PAZARDZHIK, Bulgaria — The man who beat Floyd Mayweather Jr. lives across the street from a burned-out coffee hut with a giant banana painted on its back wall. Around the bend, leaning in the tall grass, is a corroded shed holding ancient farming equipment. Every so often a horse trots down the craggy road, pulling a splintered cart and a rider toward the center of one of this country’s poorest towns.
Late Tuesday morning, the man who beat Mayweather, Serafim Todorov, stood on the curb here. He was in front of the seven-floor concrete apartment building where he, his wife, his son and his pregnant daughter-in-law live in a modest first-floor unit. Todorov talked with his son, Simeon. He watched a horse clop by. He smoked a cigarette. Then he went inside, sat in a chair and, like a teakettle perched on a glowing stove, steamed to a rolling boil as he remembered what happened in Atlanta 19 years ago.
The victory by Todorov, then 27, over Mayweather, then 19, in the featherweight semifinals of the 1996 Olympic boxing tournament was the last time Mayweather lost in the ring. A few months later, Mayweather turned professional and began a career that has produced 47 consecutive victories and hundreds of millions of dollars in earnings. On May 2 in Las Vegas, Mayweather will have a long-awaited showdown with Manny Pacquiao in what many are calling the richest fight in boxing history.
Yet for Todorov, now 45, the stark gap between his life and Mayweather’s since their match — the loser is worth an estimated $280 million, and the winner does not even own a flat-screen TV — is not what roils him. It is the circumstances behind his life’s unraveling that have made him sour.
And in a curious twist, Todorov believes he and Mayweather may have actually been wronged by the same man.
For years, boxing fans — particularly Americans — speculated that Todorov’s victory over Mayweather was, at least in part, a product of suspect judging. Todorov does not discard this theory. “It’s possible, absolutely,” he said.
But Todorov’s real fury stems from what happened in the Atlanta final — the match after his win over Mayweather — when, he believes, he was the one unfairly beaten. He detailed the unspooling that followed: A fallout with his federation, a failed attempt at switching nationalities, missed opportunities abroad and unhealthy offers to work in the Bulgarian underworld.
Today, while Mayweather is preparing to make as much as $180 million for one fight, Todorov is trying to live on a pension of about 400 euros, about $435, a month. Slumped in a chair, Todorov gestured toward the window that looked out at the coffee hut with the banana on it. All of this, he said, all of this struggle can be traced to what happened in Atlanta. If that seems strange — remember, this is the fighter who won — then consider this other bizarre reality:
The man who beat Floyd Mayweather wakes up every morning wishing he had lost.
The fight between Mayweather and Todorov took place on a Friday, two days before the closing ceremony of the Atlanta Games, at the basketball arena on Georgia Tech’s campus. It began with a flurry of punches, as if the opening bell had twisted a cap off both fighters’ fizzing emotions. As Todorov watched a YouTube video of the bout, his lips curled into a tiny smile.
“He was 19, remember,” Todorov said through an interpreter. “My experience was much stronger. I beat all the Russians, all the Cubans, some Americans, Germans, Olympic champions. I was making fun of them in the ring. British, French — I beat them all.”
He nodded. “I was very smart. I was a very beautiful and attractive fighter to watch. You must be an artist in the ring. I was an artist.”
Hyperbole aside, Todorov’s basic assessment is accurate: Mayweather was a teenager, a Golden Gloves champion, sure, but one who had to overcome a hiccup in Olympic qualifying just to make the United States team. He had shown little on the international stage.
Todorov was a three-time world champion and a two-time European champion as an amateur, and the kind of boxer who would occasionally toy with his opponents by feinting and dodging their attacks before reaching around to tap them on the back of the shoulder. “No, no,” he would taunt them, “I’m over here.”
Todorov, who grew up in Peshtera, a southern town, learned boxing at a young age — his uncle taught him to fight when he was 8 — and he quickly developed into a prodigy, a whirling master of the ring whose fundamentals were flawless. Footwork was always his specialty, and even this week, despite having not trained for years, he fell easily into a fighter’s sharp, staccato prowls and bounces when asked for a short demonstration.
Todorov’s weakness was his focus. He liked women and he liked rakia, the fruit brandy popular in many of the Balkan countries. His coach, Georgi Stoimenov, who discovered Todorov as a teenager and worked with him throughout his career, tried his best to control Todorov but found it difficult.
“At competitions, the other coaches would be sleeping in their own rooms; I would sleep in Serafim’s room,” Stoimenov said. One time, he said, he locked Todorov in his room only to come back and find he had jumped out the window.
Where did Stoimenov find Todorov? “A few floors below with the women’s athletics team.”
Todorov does not deny his flaws. Before the Atlanta Games, he said, he trained for only about three weeks, and even during that period found time to take breaks to go drinking with his friends. He still dominated at the Olympics, shredding his first three opponents by a combined score of 45-18. He said he had done little scouting on Mayweather other than watching his quarterfinal match.
“It was just like any other fight, to be honest — I had beaten much stronger fighters,” Todorov said.
But Mayweather surprised Todorov in the first two rounds. Todorov feinted and used a lot of one-punch attacks while Mayweather pattered in combinations. The fighters went to the final round with Todorov trailing by a point, 7-6.
Still, Todorov was confident — “I was not afraid to go after him” — and the last three minutes were a mess of flailing blows. Two body shots gave Todorov the lead, 8-7, but Mayweather had a couple of flurries that did not earn him points. (These were among the sequences that critics of the judging raised afterward.) Mayweather finally tied the score with about a minute left.
Todorov came back with a hook to the body for 9-8 and another shot to the head for 10-8 and then held off Mayweather, barely, as the bout finished. In the ring, neither fighter immediately knew who had won because the scoring system was designed to keep the result secret until it was announced.
At the time, the rules called for five judges to watch the fight and press a button if they saw what they deemed a scoring blow; when three of the five judges pressed their buttons within a second of one another, a point was awarded to the fighter landing the punch. No one involved in the fight, including the judges, was supposed to know the score at any given time, though in practice most corners had a spy who would find a TV in the arena, which showed the score to viewers, and then signal to members of his camp whether their boxer was ahead or behind.
This system presented a number of problems — including its reliance on the reaction time of judges of varying ages — and has since been changed, but in Atlanta both Todorov and Mayweather said afterward that they believed they should have been awarded more points. When the decision was announced, the referee initially raised Mayweather’s arm before realizing his mistake and raising Todorov’s.
Mayweather’s backers thought that Emil Jetchev, a Bulgarian who was the longtime chairman of the international referees’ and judges’ commission, had influenced the judges to favor his countryman, Todorov.
That was not a new accusation; South Korean and American boxers similarly suspected Jetchev at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.
And Todorov agreed with the theory, but for his own reason: He blames Jetchev for his loss in the gold medal match, contending he was unfairly beaten, 10-9, by Somluck Kamsing of Thailand. Todorov said his first clue had come just before the final, when Jetchev entered his locker room and emphasized that if he wanted to win, he must knock out Kamsing.
“He never did this, never before,” Todorov said, shaking his head.
“Why did he come to tell me this? I beat this Thai guy on points, so many points, in a pre-Olympic tournament. And Jetchev knows that I am a technical guy, that I am not Mike Tyson. So what he was doing was clear: He was saying, ‘You are going to lose.’ ”
Jetchev was not available to comment on Todorov’s accusation. A longtime associate who had worked closely with him for years said Jetchev, 87, was in failing health and no longer giving interviews. But even if he were, Todorov said he would not be interested in hearing an explanation or a denial. To him, those few days reflected the moment his career began to disintegrate.
After the semifinal, Mayweather did not seem outwardly upset at the decision, and Todorov did not gloat. It was a typical Olympic result — which is to say it was debatable, if not suspicious — but after a few moments in the ring, the boxers went back to the locker rooms and were ushered to doping control. This, Todorov said, is where he made the biggest mistake of his life.
A Chance of a Lifetime
The doping control room in the arena at Georgia Tech was a generic multipurpose area, Todorov recalled, and he sat in a chair toward the front. Mayweather sat behind him. The two boxers waited for their turn to provide a sample.
Suddenly, there were three other men in the room, Todorov said. Todorov could not understand what was written on their credentials, but it quickly became clear that two of the men were involved in promoting professional boxing. The third acted as an interpreter.
The interpreter sat next to Todorov. He said that the men had been impressed by Todorov and wanted to sign him to a professional contract. “They saw my style, they saw me in the ring, they saw that I was white,” Todorov said, grinning at the memory. “There will never be another white boxer like me, and they knew this. They wanted me to stay.”
The terms of the contract were familiar to Todorov, he said, because he had been approached by Australian promoters after he won the 1991 world championship in Sydney.
In Atlanta, Todorov recalled, he smiled as the interpreter checked off the perks. A big signing bonus. A house. A car. A new life and big fights in front of big crowds. The other two men leaned in, one of them holding a pen. But Todorov pushed it away.
“Without considering, I said no,” he said. “I just said it quick, like that. No.”
He looked down. “You know what happened next? The two men went over to Floyd and started talking in English.”
Todorov is not foolish enough to think the men went to Mayweather only because he had rejected their offer, but the image remains burned in his memory all the same. It could have been him, he thinks now. It should have been.
Two days later, he received the visit from Jetchev just before the final against Kamsing. Angel Angelov, who worked in Todorov’s corner, remembered Todorov being nearly apoplectic on his stool after the first round of the final, shouting at his coaches that the judges were not scoring his points and looking “as though he knew there was nothing he could do.” He lost, 8-5.
After his defeat, Todorov spent two days in a perpetual stupor as he waited for his flight home. “I didn’t stop drinking the entire time,” he said. “I just wanted to drink myself to death.”
He felt betrayed. He had brought much attention and adulation to Bulgarian boxing over the years, but now he felt only bitterness. With the 1997 world championships approaching, he met with officials from the Turkish federation and accepted an offer to change his affiliation and fight for Turkey.
The deal was not as rich as the one from the American promoters, but it was substantial. If Todorov won the gold medal, the officials told him, he would receive a reward of $1 million. All that was needed to process the nationality switch in time was approval from the Bulgarian federation.
“The deal was done,” Todorov recalled. “And then I got a call telling me that it was off. Jetchev had asked the Turkish federation for a transfer fee of $300,000 at the last second.”
He stood up, pacing. “So I couldn’t go. But I also wasn’t going to fight for Bulgaria. And so that was it for me. It was over.”
Struggling to Move On
Todorov was 28. He could have had another Olympics in him, a few more world championship tournaments, too. Instead he put away his gloves, save for a handful of professional bouts over the next few years that offered the chance of a quick payday.
As Bulgaria muddled through the economic difficulties of its transition after the fall of communism, Todorov drifted aimlessly. He had a few jobs — as a driver, in a grocery store, at a sausage factory — but nothing stuck. His wife, Albena, worked in a supermarket, too, but could not find anything consistent. Both are now unemployed.
About 15 years ago, Todorov moved here, to the apartment across from the coffee hut with the banana on the wall. There are drug dealers and underworld bosses on the street, Todorov said, and some of them approached him about working for them. He could be a captain, they told him, a leader. The money would be good.
He turned them down.
“There is a lot of cheating here, a lot of negative things,” he said. “I don’t like this. But there is also no boxing gym, no training. I don’t talk to people a lot here. I don’t get involved in anything. I don’t need a lot of friends. I just try to relax.”
That is harder than it sounds. Even 19 years later, it does not take much for Todorov’s brow to furrow and his glare to sharpen, because the regret hangs heavy. Albena wishes her husband had called her after the promoters made their offer. “It could have changed our lives and the lives of our children,” she said, her eyes wide. Todorov cannot hide his disappointment.
If he had lost to Mayweather, he said, he would have surely continued fighting in an attempt to reach an Olympic final. He would not have wondered about the chance to stay in America, or about a subsequent betrayal against Kamsing. “Instead, it all happened and I wanted to hope that things here could get better,” he said. “It was stupid. I came back and I found hell.”
Early Tuesday afternoon, Todorov walked through a scraggly garden near the middle of Pazardzhik. He moved quickly, his head down and his shoulders slumped and his feet shuffling along the cracks in the concrete. As he crossed a street, two young men waiting at the red light leaned out their car windows.
“Sarafa!” they shouted, using a nickname for Todorov. There were smiles on their faces, and one of the men pantomimed a quick flurry of punches in the air. Todorov turned and gave a weak wave as the light turned green and the men drove off.
“They remember,” Todorov said, but there was no joy in his voice. Then the man who beat Floyd Mayweather walked on.