Mayweather's legacy: What could have been

For everything Floyd Mayweather Jr. has accomplished as both a fighter and a businessman, one might always wonder about what his legacy could have been.

Few, of course, question his abilities in the ring and his status as an all-time great. But since becoming the face of the sport, Mayweather’s control over his own matchmaking has made it difficult to compare him to past legends.

The gripe about Mayweather’s selection of opponents, specifically above 135 pounds, slowly loses steam the more often “Money” takes on dangerous opponents who many previously claimed he would avoid. The perfect illustration is Saturday’s junior middleweight title unification bout against fellow unbeaten Canelo Alvarez.

But the gripe is still there – not out of spite for Mayweather or out of doubt about his special talent in the ring. The timing of certain Mayweather opponents and the avoidance of others has made it problematic because the calling card of other all-time greats has been a deep-rooted desire to test themselves against the best -- that whole dare-to-be-great mentality.

So as we enter the stretch run of Mayweather’s equally marketable and remarkable path toward perfection, there remains a haunting feeling about whether the fighter left a little bit too much of his potential greatness on the table.

Most will point, almost involuntarily, to the Manny Pacquiao-sized hole on his resume. It’s frustrating when you consider how rare it is in history for the sport’s top two pound-for-pound fighters to find themselves in the same division. And it’s doubly frustrating when you consider the damage done to the sport when the fight, with unrivaled potential for breaking records financially, failed to come off during a three-year window of prime viability.

To a smaller degree, Mayweather never faced Kostya Tszyu, the recognized 140-pound champion at the time, after moving up to junior welterweight.

But the biggest void may be the timing of Mayweather’s absences from the ring during his prime at welterweight, when the division was loaded with difficult opponents. Mayweather, of course, stepped away from the ring with multiple retirements following his star-making 2007 victories over Oscar De La Hoya and Ricky Hatton.

After building his brand further with crossover appearances on “Dancing With The Stars” and even in the main event of “Wrestlemania,” Mayweather fought just two times over a stretch of nearly four years between the Hatton fight and his 2011 return against Victor Ortiz.

One could argue the time away from the ring kept Mayweather fresh physically, allowing him to stay closer to peak condition today at age 36. But you also have to wonder what would have happened if Mayweather had remained active during that 45-month window, when he fought just twice -- against an undersized Juan Manuel Marquez and a 38-year-old version of Shane Mosley, who was 16 months removed from his career-saving TKO of Antonio Margarito.

Had Mayweather fought and won five more times during that stretch, consistently fighting two times per year, how would we view him historically if he were entering the Alvarez fight on the verge of 50-0?

More importantly, had he cleared out the division with victories against an unbeaten Miguel Cotto, Margarito, Andre Berto, Paul Williams and, yes, Pacquiao, would Saturday’s fight be the biggest in history? Would a victory have vaulted Mayweather into the top five in history, pound-for-pound?

Such a grind could have led him closer to his first defeat. But the truth is, Mayweather likely would have won all of those fights, and things could have been different today had he maxed out his potential just a little bit more.

An alternate reality in which Mayweather is universally beloved and adored probably couldn’t exist because he doesn’t seem to care much about being liked. Instead, he appears to thrive off playing the villain and managing his career on his own terms. That might be a more fitting legacy than even his pursuit of perfection.

But when you watch Mayweather perform on the highest level, as he hopes to do again Saturday, it always leaves you wondering a bit of what might have been, even if it is splitting hairs.