As far as professional boxing careers go, they rarely finish as immaculately as Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s did when he finally hung up his gloves in 2017 after stopping UFC star Conor McGregor to round out a perfect 50-0 record.
Unbeaten, never put on the canvas and only officially knocked down once - whatever your thoughts on Floyd and his infamous ‘Money’ persona, there’s very little doubt that the man from Grand Rapids, Michigan is one of the very best to enter the ring in the last 30 years, possibly ever.
But even the greatest are susceptible to having a bad day at the office every now and again. Lionel Messi isn’t going to score in every game, Steph Curry won’t always land that three pointer and even Mayweather, in a total of 397 rounds of professional boxing, proved he was a mere mortal on occasion, albeit extremely rarely.
In May 2001, Floyd entered the ring at the Van Andel Arena in his hometown in front of 9,160 fans to defend his WBC super featherweight title against the tough but uncomplicated Salvadorian Carlos Hernandez.
This was not a close fight. Mayweather won it emphatically in fact, but it was certainly the biggest test of his career so far, not because of the man standing in the opposite corner but because of the searing pain surging through both of the fighter’s hands, an injury that had been plaguing him in the lead-up to the bout.
The painkiller Novocaine was injected into both of his hands before the first bell just to ensure he would be able to go the distance.
The fact the Mayweather even took this fight despite knowing about how badly damaged his hands were was enough to divide critics - some gave the fighter profound credit for being able to fight on through the extreme pain, others questioned his decision to even compete, given the state of his hands, with Mayweather making $2 million to Hernandez’ $200,000 and some believed promoters Top Rank should have reimbursed the fans who’s paid to watch the bout.
“It’s an entirely different story when a fighter is injured during a bout, but when he enters the ring as significantly damaged as Mayweather, it’s consumer fraud,” wrote The Ring editor Nigel Collins.
“The fans in Grand Rapids who shelled out good money for tickets were ripped off, as were HBO’s subscribers… Team Mayweather and Top Rank walked away with a handsome profit, but the sport that provided the payday took an unnecessary hit.”
The fight started well enough with Mayweather entering the ring wearing white and red shorts and greeted by a wave of cheers from his home support. In the opening rounds, Mayweather elected to target the body, a softer target for his brittle hands, and with a string of rights in the second caused some swelling above Hernandez’ right eye.
As the fight progressed, it was painfully clear to onlookers that something wasn’t right with Mayweather’s apparent reluctance to engage. He landed left and right hooks up close in the sixth round but with the pain so excruciating, he was actually forced to touchdown, his gloves hitting the canvas, and the referee thus dishing the first, and last, official knockdown of Mayweather’s professional career - one official knockdown in 50 professional fights and it was only inadvertently caused by the opponent.
He later said he’s never felt pain like it, claiming the sharp jolt of pain shot straight up his spinal cord. “My right hand is killing me,” he told Leonard Ellerbe in his corner before the eighth stanza.
Even with the injury and subsequent knockdown, the gulf in class was huge between the North and South American. In total, Mayweather landed 241 of his 520 punches (46%) while Hernandez landed just 172 of 676 (25%).
Despite it being a one horse race, a rumble of groans was beginning to filter down from the stands and the night was on the verge of taking a sinister turn. Sensing the discontent, Hernandez, who’s facial swelling was beginning to look ugly, began to get a lot more physical from the tenth round before being warned by referee Dale Grable for his roughhouse tactics, eventually having a point deducted in the twelfth for elbowing the ever elusive Mayweather.
“It was one of the hardest nights of my career,” Mayweather said, after the scores of 119-110, 117-110 and 116-112 were announced in his favour, sealing the seventh defence of his title.
“My hands have been messed up for a long time. I wanted to give fans a war for their money. But I couldn’t give my fans a good fight because my damn hands are killing me. I wanted to get my knockout but I was hurt. I was hurt bad.”
Whether Mayweather made the right decision or not in going ahead with his underwhelming war, we’ll leave for you to decide but something that shouldn’t be questioned is his heart.
Mayweather, undoubtedly one of the finest prizefighters of the modern era, gets a unfair reputation as “a runner” from some pockets of fight fans, which is a preposterous take - he proved against Hernandez, and countless others, he’s always had the heart of a champion.
It’s no surprise that of the 24 fighters who he’d go on to fight after Hernandez, none would ever triumph over him.