Mayweather has role model
Will Floyd Mayweather Jr. follow in the footsteps of Sugar Ray Loonard and raise his hands in victory in his comeback fight? Photo / Chris Cozzone-FightWireImages.com
Five days before Sugar Ray Leonard would go on to score the greatest straight-out-of-retirement win in boxing history against Marvin Hagler, he got rocked badly, nearly knocked to the canvas, by sparring partner Quincy Taylor. The Las Vegas gym where they were training fell silent.
As Leonard looked around at the conclusion of the workout, he saw a common look on the faces of all of his friends and cornermen. It was the look of a group of people who’d lost faith in the idea that he could beat Hagler. In fact, they believed Leonard, returning from a 35-month layoff, was going to get knocked out by the middleweight champ.
As he rode back from the gym to the hotel with his manager, Mike Trainer, an angry Leonard said, “These guys don’t think I can win.” Then he asked Trainer point blank, “Do you think I can win?”
“Well,” Trainer said, “Sugar Ray can beat Hagler, but Ray Leonard the civilian can’t beat him.”
The news broke last week – and by “news,” we mean confirmation of what every single boxing observer knew was going to happen eventually – that Floyd Mayweather, a Leonard-like talent and, at least by the current diminished standards for boxing in the mainstream, a Leonard-like name, is planning his comeback fight.
Mayweather hasn’t fought since December 8, 2007, meaning he’ll have been inactive for 17 months by the time he returns on the tentative date of July 11. And he’ll be facing the same basic challenge Leonard faced on each of his comebacks: If he’s still Floyd “Money” Mayweather, the slick, quick, technical master who ruled the pound-for-pound lists when he bid us a temporary farewell, then he can step into the ring with anyone as the favorite to win; but if he’s Floyd Mayweather the civilian, a once-great fighter who’s doing it just because he needs the cash or he doesn’t know what else to do with himself, then his perfect record could be in danger against any world-class opponent.
No living fighter knows more about comebacks, both successful and unsuccessful, than Leonard. RingTV.com spoke to Sugar Ray over the weekend, and he offered his thoughts on the challenges facing Mayweather.
“It’s not like the old saying about riding a bike. It’s not quite that easy,” Leonard said. “It takes time to really get re-adjusted and re-familiarized with that ring. I can even go back to when I fought Kevin Howard [after his first retirement, which lasted 27 months], I trained my butt off, I was in great shape, but getting into that real ring, it was so different. I didn’t feel like that ring was my domain. It felt foreign to me. And that can be very frightening to a fighter.”
That’s why Leonard typically recommends that a comebacking fighter begin with a tune-up against an opponent with little chance of winning, rather than go the route he went against Hagler. For Mayweather, however, the typical recommendation might not apply.
“Floyd reminds me so much of myself. Not as a fighter, but the way he thinks. He doesn’t think about losing. That’s not in his vocabulary,” Leonard observed. “Floyd Mayweather is so mentally and physically gifted, and he’s only been retired for about a year. If this was three years later, there’s a concern. Look, as far as a tune-up is concerned, it’s never a bad thing. But if he’s where he should be mentally, and given his relatively young age , he can probably do just fine without one.”
If there’s a recent fighter who’s proven that point, it’s the man who won last weekend’s most significant fight, heavyweight belt holder Vitali Klitschko. The elder Klitschko brother returned last October from an injury-fraught 46-month sabbatical and dismantled Sam Peter, a legitimate top two or three heavyweight at the time, as though the 46 months had been 46 days.
Last Saturday night, he won almost as convincingly against Juan Carlos Gomez. It wasn’t exactly a graceful or awe-inspiring performance, but there’s no denying how effective it was. You can give a lot of the credit for Klitschko’s comeback success to the woeful state of the heavyweight division and the absence of capable opponents who don’t share Vitali’s surname, but he still deserves accolades for showing neither his age nor a hint of rust in his last two bouts.
As Klitschko said simply after his win over Peter, “If a fighter has skills, he never loses them.”
The “never” part of that statement is questionable, but boxing history has generally shown that when a fighter takes a long hiatus and returns still in or around his physical prime, his skills usually do remain intact.
Leonard came back successfully at ages 27, 30, and 32, but failed at ages 34 and 40.
Muhammad Ali may have lost a half-step by the time he returned from his 43-month exile at age 28, but he still had enormous success. The same was not true when he unretired to fight Larry Holmes at age 38 or Trevor Berbick at 39.
After a 30-month retirement, Sugar Ray Robinson returned at age 33, and though he was suddenly a lot more vulnerable than he’d been prior, he did manage to win the middleweight championship three more times.
Vicente Saldivar retired as featherweight champ at age 24 and had little trouble regaining the title in his second fight back after returning at 26.
On the other hand, James J. Jeffries, who’d retired as heavyweight champ at age 29, took a pasting from Jack Johnson when he reluctantly returned to the ring as a 35-year-old ex-jock.
Although Mayweather’s body was showing signs of betraying him in recent years, there’s ample reason to believe he’s still the best fighter on the planet, or at least somewhere in the top two or three. So do we really need to see him in with a fringe contender on July 11, using a valuable helping of HBO’s boxing budget and getting in the way of a real world championship fight, between Tomasz Adamek and Bernard Hopkins, that’s being considered for the same date?
He might want a tune-up, he might benefit from a tune-up, but before you say he needs one, consider this: He’s actually been out of action for a shorter period of time than Winky Wright, who is 37 years old and in a couple of weeks will fearlessly enter the ring against borderline pound-for-pounder Paul Williams.
From the perspective of a boxing fan who isn’t specifically a Mayweather die-hard, the prospect of a tune-up fight with an all-but-predetermined outcome holds little appeal.
But Mayweather, of course, has to do what’s best for him – especially if he can make the sort of multimillion-dollar payday to which he’s grown accustomed without taking a major risk.
Following the Sugar Ray Leonard line of thinking, a tune-up to renew his feeling of comfort in the ring couldn’t possibly be a bad thing.
But if Mayweather wants to be celebrated in a manner approaching the way Leonard is for what he accomplished against Hagler, there’s something to be said for calling out the baddest opponent available and understanding that taking chances is part of what defines true greatness.
ÔÇó Time for a quick “upset special” prediction: Eddie Chambers over Sam Peter this Friday by a comfortable decision. And you can take my prediction to the bank, since I haven’t gotten a single game wrong yet in the March Madness bracket. (Just don’t ask whether I filled out a bracket this year.)
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ÔÇó I’m shocked – shocked! — to hear from multiple sources that the Roy Jones-Omar Sheika show was utterly painful to watch. OK, I’m being sarcastic about being shocked that the show stunk. But I’m legitimately shocked that I know multiple people who ordered that garbage.