Putting Manny Pacquiao’s Unbelievable Achievements In Historical Context (And Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather, Too)

I’m a skeptical person, by nature. It’s in my day gig’s job description: We journalists must be balanced, questioning. But it is getting to where even the most hyperbolic statements about the amazing boxing career of Manny Pacquiao are at least in the ballpark of reasonable. And after Saturday night, anyone who doubts Pacquiao is, as Yahoo’s Kevin Iole wrote, “a fool.” (I’m not big on name calling, but sometimes it’s accurate.) There’s such a thing as being too conservative, too cautious, when the reality of the thing is breathtaking to the point of being unimaginable.

Passions are high on this count, justifiably. So I want to try to take a sober accounting of where Pacquiao is now.

Short-term, I just don’t see how anyone could still consider anybody but Manny Pacquiao the pound-for-pound best boxer alive. There will be some who will make a case for Floyd Mayweather, perhaps so hilariously I can’t stop laughing at them (“Pacquiao-Cotto Fight Result Proves That Floyd Mayweather, Jr. Is Boxing’s Best” is the kind of thing someone could only write if one were high from huffing the fumes from Mayweather’s jockstrap). Consider this: In his entire career, Mayweather has arguably not beaten anyone as formidable as the boxer Pacquiao knocked out Saturday, Miguel Cotto. Cotto was in most people’s pound-for-pound top-10, and some, including myself, had him as high as #5. Mayweather beat a higher-ranked man in his last fight, Juan Manuel Marquez (#2 at the time), but Marquez had to move up two weight classes to do it, and everyone knew he was past his prime and wasn’t going to be the same fighter at 144 pounds, which he wasn’t.  To say that win has an asterisk would be kind. Pacquiao, meanwhile, was the one moving up in weight, and he knocked out Cotto, something Mayweather couldn’t do to Marquez.

That’s just both men’s most recent fight.Compare each man’s top-3 career wins — in my opinion, Pacquiao-Erik Morales II, Pacquiao-Marco Antonio Barrera I, Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez II vs. Mayweather-Oscar De La Hoya, Mayweather-Jose Luis Castillo II, Mayweather-Diego Corrales — and Mayweather comes out bad in that measure, too. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, really. As for all you people who just “intuit” or somehow “know” who’s a better fighter, regardless of record, I can’t do anything with you. Vitali Klitschko might very well kick Joe Louis’ ass eight ways to Sunday on size alone. If that were to happen, who’s the better heavyweight overall, and who’s the better fighter overall — Klitschko or Louis? Trick question.

Pacquiao’s two wins this year, over Cotto and Ricky Hatton, ought to make him a shoe-in for Fighter of the Year. Klitschko might be able to make a claim with wins over two top-10 heavyweights, but Pacquiao’s beaten two of the top 10 men in the sport, period. And if that happens, Pacquiao would join some pretty rare company as one of the few boxers to be named Ring magazine Fighter of the Year three times or more: Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali and Evander Holyfield are the others. Of them, only Pacquiao isn’t a heavyweight. And from there, it begins to get difficult not to view Pacquiao as the Fighter of the Decade. Again, Mayweather can make a case here, but he doesn’t have Pacquiao’s resume and was only Fighter of the Year twice. Here’s the company being Fighter of the Decade puts Pacquiao in: Roy Jones, Jr.; “Sugar” Ray Leonard; Roberto Duran; Ali; “Sugar” Ray Robinson; Henry Armstrong; Benny Leonard; and Sam Langford. Of those fighters, only Jones wouldn’t really warrant consideration as one of the 20 greatest fighters of all time.

Championship-wise, Pacquiao is in a class by himself. Much has been made of how Pacquiao’s defeat of Miguel Cotto gave him his seventh major belt in seven divisions. And that is indeed impressive. There are more weight classes these days than there were in boxing’s earlier days, so that diminishes the significance somewhat. Some of Pacquiao’s title wins came against opponents who obtained their belts questionably — David Diaz at lightweight was handed his belt flat-out after Joel Casamayor was stripped of it; Cotto got his belt by claiming a vacant strap against Michael Jennings, who might not have qualified as a top-30 welterweight — but as others have noted, if it was easy to win title belts in seven divisions, somebody else would have done it by now. Nobody has. I still maintain that Pacquiao’s greatest achievement is that he won four lineal championships, a far harder task than winning one of four sanctioning organization straps. The lineal champion is in my eyes and in the eyes of many THE champion. Even by today’s standard of proliferating divisions, this achievement holds up to scrutiny. Armstrong, who won three lineal championships, did it from featherweight to welterweight, 126 pounds to 147 pounds. Pacquiao got his from flyweight to junior welterweight, or 112 to 140, which means Pacquiao spanned four of the original weight divisions (lightweight, featherweight, bantamweight, flyweight) for his reign. It’s legit, by any standard.

Certainly, Pacquiao has to be considered the greatest Asian fighter ever. I don’t think it’s even close. Fighting Harada? “Flash” Elorde? Nah. Along the way, Pacquiao has beaten some of the all-time greats from other parts of the world with great fighting traditions. You can make a case for Barrera, Morales and Marquez as three of the 10 best Mexican fighters ever. Hatton is one of the greatest British fighters of all time, for all the inexplicable criticism he takes. Cotto might not crack the top 10 for Puerto Rican boxers, but he’s not far from it. Chatchai Sasakul is one of the best boxers from Thailand ever.

All of this is highly impressive. As I explained earlier, I’d already had Pacquiao in my top 25 before the Cotto fight. This ESPN list of the top 50 boxers ever from a couple years ago isn’t perfect, but it’s not bad, either. Was Pacquiao better than Julio Cesar Chavez, #24, after beating Hatton? I think so. Is he better after beating Cotto than George Foreman, #20? I think so there, too. Is he better than Gene Tunney, #16? Now it’s getting harder.

The reason is no fault of Pacquiao’s own: At a certain point, the level of competition available now isn’t as accomplished as it was even a couple decades ago. To me, being great is about beating other greats. Don’t get me wrong, Pacquiao has beaten any number of excellent fighters. Barrera, Hatton, Marquez, Morales and De La Hoya are all sure-fire Hall of Famers, and Cotto might get in, too. But if you were making a top 50 all-time list today, De La Hoya might not be on it, Hatton wouldn’t, Cotto wouldn’t and Barrera, Morales and Marquez would be near the bottom of it. Let’s just stick with Tunney for a second, for comparison’s sake. He beat Jack Dempsey, who is #9 on ESPN’s list; he beat Harry Greb, who is #13. Maybe you can make the case that Pacquiao’s unique achievements collectively exceed the accomplishments of Tunney against all-time greats. I think I’m comfortable with that. That’s why, to me, Pacquiao is worthy of being considered in the top 15.

But I can’t go beyond that. Let’s take Leonard, who is just outside ESPN’s top 10. Some of Leonard’s weight-spanning and Fighter of the Year-style accomplishments are comparable to Pacquiao’s, although not as impressive. He was Fighter of the Year twice, Fighter of the Decade in the 1980s. He won titles in five divisions, from welterweight to light heavyweight, two of them lineal. Where Leonard eclipses Pacquiao, I think, is that the best men he beat were better than the best men Pacquiao beat, and by a long shot. Leonard beat Tommy Hearns, #37 on ESPN’s list; Marvin Hagler, #35 on ESPN’s list; and Roberto Duran, #6 on ESPN’s list. I’m sorry, Pacquiao devotees, but that is a list of scalps that far exceeds Pacquiao’s.

Now, when I said before that even the most hyperbolic statements about Pacquiao’s career are within reason, I meant it. Bob Arum, Pacquiao’s promoter, said that Pacquiao was the best he’s ever seen, a list that included Hagler (I agree), Leonard (I disagree, but it’s not that far off) and Ali (OK, that one’s a good deal overboard). I guess what I’m saying is, Pacquiao’s achievements are creeping into the territory where what was once patently ridiculous — Pacquiao’s devoted fans have been calling him the greatest of all time pretty much for years and years — is now in the realm of debatable. But I say the highest I personally can put Pacquiao is in the top 15, right now. To go higher, he’ll have to do more. He can overcome the limitations of his era by continuing to fight and beat what greats are available.

That’s where Pacquiao-Mayweather comes in.

Mayweather is the only other person who can make any claim to being the best fighter of this decade. He’s clearly the best opponent Pacquiao would ever have faced. For one fighter who is the best of his generation to beat another fighter who is the best of his generation — it’s the stuff that legacies are made of. Think of what Leonard-Duran-Hearns-Hagler did, or more recently, on a smaller scale, what Jones-Bernard Hopkins-James Toney-Joe Calzaghe did.

And it would be a HUGE fight. Money-wise, yes. It very likely would end up being the biggest-selling fight of all time. But in terms of significance, I’m not sure anything compares since 1987, when Leonard met Hagler. In my last blog entry, I said I doubted it would happen. For too long, Mayweather has avoided the top challenge he could take. That top challenge now, clearly, is Pacquiao. Pacquiao proved without a doubt Saturday that he was a legit welterweight. Not only is he a legit welterweight, he’s a scary-good one. Mayweather beating Pacquiao would require no asterisk, or vice versa. It’s a real welterweight fight, not a fight between Mayweather and a guy who wasn’t big enough to be a legit welterweight (Hatton) or who was barely a lightweight (Marquez). This is THE fight in boxing.

Now, it’s looking more likely than when I last wrote about it. Golden Boy, Mayweather’s de facto promoter, contacted HBO’s sports chief Saturday after Pacquiao won to see about beginning negotiations for Pacquiao-Mayweather. There’s talk such a fight could be in Yankee Stadium. It may or may not wait until after each of them take one more fight, but I would hope not. No discussions will get done until Wednesday, after which point Arum will have a better sense of how Pacquiao-Cotto did on pay-per-view. Early indicators is that it will do better than the 1 million buys Mayweather-Marquez did. Maybe as much as 50 percent better. If so, Pacquiao-Mayweather gets that much harder to make. Mayweather will say he’s the pay-per-view king, still, having done better in buy rates against Marquez, Hatton and De La Hoya than Pacquiao did against the same trio. Pacquiao’s team will say he’s the one with the bigger PPV numbers in the latest fights of each men. A 50-50 split may be hard to swallow for either man, and even if I think Pacquiao will likely have the stronger case for deserving more, I’d like to see a 50-50 split just to get it out of the way.

Because I think I agree with HBO’s Ross Greenburg on most of this: “Pacquiao’s place in history is rising on a daily basis,” he said. “But he can only complete it by taking that next step. And it’s an obvious next step. Until he beats Floyd Mayweather, his legacy’s not cemented. And the same goes for Floyd, against Pacquiao.” (Pacquiao’s legacy and Mayweather’s legacy are effectively unchanged if they don’t fight, but the gist, I agree with.) It would be devastating if egos and greediness kept such a big fight, at such a big moment, from happening. Added Greenburg: “If it doesn’t happen, there’ll be a revolt. Nothing else is acceptable, and I’m speaking on behalf of the American public and the sport itself.”

About Ben Koo

Owner and editor of @AwfulAnnouncing. Recovering Silicon Valley startup guy. Fan of Buckeyes, A's, dogs, naps, tacos. and the old AOL dialup sounds