When the best fought the best
By Robert “Big Moe” Elmore: The best fighting the best seems to have many different perceptions. When I hear sports writers who have been around the sport for a long time and fans say “the best fought the best back in the day”, it challenged me to dig deeper. When the subject comes up about the “the best”, ninety percent of the time they refer to (in the lower weight classes) Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard and Wilfred Benitez.
For the heavyweights it’s Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, and Larry Holmes (Holmes would come a little later). And because they fought each other, this qualifies them as the best. Side Note: Benitez and Hagler never fought and Norton and Frazier never fought. But you get the gist.
First, if one where to look at these big fights chronologically, one would see that these mega fights didn’t happen like some sports journalists would have one to believe. Second, these guys were the gate keepers to one’s below them (in stature) to superstardom.
Let’s divide it up like this. Hearns and Leonard occupied the welterweight division. Hearns later moved up to junior middleweight (or 154) after losing to Leonard. Benitez moved to 154 as well with Duran coming behind him. And then you had Hagler occupying the middleweight division.
The fab five were the gate keepers to ones superstardom. And with HBO hooking their anchors to those fighters, it made that much more difficult for other fighters to break through that ceiling. I read interviews with Mike McCallum and Marlon Starling. Starling was denied a fight at Hearns after several sparing sessions with Hearns. McCallum was denied access to Hagler, Duran, and Hearns (McCallum was apart of Kronk gym for a while). The closet McCallum came was in 1984 when he was the mandatory challenger to Duran’s WBA belt.
McCallum said in an interview that the late Emmanuel Lewis went behind his back put together the Duran/Hearns fight when it should have gone to him. So I asked myself. Was Roger Stafford “the best” when he fought Leonard? Was Jeff McCraken “the best” when Hearns fought him at middleweight? Was Tony Sibson “the best” when he fought Hagler? Was Carlos Santos “the best” when he fought Benitez? No? However, they were top contenders who had the opportunity to become the best. The same scenario goes for the heavyweight division.
The gate keeps to superstardom were Ali and Frazier and later on Larry Holmes. I say that because they sustained their reign longer than a couple fights. Also what helped was in 1973, HBO made its debut and the spotlight fell on the heavyweight division. While fighters such as killer puncher Earnie Shavers, Jerry Quarry, Chuck Wepner, and Scott LeDeaux were in a great company of fighters, they were far from being the best. They were though, top contenders with opportunities to become the best.
Shavers had three opportunities; fought Holmes twice. Once when Holmes wasn’t champion and again was Holmes was champ. And then Shavers lost to Ali. Quarry had two opportunities when he fought Frazier and Ali and Le Deaux was completely outclassed by Holmes. In fact, Holmes didn’t have to do anything major as he jabbed Le Deaux into an oblivion. History repeats itself. HBO hooked their anchor into Floyd Mayweather Jr (before moving to Showtime) and Manny Pacquiao while everyone else sought to dethrone them. The division has yet to be “defined” because the presence of Floyd and Pac are still hovering over the division even though Floyd is “retired”. And with the Wladimir Klitscko losing to Tyson Fury (IBO WBA, WBO champ), Deontay Wilder (WBC champ), and newly crowned IBF champ Charles Martin, the heavyweight division has yet to be defined.
But “the best fighting the best” is complicated for the heavyweight division and it always has been. I say that because they have nowhere to go in terms of going up to another division. They could move down, but that prove deadly (ask Chris Byrd). I’ll even go as far as to say that while Foreman and Norton were in high profile fights, they could have been more had they sustained their reign as champion. Everyone will have their own opinion and interpretation about boxing history and this is mine.
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