There's a lot about professional boxing Floyd Mayweather doesn't know.
After all, many of the lessons you learn in the ring are imprinted on your soul only in defeat. It's falling short and fighting on anyway that turns a boy into a man. It teaches you your limitations and provides an important dose of humility. No one can win them all—on a given night you're bound to find someone sharper, stronger or luckier.
It happens to everyone in time. Everyone except Floyd Mayweather.
The 37-year-old champion has stepped into the ring as a professional 45 times against 44 different men. Each time he's had his hand raised in victory. It's safe to say it's likely he doesn't remember what it feels like to lose. Listening to him talk, it's like the thought has never even crossed his mind.
Deep down, however, beneath the bravado and the hype, a memory must linger. A faint glimmer of a feeling—what it's like to lose.
It started off so well.
Mayweather had scratched and clawed just to make the team, facing adversity and coming through the gauntlet just a little bit stronger. It almost didn't happen. After losing to Augie Sanchez by a score of 12-11, Mayweather proclaimed the bout his final as an amateur.
"I'm through with amateur boxing," he told the Orlando Sentinel shortly after the decision was read.
Cooler heads prevailed, and Floyd confronted a monumental task head-on. To make the Olympic team as a featherweight he would need to avenge his loss against Sanchez in consecutive bouts. But first, just two days later, Mayweather would have to climb another mountain—beating longtime rival Carlos Navarro to advance out of the loser's bracket. Only then could he avenge the loss and steal a spot on the Olympic team.
Navarro was no mere opponent. He had beaten Mayweather in 1995 to make the Pan Am team and would go on to have a solid career as a professional. He was Mayweather's boogie man, the fighter who kept the young prospect in the gym and on the straight and narrow.
"I'd always told Floyd in the gym that Navarro was probably doing this much and that much," former Mayweather confidant Don Hale told The Ring magazine. "Floyd heard me and always did more."
From there the gold medal seemed all but a given. There was significant competition of course, but even at 19 years old Mayweather was clearly something special. The Ring's Jon Saracen called him the most talented fighter on the American team, praising his defensive skills and fast hands.
|Mayweather's Amateur Pedigree|
|1993||First of three National Golden Gloves Titles|
|1995||Loses to Algeria's Noureddine Medjhoud in the World Championships after breaking his hand|
|1996||Wins bronze medal at the Atlanta Olympics|
|Credit: The Ring Magazine|
In his first bout, he lived up to the promise. The young technician stopped Bakhtiyar Tyleganov of Kazakstan just 57 seconds into the second round, the official twice stopping the fight to check his opponent's bloody nose. The raucous crowd was appreciative, whooping and hollering as the American team got off to a fast start, beginning the Games with a perfect 6-0 record.
"I told a lot of people, we're going to surprise a lot of doubters," coach Al Mitchell told The New York Times. "The most important thing, the kids are listening to us."
Mayweather cruised through to the quarterfinals where he became the first American boxer in 20 years to beat a Cuban opponent at the Olympic Games. Before the bout, slugger Lorenzo Aragon pounded the mitts as hard as he could, looking to intimidate the young American. Despite being knocked to the mat twice in his first fight, Aragon seemed confident of victory.
"We heard them in the locker room because we were right next door," American assistant coach Jesse Ravelo, a Cuban immigrant, told the Philadelphia Daily News. "We could hear them talking about 'salsa time.' I don't know what that means in English. It's like 'party time.'"
When the party started, however, it was Mayweather who did all the dancing, charging forward while Aragon held on for dear life and scored from the outside. It was an all-action fight, one of the best of the entire Games.
But pushing his opponent away eventually tired an undisciplined Mayweather, who faded at the end. A convincing 12-7 lead became 12-8 and then 12-9 and eventually 12-11.
With 11 seconds left Aragon appeared to score a tying blow with a straight left hand that the judges failed to tally. Mayweather was moving on to the medal rounds.
After the fight, the domineering Cuban coach, Alcides Segarra, visited with Mayweather and left him with a signed banner and a handshake. Mayweather was making his mark.
Enter Serafim Todorov.
The Bulgarian, a relatively ancient 27, was no stranger to the world scene. In 1988 he had made the Olympic quarterfinals as a flyweight. Four years later he was in Barcelona as a bantamweight. Once again he made it as far as the quarterfinals. Once again he fell short of a medal, losing to a North Korean 16-15 in a nail-biter.
For all his experience, he was clearly overmatched against Mayweather. The American was the faster and stronger fighter—but not strong enough to contend with the broken Olympic scoring system.
Todorov won 10-9 in the official scoring, slowing his opponent just enough to keep the scores low. A Compubox count showed a 47-26 connect advantage for Mayweather, but the only count that mattered was the judges'. The New York Times' Dave Anderson attempted to explain the scoring system in place:
...at least three of the five judges must hit their computers within one second of the punch for it to count. The score is available to television viewers in a corner of the screen.
Theoretically, it's a good system. But practically, it depends on the reaction time of sometimes elderly judges. Kids familiar with Nintendo would do a better job.
The system led to a strange dynamic. Viewers at home already knew the score and knew Mayweather had fallen short. Live at the Alexander Memorial Coliseum, confusion reigned. When the decision was announced, a puzzled referee raised Mayweather's hand in assumption. Even Todorov looked confused as they announced his name; he seemingly couldn't believe what he had heard.
The crowd in Atlanta booed the decision vociferously. Their censure was just the beginning. The United States lodged a formal protest, claiming supervisor of officials Emil Jetchev, who like Todorov hailed from Bulgaria, intimidated judges into awarding his countryman the win.
"We feel that the officials are intimidated where anyone competing against Mr. Jetchev's fellow countrymen do not have a chance, as demonstrated in this bout," U.S. spokesman Gerald Smith wrote in his official protest.
Coach Mitchell was even more blunt, telling The Associated Press, "They are a bunch of mobsters. They need to get rid of the whole group."
Judge Bill Waeckerle took the hardest stand, quitting his job in protest. In his letter of resignation, he wrote, "I refuse to be part of an organization that continues to conduct its officiating in this manner."
None of it mattered. The decision stood.
Mayweather took it all in stride, bowing to all four corners and leaving the ring without making a scene. Later he would proclaim himself the unofficial champion.
"You know and I know I wasn't getting hit," Mayweather said. "They say he's the world champion. Now you all know who the real world champion is."
Boxing is an ugly sport, inside and outside the ring. The vagaries of fate can decide who wins and who loses, and corruption reigns, even on the amateur level. It's a lesson Mayweather, all of 19 years old at the time, learned before his pro career had even gotten started.
Losing is why, perhaps, he takes such efforts to maintain his peak physical condition. It's why, even as he approaches middle age, no one works harder. He may not be able to control everything, but he can certainly control some things.
Floyd Mayweather doesn't want to remember what it feels like to lose. That, if nothing else, is what the Olympics taught him.