'God love me and I'm a hell of a fighter'

On the cusp of the biggest -- and maybe last -- fight of his career, Floyd Mayweather Jr. turns up the ego to tune out his demons.

Updated: May 4, 2007, 10:00 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN The Magazine

From their sentry posts guarding the inner sanctum of Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s Las Vegas training camp, Big Stack and GT see all. Leaning against the wall, on either side of the gym's doorway, their heads tilted back and chins upraised, they are two vital accessories to fame, blankly surveying the comic opera before them.

Big Stack and GT say little. Apparently there is a code among bodyguards -- the omertā of the oversized. Ask them a question, and they mumble a monosyllabic aside, discouraging conversation. Besides, there's enough noise here. The hyperbole flowing from their boss' mouth could make an empty room sound like a crowded aviary. And the coterie of hired company, 15 to 20 strong, has plenty to say too, always in support of Champ. Perhaps Big Stack and GT understand something fundamental about words: They are finite.

The two men showed up here at Barry's Boxing Center, hard by the strip clubs and restaurant-supply shops on Highland, just before noon on this Tuesday in late March. They stationed themselves outside the gym and broke into a light jog 45 minutes later when Champ rolled up in his white Mercedes CL65 AMG. They assumed their spots on either side of the vehicle while three young men inside the gym's lobby walked outside to stand silently next to the glass front door. Everyone was in place. There was no one else around.

Now, from their perch guarding the door, Big Stack and GT watch Mayweather pull two fist-size rolls of $100 bills out of his baggy sweats and toss them into one of the rings. They look on as Champ spars with a skinny young boxer named Pepito, dispensing four rounds of physical and verbal abuse, every jab to the head punctuated with a vicious "Shut up, b----!"

The sparring finished, Big Stack and GT stand motionless as Mayweather does 100 sit-ups at the edge of the ring, the assembled entourage issuing satisfied grunts at all the right intervals. He follows with the heavy bag and the speed bag and then the jump rope, his style frantic enough to make you question gravity.

It's just another day at the office, bearing witness to the epic workouts that lead Mayweather to proclaim that he has never once -- through 37 victories and exactly zero professional defeats -- been tired in the ring. When it's over, Big Stack and GT straighten up, stretch their oversize frames and silently walk to the Benz to dutifully flank the vehicle as Champ sits inside and talks on the phone with the engine running.

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Mayweather, the most cartoonishly self-absorbed boxer in the world, is on the cusp of his biggest moment: a May 5 überbout with Oscar De La Hoya. But wading through the menagerie of his entourage, while surveying the wads of cash on the canvas and the bruised feelings of poor Pepito, begs for an answer to a not-so-simple question: Just who the hell does Floyd Mayweather Jr. think he is?

Pound for pound, the 30-year-old Mayweather is the best boxer in the world. And by jumping a weight class to fight De La Hoya in Las Vegas for the junior middleweight title, he's front and center in one of the few remaining bouts with the power to stir the masses. If Mayweather wins, as most expect, he will earn his fifth title in five different weight classes, thanks in large part to extrasensory defensive skills and boxing's quickest, sharpest fists. But Mayweather himself might be the only person who considers the "pound-for-pound" title an insult. He agrees with it, sure, but adds the following: "I'm the greatest fighter ever." And his Greek chorus, never far away, nods its assent.

Self-inflation is a time-honored boxing tradition, nearly a requirement, but Mayweather has created a reality -- a group of men who serve as human mirrors -- to reinforce his beliefs. He calls himself "raw and uncut" and says he's one of the few athletes with the confidence and the popularity to truly "keep it real." This unpolished persona (he describes himself in machine-gun cadence as "the Living Legend, a.k.a. The Villain, a.k.a. Floyd 'Makin' Millions' Mayweather, a.k.a. Pretty Boy Floyd, a.k.a. Homeboy") arose from his frustration with being "programmed" to act in an image-friendly way by Bob Arum, his former promoter.

Arum started working with Mayweather after he turned pro, following the 1996 Olympics. When the promoter saw the 19-year-old's smile and effervescent personality, he envisioned the next Sugar Ray Leonard. In fact, he enlisted Leonard to mentor the young Mayweather on how to sand the rough edges and create a champion the public could embrace.

But it never took. Early in his career, Mayweather found himself in a private jet with two other Arum clients -- Leonard and De La Hoya. The would-be mentors understood that polishing an image makes a fighter a more bankable draw, both during and after his career. They saw Mayweather's promise and gave him suggestions on how to dress and how to handle the media. "You can be the next Sugar Ray Leonard," De La Hoya told him. "Keep winning and keep smiling."

Recalling the conversation now, De La Hoya says, "I was talking, but I knew it was pointless. It was going in one ear and out the other."

'THE WORLD AWAITS'
TV lineup for Saturday night's HBO PPV card (9 ET) from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas:

• Junior middleweights: Oscar De La Hoya (38-4, 30 KOs) vs. Floyd Mayweather Jr. (37-0, 24 KOs), 12 rounds, for De La Hoya's junior middleweight title
• Featherweights: Rocky Juarez (26-3, 19 KOs) vs. Jose Hernandez (22-3, 14 KOs), 12 rounds
• Junior featherweights: Rey Bautista (22-0, 17 KOs) vs. Sergio Medina (28-0, 16 KOs), 12 rounds, title eliminator

The message from Mayweather was clear: You do your thing, and I'll do mine. The etiquette lesson ended with De La Hoya and Leonard talking to each other while Mayweather just stared out the window.

One man's "raw and uncut" is another man's ego-maniacal and unsavory. Mayweather's tempestuous personality has drawn detractors -- like bugs to a light -- who acknowledge the talent but question its owner. Perhaps that explains why many of the sport's cognoscenti, including HBO commentator and Mayweather nemesis Larry Merchant, predicted he'd get his comeuppance last November, courtesy of the rugged Carlos Baldomir.

Over the course of that fight, Mayweather battered Baldomir with sadistic ease, winning the 12-round bout with a style more clinical than crowd-pleasing. But instead of lauding him, Merchant flip-flopped, complaining that Mayweather had yet to prove his mettle against a worthy opponent, and that he should have gone for the early knockout to give the fans a show. Afterward, Merchant asked Mayweather, "Do you think this was particularly entertaining?" Mayweather responded with a bilious torrent of invective, accusing Merchant of rooting against him. The boxing world, it seemed, couldn't be satisfied.

Mayweather allows few glimpses into his soul, but there are times when the defenses drop and the world sees him as a young man who is unsure, perhaps even tormented by the pressures of his stature and lifestyle. Forty minutes after beating Baldomir, he broke down in the postfight press conference without provocation. With nowhere to hide and no Big Stack or GT guarding the door, the champ turned to HBO executive Kery Davis and cried on his shoulder. Through his tears, he announced his plan to retire after one more fight, in the prime of his career. De La Hoya, it turns out, could be his last opponent.

Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Jim Fiscus for ESPN The MagazineBeing Floyd Mayweather Jr. means keeping plenty of hired company close at hand.

Asked about that scene now, Mayweather waves it off as "nothing, just a relief, a way of getting on my knees and thanking God." With his entourage sitting before him, he suggests such questions are "foolish" and looks away with a dismissive shrug, like a kid who won't, or can't, admit hurt feelings. Big Stack and the boys are watching, after all, and Mayweather's weakness will be reflected back toward him. Weakness is unacceptable.

A glance at his boxing and oratorical career may begin to explain what Floyd Mayweather Jr. thinks he is, but the who is more elusive. His story is part boxing epic, part convoluted family saga. The son of former welterweight contender Floyd Mayweather Sr., "Little Floyd" was taught to box before he could read. His father trained him to be a champion, while his mother battled her own demons, according to Floyd, who talked at length during his recent press tour about her struggles with drug addiction, which she has since put behind her.

In an ominous precursor that occurred just as Little Floyd was gaining recognition for his boxing, Big Floyd left his son's life to serve a five-and-a-half-year sentence in federal prison for drug trafficking. Big Floyd missed the 1996 Olympics, where Little Floyd got a bronze, as well as the first 13 fights of his professional career.

When the father returned, in 1998, he found his boy was now a headstrong man. The two had a public split in early 2000, after Big Floyd moved in with Little Floyd and attempted to reassume the role of authority figure. He wanted to give his son a curfew and pass judgment on his associates. Little Floyd wanted none of it. And besides, "When I was with a female," Little Floyd says, "I wanted privacy." Big Floyd eventually moved out and the two stopped talking to each other and began talking about each other -- in disparaging terms -- to whoever might listen.

Perhaps the split was inevitable. Big Floyd had been father, trainer and manager. His demanding and perfectionist attitude had been the guiding principle in Little Floyd's life. When he left, everything changed but the results. Little Floyd was still undefeated in the ring, but he hired a rap-music impresario, James Prince, as his manager and fought an accusation of domestic violence from a girlfriend. Big Floyd, meanwhile, moved on to train other fighters -- including, most famously, Oscar De La Hoya.

Big Floyd's six-year tenure as De La Hoya's trainer spanned eight fights, including a pummeling of Ricardo Mayorga last year, but ended this January, when he demanded $2 million to train Oscar for his fight against Little Floyd. De La Hoya refused to pay the king's ransom and hired Freddie Roach instead, while Little Floyd felt the indignity of his dad's putting a price on his head. And yet Big Floyd -- playing the lead in the parable of the prodigal father -- drifted back into the periphery of his son's life in March. It's an uncomfortable alliance, made more twisted by Big Floyd's estrangement from his brother, Roger, who is Little Floyd's longtime trainer and whose own six-month jail term, for domestic violence, ended March 19.

For roughly two-thirds of his son's life, Big Floyd scrutinized Little Floyd, searching for weakness, finding the gaps other fighters would exploit. He still claims to know him best. "There's nothing weak about Little Floyd, but he cries a lot," the father says. "And you know, people cry because there's something sad in their heart. I've cried for my son, but I've always turned away so no one could see."

If those absences and controversies have left a psychic scar on Little Floyd, he has done his best to hide it with a combination of bravado and possessions. This is a man who tends to his small plot of fame like a master gardener, obsessed with the accoutrements of wealth and infatuated with his place in the grand scheme.

Here are his measurements: a 12,000-square-foot, single-level home in Vegas with a 10-car garage; enough luxury vehicles to drive a different one every day for two weeks; more than $1.5 million invested in watches; his own music label (Philthy Rich Records, of course); and a proclivity for carrying a minimum of $30,000 in cash in those baggy pockets.

Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Jim Fiscus for ESPN The MagazineThe last fight of Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s career might be on May 5.

One night in March, Mayweather had what amounts to an epiphany. He was sitting in his home theater watching a lower-rung boxing card and marveling at the disparity of fortune. The guys on the television, he surmised, were making $20,000 or $30,000 per fight, less than he had in his pockets at that very moment.

"Hell," he says. "I bet more at the sports book every night."

As he sat there looking at men who aspire to be him, he reflected on his fortune. This was not a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I moment; Mayweather's not built like that. Instead, he felt the weight of the cash in his pockets, considered his abundance of wealth and said to himself, "God love me, and I'm a hell of a fighter." It might as well serve as his mantra.

Among his entourage there's a personal photographer, a videographer, a cut man, a sparring partner, two fighters, Big Stack and GT, various "advisers" and a roaming group of guys whose jobs seem to consist of marveling at Champ's prodigious talents. "We got Rafael Garcia, the best cut man in the business and the best hand-wrap guy in the history of boxing," Mayweather says, running through the members of his entourage lined up along the edge of the ring. "We got Hank -- he take all the photos. Dejuan Blake runs promotions with my music company. Leonard Ellerbe, my business adviser & you know what he does."

Mayweather points at another young man, who waits expectantly as Champ nods and repeats his name. "Rod & Rod & Rod &" How do you describe Rod's contribution to this operation? Floyd pauses, then says, "Rod take care of my everyday business: dry-cleaning, making sure everything gets fixed at my house."

John Sinclair, another of Mayweather's uncles, is the team masseur, which means he rubs Floyd's stomach after sit-ups and massages his temperamental hands when Floyd says, "Uncle John, rub my hands." He's also good for jobs like the one he did the night before, when Floyd lost $10,000 on the Warriors-Pistons game and Uncle John went back to the sports book to put another $10K on the Spurs, who covered.

Floyd Mayweather Sr.
Jim Fiscus for ESPN The MagazineBig Floyd gave Little Floyd the gift of jab.

The overlapping layers of insulation make it difficult to see inside, to see what may become of Floyd Mayweather Jr. once he's done in the ring. Asked to recount the best story of his career, he thinks for a split-second and -- instead of talking about his rise from the streets of Grand Rapids, Mich., and how he transcended a turbulent upbringing with a troubled mother and a semi-famous father who managed to be both absent and overbearing -- he mentions the two men who've helped him accumulate his wealth. "I've got to be honest with you," he says. "It was the day I met my business partners, Leonard Ellerbe and Al Haymon."

But can a boxer allow himself even a moment of introspection and still maintain the facade of invincibility? Mayweather's outsize persona makes you wonder what will happen to him after his final punch is thrown and Big Stack and GT have to find other ways to fill the day. From a psychological standpoint, De La Hoya is the perfect final foe for Mayweather, because confronting him means confronting all of the demons: his father, his past, his legacy. It means one more chance to attack the critics and one more chance to keep it real and one more chance to get on his knees and thank God.

The day after the sparring session with Pepito, the tone at the gym changes. Unannounced, a 54-year-old man with long braids and muscles like nautical rope walks past Big Stack and GT and stands beside the main ring.

The unofficial return of Big Floyd comes with no fanfare. Father and son reunited a week ago, in a room at the MGM Grand, where Big Floyd said it was time to "get back to the basics." Now they shake hands and barely make eye contact. Big Floyd grabs a pair of hand pads and climbs into the ring with Little Floyd for the first time in seven years.

Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Jim Fiscus for ESPN The MagazineFloyd Mayweather Jr. is regarded as the best pound-for-pound boxer alive.

They work together for almost an hour, father and son engaging in an elaborate dance of attack and avoidance. Little Floyd doesn't punctuate his punches with epithets. He responds to Big Floyd's instructions with "No problem" and "That's good."

When they finish, the gym is quiet, the entourage not knowing how to react. Then Little Floyd returns to his role as showman -- insulting, demanding, joking -- and the Greek chorus returns to cheer on the rest of his workout.

When asked about his father later, Little Floyd will say, "Looking back, my dad was right about a lot of things. His big thing was 'I've been your age; you haven't been mine.' We don't always agree, but he's still my dad."

After their session, Big Floyd heads for the parking lot, where he stands for a while, still absorbing what just transpired. "You notice how I treat my son?" he asks rhetorically. "When he does good, I tell him. But I tell him when he needs to improve, too. You don't get direction by having a lot of yes men around. Those guys are yessing you, and you need to know why they're yessing you."

Big Floyd has no illusions concerning his place in his son's life; he realizes that Uncle Roger is Little Floyd's full-time trainer. With his hands still stinging from the workout, he squints into the sun and speaks slowly. "I wonder," he says before pausing, "even when Little Floyd was younger & did I ever tell him I loved him?"

He looks down at the pavement and shakes his head. His son is so insulated and yet so exposed, so confident and yet so unaware. Little Floyd is a mystery, even to his father. "You can show people a million different ways," Big Floyd says. "But sometimes that one word, 'love,' makes all the difference in the world. This time, I'm going to tell him."

Asked if his own father ever uttered that word to him, Big Floyd curls his face into a sneer and says, "Never."

Back inside, Little Floyd finishes the day's show with another dazzling display of rope work. Their cheering done for now, the members of the entourage get back to their phones and try to look busy, while Big Stack and GT loosen up for the 100-foot walk to the car.

Little Floyd pulls on his baggy sweats, the ones with the rolls of hundreds in the pockets. The cheers are still inside him. He bounces and sings along to the raw rap lyrics assaulting the room. Then Floyd Mayweather Jr. walks to the full-length mirror and stands before it, watching himself watch himself.

God love me, and I'm a hell of a fighter.

"Rod," he says, without turning around, "go start my car."

Tim Keown is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com