Floyd Mayweather Jr. and advisor Leonard Ellerbe were strolling through a Smith's Food & Drug grocery store in Las Vegas not long ago. As they were pushing their shopping cart and minding their own business, the well-to-do young African-American men were interrupted by a pair of decidedly middle-class elderly white women.
The women giggled as they asked Mayweather if he would mind posing for a photograph with them.
"We love you on 'Dancing with the Stars,' " Ellerbe recalls one of the women saying to Mayweather.
As they walked away, a wide grin creased Mayweather's face. He turned to Ellerbe, his best friend and de facto manager, and shook his head.
"Leonard, now I know I've crossed over," Mayweather said.
He's arguably the biggest attraction in combat sports. He is part of the best-selling bout in boxing history and his appearance at WrestleMania 24 on Sunday in Orlando, Fla., was such a hit, Ellerbe says, that the wrestling pay-per-view record of 1.25 million is expected to be topped.
In the past year, Mayweather had a prominent role on a hit television series. He was part of a boxing match that sold the unheard-of number of 2.4 million pay-per-view subscriptions. He followed that with sales of 900,000 for his bout with Ricky Hatton, a man who was making his pay-per-view debut in the U.S. and whose American television ratings had been tepid, at best.
Mark Taffet, HBO's senior vice president of sports operations and pay-per-view, said Mayweather has created a strong urban pay-per-view market. In only five pay-per-view bouts in his career, Mayweather already ranks fifth all-time with 4.3 million subscriptions sold and soon will overtake former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis for fourth place.
He appeared on the "Today Show" and "Larry King Live." He participated in the NBA All-Star weekend activities. He became fast friends with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, one of the country's richest men. He'll be featured in an upcoming spread in "GQ" magazine.
He fulfilled everything – and more – that promoter Bob Arum thought he could be upon signing him to a promotional contract following the 1996 Olympics.
Except, Mayweather did everything he could to make things difficult for Arum. He bitterly resented Arum's attempts to cast him in the mold as the next Sugar Ray Leonard or Oscar De La Hoya
By 1996, Arum had built a deserved reputation as the best promoter to develop a young prospect not only into a champion, but also into a superstar. The advice he was giving Mayweather was textbook.
Even Mayweather's lawyer, John Hornewer, concedes Arum was providing the correct advice: Be congenial, be accessible and let the public marvel at your prodigious talents.
"(Ellerbe) was very insistent, based upon Floyd's direction, that the way to market Floyd was to the urban crowd, to the hip-hop market," Hornewer said. "Leonard was very insistent that that was not only the way they should go, but that it was the way they would go. Bob and (Top Rank president) Todd (duBoef) had worked with Floyd the way they had worked with Oscar, but that mold wasn't working.
"Historically, the African-American market hadn't responded to pay-per-view. Bob understood this based on many, many years in the industry. It wasn't a market that was untapped, it was a market that didn't exist. They were telling Floyd, 'Look, we've accrued this data over the years and you can see it for yourself.' But Floyd wouldn't have it."
He spent many years feuding with Arum, in essence submarining promotions because he wouldn't cooperate. Arum took the approach with Mayweather of fishing where the fish are, but Mayweather was surly and unapproachable to all but a few.
By the time Mayweather turned pro, data was proving conclusively that boxing was becoming more and more a Hispanic-supported and driven business.
And, a decade earlier, Mayweather's uncle, Roger, had earned the nickname, "The Mexican Assassin," for beating a series of Mexican stars. There was much money to be made for Mayweather in beating up the Mexican icons.
But Mayweather, who is now the No. 1 ranked fighter in the Yahoo! Sports monthly poll, always believed in his own greatness and rebelled at the thought of being the next Ray Leonard.
"Floyd never wanted to be the next Sugar Ray, he always wanted to be the first Floyd Mayweather," Ellerbe said. "He wanted to make his own way, not do what somebody else had done. Instead of him saying, 'Hey, I want to be like Sugar Ray Leonard,' Floyd was saying, 'When I'm done, I want kids to dream to be the next Floyd Mayweather.' "
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who appeared on "Dancing with the Stars with Mayweather," lavished praised upon him for his willingness to be a showman.
"Things that many others don't have the intellect or nerve to do, Floyd is out front doing," Cuban said. "He has no fear. Add to that he knows how to put on a show going into the ring and gets the job done in the ring and he has become a very, very marketable athlete."
Mayweather parted ways with Top Rank after a successful pay-per-view bout with Zab Judah on April 8, 2006. By that point, Ellerbe had long been planting seeds in the hip-hop community that were beginning to germinate.
The pay-per-view bout against Judah did surprisingly well, drawing nearly 400,000 buys. That was a good number for any boxing match, but extraordinary for a bout featuring a star in just his second pay-per-view match against an unpopular fighter coming off a desultory loss.
Mayweather had long since proven himself a genius in the ring, but the results of the Judah bout at the box office were proof of the genius of his promotional instincts.
"Floyd is great at playing a role, as he proved in WrestleMania, but when he was being asked to play the role of Oscar or Sugar Ray Leonard, it simply wasn't within him," Hornewer said. "This hip-hop role, that is what his essence is. It's a role he embraces and plays well. If you take his essence and put it forward, you find a whole new marketplace to embrace.
"And the funny thing is, Floyd was saying this all along. His vision for how he should have been marketed turns out to be correct.'
DuBoef, though, doesn't accept the idea that Mayweather's model won out over Top Rank's model. He said Top Rank never rejected the idea of marketing Mayweather to an urban crowd, but simply urged him to broaden his appeal.
He said he didn't understand why it was wrong to want to make Mayweather appeal to all demographics.
"I've always bought the idea that if Floyd felt he should have been pushed to the hip-hop crowd, we should go to the hip-hop crowd," duBoef said. "My only thing was, don't limit yourself to just that crowd. Go for all demos. Appeal to the old crowd, the Hispanic crowd, the rich crowd, all of them, not just one."
Mayweather's base is clearly expanding, just as he predicted many years ago it would. He's a star of the biggest proportions in the hip-hop world, but his appearance on "Dancing with the Stars" and his performance at WrestleMania have helped put him in front of an audience that would have never paid attention before.
Now, they will.
And not all for the same reasons.
"Floyd doesn't need 100 percent of the fan base to love him and he's never cared about that," Ellerbe said. "If they do, great. But he knows he has a large and growing base of people who love him and support him to the end. There's another good-sized group out there who buy his fights who can't stand him and pay in the hopes of seeing him lose. We're fine with that, because at the end of the day, they've put their money down and they're paying customers.
"Come to see him win, or come to see him lose. We don't care. Just come to see him."
The WWE isn't expected to release pay-per-view results until next week, though Ellerbe said he was told the show has already done better than the previous record of 1.25 million sales.
That, combined with the 2.4 million sales he did for his fight last May with De La Hoya and the 900,000 he did for his Dec. 10 fight with Hatton mean he's averaged at least 1.5 million buys in his last three pay-per-view outings.
Put that into perspective: There have been only five boxing matches in history – Mayweather-De La Hoya in 2007, Lennox Lewis-Mike Tyson in 2002, Evander Holyfield-Tyson I and II in 1996 and 1997 and Tyson-Peter McNeeley in 1995 – that have ever sold 1.5 million or more on pay-per-view.
And yet, Mayweather is averaging that amount in his last three pay-per-view outings.
"If you followed boxing, who would have thought this four or five years ago?" Hornewer said. "But Floyd had that vision and that belief in himself and he never deviated. This is truly an amazing story."