Mayweather is invariably described as polarizing, a word that is as woefully noncomprehensive as it is factual. He is the greatest fighter of his generation. He is also a man whose eagerness to proclaim his own talent — he calls himself TBE for The Best Ever — and flaunt his extreme lifestyle have caused a good percentage of those who pay attention to boxing to revile him. His history of violence against women has triggered outright revulsion — three convictions, including one that landed him a two-month jail term in 2012 for misdemeanor domestic battery and harassment. Those who hate Mayweather don’t want to see him lose; they want to see him buried.
But as Mayweather and I stand there, watching the Rockets shoot 3s with impunity, the facts of the moment are these: He has just stopped two sparring partners, forcing one to turn his back and take a knee. (Mayweather grabbed him from behind and pulled him to his feet, as if having a man on his knee in his ring were an affront, and immediately called for the next boxer.) He has hit the heavy bag for 15 minutes, the speed bag for 10. He has worked the mitts with his uncle Roger, the nonstop slap of leather on leather like piano notes, and done body work with assistant trainer Nate Jones, a hydrant-shaped man who wore a body protector and still struggled to keep his balance under the weight of the blows. He has taken two 5-pound dumbbells and stood in front of a floor-to-ceiling mirror and rhythmically punched the sky for two sets of three minutes each. He has thrown roughly 8,000 punches in two hours. He then retired to his locker room, where he held court for a few minutes and changed into tights, a sweatshirt and a ski cap to combat the elements of the 83-degree night. He finished off the ensemble by adding a pair of colorful boxers and then ran 5.44 miles in under 37 minutes. “Trains like he’s broke,” says former world champion and current sparring partner Zab Judah. As I watch over the next three weeks, there will be days when he does not look as sharp, when the reality of his 38 years will infringe on any suggestion of invincibility. But on this day there is only one answer I can give: Yes, he is boxing very well.
Mayweather was headbutted in the lip in a March 26 sparring session and decided to take the next day, a Friday, off. Some in his camp were secretly happy — the cut was minor — because they’d grown concerned about the strain the camp was taking on his body. There was a collective exhale that he might be taking the smart path. And then the next night, a Saturday, a text went out to the crew at 11:30 p.m.: Get to the gym.
Mayweather arrived around 1:30 a.m. and worked out for two hours.
He is an alchemist in the ring, changing and mixing style and pace. Every opponent sees the eyes, how they go from scrutinizing to all-knowing over the course of the first three or four rounds. He repeats the line “I’m training smarter, not harder” so often it threatens to become a verbal tic, but the deeper meaning is this: He’s gained the wisdom of experience and delayed the onset of mortality’s more insidious claims on the human body. He need not focus on the lament of the aging athlete: If I knew then what I know now.
He repeatedly pelts his sparring partners with the command “Listen to your coach,” because it implies an inability to think independently — the worst insult he can imagine. He says Pacquiao “can’t change, but I can.” Mayweather fights like a pest, the taunting insect you swat and swat but can never hit. (Pacquiao arrives like the world’s smallest giant, all foot stomps and fury.) Pointing his shoulder at his opponent like a cat with its back up, ducking punches before they’re thrown, Mayweather addresses every miss with an “uh-uh” or a derisive smile. Says Crowley the Crippler: “It’s not the speed; it’s the timing. He sets traps you don’t see till you’re in ’em.” Leaning back on the ropes, surfing from side to side as the punches travel their vaudeville path past one ear, then the other, Mayweather seems to have invented a different sport.