LAS VEGAS -- For Floyd Mayweather Jr., there is one opponent who matters on Saturday night, and that's Victor Ortiz. But there are others who follow him endlessly, however much he may wish otherwise. One of them is the insecurity and defensiveness that erupts at the slightest provocation, the need to defend the achievements of his career and the quality of opposition he has faced; and the other, increasingly inseparable from the first, is the specter of his only rival for boxing's pound-for-pound best -- the issue of whether he or Manny Pacquiao deserves the highest accolades, and the question of whether they will ever meet in the ring.
Asked this week about the assertion by Oscar De La Hoya -- nominally his promoter, but a man with whom Mayweather has a relationship that might best be described as prickly -- that Mayweather's opponents have either been on the way up or on the way out (a position that stands in contrast to the Golden Boy's promises at the time that Ricky Hatton or Juan Manuel Marquez or Shane Mosley or De La Hoya himself was the perfect person to defeat the "Pretty Boy"), Mayweather bristled, and began a 10-minute stream of consciousness in defense of his career.
"Diego [Corrales] was in his 20s -- may he rest in peace -- I was in my 20s. I beat him when he was undefeated. I was older than Ricky Hatton, but he was undefeated. When I fought Mosley, they said the best that Mosley had ever looked was against Antonio Margarito, but if you all go back, you'll see I was trying to fight Mosley after I fought Genaro Hernandez [to win the world title in 1998]. At that particular time, they said Genaro Hernandez had too much experience for me, I was moving [through the ranks] too quick. I beat him.
"My next fight, the next-best guy at 130 was Angel Manfredy at that particular time. I beat Manfredy. Then they say it's Diego. I beat him. Then I go to 135, I beat Castillo, they say the victory wasn't good enough, so I go back and beat him again. They say, 'You didn't knock him out,' but I still beat him. The list goes on and on. Mosley took a couple losses, but nobody had ever dominated him until I dominated him."
It is from here that Mayweather segued effortlessly to the subject of Pacquiao, although whether deliberately or subconsciously, he took pains not to name him.
"I beat Mosley; they say he never looked more impressive than when he beat Antonio Margarito. Margarito takes two years off after being beat by Mosley, then he fights the smaller guy [Pacquiao] and they say, 'Oh, that's so amazing.' OK, we say Miguel Cotto. Miguel Cotto got beat by Antonio Margarito. So then they say, 'He's a beaten fighter now, let's feed him the leftovers.' Beat him when he's undefeated! I beat these guys when they give them to me. I'm not ducking or dodging no one, I never have."
And then comes the inevitable insinuation:
"When you see Michael Jordan in college, you say, 'He's gonna be great. When you see LeBron James in college, you say, 'He's going to be great.' When you see Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, all these different fighters, even myself, you say, 'He's gonna be great.' A guy don't turn 24 or 25 and suddenly become great. This is what I do.
"Y'all specialty is writing, whupping a guy's a-- with a pen. I don't do that. I engage in physical combat, so I know what happens in this sport. A guy don't get to a certain age and suddenly become good. You go to the books in 1997 and ask, 'Where was this guy at?' He just all of a sudden just popped up and become good? He starts punching hard out of the blue? Out of the blue? C'mon man! Make this make sense, man. Y'all that desperate for a fight? If you're the best, take the test. And I'm not just picking on one guy. Everyone I'm facing has to do it. It's about being fair. Let's get entertainment, but let our athletes be healthy. Let's be fair and get everyone on the same playing field."
If the arguments are familiar, they now come with an oddly nationalistic twist.
"The other day was the 9/11 anniversary," Mayweather said. "I'm in my own country, where, if I do make it rain, I'm throwing money to American citizens, in a recession. So I sit back and I say, 'OK, a guy comes to our country, which is America, makes money in our country and takes it back to his country to feed his people.' And they say, 'This guy who's unbeaten and been dominating for 16 years is scared of a guy.' OK. The proof is in the pudding.
"The other day, I was watching 9/11 [ceremonies] and it brought tears to my eyes, seeing these football players, but then I see this is how I get treated in my own country. My own citizens treat me like this. I sit down and talk to the soldiers, but it's like this: I get more love from the U.K.! It's unbelievable. I get more love from the U.K.! But then they say this guy gets fighter of the decade, and he got a draw and got his a-- whupped in that decade. But you know what? I done it this long and this strong."
That Mayweather has been in the business, and has been so tremendously successful at it, for a long time is undeniable. And having gotten off his chest what he needed to, it is when casting his mind back to the days when first he began his love affair with boxing, before the pressures, the criticism and the crushing weight of expectations, that he relaxes and opens up.
"I didn't even live a block away from the boxing gym," he recalled. "I thought that was the best thing in the world. Every day, if my dad went to the gym and didn't take me, I'd cry. 'Please take me to the gym. Please.' Just to go to the gym to hit the speed bag, watch the guys spar. I loved it. Just like my gym. I like it dirty. I feel like you get your best work when it's dirty. I don't like that clean junk. I don't like that. When I go to the gym, they say, 'Floyd it stinks in the gym.' That's how I like it to be."
The prickly shell has been shed; the conversation begins to range more widely, to personal and business goals, to books he has read, to movies he has watched, and the softer side emerges.
Does he have a favorite movie?
"I liked 'The Notebook,'" he offered, unexpectedly. "Who don't want to die holding hands with the one they love? It's amazing. I feel like if I leave this earth and leave my better half, she's gonna be lonely. If she leaves me, then I'm going to be lonely. What's the use of making all this money if you can't enjoy it with anybody?"
And then, subtly, he shifts gears again. The interview is almost over. It is time to pitch Saturday's fight, in the way he knows best.
"What's Victor's trainer's name? I want the other side to get tickets to the fight."
So he wants Danny Garcia's estranged brother, Robert, to be there?
"Yeah. I want those guys to come. I want [lightweight contender and Ortiz nemesis] Brandon Rios to come."
"Why not? It's entertainment, baby."
He starts selling the undercard, and talk turns to Mexican junior middleweight Saul "Canelo" Alvarez. Told that the hugely popular Mexican has been dubbed "The Mayweather of Mexico," Floyd smiles and exclaims, "That's amazing." When Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer reveals that Canelo's people have said they would like to fight Mayweather next year, he smiles again.
"Everything takes time. Tell them to pump their brakes. You know, I take long breaks, so he may get me when I'm 38."