In the course of one month, four boxers with Hall of Fame credentials that range from “unimpeachable” to “strong” have retired. Boxing being what boxing is, retirements don’t always stick. But these four — Floyd Mayweather, Wladimir Klitschko, Juan Manuel Marquez and Timothy Bradley — have a pretty solid chance of staying away from the ring. It’s about the best time to put their legacies in perspective. First, Mayweather and Klitschko. Soon, Marquez and Bradley.
Mayweather was surely the best boxer of his generation, talent-wise. You can debate whether he was the most accomplished. He beat his clearest rival for the job, Manny Pacquiao, at a time when Pacquiao was past his best in a way Mayweather wasn’t, but Pacquiao was still no worse than the second best fighter alive at the time. It gets complicated from there. Pacquiao’s best wins — Erik Morales, Juan Manuel Marquez, Marco Antonio Barrera, maybe a prime Miguel Cotto — collectively trump Mayweather’s best, even if Mayweather has the best win of them all (over, well, Pacquiao). When they faced the same opponent, Pacquiao tended to beat them better, whether before or after Mayweather did. Pacquiao has the edge in lineal championships in the most divisions. But that head-to-head is probably the trump card for Mayweather in terms of accomplishment.
The case would be so much clearer if Mayweather hadn’t squandered opportunities. There were early ones, like Joel Casamayor, Kostya Tszyu or Acelino Freitas. There were mid-to-late career ones, like a whole slew of welter and junior welterweights at their prime: Pacquiao, Shane Mosley, Cotto, all men he beat later. There were others he avoided entirely, like Antonio Margarito and Paul Williams. If you like Floyd, you say it was the other guys’ faults every time, and sometimes, yeah, it was. But there’s a lot left behind there and it’s hard to argue it wasn’t all very calculated that he tended to face still-excellent fighters coming off losses or bad performances. He didn’t invent that trick (looking at you, Sugar Ray Leonard vs Marvin Hagler, although the trick has a long history) but it does somewhat diminish what otherwise might have been an even GREATER career. Because you know what? Odds are strong Floyd beats every one of them — the prime version of guys he beat later, and all the guys he never fought at all.
The choosiness gave him insurance toward that 50-0 record he earned last weekend, though. The 50-0 figure, eclipsing Rocky Marciano retiring at 49-0, isn’t bereft of meaning. It’s hard for anyone to go 50-0 in boxing, and whatever his choosiness, it’s hard to argue that Mayweather didn’t face a ton of excellent-to-great fighters. It’s just that his best wins aren’t better than Marciano’s, and what matters most is who you beat, not whether you went undefeated over some stretch and then retired. If all that mattered was the streak, Julio Cesar Chavez went undefeated for 13 years over 90 fights. If Chavez had retired right then, I suppose you’d laugh at Mayweather’s streak. Point being: It matters, but it’s gotten disproportionate attention.
Mayweather got to where he got in the ring not just because of all that, though: The man could fight. He ranks easily among the top few defensive fighters ever, maybe only coming after the likes of Willie Pep and Pernell Whitaker. His speed in the early days was of the plane-shifting variety, both his hands and feet. He perfected a shoulder-roll defensive style where he could stand right in front of you and only take minimal contact. Offensively, his counterpunching was tip-top; he turned a difficult punch, the lead straight right, into his best weapon; he used a right to the center of the body like few others. He had good power at lighter weights, but even as he moved up he could hurt people thanks to his uncanny accuracy. His ring IQ was special. If you gave him any trouble, he’d figure it out within a couple rounds and change his style up entirely, as we saw when he switched to a conventional defense and walked down Zab Judah, Mosley and Conor McGregor. Lefties gave him trouble earlier in his career, and suffocating maulers had the best chance against him pretty much his whole career, but he more or less neutralized those threats over time, too. His toughness in opponent choice was questionable, but inside the ring his unshakable self-belief made it so even if you hurt him, he had the stamina (owing to a spartan lifestyle and constant conditioning) and willpower to recover. He wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea because he was so cautious, but man, he could fucking fight, and if you could appreciate the idea of boxer-as-scientist, it was hard not to admire him.
For better or worse, his biggest impact on boxing might be outside the ring. Lord, he was an asshole, and it wasn’t all an act, what with all the multiple woman-beating convictions and the “faggots” he threw around. But he played up what an asshole he was, and he made a lot of money BY being an asshole; he knew many people paid to watch his fights in hopes of seeing him lose. The flip side of the coin is that many fans, especially black ones, envied his vulgar displays of wealth and flashy, boastful manner along with his ability to back it up — so he had a real base that supported him. There’s a whole generation of young boxers who cite Mayweather as a role model. Some, like Adrien Broner, have flamed out already, and some, like Gervonta Davis, might do the same. But a bunch more outrageous, dickish fighters who don’t have Mayweather’s ability or discipline and only care about money are on their way, and we have Mayweather to blame. We’ll see if he’s changed the money game for fighters for the better, as he has said is part of his legacy — the unprecedented control he had over his career, and his freedom from promoters, was tied entirely to his unequaled moneymaking ability, so permanent, endemic change is unlikely.
All-in-all, Mayweather ranks probably inside the top 20 boxers of all time. You can debate whether he belongs above the likes of George Foreman, at least, if you consider this list a viable starting point. This writer is divided on Mayweather, overall. Unlike many, I loved watching him perform — he was just so incredible at what he did. I wish he had faced more of the best fighters of his time, or at least when they were at their prime. Outside the ring I have no love for shallow money-worshippers who beat up women all the time. But his greatness is indisputable to me, and to all but the most grizzled “nobody from this era is any good” types or those who can’t overlook his tepid mismatches and outside the ring bastardness.
Mayweather and Klitschko were alike in certain ways that are hard to ignore. Each were the dominant fighters of their weight class and era, and each had an ultra-cautious style that was only appreciable by a select (albeit large) audience. You could try to pick apart their style, sure, but in their prime, there was basically no way to defeat them and there was mostly a lack of era-defining opponents could have changed that, likely.
But in other ways they could have hardly been more different. Klitschko, a generational heavyweight, had few top-quality opponents during his prime to test himself against, but he faced the best he could (with one exception, to be discussed soon). Whereas Mayweather thrived on a kind of brainless, substanceless adoration of wealth, Klitschko had a doctorate and worked on behalf of the less fortunate. White Germany and Eastern Europe in general couldn’t get enough of the Soviet-born heavyweight, however mechanical his style.
Each man transformed to a certain degree in the ring, but Klitschko’s transformation was the most complete and most all-consuming. Early in his career, Klitschko had all the tools you could ever want for an elite heavyweight. He was enormous (6’6″), athletic, powerful. His jab, even at the end of his career, was one of the best single weapons in the sport. He lacked only stamina and pacing and a strategy for exploiting his height, and as such, he got knocked the fuck out during a span from 2003 to 2004 against opponents without his gifts.
Then he met Emmanuel Steward, and while the trainer eventually righted his ship entirely, it took a little while. Klitschko struggled to beat Samuel Peter. After that, he basically never struggled to beat anyone again for ELEVEN years. He owned a mean jab, a patient right hand, a refusal to throw body punches or work inside, a conservation of energy, an abstinence about taking punishment and an exceptional athleticism for a big man to keep his opponent in the optimal range at all times.
It was not a great era of heavyweights. But Klitshko did beat David Haye, top 20 pound-for-pounder, and eventually beat an opponent who would make him undisputed heavyweight champion, lineal-wise. The only person he didn’t beat of any quality in his division was his brother Vitali, and while you can chalk up some of Mayweather’s exclusions to Mayweather and/or his opponent, it’s hard to argue that Wlad should’ve faced his bro.
Even late, when he lost his last two, you have to give the man credit. Tyson Fury took the 39-year-old the distance and using similar size and herky-jerky movement, beat Klitschko narrowly on points. Cool. Klitschko next faced Anthony Joshua in a changing-of-the-guard fight, and even in a loss, elevated his career by nearly offing the younger, faster, more gifted opponent. It was one of the best heavyweight fights in forever.
Love Klitschko, hate him, like or dislike his mini-semi-doppleganger Mayweather, he is the preeminent figure of his time in his division. Lennox Lewis had his own era of heavyweight boxing, and Klitschko after him had his. Anyone who owns a division this long — however much stylistically you didn’t enjoy it, however you wish he hadn’t — belong in the Hall.
(LAS VEGAS — Referee Robert Byrd (R) directs Floyd Mayweather Jr. to go back to his corner at the end of the 5th round of his junior middleweight boxing match against Conor McGregor at T-Mobile Arena; Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)