Nearly two months after the sports world mourned Kobe Bryant – the NBA’s “Black Mamba” – the boxing world did the same for Roger Mayweather, who proudly wore the “Black Mamba” moniker a generation earlier. On March 17, the former 130- and 140-pound champion, the uncle and trainer of longtime pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather Jr., and the brother of Jeff and of the elder Floyd died following a lengthy battle with diabetes. He was just 58 years old but given the years of ill health that preceded his passing his body was that of a far older man.
“He wasn’t doing very well over the last couple of years,” two-division beltholder Jessie Vargas and Mayweather client told ESPN’s Dan Rafael a few weeks earlier. “I think it started back in 2010, 2011. That’s when it was becoming obvious (his health) was getting worse and worse. It was just tough for him to get over it. Over the years it became more difficult for him. The last time I saw him, it must’ve been about six months ago. He wasn’t really visiting the gym as often because of his illness.”
Mayweather’s memorial service was streamed on various platforms and I spent a few minutes silently paying my respects. As I did so, my mind flashed back to the last time I talked with him. I don’t recall exactly when that was, but I do remember that it happened before his health issues surfaced and that it took place in a hotel lobby a few hours before a show he was working as a trainer and I was working as a punch counter. We were part of a small conversational scrum and while the mood was light, boxing was most certainly the topic. That shouldn’t have been a surprise, for Mayweather’s entire life was about boxing.
Following an amateur career that saw him go a reported 64-4, Mayweather turned pro with a first-round knockout of Andrew Ruiz July 29, 1981 at the Silver Slipper in Las Vegas. The path to his first world title was brief for the era (less than 18 months), for it was only in his 15th fight that he brutally dethroned two-time WBA super featherweight champion Samuel Serrano before the champion’s home fans January 19, 1983 at San Juan’s Hiram Bithorn Stadium. His subsequent title defenses against Jorge Alvarado (KO 8) and Benedicto Villablanca (KO 1) suggested that he had the potential to become a big-ticket star. In fact, some would say that he already looked like one because he resembled a miniature Thomas Hearns – broad shoulders, wispy waist and spindly legs. Moreover, despite standing 5-feet-7½-inches he possessed a mammoth 73½-inch reach, a reach he maximized with the piston-like jabs and the crunching crosses that mirrored those of the “Hit Man.” His angular face and sunken eyes were capable of generating a fearsome pre-match stare (another Hearns asset) and they also claimed Michigan as their home state (Hearns, who was born in Memphis, resided in Detroit while Mayweather was born and bred in Grand Rapids). As confident as Hearns was in his abilities, Mayweather’s swagger was even more pronounced.
That swagger was much in evidence when he signed to fight two-time featherweight title challenger Rocky Lockridge on a card televised nationally by NBC on February 26, 1984. He was so sure he would get by Lockridge that he openly spoke of future showdowns with mandatory challenger Tae Jin Moon in Korea as well as a big-money unification against WBC counterpart Hector Camacho. His assuredness was further expressed by the sunglasses he wore as he stepped inside the ring at the Civic Center in Beaumont, Texas. The message he wanted to send Lockridge was crystal-clear: I am the champion, I am a star and I am about to show you why I am called the “Black Mamba,” one of the deadliest snakes on earth.
Unfortunately for Mayweather, another similarity to Hearns was about to be exposed – a vulnerable chin.
A little more than a minute into the fight, Lockridge worked his way into close quarters and connected with his trademark power punch, an overhand right to the temple. Upon impact, Mayweather’s pipe-cleaner legs folded underneath him and the rest of his body hit the canvas with a thud. Flat on his back, the stricken Mayweather tried his best to regain his feet, but he couldn’t beat Larry Rozadilla’s 10-count. Mayweather was a former champion just 91 seconds after the opening bell, and his dreams of facing “The Macho Man” vanished just as quickly.
Mayweather’s slide deepened four months later when he lost a 10-round decision to Tony Baltazar in his lightweight debut, but four straight victories – the last of which was a three-round blast-out of 20-0 (18) prospect Kenny Baysmore in May 1985 – earned him the chance to regain a world title on July 7, 1985 at the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Though Mayweather owned the home ring advantage – he had moved from Michigan to “Sin City” some years earlier – the man standing across the ring was 22-year-old WBC super featherweight champion Julio Cesar Chavez, the owner of a 46-0 (39) record and a reputation that suggested he could one day join Olivares, Zarate, Sanchez, Saldivar and Canto in the pantheon of Mexican legends. Mayweather won the first round on all scorecards with his crisp long-range boxing and accurate right crosses, one of which appeared to buzz Chavez briefly. Chavez’s cast-iron chin and sturdy legs served him well, and when his turn arrived in Round 2 he made sure to cash in. A whistling overhand right to the chin turned Mayweather’s legs to jelly shortly before the round’s halfway mark, and though the Mamba fell to the floor four times referee Richard Steele counted only two as knockdowns – the second that was produced by a neck-wrenching right to the jaw and the fourth from a swooping hook to the face that persuaded Steele to intervene.
This devastating loss placed Mayweather at a career crossroads, and over the next few years his fortunes swung wildly – two wins followed by a stunning sixth-round TKO loss to the 14-13-1 (and future champion) Freddie Pendleton on ESPN, three victories followed by a 12-round defeat to the 11-0 (and future champion) Pernell Whitaker on ABC, and two wins over Frankie Davis (KO 4) and Mitchell Julien (KO 3) that resulted in a number-nine ranking from the WBC as well as a chance to win his second divisional championship against WBC super lightweight titlist Rene Arredondo November 12, 1987 at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.
In the midst of Mayweather’s up-and-down post-Chavez run, he managed to re-brand himself as “The Mexican Assassin” thanks to a series of victories at the Olympic Auditorium – a 10-round split decision over Mario Martinez in his first fight after the Chavez loss, a seventh-round corner retirement against Oscar Bejines in July 1986, and a sixth-round corner retirement versus Sergio Zambrano just 35 days later. A big part of his new persona was the black sombrero that sat atop his head, an act that was in line with his penchant for teasing. Fighting a Mexican fighter in the Olympic Auditorium was an audacious move in itself but daring to be adorned in such culturally identifiable headwear in front of that audience was next-level brazenness. And yet he made it work, and for that he earned grudging respect.
Just as the Mexican fans cheered for Martinez, Bejines and Zambrano, so they would root for Arredondo, who was making the first defense of his second reign less than four months after scoring a sixth-round TKO in Japan over Tsuyoshi Hamada, the man who took the title from Arredondo via shocking first-round KO 363 days before the rematch. At 5-feet-11, the 26-year-old Arredondo – who was just 52 days younger than Mayweather – boasted a three-and-a-half inch height advantage as well as a 40-3 (35) record according to Boxrec, but despite being the shorter man, Mayweather used his quicker hands, his nimble mind, his livelier legs, his willingness to begin every exchange and his strong crosses to build a substantial lead on the scorecards through five rounds (50-45, 49-46, 49-47).
Moments after tasting a decent Arredondo right in round six, Mayweather aimed a counter right to the body, then, after the champion lowered his guard to defend that blow, came over the top with a spring-loaded right to the chin that scored the fight’s first knockdown. After Arredondo unsteadily regained his feet and winked at his antagonist, said antagonist connected with a light right to the temple that drove him to the floor a second time. Up at seven and bleeding from the nose, the end was near for Arredondo. That end came seconds later after a chopping right to the chin left the champion in a curled heap, a sight that persuaded referee Lou Filippo to wave off the fight. With that, Mayweather achieved the rare 130-140 double.
His time as super lightweight king lasted nearly 18 months and included four successful defenses. Following a non-title stoppage of Marvin Garris in January 1988, Mayweather returned to the Sports Arena to defend against Mexico City’s Mauricio Aceves. “The Mexican Assassin” was in prime form as he disposed of Aceves in round three. Next up was a grueling split decision victory over Harold Brazier on the Iran Barkley-Thomas Hearns undercard at the Las Vegas Hilton in which Mayweather was forced to dig deep, especially after being stung several times in the late rounds. Three months later, Mayweather shifted back into “Mexican Assassin” mode by disposing of onetime phenom Rodolfo “Gato” Gonzalez via 12th round TKO.
The victory over Gonzalez landed him a spot on the Don Lalonde-Sugar Ray Leonard pay-per-view card. His opponent was the charismatic Vinny Pazienza, a former IBF lightweight titlist who was coming off back-to-back wins over Felix Dubray (KO 4) and Rick Kaiser (KO 3). The pumped-up Pazienza taunted Mayweather throughout, but the champion responded by out-speeding, out-boxing and out-brawling the challenger while also scoring an 11th round knockdown with a scything right uppercut to the jaw — the first knockdown of Pazienza’s career. A split-second after the final bell, Mayweather fired a chopping right toward Pazienza’s face, a move that caused an infuriated Lou Duva to charge at Mayweather. The champion responded by landing a right hand that opened a cut under Duva’s left eye to match the one he opened over Pazienza’s left orb during the bout.
Mayweather’s extended run of success justified a big-money challenge, and that challenge came in the form of an old adversary – Julio Cesar Chavez. By May 1989, Chavez had become boxing’s pound-for-pound king thanks to his 62-0 (51) record, a long reign atop the 130-pound weight class and a brief but spectacular stay at lightweight that included an 11th-round technical decision win over Jose Luis Ramirez in his most recent outing that united Chavez’s WBA belt with Ramirez’s WBC strap. The electric atmosphere inside the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles extended inside the ropes as Mayweather’s jab-and-grab tactics infuriated Chavez and offended referee Henry Elespuru, who took a point from the champion in round three for low blows and continually warned him for various infractions throughout. Elespuru also ordered Mayweather’s chief second Jesse Reid out of the corner after the trainer charged into the ring to break up an after-the-bell scuffle for the second time.
The action that stayed within the rules also was compelling, and Mayweather’s chin proved far better in the rematch than was the case in Fight One. But Chavez’s never-ending pressure and robust body punching eventually took its toll on Mayweather, who bowed his head in resignation between Rounds 10 and 11 after Elespuru asked if he wanted to continue. The fight was stopped moments later, and with the win Chavez became the first Mexican boxer to win championships in three weight classes.
Mayweather fought on for nearly 10 more years, and he earned two more world title opportunities, the first against IBF 140-pound titlist Rafael Pineda in December 1991 (KO by 9) and the second against Kostya Tszyu for the same belt in June 1995. Mayweather’s ring smarts enabled him to last the distance against the powerful Russian-Australian but the lopsided scorecards (119-109, 118-110 twice) aptly illustrated the degree of Tszyu’s dominance. Mayweather ended his career on a three-fight winning streak, the last of which was a 10-round majority decision over Javier Francisco Mendez on May 8, 1999 that lifted his final mark to 59-13 (35).
Mayweather seamlessly transitioned from fighter to trainer – mostly because he guided fighters while still an active campaigner – and though he worked with the likes of Steve Forbes, Jessie Vargas, Dion Savage, Mahan Washington, Reggie Roberts, Cornelius Lock, Wes Ferguson, Emanuel Augustus, Said Ouali and Melissa St. Vil, among others, his most famous client by parsecs was his nephew, Floyd “Money” Mayweather. He and brother Floyd Sr. took turns as the younger Floyd’s chief second, and while Floyd Sr. placed more emphasis on defense, Roger wanted more offense from his charge. The results of their handiwork are as neon-bright as their pupil’s 50-0 (27) career record and the hundreds of millions of dollars in liquidity he boasts.
During my early years at CompuBox, one of my duties was to assemble “training camp notes” for HBO’s on-air talent, and thanks to “Money’s” long-term association with the network I had several opportunities to interview his chief second. While he was generally cooperative in terms of answering the questions I posed, the best parts of our conversations occurred after the nuts and bolts have been collected. It didn’t take either of us long to realize that the other person knew their boxing history, and – boxing guys being boxing guys – we spent a fair amount of time shooting the breeze. Mayweather was known for telling the uninformed that “you don’t know s*** about boxing,” so much so that it inspired memes and became part of the boxing lexicon. I’m happy to note that he was never moved to say that to me during our talks.
Although he lived in Las Vegas for many years, he was proud of being from Grand Rapids. During one of our calls he observed that a substantial number of great fighters came from the U.S. Midwest, and he proved his point by rattling off at least a dozen names, some of whom fought decades before his birth.
When I think of Roger Mayweather’s career, several memories flash to mind:
* In round nine of his March 1987 loss to Whitaker, the elastic that supported Mayweather’s trunks had loosened so badly that referee Chris Wollesen was forced to call time out. But before Mayweather had a chance to return to his corner, the impish Whitaker reached out with his right glove, gave a mighty tug and pulled down his opponent’s trunks so that his entire protective cup was exposed. As the heavily pro-Whitaker crowd inside the Scope Arena in Norfolk hooted and wolf-whistled, and as chief second Jesse Reid wrapped tape around his fighter’s waist, Mayweather never took his eyes off his opponent. Just 37 seconds after the action resumed, Mayweather connected with a trademark cross to the jaw, scored a knockdown, and, for good measure, blatantly struck Whitaker with an uppercut to the face while his opponent was on the canvas. Just as one shouldn’t tug on Superman’s cape, Whitaker learned that he shouldn’t have tugged on Mayweather’s trunks.
* Two fights later, Mitchell Julien had the temerity to kiss Mayweather on the cheek during the final instructions, a move that got the intended angry response from Mayweather (a hearty shove) as well as a warning from referee Richard Steele. A series of right crosses capped by a left uppercut to the chin dropped Julien late in round three, and although he regained his feet he did so too unsteadily for Steele’s liking. Moments after the future Hall of Fame official waved off the fight, Mayweather calmly approached Julien and kissed him on the cheek.
*On March 12, 1997, Top Rank staged a pay-per-view show emanating from the Stadium Arena in Grand Rapids that saw three members of the Mayweather clan in action. Super lightweight Jeff scored an eight-round unanimous decision over Erik Jakubowski while the younger Floyd torched Kino Rodriguez in 104 seconds. Topping the card was the nearly 36-year-old Roger, who stopped the 16-1 Carlos Miranda at 2:51 of round 12.
While his nephew is a stone-cold lock to be enshrined in Canastota, the fate of his uncle and trainer is far less certain. What is certain is that Roger Mayweather assembled a career filled with accomplishments and notable victories. His list of victims – beside the ones listed above – include Arturo Leon (W 10), Ruben Munoz Jr. (W 12), Sammy Fuentes (KO 9), Terrence Alli (W 10), Livingstone Bramble (WDSQ 5), Carl Griffith (W 10), Rod Sequenan (W 10), Mike Mungin (W 10) and Patrick Byrd (W 10).
“The Black Mamba” was just three-and-a-half years older than I, and his passing is yet another reminder that while time has always elapsed at the same speed, our perception of it shrinks with every succeeding year. Athletes I remember appreciating during their respective primes are now afflicted by erosion, suffering, and, in Mayweather’s case, death following a lengthy illness. The lesson to be gleaned from departures such as these is to treasure the time that is at our disposal, and if that time is blessed by good health, mental sharpness, a purpose in life and a collection of family and friends, all the better.
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, West Virginia. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 18 writing honors, including first-place awards in 2011 and 2013. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales from the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics” (available on Amazon) and the co-author of “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” (also available on Amazon). To contact Groves use the email email@example.com or send him a message via Facebook.