner over Carlos Baldomir, questions about his widespread appeal in a slumping sport dogged him.
Mayweather’s critics contend that his villain role is no act.
“If you’re trying to win fans, you don’t act the way he does,” said Bob Arum, Mayweather’s former promoter. “He demeans others. He acts like a thug. If that’s your plan to build an audience, that’s an embarrassment. He needs an ‘A’ side, you know -- someone you like -- but he’ll always be a ‘B’ side. His act is not cute, it’s offensive. And boxing is better off with guys like Oscar, who conduct themselves like a sportsman, a gentleman.”
Hatton, a pint-swilling Brit in his non-training days who had hundreds of his countrymen serenading him outside Wednesday’s news conference, similarly doubts Mayweather can build a crossover audience because of his behavior.
“Flaunting his money, it’s like he’s bringing disrespect to people: ‘Look what I’ve got, and look what you don’t,’ ” Hatton said. “That’s not going to endear himself to the public. Having security around him, telling the fans, ‘Get away, get away.’ . . . I don’t need security. I walk right through the casino.”
Yet, with two-division champion Hatton (43-0, 31 KOs) promising an aggressive attack to Mayweather’s speed, the fight sold out of $10.5 million in tickets in less than an hour, and the bout’s promoter, Richard Schaefer of Golden Boy Promotions, said the numbers indicate Mayweather will become the first non-heavyweight in boxing history to be involved in back-to-back bouts with more than 1 million pay-per-view buys.
“The business has always had a reliable fan base: Hispanic families,” HBO Pay Per View executive Mark Taffet said. “Floyd’s turned the tables, bringing in the urban markets like never before, and a younger market. He’s basically added a second leg to the stool.
“He’s young, energetic, has a million-dollar smile, and a background story of achievement.”
In fact, Mayweather is spending more time before this fight repeating his story of surviving a rough upbringing in Grand Rapids, Mich. His boxer father was shot before his eyes, then later sent to prison on a drug charge when the younger Mayweather was 16. His mother lapsed into drug use, and he recalls sleeping among seven children in a bedroom on rented furniture and taking cold-water baths warmed only by boiling water from the stove.
He still wears flashy jewelry -- a diamond-crusted bracelet was on his right wrist Wednesday and a diamond-coated watch was on his left -- and still bets heavily at Las Vegas sports books.
That “character” -- as his manager, Leonard Ellerbe, describes that side of Mayweather -- comes with a disclaimer.
“I don’t think I’m better than everyone else,” Mayweather said. “I’m telling kids when I show the money that, ‘You can have a nice car and nice house -- legally,’ by working hard. I pulled myself out of the struggle by dedicating myself to the sport of boxing. They might say I’m cocky and arrogant, but it’s not arrogant to believe in yourself.”
Since his victory over De La Hoya, Mayweather landed a spot on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” had a personal audience with presidential candidate Barack Obama, has been seen on MTV’s “Cribs,” and is in negotiations for “several” television projects, Ellerbe said. HBO also has advanced Mayweather-Hatton with another four-part “24/7.”
“Floyd is much more focused on being a successful businessman now,” Ellerbe said. “He’s changed the model for fighters, showing them how to take control of their own business. And when the year ends, he’ll be one of the highest-paid athletes in sports, behind only Tiger Woods and Oscar.”
Ellerbe pointed to Mayweather’s crossover potential by relaying a story about Halloween at the boxer’s home. After his childhood of scaled-back Halloweens, Mayweather made three trips to the grocery store to stock up on candy bars for kids in his gated Las Vegas neighborhood. He gave away so many that the children who’d seen him on “Cribs” basked in his generosity by urging him to “make it rain” Snickers, a nod to his public cash displays.
Schaefer, De La Hoya’s partner in Golden Boy Promotions, said after a few brushes with Mayweather during the earlier fight’s promotion, he has come to admire the champion’s improving maturity.
“He’s recognized what are the buttons to push,” Schaefer said. “You can say the first fight’s numbers were about Oscar, but here Floyd is again. He does add value, and if this fight does seven figures, then you can clearly say Floyd has captured a strong crossover audience by breaking through to the general public.”
De La Hoya was more cautious: “He’s on the verge. He portrays the bad guy well. He understands that’s what sells. The bad guy has a fan base.”
Outside, British boxing fans Shane Bibby of Yorkshire and his brother, Mike, of Hatton’s hometown of Manchester, agreed, saying they boarded a flight to Las Vegas to see their countryman punish his most skilled opponent yet partly because Mayweather has been too “disrespectful, and over the top with it.”
Mayweather, meanwhile, wants his less brash side to be known.
“Show both sides of me,” he said. “When a bum sees me at a [street] light, sometimes I give him $100 or $500. . . . I fed over 600 families at Thanksgiving, do a Christmas charity.”
“I may kill ‘em at the sports book . . . may flash $75,000, but [I] give away $30,000. God knows I’m appreciative. Why do you think I’ve had 38 great nights?”
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Won a split decision over Oscar De La Hoya to win the WBA junior-middleweight title
Knocked out Jose Luis Castillo in the fourth round and retained IBO light-welterweight title