LAS VEGAS — The remark has stuck with him like a deep scar.
Once offered more than $12 million by HBO for six fights, Floyd Mayweather Jr., replied, "I don't fight for slave wages."
It was a time when Oscar De La Hoya was the envy of every fighter, the undisputed champion in terms of earning power. De La Hoya was getting $15 million to $20 million a fight.
Why not me? wondered Mayweather, who will face Zab Judah for the International Boxing Federation welterweight title tonight at Thomas & Mack Arena. After all, with his eye-blurring speed and bone-rattling power, Mayweather was among the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world.
In addition, he was articulate, good-looking enough to earn the nickname Pretty Boy and had a winning smile.
So what was the problem? Why wasn't Mayweather earning what he called "Oscar money?"
Largely because no one could lay a glove on him in the ring and few wanted to be within arm's length of him outside the ring.
Mayweather's image took a beating. He accepted a plea bargain in a domestic-violence case. He carried on a long and ugly feud with his father, former fighter and current trainer Floyd Sr., over Mayweather's choice of music producer James Prince to be his manager. Junior kicked his father out of his house and took away a car his father was driving. He boycotted news conferences and traveled with a posse.
Hardly the figure that causes advertisers to line up for endorsements. Or boxing fans to become fervent supporters.
"He was always angry," said Mayweather's promoter, Bob Arum, "because he knew he had so much talent. But now he realizes that the reason Oscar was making so much money was because he could fill up arenas. Oscar was popular. You can be the best fighter in the world, but that doesn't mean you are going to make the greatest amount of money. There's no merit system here. It's not a team sport."
Arum said he tried talking to Mayweather, but "it was like trying to talk to a wall. I could never get through."
Meet the new Floyd Mayweather. He has shrunk his entourage to a respectable few. He hopes to enter the endorsement field through his new representative, the highly respected William Morris Agency. And suddenly, he loves the media.
At the start of a recent media conference call, the new Mayweather began by saying, "I just wanted to say hi to all the media and tell you guys that you are the reason why athletes are where they're at, because of all the exposure that you give fighters." And Mayweather ended with, "God bless you guys and God bless your families."
"It's been a process," Arum said. "He now realizes, if he wants to be successful in pay-per-view, he has to have a pleasing image."
William Morris executive Lon Rosen said, "We think he has a huge upside. He is determined to make something happen outside of the ring."
Of course, nothing will happen outside the ring unless the 29-year-old Mayweather (35-0, 24 knockouts) continues to make headlines inside the ring. Tonight, he will attempt to win a title in a fourth weight division. The former super featherweight, lightweight and super lightweight champion hopes to add the tainted title of Judah (34-3, 25).
Tainted because Judah is coming off a crushing title loss to Carlos Baldomir in January. The only reason the IBF portion of Judah's formerly undisputed title is on the line is because Baldomir did not pay that organization its required sanctioning fee.
Mayweather, with superior speed and boxing ability, is heavily favored tonight. At their final news conference earlier this week, however, Judah delivered a cryptic message to Mayweather and the gathered media.
"This is something I've prepared for my whole life, not particularly for Floyd Mayweather," Judah said. "Come [tonight], I've got a trick for you. You already know what it is."
Judah then departed without further comment.
The two fighters engaged in a loud trash-talking session at Friday's weigh-in. Mayweather came in at 146 for the 147-pound fight, Judah at 145 1/2 .
Judah will receive $1 million for tonight's match, Mayweather $5 million. It's not exactly Oscar money, but it's a lot better than slave wages.