Bouncing back from a loss can be a daunting task for any athlete in any sport. Perhaps especially so for those who don't get much practice at it.
In the case of the young fighter who walked into a Las Vegas ring exactly 15 years ago Tuesday, his previous loss had been one of the few defeats in a long and fruitful amateur career. But the victory he was about to savor would be the first in a long series of them that would include five championships in as many divisions, one of the most extraordinary success stories in boxing.
Fifteen years ago, a 19-year-old Olympic bronze medalist named Floyd Mayweather Jr. made his professional debut a little more than two months after his last official loss to date, which came at the hands of Bulgaria's 27-year-old Serafim Todorov in the semifinals of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, by a meager margin of 10-9 in a fight that was dominated by the young American fighter. The always-controversial Olympic-style scoring had been blamed for another injustice, but Mayweather was now on his way in a venue where his blazing speed, impeccable defense and underrated power would stake him to an unimpeachably decisive victory.
In Mayweather's first foray into the professional ranks, his hapless foe was little-known Roberto Apodaca, who was announced in the ring as a 2-1 fighter. Mayweather needed only a few minutes to transition styles from the long-range scoring jabs and straight right hands he favored as an amateur and, by the second half of the first round, was already landing combinations from all angles.
Soon enough, a left hook found its way to Apodaca's liver, and he crumpled in Mayweather's corner for an eight count. He barely survived the round, and Mayweather, with a target already in mind, picked up where he left off at the sound of the bell, determined to have heard that sound for the last time that night. And so it was.
After another thumping left hook folded Apodaca into the fetal position and wrapped him in a blanket of pain -- evident from the look on his face -- Mayweather was able to celebrate his first pro win in a career that has put him on a path toward the Boxing Hall of Fame and one of the most lucrative careers in the sport's history.
His debut also featured some of the family drama that surrounds him even today. Mayweather's current trainer, and former two-time champion, Roger Mayweather and another uncle -- Jeff, a former fringe contender -- were in his corner against Apodaca. But it was Floyd Sr., the fighter's father and first trainer, who was notoriously missing from his team that night because he was incarcerated on a drug-related sentence. Young Mayweather's words of encouragement before the fight, in which he promised to fight on until he had enough money to keep his dad from "eating bologna sandwiches the rest of his life," became part of the ongoing exchange of famously bizarre, hilarious and bitter comments throughout a stormy relationship that has no end in sight.
A brief postfight interview with then-ESPN commentator Al Bernstein demonstrates a rather timid Mayweather Jr. putting on the first public workout for his "third fist" -- a weapon that eventually would make him as potent outside the ring as he is inside it. Through the years, Mayweather's mouth has delivered as much punishment as any of his vaunted hooks and crosses. Just as he has mastered the art of outboxing every style of opponent, he has found a way to talk his way to greatness first and then follow that lead in the ring.
A consummate self-publicist, he fills the increasingly larger voids between each of his fights with comments that range from truly inspired to borderline delusional. In a sport in which a six-month layoff is considered normal at the championship level, Mayweather manages to keep the ink flowing with explosive rants that rival any of his ring exploits. His appearances on HBO's "24/7" reality series have grown into a genre of their own, producing as many headlines and comments as his fights. No other sport could survive with as little action as today's championship boxing. In Mayweather's case, fans have been rationed an average of roughly 30 minutes of pure boxing action annually for the past four years, and the large gaps in between must be filled somehow. Mayweather, perhaps better than any fighter before him, knows this, and has developed a sense of timing and pace in his remarks that is almost impossibly keen.
The final bell sounded on that Oct. 11, 1996, outdoor boxing card at the Texas Station Casino (headlined by a title defense from another talented and loquacious fighter, Johnny Tapia), and the show came to a close. There has been a lot of water under the bridge for Mayweather since then. Two years later and barely out of his teens, he fought a once-beaten 40-fight veteran in Genaro "Chicanito" Hernandez, scoring a TKO in seven rounds to win his first world title, a junior lightweight belt. When asked about the greatness of the accomplishment at such an early age, Mayweather downplayed the comparison with one of his immortal lines: "I started boxing when I was 8 years old. If I had been flipping burgers all this time, I'd be a manager at McDonald's right now."
Putting that workmanlike attitude into practice, Mayweather defended his title two months later against streaking Angel Manfredy and proceeded to tear through the 130-pound division with a string of eight defenses that included a memorable two-fight series against Jose Luis Castillo in which Mayweather overcame a shoulder injury in the first fight to grab a controversial points victory.
He erased that controversy with a more decisive win in the rematch (the only rematch he has given an opponent thus far), and, since then, ring controversies have been few and far between for the KO artist formerly known as "Pretty Boy" and rebranded "Money." Knockouts and six-point scorecard advantages have become the norm for Floyd, with only fellow boxing legend Oscar De La Hoya having managed to draw as close as three points on a scorecard.
That said, Mayweather risks his fame and status as boxing's highest royalty being cast into the shadows of history if his much-anticipated showdown with current pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao fails to materialize. The stakes are high enough to almost guarantee that the fight will take place someday, just as they all but guarantee that the prefight negotiating will match the bout itself in its ferocious and grueling nature. Yet if Mayweather manages to chalk up yet another victory in that career-defining fight, it would clear him an unobstructed path to greatness -- a path that began under a clear October night in Las Vegas and that would seem to stretch far into the foreseeable future.
Diego Morilla is a contributor to ESPNdeportes.com.