The months leading up to WrestleMania 24 have seen the usual build-up of feuds that have wrestlers squaring off over title belts and grudges both big and small. The difference this year was that much of the hype surrounded a match featuring one man who isn’t even a wrestler by trade.
When Floyd Mayweather Jr. steps into the ring in Orlando’s Citrus Bowl, he won’t be the first boxer to venture into pro wrestling. Some of the biggest stars in the sport’s history, names like Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis, got involved in one way or another, and WWE fans don’t have to think back too far to remember Mike Tyson playing a prominent role at WrestleMania ten years ago.
What makes Mayweather’s participation a little different is that he is no retiree or faded star. Only a few months past his 31st birthday, he’s a five-division champion sporting an unblemished 39-0 record. Just last year, Mayweather fought in the highest-selling boxing pay-per-view of all time when he won a split decision over Oscar De La Hoya.
Clearly, he’s still at or near the height of his powers. And while the WWE is often in the business of hyperbole, boxing experts agree that billing Mayweather as “The Best” is no exaggeration.
“Mayweather has been considered the best fighter, pound for pound, in the sport by most boxing writers and publications since Bernard Hopkins lost to Jermain Taylor,” said Doug Fischer of MaxBoxing.com. “However, although I’ve had him in my top five since 2001, Mayweather was never my number one pound-for-pound choice until the end of last year, when he knocked out Ricky Hatton.”
Kevin Iole, boxing and MMA writer for Yahoo! Sports, has had him ranked first on his list of top boxers since 2005. When asked about what sets Mayweather apart from his contemporaries, Iole is quick to point out his uncanny defensive prowess, an ability to avoid getting hit that should come as little surprise to someone whose first boxing nickname was “Pretty Boy.”
Mayweather’s knack for frustrating his opponents is part nature and part nurture. Blessed with plenty of talent of his own, he also has boxing in his bloodlines. His father, Floyd Sr., was a welterweight contender who first taught Junior the ropes and Uncle Roger — who trained Floyd Jr. for much of his career — was a world champion in two weight classes. Even a young uncle, Jeff, held a minor title at one point and is actively training boxers today.
Though the Mayweather clan is famous for its bickering and ever-changing relationships, there’s no question that the wisdom Floyd Jr. has gained from his family has helped add to an already impressive set of skills.
“I think Mayweather is the best combination of natural ability, practiced skill and technique, and athletic dedication among all currently active prize fighters,” Fischer said. “He’s a tremendous athlete, he’s an intelligent boxer and a genius ring general. He understands timing, distance and tempo — and is able to control those elements of a fight — better than any other active fighter, save for perhaps Hopkins.”
Iole sums it up even more succinctly.
“He’s got a solid right hand, a great jab,” he said. “He’s faster than anybody we’ve seen in a long time and pretty much smarter than anybody else.”
Even with all that going for him, Mayweather’s career has really only taken off over the last few years. While he had little trouble dispatching his opponents, he found it more difficult to catch on as a pay-per-view attraction.
Part of that was due to a fighting style that was somewhat unfriendly to boxing fans. Though his lightning-fast hand speed could be flashy enough, Mayweather didn’t always put himself in harm’s way every time out or “close the show” by knocking out overmatched foes. His skill involved knowing exactly what it took to win, and as Fischer put it, if he knew he could win a round with 15 punches, “he’s not going to give the fans 16 punches.”
There’s also a question of whether Mayweather has ever been able to find a foil to push him to the limit. The scorecards say De La Hoya gave him his toughest fight, but many ringside observers thought he won by a more comfortable margin. Great Britain’s Ricky Hatton brought in a 43-0 record and a bruising, relentless style to their fight last December, but after a few rounds to figure him out, Mayweather was in full control the rest of the way en route to a 10th round TKO.
A criticism that has constantly hounded Mayweather is whether or not he’s faced enough elite competition to be considered one of the all-time greats. Iole thinks he has, naming Diego Corrales, Carlos Hernandez, Jesus Chavez and Jose Luis Castillo as proof.
For his part, Fischer isn’t as convinced.
“He’s done enough to be considered one of the best boxers of this era and he’s certainly a first-ballot hall of famer, but when the best fighters you have beaten are a 35-year-old Oscar De La Hoya, a faded Genaro Hernandez, an underachiever like Zab Judah and tough but limited bangers like Jose Luis Castillo and Diego Corrales, I don’t think you get to put your name next to Pernell Whitaker, much less Sugar Ray Robinson or Henry Armstrong,” he said.
Just as much disagreement exists over Mayweather as a person. Iole describes him as a “good guy,” someone who fully understands that what he does is entertainment. He tells an anecdote about Mayweather giving him a playful wink on the way out of a press conference moments after he had verbally run down Arturo Gatti, as if to suggest that it was all part of the show.
Fischer calls him an egomaniac and uses an even more colorful term to punctuate his feelings. He thinks Mayweather has to play the bad guy because that’s his true nature. It’s hard to argue that he’s more at ease as the villain, as he played that part to a tee when he fought Gatti, De La Hoya and Hatton.
Even the WWE seems resigned to that fact, playing up his Money Mayweather nickname and having him flash his cash around during his promos and in-ring segments. Except for the warm reception he got in his debut appearance in Las Vegas — his current place of residence — he’s heard more boos than cheers from the WWE fans and heads to Orlando in the unusual position of playing a heel David to Big Show’s equally heel Goliath.
It remains to be seen if Mayweather’s act plays on the biggest wrestling stage of them all. The WWE is betting heavily that it will, though Iole says the true amount of the federation’s financial commitment is likely less than half of the $20 million figure that was thrown around a few months ago.
Mayweather himself is happy to play the hype game, and understands self-promotion like few others — witness his stint on Dancing With The Stars. “Any other fighter, you’re like ‘oh, he’s a fighter, he’s a boxer,”‘ Mayweather told a wire service in a phone interview. “With Floyd Mayweather, it’s like, ‘oh, well, you know what? He’s an entertainer.’ That’s what I do. I entertain. Well, why not be with the biggest vehicle and the biggest entertainment company in the world?”
The experts agree that even if this is Mayweather’s only bout in a wrestling ring, fans haven’t seen the last of him in a boxing ring. He’s tentatively scheduled for a rematch with De La Hoya in the fall, and beyond that, he knows he’ll need to be the name that sells pay-per-views to the masses. With a worldwide audience of fans set to tune in to WrestleMania, regardless of what goes down in the ring, he stands to walk away a winner in the game of name recognition.
“There are hundreds of thousands of pro wrestling fans who have heard his name, and perhaps seen him fight once or twice, who will get to know his face and personality better,” Fischer said. “They will be more apt to talk about him to hardcore fight fans, and even folks who don’t watch boxing or wrestling who overhear the conversation will think, ‘Hmm, I guess this Mayweather character is somebody.'”
TALE OF THE TAPE
Age: 27 (2-24-77)
Weight: 147 pounds
Title history: WBC Welterweight, WBC Light Middleweight, WBC Super Featherweight, IBO Welterweight, IBA Welterweight
Age: 36 (2-8-72)
Weight: 441 pounds
Title history: WCW World (2x), WWE World (2x), ECW, WCW tag (3x), WWE US, WWE Hardcore (3x), WWE tag (3x)
It took until WrestleMania weekend for the rules of the bout between The Big Show and Money Mayweather to come out. Turns out they are pretty simple: There MUST be a winner and anything goes. The match can be won by pinfall, submission, or knockout.