Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. all-time welterweight greats
Sugar Ray Robinson was as good or better than Floyd Mayweather Jr. in almost all departments but Mayweather's defensive skills would've kept him in the fight. Photo / THE RING
This story originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of THE RING magazine. To subscribe to the magazine, please click here
Floyd Mayweather Jr. was supposed to face future hall of famer Manny Pacquiao but that fight fell through because of a disagreement over drug testing. Now, Mayeather is negotiating to fight Shane Mosley, another of this era’s best fighters. We’ll see whether the talks lead to actual meeting in the ring.
While we wait, just for fun, let’s pit Mayweather against 10 of the top welterweights of all time in imaginary fights and speculate how he might’ve fared. Ask Mayweather where he ranks, and he’ll tell you, “Numero uno.” He’ll look back at the Sugar Rays and think, “No doubt, I could have beaten ’em.” Put the same question to his army of media detractors, and they won’t even concede he’s the best of a bad bunch. For all his undoubted skills, they’ll say he runs scared of the danger men, and instead picks fights with little guys.
So where lies the truth? How would the 2010 version of “Money” Mayweather have fared against 10 of the best 147-pound division has had over the last century?
If we were to rank Mayweather on the basis of his welterweight record alone, he’d fall well short. He is 40-0 (25 knockouts) overall but at 147 or above he’s only 6-0. Sharmba Mitchell, Zab Judah, Carlos Baldomir, Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatto and Juan Manuel Marquez are solid enough, but we’d feel more comfortable if names like Mosley, Cotto, Margarito, and Williams were also on his resume.
This is about ability rather than record, though, so let’s be clear: We’re talking about Mayweather as he is now, against, say, Henry Armstrong as he was in 1938. Given all the advances in terms of diet, training and technique, we’ll make one allowance for the old-timers: These fights will take place under the rules as of then rather than now – 15 rounds, six-ounce gloves, same-day weigh-in (although this wouldn’t worry Mayweather, who makes 147-pounds with ease).
The next problem is to pick our Top 10. If we were to rate them solely on what they achieved at welterweight, we’d need to include men from the turn of the 19th century such as Tommy Ryan and Joe Walcott. But that would stack things too strongly in Floyd’s favor. Unless you’re of the Nat Fleischer school, which views the early champions as men of a higher order, you’d have to concede that Mayweather would have too much in his arsenal of skills for anyone from that era. Take a look at fights from the 1900s on YouTube.com to see what we mean.
Even keeping it to the last 100 years, there are greats we have to leave out – Jack Britton, Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis, Barney Ross, Jimmy McLarnin, Luis Rodriguez, Roberto Duran, Pernell Whitaker, Felix Trinidad and De La Hoya.
Still, the list we’ve picked will give Mayweather plenty to think about.
Note: The opinion of author Gavin Evans does not necessarily reflect that of the RingTV.com editors.
MAYWEATHER VS. SUGAR RAY ROBINSON
Credentials: Mayweather, who did most of his fighting at junior lightweight, can’t compare with Robinson when it comes to his welterweight record. Sugar Ray had his first 23 fights at or around lightweight, and after nine months as a professional, trounced reigning champion Sammy Angott. From 1941 to 1950, he was a welterweight who did most of his fighting against middleweights. For example, when he beat Jake LaMotta for the second time, in 1943, he gave away 16 pounds. He also beat welterweight champions Marto Servo (twice), Fritzie Zivic (twice) and Henry Armstrong, but it was only after 85 fights that Robinson got a title shot. He reigned for four years, making five defenses, one of them over future Hall of Famer Kid Gavilan, whom he also shaded in a non-title fight. When he finally left the welterweight division in 1950, his record stood at 110-1-2. Incidentally, the blemishes were against middleweights.
Physical Equipment: The 5-foot-11 Robinson would have a three-inch height advantage, but his reach of 72¾ inches was only a half inch longer than Mayweather’s. Robinson began to experience weight troubles over the final two years of his welterweight reign, when his peak fighting weight was around 155 pounds (Mayweather steps into the ring at around 152).
Strengths and Weaknesses: Robinson was a beautifully balanced boxer-puncher, his footwork and hand-speed dazzling, his timing and accuracy impeccable, and he could fight at any range. He had chilling power in his left hook and right cross, the ability to end a fight at any moment with one punch, and the instinct never to let a man off the hook. Like Mayweather, he had a good chin – dropped five times prior to moving up, but only twice by welterweights. His defense was fundamentally sound, but he took far more punches than, say, Willie Pep or Mayweather. Watch films of Sugar Ray as a middleweight and you might be surprised how many punches he absorbed. He did not much like boxers with slick skills and top-class jabs (Tommy Bell and Gavilan gave him trouble). Mayweather is a defensive master – very difficult to tag cleanly, even up-close where his trick of raising his shoulder and twisting his body is highly effective. He would have a significant edge in defense, but the busier, harder hitting, more aggressive Robinson would have a big edge in offense.
Outcome: This would be a very tough fight for Robinson. Mayweather is extremely slippery and his punch placement is often perfect, so he would slip and land frequently. But Sugar Ray’s foot and hand speed would mean that his success rate would be far higher than that of any other Mayweather opponent. Over 15 rounds, Robinson’s aggression and work rate would secure him a close but unanimous decision.
MAYWEATHER VS. HENRY ARMSTRONG
Credentials: Armstrong moved up from featherweight in 1938. Weighing 133 pounds, fully clothed and fed, he mauled Barney Ross to win the world welterweight title. Over the next two years, he defended the welterweight title 18 times, while also winning the world lightweight title (meaning that he held three world titles at the same time). He was robbed in a bid for a version of the middleweight crown against Ceferino Garcia, who escaped with a draw. Armstrong lost the title to Fritzie Zivic, who also beat him in a rematch (though “Homicide Hank” won their third bout). The division was weak at the time, but Armstrong beat some good welterweights along the way, including Ross, Garcia, Zivic and Pedro Montanez.
Physical Equipment: “Money Mayweather” would have significant advantages, 2¾ inches in height, 5 inches in reach, and 10 to 15 pounds in fighting weight, even with a same day weigh-in (Armstrong weighed at or under the lightweight limit for eight of his welterweight title fights).
Strengths and Weaknesses: Armstrong’s assets were immense: an unprecedented work rate, freakish physical strength for his size, and immense stamina that allowed him to maintain his non-stop, high-pressure, up-close style for 15 rounds. He also had the speed and skill to close down fleet-footed opponents, along with quick hands and reflexes, good head movement, and, in his prime, an impervious chin. He would swarm all over bigger men, battering their bodies and raking their heads with a non-stop tattoo of leather. In the lighter weights, he had impressive power (once scoring 27 knockouts in a row), but at welterweight most stoppages came through the accumulation of fast, solid punches (14 of his 18 challengers failed to last the distance). Negatives? He lost several bouts as a result of foul tactics (mainly low blows) and his all-night partying and heavy drinking contributed to an early decline. His style meant that he took a lot of punishment, particularly since he was fighting almost once a month as champion (23 fights in 26 months).
Outcome: Armstrong struggled with the precision and skill of Lou Ambers at lightweight (but deserved both decisions); Mayweather struggled with the pressure of Jose Luis Castillo at lightweight (but won both decisions). Armstrong’s speed, pressure, work rate and ability to cut off the ring would give Mayweather headaches, but Floyd is also a master in-fighter and, as he showed against Ricky Hatton, and has the strength and skill to defuse or tie-up relentless, close-quarter attacks. He couldn’t match Armstrong’s work rate, but he would land a far higher percentage of punches. In the end, Mayweather’s advantages in size and defensive skill would be decisive, and he would win a fairly close but clear decision.
MAYWEATHER VS. KID GAVILAN
Credentials: Gavilan was champion for 3¾ years, during a hot spell for the welterweight division. He started as a 17-year-old featherweight in Cuba, and by the age of 20 had moved up to welterweight and migrated to New York. In 1948, aged 22 (with 53 fights to his name), he took on Ray Robinson in a non-title fight and gave him fits. Robinson won, but the crowd booed. Seven wins later he challenged Sugar Ray for the title, and again it was close, although this time Robinson clearly deserved it. Two years later, he trounced Johnny Bratton to become world champion. He won a controversial verdict over old rival Billy Graham in his first defense, but when they fought again, 14 months later, Gavilan won easily. Along the way he broke the unbeaten records of leading contenders Gil Turner and Chuck Davey, and in his fifth defense rose from a heavy knockdown to outpoint a peak Carmen Basilio. After a sixth defense, against old foe Johnny Bratton, he moved up to challenge Bobo Olson for the world middleweight title, and fighting with a broken hand, lost a majority decision. Gavilan finally lost the title on a dodgy verdict against the mob-backed Johnny Saxton, after which his form plummeted. He also beat several of the world’s leading middleweights.
Physical Equipment: At 5-foot-10¾, Gavilan would have an advantage of 2¾ inches, but Mayweather’s reach is an inch longer. Gavilan made 147-pounds without a sweat.
Strengths And Weaknesses: “The Cuban Hawk” could be dazzling when in the mood – a highly skilled boxer who seldom fought on the back foot. His defensive prowess and reflexes were remarkable, and he had one of the hardest chins around (dropped just twice in 143 fights). He preferred to stay at mid-range and fire combinations of blistering punches. His work rate, aggression and flashy style (that included the bolo punch) made him a crowd favorite. Weaknesses included the lack of a big punch (just 28 stoppages) and inconsistent form. A few of the decisions against him were dubious, and some were against middleweights, but he nevertheless lost several non-title bouts to lesser men (14 losses and four draws in his 116 fights prior to losing his world title).
Outcome: Mayweather is the harder puncher and has the edge in pure defensive prowess; Gavilan is busier and more aggressive. It might depend on which version turned up. Floyd would beat the lethargic Kid who fought Billy Graham in 1951, but the inspired version who trounced Graham in 1952 would be a different story. Mayweather is an extremely consistent performer, albeit one who fights nowhere near as frequently as Gavilan. Mayweather via split decision.
MAYWEATHER VS. RAY LEONARD
Credentials: Sugar Ray won the Olympic junior welterweight gold medal in 1976, and then picked up 25 welterweight wins (one of them, incidentally, against Floyd Mayweather Sr.) before handing defensive master Wilfred Benitez his first loss, dropping and then stopping him in the 15th to win the WBC belt. After knocking out Dave “Boy” Green in four rounds, Leonard looked set for a long reign. But in his second defense he went toe-to-toe with a determined Duran and deservedly lost his title on a close unanimous decision. In the return, however, Sugar Ray danced and taunted, until “Hands Of Stone” ran out of ideas and patience, and pulled his “no mas” stunt in the eighth. After another defense, Leonard moved up to stop Ayub Kalule for the WBA junior middleweight title before unifying the welterweight title by coming from behind to batter Tommy Hearns to defeat in the 14th round. He retired after only one more defense, a detached retina prompting the decision. The rest of his career (four wins, two losses, and a draw) was fought above welterweight, but those wins over Hearns, Duran, and Benitez mean his credentials at 147-pounds are significantly better than Mayweather’s, although the gap is not quite as wide as with Robinson, Armstrong, or Gavilan.
Physical Equipment: Leonard would have a 2-inch advantage in both height and reach and is naturally a bigger man than Mayweather. He never had weight troubles at a time of same-day weigh-ins.
Strengths And Weaknesses: Leonard’s blend of speed, skill, technique, power, versatility, ring intelligence and killer instinct was unmatched in his era. He could box, he could brawl, carried knockout power in both hands and was an excellent body puncher. His footwork was beautiful to watch, his defense tight, his reflexes as sharp as they come, and he could take a good shot (never dropped at welterweight). Leonard was also extremely consistent. If we are to search for negatives, we could say that Duran succeeded into goading him into a brawl, Hearns outboxed him for long spells, and Benitez frequently made him miss. But he eventually got the better of all these men.
Outcome: Mayweather, a far more cautious boxer than Leonard, is one of the few who could match Sugar Ray’s speed, reflexes and footwork, and surpass his defensive skills (in fact, his defense is better than even Benitez’s). Leonard, however, was bigger, busier, more aggressive and carried significantly more power. Mayweather would succeed in befuddling him for long stretches, but if he could only squeak home against De La Hoya (admittedly at junior middle), it would not be quite enough against Sugar Ray. Leonard wins on a unanimous decision.
MAYWEATHER VS. CHARLEY BURLEY
Credentials: Burley is regarded as one of the finest middleweights of them all – the man who outclassed Archie Moore and was avoided by Ray Robinson. But he also had an outstanding welterweight run, coming in at between 145-150-pounds on 38 occasions. He turned professional at 19 and went 16-1 before losing a disputed split decision to top welterweight contender Fritzie Zivic, when he was just 20. Burley avenged that three months later and also won their rubber match by a mile, but it was Zivic who got the title shot (beating Armstrong to become world champion). Instead, Burley had to be satisfied with the “Colored Welterweight Title” he won from the excellent Cocoa Kid, whom he dropped three times. The only welterweight on par with Burley was the highly skilled Holman Williams. In their first fight, in 1939, Burley scored three knockdowns, but Williams got the decision. In the rematch, in 1942, Burley prevailed. After that, he abandoned the 147-pound division and got the better of some of the world’s best middleweights, light heavyweights and one heavyweight (giving away 69 pounds but stopping the 220-pound J.D. Turner).
Physical Equipment: Burley stood 5-foot-9¾ and for the first six years of his career seemed comfortable making welterweight. Even when he moved up, he was on the small side (151 pounds for his second fight with the 160-pound Ezzard Charles), and would happily have returned to 147 for a title shot.
Strengths and Weaknesses: The only fight film of Burley (his win over the light-heavyweight Oakland Billy Smith in 1946) shows him to be slippery, perfectly balanced and extremely accurate with his overhand right. He was a precision puncher with impeccable timing and he owned one of the hardest chins in the game. Moore, whom he dropped four times, described him as the finest he faced: “as slick as lard and twice as greasy.” But Burley was not perfect. Highly skilled boxers such as Williams troubled him, and they ended up with three wins apiece. He was twice whipped by the speedy Charles and nearly stopped him in their first bout. Other slick middleweights who edged him included Lloyd Marshall and Jimmy Bivens. Like Mayweather, Burley had hand troubles, contributing to his third welterweight defeat against Jimmy Leto (later avenged).
Outcome: Burley mixed training with day jobs. For example, he took the Moore gig at the last moment, and completed his shift at an aircraft factory on the day of the fight. With time to train and a title at stake, he’d be even more formidable. Mayweather’s speed and elusiveness would be troublesome, but it would not be enough (Charles, Bivens, and Marshall were big middleweights, not smallish welterweights). Burley could match Mayweather’s defensive brilliance and hit significantly harder. He’d drop Floyd on his way to winning a close 15-round decision.
Gavin Evans is a London-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to THE RING magazine.