'The Pretty Boy' dances with the stars

When it was announced that Floyd Mayweather Jr. would be a participant on the fifth season of ' Dancing with the Stars', ABC's highly successful dance show that pairs celebrities with professional ballroom dancers who then try to out-shine one another, you could hear the legions of fans that Mayweather has turned off throughout the years, derisively scoffing at the notion.

Cynics wondered what the fuss was all about. To them, Mayweather had been dancing with the stars for several years.

But don't laugh, take away Oscar De La Hoya -- who he out-pointed this past May -- and Karina Smirnoff may be the toughest dance partner 'the Pretty Boy' has been matched up with in quite a long time.

Mayweather might be accustomed to going to night clubs and cutting the rug but professional ballroom dancing is a strict discipline that requires hours and hours of arduous work. Just ask Evander Holyfield, who was a previous contestant on the program.

Adding to the intrigue is that Mayweather has a December 8th date with the rugged Ricky Hatton. Along with his usual boxing training camp in Las Vegas, he'll also be working with Smirnoff, who will migrate to 'Sin City' this week.

"I definitely wouldn't be thinking about trying to do that," Holyfield would tell 'the Sun' of the double-duty Mayweather will be embarking on. "It could be a little too much."

Holyfield would tell the British paper, "They [Dancing with the Stars] worked me harder than boxing."

See, this isn't nearly as easy as doing 'the Chicken Noodle'. Mayweather, a maestro inside the ring, may not know what he's getting himself into.

"I don't think he does, or he didn't until we started rehearsing," Smirnoff told Maxboxing. "Now he's actually getting a taste of it. So he realizes it's not as easy as he thought before and he's putting in more time."

The two met in late August and have had a chance to move around together.

Other athletes, in addition to Holyfield, have participated on the show. Hall-of-Fame football players Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith (who won season three) have done the rumba and cha-cha, but Mayweather is the only one to be in the prime of his career. He seems to have all the attributes to be successful.

But, the caveat is that he's venturing into an unknown realm.

"I think it is tough because he has to be balanced and flexible and still quite sharp, all at the same time," she says. "So he's physically in the best shape, ever. He's probably the most athletic celebrity the show ever had. And at the same time, he thinks he's a great dancer, he thinks he's going to get it easy. But once he starts dancing, he doesn't get it as fast as he wants, so he gets a little frustrated. But the best part about him is that he's an athlete and he's going to go on and on and practice and do it over again a thousand times until he gets it."

But the question is, once Mayweather gets into the meat of his training camp and sparring begins in earnest, just how much energy and focus will be spent on dancing?

"I don't expect him to have the same focus," Smirnoff admits. "I don't think he will, but at the same time, at the moment, within those two hour rehearsal periods, we mess around and we joke and we spend some time talking. Once he's going to start training, he's going to realize that he's not going to have time to mess around. And he's going to see; the show's going to start in about two weeks."

The season premiere of 'Dancing' is on September 24th. Mayweather, who will be battling it out with the likes of Mark Cuban, Jennie Garth, Wayne Newton and Marie Osmond, like most fighters, conducts training camps that take between 8-10 weeks.

Hatton seems a bit amused by Mayweather's foray into ballroom dancing. He told the Daily U.K., "I don't know who Floyd's partner is going to be, but she will have to do all the leading. He's known for doing a lot of back-pedaling, so I suppose it could be ideal preparation."

Ouch, that's a low blow.

But it's difficult to comprehend just how much effort is expended – mentally and physically – to learn the various routines they will be expected to execute, if you've never actually done it.

"I don't think anybody understands, I don't think celebrities even get a glimpse of what they're getting themselves into before the show," states Smirnoff, who like a professional boxer has a lean, sculpted, physique. "It starts out relatively slow because we have four weeks before the show starts to train them.

"Once the show starts, it's like a non-stop roller-coaster that gets more and more loops. And you can't stop. You can't take a day off because you only have three days to get the routine ready. So the strain is on your body, your mind gets exhausted because you have to keep absorbing information and you don't have time to clear it out."

"They have no idea," says Mario Lopez, who knows this process quite well, as he was runner-up to the former Dallas Cowboy great, as Smirnoff's partner in the third season. That decision may have been this show's version of Whitaker-Chavez, as most observers deemed his performance the superior of the two in the finals. "They think it's just a dance show. 'How tough can it be? It's just dancing.' At least that's what I thought. I think that's what most people think and they think they'll do it because either their wife or girlfriend likes the show and it can be fun.

"But what you're not realizing is that it's a huge audience. Behind 'American Idol' it's the most popular show on television and you're getting critiqued in front of millions of people every week if you're lucky to make it that far. It's one of the few times I felt vulnerable and I made it to the end."

So with all that being said, if Smirnoff was managing Mayweather's boxing career, would she advise him to do this?

After a slight pause, as she contemplated that question, she would say:

"Well, if anyone can do it, it's Floyd. I don't think other boxers are in the same shoes as Floyd. Floyd's got massive amounts of energy. So with him, actually concentrating a certain amount of his time on dancing, I think is going to help him out. He's not going to stress about the fight as much.

"He's not going to stress out about the dancing because he's going to think about the fight. I think it's going to balance him in a certain way."

What will be interesting is how Mayweather will react to the blunt criticisms that are often handed down by the trio of judges, Len Goodman, Bruno Tonioli and Carrie Ann Inaba. These guys can be much harder to please than Duane Ford, Chuck Giampa and Dave Moretti.

And just ask Larry Merchant, Mayweather doesn't exactly have the thickest skin when it comes to handling less-than-flattering reviews. It will be hard to tell the 'Dancing' arbiters to just stick to broadcasting.

"I don't know how he will handle it, personally, but from what I know of Floyd, I think once he's going to see that it's not just, 'two steps, side together' he's going to take it seriously. And he's going to take their criticism into account and try to work on it," says Smirnoff.

In the first two seasons on the show, she has been matched with Lopez (now her beau) and country swooner Billy Ray Cyrus.

"I think Floyd is a completely new personality for me to handle and they kind of think we work very well together," Smirnoff says of the decision to match them. "And they were right, we do. I want to kill him most of the time but the times I don't want to kill him, I think he's wonderful."

So what exactly is Floyd like behind closed doors?

"He is as crazy as people might think he is," she says. "But he's 'good crazy', there is a very charming, kind of almost like a little kid, side to him that is absolutely appealing. You cannot fall in love with him. I mean, he is loud, he is confident, it comes with the territory. All boxers are like that. You got to psyche yourself up in order to be able to get into the ring with another opponent that can physically hurt you. So I understand where he's coming from.

"But at the same time he's a great guy. He's got a good heart."

Even if Mayweather proves to have two left-feet when he's not moving around on the canvas, it has the potential to do wonders for his Q-rating and marketability. While the 24/7 series that HBO produced leading up to his bout with De La Hoya was well-received, it pales in comparison to the number of eyeballs that are on 'Dancing' on a consistent basis.

Lopez was actually watching the episode with Smirnoff that showed Mayweather doing the 'Electric Slide' when it came to him that he would be a perfect candidate for the show. Within days he called their casting director to pitch the idea.

And it seems perfect. After all, what better way to promote his December pay-per-view event than to be on ABC for at least a few weeks on prime time?

"I'm such a fan of the fight game and I felt that it would be a great opportunity to expose people, to the general public, to a lot of women, to what he's about in boxing and maybe it'll attract more people to his bout with Ricky Hatton and just bring more eyes. It would just be better for the game. I just thought 'Wow, to have one of the most prominent athletes featured in one of the most popular shows, it would be clearly for him, but also for boxing, a great opportunity to bring more eyes to the game. And maybe it's a helluva fight, it'll create some more fans."

The event with De La Hoya did a record gate of over $19 million in the state of Nevada and set a record with 2.15 pay-per-view buys. The downside is that the fight failed to live up to its hype (which was almost an impossibility) and during the four-part series that was shown on HBO, Floyd oftentimes came off as, well, less than likable.

This show could provide a vehicle to soften and rehabilitate his image to the general public.

"For Floyd, it really is a great opportunity for him to reach out to the fans that he never thought of reaching for," Lopez says. "I mean, even beyond De La Hoya and Tyson. We're talking 20-25 million fans every week. You really have a chance to show America 'This is who I really am; this is what I'm about.'

"They can fall in love with you or really not like the guy they're seeing."

Smirnoff believes, "Once he realizes that there is more than one side to him showing on camera, he's going to actually show the humble side and people will fall in love with it."

This franchise has done wonders for "the Ukrainian Hammer" – as Lopez calls her – and her career. Smirnoff came to this country as her parents sought out the American dream in 1992.

"They didn't agree with the economic state of the country in the Ukraine and they didn't see how much further you can develop in a country, freely, so they wanted to give me the opportunity to have a great chance at life."

Like many others in her field, she would start young, studying the art of dance in her native land before taking time off for school. She would attend Christopher Columbus High School in New York and the Bronx High School of Science before heading off to Fordham University, where by this period she had picked up her interest in dancing, once again.

She was studying to be an attorney (because of course, there's a dearth of those) but soon, dancing became her profession.

"That was something I really liked to do," she would say of law. "Dancing kind of took over; I started getting great results and it's really hard to walk away from success. You start doing what you love and being paid for it, you can't beat that."

Originally, she had embarked on her career with a one-year-at-a-time philosophy, always believing she would eventually get into the field of law. Seven years in, it was clear- she was a dancer. And one of the premiere performers in her field, as she has won various titles and was routinely rated as one of the elite dancers in the world.

"I'm never going back. This is what I love to do," she says. And it seems dancers and boxers do have a few similarities. "I'm in charge of my own time; I'm in charge of my own schedule, my own life, my own body. You can't beat that."

As she chafed at living back in Russia a few years ago, as her partner was from Moscow, she jumped at the chance to join the 'Dancing' ensemble.

"I couldn't do it," Smirnoff would say of that period. "The mentality, the people, the way everything was there. I just couldn't do it. I was getting depressed. So it was a perfect way for me to kind of get out."

The show has changed her life.

"It has [changed my life] on a dancing level, or in the dance world. I was some sort of celebrity [in the dance world]. It's a small world, even though it's international, but it's a closed world, which wouldn't let anyone in or out. When the show became so big, we've had 30 million households, you walk in the streets and people recognize you."

Which is the type of cross-over fame that Mayweather has yearned for forever and yet, it has eluded him. But cross-over can't happen with a Master P-esque performance on the program.

Currently he's 38-0 inside the ring and considered by many to be boxing's best pound-for-pound fighter. But does he want to win this contest as much as his current dance partner?

"I'm not sure if he really wants to win as badly as I do, right this minute," says Smirnoff, who regularly attends fights with Lopez. "But everyday that I see him, everyday that we rehearse, he's developing that desire more and more. So give him two, three weeks when the first show's over, he's going to want to win it more than me. I'm sure.

"He's a real competitor."

My wonder years

As you're reading this on Saturday, I'll be in Norman, Oklahoma to see the Miami Hurricanes take on the top ten-ranked OU Sooners at Owen Field. No, I don't expect them to come out of there with a win, but hey, it's Randy Shannon's first big road game, and I felt I had to be there.

But I did have some pangs of guilt as September 8th was also the scheduled date of Fernando Vargas' farewell bout against Ricardo Mayorga at the Staples Center. It was a local bout with a fighter I had covered throughout the duration of my career and I wouldn't be in attendance. Hey, don't look at me that way, I booked my flight long before Main Events and Don King closed the deal.

So I have to tell you, I wasn't that upset (to be honest, I wasn't upset at all) when I heard the news of the postponement a couple of weeks back. Now I can go to Oklahoma with a clear conscience, win or lose.

But I did get one thing out of this postponed event. Showtime, who's doing this show on pay-per-view asked Doug Fischer and myself to come out to Vargas' training camp to be on their preview show. His camp for this particular bout would be in Valencia, which just happened to be where I lived from 1978 to 1986. It's the place where I have my first real memories and really developed my love of sports.

There wasn't much traffic on that hot afternoon – and it's warm out there being in the Santa Clarita Valley – so our cameraman Brian Harty and I, arrived early, and I decided to drive through my old haunts, where I hadn't been for at least 15 years. I had forgotten just how secluded this sprawling suburb was, as all my radio presets turned into a lot of static.

I felt like Kevin Arnold of 'the Wonder Years' as I drove through McBean Parkway, seeing the outskirts of Magic Mountain, Mayo Hospital, Meadows Elemtary School and Placerita Jr. High (where I got top notch public school education) and most of all, the old house where I lived on Via Pacifica. All of it was amazingly well kept and looked as good as new. I remember when I first moved out there as a child, the blocks adjacent to us, were dirt fields, that had yet to be worked on.

Yeah, Valencia has come a long way.

Harty was gracious enough to oblige my drive through memory lane and pretend like he gave a damn.

Now, the Vargas-Mayorga fight has been rescheduled for November 23rd, which is the day after Thanksgiving. I was planning on going to either the USC-Arizon St. game in Tempe or the Miami-Boston College contest in Chestnut Hill (I have relatives in Beantown), but trust me, I'll be at the Staples Center on that Friday night.