Floyd Mayweather, despite being one of the most enigmatic figures in sports, remains utterly predictable in almost every way.
For the last six years Mayweather has fought, sometimes once a year, sometimes twice, always in the same two months: May and September. In each of those contests, barring the bizarre foul-filled scrap with Victor Ortiz, Mayweather has boxed the full twelve rounds and walked away with a decision. Each of these bouts has been on pay-per-view, and despite a switch from HBO to Showtime a couple years ago, Floyd has consistently pulled incredible numbers, repeatedly justifying his paychecks, which are among the largest in all of professional sports.
Fan reactions to Mayweather are pretty predictable too. Thanks to the boxer's brash, braggadocious persona--and the much more serious issue of his numerous domestic assaults--the vast majority of "casual" boxing fans hate him. They don't watch his fights to see him perform so much as they watch praying for him to lose. This attitude, and the echo chamber that is the boxing community, has led to constant criticism of Mayweather's chosen opponents. Often this criticism is unfair, and an objective look at Floyd's resume reveals that it is in fact one of the best in the game.
Mayweather has even had a uniquely stabilizing impact on the two or three weight classes from which he draws his opposition, welterweight in particular. For a group so loaded with talent, the top fighters between 140 and 154 pounds very rarely fight one another for fear of losing their ticket to the "Mayweather lottery." As if in imitation of the man they all hope to fight, welterweights across the world have begun protecting their undefeated records at all costs, with very few exceptions.
We've become so used to this, it's startling to realize that all of it may be about to end.
Yesterday, Mayweather announced his final fight of 2015. Like those before it, this one will take place in September. This time, however, those criticizing the choice of opponent have good reason.
Andre Berto isn't a bad boxer by any means, but he's leagues below Mayweather in prestige, talent, and skill--more so than most Mayweather opponents, even. Having gone 3-3 in his last six fights, Berto will step into the ring on September 12th following a comeback win over Josesito Lopez. Emphasis on the word "comeback," because Lopez is at best a fringe contender, and at worst a mid-level action fighter. In other words, not the kind of man with whom a top contender should struggle.
And that's the point. Berto isn't a top contender. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Unlike the other opposition for which Mayweather has caught flak in the past few years, Berto has no reasonable claim to the bout. Marcos Maidana had a promising victory over Mayweather's "little brother," Adrien Broner; Carlos Baldomir was wearing the WBC welterweight belt and the lineal crown; Victor Ortiz and Robert Guerrero were riding respectable hot streaks--both of them actually including victories over Berto.
All Andre Berto has going for him is his "advisor" Al Haymon, the same man backing Floyd himself, but even shared representation isn't enough to justify this matchup. At a glance, Haymon also advises/manages/promotes Shawn Porter, Keith Thurman, Danny Garcia, and Amir Khan. With such a collection of talented boxers in house, all of whom are ranked in the top ten by the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, Mayweather's choice seems inconceivably strange. Outside the Haymon stable, Kell Brook and Timothy Bradley are both tempting options as well.
No one should begrudge Mayweather a soft touch now and then, especially just after he beat Manny Pacquiao, whose name was inevitably mentioned alongside his for the past five years. Mayweather has long given us the fights we wanted to see, even if we changed our minds and decided we didn't want them once they actually happened. But this time, things seem different.
The "Fight of the Century" against Pacquiao was, by many fans' standards, a huge disappointment. 4.4 million households paid $100 each to watch that fight, and were inexplicably disappointed to realize that they were, in fact, watching a Floyd Mayweather fight. Mayweather did what he always does, outmaneuvering and outboxing his long-time nemesis over the course of twelve rounds. Uneducated fans would call it "running," but the fact that Floyd managed to do his usual thing against an unprecedented level of competition was truly impressive.
Still, having seen the top of the mountain--and not having liked it nearly as much as they thought they would--will fans be willing to tune in to another Mayweather fight? And since so many of those fans only tune in to watch Mayweather stumble, how much harder will it be to sell to them given Berto as the opponent? No one's going to believe that Berto poses a legitimate threat to Mayweather--not even Berto himself. Even "bad" Mayweather numbers are better than any other boxer on earth could hope for, but it seems likely that these will be the worst yet.
More than anything, this bout announcement is a stark reminder that things change, a fact that became all too easy to forget in the stagnancy of the Mayweather era. Floyd is 38 years old now, and he'll be 39 before he fights again in May--if indeed he does go for his 50th win after having disposed of Berto. And if he does get that win, most expect him to retire from the sport for good. The Mayweather lottery will be gone forever, and the face of the welterweight division will change.
Will someone step up to claim Mayweather's mantle as the undisputed king of 147 pounds? Or will we see an end to the dozens of cold wars that Mayweather's existence has prompted? How important is that "0" if there's no giant meal ticket sitting atop the rankings? How important is it even now if Mayweather himself chooses an also-ran like Berto over undefeated youngsters like Garcia, Brook, and Thurman?
Despite the controversy that always surrounds him, I imagine we'll miss Mayweather soon after he's gone. It'll be uncomfortable for a while, but change always is. In losing the sport's pound-for-pound king, boxing's premier division may just open up once again, giving way to a new era of great fights between great fighters, none of them staking their reputations on the chance for one big payday, but building those reputations together in the ring.
I don't want another Mayweather any time soon, not because I don't appreciate the man's skill, which is truly unparalleled today, but because Mayweather's presence has, in some ways, overshadowed the greatness of the sport itself. Instead, I'm hoping for another Ali. Because there would've been no Ali without Frazier, Foreman, Norton, and others. I'm hoping for another Duran, and the Leonards, Hearnses, and Haglers that would come along with him.
Whether you buy Mayweather-Berto or not is besides the point. What really matters is what comes next, and I for one have high hopes.