Why undefeated Floyd Mayweather just can't compare to Muhammad Ali

Kevin Iole

LAS VEGAS – On Saturday, Floyd Mayweather will make that familiar walk down the aisle at the MGM Grand Garden to fight Andre Berto. It will be the 49th time as a professional he makes the trip and, he insists, it will be the last.

By any standard, Mayweather will leave the game fabulously wealthy and with his health fully intact. Boxing is a brutal sport that takes a lot even from its most enduring icons, but Mayweather has beaten it at its own game.

For instance, Muhammad Ali, its most eloquent figure, has largely been muted the last quarter century of his life, unable to speak because of the incredible physical toll of his 21-year career.

But win or lose on Saturday, Mayweather has beaten boxing. It’s been a first-round KO, and an early one at that.

He has hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank and lives the lifestyle previously reserved for the likes of oil barons, heads of industry, sultans and kings.

Floyd Mayweather Jr. will return to the ring to face Andre Berto on Sept. 12 in Las Vegas. (AP)

He speaks and thinks as clearly in his final days as a pro as he did in his early ones.

He’s among the most famous athletes in the world, an instantly recognizable face.

With the expected victory over Berto, he’ll raise his record to 49-0 and match one of the most revered marks in the sport’s history, tying the legendary ex-heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano.

He’s also still perceived as the best in his profession, and has had the audacity to call himself “The Best Ever.”

In many ways, Mayweather modeled his career after Ali, the legendary former heavyweight champion who similarly dominated boxing in his time.

Ali, who in 1964 brashly declared himself “The Greatest,” is regarded by most historians and boxing experts as one of the five greatest fighters who ever lived.

By the time Ali finally surrendered and left the sport, after an oddly sad loss to Trevor Berbick in Nassau, Bahamas, on Dec. 11, 1981, he had become one of the most recognizable figures on Earth even though he was a shell of himself as a boxer.

In 2012, Ali was the only athlete on the list of Time’s 20 most influential Americans in history. He was included on a prestigious list that included presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as well as civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Apple founder Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and others.

In its comments on Ali’s inclusion, Time wrote, “ … Another international bout, the 1975 'Thrilla in Manila,' in which he beat Joe Frazier, helped Ali become the best-known person on the planet – and, it seemed, the most beloved. In later years, his uncomplaining battle with Parkinson’s Disease further cemented his status as a global icon of courage, grace and good will.”

There's where Mayweather suffers his one big loss. He became rich – certainly, far more so than Ali – and he became famous. But he never became part of the world’s fabric the way that Ali did; no one would consider him a global icon of courage, grace and good will.

Mayweather is famous largely for his boasts about his money, and his status is largely confined to his sport. Ali transcended boxing, and even sport, and became an internationally beloved figure.

In 2005, President George W. Bush presented Ali with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the country can bestow upon a civilian citizen.

While praising Ali, Bush said, “Across the world, billions of people know Muhammad Ali as a brave, compassionate and charming man … ”

Now, there are many similarities between Ali and Mayweather. Both were Olympic medalists. Ali won light heavyweight gold in Rome in 1960, while Mayweather won a featherweight bronze in 1996 in Atlanta.

Muhammad Ali stands over fallen challenger Sonny Liston in this May 25, 1965, file photo. (AP)

Both won world championships, but more significantly, became the dominant figures in boxing, largely by using their wit and their relationship with the media to their advantage.

Ali, of course, lost three years from the prime of his career when he was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War on religious grounds. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1971 overturned his conviction in a historic decision.

Mayweather has been dogged with domestic violence issues on and off throughout his career and spent nearly two months in jail in 2012 after pleading guilty to reduced charges of beating the mother of some of his children.

Both men had extraordinarily long careers. Ali was 39 years, 10 months and 25 days old, and long past his prime, when he was beaten by Berbick in that final bout in 1981. He’d been a professional for 21 years, one month and 13 days, or 53 percent of his life at the time of the Berbick fight.

Mayweather will be 38 years, six months and 20 days old when he faces Berto on Saturday. He’ll have been a professional for 18 years, 11 months and two days, or 49 percent of his life on Saturday.

Not long after the Berto fight was signed, Mayweather pointed to his advanced age for an athlete as one of the reasons for his retirement, though he remains on top.

He briefly bowed his head as he pondered how best to answer the question, “Why is now the right time to retire?” He took a deep breath, leaned ever so slightly forward and sort of grimaced.

“Man, I’m almost 39 years old,” he said in that rarest of moments when he admitted to human weakness.

As he counts down the final days of his career, much will be made of Mayweather’s place in boxing history.

But wherever one might rank him on the all-time pound-for-pound list, this much is true about Mayweather: Without Ali, Floyd Mayweather as we know him would never have existed.

Ali invented the genre of the boastful, outspoken athlete that Mayweather has used to become rich beyond any imagination. Without Ali perfecting that style, it’s hardly likely that the “Money May” character would have ever been heard from.

Beyond that, unlike Ali, Mayweather’s contributions never extended to the social realm. Mayweather changed the way boxers, and other athletes, should approach their business and for that, future generations should be thankful.

But he didn’t have an impact upon society beyond boxing and his persona as the world’s richest athlete. Ali in so many ways made a difference in people’s live that few athletes, not just Mayweather, could approach.

That’s why Muhammad Ali has been, and forever will be, “The Greatest.”