Before Mike Tyson fought Evander Holyfield, he shook off the rust against a pushover named Peter McNeely. Before Oscar De La Hoya stepped in the ring with Floyd Mayweather Jr., he used Ricardo Mayorga for target practice. Tune-ups are a rite of passage for fighters coming off hiatus, which is why it was surprising when Mayweather announced in May, after nearly a year of quasi-retirement, that his return to boxing would come against Juan Manuel Marquez, the reigning lightweight champion, who is universally recognized as the No. 2 pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
Surprising, that is, until the opening bell. Before 13,116 primarily pro-Marquez fans at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas last Saturday night, Mayweather, 21 months removed from his last fight, dominated Marquez from start to finish. He dropped the Mexican icon—who jumped up two weight classes for this fight—in the second round with a short left hook, and he used a rediscovered jab (courtesy of some free advice from his formerly estranged father, Floyd Sr.) to bloody Marquez's nose and leave his eyes swollen shut. Mayweather connected on 59% of his punches while deflecting or dodging all but 12% of his opponent's. Said Marquez, "He was too fast and a very good counterpuncher."
The only question Mayweather left unanswered is, Which opponent was he tuning up for? The intrigue picked up mere minutes after the final bell when welterweight contender Shane Mosley, reeking of desperation, ambushed him in the ring during his postfight interview. An hour later Mosley refused to cede the stage to the former champ at a press conference. It was a performance so scripted that you expected WWE star Triple H, a member of Mayweather's entourage on Saturday, to step in and plant Mosley with a Pedigree. "That was bulls---," says Mayweather's adviser, Leonard Ellerbe. "If you are looking to make a fight with Floyd, the last thing you want to do is upstage him."
The most logical next opponent for Mayweather is Manny Pacquiao, who claimed the mythical title of world's No. 1 fighter while Mayweather was absent. Pacquiao, who will face WBO welterweight champ Miguel Cotto in November, has proved with wins over De La Hoya and Ricky Hatton that he is a force at anything from 140 to 147 pounds. He and Mayweather appear to be a natural fit. "If Pacquiao wins, that's Floyd's next fight," says a source close to Mayweather. "There is way too much money there."
Until then Mayweather will rest, comfortable in the knowledge that in his return he delivered a commanding performance. De La Hoya himself offered a succinct judgment. "The king is back," he said. "And he's back with a vengeance."
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Floyd Mayweather spent a considerable amount of time during fight week taking shots at Oscar De La Hoya (below), calling his ex-rival, now a promoter, "a phony" and telling reporters that "deep down he still wants to fight me." Not so, De La Hoya told SI: "I'm happily retired. He can try and get me in the ring all he wants, but it's not happening."... Juan Manuel Marquez will likely return to lightweight, where one potential opponent is Michael Katsidis, who won a split decision over Vicente Escobedo to claim the WBO interim title on last Saturday's undercard.... Keep an eye on junior middleweight Erislandy Lara. The former Cuban champion, 26, improved to 8--0 on Saturday with a one-punch knockout of veteran Jose Varela.
ROBERT BECK (MAYWEATHER)
WEATHER BEATEN Marquez (left) was smothered by Mayweather, winning only three rounds on the refs' three cards.
STEVE MARCUS/REUTERS (DE LA HOYA)