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Showing a brilliance that fans may never fully appreciate, Floyd Mayweather Jr. stayed unbeaten despite a furious challenge from Miguel Cotto

There is genius in Floyd Mayweather, a Picasso at work inside his sculpted 5'8", 147-pound frame. Last Saturday night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, with a determined and well-schooled opponent (Miguel Cotto) in front of him and a life-altering distraction (an 87-day prison sentence stemming from a charge of domestic violence) ahead of him, Mayweather delivered perhaps the finest performance of his career, overcoming an uncharacteristic bloody nose with all-too-familiar precision punching to outpoint Cotto, add the WBA junior middleweight title to his trophy case and run his career record to 43--0. A hypothetical blueprint for defeating Mayweather is circulating on Internet message boards: Apply suffocating pressure (as Jose Luis Castillo did in a narrow loss to Mayweather in 2002) and use a stiff jab (as Oscar De La Hoya did before running out of gas against Mayweather in '07). Yet when Cotto came inside, Mayweather beat him back; when Cotto tried to jab, Mayweather countered with thudding right hands.

The genius that is on gaudy display every time Mayweather laces on a pair of gloves may not, however, be fully appreciated, perhaps not ever. Too often the focus is on his trash-talking persona and his out-of-the-ring excesses. (He disses Jeremy Lin on Twitter! He makes million-dollar bets on NBA games!) These days the focus is also on whether Mayweather will ever sign to fight Manny Pacquiao, the Filipino superstar who has been his only rival for the title of best pound-for-pound boxer. What's lost as a result is a clear view of a fighter who, by dint of talent, a preternatural work ethic and a singular gift for self-promotion, has forged one of the greatest careers in boxing and made himself into a figure unique in sports.

Mayweather, in fact, makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Whenever Cotto landed a jab or launched a flurry along the ropes on Saturday, the crowd erupted. When Mayweather rocked Cotto with a hook or ripped his own jabs, a kind of resigned sigh came from the stands, recognition of the inevitable. Mayweather is the rare superstar athlete with more fans rooting for him to fail than to succeed. His rough talk, lavish lifestyle and polarizing antics have made him a target for criticism from boxing message boards to the mainstream press to PETA (for likening his gym to a pit bull fighting ring and for proudly wearing fur). But the notoriety has also helped make him rich, drawing in fans eager to see him beaten or just to see what he'll do next. Mayweather's $32 million guarantee against Cotto was the largest purse in Nevada history—and will likely climb to more than $45 million once the pay-per-view and closed-circuit receipts are counted.

His business model is more evidence of Mayweather's genius. Since breaking from Bob Arum and Top Rank, his original promoters, in 2006, Mayweather has set up his own company, Mayweather Promotions. For his fights he assumes all the up-front risk and thus controls every revenue stream, including foreign sales, site revenue and closed-circuit revenue. All the proceeds, minus what goes to the distributors and the network, are his. His eight previous pay-per-view fights generated more than 8.1 million buys and more than $446 million in revenue. Mayweather has no current personal endorsement deals, but he has attracted a wave of new sponsors into boxing, drawn by his appearances on Dancing with the Stars and Wrestlemania. Saturday's fight was supported by AT&T, Corona, DeWalt Tools and an unlikely fistic partner, the History Channel.

The fighter is also a brilliant marketer of his own social media brand, Money Mayweather. He has almost three million followers on Twitter, 1.4 million on Facebook. His YouTube channel has been hit just under five million times, while his workouts are routinely streamed on his website. To accompany him on his ring walk on Saturday, Mayweather brought in rappers 50 Cent and Lil Wayne and pro wrestler Triple H, and he recruited teen pop star Justin Bieber to carry a couple of his belts. Mayweather says he is a fan of Bieber's, though he is probably also a fan of the Beebs's 21.4 million Twitter followers. Bieber tweeted out #MayweatherCotto just as the HBO pay-per-view show went on the air, reaching a demographic that, it's safe to say, Mayweather has yet to penetrate.

All of this may ultimately overshadow Mayweather's career and undercut his legacy. If he retires without facing Pacquiao, there will be a symbolic asterisk on his record, a sense of incompleteness. Mayweather says he will fight Pacquiao, but on his terms. He believes that his unbeaten record, whether it includes Pacquiao or not, will cement his place among the greats. "Floyd wants acclaim," says former HBO Sports president Seth Abraham. "He doesn't want respect. He doesn't think the boxing public is worthy of his greatness. He doesn't respect the fight community, because they don't recognize his greatness. He cares more about that zero than he does about the fans' respect."

Money Mayweather, Floyd insists, is just a character, an alter ego that enables him to rake in the cash. Early in his career Mayweather had a difference of opinion with Top Rank on how to raise his profile. The company wanted to market Mayweather in heavily Hispanic markets, to tap the same burgeoning boxing demographic that had made De La Hoya a star. Mayweather made the choice to mine the more uncertain urban markets, dominated by African-Americans. It was brilliant foresight; today the urban markets for boxing are as vibrant as the Latino ones, and Mayweather is the biggest star in them. When TNT, which has a strong African-American audience, showed a replay of the first episode of this season's 24/7 Mayweather/Cotto after the Grizzlies-Clippers playoff game at 1 a.m. last week, it was watched in just under 900,000 homes, a huge number for that time slot. "[Mayweather] owns those markets," says promoter and former HBO executive Lou DiBella. "He has become the most popular fighter there since Mike Tyson."

Controversy sells, and Mayweather is a master at creating it. In February he weighed in on Lin ("Jeremy Lin is a good player, but all the hype is because he's Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don't get the same praise") because he knew it would get play on SportsCenter. ("I said he was a good player," Mayweather points out repeatedly. "That never got picked up.") He has allowed a decades-old feud with his father, Floyd Sr.—which bottomed out with a nasty public exchange before Mayweather's fight against Victor Ortiz last September—to fester in front of the cameras because he knows it is high drama that will bring people back to 24/7. In an interview on HBO with Georgetown sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson in the weeks before the Cotto fight, Mayweather reflected on his impending incarceration by comparing himself with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. He knew that, too, would get people talking around the watercooler.

Mayweather made a conscious decision to put on the villain's black hat, says his longtime adviser Leonard Ellerbe, the CEO of Mayweather Promotions, and he wears it with ease. It's as though he printed out rap lyrics and decided to live every line. He is booed by the crowds at press conferences and during weigh-ins and ring walks, but he knows what the payoff is. "It's must-watch TV," he says with a broad grin. "I'm carrying the promotion, and it's putting asses in the seats." The Cotto fight will push him well over the $500 million mark in total revenue generated and bring him close to 10 million pay-per-view buys.

Yet ultimately Mayweather knows his empire is dependent on more than hype. "I know I got to back up what I say," he says. He is acutely aware of that "0" on his record and recognizes that a loss would be crippling. It's what motivates Mayweather to train in the early-morning hours. It's why he works in his little sweatbox of a gym in 100º Las Vegas heat, why he repeats the words hard work and dedication over and over. "His popularity would drop off precipitously if he lost," says Abraham, who notes that this was not true of other idolized fighters of the past, such as Tyson, Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard. "It doesn't mean [he] would not try to go pay-per-view on his next fight, but it wouldn't shock me if he fought on regular HBO or Showtime. The single biggest reason people buy a Mayweather fight is because he is the pound-for-pound champ or co-champ."

Which brings us back to Pacquiao, the biggest threat to Mayweather's business model. Neither Pacquiao (who has passively pursued the fight) nor his promoter, Arum (who despises Mayweather and the people he works with), can be absolved of blame for the failure to make the fight, but Mayweather's excuses just don't track. He says Pacquiao needs to "take the test"—the random Olympic-style blood test for performance-enhancing drugs that Mayweather takes before every fight—but Pacquiao and Arum have both said Pacquiao would. Mayweather says he offered Pacquiao a flat $40 million, but the fight could exceed $150 million in revenue, and Pacquiao, whose gate and pay-per-view numbers since 2008 have been comparable with Mayweather's, suggests a 50-50 split. In that case, Mayweather said on Saturday night, "it's never going to happen."

On June 1, Mayweather will report to the Clark County Detention Center in downtown Las Vegas, where he will slip into a blue prison jumpsuit and spend the better part of the next three months in a 6-by-10-foot cell. (Mayweather pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic-violence and harassment charges stemming from an argument with his former girlfriend, Josie Harris, in front of their two children in 2010.) He says he is neither nervous nor depressed about his impending imprisonment. "My mind frame is, It's going to be what it's going to be," he says, a verbal shoulder roll as frustrating as his signature defensive move in the ring. "There's always been different obstacles put in front of me, lots of ups and downs in my career. I don't worry about it. It's small time. Can't nothing break Floyd Mayweather." He says he will spend his time in jail developing new business plans.

Mayweather's incarceration won't affect his boxing schedule; he is a twice-a-year fighter, and with a likely mid-August release date he could easily be ready to fight again later this year. Mayweather is the greatest defensive fighter of his generation, perhaps of all time. With his chin tucked, head back and shoulders rolling, he is virtually impregnable. Over his 16-year career he has evolved into a more stationary fighter, showing a greater willingness to trade punches his last few times out, but when he flips the defensive switch he is still untouchable.

That is what his legacy should be, not the never-ending drama with Pacquiao, not the cartoonish reality-television performance. Late Saturday night Mayweather said the odds were 80 to 20 that he would never fight again. It's a shame that all the hype and all the controversy have in a way caused a brilliant career to get lost in the shuffle.

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Photograph by ROBERT BECK

HARD NIGHT Mayweather, resting between rounds, had to summon all his prodigious defensive skills to hold off Cotto's assault, which split his lower lip and gave him his first bloody nose.


Photographs by ROBERT BECK

MASTER AT WORK Mayweather withstood Cotto's attack against the ropes (above) and jabbed him relentlessly in what might have been the finest performance of his 16-year career.