LAS VEGAS - WBC welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. insists he still doesn't mind if you dislike him, so long as you plunk down your money to see him fight. He gets paid very well whether spectators in the arena or those watching on pay-per-view are cheering or booing him. As long as the check clears, it's all good.

"I am always the villain," Mayweather (38-0, 24 KOs), widely acknowledged as the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, said again in advance of Saturday night's bout with British challenger Ricky Hatton (43-0, 31 KOs) at the MGM Grand. "I know how boxing works. You have to have a bad guy and a good guy. I don't mind being the bad guy."

Maybe so, but Mayweather's I-don't-care-what-anyone-thinks-of-me declarations no longer are as loud or as strident as they once were. Hey, the man is 30, his chronically aching hands aren't getting any better, and he continues to hint at early retirement. All of which is why "Pretty Boy Floyd" apparently feels it necessary to sprinkle in the occasional disclaimer among his preening boasts.

It's getting close to legacy-defining time for the sport's most conspicuous antihero. Deep down inside, he's as much Sally Field as pugilistic Pacman Jones. He wants you to like him, really like him. Sure, he's OK with playing the thug role the public has accorded him, with some justification, but now he wants everyone to know that there's a kinder, gentler version of the egomaniac with whom fight fans are so familiar.

Just don't expect the emerging angel of his nature to conflict with the devil who gives his opponents hell in the ring. To paraphrase Mae West, when he's good, he's good; when he's bad, he's better.

"I'm not really a Ricky Hatton fan," said Mayweather, who recently proclaimed a superior craftsman to Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali. "The only reason Hatton is 43-0 is because he hasn't fought anyone. He hasn't fought 43 Floyd Mayweathers. If he had, he'd be 0-43."

Mayweather's uncle-trainer, Jeff Mayweather, is just as uncomplimentary as his nephew toward Hatton, suggesting that a certain amount of arrogance is a family trait. Perhaps it's in the genes.

"Ricky Hatton is a good fighter, but he's not in Floyd's league," Jeff said. "Hatton doesn't even belong in the same ring with Floyd. Ricky has a puncher's chance because he has two hands, but when he talks about bringing his 'A' game, it's a 'C' compared to Floyd's."

Hatton hears the veiled and the not-so-veiled putdowns, and he wonders why the best fighter in the world feels the need to constantly build himself up by tearing others down.

"I think he's an insecure person," Hatton said of the boxing king he hopes to depose. "I think he does like to play mind games, but I don't think he does it to try to intimidate you, because he's not exactly what you call intimidating-looking. He doesn't make me want to run away down the street."

Floyd Mayweather Jr. said there's nothing wrong with saying you can do something inordinately well if you can actually do it. What's so terrible about being truthful?

"If you prove you're the best writer, why not say it?" he said, chiding media members who have not always applauded his swaggering posture. "I'm the best fighter. You can't take that away from me. Nobody can.

"When I say what I can do, it's just me believing in myself and my skills. I feel that I've accomplished everything that a fighter can possibly accomplish."

But, as tennis great Andre Agassi used to say in those camera commercials, image is everything. And Mayweather increasingly is aware that his image doesn't always reflect who he is.

"I conduct myself like a gentleman," he insisted. "I'm not out there pushing Ricky Hatton on stage or anything like that.

"When I fought Arturo Gatti, I was considered a bad guy. When I fought [Oscar] De La Hoya, I was considered a bad guy. But when I fought Zab Judah, they said he was worse than I am, so they made me out to be the good guy.

"Look, when all is said and done, only God can judge you. I know who I am as a person and I know how I treat people, but I'm prejudged because of the articles that have been written about me in the past.

"Nobody ever talks about how Floyd Mayweather feeds [poor] families for Christmas, how Floyd Mayweather feeds families for Thanksgiving. I'm a good person. I've got a good heart."

It is a message that is unlikely, in this instance, is be heeded. Yeah, PPV demand is heavy, so much so that Mayweather-Hatton almost certainly will result in a million-plus buys, remarkable when you consider that Mayweather's May 5 megafight with De La Hoya produced a record 2.4 million purchases. But Hatton is no Zab Judah; rightly or wrongly, the perception is that the Englishman is the white-hatted hero here. Mayweather again is being portrayed as the personification of evil, or at least of the sort of smug superiority many would like to see knocked out of him.

Getting the public to see his better side just might be the one fight that Floyd Mayweather Jr. is destined not to win. *