Scared Straight: Floyd Mayweather, Jack Johnson and jail time’s toll

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Will 87 days in jail scare Floyd Mayweather straight?

Because it looks already like he’s frightened flabby.

No, I’m not making light of Mayweather’s stint in jail, or the circumstances that landed him there.

But it’s a point of fact that the pound-for-pound king of pro boxing unsuccessfully petitioned a Nevada court last week to serve the rest of his 87-day jail term under house arrest, arguing that the substandard food and exercise available to him in solitary confinement might cause an irreversible deterioration in his physical condition. His lawyers contend that serving the entire term at Clark County Jail would effectively end his career as a professional boxer.

And I believe them.

When you’re a 35 year-old-fighter who depends on reflexes and rhythm, the last thing you need is three months on ice with poor nutrition and no opportunity to sharpen your skills. As we’ve discussed before, Time remains undefeated because it rallies in the late rounds of every fighter’s career.

If Mayweather is as bad off as his lawyers say we’re in for a disheartening ending to one of the greatest careers in the sport’s history.

But the reality is people lose jobs and careers to jail stints all the time — cab drivers, construction workers, teachers, lawyers. If I caught a case and was locked up for three months, journalism would move on without me.


If the industry even paused over losing me, it would only be to celebrate having one less mouth to feed.

Unfortunately for Mayweather, age, muscle atrophy and the erosion of skills are just as unforgiving as the job market in a soft economy. This doesn’t mean he’ll emerge from prison with Reggie Strickland’s skill set, but his experience offers a sobering counterpoint to the notion that time behind bars could somehow improve a pro-fighter’s knuckle game.

It’s an easy idea to embrace if you’re a child of the 1990s.

Three years in the penitentiary restored Mike Tyson’s menace — witness street-hardened tough guy Bruce Seldon crumbling mentally even before the bell sounded then falling in 109 seconds when he met Tyson in September 1996.

But prison didn’t rebuild Tyson’s skills, which had been in decline even before the 1992 rape conviction that removed him from the sport — witness his thrashing at the hands of Evander Holyfield two months after the Seldon bout.

The only high-level fighter  I can name who emerged from incarceration a better boxer was Jack Johnson, who was jailed along with opponent Joe Choynski for participating in an illegal prizefight in 1901. According to boxing folklore the warden who ran the jail demanded the two men stage daily exhibitions, and while in their cell the veteran Choynski would tutor the talented but raw Johnson on the finer points of the sweet science.

It’s a compelling contrast given the debate over the extent to which Mayweather is a modern-day Johnson.

Like Johnson, Mayweather is the most polarizing figure in sport, and a savvy self-promoter who masterfully plays on latent racial tensions to generate interest in his bouts.

Each time Mayweather commits to a bout, mainstream (read: white) sports fans and media line up behind his opponent and convince themselves whoever they’re supporting — Victor Ortiz, Shane Mosley, Juan Manuel Marquez, Ricky Hatton — will deflate Mayweather’s massive ego with a sound beating.

On fight night everyone involved learns you can’t will away a skill deficit.

But it doesn’t stop people from believing in the next contender to step up, investing hope and hard-earned dollars in the idea that Mayweather’s insufferable arrogance makes him fallible. The more stridently they root against Mayweather the more of those dollars land in his pocket.

Johnson played that same game a century ago, rattling off a string of wins against Great White Hopes until finally falling to Jess Willard in a 1915 bout that may or may not have been fixed.

Still, some scholars argue that the Mayweather-Johnson parallels end there; that beyond Johnson’s ostentation lay a staunch black nationalism and a pan-African consciousness Mayweather has never expressed.

Another, more pressing difference for Mayweather fans is that he has no guardian angels at Clark County Jail. Instead he has a justice of the peace who did him a favour by allowing start serving his sentence in June instead of January, and who isn’t eager to cut him any more slack.

And idea of high-level instruction while locked up is a non-starter.

Joe Choynski’s not walking through that door.

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5 Responses to “Scared Straight: Floyd Mayweather, Jack Johnson and jail time’s toll”
  1. Stagger X says:

    Nice article. I’m really not a Mayweather fan, but you’ve almost got me feeling sorry for him. Well done.

    • Ha! no need to feel sorry for the guy. He was denied “mansion arrest”…. predictably. He could have avoided all this by not doing what put him in jail in the first place.

      • Stagger X says:

        I here you. I just think it’s sad to see one of the greats lose their skills and possibly have their career end due to jail time. He earned the time, though…we’re pretty forgiving with our sports stars, but domestic violence is one of the few things that there’s not much leeway on.

  2. Zach says:

    Morgan, another strong offering. If you did have to do hard time, i want to say now, I’d go half on some walking around money on your commissary card. While i don’t disagree with your prevailing point- its interesting how often jail is regarded as the common denominator shared by those who emerge hardened and newly focused. Its perhaps a lazy construct of sorts, and usually co-opted by non athletes, but none the less its curious. The ‘disheartening end’ that you posit, may well indeed end up being tethered to this prison time, its also a reflection of the freakish level of fitness he has maintained, while not officially ‘in training’ or even while retired. And how any variance in that could be devastating. Because Im a sucker for how the abstract can affect an individual, be they Malcolm, Charles Dutton or James Kirkland, i’m more curious about how Floyd emerges than i am inclined to think about how the worst awaits him. I don’t see him putting himself in a situation to take an embarrassing loss- and not because I think he wants to avoid anyone, but because I don’t see that fight, or that fighter on the horizon. Manny will have lost twice heading into a springtime bout with Floyd. And that fight will have lost some of its luster, but perhaps still provide the payday and pay-structure that Floyd wanted, and with that win, he can transition into liberating and promoting great young fighters. While the 0 for his last 3 Manny makes one final giggly, weird, Kimmel appearance, before launching his own 24 hour Karaoke/ Religion cable network. As someone who has arrived late to the party, that is- appreciating Floyd, I have to say- if I had to bet on how this plays out, I think it plays out just the way he wants it to.

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  1. […] Morgan Campbell: Scared Straight: Floyd Mayweather, Jack Johnson and jail time’s toll […]

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