Floyd Mayweather, Jr., improved his flawless record to 46-0 after notching a majority decision over rough-hewn Marcos Maidana on May 3. It was his umpteenth championship victory and another successful business venture for one of the biggest moneymakers in boxing history. Since winning his first title at junior lightweight in 1998, Mayweather has proven himself to be one of the best fighters of his era. But how would he have fared against some of the welterweight legends of the past?
Trying to compare eras is relatively futile, since contemporary boxing bears only a slight resemblance to the sport of 60-80 years ago. Until about the early 1970s, generally speaking, there were only 8-10 accepted weight classes and one champion per division. There were also three or four times as many professional fighters practicing the Sweet Science, which made competition both plentiful and fierce. Most important, perhaps, is the fact that premium cable channels did not exist; fighters had to appeal to the sporting masses to make a living. They did that, for the most part, by fighting the best competition available. When the only way a fighter—and a promoter, for that matter—could prosper was by attracting an audience, the matchups were invariably better. Even during the closed-circuit era—roughly from the early 1950s to the late 1980s—the production costs were so daunting that promoters could risk only putting the biggest attractions together. If an event failed, the promoter faced financial ruin.
Ultimately, the outlandish fees paid by HBO and Showtime over the last 20 years or so for mediocre bouts—combined with the impulse-buy nature of pay-per-view—have created a false market where fighters flourish regardless of their opposition. All of this—along with the new weight divisions and four madcap sanctioning bodies–has led to hundreds of fugazi achievements. The boxing record books now make as much sense as the scrawling David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz left behind on his apartment walls. A good case could be made for calling Mayweather the best fighter of the last 25 years. But here are four welterweights who might have left the self-proclaimed “Best Ever” humbled. (Note: These pieces were originally written six months ago for inclusion in a larger feature on Grantland. For some reason, that article was never printed.)
A nearly unstoppable combination of wile and ferocity, Roberto Duran turned pro in Panama at 15 and embarked on a reign of terror that lasted nearly a decade. It began when he mauled stylish Ken Buchanan for the world title in 1972 and ended with his notorious tank job against Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980. But for eight years Duran reminded bitter stogie-chewing old-timers of glory days gone by. Notable for a mean streak whose existence had nothing to do with Twitter or TMZ, Duran was a pressure fighter from hell. But what separated him from other run-of-the-mill aggressors was a superb defense, one predicated on angles precise as those drawn up in AutoCAD. Only gifted Esteban De Jesus, who handed Duran his first “L” in 1972, troubled “Hands of Stone” in his prime. And Duran twice avenged his loss to De Jesus in subsequent years.
After 12 title defenses of his lightweight title, Duran rose to welter, where he took a few stopgap fights (including one against future Hall of Famer Carlos Palomino!) before ripping the welterweight title from Olympic loverboy Sugar Ray Leonard in Montréal. Leonard won the infamous “No Mas” rematch at the Superdome when Duran decided training was not nearly as important as mirror balls and arroz con pollo. Overweight by dozens of pounds in camp, Duran gobbled diuretics during preparation as if they were Baby Ruths.
Against Mayweather, Duran would charge out at the opening bell looking to land ripping hooks and uppercuts in close, counter rights from the outside, and thudding elbows from wherever he could launch them. Duran would not give Mayweather time to set up his leisurely offense, and the lauded defense that worked so well against Robert Guerrero and Henry Bruseles would splinter into shards after 20 minutes under the hot lights against Duran.
RESULT: DURAN W12 MAYWEATHER
SUGAR RAY ROBINSON
Like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Robinson was a genius. No other fighter in history had the hepcat steps Sugar Ray practiced in the ring. With the kind of improvisatory moves only a virtuoso could perform, Robinson left dozens of world-class operators cross-eyed and kicking up rosin. A late modernist masterpiece, Robinson was so smooth he belonged on the cover of a Blue Note LP designed by Reid Miles. But Robinson knew what risk was in the ring. Like a smoke jumper, he dropped into one roped hot spot after another. He spotted Jake LaMotta 16 pounds in 1943 and fought him again only three weeks later. He swapped punches with, among others, Kid Gavilan, Randy Turpin, Jose Basora, Henry Armstrong, Sammy Angott, Fritzie Zivic, Gene Fullmer, Carmen Basilio, Rocky Graziano, and poor “Bobo” Olson, whom Robinson whipped as often and as casually as he pleased.
Still, you can find some who say, mistakenly, that Robinson fought second-raters. Ultimately, this is a question of context and milieu. Yes, Robinson flattened his share of journeymen and fringe contenders, but these were professional prizefighters, men who fought 15-20 times a year against other hardened professionals when there were three or four times as many fighters plying their dark trade than there are today. Not many people stocked shelves at Wal-Mart for 10 hours and then trained at night to perform in the ring every six months against a full-time policeman or an EMS tech back then. The difference between pro fighters during the 1940s and the twice-a-year-part-time wonders of today is the difference between a weekend poker player and Phil Ivey.
Robinson had only two weaknesses: a nighthawk outlook and occasional defensive lapses. In fact, Robinson was so good that champions and contenders in three different weight classes avoided him, and it took him six years and over 70 fights before he got his first title shot. When he finally lost to someone other than Jake LaMotta, Robinson had amassed a professional record of 128-1-2.
With the possible exception of defensive filibustering, Mayweather does not have a single edge over Robinson. Sugar Ray would leave Mayweather on his face in six or seven rounds.
RESULT: ROBINSON KO7 MAYWEATHER
SUGAR RAY LEONARD
Believe it or not, there was a time when fighters faced actual challenges in order to earn the name “champion.” Thomas Hearns had to drygulch dreaded Pipino Cuevas for his first title. Aaron Pryor steamrolled South American stalwart Antonio Cervantes. Even Barry McGuigan—perpetually maligned for his Hall of Fame status—clipped legendary Eusebio Pedroza for his only world title. And Sugar Ray Leonard? He took on the unequaled defensive master and troubled wunderkind of his era: Wilfred Benitez. Leonard scored a last-second TKO over “El Radar” in 1979 to kickstart one of the briefest but most explosive careers in boxing history.
With his kilowatt smile, his killer instinct, and his Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore attitude toward risk, Sugar Ray Leonard made good on all the headlines that proclaimed him heir apparent to Muhammad Ali in the late 1970s. Not only did Leonard flash some of the fastest hands ever seen in a ring, but he also had power to spare, and he was versatile enough to master any style. Trailing on all cards against Thomas Hearns halfway through their epic 1981 fight, Leonard switched to brawler, pushing himself to the limit before scoring a late TKO against one of the most feared fighters of his era.
If the 1980s were the Age of Go For It, as Ron Powers once referred to them, then Leonard was the boxing embodiment of that sensibility. In less than two years, Leonard faced Wilfred Benitez, Thomas Hearns, and Roberto Duran (twice). Leonard could have made millions fighting Davey Green and Bruce Finch types, but his ego demanded more than just riches. In fact, Leonard was the antithesis of the circumspect Mayweather, whose career was subsidized by HBO for years.
Mayweather would be able to keep Leonard at bay for a few rounds with his pesky jab and his general know-how, but at some point, Sugar Ray would solve the puzzle box in front of him and smash it into bits.
RESULT: LEONARD KO11 MAYWEATHER
No one ever outboxed Thomas Hearns in his prime. Not even Sugar Ray Leonard could do it. The master of razzle dazzle, Wilfred Benitez, was at a loss against a Hearns who chose to work behind his snapping jab, move his gangly legs, and unleash his Hellfire-Missile right at terrifying intervals. At 6’1 and with a 78” reach, Hearns was a baleful sharpshooter whose trunks should have been adorned by a Red Cross sponsorship. Hearns was an amateur standout sans power in the mid-1970s. By the time he turned pro, however, he had improved his leverage and developed a right hand that left bodies quivering on the canvas. In 1980 Hearns won the first of six world titles in five divisions when he crushed Pipino Cuevas, one of the hardest punchers of his day, in two horrifying rounds. It was like watching video of someone being trampled by a bull in Pamplona.
As a welter, his power was nothing short of crippling, and even after rising in weight Hearns left Roberto Duran on his face in Las Vegas, ill-fated James Shuler counting atoms in his last ring appearance, and Argentine strongman Juan Roldan dreaming about wrestling bears again in sideshows out in Cordoba. But rough-and-tumble fighters with anvils for chins took advantage of his poor inside game, his spindly legs, and his shaky jaw.
Since Mayweather is not the mauling type, he would be unable to exploit the only weaknesses Hearns had. His low workrate would allow “The Hitman” to dominate with his jab on the outside. Although Mayweather might have some success whenever he takes the offensive, he does not hit hard enough to rattle a chin that only serious punchers could dent and keep dented. In addition, a few right hands would keep Mayweather on the defensive for most of the fight. Hearns would outpoint Mayweather for a unanimous decision.
RESULT: HEARNS W12 MAYWEATHER