Mayweather goes out on top of his game, but what could have been?

Floyd Mayweather, left, has decided to retire while at the peak of his powers. Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

In a way, it was fitting that Floyd Mayweather announced his retirement on Hall of Fame weekend.

If he really has fought for the last time as a professional -- and the history of boxers, Mayweather included, who have said they were hanging up their gloves only to return shortly afterward gives cause for skepticism -- it sets up the possibility of one of the great Hall of Fame classes of all time in 2013. Imagine Mayweather, Bernard Hopkins and Oscar De La Hoya all being inducted on the same weekend -- perhaps just one year after Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera, maybe one year ahead of Joe Calzaghe and possibly Roy Jones or Shane Mosley.

The timing of Mayweather's announcement will raise some eyebrows. After all, talks were well advanced for a rematch with De La Hoya, tentatively slated for Sept. 20. However boxing purists might have felt about the matchup, it surely would have netted Mayweather another eight-figure payday -- and for a man who calls himself Money to walk away from that suggests he is indeed serious about his intentions.

Of course, he has announced his retirement before. In the statement he issued Friday, Mayweather acknowledged as much. "I have said numerous times and after several of my fights over the last two years that I might not fight again," he said.

The lure of competition, he admitted, nonetheless remained strong. But, he continued, "after many sleepless nights and intense soul-searching I realized I could no longer base my decision on anything but my own personal happiness, which I no longer could find."

Most fighters who return to the ring after announcing their retirement generally do so for two reasons: They either need the money or they miss the attention and adulation. Mayweather is highly unlikely ever to fall into the former camp; but if anyone were to be a candidate for missing the spotlight, surely it would be him. Chances are that, without his role as boxing's pound-for-pound No. 1 to sustain him, the extracurricular activities he has so clearly enjoyed recently, such as WrestleMania and "Dancing With the Stars," might not be as abundant in the future, either.

So it is hard to escape the conclusion that, at some point in 2009, the siren song will prove too strong and Mayweather will return -- if the opponent and the purse are right. Nonetheless, there is no denying that his desire to be done with boxing is genuine. He has made no secret of the aches and pains he has been feeling, of the burden he sometimes feels.

If he really is finished, he has done what most athletes claim they want to do: left at the top of his game, with his health intact and with more money than he could possibly spend. For that, he deserves credit.

Even so, there is a feeling of emptiness, of a job left unfinished.

It is easy to forget the extent to which Mayweather took the boxing world by storm when he burst onto center stage in 1998, ripping the WBC super featherweight title from Genaro Hernandez and defending it by blowing away Angel Manfredy. Lou DiBella, then HBO Sports vice president commented that "Floyd's so good, it's crazy."

To some extent, Mayweather became a victim of the stratospheric expectations he created for himself, but his career rarely seemed to reach those dizzying heights again. There was the virtuoso performance against Diego Corrales in 2000, in which he completely dismantled an opponent many had thought would be his greatest challenge, and there were the big events against Arturo Gatti and, especially, De La Hoya and Ricky Hatton, the latter two among the most extraordinary boxing atmospheres any fan or reporter could hope to experience.

But there were also the contests that might have been but never were: He was always one or two weight classes above Barrera and Morales; a Kostya Tszyu matchup surely would have been explosive; a contest with Mosley would have been a delight to behold; and, of course, there was the prospect of his squaring off against Miguel Cotto, perhaps the single fight boxing fans most wanted to see in 2008 or 2009. What takes even the greatest fighters to another level in public adoration and historical appreciation is a willingness to engage the toughest opponents; for the past several years, the perception has taken root that Mayweather did not have that willingness, and by walking away now, he will ensure that perception will never fade away.

For many years, Mayweather bemoaned the fact that, as he saw it, he did not receive the public acclaim or remuneration commensurate with his talent. Now he has both; but, having ascended to the summit, he evidently has seen enough of the view and has no desire to stay longer than necessary. It is as if it was enough for him to dip his toes in the shallows of greatness and not swim further into its more dangerous depths.

If he really is done, he leaves us with many memories: the demolitions of Hernandez, Manfredy, Corrales, Gatti and others; the extraordinary mixture of natural ability, dedication and skill; the blistering hand speed and the sublime defense. But he also will leave us with questions: of what could have been; of how many other great nights we might have witnessed but can now only imagine; and of whether a great career could have been greater.

Kieran Mulvaney covers boxing for ESPN.com and Reuters.