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Ranking Mayweather among the All-Time Greats

By Joseph Hirsch — Trying to rank any fighter among the all-time greats is a thankless task. Boxing fans with a strong attachment to the past will get angry if you place the contemporary fighter too high in their pantheon, and those fans who love the more current fighter will accuse you of being stuck in ancient history if you insist that this relative newcomer doesn’t deserve higher placement on the pound-for-pound list. That said, due to Floyd Mayweather’s undefeated record (equaling Rocky Marciano’s at 49-0) and his slew of name opponents (24 world-titlists) it’s safe to say we’re going to be talking about Mayweather’s place in history for quite a long time, so I might as well throw my hat into the ring.

Old-timers don your fedoras, young bucks, put on your fitted. Here we go…


Boxrec.com has Floyd “Money” Mayweather (previously Floyd “Pretty Boy” Mayweather) ranked number one as the greatest fighter of all-time. That means something, because Boxrec uses an algorithm (based on quality points), which takes the human element engendered by fandom (and haters) out of the equation. Everything at Boxrec.com is based on numbers, specifically their system of what they call “quality points.”

I won’t bore you with a lengthy explanation of how Boxrec arrives at their conclusions, so suffice it to say that every time a boxer beats his opponent, how much credit he earns for the fight (and how many points) is based on the record/quality of his opposition. Boxrec.com acknowledges one of the flaws in their system is that we don’t always know the records of older fighters’ opponents, because they sometimes fought under assumed names, fought unsanctioned smokers, etc. You also must factor in mafia control/subversion of the sport for decades, in which fighters were ordered to “take dives” or “carry” opponents under the threat of punishment (sometimes death) at the hands of the mob.

That’s one problem.

Another problem with comparing current greats to those of the past is that the proliferation of sanctioning bodies (the “alphabet soup” maligned by Bert Sugar) created new belts, and as the years passed new divisions were also created. If Joe Calzaghe had battled his entire career at 168 lbs. in the 1950s, he would have been known as a catch-weight king, but because the super-middleweight division didn’t exist at time, he would have zero belts.

For some perspective, when there are eight weight divisions and one belt per division (excluding jewels like the Lonsdale Belt or the Ring belt), you obviously have eight straps in circulation. If you have seventeen divisions and four major sanctioning bodies offering up straps in each division, you have (at least) 68 belts. A modern boxer is at least eight times more likely to hold some belt than one who fought in the old days of only the “glamor divisions”, even if the modern and the old-school boxer are of equal skill-level. Belts mean something (like computer-algorithm rankings), but they only form part of a fuller picture.

As fans our guts also tell us something that numbers alone don’t reveal. If the numbers always told the whole story, there would never be any upsets in boxing, since odds-makers (who know the sport inside and out) have been disastrously wrong about everything from Schmeling-Louis I to Spinks-Ali. Bernard Hopkins alone has probably ruined a couple of bookmakers with his slew of historic upsets.

When a “super-fight” was created between Muhammad Ali and Rocky Marciano on an NCR 315 12-bit computer with roughly 20K of memory and Marciano won the fight, many people (including Ali) thought the simulation was bogus.

Although much was made of the “fight” at the time and the cutting-edge technology behind it, the truth is that the processor running your average Fight Night videogame is far more complex. I don’t think that even with modern advances in processing power, we’ll ever be able to use a simulation alone to settle arguments about who would win matches between two all-time greats.

Before going any further in the debate over Mayweather’s place in history, you also must clarify what exactly you mean by who was a better fighter between Mayweather and any other all-time great. In other words, you have to specify whether you mean Who would beat who on their best night? Or Who had the overall better career? A lot hangs on this question. Where you place a man on that Mount Olympus of Boxing can alter quite a bit based on which standard you’re using. It is true that Mike Tyson had a meteoric rise culminating in his destruction of Trevor Berbick and Michael Spinks, but he tumbled down the cliff pretty quickly thereafter. Nevertheless, Tyson on his best night not only gives any heavyweight in history a run for their money; he arguably beats them.

If you judge Mayweather on the overall/career performance standard, he’s going to suffer in standing next to greats like Roberto Duran, Julio Caesar Chavez, and Archie Moore for reasons well beyond his control. Comparing Mayweather to a guy like “Sugar” Ray Robinson (for whom the term pound-for-pound was coined) is ridiculous for the simple fact that Robinson had roughly four times as many fights as Floyd had victories. And that’s no knock against Floyd, since in this pay-per-view era, even if Mayweather had wanted to be as active as possible as an elite talent, he could have probably only fought at most six times in a year.

You must also remember that Floyd didn’t lace up gloves as a pro until after fifteen-round title fights were consigned to the dustbin of history. This potential knock against Floyd when comparing him to all-time greats carries less weight with me, since conditioning was never a problem with Mayweather and those who have followed his gym habits say that he is the hardest working man in the history of the sport (including the monastic Bernard Hopkins, who hasn’t even drunk a soda in more than two decades).

If one were to put Floyd in a DeLorean with a time-flux capacitor and drive him back through history, it is a safe bet that he could have entered the ring with some of history’s greatest fighters and fought them for fifteen rounds in 103-degree heat, as Ray Robinson did against Joey Maxim, and my guess is Floyd wouldn’t gas or tire out. The only problem is, of course, that Robinson, who himself was comfortable at lightweight, could knock out middleweights with one punch and fought Maxim when Maxim was two pounds shy of light-heavyweight. The highest Floyd ever fought was at 154 lbs. against Oscar De La Hoya. So, comparing the man who calls himself TBE (“The Best Ever”) against the actual best ever (Ray Robinson) is a waste of the serious historian’s time.

If you jettison the record-to-record comparison of Floyd versus the Durans, Chavezes, and Moores, though, and you ask how Floyd on his best night would have done against the best from other eras, you have a more reasonable question. Now all you need to do is find what you think is Floyd’s definitive performance.

For me, that would have to be Mayweather’s win against Diego “Chico” Corrales. I was familiar with Floyd from his pro debut onward and I knew he was talented, but what struck me early on about his wins was how he managed stoppages or total shutouts against credible-but-limited opponents who were known to give prospects a hard time and to carry them the distance. Looking at punch-stats between rounds, I was forced to do more than a few double-takes as I saw insane disparities (like 80% connect percentages against 15%!). Floyd wasn’t just overperforming expectations going into these fights; he was blowing guys out and embarrassing them in the process. We knew he came from a good pedigree, but we didn’t know how much better he was than any Mayweather who came before him or will likely come after him, assuming his sons or daughters decide to box and dad doesn’t block their paths to the ring (Larry Holmes used to say he’d rather have his kids be anything but boxers, but that sometimes makes children more headstrong).

For younger fight fans, it might be hard to remember at this great remove how much of a “pick ‘em” fight Corrales-Mayweather was on paper. Diego Corrales was undefeated and challenging for his third divisional title, this time at super-featherweight. Even people who were picking Floyd to win conceded that it would be ugly and that both men would probably hit the canvas multiple times in their match. The only person predicting a wipeout for Floyd that I can recollect off the top of my head is the troubled-but-talented Paul Spadafora, who once had an intense sparring session with Mayweather after “Pretty Boy” (as he was then known) came off a long layoff.

Everything negative said about Floyd (“He runs” “He’s boring”) is belied by his best performances like that against Corrales (or against Phillip N’Dou and Miguel Cotto). Floyd’s ability to stay in the pocket, to deflect his opponents’ shots on his shoulders and forearms and to set-up his own shots make him one of the best counter-punchers in history. Contrary to the oft-heard criticism, he can brawl, but only does so at moments of his choosing. He doesn’t so much gamble as a fighter as he does punish fighters for gambling against him. Watching Floyd fight someone is a bit like watching someone bet against the house on the green felt at the casino. They can win for a while (everyone from Zab Judah to Miguel Cotto has won rounds off Mayweather), but they all lost in the end with the possible exception of Jose Luis Castillo, who I believe was robbed in his first match against Mayweather. In Floyd’s defense, he was complaining about his shoulder between the first and second rounds, and an orthopedic surgeon did diagnose him with a strained rotator cuff in the aftermath of the fight. Floyd also shellacked Castillo in their return engagement.

Diego Corrales was supposed to be Floyd’ sternest test, his Mount Everest, but instead he was a speedbump. Mayweather knocked Corrales down three times in the seventh round of their scheduled twelve. Corrales’ connect percentage on jabs was 0% (!) in the 8th round. Harold Lederman had to go all the way back to Willie “Will o’ the Wisp” Pep to find an apt comparison for Mayweather’s skills (legend has it Pep won a round without throwing a punch). Corrales was knocked down two more times in the 10th round before his corner saved him.

George Foreman declared afterwards that he had never seen a fighter so young demonstrate such ring generalship, and all these years later when I go back and watch that fight, that’s what stands out: the generalship. Floyd was probably the least jab-dependent of all great boxers, which would make him an especially tricky proposition for any other all-time great, most of whom pumped the jab with metronomic regularity and also based their own defense on countering jabs. Floyd is nearly-impossible to time, if for no other reason than that he can switch from offense to defense and back again as quickly as Hagler switched from orthodox to southpaw. Some people have called Floyd a “defense-first” fighter, but under Uncle Roger’s tutelage, and especially as a lightweight, Floyd liked to mix it up. A lot of Floyd’s critics have the misguided impression that he is not tough or that he doesn’t have heart. He has dug deep (gutting it out with broken hands against Carlos Hernandez) and (despite claims of cherry-picking), he was overmatched early in his career, especially against the two-time world champ Genaro Hernandez. I know a lot of people (including commentator Dave Bontempo) who picked Hernandez to wreck Mayweather. “Chicanito” got dominated though and stopped after eight rounds (his only previous loss being to Oscar De La Hoya, at lightweight). Genaro never fought again after trading leather with Floyd.

Calling Floyd offensive or defensive misses the point: Mayweather knew when to shell up and when to let go. He demonstrated maturity early as he invested in bodywork with that spearing jab and he knew how to catch someone coming in with that check-hook, and he could also leap in with his own variation on Floyd Patterson’s kangaroo punch, an unorthodox move that is a no-no for all but the best fighters. An old rule in boxing says not to leap. “If he leaps, he sleeps,” as someone said in the runup to Kevin Kelley versus Naseem Hamed. Floyd did a lot of leaping, but he never paid for it. Like Bernard Hopkins or Andre Ward, he perfected a style of getting in and then out before the danger became too great.

Unlike Hopkins or Ward, though, he has rarely been accused of dirty tactics, even by his most ardent detractors. Some will bring up the Victor Ortiz fight and mention what they regard as Mayweather’s cheap shot, but it should be remembered that Ortiz had just headbutted Mayweather viciously and then approached him with open arms. And, as Floyd correctly stated in his now-legendary post-fight interview with Larry Merchant, “The first rule of boxing is ‘Protect yourself at all times.’”

My own memories regarding Floyd’s sportsmanship always turn on the fulcrum of that night he fought Zab “Super” Judah. Judah had some early effective rounds against Mayweather (as did Maidana and De La Hoya, and even a shopworn Shane Mosley), but as the rounds progressed and the difference was revealed between good (Judah) and great (Mayweather), Judah became increasingly frustrated and went low (like Andrew Golota low) against Mayweather. He followed that up with an ugly rabbit punch that brought trainer and uncle Roger Mayweather through the ropes and into the heart of a melee that saw Roger fined and banned from Mayweather’s corner for a time. Notice, when action resumes in the fight, who extends their glove first in a sportsmanly gesture: Floyd, the victim of the foul, was sticking out his glove to let Judah know all was forgiven.

For those who know Mayweather only from his massive footprint in social media, as a guy who burns one-hundred dollar bills in strip-clubs and steers his segue around the marble interior of his “Big Boy” mansion, prattling on about how God only made one thing perfect (his record), it might be hard to appreciate that there is a human being behind the bluster, behind the heel character he created. This person who rarely came out before fights but usually showed up during and afterwards was not only a ring scientist but also someone who probably knows that, while he has a place among the greatest of all-time, not even he really privately believes he is TBE. He’ll say it to piss off his haters and sell hats, merch, and tickets (if he does in fact return to the ring to fight Conor McGregor this fall), but this is Floyd the Businessman talking, not Floyd the Boxer or Floyd the person.

My own personal feeling is that Floyd on his best night gives any lightweight or welterweight in the history of the sport a run for their money. In a 3 of 5 contest against Roberto Duran or Sugar Ray Leonard, I think it’s possible he could get the better of either man. Duran was a brilliantly aggressive tactician, but Floyd was a master at spoiling effective aggression and forcing his opponent to punch himself out (his own variation of the rope-a-dope). How many times, just from memory, can you remember Floyd against the ropes or seemingly trapped on the turnbuckle and his opponent throwing for all he was worth, with the crowd screaming their heads off, and yet not a single flush shot landing? Duran had a bad habit of ballooning up in weight between matches and drinking heavily, while Floyd was a gym rat to his core. It’s possible that, even if it was Floyd’s first trip into the deep waters of a fifteen-round fight, he might exhaust Duran and then pick him off with his patented, sniping potshots.

There are fighters that are perhaps as fast as or faster than Mayweather, but there is no one else who possessed his sort of zero-to-sixty speed. Amir “King” Khan can throw blinding combinations, as can Vasyl Lomachenko, and Muhammad Ali could keep that piston-like jab flicking like a bee’s stinger (George Chuvalo compared it to being slapped repeatedly with a wet towel), but I can’t remember anyone besides Mayweather who could be accused by commentators of “stinking up the joint” one moment and then turn his opponent’s head into a Pez dispenser in the next. Most great speedsters worked their way up to blurring combos. Floyd exploded with single shots that seemingly came out of nowhere and disrupted whatever rhythm his opponent was working up. A lot of ringside observers liked to complain that Floyd didn’t deserve to be ranked with the all-time greats because he wasn’t a great combo puncher, but the way he lulled fighters with inactivity followed by a trickle of potshots that flowed and ebbed gave him a rhythm no one ever really figured out. In its way, his careful punch selection broke guys down worse than volume because the unpredictability of his assaults demoralized them.

I think the tornado/buzzsaw that was Aaron “the Hawk” Pryor might have presented some interesting challenges for Mayweather, but again, those who tried to get inside and bully Floyd usually didn’t fare well. Fights that never materialized for Mayweather, like with Kostya Tszyu, Paul Williams, or Antonio Margarito are tantalizing “what-ifs,” but it’s doubtful that any of those men would have gotten the better of Floyd (including Margarito, even with plaster in his gloves).

Some of the less-charitable historians I know place Mayweather in their top-fifty of all-time, but not much higher. Others place him in the top-twenty. I’ll go out on a limb and say that, in the fullness of time, Floyd is likely to ascend somewhere into the top-ten all-time to ever don togs and step into the squared circle. Time heals all wounds, as they say, and politicians who were once reviled are reevaluated in the future, so there’s no reason the same courtesy can’t be extended to a pugilist (Floyd never started an unpopular war, except maybe on twitter). It is possible that as the years pass boxing fans will forget the carefully-crafted character Mayweather has built in press conferences, stare-downs, and 24:7 episodes on HBO, and they will see the man and the boxer behind all of that. Floyd was a prizefighter whose skillset was so high that even his fans sometimes forgot about his heart, but it’s there, especially in those years before “Pretty Boy” became “Money.” And that he placed such emphasis on the “prize” portion of prizefighting doesn’t make him any less of a warrior. Never forget that some of the sport’s most exciting practitioners (including “Sugar” Ray Robinson) said they hated hurting people and only fought for the money. That doesn’t make a man greedy. It just makes him more of a scientist than a sadist.

Floyd got out with his “wits and his winnings,” as Chris Eubank once said of himself. A lot of other great fighters unfortunately can’t say the same.

Joseph Hirsch, author of My Tired Shadow and other novels



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