By Kevin Iole, Yahoo! Sports
A cherub-faced Floyd Mayweather Jr. sat beaming at a conference table a little more than nine years ago, not long after he stunned the boxing world by decimating highly respected super welterweight champion Genaro Hernandez.
Mayweather was one of a number of fighters signed to exclusive multi-fight contracts with HBO, but he was the youngest and the least proven. Mayweather vowed he would be, as he would remind friends frequently over the years, the last man in the group with an unblemished record.
And, as it turns out, he was.
Mayweather walked away from boxing and a potential eight-figure payday for a Sept. 20 fight against Oscar De La Hoya, announcing his retirement at 31 on Friday while he was at the peak of his athletic and earning powers.
He boasted a record of 39-0 and was, as he promised a reporter during a heartfelt talk around that conference table almost 10 years earlier, the last of the old group who was unbeaten. He outlasted Roy Jones and Shane Mosley, both of whom were regarded as the best fighters in the world before he usurped that position.
He made it longer than Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad, who were then the biggest names in the welterweight division, one he would come to rule at the end of his career. And he even outlasted the classy heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis, who, like Mayweather, walked away from the game at a time when he could have made millions and beaten any man alive.
Mayweather’s extraordinary hand and foot speed and defensive instincts made him nearly unbeatable during his peak.
But Mayweather didn’t want to be judged against the competition of his day, but rather against the greats of the game like Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard and Henry Armstrong. He wanted to be remembered as not only the best of his era but as the best of all-time.
That spot remains Robinson’s and, despite wins over quality fighters like De La Hoya, Diego Corrales, Jose Luis Castillo, Ricky Hatton, Jesus Chavez, Carlos Hernandez, Genaro Hernandez, Goyo Vargas, Angel Manfredy, Justin Juuko and Arturo Gatti, Mayweather was never remotely close to challenging Robinson’s dominance.
As brilliant as Mayweather was, he never had the challenger who could bring out the best in him like Thomas Hearns did for Leonard or like Leonard did for Roberto Duran.
Mayweather was the most physically gifted fighter of his era and had no one in his weight classes who was truly close.
But without the foil who could push him, who could force him to raise his game or require him to battle back from adversity to win, Mayweather suffers by comparison to the sport’s elite.
He failed to meet several quality fighters – men like Joel Casamayor and Acelino Freitas at super featherweight, Mosley at both lightweight and welterweight, Kostya Tszyu at super lightweight and Miguel Cotto at welterweight – who could have given him the foil he needed to convince the doubters.
He was hounded by skeptics and critics in the latter half of his career who blasted him for picking on patsies and avoiding the tough fights.
But Mayweather never buckled to the desires of others and let his career unfurl the way he wanted to see it.
“He accomplished all he wanted to in this business and he did it his way and no other,” said his close friend and de facto manager, Leonard Ellerbe. “He beat everybody in his era. He’s walking away as a six-time champion in five weight classes. He was his own man from the start and he is his own man as he goes into retirement.”
Mayweather retired in his own way, too, only months before a planned rematch of the most lucrative fight of all-time. He issued a six-paragraph news release that came out while he was on vacation with his children.
The man whose fleet of sports cars and ostentatious jewelry earned him the moniker, “Money,” passed on an elaborate retirement ceremony and retired quietly and with dignity.
And though nearly every fighter who retires comes back, Ellerbe is convinced Mayweather has thrown his last punch for pay.
“He’s been going back and forth about this for some time and it’s not really a surprise to anyone who’s been around him at all,” Ellerbe said. “He’s thought about it and he’s been in boxing since he was a kid. He’s never had a job. All he’s done since he was a young kid was to fight. He’s thought about this and he wanted to make the right decision and I’m convinced he’s done. I believe that 100 percent in my heart. And I support his decision totally.”
Mayweather broke down in tears after defeating Carlos Baldomir at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas in 2006, embracing HBO executive Kery Davis as he said he’d fought his last bout.
But the lure of challenging, and big-money, bouts against De La Hoya and Hatton were too much for him to resist and he fought on. Retirement talk, though, was a recurring theme at any Mayweather news conference during the last 18 months of his career.
Golden Boy Promotions CEO Richard Schaefer said he first learned of Mayweather’s plans about a week earlier from Mayweather’s advisor, Al Haymon. The timing caught Schaefer off guard but not the decision itself.
He said De La Hoya was surprised by the news, but said he was still committed to fighting in September. Schaefer wouldn’t name any potential opponents, but given that Cotto is fighting Antonio Margarito on July 26, the most likely man may be Mayweather’s last victim, super lightweight Hatton.
Hatton has a promotional deal with Golden Boy in place and De La Hoya has spoken of a fight against Hatton. Another possibility would be Manny Pacquiao, who has a June 28 lightweight title bid against David Diaz in Las Vegas, but who would have time to move up.
Pacquiao is significantly smaller than De La Hoya and began his career at 106 pounds, but Schaefer, who declined Friday to discuss potential replacement opponents, has said in the past that a De La Hoya-Pacquiao bout made sense.
But nothing that can be made will attract the attention of a De La Hoya-Mayweather bout. De La Hoya has long been the sport’s biggest drawing card, while Mayweather, who had long been its best fighter, began to close ground on him.
The sport will survive, just as it survived the retirements of icons like Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano.
Boxing just won’t be as fun these next few years without Mayweather, though.
Some loved him, many more hated him, but he was a guy one had to watch.
He’ll be missed.