So Nobody’s Perfect?

Floyd Mayweather Jr.04.03.09 - By Andrew Harrison: Perfection in sports; more difficult to find than Willie Pep in a 25ft ring, rarer than a Mexican heavyweight and as fragile as poor old Eric Crumble.

In 1976 a tiny Romanian gymnast’s routine on the uneven bars was deemed a flawless exhibition by her peers. Employing her genius with mesmeric verve, Nadia Comaneci’s sublime execution saw her rewarded with a perfect 10, a feat considered implausible at the time, the electronic scoreboard in fact simply unequipped to relay her mind boggling score to the world.

Perfection can’t always be gauged on a scoreboard however, indeed it would be difficult to describe those moments of inspiration which superior sporting beings grace us with in any other terms. Whenever a Robinson, a Best, Maradona or Jordan performed with a level of imagination and innovation seldom seen, it would have been churlish to call it anything else. Unlike in little Nadia’s case however, without a yardstick to measure against, interpretation of these moments can become a much more subjective business.

When Usain Bolt tore down a 100m tartan strip last year in 9.69 seconds, the world collectively stood and gasped in wonder; was the yellow flash rocketing across the track actually human? It was an awe inspiring performance, but was it perfection?

It sure looked that way, however on closer inspection perhaps not. It was subsequently noted that the Jamaican had galloped through those 41 record busting steps with one shoelace untied, had been second slowest in the field to break from the blocks and had begun to celebrate a full 20 metres from the tape. ‘He can go faster’ his coach Glen Mills observed matter of factly. As Bob Beamon found when Mike Powell floated into a Japanese sand pit to eclipse his ‘perfect jump’ in 1991, everything is relative, even perfection.

Numbers very often help define sporting perfection (a score of 147 in snooker for example) and in boxing, the term has long been associated with the numbers belonging to the legendary Rocky Marciano. His wonderful fighting record of 49-0, remain the most famous digits in the game, the most celebrated ledger of all the men who have ever punched for money. In a sport which keeps one eye fixed firmly on it’s past, Marciano’s achievements are carved in marble, his career trajectory a fairytale path which all fledgling fighters dream of following.

Easier dreamt than done of course, indeed only four world champions have managed to follow Marciano’s incredible example in retiring with an immaculate slate.

Joe Calzaghe (46-0)

Calzaghe’s retirement a few weeks back garnered an avalanche of press, much debate focusing on what his perfect record actually meant. Evidently there are no shades of grey with Joe, fans and writers either love him or hate him, he’s either a protected European palooka who was moved just right or an all time great in waiting who passed every test he ever encountered.

Based for the majority of his career in Britain, Calzaghe’s career stagnated due to a low profile stateside, a major stumbling block however one entirely of his own making. Toiling away in relative obscurity, he chose to defend the lightly regarded WBO title against various degrees of opposition, some good, more than a few poor, none of whom could be described as great.

Finally managing to shine a light on himself in 2006, Calzaghe assumed complete command of the super middleweight division with a wonderful victory over unbeaten and highly touted Jeff Lacy. Defences against Sakio Bika, Peter Manfredo Jr and Mikkel Kessler followed before he invaded light heavyweight, winning the Ring championship from Bernard Hopkins and defending once against Roy Jones Jr.

Who came closest to ruining the record?

Calzaghe didn’t always have an easy time of it, having to climb off the canvas to defeat Byron Mitchell and ageing legends Hopkins and Jones. The Hopkins decision stirred debate and was technically closer on the cards, however it was domestic rival Robin Reid who probably deserves the honour, dropping a split decision in 1999 in a rough, tough battle, one judge scoring the fight Reid’s way by five rounds.

Floyd Mayweather Jr (39-0)

Many still refuse to believe Money Mayweather isn’t coming back, however this writer isn’t one of them. This is a fighter blighted by chronic hand problems who’s post and pre fight utterings intimated more frequently with each passing HBO date, toward the stresses each tumultuous training camp was exerting on his body. Floyd also, let us recall, turned his back on huge million dollar paydays when he waltzed off into the sunset, fees which simply are no longer available to him today, especially in the current economic climate. It can also be argued they’d have come against easier opposition than he’d now be exposed to.

Mayweather is easily the most accomplished fighter of the four to have emulated Rocky. The former pound for pound king was a sensational and rare talent, a world titlist in five different divisions and possessing one of the finest defences ever seen between the ropes. Perhaps best as a super featherweight, his dominating performance against Diego Corrales was one for the ages.
Who came closest to ruining the record?

There weren’t many. Zab Judah gave Floyd a few problems early on, Demarcus ‘Chop Chop’ Corley buzzed him temporarily and many observers scored the first fight against Jose Luis Castillo the Mexican’s way. On paper however, the man who got closest on the judges scorecards was Oscar De la Hoya, losing via split decision and coming within just a point of earning a draw.

Sven Ottke (34-0)

Many will shudder to see Ottke’s name alongside Marciano’s, his career synonymous with the dreaded term ‘home town decision’. Turning pro relatively late at 30, the German fighter’s record on paper makes for pretty decent reading. IBF Super Middleweight champion after just 13 fights when he outpointed Charles Brewer, he went on to take other notable scalps, namely Thomas Tate, Byron Mitchell, Glen Johnson, Anthony Mundine and Robin Reid. He made 21 defences of the IBF strap, annexing the WBA version along the way and defended both titles together on four occasions.
As with those darn Compubox punch stats, we need to look a little closer to see Ottke’s true worth as a fighter. Tate, Brewer, Mitchell, Johnson and Reid (especially Reid) can feel mightily aggrieved to have been on the wrong end of blatant home town refereeing decisions and home cooked scoring.

Who came closest to ruining the record?

If Reid’s display couldn’t turn the judge’s heads then likely nobody could have. There are at least 6 or 7 men who can justifiably claim to have been robbed against ‘Das Phantom’, to say it was a charmed career rather than one to look upon with any sense of pride is being kind. Shame on the promoters for not making a Calzaghe-Ottke fight, one which would have eliminated one or perhaps even both from this list.

Pichit Sithbanprachen (24-0)

So obscure is his profile, there will be some who have never heard of the Thai flyweight who became the first major title holder after Marciano, to retire with a perfect winning record. I’d have had more luck finding Lord Lucan or the whereabouts of Shergar (another sporting giant who flirted with perfection) than pinning down much information on Pichit.

Born Supap Hanwichachai, this sturdy southpaw took the IBF flyweight title in his 14th outing, stopping Rodolfo Blanco in three. The Thai would go on to defend the strap five times, American Arthur Johnson who went on to challenge the likes of Johnny Tapia, Mark Johnson and Tim Austin, perhaps the most well known of the men to challenge for Sithbanprachen’s title.

Sithbanprachen fought every one of his 24 bouts in Thailand.

Who came closest to ruining the record?

Jose Luis Zepeda took the Thai to a split decision in the last of his title defences, one judge giving Zepeda the decision by three rounds, the others two plumping for the champion by two.
There are other fighters who have held major versions of world titles (WBA/IBF/WBC) in the gloved era and retired unbeaten, however drawn results blight their resumes and preclude them from the perfect five.

The magical Mexican strawweight Ricardo Lopez hung them up with a record of 51-0-1, a technical draw against his toughest rival Rosendo Alvarez the only blot on a resume which included an incredible 26 world title fights. Britain’s Terry Marsh retired at 26-0-1, winning the IBF light welterweight title against Joe Manley in 1987 and making one successful defence before being forced to retire on medical grounds. South Korea’s Ji Won Kim also managed to retire unbeaten, notching up a record of 16-0-2, winning the IBF super bantamweight title and making four successful defences.

The merits of an unbeaten record will forever be debated, however with the myriad of problems a boxer faces when they enter a boxing ring, to retire unbeaten at any level is a marvellous achievement. A spotless record however can be misleading. I’d rather think of Hopkins dismantling Trinidad or Mayweather’s boxing clinic against Corrales when talking about perfection in boxing as opposed to the record of Sven Ottke.

A perfect record does not guarantee greatness, only Mayweather and probably Calzaghe can expect a call from Canastota in few years time inviting them to join the illustrious Marciano. Whether anyone will ever surpass the great man’s record however remains to be seen.

Article posted on 04.03.2009

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