He's 30 years old, just hitting his prime and one of the richest athletes in the world. And suddenly, he's pursuing a professional career in a completely different sport from the one that made him famous.
That could certainly describe Floyd Mayweather, the pound-for-pound boxing king who's been talking lately about exporting his blazing fists to the mixed martial arts arena. But it could also describe a certain basketball icon who hit two points over the Mendoza Line for the Double-A Birmingham Barons in 1994.
Michael Jordan was 30 when he retired from basketball for the first time. He was at the absolute peak of his powers, having just led the Chicago Bulls to their third straight NBA championship while grabbing an unprecedented third straight NBA Finals MVP award in the process.
But according to those close to him, he'd been considering retirement since the summer of '92, and, having been understandably shaken by the murder of his father, Jordan decided to try the game that his dad had supposedly always envisioned him playing.
Mayweather turned 30 on Feb. 24, 2007, and he enjoyed a breakout year in which he finally became the crossover star that his remarkable talents should have made him years ago. With his knockout win over Ricky Hatton in December, Mayweather convinced the last of his doubters that he's the top pugilist on the planet, then proceeded to reveal plans to take a year or two off from boxing.
He's not necessarily at the absolute peak of his physical powers -- that was probably seven years and 17 pounds ago when he battered Diego Corrales -- but he's certainly at the peak of his earning power.
Yet, as reported in late December by ESPN.com's Dan Rafael and Marc Stein, in a move every bit as out of left field as MJ playing right field, he's seriously considering putting his boxing aside to concentrate on MMA.
Like Jordan in '93, Mayweather is citing burnout, and, like Jordan in '93, he's been talking about exiting his sport for more than a year. Plus, Mayweather has some well-documented daddy issues. (Nothing like what MJ was dealing with, of course, but then again, Jordan never had to tell his dad to cut his hair because he looked like the urban David Crosby.) Add it all up, and it's fair to say that Mayweather is experiencing a midcareer crisis, not unlike what led Jordan to a Ueckerian baseball career.
Just as it's perplexing to watch a 50-something-year-old man suddenly leave his family for a blonde half his age and show her off in the new red Ferrari that he can't really afford, it's perplexing to watch a dominant athlete suddenly leave his sport at age 30 and start from scratch in a new one. But most of us fans and writers can't relate to the complexities of being rich, famous and the best in the world at what you do.
If the MMAyweather talk becomes reality, it will illustrate that neither Jordan nor "Pretty Boy" is an isolated case. Mayweather's decision to go to MMA could serve as evidence that there may be some glandular trigger in athletes of the highest caliber that leads them to consider a sport switch that makes no sense whatsoever to the outside observer.
And what many people who don't follow boxing or MMA may not realize is that the transition Mayweather would be attempting is just as radical as the one Jordan tried. What do basketball and baseball have in common? A spherical object at the center of the conflict, a need for hand-eye coordination and that's about it.
What do boxing and MMA have in common? Gloves (that hardly resemble each other), a general aim to inflict bodily harm on your opponent and that's about it.
The leap from boxing to MMA is extreme. It's not a matter of modifying a few techniques. You're learning a new sport altogether. Being able to dunk from the free-throw line doesn't mean you can hit a curve ball, and perfecting the shoulder-roll defense doesn't mean you can wriggle out of a submission hold.
Many observers are skeptical about Mayweather's intentions, and with good reason. Mayweather has typically been risk-averse, both in his fighting style and his contract negotiations. And in the last year or so, he's shown himself to be promotionally savvy. So the logical first reaction to the MMAyweather news is that it's just a way for the welterweight champ to keep his name in the headlines while he figures out what he wants to do next. It's fair to suggest that Mark Cuban, the owner of HDNet Fights who is trying to lure Mayweather into the cage, is the kind of guy who's hard to say no to. It's also not out of the realm of possibilities that Mayweather told him he'd consider trying MMA even though, deep down, he has no intention of doing so.
But if you look a little closer, you'll see that there are ways for Mayweather to make the MMA jump without compromising his risk-averse and promotionally savvy tendencies.
When pro wrestler Brock Lesnar made his MMA debut in June 2007, he faced Min Soo Kim, a fighter with a 2-6 record who was every bit as preordained to lose as Lesnar's WWE opponents used to be. Lesnar (who, for what it's worth, also fits the whole midcareer crisis template with his bizarre attempt to become a Minnesota Viking in 2004) won in just over a minute.
Do you think there isn't a 140-something-pound MMA competitor limited enough to get wiped out by Mayweather? The Pretty Boy fought some "setups" in the early days of his boxing career (his ninth fight came against a Mexican fighter whose record was 1-12-1 with 11 knockout losses), and he can do the same for his MMA debut.
Will it pay the $20 million that Mayweather has grown accustomed to? Probably not. But the curiosity factor will make it financially viable enough to keep "Money May's" interest. And the curiosity factor will also make it a great marketing tool for Mayweather's next "real" fight.
Having been featured on HBO's "24/7" twice already and having used up just about every personal plotline imaginable (we get it, Floyd, you and your dad aren't Ward and the Beav), it's hard to see the network going that route again for his next bout. So if Mayweather wants to fight, say, Miguel Cotto later this year, what better way to kick-start promotion than by garnering mainstream interest with an MMA experiment, then calling out Cotto in the ring afterward? It's either that, or Floyd and Uncle Roger team up for the next season of "The Amazing Race," with Pretty Boy dropping the date of the Cotto fight at every roadblock.
The beauty of the MMAyweather enterprise is it creates the first of many opportunities for boxing and MMA to work together to promote each other. There's an assumption in the mainstream that the two combat sports are like Harry Potter and Voldemort -- for one to live, the other must die.
That's nonsense. Mayweather can lure boxing fans into checking out MMA. He can then lure MMA fans into checking out boxing. And he can demonstrate to promoters that both sports can peacefully co-exist.
Hey, maybe Mayweather's just doing a little easy publicity work for himself by talking about MMA. But don't discount the possibility that he understands the value in doing some hard publicity work by actually switching sports. And don't discount the possibility that he's reached a crossroads in his athletic life and really is itching for a new challenge.
Just be aware that if he's going to do it, he's not going to put himself at any risk of batting .202.
Will it catch on?
In response to Mills Lane growling "Let's get it on" and achieving celebrity status in the late '90s, nearly every boxing referee has found himself a catch phrase, from the mildly corny (Joe Cortez's "I'm fair but I'm firm") to the Seussically ridiculous (Kenny Bayless' "What I say, you must obey").
Before the Tye Fields-Chris Koval bout on Dec. 20, Vegas-based third man Toby Gibson unveiled one of his own: "They're here to see you guys, not me."
You have to love the sentiment; the best referee is an invisible referee, and surely nobody's ever paid money for a seat based on who was scheduled to officiate. But does Gibson realize the irony in having a catch phrase that announces it's all about the fighters? How about this one instead: "They're here to see you guys, but let me just get my patented phrase in first and with a little luck maybe you'll see me in claymation on MTV soon."
Eric Raskin is a contributing editor and former managing editor of The Ring magazine.