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'Money' persona has Mayweather sitting pretty

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

You can follow Kevin Iole on Twitter at @KevinI

It was a travesty, nearly anyone of substance in boxing agrees, that Floyd Mayweather Jr. failed to win a gold medal in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. He was so much more gifted than the rest of the field that it was almost insulting to pull a bronze medal over his head and place it around his neck.

Mayweather's loss to Bulgarian Serafim Todorov conjured up uneasy memories for U.S. boxing fans of the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea, when Roy Jones Jr. was robbed of a one-sided win. Despite his loss, Jones was still voted the most outstanding boxer of those Games.

And it was obvious, despite his loss to Todorov, that Mayweather was the elite talent coming out of the Atlanta Games.

The 1996 Olympics produced a number of quality fighters, including David Reid, Fernando Vargas, Wladimir Klitschko, Vassiliy Jirov, Antonio Tarver, Thomas Ulrich, Oktay Urkal and Daniel Santos.

None of them, though, were nearly as gifted as Mayweather.

He quickly proved that in the professional rankings, ripping through his opposition and winning a world championship in his 18th professional bout, less than two years after turning pro.

Yet, as magnificent as he was in the ring, he was hardly embraced by the boxing community. He struggled to sell tickets to his fights. He battled with reporters. He feuded with his promoter, Bob Arum of Top Rank. He split with his father. He deemed a lucrative contract offer from HBO "slave wages."

It wasn't until his 34th fight, midway through his ninth year as a professional, when he battered Arturo Gatti in Atlantic City, that he truly became a star. He didn't become universally loved – as many fans buy his fights hoping to see him knocked out or beaten up as those who do who are hoping to see him win – but the victory over Gatti served notice that he would become a major financial force in the sport.

"It took until the Gatti fight for everyone else's opinion of Floyd to catch up to Floyd's opinion of Floyd," said John Hornewer, an attorney who represents Mayweather.

In the nearly five years since the Mayweather-Gatti fight sold an unexpectedly high 369,000 pay-per-view units, Mayweather has become unquestionably the top attraction in the sport.

His fight with Shane Mosley on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena will likely net him a payday of around $40 million, about the same as he would have made had he instead fought Manny Pacquiao, the fight the public had demanded.

It's almost a cinch that the Mayweather-Mosley fight will sell in excess of 1 million on pay-per-view and it may threaten 2 million. Less than 20 boxing matches ever have sold in excess of 1 million units. Despite being in only six pay-per-view fights to this point, Mayweather has already had two fights top the million mark.

Mayweather draws PPV 'Money'
Date Opponent Location PPV buys Revenue
May 5, 2007 De La Hoya Las Vegas 2.45 million $136.8 million
Sept. 19, 2009 J.M. Marquez Las Vegas 1.06M $54.5M
Dec. 8, 2007 Hatton Las Vegas 920,000 $52.4M
April 8, 2006 Judah Las Vegas 378,000 $17M
June 25, 2005 Gatti Atlantic City 369,000 $16.6M
Nov. 4, 2006 Baldomir Las Vegas 325,000 $16.2M
Total 5.498M $292.7M

Barring some kind of a disaster, Saturday's card will become the third time in seven pay-per-view outings that a Mayweather bout will top a million.

According to research by Mark Taffet, HBO's' senior vice president of sports operations and pay-per-view, Mayweather's average PPV revenue of $48.8 million is the highest in history.

His average of 916,000 pay-per-view buys is second in history to only Mike Tyson. And in just six pay-per-view events, he ranks fifth in total purchases with 5.5 million and in total revenue with $292.7 million.

Leonard Ellerbe, chief executive officer of Mayweather Promotions, said Mayweather is reaping the rewards of a plan implemented a long time ago.

Ellerbe and Hornewer met with Arum and Todd duBoef of Top Rank more than five years ago where they presented a plan to promote Mayweather more heavily in urban markets.

Mayweather, to that point, had been marketed as the good-looking, clean cut All-American boy with otherworldly skills. Mayweather's plan was to create a strategy that would make him attractive to the hip-hop crowd.

At that time, it was viewed as a risky strategy. Demographic studies at that time showed the boxing audience skewing heavily Hispanic with the largest fan base in the Southwest.

"We had a meticulous, carefully thought out plan," Ellerbe said. "The urban market was untapped as a pay-per-view market and Floyd believed that before you can do anything else, you have to captivate your target audience. We look at boxing from a global standpoint, but before we could implement our strategies globally, we had to have the target audience, the young, African-American crowd, on lock.

"Young African-Americans in the inner city want to look to their own people for their stars, their role models, for their heroes. It's no different than young Mexicans, who for years grew up wanting to be the next Julio Cesar Chavez. Floyd is a genius and doesn't get the credit he deserves for understanding how to promote and market these fights. He was years ahead of the curve and understood long before anyone else what he had to do to build and solidify his target audience."

In his first three pay-per-view fights, against Gatti, Zab Judah and Carlos Baldomir, Mayweather sold 369,000, 378,000 and 325,000 units respectively. They were solid figures, but they weren't anything compared to what was to come.

And the vehicle for the explosion that ensued in 2007 was HBO's groundbreaking reality series, "24/7." Oscar De La Hoya was the biggest pay-per-view attraction in boxing when he signed to face Mayweather on May 5, 2007.

It was clear from the start that the bout would be one of the biggest ever – it matched two huge names and Mayweather's father, Floyd Mayweather Sr., was at the time training De La Hoya – but promoters were looking for a way to push it to new heights.

The concept was developed to use "De La Hoya-Mayweather: 24/7" as a way. HBO deployed cameras to the training camps of each fighter to show them as they prepared for the battle.

It aired on Sundays in a perfect time slot, surrounded by top-rated series such as "The Sopranos" and "Entourage."

It quickly turned into the Floyd Mayweather Show, however. De La Hoya was as he usually is, humble and agreeable, but rarely providing much more than the cliché moments.

Mayweather, though, was over the top, at times charming and outrageous, captivating and infuriating. He bragged about his wealth and his talent and he never passed an opportunity to mock De La Hoya.

"It was '24/7' that gave Floyd the ability to make himself the center of attention and bolster interest in his fights," said Dr. Todd Boyd, holder of the Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts. "In boxing, Muhammad Ali personified it, but it's something that goes all the way back to Jack Johnson. He talks trash and he rallies his supporters and galvanizes those who want to see him get beaten.

"Floyd made himself a compelling figure and personality via '24/7' and there are few of those in boxing. After you'd watch a few episodes, you'd say to yourself,, 'I've got to see this fight.' And that's what he was aiming for all along."

Mayweather created the persona of "Money Mayweather," the rich guy who had a lavish home, a fleet of luxury cars and was so well off he could go to night clubs and "make it rain" by throwing handfuls of $100 bills in the air.

He'd boast about his "Big boy mansion," the $17 million home he purchased in an exclusive enclave in Las Vegas. He drives a Bentley and a Rolls Royce and a Lamborghini and he often wears jewelry that cost more than some people will earn in a decade.

His uncle, Roger, who is his head trainer, was always outrageous and, in a crude sort of way, entertaining. His father, who often butted heads with both Floyd Jr. and Roger, was a compelling figure unto himself.

Few other fighters have benefitted from the "24/7" format the way Mayweather has, but it's no accident. Mayweather had dreamed up such a concept in the 1990s as a way to market himself differently.

And while "24/7" is supposed to be reality, Mayweather proved he was the master at how to take advantage of the platform.

"I truly believe that we have so many different characters," Mayweather said when asked why he's benefitted so greatly from '24/7'. "My father, when he is in the boxing gym, is 'Floyd Joy.' My uncle is 'The Black Mamba.' We have children that are characters. And of course, myself, I am leading the pack. So many different personalities and so many people inside the gym and outside the gym. We have fun, but we know when to turn it on and when to turn it off.

"This is something that we talked about for a long time. Going in depth and behind the scenes, and showing things that no one had ever shown about a fighter. We talked about this back in the '90s."

The plan began to unfold at the time of the Gatti fight. Mayweather boasted far and wide about how he'd destroy Gatti, who was legendary for his fights that were almost like barroom brawls.

He'd take serious abuse and would seemingly be on the verge of being stopped when he'd come back with a miraculous punch to win.

Mayweather, though, taunted him as little more than a "C-plus" fighter while lauding himself as an "A-plus fighter." The boxing establishment was horrified, because that had not been the ticket to pay-per-view success.

De La Hoya at the time, epitomized what it took to sell on pay-per-view. Clearly, elite talent was necessary. Beyond that, though, was an ability to appeal to many markets. And so De La Hoya crafted an image as the good-looking soft-spoken boy-next-door who would go out and talk on these dangerous opponents.

Rarely would one demean an opponent or intentionally portray himself in a nasty, in-your-face manner, like Mayweather was doing.

"That bit of a nasty edge, the guy with a chip on his shoulder who had a feeling of not being appreciated, made him difficult for some people to work with," Hornewer said. "But we thought the Gatti fight would be a springboard to pay-per-view success for him. Arturo Gatti at that time had a reputation as a guy who could take it and take it and take it and somehow overcome the greatest odds.

"Well, Floyd didn't try to disrespect Gatti, but he was being honest when he called Gatti a C-plus fight and himself and A-plus. A lot of people tuned in that night hoping to see Gatti beat this loudmouth kid."

It was a one-sided fight, but it was one-sided in Mayweather's favor. Gatti wasn't able to come close to hitting him and Mayweather drilled him with punishing shots. Mayweather pummeled Gatti so thoroughly that at the end of the sixth round, Larry Hazzard, then the head of the New Jersey commission, walked to Gatti's corner and told trainer Buddy McGirt to throw in the towel and end the fight.

The in-ring postfight interview with HBO's Larry Merchant stunned viewers, however. Instead of continuing his boasts and taunts, Mayweather was soft-spoken and gracious, praising Gatti and predicting he'd again wear a world championship belt.

It was a display of the many facets of Floyd Mayweather.

"He doesn't give a [expletive] whether people love him or hate him, as long as they know him and are interested," said promoter Lou DiBella, the former HBO Sports executive who built a relationship with Mayweather while was at HBO. "Outside of heavyweights, he's the first African-American who is a pay-per-view star. He's got an incredibly photogenic smile that lights up a room and this phenomenal talent that amazes people.

"He's worked his [expletive] off to make himself a pop culture star. He went on 'Dancing With The Stars,' and he competed in pro wrestling. He has the crossover into the rap and the hip-hop markets. He's made himself into the transcendent star in boxing."

Ellerbe insists that Mayweather's stardom extends well beyond boxing. He said that not long after Mayweather was voted off "Dancing With The Stars," he was walking through a grocery store with Mayweather in Las Vegas, shopping for food.

Two white women, one that Ellerbe estimated was in her late 50s and the other he guess was in her early 70s, noticed Mayweather.

They had seen him on "Dancing With The Stars" and wanted to chat him up and pose for a photograph.

"They didn't recognize him as a boxer," Ellerbe said. "They knew him as their favorite dancer on the show. They were like, 'Oh, we were so sorry you were voted off. You were our favorite.' And they just made a big fuss over him."

Mayweather was charming as he spoke with them and posed for photos. When they left, Mayweather and Ellerbe looked at each other and beamed.

They knew he'd made it at that point.

"Floyd looked at me and said, 'That's it, we've done crossed over now,' " Ellerbe said. "Floyd is not just a boxer; he's an entertainer and a celebrity who crosses all boundaries. And that let us know that all the work we'd put in to get to this point had paid off."

Despite his success, Mayweather still has plenty of detractors, who have chided him for failing to fight the top welterweights until now and who have given much of the credit for his pay-per-view success to his opponents.

To his critics, it was largely De La Hoya who drove the record 2.45 million sales in their 2007 fight. It was Ricky Hatton and his loyal legion of fans who pushed the pay-per-view of their fight to 920,000. And, they contend, it was the Mexican diehards tuning in to watch Marquez who were responsible for the 1.06 million sales in the Juan Manuel Marquez fight in September.

Ellerbe laughs off such criticism.

"The pay-per-view industry is an unconventional business and there are only seven or eight people in the business who understand the numbers," Ellerbe said.

Mayweather instinctively gets it. He knows how to push buttons and he knows how to sell. Combine that with his talent and it's created a pay-per-view superstar.

Ellerbe said Mayweather is aware of the criticism he's received and is ready to put on the performance of his career to make a point to the doubters who remain.

"There is no athlete I know of who works as hard as Floyd, but he has worked harder than I have ever seen him work, and that's saying a tremendous amount," Ellerbe said. "He works like he's never accomplished a thing in his life instead of like a guy who is clearly the face of the sport.

"Believe me when I tell you, you will be blown away by his performance. I can't see Mosley lasting 10 rounds."

Richard Schaefer, the CEO of Golden Boy Promotions and the bout's promoter, isn't sure how the fight will turn out.

The one thing he knows is that the MGM Grand Garden Arena will be electrified when Mayweather walks to the ring on Saturday.

"I guess the one thing you can say about Floyd is that some people love him and some people hate him, but everyone has an opinion," Schaefer said. "We're at a stage now that just when Floyd gets into the ring, no matter who is across from him, it's a mega-event. When you put someone in of the stature of a Shane Mosley, it just goes off the charts."

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