(credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)
Robert Guerrero's odds of beating Floyd Mayweather this past weekend were always long, even after opening at quite a distance and closing the gap with bettors somewhat in the build-up to the fight. Those odds became flesh and blood in the ring Saturday, as Guerrero couldn't get near enough to Mayweather to win more than three rounds. But then, nobody's getting close to Mayweather anytime soon, as a boxer or an attraction.
Mayweather's island unto himself is in some ways a reflection of how the landscape has changed around him, and in some ways a reflection of what he's accomplished. But even as everyone else has fallen behind him and gotten farther away, Mayweather has distanced himself from too many things. That distance is profound in a great number of areas: between himself and any competition in the ring; between himself and the kind of pay-per-view buys anyone else can do; between his perception of his greatness and the reality; and, possibly, between the ambitions of his six-fight deal with Showtime and what's more likely to happen.
For all the ruminations on Mayweather's place in boxing history before and after the fight, that changed little-to-none after he beat Guerrero. However much he looked like his old self Saturday, Mayweather's abilities are still on a slow decline, and Guerrero having less success than Miguel Cotto in Mayweather's previous fight was more about Guerrero not being in Cotto's class and Mayweather making a conscious effort to play better defense than he did against Cotto. His legs were, perhaps, fresher than in recent bouts, or maybe he simply used them more. Still, it's a very slow decline he's experiencing at age 36. It's my view as well that the Mayweather who wiped out, say, Arturo Gatti, was a far faster version than the one who fought Guerrero, and that Guerrero likely wouldn't have won a single round against that earlier incarnation. Yet anyone waiting for Mayweather's physical abilities to drop off a cliff are going to be waiting longer. Guerrero's chances depended on it. The moment never came.
Mayweather is not — and no matter what he does for the rest of his career, never will be — the greatest fighter ever, as he was once so fond of proclaiming and as his most blindly loyal fans will swear. He and his family dialed back some of that rhetoric temporarily during this promotion, for whatever reason. Mayweather has all-time talent, absolutely, but his resume suffers from an affliction within an affliction: the level of competition available to him, as well as who he fought and didn't fight within that subset. Mayweather, earlier in his career, fought most of the best available opponents. Since moving up from lightweight, he's done it very little. He has faced some awfully good fighters, no doubt, pound-for-pound level elites, and beaten them all. While people will both rightly and wrongly critique when and how he fought those boxers (Yes, Juan Manuel Marquez was far too small; yes, Shane Mosley was clearly an aged version of himself, but he also was justifiably ranked in the top three pound-for-pound at the time, and showed himself at least a little dangerous still)… the body of work is impressive. It's just not impressive enough for him to sniff an all-time great resume. Sugar Ray Robinson had available to him a nearly-endless list of Hall of Famers; Mayweather's list of future Hall of Famers faced is much shorter. He could be approaching the top 10, perhaps, if he had faced and beaten Manny Pacquiao, but he never was terribly interested. There are notable absences on his resume from 135 pounds and down (Joel Casamayor, for instance), but from 140 pounds on up, he's left behind a long list of fighters he didn't face, or didn't face when he would've gotten peak credit for the wins — Pacquiao, Kotsya Tszyu, Antonio Margarito, Paul Williams, younger/lower-weight versions of Mosley/Ricky Hatton/Cotto. And yes, you can critique a lot of boxers' resumes in this fashion. But Mayweather, among elite boxers of his era, stands alone in his choosiness about who he fights and when.
It is debatable whether Mayweather is the best fighter of his generation, even. Depends on how you define the terms, really. I like Pacquiao's resume better, his historical accomplishments. If you put Bernard Hopkins in this "generation," then you can make a case for him, too. I like Mayweather's talent level better than both of theirs. He's the greatest fighter of his generation in theory, because he didn't face the kind of opposition he could have or should have. He probably would've beaten every one of the above men, but "probably" is an educated guess, and this probably comes down to whether you think Wilt Chamberlain ought to be above Bill Russell on the NBA's all-time great list. Wilt had superior gifts. Russell had the rings. By the same resume vs. ability standard, though, Mayweather ought to be considered the best at this moment. Pacquiao has lost two straight. Maybe super middleweight champion Andre Ward, a younger fighter who's a hybrid of the best of Mayweather and Hopkins, is the best fighter on the planet right now based on the eyeball test. But as many holes as there are in Mayweather's resume, it's better than Ward's.
It's alo true that Mayweather, in the ring, is unbeatable right now. He's unbeatable because of who he is and what he does and the form he demonstrated against Guerrero, but also because of who might even try to beat him. There is no one on his roster of potential opponents around his weight I would pick to beat him, even if he didn't cherry-pick. He's that much better than anyone else near the welterweight division.
There are contenders who might deserve a shot at Mayweather next simply because they're the best available options; there are no threats. Saul Alvarez, a big, strong and quickly-improving junior middleweight, would give Mayweather, who peaks as a welterweight, more trouble than Guerrero. But based on Mayweather's showing against Guerrero, he'd be too good right now for the youngster. Victor Ortiz hasn't done anything in the intervening years to make a rematch more competitive than the first bout, unless you count losing to Josesito Lopez and appearing on Dancing With The Stars as good practice for beating Mayweather. Amir Khan gets knocked out or nearly knocked out in every fight, no matter who he faces — if Julio Diaz can nearly beat Khan, Mayweather would turn him inside out. Danny Garcia is unproven at 147 and still has business at 140 to finish before he can become a believable threat. Devon Alexander is a top-5 caliber welterweight, but Mayweather would shame him.
There is a whole class of other potential opponents who simply aren't available for whatever reason. Pacquiao, we know about. Marquez isn't interested in a rematch with Mayweather, even if the bout is now more appealing than last time because Marquez has fully adjusted to welterweight. Timothy Bradley is with Top Rank, which hates Mayweather and his de facto promoter, Golden Boy. Adrien Broner, who's about to make his welterweight debut, considers Mayweather too good a friend to fight. Sergio Martinez, the middleweight champion of the world, is injured and surely won't fight again in 2013. None of those boxers are threats to Mayweather either, anyhow.
And Mayweather might not even have any incentive to face the best option, Alvarez, in 2013. For one thing, he might not be able to, physically, since he hurt his right hand in the Guerrero bout. His team insists he is fine and will fight in September, but that was already far-fetched based on Mayweather's usual once-a-year schedule, and more far-fetched now with the hand injury. But Mayweather also has made a career out of facing credible names at the best time for him competitively, and doing so in a way that makes him the most money with the least risk. Alvarez right now has earned the right, by his immense popularity, to get a bigger paycheck than most Mayweather opponents would. Based on Mayweather's history, the only previous incentive to face someone like that was the prospect of an even bigger paycheck for himself that comes with the bigger pay-per-view buy rates, and even then he rarely did it; now, with the guaranteed minimums he's getting from Showtime, what's his incentive to take on his biggest challenge these days? Mayweather isn't a guy who's interested in seeking out adversity. "Easy money" is damn near his catchphrase. Guerrero was a big underdog, but outside of the off-chance Mayweather picks Alvarez anytime soon, it probably only gets worse from here.
And for all I know, maybe the public won't care. The fans in Las Vegas were booing the fight late, as Mayweather danced around and beat Guerrero the same way round after round. And it's hard to imagine this bout selling as many PPVs as any fight since his "comeback". But Mayweather, because of his polarizing personality and because he is as good as he is, remains marketable in a way no one else is today. Some hardcore fans might have found what Mayweather was doing to Guerrero boring. Some, though, found it breathtaking. And I'm always taken by the reception Mayweather gets at the PPV parties I host from casual or non-fans. A fight that looks to me like it lacks action is not the main thing they see — they see an athlete who's the best at what he does doing it very well, and for them, that's compelling television. It's not some fluke of the marketplace that Mayweather is one of the very few boxers who reaches outside the core boxing audience. Whether or when they'll get tired of him taking on no-hope or less-than-ideal opponents, I can't predict. But he's been doing it for a long time now, and everyone keeps on watching (although, notably, opponents perceived as potentially competitive or with higher profiles bring even more eyes to his displays), and Mayweather's pile of money keeps on getting bigger.
It's too early to start thinking about who might replace him (even if the linked article has a fairly accurate take on the state of the boxing business today). Mayweather showed Saturday that he is indisputably at the top of boxing today, and that will still be true even if his PPV buys come in a bit lower this time, something we won't know for another couple weeks or maybe ever, if they're anything less than a joyous figure and Showtime/Golden Boy/Mayweather try to sweep the numbers under the rug. Mayweather is the PPV king to such a degree that one lower-than-usual number won't shake him from his throne.
In the end, no one else is near Mayweather, and he's not near them, for better and for worse.