It takes nearly 15 minutes for the cutman to wrap Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s hands, layer after layer of gauze, tape looped in between each finger, extra padding on the knuckles, more supportive laps around his thin wrists. This is, after all, what it boils down to: the fists, right? The fighter is waiting to climb into the ring behind him in his Las Vegas gym, a swarm of media fluttering cameras and poking mic booms at him while the cutman works. The press has been all over him for about an hour now in this ritual pre-fight press conference—Mayweather Jr. is set to return to the ring after 20 months, taking on Juan Marquez at the MGM on September 19. But midway through the wrist-wrapping, after hundreds of questions by media from Vegas, ESPN, the Philippines, Mexico, HBO, the UK, wherever—Mayweather Jr. lets out a big, weary yawn: He’s bored.
Mayweather Jr. arrived here at China Town, an unlikely place for a red, white and blue-themed boxing gym and USA-vs.-Mexico fight, driving what looks like a Brink’s armored truck painted black. The media had been treated to a cookout in the parking lot an hour and a half before, at noon, in Las Vegas, under a tent, and was a sweaty, ready bunch by the time he arrived. His free-jawed uncle and trainer, Roger Mayweather, had been holding forth over hamburgers—“You don’t know shit about boxing!”—and when Floyd Jr. stepped down from the more peculiar than badass truck, reporters swallowed him up. He’s a little man— fighting welterweight at 5-7, 147 pounds now, beefed up—and as he walked toward the tent wearing jeans and a T-shirt, he still seemed small, like a boy. He posed with the cake, holding his index finger up quietly, “No. 1,” walked into the gym, changed into his shorts and gave them what they wanted: face time, quotes. “I feel strong, I’m in tip-top shape.” “There’s going to be blood, sweat and tears.”
Several times, he referred to himself in third person: “When Floyd Mayweather is in a fight ... he’s going to go out there and give it all he can,” as if he’s discussing a fighting machine that has left his control, an entertainment machine.
One wonders if part of being an entertainment machine today, a sports star, means somehow, some way, working in a side story on guns at a roller-skating rink, or tales of a Rolls Royce. It certainly means appearing on Dancing With the Stars. It may mean going toe-to-toe with Vegas’ own UFC President Dana White, in a bout over the better sport: UFC vs. boxing. It also means talking up a U.S. vs. Mexico fight scheduled for Mexican Independence day weekend. And it means explaining family and trainer rows—his dad is back in his corner after working with Ricky Hatton, whom Mayweather defeated in his last fight in 2007.
There’s so much more than one battle going on here for Mayweather Jr., and for boxing fans. Showmanship and boxing have always been united, but the nature of the show shifts, and at some point, objectively, the boxer is less boxer than multitasking reality star. It’s not quite WWF, but when you see the show going on here—his father commanding a competing press huddle 10 feet from his, his uncle’s shouts rising above the hum—it has a feeling of the stock drama built into a reality show, and it seems uncertain who Mayweather Jr.’s opponent really is.
In July, Mayweather Jr., who once expressed interest in pro wrestling, told CBS sports that the UFC was created for white fighters because “in boxing, we know who’s dominating. Black fighters and Hispanic fighters is dominating in this sport. ... And this is not a racial statement, but there’s no white fighters in boxing that’s dominating, so they had to go to something else and start something new.”
UFC just happens to have a competing fight airing on the 19th; White says he’s fine going head-to-head with Mayweather’s HBO pay-per-view match: “He’s not a superstar,” White said on ESPN Radio. “Floyd doesn’t sell. Floyd plus another great fighter sells ...”
Floyd followed up with reporters, saying “You know, what UFC got to do, that’s their business. This is about me and Marquez pay-per-view, and we’re not competing against no one else.”
In late August, Mayweather Jr. was named in another type of fight, when his Rolls Royce was allegedly seen at the scene of a shooting at Crystal Palace Skating Center. No one was injured. Metro searched Mayweather Jr.’s Vegas home and confiscated two guns, but did not say whether they were related to the shooting; it remains unclear what involvement, if any, Mayweather Jr. had in the shooting.
So there’s Mayweather Jr. vs. the press, vs. his own family and associates, vs. Mexico, Marquez, the law, white people, the UFC. But what you get, finally, as this three-hour press conference wilts and everyone makes a little room, when his uncle and his dad and his cutman and his PR rep let him climb into the ropes, and reporters on all four sides shut up and lean, is a little man in the ring, his two fists wrapped tight. He starts dancing a bit, shuffling, nobody there to hit yet, eyes casting out the bored glaze and finding a determined focus on the empty space two feet in front of him. Earlier he referred to himself as “a defensive genius,” which is what I’m thinking about when he starts shadow-boxing.