Commentary: Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s place among the modern greats
In late June, Michael Rosenthal sent me an email with the words “top 20 pd4pd” in the subject line. THE RING editor wanted to know if I could rank the 20 greatest fighters of all time, in my opinion. My list would be presented along with those of nine other “historians” in a feature for the October 2014 edition of the magazine previewing the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Marcos Maidana rematch.
The point of what became a rankings poll that eventually expanded to include 20 “knowledgeable boxing historians and writers” was, in Rosenthal’s words, “to give readers an idea of where (Floyd) Mayweather stands according to ‘experts.'”
You all know me; I won’t turn down the request of anyone who refers to me as a “boxing expert” (just look at how many YouTube interviews I’ve done with Elie Seckbach). I accepted Rosenthal’s task and took it seriously, making a list of active boxers that are consensus locks for first-ballot hall of fame induction – Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao, Bernard Hopkins, Juan Manuel Marquez, Wladimir Klitschko and Miguel Cotto among others – and then I cracked open my most recent edition of The Boxing Register, the official record book of the International Boxing Hall of Fame (IBHOF), so I could compile the established legends and standouts of the sport.
I put together a list of nearly 70 fighters, which also included those who aren’t yet in the hall of fame but are no longer considered “elite” active boxers – stubborn, semi-retired former champions such as Roy Jones Jr., James Toney and Evander Holyfield.
After several days of meticulous research and internal debate, I had my top 20. No active fighter made my list, but a few came close and many populated a second list of 40 “honorable mention” fighters that I compiled for future articles (such as this one). I promptly emailed my 20 all-time greats to Rosenthal, who thanked me for my time, complimented me on my selection, but then added that the list was meant for “modern” boxers as defined by the IBHOF, which categorizes any fighter whose last bout was prior to 1943 as an “Old-Timer.”
Well, with such legendary Old-Timers as Sam Langford, Harry Greb, Mickey Walker, Benny Leonard, Jack Johnson, Tony Canzoneri and Lou Ambers automatically jettisoned from my list, there was potentially room for some of the most accomplished boxers of recent decades to make my top 20.
Holyfield and Hopkins made my list – barely.
But why those two? Why not Mayweather, Jones, Pacquiao or Marquez? It’s a reasonable question – one that I’m often asked by fans who write into my weekly mailbag columns – and I’ll try to answer it with this article. First I’ll present my requirements for the boxers who made my top 20, and then the list.
My main criteria:
1. Quality of opposition. The more hall-of-fame enshrined opponents – or fighters that most knowledgeable observers believe will one day be in the IBHOF – that a fighter has faced, the higher he was ranked on my list.
In general, a victory over a hall of famer earned more points than a loss or draw, but not in every case. I took into account the natural weight classes of the fighters and the division the bout took place in.
For example, Marvin Halger and Roberto Duran, two hall of famers, fought in 1983. Halger defended his undisputed middleweight championship with a unanimous but competitive 15-round decision. However, Duran – a natural lightweight – received more credit for that bout in my rankings analysis than did Hagler, a natural middleweight and one of the best 160 pounders of all time.
I also took into account where the fighters were in their respective careers. A victory over a faded hall of famer obviously counted less than a victory – or even a draw or competitive loss – against a hall of famer who was at or near his prime.
For example, Rocky Marciano – who made the lists of eight out of the 20 experts polled – has victories over fellow hall of famers Joe Louis, Jersey Joe Walcott and Archie Moore; however, the advanced ages of that trio was enough to keep “The Rock” out of my top 20.
Fighters also received consideration for the number of champions, titleholders, and bona-fide top-10 contenders they faced. Titleholders didn’t necessarily rate higher than top contenders. For example, a fight with Bert Lytell, a top middleweight contender during the 1940s who never received a shot at the title and isn’t in the hall of fame, is worth a hell of a lot more than a victory over a modern alphabet titleholder, such as Victor Ortiz or Andre Berto, in my view. (This stuff goes without saying, right?)
2. Consensus recognition as the best, or one of the top fighters of all time, in a specific division. Fighters who have established themselves – in the eyes of historians, media and fans – as being among the five-to-10 best boxers ever in a single weight class received a huge boost in my ratings. And I wasn’t alone with this criterion.
True legends, such as Sugar Ray Robinson – widely regarded as the one of the best welterweights and middleweights ever (if not the best) – Muhammad Ali, one of the top two heavyweights of all time (along with Louis), and Duran, the people’s choice for greatest lightweight ever, made the lists of all 20 experts polled for the magazine feature.
Louis, Willie Pep, who is widely regarded as the best featherweight ever, and Henry Armstrong, who often makes the all-time top 10 in three weight classes (featherweight, lightweight and welterweight), made almost all 20 lists.
This criterion helped both Holyfield, regarded as the best cruiserweight ever and one of the 10 greatest heavyweights, and Hopkins, who is considered one of the top five middleweights by many historians, to make my top 20.
Also, I gave more consideration to fighters who are among the all-time best of the original weight classes – such as lightweight, middleweight and heavyweight, which were established in the 1880s – than those who top the modern divisions that were started up in the 1980s, such as strawweight, junior bantamweight, super middleweight and cruiserweight. So Ricardo Lopez, the consensus choice as the greatest 105 pounder, and Jones, who I view as the top 168 pounder ever, didn’t get the same push that B-Hop did for establishing himself as one of the all-time best 160 pounders (or that Holyfield got for being recognized as one of the great heavyweight champs).
3. Being a top contender in multiple weight classes. One didn’t have to win championships or even alphabet belts in separate divisions for this consideration because I realize the sport wasn’t handing out world titles like candy on Halloween during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. So standouts such as Archie Moore, Billy Conn and Ezzard Charles, who fought hall of fame opposition in three divisions – middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight – but “only” held championships in one division (Moore and Conn at light heavyweight; Charles at heavyweight) still received extra consideration.
Fighters who were multiple division champs or top contenders during the eras of eight, 10 and 12 weight classes received more consideration than those of the current era of 17 weight classes.
4. Winning world titles. The undisputed championships that fighters won in the era before multiple “world” titles are worth more than single sanctioning organization belts in my view. Fighters who were part of the fractured-titles era (post-1960s) who held or unified all of the major titles in their weight classes, as Holyfield did at both cruiserweight and heavyweight, Hagler and Hopkins did at middleweight, Pernell Whitaker did at lightweight, and Tyson did at heavyweight, received more consideration than fighters who only held one or two belts in a particular weight class.
Bonus points/considerations (the following accomplishments resulted in an extra push in my ratings):
* Fighters who won 150 or more bouts – Pep, who won a sublime 229 prize fights and is the only “modern boxer” with over 200 victories, received a tremendous push up my rankings for this accomplishment. Moore (who came close to the 200-win club with 185 victories), Robinson (173) and Armstrong (150) were also boosted in my rankings for winning as many fights as they did. All four are in my top 10. The boxing world will never see these kinds of stats again.
* Fighters who won more than 100 bouts – Holman Williams, one of the great African-American contenders of the 1930s/’40s who never received a title shot, tops this group with 146 career victories. I was pleased to see his name on three lists. Sandy Saddler (144), who was on 11 lists, Ike Williams (127), Kid Gavilan (108), Luis Rodriguez (107), Chavez (107), Marcel Cerdan (105) and Duran (103) all received extra consideration from Yours Truly.
* Fighters who set divisional and all-time records – Armstrong (for simultaneously holding three world titles and setting the welterweight title defense record), Louis (for the all-time title defense record in any weight class), Chavez (for the most title-bout victories and title bouts in history) and Hopkins (for being the oldest champion, having the longest middleweight title reign and setting the middleweight title defense record) all cleaned up with this one.
* Fighters who faced the fellow elite fighters of their divisions/eras – Ali and Joe Frazier received a push for facing each other when both were undefeated with legitimate claims to the heavyweight championship. So did Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns, who fought each other in their primes, when both were clearly the top two welterweights in the world and among the best of any weight. So did Salvador Sanchez and Wilfredo Gomez for settling who was better when the Mexican master was the best featherweight in the world and the Puerto Rican star was the top junior featherweight (arguably ever). So did Whitaker and Chavez, who fought each other when they topped the mythical pound-for-pound lists of every boxing publication and sports writer.
Mayweather and Pacquiao dropped the ball bigtime with this one, and it cost them both in my final analysis. Even Jones, who is rightfully criticized for cherry picking opponents during his prime years, fought James Toney when Lights Out was considered the best super middleweight in the game and was near the top of most pound-for-pound rankings.
Young fans who bitch and moan about how unfair it is to compare modern boxers to Golden Age legends like Pep, Moore and Robinson, who fought more than 200 bouts, should take note that Ali “only” had 61 fights. Whitaker (who fought 46 pro bouts) and Leonard (who fought 40) were on almost every list for the magazine poll (usually in the top 10). Gomez (48), Sanchez (46) and Frazier, who had less than 40 bouts (37), made it onto a handful of lists. All six are considered great fighters by most historians. It’s not always about volume or longevity. Sometimes it’s about making the most of your prime (and in Sanchez’s case, taking advantage of a tragically short time on this earth).
I’ll be the first to admit that the criterion I used to compile this list is far from an exact science. It was just one longtime boxing fanatic’s mix of opinion and methodology. For the record, though I didn’t agree with the selection of everyone who took part in the poll, I had no problem with anyone’s top 20. They were all really good and worth checking out. Here’s mine:
- Sugar Ray Robinson
- Henry Armstrong
- Willie Pep
- Ezzard Charles
- Muhammad Ali
- Archie Moore
- Joe Louis
- Roberto Duran
- Billy Conn
- Sugar Ray Leonard
- Pernell Whitaker
- Julio Cesar Chavez
- Ike Williams
- Emile Griffith
- Carlos Ortiz
- Sandy Saddler
- Jimmy Bivins
- Sammy Angott
- Evander Holyfield
- Bernard Hopkins
Forty honorable mention (in alphabetical order): Alexis Arguello, Marco Antonio Barrera, Carmen Basilio, Wilfred Benitez, Charley Burley, Joe Calzaghe, Miguel Canto, Marcel Cerdan, Oscar De La Hoya, George Foreman, Bob Foster, Joe Frazier, Kid Gavilan, Wilfredo Gomez, Marvin Hagler, Fighting Harada, Thomas Hearns, Larry Holmes, Eder Jofre, Harold Johnson, Roy Jones Jr., Jake LaMotta, Lennox Lewis, Ricardo Lopez, Rocky Marciano, Lloyd Marshall, Juan Manuel Marquez, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Erik Morales, Carlos Monzon, Jose Napoles, Ruben Olivares, Manuel Ortiz, Manny Pacquiao, Luis Rodriguez, Salvador Sanchez, Felix Trinidad, Holman Williams, Tony Zale and Carlos Zarate.
I have no doubt that Mayweather fans believe their hero is more worthy than the fighters I ranked from 13 to 20 (and everyone he’s grouped with in the 40 honorable mentions, which is kind of laughable, but I know how these folks think). Hey, using different criterion, one can make that argument. But using mine, Mayweather takes a back seat to a forgotten fighters like Sammy Angott and Jimmy Bivins, who didn’t make the lists of anyone else who was polled for the magazine feature.
Sammy who? Angott was a former lightweight champ who won 94 bouts, faced some the best 135 pounders ever (including Ike Williams and Bob Montgomery) and two of the all-time greats, Robinson and Pep, when those two were undefeated and in their primes. Angott, who faced 10 hall of famers, was the first man to beat Pep in the pro ranks. Check him out on boxrec.
Jimmy who? Bivins was a contender at middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight during the 1940s. The “Cleveland Spider-Man” never received a shot at a world title, but he was inducted into the IBHOF in 1999.
Am I just being nostalgic by including the likes of Angott and Bivins among the “modern” greats? Maybe. Am I overlooking Mayweather’s considerable accomplishments? I don’t think so.
One of Mayweather’s primary claims to “greatness” is being unbeaten in 46 pro contests. It’s an impressive run to be sure, one that has lasted 18 years. Joe Calzaghe recently earned a first-ballot induction into the IBHOF with a 46-0 record. Of course, nobody is claiming the Welsh wizard is an all-time great (well, nobody on this side of the Pond, anyway).
Carlos Zarate, the former bantamweight champ who was inducted into the IBHOF in 1994, won his first 46 fights – all by knockout (a streak that included his WBC title victory and a non-title stoppage of WBA counterpart and fellow KO artist Alfonso Zamora ). However, Zarate, who finished his career with a 66-4 (63 knockouts) record isn’t even considered the greatest 118 pounder from Mexico. That distinction goes to Ruben Olivares, who was unbeaten in his first 61 bouts (55 he won by KO). It should be noted that Zarate and Olivares forged their legends after their first losses.
It’s the same story with other hall of famers who began their careers with extended win streaks, including “uncrowned welterweight champ” Billy Graham (who was unbeaten in his first 58 pro bouts), Pep (who won his first 62 bouts), former two-time middleweight champ Nino Benvenuti (who went 65-0 – after going 120-0 as an amateur – before suffering his first loss).
But Mayweather’s win streak has real substance to it. Even a so-called “hater” like me has to admit that. Mayweather has faced quality opposition at junior lightweight, lightweight, junior welterweight, welterweight and junior middleweight. The question I had to ask when considering him among the modern greats was how many of his opponents are in the IBHOF (and how many will be)?
Oscar De La Hoya and Arturo Gatti are currently enshrined. De La Hoya definitely deserves to be there. I’m not so sure about Gatti. Marquez, Shane Mosley and Miguel Cotto are locks for future induction in my opinion. Genaro Hernandez and Ricky Hatton are borderline inductees. Longshots include Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo. I think one or two of the borderline or longshots will make it in eventually (Hernandez and Hatton, if I had to guess), which would be six or seven hall of famers Mayweather faced in 46 pro bouts. That’s excellent. It’s arguably great. But allow me to put that in perspective.
Bivins – who most “experts” and historians do not consider an all-time great – faced and defeated six hall of famers during the first 46 bouts of his career: Ezzard Charles (who made 14 out of the 20 lists), Charley Burley (who made the top 10s of two lists), Joey Maxim (who owns wins over Jersey Joe Walcott and Robinson), Teddy Yarosz (who beat a young Conn and Moore), Billy Soose (who beat Tony Zale) and the very underrated Lloyd Marshall (who owns a stoppage victory over Charles and decisions over Burley and Jake LaMotta, who appeared as high as No. 10 on one list).
Along with the six hall of famers he faced during his first 46 bouts, Bivins also defeated the reigning light heavyweight champ Gus Lesnevich (in a non-title bout) and nine other RING-rated contenders, including former champ Melio Bettina (facing most of them at least twice).
And those 46 bouts took place between January 1940 and February 1944, a span of just a little over four years. Think about that. In less than one-fourth of the time it’s taken Mayweather to compile his arguably great ledger, Bivins faced a comparable number of hall of famers in the same number of bouts.
Now, Mayweather boosters can say, “So? Did Jimmy go unbeaten?” No, he didn’t, his record in his first 46 bouts was 41-5, including one stoppage loss (to Lem Franklin in July 1941). However, I would counter The Money Team Army by noting that Bivins faced higher caliber hall of famers, including two that many consider all-time greats (Charles and Burley), and then reminding them that Bivins’ career continued for another 10 years (1945-’55) and 66 bouts. And during that span Bivins battled Moore – who appeared on 17 lists, often in the top 10 – five times (losing four, but winning the first match by sixth-round KO). He also fought Charles four more times, Maxim once more, Walcott, Harold Johnson and Louis (late in the great heavyweight’s career). In all, Bivins faced 10 hall of famers.
I can hear the Mayweather cheerleaders now, “Golly Gee Wilikers, Dougie, it’s not Floyd’s fault that he came of age in during an era when elite boxers only fight once or twice a year and sometimes avoid each other. You can’t compare him with those guys from the ’40s and ’50s who fought everybody they could just to put food on the table.”
Um, sure I can. And don’t act like I’m picking on Mayweather by measuring him against fighters like Angott and Bivins (forget about Robinson, Armstrong, Pep, Louis and Ali). I didn’t put that “TBE” hat on his head. He did that. He’s the one who claims to be “The Best Ever.” If you want to be recognized as the greatest of all time, you’re going to be compared with the standouts of every era. Deal with it.
However, the story isn’t over for Mayweather. By the end of the night on Sept. 13, he should be 47-0 with two more fights on his Showtime contract. He should make those two bouts count, and consider something very special for his 50th pro bout should he decide to continue boxing.
No, I’m not going to suggest a showdown with Pacquiao; that ship sailed four years ago. But I think he should try to do what many dominant welterweight champs of the past have done by going for a major middleweight title.
Duran, who I must remind Mayweather fans was on the lists of all 20 experts polled, won a version of the middleweight title (taking the WBC belt from Iran Barkley with a split decision in THE RING’s Fight of the Year for 1989). He did this when he was Mayweather’s age (37).
Mayweather could target the winner of the proposed matchup between Al Haymon-managed middleweights Daniel Jacobs and Peter Quillin for the generally worthless “regular” WBA strap, but that would be aiming relatively low in my opinion.
Taking on the winner of the potential Cotto-Canelo Alvarez clash for THE RING and WBC 160-pound championship would make for an anticipated rematch, a successful pay-per-view event, and legacy boosting accomplishment if he won (and he would be favored to do so).
But if Mayweather wants to make a real statement and do something worthy of all-time great status he could take a page out of the books of Ali, Leonard and Hopkins and take on a monster, a feared fighter who is knocking everybody out. Ali did it when he challenged Sonny Liston and George Foreman for the heavyweight title 10 years apart. Leonard did it with his welterweight showdown with Hearns (and to an extent when he came out of retirement to challenge Halger).
Hopkins, nearly 50 years old, will do it when he faces Sergey Kovalev in their light heavyweight title unification bout in November.
The boogey man of the middleweight division is undefeated WBA titleholder Gennady Golovkin. Mayweather should challenge Golovkin if the technical pressure-fighting power hitter remains unbeaten over the next year or so (which he should).
Could Mayweather get seriously hurt fighting a middleweight punisher like Golovkin? Yep, you better believe it. Is this asking too much? Maybe. But Mayweather isn’t going to displace grizzled old warriors like Holyfield and Hopkins on my top-20 list of modern greats by playing it safe.
The poll of experts to determine the Top 20 boxers since World War II appears in the October 2014 issue of THE RING Magazine, which is on newsstands now. Don’t know where to find a newsstand near you that sells THE RING Magazine? Click here. To subscribe ÔÇö both to the print and digital versions ÔÇö click here. You can also purchase the current issue on that page.
Email Fischer at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @dougiefischer