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The hometown boxing writer’s wild ride with the Mayweathers

14
Sep

LAS VEGAS — No journalist ever identified Tiger Woods as a budding superstar before his first amateur golf tournament, then subsequently covered every one of his major championships. Neither did anyone figure out Michael Jordan would redefine basketball before his first youth game, then cover his every championship with the University of North Carolina and Chicago Bulls.

It happened that way with Floyd Mayweather and me.

He was 10 years old when I met him, a few months before his first amateur bout, and our relationship has undergone a wide array of transformations, lulls and peaks in the 22 years since. He was just a kid underfoot in the gym back then, obviously blessed with natural athletic ability, although it would be a complete falsehood to suggest I knew he would become the pound-for-pound king of boxing and set out to cover him throughout that journey.

I never expected to stay at The Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press for the rest of my professional career. I just found a home there and decided not to leave.



Likewise, I never knew Mayweather would become a great amateur, or great professional, much less the most outstanding boxer of his generation.

I just knew his father, Floyd Sr., and his uncles, the two-time world champion Roger and Jeff. I covered them all. And in the process, I came to know of the young boy who would be king.

I think Mayweather beats Juan Manuel Marquez on Saturday night. Then again, I've thought he would defeat every opponent he ever fought. That isn't to say I think he's invincible, merely that I never have looked at him, and looked at the opponent across the ring, and expected him to lose.

It is worth noting that I never have seen him lose, even when I probably should have. In 1996, I went to the Atlanta Olympics as a fan, on a long-planned trip with a group of people, long before Mayweather clinched his spot on the U.S. team. Two others from my newspaper were assigned to cover the Olympics, so I took the opportunity to enjoy myself for two weeks. I saw sports I never had seen, from judo to team handball. I saw Muhammad Ali get his replacement gold medal at the men's basketball championship game. I saw the same weightlifting world record shattered on three consecutive lifts by three different men, all of whom rejoiced on the medal stand as if the gold medal could be shared. I celebrated vicariously through gymnasts and volleyball players.

I already had tickets for boxing on Mayweather's first night of competition. After seeing all the featherweights on his side of the bracket and deeming him the best among them, I bought tickets on the street for his next two bouts, both victories. I went through a USA Boxing official to purchase tickets for his gold-medal round, but already had tickets for track and field on the night he boxed in the semifinals. That night, I went back to the apartment where our group was staying, in those days when the Internet wasn't widely used, and waited hours for NBC to show the fight. Finally, in lieu of the tape-delayed event, the network gave just a cursory result, that Mayweather had lost a disputed decision and would have to settle for a bronze medal.

To this day, I've never seen that fight.

My relationship with the Mayweathers began in 1987. I met all four of the family's fighters within a span of a few weeks that spring. I met the two Floyds in the gym where the younger one trained. I met Jeff when he was boxing in Golden Gloves. I met Roger in Norfolk, Va., on the week he fought Pernell Whitaker.

The family's passion rang out immediately and has affected me in a variety of ways since. But it never changed.

Once, in 1994 or 1995, while Floyd Sr. was incarcerated, I wrote a column questioning who would provide guidance for his young son, who already had a National Golden Gloves championship to his credit and clearly was on an Olympic path. He wrote me a letter from prison, lambasting me for my opinion and suggesting he wouldn't speak to me again. A few months later, he allowed me to visit him there.

Two weeks ago, on the first episode of Mayweather-Marquez 24/7, Floyd Sr. was caught by HBO's cameras calling me a vile name and claiming I had misrepresented him in a recent column in which he questioned his brother's training methods, relative to the upcoming Marquez bout. After arriving Sunday night in Las Vegas for fight week, I called him Monday to request an interview. He declined. But a relationship more than two decades in the making prevailed. He acknowledged saying exactly what I quoted him as saying but said he didn't like how I framed the quote. I told him I did not mean to upset him and, to what degree he thought I was unfair, I apologized and told him that was not my intent. We both were sincere. He did the interview, in his home, and was as gracious as ever. I only covered one fight of his, a 1990 comeback loss after he had been retired five years, but always have regarded him as a person of heartfelt beliefs. I respect him and long ago came to consider him a friend, as I believe he has with me, even when we weren't getting along so well.

Jeff Mayweather is the sweetheart of the fighting family and I always wished he had achieved even more as an active fighter, which is not to say his 31-10-5 final record was anything but respectable. I covered few of his fights live because he never quite advanced to the level which commanded my newspaper to spend money flying me places and putting me in hotels to cover him. He lost his biggest fights, to solid opponents such as Oscar De La Hoya and Todd Foster. And he never failed, even at his lowest points, to return a phone call in the effort to track him down and obtain quotes by telephone. He was fired from an advisory capacity by his nephew in an odd turn of events in 1999, making him the first casualty of Team Mayweather, yet as he watched the father-and-son relationship between his brother and nephew deteriorate, he wrote frankly in an Internet story about the need for them to resolve their differences before one had to bury the other. I believe his writing was instrumental in the gradual healing of that rift. I admire him for it, just as I've always admired him as a caring person.

Roger Mayweather was, and is, a curious piece of work as a fighter and a person, and I saw him lose plenty of times. He lost the very first fight I ever covered of his, the aforementioned fight against Whitaker. He quit on his stool in his biggest fight I ever covered, the rematch against Julio Cesar Chavez. He had more rationalizations for losses and training shortcomings and weight issues and being late (a personal specialty of his) than any fighter I've ever met. I also learned more curious stuff about boxing from Roger than any fighter I ever covered. He was the first fighter I ever saw use pickle brine to toughen the skin over his eyes, and abalone to open the pores so he could sweat off excess weight. The night he survived Harold Brazier was one of the most memorable I've ever had covering boxing because, back then, I was just a young guy who was strangely reliant on this one fighter to keep me covering the sport at its highest level.

I long since figured out that another fighter always comes along. But back then, beating Brazier was vital to Roger's career and, in my curious youthful thinking, to mine, too. He was a lot of fun to cover and we enjoyed each other's company, even if we never quite came to fully understand one another.

Finally, the last and greatest of the Mayweathers came along.

I don't know how long Floyd Jr.'s journey lasts. I just know it has been a unique experience spending so much time with him, watching him grow from a boy into a man, viewing his subsiding personal insecurity relative to his escalating professional confidence, and trying to reflect it accurately through the prism of his hometown newspaper.

I was at his first National Golden Gloves, in 1993 at Little Rock, Ark., when he was 106 pounds and, through a quirk of fate, advanced uncontested through Michigan and therefore had nothing but junior-level experience. He blew away five opponents that week, including his future Olympic teammate Eric Morel in the national final.

I knew right then what I had on my hands: An Olympic gold medalist, a multiple world champion, a Hall of Famer.

The first of those didn't come true but the journey nevertheless has been amazing to witness. He brought three world title nights to Grand Rapids, where none had occurred before or since, and put the city on a sporting map in a way Stanley Ketchel or Wally Pipp (the guy who got a headache and never got his job back from Lou Gehrig again) never did. Actually, the city has had an eclectic mix of star athletes. But none ever achieved more, or reached greater heights, than Floyd Jr.

The problem with covering every aspect of his career is covering every aspect of his career. I covered his legal problems, tax problems, familial problems, managerial problems, “slave contract” problems – all of it. Every step of the way, another chink got knocked out of our relationship. It has gone on too long, through too many levels of personal journey.

For whatever reason, none of that is as memorable to me as the day in Coachella, Calif., when he was training for a 1999 fight against Carlos Rios, the first title fight he brought to Grand Rapids. The site, Van Andel Arena, would draw its record crowd for a sports event for that fight, 12,696, of which 11,000 seats sold within the first 90 minutes. Floyd was sitting in the living room of a modest rented house in the Coachella Valley, with minimal furniture and a barren front yard, when the phone rang to give him that news.

“I'm selling tickets like Puff Daddy!” he exclaimed, as the boyish charm he still can exude when he chooses came through, totally unforced. I'll never forget the expression on his face.

It was through that fight against Rios that I came to expand my own career. The Ring's editor, Nigel Collins, wasn't inclined to spend money sending a staffer to Grand Rapids for a fight against a challenger no one knew. He called Top Rank publicist Lee Samuels for a suggestion as to whom might cover the fight as a correspondent. Lee suggested me. Eleven years later, I'm still writing for The Ring, about boxing topics with reach far beyond the Mayweathers.

And more than two decades later, even though I'm the only journalist to cover every one of Mayweather's championship fights, I'm still learning things about him. Just last week, in a story to be published in my newspaper on Wednesday, I tracked down and interviewed Floyd's very first amateur opponent, in 1987, when both were 10 years old and weighed 64 pounds. That opponent, Chris Holden of St. Johns, Mich., only boxed for three years and told me he didn't know until a couple years ago that the kid who waxed him in less than a round that night — and then was known as Floyd Sinclair, before legally changing to his father's surname a couple years later — was the same fighter who became the pound-for-pound king of the ring.

It never made sense to him, Holden said, that he got kicked around so badly that night. But when someone finally told him that Floyd Sinclair and Floyd Mayweather were the same person, two decades of confusion finally cleared.

Mayweather and I have had a couple of sometimes-confusing decades ourselves. Yet I know full well that, at 48 years old, and with my future in this profession surely not as lengthy as my past, I'll never experience anything quite like him again.

A few years ago, I interviewed him after he had come through a spate of problems, as he prepared to fight Sharmba Mitchell in Portland, Ore. When we concluded, I leaned into his ear, where no one else could hear, and whispered something I felt I needed to tell him.

“I know there have been times you probably wondered,” I said, “but I really do care how things go for you and always wish you the best.”

I meant it then and now.

I always will.

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