The All-Time Great Dilemma
By Ken Woods: Many fans and analysts like to go through the annals of boxing history and compare those of yesteryear with those of current times and determine who is better. This is pointless.
One cannot accurately compare fighters from different eras. Many things have changed in the sport since its inception, and things will continue to change. The debate about all-time greats is one that lacks substance.
Boxing used to have 15-round fights. Now the matches last 12 rounds. Some boxers have fought upwards of 100 times in their careers. Now fighters will get lucky to have 40 or 45 fights before they hand up the gloves. Pugilists also used to weigh in the day of the fight, and now the weigh-in is a day before. There was a time when referees implemented a standing eight count, and now that doesn’t happen. During Jack Johnson’s time, fights would go 30 or more rounds.
Not only have the rules changed as the sport has progressed, but so has the money and politics involved. The mafia is well-documented to have fixed matches and basically ran boxing in the mid-20th century. The television, advertising dollars, promoters, networks, and pay-per-view have all revolutionized the way fights are put together.
Sugar Ray Robinson cannot accurately be compared to fighters of this era, or any other period for that matter, for the all the reasons mentioned above. His record, activity level, and the rules of the sport during his time trump anything a fighter can aspire to today. There weren’t as many weight classes during his era either.
Joe Louis fought 15-round fights his entire career, how can you accurately gauge his accomplishments to any other heavyweight in this era? Sugar Ray Leonard changed the course of boxing with his insistence of a 12-round fight against Marvin Hagler. Not only did Leonard change the length of a bout, but he also invented the super middleweight division.
Rules change in every sport and most times it is for the better. Comparing skill level or overall ability could be more reasonable. However, the advancements in technology and training have reshaped the way fighters jump multiple weight classes. There is also the phenomenon of performance-enhancing drugs clouding the true merit of boxers today. Fighters in times past could never aspire to compete in eight different weight classes, but Manny Pacquiao has.
There was a point in time in the NBA when there was no three-point line. Can you imagine how many players would have different stats if that were the case? Can you imagine how the stats changed as result of that one addition to the game? Boxing is the same in that regard.
Does the comparison of all participants in the sport spur lively debates? Sure it does. However, leave the comparisons to combatants in the same era.