Interviews with Mayweather (2014) and McGregor (2015)
Posted on 27 August 2017 | 7:08am
Well, as hype went, it went well. Look at pretty much any major news site around the world and the Mayweather-McGregor fight is trending, and both men are standing by for a massive flow of cash into their coffers. The fight ended as most expected it to, with the ‘real boxer’ winning, but with the brash UFC fighter doing no harm to his reputation or to the global brand he is determined to build for himself.
I have been lucky enough to interview both men in the past, Mayweather three years ago for a chapter in my book Winners and How They Succeed, entitled Inside the mind of an Unbeaten Winner; McGregor for GQ magazine in 2015. Picking over the bones of the fight this morning, I had a quick re-read of both, and thought you might enjoy them. Those of you who have come new in recent days to one or both of them will certainly see reflected the characters which have been on display, so volubly, all over the world.
I will start with the runner-up! Much of it (though not his predictions about the outcome of a possible bout with Mayweather) stands the test of time …
— Conor McGregor doesn’t walk into the hotel lobby. He struts, head back, pecs forward, buttoned-up skintight T-shirt fit to burst with a triangular upper body that tells the tale of thousands of hours of training and fighting. He is with his long-term girlfriend, Dee Devlin, and they strut towards me together, both smiling. He starts with an apology, the interview taking place a day later than scheduled because yesterday he ‘lost track’ and by the time he was ready, I had had to head out for a dinner. We are in his native Dublin, where McGregor, a former plumber, has become one of its most famous sons since rising quickly through the ranks of the Mixed Martial Arts ‘Premier League’, UFC. The UFC’s paymasters have warmed to his fighting skills and his fighting talk, and he has become one of their biggest stars about to sign, he tells me, the largest fighter’s contract in the sport’s history.
Money matters to McGregor, because he doesn’t just want fame in Ireland, or among the passionate followers of the sport in the US and beyond; he wants everyone to know who he is and how good he is at what he does, how rich it is going to make him, how determined he is to make MMA take over from boxing as the undisputed Number One fight game. On December 12, in – where else – Las Vegas, he is due to fight – finally –UFC long-running featherweight champion Jose Aldo of Brazil. They should have fought in July, but Aldo pulled out due to a broken rib and instead McGregor fought and beat American Chad Mendes to become ‘interim featherweight champion’. It is, as you shall see, a sore point. He is not an ‘interim’ kind of guy. But at least I can now add ‘being trash-talked by Conor McGregor’ to my list of sporting achievements.
As you read the answers in the interview, I want you to see more than the words. I want you to hear the thick Irish accent, and the words coming at you in torrents. I want you to feel the intensity of dark but smiling eyes which never take their gaze from you as we chat. And I want you to know that while some of what he says is likely to come over as arrogant bullshit, the overall impression is of someone supremely able and confident, and likely to do all the things he says he will. He is just 27, the age of my eldest son, but I can’t recall ever being in the presence of a confidence quite like it.
AC: So the last two GQ interviews I did were with Jose Mourinho and Nicola Sturgeon?
CM: Who’s Nicola Sturgeon?
AC: You serious? Scotland First Minister.
CM: Listen, I am in the fighting game, I don’t give a fuck about anything else. I don’t watch the news, I don’t care about politics, I don’t care about other sports. I don’t care about anything I don’t need to care about. This is my sport, it is my life. I love everything about it. I study it, I think about it, all the fucking time. Nothing else matters.
AC: Do you know who Ireland’s Prime Minister is?
CM: Do we have a Prime Minister? (laughs)
AC: Yeah, the Taoiseach.
CM: Ah yes, Enda Kenny … but my fans think I am the Taoiseach.
AC: Who is the British Prime Minister?
CM: Is it Tony Blair? No, he’s gone. It’s – oh give me a second – Cameron, yeah, Cameron. I am just not interested. I think we should all focus on who we are, what we want to do, and do it. That is my way. I don’t know why anyone would want to do that politics stuff.
AC: So you don’t vote?
CM: I’ve never voted, no.
AC: Are you religious?
CM: I believe in believing. My coach John Kavanagh is a big atheist and he is always trying to persuade people to his way of thinking, and I think what a fucking waste of energy. If people want to believe in this God, or that God, that’s fine by me, believe away. But I think we can be our own Gods. I believe in myself.
AC: When was the last time you read a book?
CM: A full book? I don’t know. I’ve read a lot of books on the laws of attraction, and in my home I have a big book on Muhammad Ali, which I’ve read, because he is like a hero of mine, but other than that, no, I’m not a big reader.
AC: So you think you have to be absolutely obsessed with what you do, not think about anything else?
CM: To do anything to a high level it has to be total obsession. Ask Jose Mourinho, he wouldn’t know a fucking thing about me, my sport, he knows football, how to build a team, and to get to high levels you have to be insane, nothing else means anything. I respect all forms of movement and lifestyles, but I am in a bubble – I wake up, it is in my head; I go to sleep, it’s in my head, 24/7.
AC: Your private life, or your career, which is more important?
CM: I don’t separate them. It is just my life. It is all one to me.
AC: If you don’t beat Aldo in December …
CM: (interrupts loudly) What? What are you talking about? I have beaten him already. He is dead. Look at his body language. His body is weak and his mind is weaker. I can smell the lack of confidence. If the mind is not in it, the body won’t follow. He cannot beat me. He knows it. It’s why he went running last time.
AC: So you don’t buy that it was a real injury that forced him to pull out? The X-rays looked like it.
CM: Nah! Real champions fight through adversity.
AC: They all say that.
CM: But do they mean it? I mean it, I really mean it. Fourteen weeks before the Mendes fight I tore 80 per cent of my ACL [anterior cruciate ligament]. That is the main ligament for stability. Every day in that training camp when I was working my way back, I was saying ‘real champions fight through any adversity.’ That is why I am a real champion and he is not. Look at my eye [he had seven stiches put in an old wound after an injury in training the night before we met] – fighters fight on. Aldo got scared, he went running and I worry he will run again.
AC: But for all you know Aldo feels just as confident as you do.
CM: No way. I can hear it in his voice, I can see it in his eyes, I know when a man is beaten, and he is beaten mentally. I still don’t think he will show, he won’t be there, I am trying to be optimistic but I am never wrong, I always predict the outcome of my fights and I am never wrong.
AC: Can MMA overtake boxing, become the bigger sport?
CM: You kidding me? It’s gone, boxing’s gone, this is it. What is there in boxing? Who is there to talk about, who is there that people go ‘yeah I want to fight him?’ and fans go ‘I wanna see that fight’? There’s Floyd Mayweather, and he is 38, 39, he’s maybe got one fight left. What else is there? He’ll have a last fight or two and a couple of guys will get a few million dollars, but way less than I’m gonna be getting in future. This sport is getting bigger all the time, and I am making it bigger.
AC: Do you respect Mayweather?
CM: I respect his business. He’s made a lot of money, calls himself Money Mayweather, he has done that bit well. I don’t know the guy. But I know if we had a fight I would win. I could box against him, give him a fight, but he couldn’t fight against me, it is a different sport, ours is a tougher sport. He would not last a minute with me because of the things we have to do which they don’t do in boxing.
AC: Could it happen, you and him?
CM: Who knows? He is getting on, maybe has one fight left, but I would love that. I would love to fight him. Boxing is going to have to catch up with the kind of things UFC is doing. They’re getting left behind.
AC: I read that whereas 70percent of Premier League money goes to the players, you guys get about 10 percent. Is it not all a bit master and slave?
CM: Not with me it’s not. Maybe with some of the others, but that is because even if they can fight a bit what do they actually bring to the sport? Are they bringing new fans, are they bringing in the numbers? When they’re out promoting fights, are they doing it so that people want to pay their good money to watch them? If you’re not doing that, you don’t deserve the money. I am doing that, doing it more than anyone. The numbers are going up and up, the crowds, the ticket proceeds, the Pay Per View, it is all going to new levels and I am driving it there.
AC: So it is all about personality?
CM: It is about people wanting to see you fight, and I am the one they want to see. I am changing this sport. I am signing a new contract the likes of which there has never been. Share of ticket sales, share of pay per view, I am rewriting the rules.
AC: Do you like money?
CM: I love money, and I love movement. They are the two things I love in what I do. I love making lots of money because I love the freedom money gives me. I like what it has let me do for my family. I have paid off my mum and dad’s mortgage, I’ve bought them two BMWs, they can have anything they want. I am buying a fleet of cars for myself. I have unemployed my sisters, they don’t need to work, don’t need to worry about a thing. I have unemployed my girlfriend. She had a job working for a cardiologist and now she can hang out, put her feet up, buy all the things she wants, have a nice breakfast with you and me in the Four Seasons. Any fights in families like mine come from everyone worrying about money. I’m taking all those worries away. That makes me feel happy, makes me really fucking proud of what I do.
AC: What do you mean when you say you love movement?
CM: I mean I love movement. I mean the energy that comes from the way I move. We get energy from how we move. I mean the control I get from knowing everything about how my body feels and how it is working.
AC: Could you be a dancer?
CM: I watch my niece dancing sometimes and I can see similar styles. I could do dancing. I’d like that. I’m a fighter but I like to move with style.
AC: Mayweather set out to be the richest athlete on the planet, and he did it, you don’t seriously think you can you get to that position, do you?
CM: I am rich, and I am going to be very rich. Mayweather is called Money, he has been good at the business. But I am 27, I am about to sign a contract that is going to be worth 100 million dollars over the next few years.
AC: What? How much?
CM: Could be more, we are still talking. Haven’t put pen to paper yet but it is a totally new approach in this sport. I am going to be making the kind of money Mayweather wasn’t making when he was 27. I am changing the rules. There are not that many in UFC who are millionaires, maybe less than ten, I am going for multi multi millions.
AC: Less than ten, but the guys who run the sport …
CM: Are billionaires, they’re running casinos and stuff.
AC: And once you have all the multi millions, then what? The fighting will all have to end one day, like it is for Mayweather. Do you worry about that?
CM: I will cross that bridge when it comes. I am not stupid. I am a very bright guy. I know that in the fighting game, you get people who get brain damaged and do themselves long term harm. I am into this, into it in a big way, and I am good at it, and I am going to get very very rich and then I will get out and we will see what comes after that.
AC: What are the main things the sport involves, which is most important, is it boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, jujitsu, what are the skills you need?
CM: There are so many elements to it, and it has developed its own character. You need to be able to hit, to kick, to grapple, to wrestle, but for me so much of this is about the mind, about feeling you are in complete control of the space around you, and you know what to do at any moment. That is a wonderful feeling, but it doesn’t just happen, you have to work for it, train for it, think about it all the fucking time.
AC: Do you dream about it?
CM: Loads. And I day dream too. I visualize. I think ahead, I can do it now, sitting here. I think ahead to the walk-in, I can hear the crowd, the music, I can feel the cameras all around me, I can feel movements in my body as I am heading there, I can bring up that incredible feeling you get when you step into the cage. The surface below your feet is so special, I can’t even describe it. It is not like a boxing ring, not like a wrestling mat, it’s its own thing, and when I am there, I am floating, I am moving with total freedom, I am free. There is nothing like it. And when you know, when you just know you are going to win, like I do, I tell you there is no better feeling.
AC: Do you train in visualization? Do you have a psychologist on the team?
CM: I am my own psychologist.
AC: Mayweather told me he never ever thinks about losing. Are you the same?
CM: I am now. I thought about losing twice, and guess what, they were the fights I fucking lost. I’ve learned to push all those kind of thoughts right out of my head.
AC: But fear of losing can be a great motivator.
CM: Sure, but not if it drains your confidence. You know one of the reasons I got into this game was because I wanted to learn how to get myself comfortable in uncomfortable situations. I grew up in a tough area of Dublin, and fighting was just part of your life. Boys fight, that’s what they do, and I won some, but I lost a lot too, and I didn’t like that, I didn’t like that feeling of not knowing whether I was in danger, in trouble. So even back then, I studied every move, I became fascinated by thinking through why the other kid did that, why I did that, what could I have done differently. And I take that approach now as a professional. I am on it, all the time, never stop thinking, learning. You don’t get to be world champion unless you do that …
AC: Interim …
CM: Fuck that, what do you mean interim? Aldo and I had a date, he didn’t fucking show, someone else took his place, I beat him, easy. So don’t give me fucking interim.
AC: How is the trash talk that goes on amid all the hype?
CM: I don’t see it as trash talk. I see it as telling the truth.
AC: But when you are slagging off Aldo now, is that part of the fight?
CM: For sure. It is never ending. It is non-stop psychological warfare. You have to get inside their heads, fuck with them. I can read minds, I know what they’re thinking.
AC: So what is to stop them getting inside your head?
CM: They can’t. I’m bulletproof.
AC: Ok, if you can read minds, what am I thinking about you now?
CM: I don’t give a fuck. We’re not fighting. I don’t give a fuck what anyone says about me. I don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks about me. All the stuff I have to do outside the fighting, the promotion, the media, this, I don’t give a fuck. But when I am facing up for a fight, I know what they’re thinking. I can read their minds. When I am going face to face with an opponent, nose to nose, I can smell the fear, and I’m feeling no fear at all.
AC: You’ve got a reputation for trash-talking during the fight, what’s your favourite in-fight jibe?
CM: I don’t plan it. But I like to talk. It just comes out.
AC: Doesn’t it tire you out, talking, what with everything else you have to put into it?
CM: No. It gives me energy. And it can get to them. So when I fought Mendes I would be saying into his ear, ‘you’re hitting like a bitch, you’re hitting like a fucking woman,’ and then when I can feel he is lacking a bit of energy, I stand there and say ‘you’re fucking tired already, one minute in, you’re fucked.’ And if it’s true, it hurts. You can hurt people by telling them a truth they don’t want to confront.
AC: Would you kill someone if you had to, if it meant the difference between winning and losing?
CM: Whoa … that is deep. (pauses) If someone came into my house, threatened me, threatened my family, could I kill them? For sure. Would I kill them if I had to, to protect us? I could if I had to. But in the sport, sure it’s tough but there are rules, there are referees, they know when it has to stop, there are doctors and we are checked out the whole time. I can spin-kick someone and if I get it absolutely right, it is like they have been hit by a truck. But if I knocked a guy out and he hits the deck, and then bounces up and falls back again, flat out, I am not going to go in and hit him again and again, there is no need, fight over. But if he bounces up and he looks like he can go on, I will hit him till the referee stops it.
AC: How does that feel, when with one blow you knock someone out?
CM: Victorious. I feel victorious. I feel, that is why I did all the training, that is why I make the sacrifices, that is why I got into the shape I am in. I feel I have won, that’s millions more coming my way, I feel great.
AC: What is this rear naked choke I keep hearing about?
CM: It is the most powerful submission in the sport. It is a beautiful thing. You’re holding them into you, their back is on you, and you are basically choking them gradually like a boa constrictor and once you’ve got them, the pressure goes on and they have to submit or they are going to stop fucking breathing. It happened to me early in my career, and I panicked, and gave in, I tapped out too early. I learned a lot from that. I went away and I learned from it, learned how to do the move better, learned how to avoid it being done to me.
AC: But physically how do you get into that position to be able to do it?
CM: I’ll show you. [He picks up a phone and calls up a video on YouTube of a previous fight. He commentates on his own moves, explains how he is manoeuvring his opponent to the position he wants him in] Look, here it comes, any second, watch for the tap, the tap is coming, there, you see, he taps, he’s lost, all over, great feeling. You can win in loads of ways but the rear naked choke, that is the best, that is a real win.
AC: How does you Mum feel when she is watching you fight?
CM: We ought to have cameras on families watching. She either runs out or she puts her hands over her eyes like this. I can see why she might worry, but she shouldn’t.
AC: What is the worst pain you have ever had inflicted on you?
CM: I don’t feel it. I honestly don’t.
AC: But you’ve said when you really land one it can be the equivalent of being hit by a truck.
CM: Yeah, and I have had blows land on me but I honestly don’t feel it, I don’t know why. I’m just staying focused on what I need to do next.
AC: So when that wound above your eye popped open last night, it didn’t hurt?
CM: No. I felt a bit of heat, that’s all. I was sparring and the guy just caught me with a glancing blow with his elbow. I was angry with myself. I should have let it heal better. But it didn’t hurt, not at all.
AC: How much training do you have to do?
CM: A lot, but I don’t have a routine, I hate routines, I train when I feel like it.
AC: You don’t know today what you will be doing tomorrow?
CM: No. Sometimes I train in the middle of the night, all on my own. Can’t sleep, don’t want to sleep, get up, go to the gym, work. This is early for me, being here at half ten in the morning, this is really fucking early, and I’m only here because I screwed up yesterday and kept you hanging around. Other times I’ll call up my wrestling coach, or my jujitsu coach, or my deep tissue guy, and want to really focus on one part of what I do. I train in all these different disciplines. I do yoga. People think it is easy, just touching your toes. It is fucking hard. But I tend to go with my own flow. It’s back to the movement thing. I feel it when I need to train, and I do what I feel I need to do. And when I am in the run up to a fight, I am really at it the whole time, might be getting my weight down to meet the limit for the division. Soon I am moving up and I am going to be champion in the next one too.
AC: Interim or real?
CM: Say ‘interim’ again and you’ll be polishing my belts for me. Both of them.
AC: What’s your resting pulse rate?
CM: Not taken it for a while, but around 38, 39.
AC: How many sit ups and press ups could you do?
CM: A lot, but I couldn’t give you a number.
AC: When was the last time you cried?
CM: I am not a big crier. But I’d say it was after the Mendes fight. It was not because of the fight as such, which had been pretty easy. It was everything leading up to it. It had been such a tough time. When I did my knee, I had some very dark times. Life is all about ups and downs and I’d say there had been a lot of downs, but I got through it, I won and after the fight, I was standing in the shower and I was crying, just letting it all go.
AC: I have read some pretty colourful accounts of how people react to you when they’re watching you train, and there seems to be something a bit homoerotic about it, do you see that?
CM: I don’t know, I don’t think so. When I’m in there I’m just in my zone. What people think about when they’re looking at me, that’s their business. If there is a bit of that, I am fine with it, each to his own.
AC: What’s with all the tattoos?
CM: Nothing, nothing at all. I like them. I sometimes hear someone saying they have a butterfly on their ankle and it represents hope, and I think what a fucking load of bollocks. I just like tattoos. I like the look. I like the feel of the ink when they’re doing it. I like going into the tattoo place and they’re all hanging around smoking weed and I say ‘right, I want a picture of this …’
AC: But a gorilla eating a heart on your chest …
CM: Doesn’t mean a fucking thing. I just like it.
AC: And how much do they spend on clothes?
CM: As much as I like. I like to look good. Actually when I first started fighting for money it was really about runners [trainers]. Where I was living, everyone was into their runners, and you’d better not step on them because we all wanted clean runners. So I would buy new ones. Clothes are important to me. How you look has a big say in how you feel, well it does with me.
AC: Could you still mend a broken toilet if you had to?
CM: Ha. I wasn’t really that kind of plumber. I did big industrial stuff. But I didn’t like it. I hated the work. You’d more likely find me out having a kip in the van. So no, if the toilet is bust I will pay someone to fix it.
AC: Did you always know you were going to do something like this?
CM: I always knew I would be something special.
AC: And do you really not watch other sports at all?
CM: Ach, if something’s on I might take a look, but this is the sport I study, all the time.
AC: You won’t get into the Rugby World Cup?
CM: I might watch a bit of that because at least with rugby it’s about attack and defence, and aggression, and how you use the force you have, and I might see things in that I can think about with regard to what I do.
AC: Would you watch golf?
CM: Golf isn’t a sport, it’s a game. I’m not saying it’s not a difficult game, with lots of mental stuff, and it’s crazy that sometimes what looks the easiest shot of all, a putt a few feet away, can be the hardest. But it’s not a sport like mine. Where is the combat, the intensity of what we do?
CM: That’s more of a sport, because they need real physical fitness, real capacity for movement, real mixing up of tactics, so yeah, I wouldn’t watch it much, but it’s a real sport.
AC: Formula One?
CM: It’s just machines. I’m not interested.
AC: Were you not a bit embarrassed when [UFC owner] Lorenzo Fertitta called you ‘the Irish Muhammad Ali?’ Ali is unique.
CM: Sure he is. But maybe Lorenzo just saw something in me and he felt that was the way to express it. I wasn’t embarrassed. I am honoured if people think something like that.
AC: You’re not allowed to name yourself in this – who is the greatest living Irishman?
CM: We are all great. This is a great country. We are warm, and we are friendly, but you’d better not mess with us.
AC: How Irish are you?
CM: Very. I love Ireland. I love being Irish. I love the feeling that I am representing my country when I’m fighting.
AC: You once said the Irish have no feelings, and that is why you’re a great fighter. But I would say the Irish are among the most feeling people in the world.
CM: I say all sorts of things. I was probably just winding someone up. I love being here. This year I have hardly been home, I’ve been in the States, travelling all over the place promoting the last fight, my training camp was in the desert, but I’ve decided this time I am going to have the training camp right here. When we got off the plane the other day, and walked through Dublin airport, it felt great, and I thought I want to be here when I am doing all the hard work before the fight. We got to the house and my girlfriend had done the place up with loads of memorabilia from all my previous fights, and it just felt fantastic to be home.
And now for the Unbeaten Mayweather
Amid the sporting winners and high achievers I have been lucky enough to talk to, Floyd Mayweather is unique among them all: in his chosen career, professional boxing, he has never known what it is like to lose. Even Muhammad Ali, seen by most as ‘The Greatest’, lost five of his sixty-one pro fights. Mayweather’s record is forty-seven fights, forty-seven wins, twenty-six of them by knock-outs, ten world titles in five divisions, and still going strong aged thirty-eight. Also, with his own boxing promotion company, and a greater hold on TV income from his own performances than anyone else in sport, it has all turned him into the richest athlete on the planet, which means the richest of all time. His most recent fights worked out at almost $1 million for every minute in the ring. In Las Vegas, where he lives, some of the locals claim a big Mayweather fight can bring close to a billion dollars to the economy, and he gets a large slice of it.
So which winning box does he tick? Is he a strategist? You don’t get to be as good as he is, and put together the deals he has done, without knowing what you want to achieve, and how. Is he a team player? Boxing is perhaps the ultimate individual sport, fighter against fighter; yet Mayweather has built a good team around him – ‘The Money Team’, as he calls it (Mayweather loves to talk about money, and how much of it he makes) – so is it his skill as a team builder and leader that sets him apart? He wouldn’t be out of place as an innovator either. From early in his career, he described himself as an ‘entertainer’, whose mission was ‘to sell tickets’. But it annoyed him how much others took from the sale. His split from promoter Bob Arum led Mayweather to take control of his own fights, and his marketing and communications skills revolutionised boxing promotion. Or, given what he openly acknowledges as an upbringing most would have found difficult to the point of overwhelming, should he praised for a quality such as resilience?
To those new to the Mayweather phenomenon (I will come on to why he is not as well known globally as Ali), for now just be aware of a few facts that might suggest so: mother Deborah a drug addict when he was a child; his mother’s sister, also a drug addict, dead from Aids; father Floyd Senior a former pro boxer, who had fought the great Sugar Ray Leonard and who coached Floyd Junior either side of a three-and-a-half-year spell in prison for cocaine traf- ficking, which he was still serving when his son fought his first pro fight.
So Mayweather saw an awful lot growing up, like needles in his backyard and his mother’s single-room apartment, his father selling drugs to his mother, and Floyd Junior being all too often on the wrong end of Floyd Senior’s beatings. He also got caught up in his dad’s drug-dealing life: the only one of my questions he opted not to answer was when I asked him to tell me how he felt when, as a baby, he was held as a human shield by his father, under attack from a gunman known as ‘Baboon’ – who also happened to be his mother’s brother – after the two men fell out over ‘business’. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mayweather Senior admitted holding his son by the ankles and hanging him upside down in front of him to cover as much of his own body as a one-year-old’s frame could. ‘If you’re going to kill me, you’re going to kill the baby too,’ he told Baboon, aka Tony Sinclair. Floyd Junior’s mother was screaming: ‘Give me the baby,’ but his father refused. ‘She was pulling the baby out of my arms so her brother could shoot me. But I wasn’t going to put that baby down. I didn’t want to die. It wasn’t about putting my son in the line of fire. I knew [Sinclair] wouldn’t shoot the baby. So he took the gun off my face, lowered it to my leg and bam!’ The shot tore apart his calf and his boxing career never really recovered from the injuries.
Floyd Junior has had plenty of public wars of words with his father through what is clearly a troubled, sometimes close, often angry relationship, though given some have been for fight-promoting reality TV shows, it’s not easy to work out what are genuine feelings and what are being emphasised for the cameras. Some of the ‘scenes’ between them are truly vicious, and seem real enough, as when Floyd Senior goes to Floyd Junior’s gym, and tries to portray himself, rather than his brother Roger, as the true author of his son’s success. Son insults Father over his lack of fighting success; reminds him of the beatings he used to give him. ‘We don’t need you here,’ says Son, then turns to the Money Team and shouts: ‘Get that mother- fucker out of my motherfucking gym,’ insisting ‘there are only two motherfucking Mayweathers that count. Roger made the name and I took it to the next level.’
Floyd Senior believes that he deserves more credit for his son’s success, having coached him in the early days before he was jailed, at which point his brother Roger took over. He feels, too, that despite his life as a drug dealer he did the best he could for his son – indeed, that in part he was dealing in drugs to ensure his family had ‘food on the table and clothes on their backs’. Mayweather himself says that his father helped him learn to fight. That was about it. Yet today, though he is on record as saying he basically raised himself, with help from his grandmother – ‘no her and I wouldn’t be here’ – and that he only went to his mother’s when ‘my grandmother was mad at me’ he seems to want to be as positive as he can about the life his parents gave him. ‘Most important to me, more than my success or my wealth or my reputation, is family. My father and mother, my four children and even my TMT [The Money Team] family. I care most about having healthy, supportive relationships, being there for each other, securing their futures, providing for them on a daily basis and making them comfortable and happy. My chil- dren have a whole different life than I had because I want them to. They mean everything to me and it’s why I work so hard for my success.’ Homes, cars, holidays, clothes, he seems to take care of a lot of people, not just direct family. He is rarely without a huge wad of dollar bills and regularly dispenses cash to people, not always small sums either. At weekends, the Mayweather home is filled with family, the Money Team and others from his circle enjoying his hospitality. He likes going out with big groups of friends, and though he doesn’t drink will lay on as much drink as others want. He can sometimes tend to the macho boxing stereotype, making sure there are plenty of women there ‘to balance up the fact most of TMT are men’, and is on record as saying that ‘females’ are a bit like cars: ‘If you can have twenty rather than one, why wouldn’t you?’
Yet as he tries to give his own children a life he never had, and indeed that few children anywhere have – not many young kids have Canadian singer Justin Bieber turn up at their birthday party, or hang out with rapper Drake – he is determined, whatever the bitter rows of the past, to say nothing that could be deemed as hostile to his parents. His mother hasn’t touched drugs in years and is now much closer to him, and an important behind-the-scenes figure. ‘We had turmoil and hardship in my family and there were many rough years. That story has been well documented. But I can look back and say that although they weren’t the best of conditions and my parents had their own problems, I always felt love from somewhere. Sometimes and early in my life it was my dad, sometimes my mom. But the person I believe who helped mould me and keep me on the straight path was my grandmother Bernice. She stepped in and raised me and early on taught me right from wrong. That was a big influence on me and helped me believe that I could do anything I wanted to do. I always knew I was going to be successful but having someone like my grandmother tell me so made a huge difference.’
His grandmother, mother to Floyd Senior, Roger and Jeff, all three of them boxers, was the one who kept telling him he was going to make something of himself, and she knew what it was – fighting. She was the one who, when he was worrying that maybe he should look for some kind of trade to learn, told him no, no, no, you’re a fighter and you’re going to be the best. With his father inside, Mayweather dropped out of high school to focus exclusively on his boxing, knowing there was money to be made, and early on seeing himself as the head of the household, the one his mother and others in the family would look to for support.
Mayweather too has seen the inside of a jail – another popular boxing culture caricature – aged thirty-five, convicted of domestic violence against Jodie Harris, the mother of three of his four chil- dren. He continues to protest his innocence, insisting he did a plea bargain to avoid his children having to endure a bitter trial involving their estranged parents. He served two months of an eighty-seven- day sentence, most of it in solitary confinement, and also did a hundred days’ community service. He believes being ‘black, rich and outspoken’ were the three main reasons the system decided he had to be punished.
Rich and outspoken he certainly is, and he hides neither. Not long after our interview, he posted photos on Twitter of two cheques he had just cashed, for $70 million. That he did build himself up from what by any standards was a difficult background and upbringing in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is beyond doubt. But though his sport is renowned for stories of boxers fighting their way from the ghetto to greatness, it’s not how Mayweather sees himself. He believes he was destined for greatness all along.
OK, so far so arrogant. But he is quick to add that for all the natural talent he had, what he has achieved would never have been possible without his work ethic, and a mindset that, once he turned professional in 1996, never ever considered the possibility of losing.
This refusal even to countenance defeat is why in the end, despite his other qualities, it is Mayweather’s extreme but positive mindset that particularly fascinates me. He is unique not just in never having lost a professional fight but unique among all my interviewees in this mindset that sees fear of defeat not as something to drive him, which, as we have seen, is what many top performers do, but as something that must not be allowed to exist. Basketball star Kobe Bryant, a friend, has talked of Mayweather’s ‘almost maniacal drive’ being the single most important ingredient of his success.
‘I do believe God has given me a special gift and being a great fighter was my destiny,’ Mayweather tells me, thanking the Almighty, as so many American athletes do, for his talent. ‘But trust me, if I hadn’t committed to the years, months, days and hours I have spent developing my destiny I would never have gotten as far as I have in the sport.’ He sees life as a mix of what we are born with, what happens to us regardless, and what we make happen to ourselves; he calls it a mix of ‘fate and free’, fate deciding where we start out in life – our family, our background, our natural character, talents and genetic make-up – yet all of us free to make choices about how we use those talents and how we face up to the difficult questions and situations life poses. ‘Fate and free will go hand in hand, and I have used both to my advantage and their full potential.’ Even his spell in jail, he says, was ‘a negative I turned into a positive’. He made a documentary about the build-up to going to jail, making mental comparisons with previous bad times in his life as an aid to get through it; he got angry in there, for sure, but he stayed focused on what he would do when he came out, and on doing so announced plans for a fight that gave him what at the time was the biggest ever guaranteed purse for a boxer, $32 million, itself less than a third of what he would earn from later fights. ‘Tough times don’t last,’ he says. ‘Tough people do.’
The more you delve, the more you realise that he just was not, and is not, prepared to accept that the childhood and the youth he had should somehow define who he is now, and how he got to the place he’s at. He got there by talent, hard work, support from the right people at the right time, and an unshakeable belief in his abilities and his sense of destiny. Now, I can see how the idea that if you believe you are the best, and if you work hard enough you will be, can sound totally removed from the lives and life chances of most people – that there is nothing in Floyd Mayweather’s winning ways that relates to anyone but Floyd Mayweather. However, if you bring it down a level, as Mayweather does at times, and see it in terms of ‘being the best you can be at what it is that you do’, then it’s not out of reach at all, but something most people will strive towards at some point in their lives, even if the last time is a school exam or a driving test, or making an impression at a job interview.
Like many people at the very top in a chosen field, Mayweather attracts both adulation from his fans and hatred from his detractors, not least on social media, which he uses regu- larly to make major announcements, take views from fans about who he should fight, and where he posts pictures of himself which at times seem designed to provoke the haters, like the ones boasting how much he earns. ‘There is too much hate in the world,’ he says. ‘I am a positive person looking for only positive feedback. If you ain’t got that, you can’t be around me.’
Yet Leonard Ellerbe, chief executive of Mayweather Promotions, suggests there is a deliberate strategy to the fighter’s often contro- versial public image. ‘Bob Arum had Floyd very much as second to Oscar De La Hoya. When Floyd branched out on his own, and found new ways to promote fights, he was happy for people to see him as the villain.’ Mayweather himself says that if people pay to see him fight because they want him to lose, or because they want him to win, he is happy either way. ‘I like to give people what they want, and they want me to be extravagant.’ His fight with De La Hoya was the first to be promoted via the medium of in-house- produced reality TV, breaking new records for money made for both fighters, the take totalling $120 million with 2.4 million buying the fight on pay-per-view. De La Hoya has said he is proud to have been part of a fight that changed boxing forever, and which made him vast sums of money, but he told a US documentary-maker: ‘It was the biggest event in boxing history in some ways, but ultimately I lost, and I have to live with that for the rest of my life.’
Oscar De La Hoya was a great boxer, so what does it say about Mayweather’s mindset, and his ability to play mind games, that he ‘got inside my head’, as De La Hoya has admitted. It says that although the ‘rags to riches, ghetto to greatness’ story fits with the image and history of boxing, it is far removed from how he sees himself and his success, which he puts down to this supremely posi- tive mindset and everything that goes with it – focus, concentration, dedication, determination, resilience, confidence, psychological strength. All this has put him in the Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard class of fighter, and then in a class above, that unique winner in never having known defeat, but unique perhaps too in never allowing himself to contemplate it.
‘The key quality for a winning mindset,’ he says during a break in preparations for his fight against Marcos Maidana in September 2014, ‘is believing in your ability to win. From a young professional in boxing I believed that I would end up being a great fighter and throughout the years I have done everything necessary to get there. If you believe you can do it, then everything else falls into place.’ When he talks about doing ‘everything necessary’, he is talking about a training regime and a dedication that few can match. He is talking about a level of preparation for a fight in which he is looking to do things slightly differently, slightly better – not just better than his opponents but better than his last fight.
So when I ask him the question I have asked so many sportsmen and women – ‘What drives you more: love of winning, or fear and hatred of defeat?’ – he alone says simply: ‘I don’t think about losing.’ And then, as though there is something frankly a bit stupid about the question, he adds: ‘Who would do that really?’ The logical answer to that question is ‘just about everyone’, including people he would also acknowledge as winners, but he seems genuinely to feel that the belief that you can win is what will drive you to do the things necessary to win, and worrying about the possibility that you might not win would simply get in the way of that. ‘I don’t have a fear of defeat and it is certainly not what drives me either. My legacy is what drives me. I put great time, energy and preparation into my career and that is what I hope people will remember about my success when it’s over. I care more about being a complete fighter and practising my craft to the best of my ability which means success.’ He even suggests – admittedly from the rare vantage point of never having lost, reminding me of the billionaires who say they never cared about becoming rich – that he wouldn’t have minded if there had been a defeat or two along the way. ‘I don’t have a loss in my professional career, but it’s not always about winning and losing anyway. It’s knowing that you have done everything you can to be great at what you do.’ Of course, in his case, it is the doing ‘everything you can to be great at what you do’ that has ensured he has never lost.
For a man of many words (watch the reality TV films on YouTube if you want to see a man who knows how to talk), his shortest answer is to this three-part question, the second and third parts of which are rendered immediately superfluous and irrele vant by the one-word response to the first.
‘When you get into the ring, have you ever thought you might lose? If so, how did you get through that? If not, what was the closest?’
‘Never.’ And that is that.
I remind him of something Sugar Ray Leonard said recently: ‘I always felt I would give Mayweather a hell of a fight but now I am not so sure since my brother who is my biggest fan says I wouldn’t stand a chance.’
‘What do you say to that?’ I ask.
‘Ray and I would have had a hell of a fight together but you know who would have won – TBE [The Best Ever]!’
Part of his appeal is a flamboyance and a wit often lacking in pro fessional sportsmen, for example in one fight leaning over the ropes to correct something he heard a ringside TV commentator saying about him using a new style. ‘That’s the second time he’s done that,’ said the commentator. ‘It’s the third time,’ Mayweather shouted over to him between punches. And when Nelson Mandela, no less, said that the whole of South Africa was supporting unbeaten Philip N’dou – he had won all of his thirty-one fights by knockouts – and the former South African president gave the fighter advice on how to beat Mayweather, he responded: ‘Nelson Mandela’s a great man, he’s big in America, but Mandela can’t get in there and fight for him.’ Mayweather knocked out N’dou.
Mayweather talks a lot about being ‘relevant’ and it’s something his influential PR adviser Kelly Swanson, often referred to as ‘the most powerful woman in boxing’, ruminated on when I met her in New York before she fixed the interview. ‘When you’ve done some- thing for so long, and you’ve done it so well, how do you fill that gap? What do you do with your life, when that part of your life comes to an end which, even if you are as good as he is, you know it will?’ In the coming years, we’ll find out the answer to that ques- tion, most likely with documentary crews tracking every step. But I would lay a bet that Mayweather and his team will work it out, that he’ll stay pretty, keep ensuring ‘Money’ is the most suitable middle name, and make sure his legacy as a fighter is protected once he stops.
When you look at the pictures of Mayweather as a child, you see a good-looking young boy, but nothing to suggest he would one day be what Floyd Mayweather Jr has today become, living the remarkable life he leads, with the private jet, the beautiful homes, the buzz that surrounds him wherever he goes. But he says none of it feels abnormal to him. ‘It feels normal to drive in a white Rolls- Royce or a Bentley. It feels normal to be making the kind of money I do, and enjoying the reputation I do. I always thought this would happen.’ He puts it down to three very different parts of the body – ‘brain, chin and heart’. Most of us don’t need our chin in the same way boxers do, but the brain and the heart are where the mindset is made, and Mayweather’s combination of the three has served him every bit as well as the combinations that have seen forty-six fighters leave the ring dreaming of what might have been. ‘Maybe,’ he says, ‘they had thought about losing before they got there, in which case they had lost already.’
Boxing is a sport that has always required colourful characters, and armies of hype merchants, to maintain public interest. So having a smart, charismatic, clever, controversial, good-looking and supremely talented boxer like Mayweather constantly reminding us how good-looking he is, how none of his opponents has ever managed to destroy those looks, and telling us he is TBE, is all of a part with the history and legend of the sport. Yet that TBE label seems to be forgotten when he is in more reflective mode, suggesting that being the world’s richest athlete does not lead him to claim he is better than a Tiger Woods or a Roger Federer, or some of the big stars of basketball who are personal friends. ‘I don’t compare myself to other people. I think that’s a complete waste of time. I have so many friends from other sports, particularly in the NBA – Kobe Bryant, Paul George, LeBron James – that are the best in their sports too. It is a mutual respect that we have for each other, I believe, because we are dedicated to being and proving we are the best. I can’t name everyone I respect and admire, but I give the greatest praise to others who reach their potential the hard way – not cutting corners, cheating or relying on others to succeed. There are so many great athletes, actors, doctors, lawyers, writers, other people who are great in their own right. Sure I call myself and believe I am “TBE” but that is my own belief and I am comfortable believing in it too.’
And yet he also says he is ‘absolutely not’ annoyed that Muhammad Ali cornered ‘The Greatest’ title, though there might be a subtle boast in his use of tenses. ‘Ali was the greatest and an amazing fighter. Oh – and his legacy is something to be recognised and celebrated too. I have the most respect for Ali and looked up to him when I was a young fighter. I respect all of the giants of the sport of boxing as there are so many to recognise for their contribution to the sport.
Ali set the gold standard for sportsmen as entertainer, with his quips, his charisma, his poems, his boasts, his one-liners, and with his looks closer to that of a Hollywood actor or pop star than a prizefighter. As with Mayweather, though, it was all rooted in raw talent, and hard work to make the most of it.
The big difference between them is that Mayweather chose very deliberately to focus on just one part of the American dream as he fought from one win to the next: money. Ali was conscious early on of his own political potency and symbolism. His legacy is as much about race and equal rights, his refusal to fight in Vietnam, his conversion to Islam. Mayweather does not see himself as a world-changer in the same way. He is a fighter pure and simple, and in the US there are only two ways to measure whether you are the best or not: your win/loss ratio (as I’ve said, 100 per cent in his case), and your wealth (beyond anyone else’s in sporting history). Mayweather long ago had enough money to keep himself, his family and his friends in style for the rest of their lives, but he needs to keep on winning, and keep on showing he is a winner.
Perhaps Ali and Mayweather, both the greatest of their generation in their chosen sport, represent two different generations more broadly: Ali’s more radical, more politically engaged, more determined to right wrongs; Mayweather’s more materialistic, more focused on wealth and celebrity and pure entertainment.
Ali’s name and legend are known to virtually everyone on the planet, and when he dies, the reactions around America and the world will not be far off those which greet the death of a global leader. Mayweather is known to anyone who has an interest in sport, yet I have been surprised to discover quite a few people barely aware of his existence. But as a sporting mindset needed to deliver a sporting OST, and as an unbeaten champion, Mayweather is out there on his own. The chances are, too, that because of the way he fights, and the way he looks after himself, he may be able to avoid the kind of illnesses which have reduced Ali’s quality of life over many years. That is a win of sorts as well.