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Locker Room Talk: Mayweather’s real legacy is how he managed his own career and money

Errol Spence Jr. and next generation of boxers will want greater independence, bigger paydays, fewer boxing promoters

Had you asked me to define Floyd Mayweather’s boxing legacy before Saturday’s fight against Conor McGregor, I would have been at a loss.

If this was indeed his swan song, Mayweather will be remembered as a skillful, though not particularly compelling, defensive fighter with a flair for selling the undramatic.

But after spending an afternoon last week with International Boxing Federation (IBF) welterweight champion Errol Spence Jr., I realized that for a generation of young black boxers, Mayweather’s importance, if not his legacy, is what he’s done outside the ring in the business of boxing. He has shown a generation of boxers how to be the carpenter and not the tool.

In an industry that historically exploits fighters, especially black ones, Mayweather has changed the paradigm. Mayweather reportedly will earn more than $100 million from Saturday’s exhibition. McGregor is expected to take around $30 million, nearly three times more than his largest payday as an MMA champion.

Mayweather’s expected payday adds to the fortune that has made Mayweather one of the richest, perhaps the richest, fighter in boxing history.

“Floyd’s broken barriers,” Spence told me over lunch Aug. 25 in Las Vegas. “It’s unheard of for a boxer to promote himself, especially a black boxer, to basically manage himself and control the pot. To control who’s getting this, who’s getting that, and dictating his terms.

“I see that. I see him promoting himself. I see how he’s handling his business and being his own boss, not letting the suits dictate what he does. That’s why a lot of promoters and managers don’t like Al and Floyd.”

He was referring to manager Al Haymon. Spence has not signed with a promoter and has hired Haymon as an adviser.

Mayweather has been immensely successful in the business of boxing. He has shown an upcoming generation of young boxers how they can be much more independent, how they can throw off the traditional yoke of promoters and managers.

“Now boxers are starting to think things like, ‘I should be getting the lion’s share; I’m the fighter,’ ” Spence said. “They’re telling promoters, ‘I should be getting more of the money; you should be getting a smaller percentage. Why are you getting the gate? I’m the one selling out.’

“So now fighters are thinking. Everybody’s waking up now.”

Last May, Spence, 22-0, defeated Kell Brook in Brook’s hometown of Sheffield, England, to win the IBF title. That made Spence, 27, a top welterweight contender. The fighters who stand in his path to the mountaintop are Keith Thurman and Terence Crawford.

If Spence defeats Thurman, the reigning World Boxing Association and World Boxing Council titleholder, then Crawford, he will move closer to the Mayweather model of greater freedom to call his own shots.

“He’s the master of his own show now,” Spence said, referring to Mayweather. “He’s dictating everything, and they hate that. The suits hate that. They hate seeing a black boxer like Floyd Mayweather run the show.”

Spence was born on Long Island, New York, raised in Dallas and played football until he was 15. His father made him switch to boxing heading into his sophomore year of high school. He thought his son had too much idle time on his hands, so he took him to a local boxing gym. “I don’t how he picked a boxing gym, out of all the extracurriculum activities I could have done,” Spence said. “At first I didn’t like it — I thought I already knew how to fight. Four or five months passed and I fell in love with it.”

Spence quit football and began going to the boxing gym every day. Boxing became an obsession. In football, he depended on teammates; in boxing, he controlled his own destiny.

When he learned about the Olympic boxing trials, Spence made making the U.S. Olympic boxing team a goal. He made the team and competed in the 2012 Games in London, although he did not medal.

With last May’s IBF victory over Brooks, Spence served notice that he is ready to break through. But what exactly does that mean? How does a young boxer become the next Floyd Mayweather?

I asked Spence if he thought simply winning in the ring was enough.

In an era of short attention spans and in a fragmented boxing industry that lacks MMA’s robust digital media infrastructure, can Spence become boxing’s next icon?

Can a black fighter become a $300 million-per-fight hit by being respectable and relatively drama-free? Can boxing have a black Roger Federer?

He said his goal is to “give boxing a distinctive look.”

“Everybody sees the black boxer as boastful or cocky or someone who wears a lot of jewelry and is, so-called, ignorant,” Spence said.

There is a historic resistance to Madison Avenue’s view of black athletes, especially black male athletes who feed into negative stereotypes. “A lot of young boxers feel that, ‘The only way I can become a megastar or sell out tickets, I got to act ignorant, talk smack, wear jewelry, buy a lot of cars, get a big house.’ They think they have to sell themselves that way instead of selling who they are,” Spence said.

He added, “A lot of kids look at that. They look at Floyd Mayweather; they look at Adrien Broner. They want to be that. They see the partying lifestyle.”

Spence said that he was no different as young person, growing up in Dallas looking at rappers.

“When I was a kid, I looked at rappers; I wanted jewelry, I wanted everything they had. Young boxer wants everything that Floyd has,” he said.

“I want to be more like Sugar Ray Leonard. You can talk good, you can look good, still be presentable, look nice, represent yourself well, your family well, people will still like you, will still come to watch you fight. You’ll still get endorsements, just like Sugar Ray Leonard did.”

As Saturday faded into Sunday morning, Mayweather faced members of the news media during a postfight news conference and responded to a question about advice he’d give to young boxers. Mayweather exhorted young boxers to pay attention to what he did outside the ring in the business of boxing.

Spence has studied the Money Mayweather model long and hard, eliminating parts that didn’t fit, keeping what works for him. For Spence, the essence of Mayweather’s legacy is winning matches in the ring while remaining free and independent outside of it.

“Basically, I want to take the whole pot,” Spence said. “That’s what it’s all about, getting my share at the end of the day, and not being a slave and having to take whatever they give you.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.