If Saturday night unfolds as expected, Floyd Mayweather Jr. will have his arm raised in a boxing ring for the 50th time.
In the stands at T-Mobile Arena and in front of television sets around the world, fans will experience a familiar range of emotions as they realize how they were deceived — or, more precisely, how they deceived themselves.
Mayweather will earn an estimated $350 million for what he promised will be his last fight, but the damage to his reputation could be incalculable.
Longtime boxing fans will continue to view Mayweather as the best fighter of his generation, the 130-pound wizard who destroyed an undefeated Diego Corrales and moved up in weight to defeat an assembly line of heavier champions. Casual observers who watched only his two most-anticipated fights will have a less charitable assessment. They will think of him as the fighter who swindled them not once, but twice, as he collected a combined $600 million.
This dichotomy will define his legacy.
“I don’t worry about that,” Mayweather said. “Floyd Mayweather lives for Floyd Mayweather. We’re too worried about what everybody else thinks. If we stay in our lane and worry about what we think, we’ll be A-OK. That’s why I’m A-OK.”
If Mayweather has any concerns he will be remembered more as a revenue-generator than a special fighter, he didn’t share them.
“As long as you remember me,” he said.
Anyone who saw Mayweather in his early 20s will remember him as a boxing genius who combined an extraordinary sense of anticipation with breathtaking athleticism.
He won his first title at 21, scoring a technical knockout of longtime 130-pound champion Genaro Hernandez, who was previously unbeaten at that weight class. Two months later, he stopped top contender Angel Manfredy in two rounds. The victories earned him Ring Magazine’s fighter-of-the-year award for 1998.
He looked like he was open to fighting anywhere, any time.
“I’m being honest, when I first got into it, I just loved the sport,” Mayweather said. “I loved going out there and competing against the best guys.”
His crowning achievement was a 10-round destruction of Corrales in 2001. The performance made him boxing’s pound-for-pound champion but failed to make him a mainstream name. Later that year, he was fighting in a small arena in San Francisco that was packed with Filipino fans who were there to see a then-unknown Pacquiao.
Meanwhile, fighters such as Oscar De La Hoya were making tens of millions of dollars. That called for a change in approach.
He scaled up several weight classes and lined up a fight with the popular De La Hoya in 2007. He adopted an outspoken and vulgar public persona that he unleashed in the buildup to that fight. If his brand of performance art made him one of the most reviled fighters in the sport, it also made him one of the most visible. Mainstream America no longer ignored him.
“My mentality was, ‘Either you do or you don’t like me, you will watch me, you will see me,’” Mayweather said.
He continued to cultivate this character. The more he was hated, the more he was watched, the sales of his pay-per-view broadcasts soaring as fans paid their hard-earned dollars with hopes of witnessing his first defeat.
“You have no idea what a great marketer he is,” longtime advisor Leonard Ellerbe said. “Things that no other fighter, athlete would want to do, he’s like, ‘OK.’ If he sees an opportunity there to build his brand and to put himself in a better situation, he’s all for it.”
This desire to see Mayweather lose has overwhelmed common sense at times. Mayweather delayed his inevitable showdown with Pacquiao for several years, waiting until his rival lacked the speed or power to hurt him. Nonetheless, the pay-per-view broadcast of Mayweather’s fight against Pacquiao in 2015 established new sales records.
The financial success of the event was overshadowed by the underwhelming nature of the fight. Mayweather blamed Pacquaio for refusing to engage him. Most fans blamed Mayweather for selling them a fight that was past its expiration date.
In McGregor, Mayweather has found another popular opponent. More than 90% of wagers on the fight are being placed on the Irishman, who has never boxed professionally in his life.
Fans placing their faith in McGregor will soon discover what Pacquiao’s backers did: Their man never had a chance.
The objective of a boxing promoter is to maximize the earnings of his or her fighters while minimizing the risks they will encounter in the ring. It’s not easy work. The appearance of danger has to be created where there is none, hope for underdogs has to be inspired when it has no reason to exist.
There are others in history who have fought at the same level as Mayweather, or maybe even higher. What no one else has done is sell fights like him.