How did Mayweather become a big-money superstar? He dreamed big – and turned down $12.5M

Kevin Iole

LAS VEGAS – Floyd Mayweather and Leonard Ellerbe would talk – dream, really – about the future, like a pair of kids on a Little League squad who imagined themselves making the big plays to win Game 7 of the World Series.

It was roughly 15 years ago, a contentious point early in a professional career that was teeming with promise. By 2000, there were a few observers who already believed Mayweather was the best fighter in the world. Even those who disagreed couldn't deny his charisma or his fistic brilliance. He was "Pretty Boy" Floyd, an Olympic medalist and a dynamic physical specimen. HBO saw him take apart the classy Genaro Hernandez at the tender age of 21 and knew he was different from the rest of the crowd. 

There were many good fighters who made their way into the professional ranks from that 1996 U.S. Olympic team. There was, however, only one Mayweather.

Recognizing that, HBO offered him a six-fight, $12.5 million contract extension, a deal many thought he'd be crazy to decline.

Mayweather, though, was crazy enough to decline.

Floyd Mayweather (Getty Images)
Floyd Mayweather (Getty Images)

He had this dream, this belief, that he was destined to be different. Not just good. Not just great.

Special.

His father, Floyd Mayweather Sr., urged him to accept the offer. He said the same to anyone with a microphone or pen and paper who cared to listen.

But Mayweather Jr. had spent long hours speaking with Ellerbe about where he'd be in five years, then 10, then 15. He knew he wasn't being promoted the right way.

Top Rank, Ellerbe said, did things correctly in the traditional sense. It was building him to be the next Oscar De La Hoya or the next Sugar Ray Leonard. But Mayweather wanted to make his own mark, to create his own identity, and ultimately came to the decision that he needed to split from Top Rank and work on his own if he were going to reach the heights he felt he could.

"The big divide between Floyd and ourselves, with me, it was really the age difference," said Bob Arum, the 83-year-old CEO of Top Rank. "Floyd was asking me to reach out on his behalf more to the African-American community. I was familiar with the African-American community, but it was a different community. It was the community of the [Muhammad] Ali times and the [Joe] Frazier times and older people like myself.

"What Floyd was talking about, which I later realized, was the hip-hop generation, which I couldn't connect to. I didn't do what Floyd asked me to do because I didn't know how."

So Mayweather bolted Top Rank and put his plan into action. And now, 15 years later, he's where he and Ellerbe always knew he'd be.

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About a month before Mayweather takes on Manny Pacquiao at the MGM Grand Garden in a bout that has essentially become a license for the promoters to print money, Ellerbe is standing next to the ring in a deserted gym, an hour after Mayweather has completed a workout.

Leonard Ellerbe (Getty Images)
Leonard Ellerbe (Getty Images)

Gone are the track suit and sneakers, along with the stop watch and towel over his shoulder that Ellerbe once wore. They're replaced by a swanky sport coat and a finely tailored white shirt open at the collar. He's the man who worked silently behind the scenes and put many aspects of Mayweather's career together.

Mayweather said after his workout Thursday that he could make as much as $200 million for the fight. He has transcended boxing and has become an A-list celebrity.

Parked in front of the gym were a pair of Rolls Royces and a Ferrari. As Mayweather showered and Ellerbe spoke, a young man with a spray bottle painstakingly hand washed the Ferrari that Mayweather had driven to the gym.

They were the tangible signs that Mayweather's belief that he would become this big was correct. He knew it all along. So, too, Ellerbe says, did he.

"Me and him both, we [felt that way]. He's always had an incredible mindset to dream and his work ethic is matched to it. But the whole key to it was him becoming his own boss."

Earlier, Mayweather went through what for him was a relatively easy workout. He sparred four rounds with 23-year-old Maurice Lee, a 4-0 lightweight who was on his second day on the job.

Lee showed up for work on Wednesday and wasn't sure what to expect. He pawed at Mayweather but didn't really fire punches at him the way he could. Here he was, facing one of the biggest figures in the history of the sport who is about a month away from competing in the richest fight of all time. Lee didn't want to get into trouble.

He tapped Mayweather with a few punches, and then he heard it, and good, from those in Mayweather's corner.

Maurice Lee (Kevin Iole)
Maurice Lee (Kevin Iole)

"They yelled at me, 'Hit him,' " Lee said, grinning. "And so I did."

As he undressed in his locker room, Mayweather spoke of Lee, saying he likes to help younger fighters and give them an opportunity. But as much as he wants to do some young kid he barely knows a favor, he also wants to be in the best shape possible because he has never wanted to win a fight as badly as he does this upcoming match with Pacquiao.

"It's a real good opportunity for him, but it's also a good opportunity for me," Mayweather said. "I need to have young, tough competitors, guys who are trying to make their mark in the sport, pushing me. I feel that's what I need. He pushed and I felt that's what I needed."

Mayweather spoke softly, hardly the outrageous, over-the-top character many have come to know and hate. Mayweather understands that while he has a legion of fans that is desperate to see him win, there is another group that wants him to get his comeuppance and get starched by Pacquiao.

He's free with his time on this mild spring evening, in no rush to leave. He says repeatedly how he feels blessed, how he is thankful for everything the sport has given him.

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He's not the man he was 15, 10 or even five years ago. He explains how it's important to learn and evolve. Boxing came naturally to him, but understanding business was something different. He spent hours with adviser Al Haymon and Ellerbe, talking, dreaming, asking questions and plotting a future that few others could imagine.

"The Floyd Mayweather of 10 years ago was a lot wilder, and I didn't see things the same way that I see them now," said Mayweather, now 38 and in his 19th year as a pro. "I'm a lot older and wiser. At some point, you can't grow any more physically, but you can always grow mentally. I'm growing mentally every day, trying to become a better person."

He became one of the best fighters ever, which he always knew he would. He became the face of boxing, which he said repeatedly he would do. He has transcended his sport, though, and become an athlete so many other star athletes look up to and admire.

They reach out to him for advice frequently.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

"NBA owners, NFL owners, they don't want their guys talking to Floyd," Ellerbe said, laughing. "He has all this knowledge, and there are no restrictions on him. He can talk and say what he wants. Those guys are worried what he might tell their players."

Ellerbe said he repeatedly fields calls from big-name athletes who want the answer to the same simple question: How in the world does he generate so much money?

Talent plays a huge role. Mayweather's unbeaten record is, in many ways, a key to everything. If he were 46-1, not only would this fight not be so big, there's a good chance it might not even be happening.

Mayweather has pushed himself in the ring and in the boardroom. He wanted to make certain no one was in better shape. He wanted to learn how to counter certain punches and put more pop into others. But he also wanted to know where the money came from and where it went, how to generate it and how to maximize it and how to unravel the old model that favored the promoters, the establishment, over the athletes.

"In life, a lot of people don't know this, but there are only three ways you can learn: Hearing, seeing and doing," Mayweather said. "Me, I can learn all three ways."

He knew when to put on a show and when to pull back. He doesn't need to be outrageous or ostentatious to sell the Pacquiao fight. Interest is so high, it's selling by itself.

So he speaks softly, insightfully, and there is little of the braggadocio fans have come to associate with him. When he's needed to craft his persona, he was never afraid to take a risk and change something that was going well. He was asked why he hasn't been flashing wads of cash or gaudy jewelry as he promotes the fight.

He grins, wanly, as he answers slowly and deliberately.

"I don't have to do that," he says. "It's about maturity. It's about growth. I don't have to do that. Everyone knows I've built an empire by communicating in a certain way. There were power moves. There were business moves. The business moves, as far as talking and communicating on camera, doing what I have to do, being flashy and flamboyant, I [did those when necessary and] I got to where I am. So I did my job.

"I gave you the 'Pretty Boy' Floyd persona and then I came back and gave you the 'Money May' persona. I built an empire. I built a strong team. Now I can sit back and say I've done my job. I've got fans from [appearing on] 'Dancing with the Stars.' I've got fans from the WWE. Fans from all walks of life. Put them all together and I have all these fans. And here I am."

Mayweather gets the full celebrity treatment when he attends NBA games. (AP)
Mayweather gets the full celebrity treatment when he attends NBA games. (AP)

He sits on the top of an empire that is generating money at a mind-boggling pace.

If he faces Pacquiao in a rematch later in the year, he could come close to having a year in which he earns close to half a billion dollars.

Think of that. He'll make more in one night than the payrolls of the majority of Major League Baseball teams. If there is a rematch, he'll have an outside chance to earn upward of three-quarters of a billion dollars before his career ends.

He'll be remembered as one of the greatest fighters who ever lived as well as perhaps the most powerful.

But 15 years ago, before he knocked Diego Corrales down five times en route to earning an HBO contract; before he destroyed Arturo Gatti in his pay-per-view debut; before he bested De La Hoya in a record-setting PPV match; before he routed Canelo Alvarez in a bout that generated a record $150 million in domestic pay-per-view revenue, Mayweather believed.

He'd believed he'd make it. What the world marvels at now is simply what he expected all the time.

He wasn't crazy for turning down that six-fight, $12.5 million deal.

That was just chump change compared to what he's going to make on May 2.

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