I sometimes wonder when bragging took over the world.
The question arose again three weeks ago or so, when, in answer to a request from ESPN, Floyd Mayweather Jr., the undefeated welterweight champion of the world, offered a list of the five greatest boxers in history. First to fifth: Floyd Mayweather Jr., Roberto Duran, Pernell Whitaker, Julio Cesar Chavez and Muhammad Ali.
The bragging did not start with Muhammad Ali/Cassius Clay. First, as Ali pointed out, because it’s not bragging if it’s true, and also, as we will chronicle in another bragging column soon, years before Ali—then Clay—knocked Howard Cosell’s toupee off and was carried out of the ring on the shoulders of his supporters, having just humiliated not only Cosell but Sonny Liston, the scariest visitor to planet Earth to date, screaming I’m a bad man, and, of course, I am the greatest—years before that happened the writer Norman Mailer, fresh off the jackpot with his own first try, a novel called The Naked and the Dead, which made him rich and famous and full of himself in a way that time and failure never cured, Mailer looked around the room, as he put it, and found himself at the top of the class. Nobody else of his generation had his talent.
And not just any talent, but the most important talent. Fiction. Novels, he said, could change the world. And to that end, The Naked and the Dead was only loosening up for the greatness that lay ahead. That he had not looked carefully enough around the room is not the point.
The point is that it works. Somewhere back in those years bragging began taking the place of accomplishment. And now we live in a country where 15 months prior to an election for President of the United States, the total meaningful achievements of the leading candidates of both parties combined, the total record of integrity, fidelity and reliability comes to exactly squat. Where the most watched—which I guess means most popular—cable television personality on the air for the last ten or fifteen years issues a daily proclamation—the spin stops here—and at the same time claims an authority on NFL locker room culture on the basis of a college football career which somehow left no footprints back at the old alma mater (but then, Red Grange was The Galloping Ghost so who knows?), to an expertise on modern education due to a stint as a teacher 40 or 50 years ago, and, having written one shabby and predictable novel himself, feels comfortable anointing a formulaic, by-the-numbers mystery writer as America’s best living novelist.
But literary bragging is a subject for another day. For now, Floyd Mayweather Jr.
I realize of course that Mayweather was probably only trying to build some enthusiasm for a $75 pay-per-view fight Saturday against what can only be a hopeless cause named Andre Berto—if he were not hopeless Mayweather would not be getting in the ring with him—still, to anybody who cares about boxing, which I do, it smacked of an insult.
The reasoning these days, in Mayweather’s fading years, is that passing up the chance to see him before he retires—which will probably happen half a dozen times—even for $75, is like passing up a chance to watch Babe Ruth play baseball. What you will see for $75, however, is the chance to see oh, maybe Jose Conseco, hit home runs off a practice tee.
Put another way, if there is say a one-in-ten-thousand chance that Floyd Mayweather Jr. really is the greatest fighter in history—and I would make the argument that he isn’t even in the best five welterweights, and might not even be the best fighter in his own family, as his uncle Roger was a much bigger puncher and always more to watch—but even saying Floyd was the best of all time, how would anybody know?
No sport depends more on an opponent than boxing. Oh, maybe bullfighting. And I suppose a case could be made for tennis and squash and wrestling, etc., but I invite you to weight the insight of the deeply insightful philosopher of the heavyweight division, Randall “Tex” Cobb, who once said: “When you f--- up (in the ring), darling, it is not fifteen-love,” and I think you come back to boxing.
It is common knowledge among even the most casual followers of the sport that Floyd Mayweather Jr. is more careful about picking his opponents than any champion in memory. Nobody has taken fewer chances. And with the possible exception of the promoter Don King and the sanctioning-body thieves, nobody has taken more from boxing than Floyd Mayweather Jr. and given less back. Every fight is a disappointment.
The few good fighters Mayweather gets in the ring with are always on the way out, slowed by an accumulation of punishment, or moved up into weight classes where they don’t belong—not everybody who weights 147 pounds is the same size. There has been no great rivalry for Mayweather, no Ali vs. Frazier or Tommy Hearns/Ray Leonard—not even one memorable fight, much less two or three with the same opponent.
On the other hand, boxing has always been a matter of opinion, so maybe we should review the highlights:
Let us begin at the beginning, go back fourteen years and visit Mayweather as a young fighter. This was a schooling fight, as they say, getting him ready for the future. Floyd Jr. vs. Melissa Brim.
Brim comes in a slight underdog but the sentimental favorite, being the mother of Junior’s oldest child. After a long stare-down and a testy weigh-in, Junior slams his car door into her face, stunning her momentarily, but no standing eight-count. Junior, who is always looking for an opening, throws Ms. Brim into the car’s open door, jumps in and pounds her into submission.
The decision is forty-eight hours of community service and two days of house arrest.
Two years pass, and Mayweather, older and wiser, first meets his greatest rival, Josie Harris, who before it is all over will deliver the remaining three Mayweather children, two girls and a son.
In the complaint filed in Las Vegas against Mayweather, Ms. Harris says the champ punched her and kicked her and pulled her hair. The decision is a long time coming. Negotiations between the parties and the various judges take place and years later, Ms. Harris—who is still with Mayweather and his growing pile of money—changes her story and now says Floyd is a teddy bear who would never lay a hand on a woman in anger.
Floyd does not get the memo. Later that same year—2003—also in Las Vegas, a 25-year-old woman named Herneatha McGill complains that Mayweather punched her in the face at a nightclub. A friend, Kaara Blackburn, who tries to help her out of the place, is also punched, but Ms. Blackburn is hit in the back of the head, not the front.
The decision is again a long time coming, and charges are dismissed.
The year is not over. Back in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Mayweather is convicted of breaking a bottle over the head of a bouncer named William Norris, then kicking him as he lay on the floor. Ninety days suspended sentence.
Time goes by and it is Josie Harris again. Mayweather is looking through her text messages one day and finds a man’s name. Ms. Harris confesses that she has been dating someone else and Mayweather pulls her off the couch by her hair, pounds her in the back of the head, kicks her and yells that he is going to kill her and “the man you’re messing with.”
Police are alerted by Ms. Harris’ and Mayweather’s terrified son, and this time Mayweather is convicted, sentenced to 90 days, and serves 60. Thus begins 2011.
By the way, in her complaint Ms. Harris reveals one of the secrets to Floyd Jr.’s success in the ring. He aims at the back of your head, she says, so the bruises don’t show.
The same year—so many things to do, so little time—Mayweather and his associates are asked for identification at the door of a strip club in Las Vegas and one of his bodyguards is accused of strangling—but not killing—a strip-club doorman, who asked the Mayweather delegation for proof of age. The doorman, Clay Gerling is seeking unspecified damages in a civil suit.
And so it goes, as the man used to say.
I know it is not my business to tell you how to spend $75, but still, why not think over the Mayweather résumé before you throw it away Saturday night, hoping to see a fight?
Or buy the fight anyway, and go to bed wondering why, even at these prices, everything seems so cheap.