'Money' back, guaranteed -- and here's why
Sports fans love an aging, once-great athlete making a late-career run in the unfamiliar underdog role. Just ask Sugar Ray Leonard. Or Pete Sampras. Would a return to the ring in a few years' time make Floyd "Money" Mayweather a beloved fighter?
Originally Published: June 16, 2008By Eric Raskin | ESPN.com
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty ImagesSugar Ray Leonard, left, won the adulation of boxing fans when he returned from a long layoff to defeat Marvelous Marvin Hagler in 1987.Let's get this out of the way right off the bat: Floyd "Money" Mayweather will fight again. The notion that his latest retirement will stand the test of time is about as likely as finding a chapter on how to accessorize with fishnet stockings in Oscar De La Hoya's new autobiography. So if we all agree that there will be a Mayweather 2.0, the question is, what will ultimately lure him back? The usual suspects are money and the spotlight.
Mayweather isn't going to miss the former because he has so much of it, he couldn't run out even if he sired nine children and bought a house with 109 rooms and a $17,000 electric bill. (I think.) The five-division former titlist is, however, going to miss the latter. He can sit in the front row at all the Lakers games he wants, and it won't be the same as being one of only two fighters in a ring commanding the attention of the sports world. The interesting twist, however, is that what I believe will draw Mayweather back will not be an urge to feel the same spotlight he's already felt. He'll come back because he'll pine to feel a different kind of spotlight -- a warmer spotlight. Mayweather has won 39 fights without a defeat, he's ascended to the top of pound-for-pound lists, he's fought in front of sold-out live crowds and the biggest pay-per-view audience in history. He's done it all. Except feel the love. Mayweather has been a great fighter, a famous fighter, arguably even a popular fighter, depending upon your interpretation of the word, but he's never been a beloved fighter. However, retiring at age 31 and coming back in a couple of years is his one chance to change that. The world loves an aging, once-great athlete making a late-career run in the unfamiliar underdog role. In boxing, we need to look no further than Sugar Ray Leonard for an example. Leonard wasn't all that old yet when he fought Marvin Hagler on April 6, 1987 -- in fact, Hagler was two years older than the almost-31-year-old Leonard. But the former welterweight champ had been retired for two years and 11 months, he came back as a massive underdog, and the boxing world responded with an outpouring of love unlike anything Leonard had felt before. Sure, Sugar Ray had been popular and overwhelmingly marketable throughout his career, but for every kid who called Leonard his favorite fighter, there was another one calling him a pretty boy and a media creation. When he returned and beat Hagler, he became something of a folk hero. There were still some detractors, because the decision over "Marvelous" Marvin was debatable and Leonard got a little too much benefit of too much doubt from one of the judges. But for the most part, it didn't matter who people thought won the fight; they were enjoying a love affair with Leonard. He was past his prime as a fighter, he'd grown beyond his best weight, but he was challenging himself and succeeding. That's how an athlete makes even those fans that reviled him a few years earlier come around and embrace him. Raise your hand if you couldn't bring yourself to root for Pete Sampras from 1993 to 2000, when he won seven out of eight Wimbledon titles, displayed the personality of a tumbleweed and dominated the men's tennis tour.
Denise Truscello/WireImageHow long will it be before Floyd Mayweather longs for the spotlight again?
Now raise your hand if you finally found yourself rooting for Sampras at the 2002 U.S. Open, when he came in as a balding 17-seed, who supposedly had no shot and was deemed "a step-and-a-half slower" by third-round opponent Greg Rusedski, but went on to win his final Grand Slam title. A more recent example is Brett Favre. The longtime Packers quarterback was always popular, but the public's affection for him intensified in his final years. Analysts gave him a free pass for becoming an interception machine, and Green Bay's unexpected run in the '07 season had every neutral football fan rooting for the gray-haired 38-year-old come playoff time. As a prime athlete who's never been an underdog, Mayweather never had a prayer of experiencing that kind of love. So he went the opposite direction. To sell his biggest pay-per-view fights against De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton and Arturo Gatti, he practically stapled the black hat to his head. Even when he fought Diego Corrales, who was about to go to jail for beating his pregnant wife, Mayweather couldn't fully assume the good-guy role. In his written statement to the media announcing his retirement two Fridays ago, Mayweather acknowledged his fans. "I want to personally thank all of my fans for their loyalty and dedication as my career comes to a close," Mayweather wrote. "I always believed that their enthusiasm and support helped carry me to victory with every fight I ever had. It was a great joy to have fought for all of you." Nobody is denying that Floyd had (and has) fans. Some of his supporters are blindly loyal and quite vocal, and it would be ridiculous to suggest his fan base isn't large. But it's still a lot smaller than Mayweather would like it to be, and he surely realizes that his fight with De La Hoya made $150 million because of who was in the other corner and because a lot of viewers hoped that guy in the other corner would destroy Mayweather. I don't doubt that Mayweather sincerely believes he's done with the sport. Whereas his previous talk of retirement was just him thinking out loud, this time, he means it. But about two years from now, in 2010 -- maybe in November 2010, a Leonard-like two years and 11 months since Mayweather's last fight -- perhaps if someone like Miguel Cotto is still undefeated and sitting atop the pound-for-pound lists, Mayweather will reach a point where he can't stay retired any longer. He'll be 33 then. He'll be past his prime and an underdog against the 30-year-old Cotto. Experts will say he was gone too long and he doesn't have a chance. And fans that spent years praying for Mayweather's demise will suddenly, uncontrollably find themselves hoping he upsets the odds. Going out in your prime and undefeated makes for a fine ending. But it wasn't a storybook ending for Floyd. Villains don't live happily ever after. So Mayweather will be back, if for no other reason than for a chance to play the hero. Eric Raskin is a contributing editor for and former managing editor of The Ring magazine.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty ImagesIt wasn't until Pete Sampras lost a step or two that he became the darling of the tennis world.