Comparing fighters from different eras can be perilous
People love to compare boxers of different eras. How would Manny Pacquiao have fared against Henry Armstrong? Could Floyd Mayweather Jr. have given Sugar Ray Robinson a good fight? How would Bernard Hopkins have done against Marvin Hagler?
Of course, the comparison game also is played in the heavyweight division, which is where people get into trouble.
Two historians debated in a Yahoo! Sports column a mythical matchup between Rocky Marciano and Vitali Klitschko, one sure that the Brockton Blockbuster would destroy his bigger foe and the other just as certain Dr. Ironfist would emerge victorious.
Fun, provocative stuff, particularly because there is no right and wrong. The danger is that some observers measure a fighter’s greatness on how he might’ve done head to head with someone from a different era, which is a mistake.
For example, some of those convinced that Klitschko would crush Marciano because of their vast size difference — 6-7¾ (202cm) and about 250 pounds (113kg) to 5-10 (178cm) and 187 (85kg) — then proclaim Klitschko the greater fighter even though the evidence doesn’t support that.
A fighter’s greatness is based on his accomplishments during his era, with emphasis on quality of opposition. All the rest is speculation.
“It’s impossible to compare fighters from different eras,” said historian and author Bert Sugar. “ÔÇª Did Klitschko fight Georges Carpentier? If he did, then I could compare him to Jack Dempsey. Did Klitschko fight Jess Willard? Then I could get a comparison. Otherwise I can’t.
“You can only rate someone in the context of their time. Anything else is illogical.”
Marciano might very well be too small for Klitschko if he could somehow be plucked out of the past and matched with the giant Ukrainian. In an era of smaller heavyweights, though, he compiled a record of 49-0 (43 knockouts) and beat four Hall of Famers (although two, Joe Louis and Archie Moore, had faded). No one Klitschko (41-2, 38 KOs) has beaten will even make the Hall of Fame ballot.
So who do you rate higher? Marciano, of course.
“It’s always interesting to talk about,” said Henry Hascup, who with Cliff Rold helps prepare the International Boxing Hall of Fame ballot. “I’ve always said that Muhammad Ali has the best resume. He fought the best and beat the best. I’ll put his record against anyone in the division. It’s very hard to compare fighters from different eras, though.
“It would be hard to say how one Klitschko might do against the other. Nevermind how they’d do against Ali or Louis. All you can go by is their record.”
Even comparing resumes can be difficult.
Rold used Hopkins and middleweight legend Harry Greb as examples. On one hand, comparing a fighter with 299 fights and victories over 15 or more Hall of Famers (Greb) to one with 58 fights and victories over five or six future Hall members (Hopkins) is impossible. On the other hand, he said, “You can compare their dominance in their era and the longevity they had in their division.”
At the same time, Rold isn’t as adverse as others to comparing heavyweights from different eras regardless of size.
He pointed out that there have always been behemoths in boxing, some of whom were pretty good. For example, Buddy Baer (51-7, 47 KOs) was 6-6¾ and as heavy as 250 pounds — about the size of the Klitschko brothers — and had some ability. Jess Willard (6-6¾) was another decent heavyweight. Others, of course, were hapless.
Either way, smaller fighters were able to overcome size disadvantages because of their abilities. Baer and Willard were stopped respectively by Louis and Dempsey, neither of whom was much bigger than Marciano.
“The heavyweight division is an unlimited weight class,” Rold said. “The fighters are supposed to be big. And not everyone is the same size. Jack Johnson, Larry Holmes, Ali, Evander Holyfield before the mid-’90s. These guys were all sub-210. Joe Frazier was barely over 200 at his peak. These guys all fought bigger men. Some did great, some didn’t.
“It depended on whether the bigger man could fight. Now there just happens to be two big men who can fight.”
Indeed there is. It’s safe to say that Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko are better fighters than the best giants of the pre-Riddick Bowe and Lennox Lewis generations, because of both their records and from observation.
“I anticipate they’ll rank much higher [than they might now] when they’re done,” said Rold, referring to the Klitschkos.
And it will have nothing to do with whether they could’ve beaten Marciano.