money’s worth

words: david roth

It’s forever the worst and most self-indicting move a person can make, but people that give themselves their own nicknames are telling you something about themselves. One thing they are telling you is that they are stupendously wack, just super-duper wack. Another and probably more important thing is that they have gamed out a vision for how they would like you to understand and appreciate them and, given that they’ve gone to the trouble of coming up with a nickname, probably also consume their particular suite of brand truths.

 

When Kobe Bryant starts referring to himself as The Black Mamba, it’s because he decided to pivot to a particular type of comic-book grandiosity; it’s natural that it led, in less than a decade, to Bryant effectively making up his own language. An adult man suddenly and jarringly referring to himself in the third person as if he were one of Spiderman’s more monomaniacal nemeses is, just as a fact of human interaction, the sort of thing that tends to get noticed, and that hints strongly at a certain bloat and warp to that person’s sense of self. But it gets a lot easier to spot when the nickname-author goes ahead and spells it all out.

 

You can see, without squinting and from a very long way off, a similar thing at work in Floyd Mayweather Jr. dropping his early-career “Pretty Boy Floyd” moniker in favor of his new nickname of “Money.” The first is the sort of cornball thirdhand nickname that your less creative boxing promoters will roll out as a default. The latter is Mayweather telling you not just what he is about and what he values, but how he wants to be seen. “Pretty Boy” is a promoter trying to sell you something; “Money” is Mayweather himself telling you what you’re going to get—a necessity and an anxiety, something you don’t love so much as use, something that is exactly as valuable as we decide it is, but still decidedly a fact of life.

 

Money, as itself, is a strange thing to like and a stupid thing to love—the best thing that can be said about it is that it could become something more interesting. But also: what are you going to do? For all the things that can be said about Floyd Mayweather, Jr. as he prepares to fight his fiftieth and most farcical professional fight, none of his accomplishments stand out as much as this: he is unloved and unlovable, he is a grating and boring and luridly unpleasant person and not much fun to watch as a boxer, but he is inevitable.

 

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Prettiness is subjective, and contingent in a way that boxing, by its nature, does not favor; Mayweather’s signature skill is avoiding punishment, and his knack for it is the one really great thing about him as a fighter. But the sport is the sport, and a boxer who calls himself pretty does so in defiance of the most basic fact about his workplace. In every moment, every boxer is a blink and a blow away from becoming a knobby, flounder-faced Picasso. Sooner or later, most every boxer will wind up looking in the mirror and seeing a reflection that exists somewhere on the expressionist continuum—somehow out of joint or gnarled or cauliflowered or otherwise busted, visibly or invisibly or both, because that is just how it works in a sport that is about people hurting people. To call yourself “pretty,” if you’re a boxer, is both a boast and a dare. It’s a retread of a nickname, to be sure, but it’s a bold one.

 

So what does it mean to tell people that you prefer to be called “Money?” Besides, again, that you are someone who is wack enough to make up your nickname, it is both an assertion of what you value and how you want to be valued. It’s a way for Mayweather to brag on the one thing that he really has to brag on, as a public figure and a prizefighter. He is a plainly repellent man, a witless bully and a remorseless and repeat abuser of women; he is charmless and humorless and pyrotechnically boring, he talks constantly but has never really had anything interesting or revealing or surprising to say.

 

Mayweather is a brilliant defensive fighter, the master of a nearly lost and mostly unloved style of fighting built around self-protection and anticipation. He is an even better matchmaker than he is fighter, and his 49-0 record is a testament to the latter as much as anything else. Mayweather has beaten just about every rival he was supposed to beat, in no small part because he fought them at a time when they could most readily—and, more important, most lucratively—be beaten. At a low ebb in the sport’s history, Mayweather’s brilliance and shamelessness were enough to put him over.

 

“He had the temerity to start calling himself ‘TBE’ [The Best Ever] for an audience that lacked historic perspective, so that being undefeated for his entire career bolstered his boast, rather than causing people to look closely at his admittedly superb matchmaking skills,” the boxing promoter and writer Charles Farrell told me. “But possibly the most significant single factor is that Mayweather's emergence took place during a time when there was a near vacuum at the boxing superstar level. There are no fighters, aside from the emerging Anthony Joshua, to draw attention away from him.” This is another thing that money does: it gives you the power to choose, which is not quite the same thing as giving you what you want.

 

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Mayweather’s nickname can be read as a plain brag on how much money he has, and there’s generally not much percentage in a fine parsing of Mayweather, so we could simply leave it there. But “Money” is also an explanation of what he is and why he is here; it is the inarguable and value-neutral fact of his bankability, and all that it implies. Money is how and why Mayweather served a light sentence for beating his girlfriend up in front of their children—a member of Mayweather’s team restrained the kids while he did it—and it’s why the sentence was delayed so as not to interfere with one of his fights. It’s how and why none of the boxing organizations or commissions that are so quick to bust lesser fighters for flunked piss tests has ever so much as inconvenienced Mayweather in relation to any of his crimes. It’s how and why late-night hosts dutifully carry him through mirthless segments and ESPN personalities goggle politely at his collection of luxury cars.

 

It’s hard to imagine that anyone is especially proud of any of this; the manifest wrongness of it all has been apparent for many years. But again the nickname is illuminating beyond its surface crassness; it explains itself. It explains itself and in so doing reveals just how capacious a cliché “it’s just business” can be. Boxing is just business, of course, and it has always been a brutal and underhanded one. The scandal is in the size of the “it,” and in how quick and abject the capitulation.

 

On Saturday night, in Las Vegas, Mayweather is going to make more than $200 million and perhaps as much as $300 million to fight Conor McGregor, a UFC fighter in his first professional boxing bout. No one really thinks this is going to be much of a fight—McGregor is a colorful talker by current standards and respected mixed martial artist, but he is not a boxer—but that hardly matters. Many millions of people will pay to watch, many millions of dollars will be bet, and if it seems inevitable that the resulting fight won’t give anyone their money’s worth; it seems reasonable to expect something between a fading Muhammad Ali fighting the wrestler Antonio Inoki and Homer Simpson fighting Drederick Tatum. But there’s not really much surprise in that anymore.

 

This, more than any of the other familiar or shocking things about Mayweather, is the one that stands out most in assessing him and his shame before the dumbest and richest fight of his life. Mayweather has never been about giving people what they want, and he has seldom given it. Money does not give, as a general rule. Money accumulates, and money spends, money wastes and compounds and sits in stupid stacks, but it does not ever think of you. “Everybody’s always talking about giving, giving, giving,” Mayweather told a radio host in 2016. “That’s the problem. Everybody’s doing so much giving, at the end of the day, they may not have nothing.”

 

These are Money’s ideals, and he is plain about them. If he is left with nothing, it will not be because he wasted any of what he had on anyone but himself. This is the riddle at the heart of all this: no one is getting what they want, here. A few people are getting rich, and a much larger number of people are getting something less than what they paid for. In this way, he’s the perfect fighter and perhaps even the perfect public figure for this unsatisfied moment: he is an institution that no one really believes in, that serves no one but himself, and about which no one can really have any higher or brighter illusions. It doesn’t work, it is built not to work, and it doesn’t seem to matter. Whatever is next won’t be worse.