For any boxer starting out his career, to become a champion is the ultimate goal. For those that succeed in becoming a champion, the next step is to become a great champion. Boxing enthusiasts are a hard bunch to please though, and the “great” label is a tough nut to crack. It is a label made even harder for fighters to attain by critics who choose to move the goal posts, even when a champion has excelled above and beyond his peers in those aspects typically used to define “greatness”. Floyd Mayweather is one such victim.
To see why, delve with me for a moment on a journey back in time. I want to take you first to the evening of October 3rd in the year 1998. Bill Clinton was the president of the United States, with the Monica Lewinsky scandal breaking just months earlier. ‘Gazza’ had recently been dropped from the England football team (my American friends will just have to trust me – it was a really big deal). A new teenage sensation called ‘Britney Spears’ was storming the charts with her first hit. And the ‘War on Terror’ was something you might find in a sci-fi movie. It was also the night a young ‘Pretty Boy’ named Floyd climbed into the ring to contest his first world title belt, stepping through the ropes to challenge the seasoned, world-class Mexican Genaro Hernandez for the WBC super featherweight title.
The Floyd Mayweather detractors will tell you that Floyd Mayweather “ducks” serious challenges. That he “runs” from dangerous rivals. That he “never faces an opponent who has a chance of beating him”. And yet, not only did Floyd Mayweather emerge victorious over Genaro Hernandez on that night; he went on to win titles in four higher weight divisions, defeating a total of nineteen current, former or future world champions en route, all the while never losing a single contest. Quite how it was possible to know in advance that this would be so without the aid of a functioning crystal ball, the critics never fully explain.
Fast-forward five years from the Hernandez victory, to the night of November 1st, 2003. A not-so-young but still ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd Mayweather had just dismantled a worthy challenger to his WBC lightweight title, Philip N’Dou. Still on civil terms with Larry Merchant back in those days, Mayweather Jnr. beamed in the post-fight interview, before declaring purposefully, “Floyd Mayweather’s willing to fight any fighter from 154 down, you bring ‘em and I’ll take ‘em. You can mark my word to that.”
Considering that only a year prior he had been taken to hell and back by lightweight champion Jose Luis Castillo, and furthermore that he was almost twenty pounds lighter than super stars Shane Mosley and Oscar De la Hoya – who’d contested the light-middleweight 154lbs title just weeks earlier – this was a bold statement indeed. So ridiculous did it seem at the time, I vividly remember laughing out loud when I heard it.
Move forward a few years again though, and consider that from late 2006 to mid 2010 (including an eighteen-month hiatus from the ring) Mayweather defeated the lineal or no.1 champions of the welterweight, light-middleweight, light-welterweight, lightweight, and (for a second time) welterweight divisions – besting Carolos Baldomir, Oscar De la Hoya, Ricky Hatton, Juan Manuel Marquez and Shane Mosley, respectively. Each opponent – with the exception of new welterweight champion Carlos Baldomir – was a solid top ten pound-for-pound entrant; and each fighter – again with the exception of Baldomir, and possibly Ricky Hatton – are rock-solid future hall of famers.
In just five consecutive contests then (six if you include former undisputed welterweight champion Zab Judah), Mayweather cleaned out some of the biggest names in the boxing landscape from 154lbs down to 135lbs – something barely considered realistic when he first floated the idea after his N’Dou victory in ’03. It may not be on par with the achievement of the legendary Henry Armstrong – who captured the featherweight, welterweight and then lightweight belts in consecutive fights back in the 1930’s – but with the proliferation of alphabetti-spaghetti titles floating around in boxing today, defeating the no.1 champion from each of those divisions in back-to-back contests is still a remarkable feat.
Since the Mosley victory in 2010, victories over future hall of famer Miguel Cotto, WBC welterweight champions Victor Ortiz and Robert Guerrero, and the younger, bigger, stronger and fresher light-middleweight champion ‘Canelo’ Alvarez have only bolstered the ever expanding and impressive fight ledger.
Of course, the journey from super featherweight champion in 1998 to multi-weight, pound-for-pound super star was not one without its potholes. Some big names were missed along the way (notably Manny Pacquiao, Kostya Tszyu and Antonio Margarito); some were faced past their prime (De la Hoya, Mosley and arguably Cotto); and some were compromised by weight (Hatton, Marquez and, most recently, ‘Canelo’ Alvarez). And herein lies the critics’ ammunition.
A small dose of boxing history puts these criticisms firmly into perspective though. For while it is true that his record would be significantly improved without these holes, the fact that they exist is not sufficient to undermine all else that he has accomplished.
Consider that Roy Jones Jnr. failed to meet his two biggest rivals in the 1990’s (Steve Collins and Darius Michalczewski); or that Lennox Lewis faced his biggest rivals after they had peaked (Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson) or not at all (Riddick Bowe). Oscar De la Hoya missed stand-out world champions Winky Wright and Vernon Forest during his reign, while middleweight Bernard Hopkins scored his greatest triumphs against the smaller De la Hoya and Felix Trinidad. And yet, these are without doubt a selection of some of the greatest fighters of the modern era – who deservedly earned the “great” label so coveted by boxing purists.
For the Mayweather detractors though, fifteen years as an undefeated world champion is not enough. Title belts in five weight divisions are not enough. Besting a plethora of world champions and future hall of famers is not enough. The door to greatness remains closed, and the goal posts are being shifted again. Now the calls are for Floyd to move to 160lbs, and challenge for the middleweight throne. Think about this for a moment: The bar has been raised so high that a former super featherweight champion is being asked to defeat the middleweight champion of the world in order to prove his greatness.
Asked about the possibility of Floyd moving up to face a middleweight titleholder, the fighter’s father and trainer, Mayweather Senior, was quoted as saying that he would advise him not to.
The fact that such a proposition is being taken seriously is, I think, a testament to the greatness he has already attained and the enormity of the challenges he has already surmounted, rather than the ones that have passed him by. Fail to meet the new challenge though, and no doubt the critics will lambast him once again, crying that he is “ducking” and “cherry picking” his way into the history books.
Of course, if it were really that easy to “cherry pick” your way to the top of the pound-for-pound rankings, everyone would be doing it. If it were really possible to win titles in five weight divisions and remain undefeated for fifteen years without ever facing a serious challenge, every man and his brother would be doing it. It is not that easy, so they are not doing it. Floyd Mayweather has done it. Like every other human on the planet, he has his flaws. Like every other boxer that ever lived, his résumé has its holes. But do not forget just what an astonishing mountain he has ascended over all these years. It would be wrong to shift the goal posts to greatness at the end of such an incredible journey.