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Original Issue

In the Fight of His Life


FLOYD MAYWEATHER JR. and 35 of his closest friends occupy a studio inside a warehouse near downtown Los Angeles. It's March. He's there to film a commercial for the upcoming Fight of the Century against Manny Pacquiao. Among his entourage are 10 women in miniskirts and nine bodyguards, thick men, no necks.

It seems easy. Knock out the commercial. Train. Fight Pacquiao. Collect $180 million. Dismiss the multiple allegations of domestic violence. Say you're Chosen, capital C, to deflect whatever people say about you, whatever turbulence—your word—you encounter. Buy another Bugatti, another Ferrari, another Maybach. Buy all three. At once. "Hey," two of your friends say as the richest fight in boxing history approaches, "people thought Muhammad Ali was an a------." Because that explains your status as the most divisive star in sports.

But it's not easy. Nothing with Mayweather is. He's the last of a certain kind of prizefighter, the kind who makes everyone around him rich, and that means he does and says exactly what he wants exactly when he wants. He's not beholden to corporate interests. He doesn't apologize. He doesn't admit guilt. He doesn't surround himself with anyone who might, every once in a while, say, Maybe that's a bad idea. And on this random Wednesday eight weeks before the biggest fight since Mike Tyson retired, Mayweather is running late and arrives to find that the water in his spray-mist bottle is too cold.

He shivers. He asks for music. He FaceTimes with Tom Brady. He shadowboxes. He fires imaginary jump shots. The water is warmed to his liking, and he settles into character, Money Mayweather, the guy who carries wads of hundreds as thick as bricks and drives a different luxury car to work each day.

"I like to make nine figures in 36 minutes," Money says.

The shoot ends. Mayweather thanks everyone and jogs into the green room. He's serious again, more serious than ever, and maybe that's because he's 38 now, or because he's worried Pacquiao will give him the first loss of his career after 47 wins. Or maybe he's just sick of being Money, the character he created. It seems as though he feels trapped, ready to move on, but unable to. "I'm over this," he says.

He exits the warehouse, dozens of acolytes in tow. "Don't love me when I'm old!" he shouts. "Love me when I'm young!"

That's complicated.

"Let's go home," he says.

THE MAYWEATHER Boxing Club in Las Vegas is a kaleidoscope of crazy: A woman wears only a man's dress shirt, a man arrives in a suit, an unlit cigar dangles from another man's mouth, an infant cries in a stroller, a woman trains with tmt—for The Money Team—bedazzled across her forehead, dozens wear sunglasses indoors. It's April. Any random Tuesday.

Four weeks from the Fight of the Century, Mayweather's father and trainer, Floyd Sr., has his own publicist. The walls throughout the gym have been repainted, the back clubhouse redone, signage splashed throughout.

A crowd of 200 watches Mayweather do sit-ups and jump rope and turn the speed bag into a drum machine, thwap-thwap-thwap-THWAP. There's Rick Pitino, the Louisville basketball coach. Because ... why not? He's wearing a striped-pink dress shirt and shiny blue loafers without socks, and he fits right in.

Mayweather never pauses between exercises. He zeroes in on Pitino. A new audience.

"I'm my own boss, Coach."

"I got my own real estate in New York City. High-rise."

"Why am I still fighting?"

Pitino smiles. Mayweather cranks up the discomfort.

"What the hell Duke doing with all them black players?"

"Why don't they like that Kentucky coach?"

"I was actually blown away by it," Pitino will say later, on the telephone, and he means the workout, not the chaos. "I've never seen a 38-year-old man train like that. I wish my players had seen it. They'd never complain about practice again."

True Mayweather Believers—TMBs—line the walls. They clap every time he pauses. They're here for Money, and for money, everyone with an angle, an ask.

This is Mayweather's cocoon. This is where perception doesn't matter but loyalty does, and not just any loyalty, but the blind, unquestioning variety. Here they thank Floyd Mayweather before God, because without Him (Him being Floyd) none of this would be possible. Here only one opinion matters—and it isn't that of the ex-girlfriend who said he hit her, or the courts in which he has been found guilty or pleaded guilty to battery five times in the past 14 years. Desperation mingles in the air with sweat. Some stand beside him while he trains, others pick up his dirty underwear or, as their sole role in camp, allow him to punch them in the stomach. Everyone wants to move up in the Mayweather hierarchy, which changes almost daily and exists only in Mayweather's head. It's a boxing Game of Thrones, except this iron throne is made of hundreds, and Mayweather rules with a gloved fist.

The TMBs clap. Mayweather drops a sparring partner with a left. The TMBs pound the ring apron. The gym temperature noses over 80°. A bodyguard shouts "NASCAR," and a team assembles, pit-crew-style, around Mayweather—someone wipes his forehead, someone tapes his gloves, someone massages his back.

Mayweather notices everything: who talked to whom, for how long; who left early; who failed to clap. His might seem like a crowded, frenetic existence. But it seems more of a lonely one. So few he can trust.

MAYWEATHER WAS the first and truest believer, and not just in his ability as a boxer but also in how he could market a persona way beyond his ring accomplishments. He sat in his first mansion, in the Spanish Trails area of Las Vegas, and sketched out the grandest plans as nights bled into mornings. He invited over his friend, an artist who went by Dunce, to design outfits and jewelry and hats. This was the late 1990s, when Mayweather told everyone, "I'm going to be the first fighter to make $100 million in one night."

He met with Seth Abraham, then the head of HBO Boxing, in 2000. Abraham proposed a four- to five-fight extension worth about $5 million dollars.

"I can't accept that deal," Mayweather told him.

"Why not?" Abraham asked.

"Those are slave wages," Mayweather said.

"Floyd," Abraham responded, "you've gotta show me the way to that plantation."

They laughed. But Abraham could already sense a change. He could see Mayweather trying on personas the way actors try on costumes. "He became chairman of a one-man board," Abraham says. "He also disguised a real intellect. A business intellect. He began to believe that money equals success."

Mayweather made the decision to adopt a new facade in 2007 on the occasion of his bout against Oscar De La Hoya. He made himself a villain. He didn't tell anyone. "I saw him on TV, on 24/7," says Ricki Brazil, a childhood friend. "He's throwing money into the camera. And he says, 'I'm Floyd (Money) Mayweather.' That's the first time I heard it."

That process of transition continued with his stint on the WWE. Pretty Boy Floyd retired, and Money Mayweather emerged. Mayweather had seen how his antics frustrated De La Hoya, how they changed the way he fought. Mayweather won by split decision. He became a superstar. He banked not millions but hundreds of millions. He welcomed the hate. At first.

Here was a young man so unsophisticated that when he signed with Top Rank after the 1996 Olympics, he showed up at its offices all sweaty because he had been rushing to pay each of his bills in person. He evidently preferred to pay in cash. And yet he saw, in the urban market, an opportunity that his promoters missed. He turned himself, with an assist from his shadowy adviser, Al Haymon, into the highest-paid athlete in sports, even as he declined endorsements. He seized his own narrative, in a way that LeBron James—who is beholden to the NBA and to his team and to his sponsors—cannot. "He always says, I say what you guys are thinking," says Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas, one of Mayweather's close friends. "He says whatever he wants."

Where Mike Tyson's rise in popularity coincided with the rise in hip-hop music, where De La Hoya's ascension mirrored that of the Hispanic demographic, Mayweather's climb to superstardom unfolded in the era of reality television and social media. In both he controlled the message. "We don't care what you think," says his manager, Leonard Ellerbe. "He's the banker, and it's me and him, going to the bank."

But the more money Mayweather stacked, the more quickly his enablers bent to his every whim. MGM Grand once gifted him a $400,000 Rolex, just because he asked. It became harder to separate the character from the person. Even though he has been convicted for those incidents of violence, Mayweather has tried to explain them all away, no bruises, no marks, no witness. But that wasn't true. The statement given by his ex-girlfriend in 2010 stated that the couple's children were present.

Money overshadowed those nights when Mayweather ran eight miles home from nightclubs, the 3 a.m. workouts, the one place—the gym—where he showcased unmatched discipline. If style triumphed over substance, then style was that over the top, that crazy, because Mayweather's boxing substance was always at an elite level. Here was a once-in-a-generation talent with the work ethic to match.

Before the initial news conference for Saturday's bout, Mayweather's personal assistant, David Levi, urged him to push Pacquiao. "I don't have to do that anymore," Mayweather told him. "I'm already going to make this money. People already don't like me. I don't need to sell myself anymore."

MAYWEATHER ARRIVES at the gym one Monday, and two boxers who train there are in a fight. One is Zab Judah. The other is DeMarcus (Chop Chop) Corley. Judah doesn't like something Corley posted on his Instagram account. Corley doesn't like the way Judah stares at him. So Corley sucker punches Judah, who, his nose bloody, follows Corley outside and down the street with something in his right hand that looks like a knife. Neither boxer is wearing shoes.

The very next afternoon Mayweather hosts more than 200 press types at the gym for Media Day. Judah is there, in the back.

No one mentions the ruckus. But Mayweather returns to his default theme. "I'm really over all of this," he says.

Mayweather seems different in the gym this time around: more serious, more restrained, less Money, more Floyd. Outside the gym his life may still be enveloped in chaos, but he guards his privacy more than ever. Information trickles out in police reports, or through various mouthpieces, or on the Showtime reality series over which one executive producer—Mayweather—has the final say. But in the gym, "It's not the Full Money, so to speak," says Stephen Espinoza, executive vice president of Showtime Sports.

Espinoza says he first noticed the change in Mayweather in 2013, when the fighter left HBO for a six-fight deal with Showtime. Espinoza and several others close to Mayweather point to three reasons for the difference: advanced age; his latest and longest jail sentence (for pleading guilty to battery), in the summer of 2012; and his reconciliation with his father. Even after that, though, Mayweather's former fiancèe leveled additional accusations of physical and emotional abuse. (Mayweather filed to have the case dismissed.)

Senior stands in front of his son's gym. "Floyd? Different?" he asks. "What does that matter? The whole world is looking to this fight, man. This is the ultimate. Who cares?"

That's the default response in Mayweather's camp, that money matters, that numbers matter, that relevance matters, and that criticism equals envy. But while Mayweather himself ascribes to this theory, he also wrestles with how he is viewed. He wrote his team a letter before this camp, saying there will be rules, and they will be tightly enforced—no shenanigans, no distractions (and, presumably, no knife fights).

Then he says he's better than Muhammad Ali.

Then he says people hate him for his lifestyle, for what he says.

Then he says he doesn't care about the money.

Then some 18 Ferraris rally from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to show support. Mayweather parks three of his own Ferraris outside.

Then Mayweather says one more thing.

"I'm allowed to contradict myself."

IT'S MEDIA DAY, which means a merchandise tent, an interview tent, a tow truck, a dust storm, a former Miss Panama, Lil' Kim, David Hasselhoff, Texas Tech football coach Kliff Kingsbury—and Mayweather arriving almost two hours behind schedule.

Mayweather tires quickly of the same questions, and it becomes clear what he wants to be known for now: his talent in the ring. His hat reads tbe, for The Best Ever, as does his shirt and shorts and socks. "I did all that loud talking to get to a certain point," he says. But what he wants now, what he wants most, he cannot buy, and that's where Pacquiao comes in. Victory won't erase the allegations, or the jail stints, or the public perception that long ago turned against Mayweather, all the venom that trails him like a cloud. But it could give him what he wants most, a more definitive case for a place among the greats. It's as though he wants to remember what it felt like before he became Money and before Money became a caricature and before that caricature came to define Floyd.

Those close to Mayweather insist he will retire after two bouts, Pacquiao and one more, the final chapter written in September, and then the entourage will shrink and the hangers-on will disperse, and Mayweather will spend and invest and bet the money that he generated.

Media Day ends. Dust blows through the parking lot. Workers break down the interview tent. Mayweather exits his gym and notices none of the storm that swirls all around him as he steps into one of two Mercedes vans idling outside.

His people, the TMBs, fill the seats around him, and the bus pulls out, away from all the haters, and heads off into the night.



Photograph by Robert Beck For Sports Illustrated

TBE? TBD At 47--0, Mayweather (left, against Marcos Maidana) claims to be The Best Ever, but knows his biggest test awaits.



Making Money Before his 2007 fight with De La Hoya (above), Mayweather made a decision to change his image. Since then the fighter (with Floyd Sr., right) has thrived—and gotten rich—as the villain.



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Public Displays Mayweather's bad-boy antics played fine in the clubs, but repeated charges of domestic violence have tarnished his once-clean reputation.



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