“Floyd’s technical flaws are obscured by his extraordinary speed and athleticism, but on the few occasions when he defended his title against a capable opponent these flaw were exposed.”
If the modern era of professional boxing had begun in the 1980s instead of the 1890s there is no question that Floyd Mayweather, Jr. would rank among the top ten greatest boxers of all-time. But the modern era of professional boxing began over 100 years ago. That is a lot of boxers to consider! Most historians agree the sport’s true golden age, in terms of the numbers of quality boxers competing at the same time, occurred from the 1920s to the 1950s. Floyd Mayweather, Jr. turned pro in 1996. He is undefeated in 48 fights. Yes, his amazing speed, reflexes and keen sense of anticipation have enabled Floyd to win titles in five weight divisions—but could he have attained that same level of success if matched against the best fighters of decades past?
Before I go any further let me establish some ground rules. I do not measure a contemporary fighter’s alleged greatness by the number of title belts he possesses or his won-loss statistics. The out of control title inflation that has plagued the sport in recent decades and the huge number of undefeated records (unprecedented in the history of the sport) built on inferior opposition should deemphasize those factors. Far more important is an accurate analysis of the fighter’s technical skills while at the same time taking into account the quality of his competition.
SEND IN THE CLOWNS
Prior to the 1970s, before an alphabet soup of competing “sanctioning organizations” wrecked boxing’s traditional infrastructure by anointing their own set of champions and contenders (often based on payoffs and corrupt relationships with powerful promoters) the boxing establishment recognized 8 world champions in 8 traditional weight divisions. That was the self-imposed general rule for more than half a century. It wasn’t a perfect system (after all, this is boxing) but for the most part it worked. Boxing fans could easily identify the 8 champions and the 80 “top ten” contenders, all of whom were rated according to merit. Today, thanks to the greed of the quasi-official sanctioning groups (their racket is extorting “sanctioning fees” from every fighter who competes for one of their cheesy title belts) there are over 100 “world champions”. Even dedicated fight fans would be hard pressed to name more than half a dozen. In order to multiply the number of champions—thereby generating more fees—these boxing parasites created nine additional weight divisions (of which at least seven are unnecessary). There are now about 700 “top ten” contenders in 17 weight divisions listed among the four major sanctioning groups. In other words, there are far more opportunities to win a championship than ever before—and also to defend it against a challenger plucked from the thinnest talent pool the sport has ever known.
Floyd Mayweather, Jr. has taken advantage of and benefited from the absurdity by often cherry picking challengers who he surmised would present less of a threat. Against such limited opposition Floyd’s technical flaws are obscured by his extraordinary speed and athleticism. But on the few occasions when he defended his title against a capable opponent these flaws were exposed.
MOMENT OF TRUTH
Although Manny Pacquiao was among the two or three best opponents that Mayweather had ever faced, their recent mega bout came at least five years too late. Both fighters were passed their prime. Mayweather won a very close decision, but their fairly tame encounter failed to provide the answers we seek. It was his bout with Oscar DeLa Hoya eight years earlier, when Floyd was at his absolute best, that does provide the answer.
“In a pugilistic population lacking both seasoning and ring savvy, fighters with superior athletic prowess automatically rise to the top.”
Oscar De LaHoya was the first opponent that Mayweather encountered in his prime who was at or near his level. Oscar was slightly passed his own prime and had fought but once in the previous 20 months but he was still one of the best boxers in the world. The result was a very close split decision victory for Mayweather. Shortly after that bout I interviewed several boxing experts asking for their thoughts on Mayweather. I included their comments in my book, “The Arc of Boxing”. Following are excerpts from those interviews.
Teddy Atlas (one of the sport’s greatest trainers and currently a ringside analyst for ESPN):
“In the old days there were fighters who were good defensively, but the difference was they had the attitude, and the wherewithal, to go and find a way to create an offense that would make it possible to take control of the opponent in a more meaningful way, in a more dominant way, and in a much more productive way.
“Even a recent fighter like Sugar Ray Leonard, who I think was a terrific fighter, would find a way to be aggressive and get to his opponent while at the same time maintaining a responsible defense. He would not just find a way to do enough to just get by.
“In his fight against Oscar De La Hoya, there didn’t seem to be an ability shown to you by Mayweather to create another way to get to him—other than when De La Hoya made it easy for him and just opened the door for him by walking in with no jab and not offering up the answers and the resistance that he should have. The only offense that was created by Mayweather was actually given to him by his opponent.
“Whenever De La Hoya used his left jab this ‘great’ fighter Mayweather looked like he had no answers.”
“Boxing means using your head, using geometry, using the science of angles, the science of adjustments. And all you have to do is make it a kind of landscape where the other guy can’t use what he has. You fight in a place where speed doesn’t come into play. You use your reach to keep your opponent at a certain distance where you can time him. Timing can always get the better of speed when it’s used properly and understood properly. You time your opponent and keep him at the end of your punches. And if you use your reach properly you are not giving him anything to counter. Whenever De La Hoya used his left jab this ‘great’ fighter Mayweather looked like he had no answers. But when Oscar didn’t use his jab and just walked in it looked like Oscar had the problem.
“When De La Hoya forced Mayweather to the ropes he flailed away instead of placing his punches in the right way. You would expect a fighter at that level to find the right places and to know what the right places were, and where they were. De La Hoya threw his punches almost in a hopeful way. Real top guys don’t throw in a hopeful way. They throw their punches in a defined way— in a way that their experience and judgment tells them they need to throw.
You cannot get intoxicated to the point where you are comparing Floyd Mayweather Jr. to the greatest fighters of all time. I’m not taking anything away from Floyd, but I think it’s insulting to the great fighters and to the great history of the sport to make that comparison.”
Mike Capriano, Jr. (Former trainer and manager. Saw his first pro fight in 1938. During the 1950s was head coach for the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps boxing team that won a record number of service championships):
“I think the critics have a misunderstanding of the difference between speed of movement and speed of attack. Those fast and elusive old time boxers we saw always were involved in maintaining the attack. They were always looking for spots to land effective punches. They weren’t runners doing nothing and then jumping in and throwing a flurry of punches. They were different.
“Ali never ran away like Mayweather. Ali was fast but he was moving left to right and looking to hit you with punches. Sugar Ray Robinson was also extremely fast. He was up on the soles of his feet bouncing and moving left to right. But he wasn’t running here and running there. He was interested in making contact with his punches. And Robinson was a very hard puncher.
“Mayweather just wants to punch and run. But against those old time welterweight and middleweight fighters you are not going to do that because they’re going to keep you on the ropes and hit you with clean punches. He could run all he wants but sooner or later he has to come in to make contact with his opponent and then those guys are going to tie him up and grab him, push him into the corner, push him up against the ropes and start ripping punches up.
“When De La Hoya had Mayweather on the ropes he was unable to hurt him or keep him there. You’ve got to be able to slide and move in. De La Hoya doesn’t know how to do that. He doesn’t know how to move under punches. He’s in that crouch but he doesn’t bend under and really get down. He’s slapping Mayweather 100 times with that left hand when he’s got him on the ropes and it’s ineffective.
“What De La Hoya should have done when he had Mayweather on the ropes was to stay right in his middle. He should have had his head right in the middle of his chest. You then take a step back to get leverage and throw an uppercut or hook. De La Hoya did not know how to keep him on the ropes.
“This fight wasn’t any kind of test that establishes the credibility of greatness. They both looked like a pair of ordinary ten round fighters.”
“Neither fighter landed any terrific punches; no right cross combinations or left hooks underneath and over…real punches that dug in. They also did not appear to know how to step in with their punches.
“This fight wasn’t any kind of test that establishes the credibility of greatness. They both looked like a pair of ordinary ten round fighters. They traveled the distance well but, as I’ve said, they are not getting hit by guys that are going to hurt you. The better old timers would feel they’re opponent out for a couple of rounds and then, all of a sudden, ‘bing, bang’ you’d see some dynamite punches coming in.
“Carmen Basilio would have beaten both De La Hoya and Mayweather. They are not in Emile Griffith’s class either. And how about Kid Gavilan? I mean Gavilan’s going to fire punches that make a difference. And he’s strong and he’s pushing you. Gavilan would have Mayweather on the run, up against the ropes. He’d be throwing that bolo and other shots and he’s hurting Mayweather. It’s a different kind of fight.
“Fighters like Joey Archer and Billy Graham are going to box Mayweather. They’d have that left hand out in front and throwing combination punches. They are going to box him. And when Mayweather jumps in to deliver his quick punches he’s not going to hit anybody because they’re going to tie him up and put him back out there. It’s going to be a boxing match. The old pros are looking at him and arranging for where they’re going to attack and they’re setting him up.
“The old timers came to fight. He could do all the running, but they wouldn’t get caught up in his evasive movements. Mayweather has speed, but it is not combined with cleverness. They’d just wait until he’s in position where they could hit him. He’s going to have to fight sometime. The referee is going to tell him ‘look, you’ve got to engage this guy’. We’ve seen fighters run all night and people began booing and carrying on. So he can run around but when he fights a superior pro you’d see a different fight. You won’t see it today because no one knows how to do that. Fighters like Fritzie Zivic gave people college educations. There’s no one around like that today.”
Tony Arnold (Amateur and professional boxer 1949-1957. Former archivist for one of boxing’s largest film libraries):
“What did Mayweather do with his speed? He made De La Hoya chase him. That’s all. He didn’t use his speed like a Willie Pep to maneuver around an opponent’s defenses and hit him with sharp combinations and then move out of the way. I’m talking about using speed in a clever way. Mayweather just used his speed to keep himself from getting hit. And that’s supposed to be a great? There was no real display of skill or strategy.
“Mayweather’s jab is so tentative and ineffective I can’t even call it a jab. His right foot was already going back as he threw it. He was backing off because he’s very cautious and he was worried about a counter punch. The jab was just keeping distance between him and De La Hoya. It wasn’t being used to out box De La Hoya, it wasn’t controlling the fight and it wasn’t even a good defensive move because he wasn’t able to do anything. He just jabbed and backed off. But that tentative jab was enough to keep De La Hoya at long range for much of the fight.
“Mayweather’s strategy was to hit De La Hoya with quick pot shots and dance away and just pile up enough points to stay ahead, which he barley did. I mean the fight was practically even as far as I’m concerned. Mayweather did not set anything up. He didn’t make De La Hoya miss and then counter. He was relying on his speed and luck to land punches. They were just flailing at each other. I didn’t see any smart combinations. I did not see any good calculating counter punching. I never saw either fighter throw a two or three-punch combination. There was no taking advantage of mistakes. There was no looking for opportunities. I don’t think they would have known an opportunity if it fell on them. Mayweather and De La Hoya are not thinking fighters with the skill or experience to know what to look for.
“Floyd Mayweather, Jr. has a great deal of natural ability but it hasn’t been brought out the way it was with fighters of years ago. I don’t think he jabs enough. And he doesn’t take advantage of opportunities.”
“Mayweather is quicker than the other guy, he throws faster punches, he maneuvers around, but he doesn’t show any real skills. I didn’t see any real feinting or good head movement. I never saw him slip and counter. Not once. I didn‘t see any skill in that area at all. He’s got so many flaws.”
Bill Goodman (Licensed corner man with the New York Athletic Commission 1957-66. A student of the boxing scene for over 60 years):
“Floyd Mayweather, Jr. has a great deal of natural ability but it hasn’t been brought out the way it was with the fighters of years ago. I don’t think he jabs enough. And he doesn’t take advantage of opportunities. He ducks and slips punches but instead of taking advantage of what he just did he lets it go by. He doesn’t follow up. He makes some pretty moves, and looks nice doing it, but nothing happens. He doesn’t fire. Mayweather throws one left hand and he stops punching. He doesn’t follow it up with 2-3-4 left jabs like they did years ago. Consequently, he doesn’t get a barrage going, he doesn’t get any momentum.
“Mayweather is very fast, but he does not compare to those better welterweights that were around years ago. How can you compare him to a guy like Tommy Bell from the 1940’s? It’s night and day. Of course someone who doesn’t know Tommy Bell would see a number of losses on his record and not be impressed. But look at who he fought! Bell fought anybody and everybody. Like most fighters he stayed around a lot longer than he should have, but in his prime he would have licked both Mayweather and De La Hoya with one hand tied behind his back.
“Even a guy like Gil Turner, who was a 1950’s welterweight contender, wouldn’t have any trouble with either Mayweather or De La Hoya. Isaac Logart and Gene Burton wouldn’t have any problem with them either. Not only were these contenders well educated; they put their education to use. They fought frequently and kept busy—and they were better fighters.
“They talk about Mayweather’s speed, but he isn’t as fast and as skillful as Bernie Docusen who fought Sugar Ray Robinson for the title in 1948 and gave him plenty of trouble. Would you say Mayweather’s going to give Ray Robinson as a welterweight plenty of trouble?
“There’s no comparison. But you go and tell that to a young boxing fan today and they think you’re a psycho.”
What these authentic boxing experts are saying (and I emphasize the word “authentic”) is that Floyd Mayweather, Jr. despite his obvious talent, is not in the same league as the best champions and contenders of previous decades. To the untrained eye Mayweather appears to be a great fighter because his dazzling speed is more than enough to dominate second and third rate opponents. But when faced with an opponent that he could not totally dominate with his speed Floyd’s stylistic flaws were revealed.
Part of the problem many people have in evaluating the quality of today’s champions is that since the 1990s the line separating the skills of top amateur and top professional boxers has become blurred. Most of today’s champions have extensive amateur backgrounds. But they are not exposed to the same type of professional apprenticeship common to fighters of the past. The majority win a title belt before their 20th pro contest and have fought less than 150 rounds (the averages years ago were 40 to 70 fights and about 400 rounds). There is no chance to gain the kind of bout-to-bout education and experience that empowered the early greats. This is why there remains a hint of lingering amateurism in the fighting styles of most of today’s champions. They do not need to master the finer points of professional boxing technique because the competition does not demand it. In addition, most of today’s trainers do not have enough knowledge or background to teach the old moves. Body punching, feinting, drawing a lead to set up a counterpunch, proper use of the left jab, bobbing and weaving, infighting, timing and mobile footwork are among the lost boxing arts. These days an athlete with superior speed and size rules the roost because no one has the experience, training and knowhow to effectively counter those purely physical qualities.
It is right that Mayweather owns the “pound for pound best” title because in a pugilistic population lacking both seasoning and ring savvy, fighters with superior athletic prowess automatically rise to the top—and Floyd just happens to be the most physically gifted fighter. But at age 38 Floyd’s legs have lost their spring, his speed is a smidgen slower, and his endurance is not what it once was. Without the sophisticated skill set of a seasoned old pro to fall back on (think Archie Moore, Emile Griffith and Roberto Duran) Floyd, like Roy Jones Jr. before him, will soon be vulnerable against even those second rate opponents he used to chew up and spit out. Is Andre Berto that opponent? (They are scheduled to fight on September 12th). Again, Floyd has chosen wisely from the weakest of the herd. On paper a Berto victory looks nearly impossible. Once very promising, the 31 year old with a 30-3 record is now damaged goods because of steroid use and ill-advised weight training that have diminished his speed and punch. Nevertheless, against an aging fighter anything is possible and don’t think Floyd doesn’t know it. If he is unable score an early KO an attempt will be made to steal rounds and score points with occasional flurries. At this point in his career pacing is very important. Don’t be surprised if Floyd fails to impress.
There is no denying the fact that Floyd Mayweather, Jr. is a very good fighter. His whippet speed and finely honed fistic instincts might have stymied some of the ring greats from boxing’s golden age—but not for long. They would have made the necessary adjustments. If Floyd was born 50 years earlier he might have developed the ring generalship and cleverness that is missing from his otherwise impressive repertoire. Those qualities would have been an absolute necessity if he were to compete successfully against the top fighters of the past. But even then Floyd’s success would not have been guaranteed in that fierce competitive jungle. What is certain is that without these added dimensions Floyd would not have been able to establish a legitimate claim to greatness.
Note: The reader is encouraged to read Mike Silver’s book “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” for additional comparisons and analyses between the best boxers of today and those of decades past.