It was professional wrestler and, some would say, sage philosopher Ric Flair who famously said, "To be the man, you've got to beat the man." Throughout his 17-year career, Floyd Mayweather Jr. -- a pro wrestling aficionado who no doubt would appreciate the sentiment -- has had little trouble defeating every opponent placed in front of him in his 43 professional bouts.
Implied in that statement, however, is that to be the man, you also have to act like it. In Mayweather's case, that means living up to the expectations that come with being the best pound-for-pound boxer and one of the world's richest athletes. If we're honest with ourselves, we know that Mayweather hasn't completely held up his end of the bargain since ascending the throne as the face of the sport in 2007 by defeating Oscar De La Hoya in boxing's richest fight.
But despite the damage done to his watered-down legacy through deceivingly soft matchmaking, long periods of inactivity and his refusal to sign off on a superfight with Manny Pacquiao -- yawning through a three-year window of viability while the health of the sport hung in the balance -- Tuesday's news regarding Mayweather's future is huge. Gigantic even. And it could go a long way toward ultimately reshaping how he'll be remembered.
Mayweather, trending more of late toward being remembered as boxing's most intelligent businessman above any coronation as its greatest fighter, signed a six-fight, 30-month deal with Showtime, including potential network television options with parent company CBS. But because the deal forces Mayweather, 35, to fight often, thus giving him every opportunity to maximize the time remaining in his slowly fading prime, there are no excuses left for him not to make the remaining fights available that can properly punctuate and define his career résumé.
The Mayweather of today hasn't been so much a professional prizefighter as a reality television star and the sport's greatest crossover entertainer. Yet not even his once-in-a-generation talent or glossy record could, on their own, lift Mayweather to the one title he has consistently told everyone within earshot that he has already attained: greatest of all time. In fact, it won't even get him a seat at the table in the upper room of that discussion.
The reason, of course, has been Mayweather's reluctance to move his incomparable stack of chips to the center of the table.
Mayweather has as much power today over boxing and the immediate direction of his career than arguably any fighter has ever known. He fights whom he wants, when he wants -- almost always looking to match the lowest risk with the highest reward. In fact, nearly every Mayweather tweet makes headline news, as evidenced by his recent hostage-taking of the sport while fans and fighters alike stood by waiting to find out his May 4 opponent.
But by choosing ultimate control over his own narrative instead of consistently daring to be great, Mayweather has built a ceiling over the historical significance of his career, of how we'll remember him after he's long gone -- ironically, the one thing he has the least control over.
It's natural to question whether one fighter owning that much power is a bad thing -- to both his legacy and the sport in general, especially if he's unwilling to find out just how great he can be. By accepting upwards of $40 million for his recent bouts while carrying boxing as its top crossover attraction, shouldn't he have then been responsible for making the fights that fans want and the sport needs?
Mayweather's career arc has never been the same since he cracked the code and eliminated the middle man (with the sage help of reclusive adviser Al Haymon) by shrewdly buying out his own Top Rank contract in 2006 for $750,000. Instead of securing critical praise and making a run at inclusion on a proverbial Mount Rushmore of boxing, Mayweather focused exclusively on a path of less resistance while brilliantly executing a marketing strategy to become the sport's biggest and richest star.
If you look closely at the prime of Mayweather's career beginning with his first pay-per-view appearance against Arturo Gatti in 2005, you may notice a shocking truth: He lacks a single defining victory of equal commercial and critical meaning. In fact, if things continue at the rate they've gone over the past 10-plus years of his career, Mayweather will be remembered more for whom he didn't fight than for any showcase of his greatness against a prime and worthy foe.
No matter the rationale behind Mayweather's refusal to do business with former promoter Bob Arum that road-blocked the Pacquiao fight, it's hardly the only hole in Floyd's résumé. He fought only once over a 29-month stretch at the peak of his prime, and when he returned for big-name fights against Shane Mosley and Miguel Cotto, critics had every right to pan the selection of both opponents, who were conveniently past their own primes.
A fighter of Mayweather's class should be held to a higher standard, one comparable to contemporary box-office stars before him -- fighters such as De La Hoya and Sugar Ray Leonard, who regularly sought out the toughest challenges available. Too often, Mayweather has seduced the masses through brilliant matchmaking, taking eminently winnable fights with just enough danger to drown out howls from half his critics -- and the other half simply happy that he decided to grace us with his return after yet another long sabbatical.
With his new Showtime deal, Mayweather has an opportunity to at least attempt to raise his accomplishments to a level worthy of his claims to greatness. But to do that, he needs to avoid a steady diet of fights that offer nothing more than a just-compelling-enough storyline and a predictable outcome between fighters who are classes apart.
His May 4 return against Robert Guerrero looks considerably better given that Mayweather is contractually obligated to remain active over the next 30 months according to his new deal -- as does a potential fall blockbuster with Mexican sensation Canelo Alvarez, a matchup that could break box-office records.
The new deal raises more questions. Will it lead Mayweather to an eventual fight on network television, giving the sport a needed push in an effort to get over the hump of mainstream relevancy? And will it prompt him, finally, to seek the type of career-defining challenges -- a catchweight bout against middleweight champion Sergio Martinez, for example -- that his legacy has lacked?
Just as it was in the weeks and days leading up to Tuesday's big announcement, the answer is up to Mayweather alone. He has put himself in position to call the shots with such a brilliant deal, and what he does with that clout may ultimately determine what history has to say about him.