"Shane Mosley says â€˜Floyd Mayweather fights for money.' You fuckin' dummy; I'm a prizefighter. That's what I'm supposed to fight for: a prize. Duh!" – Floyd â€˜Money' Mayweather.
People say that Floyd Mayweather is arrogant, that he doesn't care about "boxing" in the abstract, only himself. This is the opposite of the truth.
Floyd Mayweather is "boxing" in the flesh; undefeated in 40 bouts, 25 by KO. He is not some ideal that animates the (very fun) prose of Joyce Carol Oates. His supposed arrogance is actually a disquieting kind of humility.
The evidence: Mayweather helps run a boxing gym for children. He does under-the radar charity work. His demands for Olympic style drug testing are essential to the survival of the sport, which, unlike the world of mixed martial arts, lacks effective governance. He risked what could easily have been the biggest payday of his career to enforce them on Manny Pacquiao.
For all Mayweather's boasting before a fight-the kind of boasting he's done this week before tomorrow's bout at Las Vegas' MGM Grand against Shane Mosley-about how much greater he is than his opponent, how he is doing a favor for them by being in the same ring, he has never failed to congratulate his victim almost immediately after being declared the winner. "Ricky Hatton is still a champion in my eyes," Mayweather said. In the champ's eyes and no one else's.
It's Mayweather's boasting that has more truth than his sincere gratitude to his opponents. 40-0. Biggest Pay-Per-View numbers ever. And yet the first thing that comes out of his mouth while the gate is still being counted is how great the bum on the floor is.
Mayweather is a rich, stylish, socially-conscious black man. He plays "uppity" on television. It is a lucrative deceit and probably a fun one. But it is a condescension to our prejudices, and a conscious one. An unsettling homage to boxing's glorious racism, to the popular fascination with and hatred of Jack Johnson.
The editors of HBO's "24/7" have (wittingly or not) played along. A few years ago in preparation for the (embarrassing) De La Hoya-Mayweather fight, the crew captured The Golden Boy quietly watching the Masters with his father-and then cut quickly to the motor-mouthing Mayweather getting primped in his home salon. He's tossing around cash and insults the way old men drop seeds from a park bench.
Then the exquisite detail: 50 Cent enters the scene on a Segway. This is followed by more insults and the glittering of obscene wealth squandered on what we are supposed to think are obscene black men. Mayweather goes out of his way justify the unjustifiable suspicions of white fans. And he embodies revenge on them for black fans.
The racial component is essential, of course. I watched the Mayweather-Hatton fight in a bar outside of North Charleston. When Mayweather finally unleashed on Hatton, the black patrons beat their chests at the noticeably quieter whites. "Your boy is down!" one guy said. He held onto my shoulder as if the amazingness of Mayweather made his knees weak. "That white boy is down!" I was actually rooting for Mayweather, the American in the fight.
In the entertainment business-and before it is a metaphor, boxing is entertainment-only Floyd Mayweather has the balls to script such a great black villain. He has the sense to cast himself. And only he has the talent to pull it off. Mayweather's classiness is in allowing his opponents to be the good guys. He extends this kindness even when they are painfully grasping social climbers like the "legacy-conscious" Shane Mosley.
I refuse to condemn Mayweather as a kind of "minstrel" pugilist. That's just the flip side of the same "blacks don't deserve money" attitude he is exploiting. Mayweather is not just subverting racism to his own ends, he is turning it into a kind of personal grace.
"I'm better than Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson. I would never say there is another fighter better than me. Absolutely not," he said on last week's episode. I don't know if he believes it. But with his 40-0 record, his business acumen, his marketing guile and his obvious if overshadowed concern for the sport itself-he's not just the better fighter, but the better man.
"Baby I'm a bank robber," he says. That too, if he wants.
Michael Brendan Dougherty is a contributing editor to The American Conservative. He writes from Mount Kisco, New York.