On The Polarizing Superstardom Of Floyd Mayweather, Jr.

Floyd Mayweather, Jr. is the young Muhammad Ali. He’s Sugar Ray Leonard. He’s a confused, simple-minded cartoon of the hip-hop ethic; he is the savviest of businessmen. He’s a good person. He’s a bad one.
It’s all up for the discussion now. Because of his superstar-making year in 2007, fully realized after his impressive win on Saturday over Ricky Hatton, Mayweather is one of boxing’s increasingly rare talents to cross over into the American mainstream. He was a contestant on “Dancing With The Stars.” He was on display in two different reality television series where every episode was watched at a healthy multi-million viewer clip. He graced the cover of ESPN The Magazine. Combined, his participation in May’s fight with Oscar De La Hoya and last weekend’s fight with Hatton means he is likely to break the record for most pay per view buys in a single year for any boxer.
It’s led to the comparisons and characterizations I started with, many of them accurate.
But Mayweather’s star is a polarizing one. And I want to examine it in-depth.

Of course, some people think he isn’t really a star. Or, at least, that he isn’t the mega-star he thinks he is. After all, in almost all of his biggest fights — with De La Hoya, Hatton and Arturo Gatti — his opponent was the main attraction. In the era since he began appearing as a headliner on pay-per-view cards, he was clearly the draw against Carlos Baldomir and Zab Judah. All three of his pre-De La Hoya pay-per-view headlining appearances did what, by boxing standards, are decent numbers: somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 buys. It took his opponent — Gatti — to vault him into pay-per-view contention. It took two other opponents — De La Hoya and Hatton — to vault him into the stratosphere. And yet, Mayweather is right to say that they all needed him to vault them upwards, too. As he has fought and defeated popular opponents, he has siphoned some of their stardom. And he has become a star in his own right. And, yes, a mega-star.
He has done it in part by playing the villain. One can debate how much of it is play, and I will momentarily. At bare minimum, he has played up his villainy. He admits it. Examine any of his public acknowledgments about playing the “bad guy.” Whatever their flaws, Gatti, De La Hoya and Hatton have images as “good guys.” Relentlessly savaging them — by the sound of things, Mayweather’s taken on a whole lot of “club fighters,” but also a “midget,” some “faggots” and a few other labels that few fighters would want to be slapped with — forces Mayweather into the role of “bad guy.” Bob Arum, Mayweather’s former promoter, says that this will always confine him to the “B side.” I doubt it. Boxing history is littered with fighters who were disrespectful to their opponents but managed to become “A sides.” It’s but one path to boxing stardom. What it does, though, is make it so a great many people tune in just to see Mayweather lose, because they don’t like him, and because they want to see him get his block knocked off. Same with most other historically disrespectful types.
Of course, a great many tune in just to see the best be the best. Don’t doubt for a second that Mayweather isn’t the best there is right now. His uncanny combination of physical attributes, intelligence in the ring and dedication to his craft give him all-time level talent, although he’s a long, long ways off from actually being the best of all time, as he ridiculously claims. At the moment? He’s the best, without question. Being the best, by itself, is not enough to guarantee stardom. Roy Jones, Jr. never became a major pay-per-view attraction. Some of that had to do with the shortcomings of his opponents. But on talent alone, Jones was a star. Bernard Hopkins, by the time he became a star, was as boring to watch as static when the television set goes out. But people bought his pay-per-view fights because they knew he was the best, and people like seeing the best be the best.
To take it to a level beyond that, a would-be star needs more than just being the best. That’s where marketing and business savvy comes in to play. I can’t attest to Mayweather’s own business acumen. I don’t know enough about it. I’d like to see someone report it out. On one level, I’m very skeptical. I visited Mayweather’s “Philthy Rich Records” website the other day. He’s been talking about it for years and years. I recommend you check it out yourself; I can’t imagine why it doesn’t sell CDs yet. I follow hip-hop avidly, but I can’t think of a time I’ve heard, even on accident, a Philthy Rich Records recording artist. As for promoting, well, Mayweather Promotions got a big plug Saturday night by co-promoting the Hatton fight. But Mayweather protege Wes Ferguson didn’t impress me terribly Saturday night, and getting knocked out crushingly by a — dare I say it? — “club fighter” in Edner Cherry is hardly a good start. Maybe Ferguson is just too young, but if so, it’s hardly a good promotional move to put him in too early against a decent, ferocious fighter like Cherry. I think Mayweather as “businessman” is largely an illusion, a dream that fits neatly into the modern-day hip-hop checklist of things to do for street cred. The business of Mayweather? That’s a whole different matter. Mayweather himself is a very profitable-looking venture. Either he’s savvy about self-promotion or he’s hired people who are savvy at promoting him, but either way, he gets credit, because he was smart enough to get himself on “Dancing With The Stars” or smart enough to hire someone to do it for him.
It certainly helps to have a market ready to be marketed to. Boxing has always been a sport where allegiances divide along ethnic and national lines. Hatton’s British fans were out in droves Saturday night. The Hispanic market propped up boxing in its pre-2007 down years, as Mexican fighters in particular have achieved sustained greatness in the ring. The urban market — read: black — has been hungry for a fighter they can unite behind for years. Mayweather is a fighter who appeals to a percentage of that market. His bragging, money-tossing persona is aligned ever-so-precisely with the hip-hop stars. If you don’t think that’s a part of his appeal, I recommend you visit any comments section of an article about Mayweather or message boards and read along as his fans drop hip-hop slang in praise of him.
It may not be possible to know whether Mayweather’s villainous and hip-hop antics represent the “real” Mayweather. It is undoubtedly true that, at least, Mayweather has a good side. Listen to him talk about his love of his mother and children. Read the accounts in his hometown Grand Rapids Press about his charity. That simply isn’t where the story ends. Mayweather’s had run-ins with the law, and he has emerged victorious from some of his scrapes. Not others. In 2004, he was convicted of battery, stemming from his fight with two women outside a nightclub. Taken together with a domestic violence accusation, later dropped in court, it’s at least reasonable to wonder whether Mayweather is completely in control of himself, particularly when it comes to violence toward women. That’s a disturbing propensity in and of itself. Considering his pre-conviction taunts toward Diego Corrales before their fight, when Corrales faced his own legal problems because of violence toward women and Mayweather vowed to win the match for battered woman everywhere, it’s also blood-boilingly hypocritical. Accounts of him personally vary. Some who have met him say he’s gracious and pleasant. Some who have met him say he’s quite the opposite. Maxboxing.com’s Doug Fischer, who has covered him for a decade, said Monday that he most certainly is not a “nice guy.” He’s probably a little of both, but again, I can only guess. His wild fluctuations between good and bad, kind and demeaning, suggest someone with a great deal of emotional confusion. Emotional stability — or even being a good person — is not a mandatory prerequisite for boxing stardom, and many fighters, including Mayweather, come from a troubled background which can be a negative influence on the shaping of their personalities. But there are a number of boxing fans who with good reason don’t find Mayweather very likable, because they judge what they see in front of them.
It is here where there is some debate about whether their are limits to the Mayweather star. I recently happened across an excellent blog via Deadspin that focuses on boxing — No Mas — where the writer, Large, made the affirmative case for a parallel between the young Muhammad Ali and Mayweather. I exchanged some views with Large on the website there. I think there’s a great deal right with the comparison, despite its on-the-surface blasphemy. Both were braggarts. Both were exceptionally gifted. Both represented dangerous blackness, in different ways. Both were self-promoters. Where No Mas went wrong was in flatly declaring that Mayweather, in the famous words of Larry Holmes, didn’t have “the complexion to make the connection.” That is to say, America wasn’t cheering him on more because he was black. Now, I’m not naive: Racism isn’t dead. Somewhere in America, someone rooted for Hatton to beat Mayweather because Hatton was white and Mayweather was black. But I sat and watched Mayweather-Hatton in a room full of bright people I’ve never heard utter a racist word, and almost all of them were rooting against Mayweather. It was the same for De La Hoya-Mayweather, even though the group of people was different. I suppose it’s theoretically possible that everyone I know is a closet racist — or that they are the kind of people who let race enter into whether they dislike someone — or that they thought of De La Hoya as more white somehow than Mayweather. But it’s really a stretch. I can tell you why they said they were rooting for Hatton and De La Hoya over Mayweather: They thought Mayweather was a jerk, and they liked Hatton and De La Hoya.
If it was true that the “Persecution of Mayweather” was strongly because of his race, then why have other black fighters become superstars in this country? There have been plenty of them, and they weren’t cookie-cutter. Ali, for starters. I can’t fairly estimate how many, because I didn’t live in his time, but I’m sure a great many white people who disliked Ali disliked him because he was black, and a loud-mouthed one at that. It just wasn’t the only factor at play. I was just watching a documentary the other day where Ali was featured — I can’t remember the name of it — and one expert said the public’s love for Ali began to blossom more fully well after he spent time out of the ring for protesting Vietnam. When he came back, he came back to many people who still disagreed with his stance, but respected him for it. No Mas sought to separate pre-Vietnam Ali from post-Vietnam Ali, but it didn’t, really; in accurately pointing out that the “mute” version of Ali has become a national hero, Large ignores that it wasn’t just his muteness that made him so — it was respect. When I watch Ali’s story on film or read about it in books, I find myself disliking him for advocating the separation of races, but liking him later for taking his stance on Vietnam. No Mas doubts his commitment to some of the ideals he espoused, and what 20-something hasn’t flirted with revolutionary, even extreme ideas that they didn’t truly embrace? The fact remains that Ali is still named Ali, and he’s still a Muslim, so something about his attraction to the Nation of Islam movement was sincere.
There just happen to be a number of other paths to being a black superstar fighter. Take Sugar Ray Leonard and Mike Tyson. If ever there was a fighter racist white America would root against, it would be Tyson. But they couldn’t. He was too exciting in the ring. He made a lot of fans with his devastating knockouts. To be sure, late in his career, he became a spectacle, someone to watch just to see what he would do next. But the Mike Tyson who had a video game named after him poses apt comparisons for Mayweather — a sometimes-villainous black fighter with a criminal record who was the best at what he did, but also sometimes showed a personable, kind side. If there’s a major difference, it’s that Tyson was always entertaining in the ring on his rise to stardom. Mayweather doesn’t knock out everyone he fights like Tyson did. And that’s crucial. Mayweather made no new fans among my friends for beating De La Hoya, but he impressed people at my Hatton-Mayweather get-together because of how he let his fists go and knocked Hatton out. If what a boxer does in the sport isn’t an important factor, just ask Sugar Ray Leonard. This Maxboxing piece lays out the comparisons between Leonard and Mayweather. When people liked what Leonard did in boxing, he was golden. When they didn’t, he was on the outs with fans. But Leonard always came across as someone America basically liked.
And the difference between being a superstar and being beloved, ultimately, often lies in likability. Leonard is beloved now, almost universally. His personality, plus his record of accomplishment, unquestionably are the reasons. Ali, even when he played the villain, was always infinitely more likable than Mayweather. He made people laugh. His rhymes were creative. Sportswriters liked him — all the writers who followed him in his career invariably have warm anecdotes to share of some personal touch Ali had with them. Sportswriters tend not to like Mayweather. There’s nothing particularly creative about Mayweather’s one-dimensional swill. Every now and then, sure, he’s creative with his insults. But he’s basically just variations on the same theme. He might as well be Ted “The Million Dollar Man” DiBiase, a white professional wrestler who was a “heel” because of his emphasis on money. Nor is Tyson beloved. After he went to jail for rape, he became far too divisive to achieve that.
Mayweather is not beloved by mainstream America; not yet. He is, in my mind, without question, a superstar. I bet his next fight sells plenty no matter who he takes on. He is a superstar for all the reasons I mentioned. Because he is a villain people want to see get his teeth knocked out. Because he is the best. Because he has marketed himself well. Because he has tapped into a market where there is a void. He could, conceivably, become beloved. He’s only become a mainstream superstar in 2007, and most of America’s opinion of him is not yet fully formed. If he matured — and a phrase often uttered in conjunction with Mayweather is “immature” — people might very well give him a pass for his loutish behavior of the past. But that’s mostly up to him, in the end. Americans who think it’s shallow to spend 90% of one’s time publicly pronouncing how rich they are are not likely to change their view of matters to accommodate Mayweather, and that kind of American comes in all colors.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.