Mayweather on offensive with tough defense

LAS VEGAS – One of the greatest defensive fighters of his era spent much of his workout in a local gym Thursday improving his defense.

Move the head. Roll the shoulder. Parry. Slip. Slide. Counter.

If it’s a defensive tactic, Floyd Mayweather Jr. worked on it, six weeks from his first fight in 19 months, when he meets the man ranked No. 2 in the Y! Sports pound-for-pound poll, Juan Manuel Marquez, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

Mayweather has endured a slew of criticism since he announced on May 2 that he would end his retirement and fight Marquez. Much of the criticism centers around his decision to fight Marquez, who has never fought above 135 pounds, and not waiting to see what happened in the bout between Manny Pacquiao and Ricky Hatton, a fight that occurred a mere hours after Mayweather announced his return.

Mayweather, who was a unanimous No. 1 in the Yahoo! Sports rankings when he announced a year to the day earlier that he was calling it quits, hardly reacted when pressed about the criticism.

That’s because Mayweather knows that while part of the flap comes from being on top, he’ll be able to address much of it in the ensuing months himself.

There has been much speculation that Mayweather returned to boxing because he is desperate for money and burdened by debt, which anyone and everyone close to him vehemently denies.

“That’s crazy, but if that were true, why would Floyd have turned down a $20 million-plus offer in September to fight Oscar [De La Hoya]?” his manager and best friend, Leonard Ellerbe, asked rhetorically. “If he needed money, there it was, a $20 million-plus offer. He’s coming back because this is what he does and he got a good rest and he has something to prove.”

And so Mayweather diligently spent the day working on avoiding punches, something he does better than any man alive other than perhaps WBO light flyweight champion Ivan Calderon.

He was unusually reserved Thursday and not his loquacious and trash-talking self. Mayweather says he knows nothing will convince his skeptics. But he’s convinced that there will be a day when the masses see the error of their ways and recognize his greatness.

And so after Marquez, he has men like current Yahoo! Sports No. 1 Manny Pacquiao, WBO welterweight champion Miguel Cotto and WBA welterweight champion Shane Mosley in his sights.

If he fights and defeats those four men, who hold spots 1, 2, 5 and 6 in the current Yahoo! Sports rankings, there will be no way to deny him.

“I’m fighting the guy who called me out,” Mayweather said.

“Manny Pacquiao never called me out. You never heard him say that. But I was watching on TV and I heard Marquez call me out. So I said, ‘OK, if he wants some, he can have it.’ Any one of them, whoever, they know where to find me.”

Mayweather compliments Marquez, noting he feels Marquez won both of his fights against Pacquiao. He says, “I have nothing bad to say about Manny Pacquiao,” and even declines to take a shot at Mosley, his long-time nemesis.

The two have gone back and forth for years, with each accusing the other of ducking him.

Mayweather, though, appears wounded by all the criticism. He yearns for acceptance from the establishment he says he loathes and longs to hear his critics concede they were wrong.

Beat Marquez, Pacquiao, Mosley and Cotto and they’ll begin polishing a bust in Canastota, N.Y., before the lights are out in the arena after the final of those four bouts.

And that’s why he was in the gym Thursday, working to improve as if he were a fighter hungry for his first big chance.

“You always want to be the best you can be,” Mayweather said. “I’m no different. I’m taking the skills God gave me and I’m trying to do something with them. Every day I come to the gym, I try to make myself better.”

Ellerbe, who knows Mayweather better than anyone else, insists that Mayweather is a far better fighter today than he was when he knocked out Ricky Hatton on Dec. 8, 2007, his final fight before retiring.

Mayweather said he was leaving boxing, but he never really left the gym. He trained and worked out the entire time he was retired. And he carefully studied tape.

“I’ve never seen anyone else in this business who is quite the student of the game like Floyd is,” Ellerbe said. “He watched fights very carefully and would notice a lot of mistakes. He learns from that, too. He sees what works for other fighters and what doesn’t work. He learns because he’s so bright and he understands the sport so well.

“He had a chance to watch Pacquiao fight twice. He makes a ton of mistakes. Believe me when I tell you, he makes a ton of mistakes. But Floyd doesn’t have to talk about anyone else and their problems, because he’ll get the chance to prove it. Any one of them, anyone who thinks they’re up there, he’s going to run through them all. He can’t fight them all in the same night, but he’s back to fight all the major fights.”

Mayweather bristles at the notion he wanted to fight Marquez because Marquez would be an easy mark. Yes, he concedes, Marquez has never fought at welterweight. But Mayweather is doing nothing different than Oscar De La Hoya when he fought Mosley in 2000 and Pacquiao in 2008.

In each case, the man was jumping from lightweight to fight De La Hoya at welterweight.

“Why, if it’s good for Oscar, isn’t it good for me?” Mayweather asks. “Marquez is one of the best fighters in the world. A lot of people, including me and including a lot of you in the media, think he beat Manny Pacquiao in both of them fights. So why do I have to hear this? It’s ridiculous.”

If Mayweather fights and defeats Marquez, Cotto, Mosley and Pacquiao, though, he’ll be able to begin writing his Hall of Fame acceptance speech.

And he will rightfully be able to include a whole bunch of I-told-you-so’s in it.

Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Kevin a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Jun 5, 2009