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Unbeaten, but no longer unbeatable

When the final bell rang, Marcos Maidana puffed out his chest, raised both arms and bathed in the rapturous din that rained down on him from the far reaches of the MGM Grand Garden Arena. The Argentinian contingent was large and loud, and at that moment Maidana must have felt secure in the bosom of his people. It was that magic handful of minutes between the end of the fight and the announcement of the winner when anything was possible.

Initially, Mayweather's reaction was subdued. He raised his right arm and momentarily looked down at the canvas, a world-weary expression on his face. Then, almost by rote, he made his way through the crowded ring toward his corner, a man alone with his thoughts amid a cauldron of humanity.

As Floyd climbed the ropes and looked around, the cheers of his supporters buoyed him and the familiar look of confidence was back in place. He had just endured his most arduous test since his first bout with Jose Luis Castillo in 2002, and he had the marks on his face to prove it.

Boxing's premier prima donna had met adversity head-on and prevailed, just as his critics have always dared him to do. Mayweather had earned this one the hard way, even if he hadn't exactly looked like the best fighter in the world doing it.

Maidana and Mayweather, each in his own way, created a memorable battle, a fight bristling with passion, bad intentions and a healthy dollop of spite. They gave the announced crowd of 16,268 and pay-per-view customers a much larger ration of hard-core fighting than expected, and that's always a good thing.

Yet despite the intensely competitive nature of the fight, you just knew that if it went the distance Maidana wasn't going to get the nod. Whether he deserved it is another matter altogether.

On my drive home I heard a sports-talk radio host, who admitted he hadn't seen the fight, ranting about how nobody should be surprised when the wrong guy gets the decision. What else would you expect from boxing? He was the sort of know-nothing know-it-all boxing fans despise, but he wasn't totally wrong.

Dreadful decisions are as common as flattened noses and bruised knuckles, but if Maidana was cheated of victory, it was before the fight when he was denied the right to use the gloves of his choice. Such is the power of The Money Team.

It was a close, punishing contest, with enough rounds open to interpretation to make any reasonably close decision acceptable. Although I favored judge Michael Pernick's 114-114 stalemate, I can live with Dave Moretti's overly generous 116-112 for Mayweather. But Judge Burt Clements' 117-111 for Floyd was exactly the sort of thing the guy on the radio was shouting about, a ridiculously wide margin that sent Maidana's partisans into a frenzy of discontent and undoubtedly reinforced some PPV viewers' worst suspicions.

In the end, none of that was of much consequence. It was one of those rare occasions when which fighter won was secondary. The most significant takeaway was that Mayweather is still unbeaten but no longer unbeatable.

If the supposition is correct, the Mayweather-Maidana fight has opened the door to a much wider range of possibilities. This is not to suggest that Mayweather is by any means shot. He couldn't have withstood such a brutal onslaught if that were the case. He's simply not the same fighter he was at his peak, sort of like what people have been saying about Manny Pacquiao.

Although a showdown with Pacquiao is still boxing's Moby Dick, the leviathan of a promotion that got away, the relative merits of both fighters have been argued ad nauseam for so long, there's nothing left to say unless they actually sign to fight.

Thankfully, despite Muhammad Ali's cheeky postfight Tweet urging Mayweather to fight Pacquiao, we don't necessarily have to go there. The list of young guns hungry for an opportunity to take down the leader of the pack is growing at the very same time Floyd's unworldly talents are beginning to fade.

Undefeated Americans Shawn Porter and Keith Thurman are coming into their own as quality welterweights, as is Englishman Kell Brook, who just happens to be Porter's alphabet title mandatory challenger. The best of the trio should prove a threat, and who wouldn't want to see what Lucas Matthysse could do if he moved up from junior welterweight? He's another Argentinian badass in the Maidana mold and by far the biggest puncher among those under consideration.

Amir Khan, who rebooted his degraded career with a unanimous decision over Luis Collazo on the undercard, seems to assume he's next in line. He restated his claims after knocking down Collazo three times, telling the media, "I'm the only person who has a chance of beating Mayweather."

I don't know if Khan really believes that, but U.K. bookmakers have already installed Mayweather as a prohibitive favorite to trounce their countryman if the match actually takes place, which isn't exactly a vote of confidence.

More likely is a return fight with Maidana, which Floyd tacitly agreed to at the postfight news conference. "I don't dodge anybody, but if he wants a rematch in September, come get it," he said. Sounds good in principle, but he also told Maidana not to hit him where it hurts the most next time, in reference to the chippy nature of their fight.

How eager Mayweather really feels about climbing back into the ring with an opponent who punched low, pushed him through the ropes, and tried to knee him in the groin remains to be seen. But if Floyd doesn't have a change of heart, an encore with Maidana would create more interest and generate more money than any other rival besides Pacquiao.

Did anybody believe for a second that Floyd was being candid when he said he fought the way he did against Maidana because he wanted to "give fans an exciting fight"? I didn't buy it when he said the same thing after Miguel Cotto gave him an uncomfortable night, and I don't buy it now. Floyd is not the sort of guy who willingly takes punishment to please the paying public. Maidana and Cotto forced him to fight the way he did, and there's no shame in that.

It was easy to be misled by the relative ease with which Mayweather handled adversaries Robert Guerrero and Canelo Alvarez between the Cotto and Maidana fights. Neither man attacked with anywhere near the conviction and intensity of Maidana and Cotto, making it easier to hide creeping vulnerabilities.

Ironically, if Mayweather really is in decline and continues to fight, he just might achieve the universal popularity that has evaded him so far. No sane individual with even a passing knowledge of boxing would deny he's an all-time great. He may not be "TBE" (The Best Ever), as Floyd currently markets himself, but he's undoubtedly part of the conversation.

Most exceptional fighters, to one degree or another, have added to their legacy after their physical primes are past. Some -- such as Archie Moore, George Foreman and Bernard Hopkins -- have made a second career out of it. We all fall eventually, so it's only human nature to empathize with the mortal side of greatness.

As the fight unfolded -- with Maidana bullying Mayweather into the ropes and whacking away at anything he could hit, and Mayweather answering back with searing shots on the outside -- I had the feeling that I'd seen it all before. That déjà vu sensation happens a lot if you hang around boxing long enough, and it soon dawned on me that it was the 15-round draw between Gene Fullmer and Sugar Ray Robinson in 1960 that rang a bell.

Although not all the particulars align, there were ample similarities, stylistically and otherwise. Both bouts pitted dazzling craftsmen against uncompromising brawlers, and both Maidana (a stone-cold brawler) and Robinson (a lethal but aging genius) made a mockery of the odds against them.

Robinson was 39 years old and in the twilight of his celebrated career when he fought the third of four bouts with Fullmer. Robinson had fought more than 150 bouts by then and was just about worn out. But somehow he pulled it together to give what is widely considered his last great performance.

Comparatively speaking, the 37-year-old Mayweather was as fresh as a Golden Glover and fighting like a man a decade younger. Then Maidana came along and almost stripped him of his cloak of invincibility. That Floyd hung tough spoke well of his courage and determination, and if he continues to prevail in competitive fights, as opposed to the boxing clinic to which we have become accustomed, his legacy can only grow.

At this juncture, there is no empirical proof of Mayweather's perceived vulnerability, just hints, hunches and the subjective evidence of the Maidana and Cotto fights. But even if Floyd has slipped, he could conceivably fulfill his contractual obligation to Showtime without taking too many risks. But that wouldn't be any fun.

Mayweather is, at heart, a proud competitor, and although he never said as much, odds are he took the rematch with Castillo because the criticism and controversy surrounding their first fight stung his pride. That pride has never faltered, at least not publicly. He's been next to untouchable for 18 years now, and there is every reason to believe he has plenty more to give.

In the end, Floyd is going to do what he wants to do, and if that includes trying to grab as much glory as he can before it's too late, the next few years could very well be the most intriguing of his career. What, after all, are the comfortable triumphs of youth compared to the hard-won victories of the waning years?

I believe Mayweather has entered that period in his boxing life when he's going to find out.