LAS VEGAS – Floyd Mayweather Jr. was 10 years old and already the best boxer in town by a mile. He'd get in the ring and kids several years older would try to wallop him and wipe the grin off his face.
Most were bigger; almost all were stronger. None, though, had the instinctive feel for boxing that Mayweather did. They'd flail away, hitting only air, as the pre-teen Mayweather would duck away from their punches and then giggle contentedly when they got angry at themselves for missing him.
He was 60, maybe 65 pounds and the kids he was sparring were as heavy as 95 pounds.
"The guys were bigger than me and they'd be chasing me so much," Mayweather says, beaming.
So futile was the bigger kids' efforts to lay so much as a glove on him that Mayweather went to one knee after three or four rounds one day just because. His father, a former professional boxer who once fought Sugar Ray Leonard, teased him about being a quitter.
The next day, Floyd Mayweather Jr. sat at his desk in school, daydreaming about what he'd do in sparring later that day.
"The whole day in school, I wasn't even thinking about the work," Mayweather said. "I had to get my mind right. I thought, 'Today, when I box, I'm going to look so good. I'm not going to make no mistakes.' And I went and I boxed and I made no mistakes and I was so happy."
It's not much different these days. He's 35 now and is one of the greatest boxers who's ever lived. He's 42-0 and has held a world championship belt every year since 1998.
On Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden, he'll challenge Miguel Cotto for the World Boxing Association super welterweight title in a bout he's heavily favored to win.
He's a global celebrity now, recognizable around the world, even when riding a camel in the desert in the United Arab Emirates or crawling the hot spots in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
With pay-per-view revenues, he has a chance to make an astronomical amount of money Saturday, in excess of $40 million and likely much more.
And despite all the hoopla that the millions of dollars he's earned has brought, at his core, Mayweather is still most at home, at peace, in a boxing ring.
"This is what he lives for," said Leonard Ellerbe, the CEO of Mayweather Promotions. "Boxing is such a significant part of his life."
It has been almost from birth, where the first home he lived in was a block from a boxing gym. He quickly graduated from beating up bigger kids in Grand Rapids, Mich., to training with world-class professional fighters when he was a teenager.
On Jan. 29, 1994, in the very building where Mayweather and Cotto will fight on Saturday, a lesser-known super lightweight named Frankie Randall pulled off an extraordinary feat, becoming the first person to defeat legendary Mexican champion Julio Cesar Chavez, as well as the first man to deck him. Chavez entered that fight 89-0-1 and was a massive favorite, but Randall made history by earning a split-decision win.
Mayweather turned 17 a month after Randall's win over Chavez. He'd been essentially living on his own for a while, particularly after his father was imprisoned for selling drugs the previous year.
Randall had heard about Mayweather – pretty much anyone in professional boxing had, and nearly all of them thought he was a cinch to win a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta – and so he invited Mayweather to train with him.
Soon, Randall and Mayweather became fast friends, living together in Randall's home on a golf course. It was Randall who gave Mayweather the taste for the finer things in life that he now so enjoys.
"He was the first guy to buy me Versace shades," Mayweather said.
When Mayweather walked into the ring the first time to spar Randall, he was shocked. He could hit Randall pretty much at will, but Randall was unable to hit him.
That presented the teenager with a quandary: Did he fight hard, and essentially embarrass the newly crowned champion, or did he take it a bit easy so that Randall would keep him around?
"I boxed him light," Mayweather said. "I didn't box him hard. We hung out and I wanted to keep our friendship. … I wanted to remain friends."
Shelly Finkel, one of the sport's leading managers for more than two decades, was at his peak at the time and had a stable of elite fighters led by superstars Evander Holyfield and Pernell Whitaker.
Finkel, like most top managers, was desperate to get Mayweather signed to a contract when he turned pro, which was expected to be after the Atlanta Olympics. So, Finkel would send money to Mayweather to help him with his expenses and, in essence, try to remain in his good graces.
Finkel brought Mayweather to Norfolk, Va., to train with Whitaker, whom many at the time believed was the best fighter in the world.
"Way, way back, long before the Olympics, anybody who knew boxing knew he'd be a star," Finkel, now a concert promoter, said of Mayweather. "He was the guy. You knew he was going to do big things. He was brought up in a boxing family and he was so dedicated to the sport.
"There's so much hype around him now for things outside of the ring; the money and the cars and the flashiness and what not. But the truth of the matter is, the reason he's successful is that he trains his [expletive] off. I don't know if there is anybody in the game who works harder, and he was that way even back then when he was a kid."
Mayweather was one of several amateurs, along with Zahir Raheem and Zab Judah, who went to Norfolk to train with Whitaker in 1994.
Mayweather wouldn't say much about how the sparring went.
"I've got respect for champions," he said. "It was good work for both of us. That's all I'll say."
Ronnie Shields, now one of the sport's best trainers, was an assistant trainer under George Benton at the time working with Whitaker. He was there to see Whitaker and Mayweather spar. And while he said Whitaker had few problems with the 17-year-old prodigy, it was obvious that Mayweather was destined to be a superstar.
"Pernell handled him, like he handled all of those guys," Shields said. "He wasn't hitting them hard, just playing with them, going down low like he did and fighting with his hands at his side. They couldn't hit him. But remember, Pernell was the best in the world at the time. When Mayweather was in there, even though he was having trouble with Pernell, it was obvious how good the kid was.
"Pernell is a guy who doesn't give out a lot of compliments. He didn't want to say anything about another fighter, because he didn't like the idea of anyone upstaging him. But I remember him saying to me, 'Man, this kid is good right now.' He said to Floyd, 'You stay with this and you remain dedicated, ain't nobody going to touch you.' "
Few have touched Mayweather in his career as he's racked up a 42-0 mark and started to close in on the late heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano's record. Marciano finished his career 49-0, the most wins without a loss or a draw for anyone who retired as a world champion.
[Y! Sports Radio: Kevin Iole discusses the Mayweather-Cotto fight]
In recent years, though, Mayweather has begun fighting increasingly flat-footed and has not used his lateral movement. He's made men miss who are standing right in front of him, blocking punches with his shoulder and subtly slipping and sliding away from danger while still in the pocket.
It gnaws at Mayweather, who has 26 knockouts, that he's perceived as a defensive fighter. And so, all these years later, after embarrassing and frustrating boy after boy and then man after man, he says he can be as good offensively as he is defensively. He doesn't brawl, he says, simply because he hasn't had to.
If the situation calls for it on Saturday, Mayweather said he'll shock those who question him.
"If I had to go to war [to win a fight] and go toe-to-toe, I could do that if that's what I had to do," Mayweather said. "But I don't have to do that. The remarkable thing about my career, the coolest thing about me is, I can say, 'Listen. I done 16 years and I ain't taken no punishment.' They can say, 'Aw, Floyd, you duck and dodge this guy, duck and dodge that guy.' Say what you want to, my man. I made a lot of money and I ain't taken no punishment. That's the remarkable thing about my career. Now that's being cool. That's what we teach fighters. That's the cool thing about the sport.
"Ain't nothing cool about saying, 'You know what? I had a career. It lasted eight years. I was in a war. Uh, what time is it? I can't even see my watch. Help me get my cane.' Ain't nothing cool about that. The cool thing about this is, I can still run around with my young children. I can still go to the park. I can play basketball. I can have fun. That's the cool thing about my career."
It's always fun when you're winning.
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