Who exactly is Floyd "Money" Mayweather? It depends on who you ask. Is he the greatest boxer of his generation? Or is he a coward who ducks the best opponents? A showman playing the game? Or a disrespectful loudmouth?
Fans have debated this question for a number of years, and last night's controversial Victor Ortiz fight did nothing to quiet that debate. After an illegal Ortiz headbutt, Mayweather came back with a controversial fight-ending combo that, like so many other things about Mayweather, has divided fans. As if that wasn't enough, he followed up with a profanity-laced tirade against announcer Larry Merchant, drawing the ire of even more followers of the sport. But whatever you think of his actions against Ortiz and Merchant, the fact of the matter is this:
Sports need Floyd Mayweather.
The reality of sports is that fans drive the action. No fans, no sport. And it's these kinds of controversial actions that most strongly attract fans. Die-hard fans and purists often get prickly about this, but it is what it is, and Floyd Mayweather knows that. He knows how to get his name out there - how to make his fights the kind of major boxing events that draw the eyes of even non-fans.
Mayweather is not alone in this knowledge either. In the near 20 year history of the UFC, no man has ever been as big a draw as Brock Lesnar - a man who used his days as a professional wrestler to draw people into his fights. Lesnar is a fighter who slobbered at the camera, insulted sponsors, and acted in a way many long time fans found disrespectful to the sport. And every time he did it, over a million people turned in to watch. In the dark days of the UFC, it was Tito Ortiz who filled this role - flipping off Ken Shamrock, wearing profane shirts, and again, insulting the pride of purists everywhere. And just like Lesnar, Ortiz drew in the fans. In boxing over the years, this role has been played by Mike Tyson and, yes, Muhammad Ali. It's these unpredictable, controversial, and above all, supremely talented men that fans want to watch above all else.
Yes there are exceptions. Fighters like Georges St. Pierre and the Klitschko brothers can become big names without these antics, but their appeal remains rooted largely in home country pride, and will seldom reach the same wide audience as Mayweather.
Of course, for Mayweather, there is one man in boxing who draws a similar casual fan response, and it's the man many say he's been ducking for years. Manny Pacquiao doesn't need theatrics - his results speak for themselves. And so the purists ask, "We have a Pacquiao - why do we need a Mayweather at all?"
Because Floyd Mayweather makes people care. Whether you want to see him win, or you want to see him humbled in defeat, you want to know what will happen next, and you'll pay to find out. And that right there is what every sport needs.