LAS VEGAS – In 1997, 20-year-old Floyd Mayweather Jr. fought on a card billed as "Pound-for-Pound."
The slogan was referencing that night's main event at the Thomas & Mack Center on the UNLV campus between Pernell Whitaker and Oscar De La Hoya.
After stopping Bobby Giepert in the first round on the undercard, Mayweather insisted he was ready to take on the winner of that night's main event and assume the mantle of boxing's finest fighter.
Less than a year after winning a bronze medal in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and minutes after his sixth pro fight, Mayweather called out De La Hoya.
De La Hoya edged Whitaker that night to earn recognition, however briefly, as boxing's best. The Golden Boy was then, as now, boxing's biggest star. He won a welterweight title that night, the fourth division in which he wore a championship belt, and a bout with a 6-0 fighter competing three divisions below him was the farthest thing from his mind.
It was no joke, though, to Mayweather, who, on the eve of what figures to be the richest fight in history when he meets De La Hoya at the MGM Grand Garden for a super welterweight title, swears he was ready for this night 10 years ago.
"Floyd Mayweather has always been about history, about respect, about being the best," he said. "I've always called out the best fighters. Whatever division I was in, when I got there, I wanted the best. I wasn't looking to fight no bums."
He's now widely recognized as the game's best boxer, though he often complains he doesn't feel he's properly respected, largely because he believes the recognition of his skills is years overdue.
But Mayweather hasn't taken any risky fights since he defeated Jose Luis Castillo in back-to-back bouts in his lightweight debut in 2002.
Since, he's come under a torrent of criticism for his opponents, Victoriano Sosa, Phillip N'dou, DeMarcus Corley, Henry Bruseles, Arturo Gatti, Sharmba Mitchell, Zab Judah and Carlos Baldomir.
In many ways, the list is a 21st century version of Joe Louis' "Bum of the Month Club." None of them were really threats to defeat him and Bruseles and Mitchell were outright jokes. Bruseles never belonged anywhere near the same ring as Mayweather, while Mitchell, a one-time highly regarded champion, was long past his prime and just chasing a paycheck.
And while, at 34, De La Hoya might be chasing a paycheck a lot harder than he is chasing in-ring glory, he is a legitimate opponent who will prove a benchmark to use to compare Mayweather to the all-time greats.
There have been few fighters in boxing history as naturally gifted defensively as Mayweather. He's as instinctive a fighter as there has ever been, literally having been taught the game from the crib by his father, Floyd Sr.
Mayweather Sr. prizes defensive ability above all else. When he works the mitts for a fighter he's training, he doesn't throw the simulated hook over the boxer's head, as most trainers do. He aims directly at the ear in a tactic designed to teach the fighter to duck.
"They don't throw over your head when you're in a fight," Senior said.
Junior learned that lesson early and has become one of the game's most complete fighters as a result. He can use his legs as a defensive tactic, but he’s also so smart in that aspect of the game that he can make a fighter miss repeatedly while standing directly in front of him.
But Mayweather has also never fought an offensive machine like, say, an Aaron Pryor or a Thomas Hearns, men who were as good offensively as he is defensively.
Though Mayweather speaks of him incessantly, Sugar Ray Robinson shouldn't even be in the conversation, because no one can match favorably with him. Robinson is the greatest fighter ever and there can be no one else in the conversation.
Talk as Mayweather might about his skills, he should know this: Robinson has 17 wins over fighters who are in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, nearly half of Mayweather's entire win count.
And when Robinson was Mayweather's age, he already had a 104-1-2 record. When you talk boxing, there is Ray Robinson and then there's everyone else.
Mayweather also benefits from having fought in an era in which there weren't a plethora of quality opponents.
When he fought Genaro Hernandez for the super featherweight title in 1998, Hernandez had only lost to De La Hoya and was widely regarded as the top 130-pounder in the world. The 21-year-old Mayweather toyed with him before stopping him in eight rounds.
Upon his move to lightweight in 2002, Mayweather defeated Castillo, then widely regarded as the best 135-pounder alive.
But other challenges have been few and far between. That's why he needs to be impressive on Saturday against De La Hoya. A knockout wouldn't hurt, because it would show he had the firepower as he moved up, like Ray Leonard, Hearns and Roberto Duran were able to do.
If Mayweather defeats De La Hoya and then scores subsequent wins over, say, Shane Mosley, Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito, he'll deserve to be considered one of the 15 best fighters ever.
But there are a lot of fights to win before he can seriously continue with that all-time talk.