Mayweather: Signs of greatness emerged early
“Money” didn’t always fight for the love of his nickname, back when all he had was sheer love of the game.
Take that night in 1988, in Lansing, Mich., where an opponent finally demonstrated the wherewithal to last more than a round with Floyd Mayweather Jr. after several first-round blowouts in his earliest amateur bouts.
“After the fight was over,” said Franklin Brown, a longtime Mayweather family friend, “the first thing Floyd said was, 'Daddy, I got to spit in the bucket!' For the longest time, he had wanted to spit in that bucket. He just didn't have enough time to do it because each fight ended so quick, so fast, that he never got a round break. He was so excited he finally got to use the spit bucket.”
Brown made his living as a business owner, selling floor coverings from an inner-city carpet store in Mayweather’s hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich. Back in the late 1970s, he sought out Floyd Mayweather Sr., a troubled professional boxer from that city whose career was in jeopardy after a shotgun blast took a chunk out of his calf, to offer solace and advice.
Mayweather Jr. was just beyond infancy at the time, and Brown had no idea he was working his way into the inner sanctum of a future pound-for-pound king.
Brown knows where he’ll be Sept. 19, when Mayweather launches his comeback against Juan Manuel Marquez – in the locker room, sending his favorite fighter into the ring with pre-fight prayer, just as he has for all 39 of Mayweather’s pro bouts.
“He'll do on the 19th just what he has for every fight,” Brown said. “He'll have me there with him, holding his hand, leading prayer, and having God enter his presence. Little Floyd, when I pray for him, he beats those gloves together and he's ready to go. And I'm ready for him to go because I know he's going to win.”
Mayweather, at 32, is the polished product of a pristine and perfect professional record, manicured through the teachings and flaws of youth. He was held by his wounded father the day of the shooting. He was passed from one family member to another for guidance and support. He endured the imprisonment of his father and the threat of a possible amateur violation before the Olympic Games.
And through it all, he never wavered within the boxing ring.
The story that Mayweather Sr. placed boxing gloves in his son’s crib has been told many times and is entirely true. The teaching passed from father to son was the linchpin in the creation of a pound-for-pound king.
Others around Grand Rapids watched the dynamic develop, too — and they generally agree that such a simple explanation for Mayweather Jr.’s success falls far short of giving him just due.
Buster Mathis Jr. also bore the name of a successful fighting father. He and Mayweather Jr. also shared the same amateur training base, Pride Boxing Gym, in Grand Rapids.
“The name is imbedded,” Mathis said. “It's marketable. His father and my pop, they had to really earn that name. When we were growing up, I think the name was granted to us, so it was easy to market and easy to get that publicity. It gets you in the door.
“But I would see him when he was sparring at the gym and he was just tremendous. He was phenomenal. He was nothing like his father or his Uncle Roger. I saw his father fight and I saw Roger fight and they really fought the same way every time, very technical fighters, not a lot of adjustments. Floyd was a truly different fighter because he was able to adapt to every opponent's style. I never saw his father or Roger do that. I was at the fight when Floyd fought Angel Manfredy. When I saw him dominate Manfredy, that's when I was convinced this guy was just tremendous at adapting his game plan to different fighters. I thought Manfredy would give him a better fight than that. I became convinced that night that Floyd is the type of guy, if you don't get his respect in about the first 30 seconds, the fight is over with. He can adapt his style before the fight and he can adapt during the fight. He's nothing like his uncle and his father. I just don't see it. He took those basics that they taught and took it to a whole different level by creating a totally different style.”
It started early in life.
Brown got to know the Mayweathers after the shooting incident, when Floyd Jr. was 2 years old. He saw both the machinations within the family, and those from external forces, in the creation of a superstar. He saw the youngster taken away to New Jersey by his mother at age 5, after his paternal grandmother had become more involved in his upbringing, then returned because he was just too rambunctious to handle.
And from those earliest days, Brown saw how much boxing meant to young Mayweather.
“He would say, 'Come on, daddy, come on daddy,' and would want to box,” Brown said. “When his daddy was on his knees, boxing with him, Floyd would just love that. But one day when he was 2 or 3 years old, while they were boxing, Big Floyd looked away, and Little Floyd caught him with a right hand. It hurt Big Floyd and it made him mad. I told him, 'Don't you hurt that boy, he was boxing, it was your mistake for not looking.' So I really got close to him after that.”
Bruce Kielty, a Grand Rapids-based matchmaker, historian and collector, was proprietor of Pride Gym in its early days, where one of its first young pupils became its most famous even though he needed a wooden box placed on the hardwood floor to reach the speed bag.
“He actually could do those intricate speed-bag routines as a little child, as a 10-year-old,” Kielty said. “It was really amazing to watch him, that we'd prop him up there and he had the coordination, at that age, to do that.”
Kielty also recalled the youngster’s frequent disappointment in matchmaking. Would-be opponents commonly declined to face Mayweather on reputation and name recognition alone. Tournaments were the young boxer’s best opportunity at competition, although even those didn’t always work out.
“We took him over to an amateur tournament in Pontiac once, and they couldn't find someone of his experience and weight who could be matched with him,” Kielty said. “There was no one in that category. So he started going around himself, trying to solicit a match for himself. You know those junior tournaments are all bracketed, you can't just go up and make your own match. So he finally saw the futility of it and came up to the bleachers, and came up to my wife Janet, and leaned on her shoulder and just started bawling. Just bawling. He was young, about 10 or 11 years old, and he just started bawling that he couldn't get a match, crying very heavily. He was just so disappointed that he didn't get a match. I'll never forget that scene.”
Dave Packer, director of Michigan Golden Gloves, often had Mayweather training in his Grand Rapids gym, too. It is common for young boxers to jump around from facility to facility in search of different sparring opportunities, a practice Mayweather embraced in bopping back and forth between Pride Gym and West Grand Gym.
“He'd come to the gym and he'd run around in the hallways, trying to make you catch him,” Packer said. “I'd get pissed as hell at him when he'd make these little shiver moves, back and forth, and try to dodge me. I told my wife Lois back then, ‘This kid, you know, being that he's from that family, he's really going to be good. He's just got the moves for it.’ He'd be giving me these little moves and he was just a little brat. But he was a nice kid, funnier than hell. I always thought he was going to be pretty good.”
Packer just wasn’t sure how good, right up until the time in 1993 when Mayweather made his first appearance at the National Golden Gloves, as a light flyweight, in Little Rock, Ark., after advancing uncontested through Michigan, with no experience beyond the junior ranks.
“I just thought he was one of the stronger spots on our team,” Packer said. “You know how you say, 'Oh, this guy's got a chance, this guy's going a long way, this guy might win a fight for us.' I thought Floyd was one who might make it to the semifinals, the finals maybe, if he got some good breaks. He was only 16 years old. He fought a guy in the quarterfinals who was pretty damn good (Willie Senn of Washington, D.C., who lost a 4-1 decision, with the dissenting judge scoring all three rounds for Senn). I thought it was a stretch for him to get by a couple of those guys. I just thought he was one of those guys who could get deep into the tournament. But to say I thought he was going to win it, I can't say that. When he won, we were happier than hell.”
Brown, the family friend, recalled there were plenty of people to thank for that first national championship. Mayweather Sr. was there every step of that tournament. Bernice Mayweather was a doting grandmother “who always made sure his breakfast was fixed, his clothes were clean, and he was taken care of.”
By 1994, the makeup of Team Mayweather underwent its first significant change.
A shoulder injury kept Mayweather Jr. from making his first appearance in the U.S. Championships that year. Worse yet, Mayweather Sr. was convicted of interstate cocaine trafficking and sentenced to a 5¾-year federal prison sentence, of which he actually served three years.
“Little Floyd, he was so sharp going into that year,” Brown said. “Then, all of a sudden, his dad lost the bout with the government and the government saw fit to lock him up. Big Floyd said to me, 'Franklin, could you see your way to watch over my son?' And I said yes.”
Brown got stumps to put in Bernice Mayweather’s back yard. The teen-ager chopped away in early evening with an ax, making pile after pile of chips, which the grandmother required him to clean up and remove. Later at night, Brown would drive behind young Mayweather during roadwork, high-beams lighting the runner’s path, and flashers protecting the driver from getting rear-ended by someone who didn’t appreciate his languid pace.
“When Floyd would see me behind him, with my headlights on and my lights flashing, he would get more and more encouraged that everything was going to be all right,” Brown said.
That spring, Mayweather went to the 1994 National Golden Gloves in Milwaukee and added a second championship, along with the Golden Boy Award as outstanding boxer of the tournament.
“That's when the sweet came out and the bitter came out,” Brown said. “Because he was promised a car and he got that car, the man gave it to Floyd, and when he gave Floyd that car, he turned right around and took the car back from Floyd. He said he wasn't getting along with his son and needed to give the car to his son.”
The man, who Brown refused to identify, was Grand Rapids businessman Don Hale.
Several boxing insiders with professional aspirations went hard after Mayweather. Until the 1996 Olympics, none did so more ardently than Hale. While Brown was asked to monitor young Mayweather’s personal development, Hale ingratiated himself to the Mayweathers as a potential pro manager. He allowed the young boxer to live in his home on an on-and-off basis, plied him with clothes, kept a few dollars in his pocket, and plotted the future.
“Don was one of those guys that you knew, right off the bat, his only interest — not just with Mayweather, but with everybody — was to build a pro stable,” said Packer, the Michigan Golden Gloves director. “So be it, that's just the way it was. He'd hang around Floyd and help him and thought he had him in position to sign a contract.”
A few months before the 1996 Olympics, Mayweather signed a letter of intent that required him to sign a managerial contract with Hale before the Atlanta Games. When Mayweather reneged, Hale called his bluff.
Brown, still without recalling Hale by name, recounted the disturbed phone call he received from Mayweather.
“Little Floyd called me, crying,” Brown said. “He said, 'He's talking about telling the boxing officials I can't fight in the Olympics because I took money. He's not going to let me fight in the Olympics.' I said, 'Don't worry about it, you fax those papers to me right now.' I went over those papers and it didn't say anything about a contract. It was a letter of intent to sign a contract.”
When Mayweather signed a promotional contract with Top Rank, a resolution with Hale was one of the orders of business involved in the deal. The two later patched their differences. When Mayweather received his 2007 Fighter of the Year Award from the Boxing Writers Association of America, Hale was in attendance in Los Angeles as his all-expenses-paid guest.
During Mayweather Sr.’s incarceration, his son bounced from gym to gym in Grand Rapids, never settling on a single trainer. Most of the instruction was coming from Allenwood, Pa., and Milan, Mich., where Mayweather Sr. served his term.
Not all of that instruction was well-informed. In early 1994, Mayweather Jr. briefly moved up to bantamweight and lost a decision to Carlos Navarro in the U.S. qualifier for the Pan-American Games. Brown recalled what a difficult time the youngster was having making 119 pounds.
“I was in Portland, Ore., with him, getting ready for the tournament, and he wasn't going to be able to make weight,” Brown said. “I said, 'Man, get on that bicycle,' and it was 7 o'clock in the morning. He said, 'I've got something that will help me make it.' So he took a laxative. He said that's the only thing that could help. Man, he had bowel movements all over the place. I had to put him in the shower and treat him like a little baby. Then, 30 minutes before it was time to make weight, he took some more. I said, 'Man, no!' That stuff went all over the place. I had to use a hose to wash him off.”
Mayweather moved back to flyweight, at his father’s instruction, and won his second National Golden Gloves title that spring. But a few months later, he lost a decision to Martin Castillo in a U.S.-Mexico dual meet at MGM Grand, his first bout in his adopted home of Las Vegas. Still, his father continued to insist that flyweight was the proper weight division until a trusted voice intervened.
“I knew,” Packer said, “that there was a lot of communication between the prison and him, telling him what to do. I told his dad after that, 'You're talking to him on the phone and telling him what to do but you're not seeing the fights. You're telling him to stay at 112 and it's killing him, he needs to move up.' It was right after that conversation that he moved up in weight. I remember telling Floyd Sr., 'He's a young kid. You need to let him grow and the only one he'll listen to is you.' “
Two years later, Mayweather received a disputed bronze medal as a featherweight at the Atlanta Olympics and an all-gold victory celebration back in Grand Rapids.
“We went out to Charlevoix Club,” said Brown, referring to a large banquet hall in the city, “and got all the food and drinks arranged, all free. And we went to the airport and the Grand Rapids police had a line of police cruisers there, all with their lights going, to escort him to Charlevoix Club. His arm had been hurt, so I remember we had to bandage it up. The place was packed. He felt so good about that night. And for me, it was one of the best nights of my life, too.”
As much as has been made of the family relationship that led Mayweather Jr. to boxing’s pinnacle, those who knew him long before then agree there were plenty of other reasons for it.
None was more important than the fortitude within the fighter himself.
“You know, he always had a lot of natural coordination, a lot of natural ability,” said Kielty, the former Pride Gym proprietor. “But I've got to hand it to him that, throughout his long career, I don't think he's ever come into a single fight when he wasn't tuned up. Ali and all the others violated that code. Mayweather has never seemed to cheat on his conditioning, which is pretty amazing when you consider the guy has been boxing for more than 20 years. He’s always been a very rare animal.”
David Mayo covers boxing for the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press