Guest writer Andrew Mullinder muses on Floyd Mayweather’s potentially misleading pristine professional record and the less public statistics that strongly suggest he truly is the once in a lifetime fighter he proclaims to be. Either way, Andrew suggests, his recent retirement is both frustrating and deserved.
Sporting excellence is such a precious, ephemeral commodity that criticising it can often feel like pulling the wings off a butterfly. Yet in boxing it is easy to do so. Any fan, armed only with prejudice and boxrec.com can play Julius Streicher and provide a fight-by-fight analysis, backed by weasel words and statistics, that ‘proves’ Thomas Hearns was not an all time great, and that a conspiracy of Jews and capitalist bankers led to Germany’s defeat in World War I.
David Payne’s recent blog on the nature of the boxing fan’s response to retirements was a case in point. In highlighting the criticism of Floyd Mayweather’s, Lennox Lewis’s and Naseem Hamed’s retirements and juxtaposing them to the opposite criticism suffered by fighters who laboured on past their peaks, David exposed the hypocrisy of us boxing fans: we cannot bear to lose our leading lights while they are still burning bright, but cannot abide seeing them dimmed to the point where recognition is an effort. And when either happens, the chorus of criticism is as loud as a Manchester cheer for a Ricky Hatton KO.
Nonetheless, in Mayweather’s case, perhaps we are justified in tugging the wings just a little.
I would find it difficult to disagree with anybody who argues that Floyd was the greatest fighter of his era. His sublime combination of near-impregnable defence, fleet, erudite footwork, laser-guided accuracy, supreme fitness and masterly ring generalship often made watching Mayweather feel like suckling manna from the bosom of boxing perfection. Compubox statistics reaffirm the artistic impression. The Pretty Boy’s accuracy (punches thrown to punches landed) has remained between 40 and 50% throughout his championship career – astounding figures considering they were achieved against world class operators. Furthermore, subtracting his opponents’ accuracy from Mayweather’s gave the Pretty Boy what Compubox calls a ‘plus/minus rating’ of +27 in his five fights before December last year, an astonishing 13 points higher than defensive-minded Winky Wright, 16 points ahead of Miguel Cotto, and 22 points beyond Joe Calzaghe over the same period.
Mayweather is also one of a tiny, elite clutch of boxers to have won world championships in five weight divisions, casting his precocious but ephemeral performances in silverware for eternity. And I certainly find it difficult to disagree with the decision of a wealthy man in relatively good health to get out of a punishing sport that all too often leaves its great exponents stony broke and physically damaged. Yet, somehow, despite the brilliance and the achievements, I still empathize with those dissatisfied with Mayweather’s decision to retire.
Bluntly, Mayweather has not fought his best possible competition. David rightly argued in his article that boxers retiring at their peaks will always face the charge that there was another challenge out there. But Lewis’s retirement was widely admired by sane boxing observers; he had disposed of a clutch of credible contenders and dangermen before unifying his division against Evander Holyfield and defending his title against just about every touted contender available. Only the specter of Vitali Klitschko remained, and he had already beaten the Ukrainian. In short, Lewis cleaned out his division.
Yet Mayweather has not done likewise, and worse, he is leaving just as his division, like a fine wine left to lie until the grapes have mingled and matured to perfection, is ripe for uncorking. Just as he did at 140. And some would argue at 130 as well.
In my view, Mayweather’s career can be divided pre- and post-Castillo. The former was virtually immaculate, defined by brave matchmaking and stellar performances against an irreproachable level of opposition like Angel Manfredy, Jesus Chavez, Carlos Hernandez and, most impressive of all, Diego Corrales. In January 2002, just two months after Floyd destroyed Chavez, Joel Casamayor and Acelino Freitas put on a wonderfight that made them Mayweather’s leading two contenders and placed question marks over his dominance of the division of the sort not voiced since his beatdown of Corrales.
Perhaps in this case, Mayweather can be forgiven. As tantalising as the prospect of Mayweather – Freitas or Casamayor was at the time, Floyd was having desperate weight-making problems, and when he moved to lightweight, he did not only step straight into a world title fight but fought the best of the world title holders, Jose Luis Castillo.
However, the same can not be said of Mayweather’s post-Castillo career. Surgical masterclasses against uninspiring, overmatched opponents Victriano Sosa and Philip N’Dou seemed pardonable after a run of tough encounters, HBO contract wrangling and the prospect of Mayweather entering a 140 lb division that was approaching boiling point. The emerging bruising talents Hatton and Cotto, a resurgent Arturo Gatti, a streaking Sharmba Mitchell, and feared divisional kingpin Kostya Tszyu may appear to be an exposed group now, but at the time they seemed able to provide Mayweather with the series of tests that could have secured his status as an all-time great.
But it didn’t happen. A shutout win against gatekeeper-type Demarcus Corley was followed by a disgraceful mismatch against Henry Brussels. And Mayweather won his 140 title against the weakest of the titleholders Arturo Gatti in another one-sided encounter. There would be no defining fight for Mayweather at 140.
Again, the claim was that he was moving up to a hot division, and seeking tougher tests against naturally bigger men. But his first fight in the division was against natural light welterweight, and by then past his peak, Mitchell. Mayweather won his first title at the division against Zab Judah, to be sure a fighter of immense talent, but already by that time spoiled goods and with a reputation for debilitating mental fragility. Journeyman-made-good (ironically due to one of Judah’s fortitude-haemorrhages) Carlos Baldomir was up next, improbably for the undisputed crown at 147.
But despite a rising group of young studs reaching maturity and grizzled veterans with the size and quality to make hypothetical fights with Mayweather disputed results, Floyd chased the money, as he had by selecting Gatti at 140, against a past his peak Oscar Dela Hoya and the smaller more limited Hatton.
Who could blame him? Who can say that taking the path of least resistance for highest reward is the wrong route? It is Floyd’s career and his body on the line, after all. Furthermore, while it may seem I have set out to disparage his record, I firmly believe it stands up against any of his contemporaries, bettering them when results are taken into account. And with those results often achieved in dominant fashion over five divisions, he can indisputably claim to be among the finest pugilists of his generation. But Mayweather has frequently made brazen claims to be the best in any generation, and his talent suggests this might have been an attainable goal.
However, more than talent, an unbeaten record and dominant performances are needed to compete against Duran, the Sugar Rays, Pep et al for that title. These fighters took the potential and dominance they showed against merely excellent opposition and tested it against the very finest opponents available: other great fighters.
Perhaps the timing of Mayweather’s retirement is unfortunate and there would be no such discussion if Antonio Margarito, Cotto, Shane Mosley and Paul Williams were not all performing so impressively in marquee matches at his weight. Certainly there is no guarantee that Floyd would have struggled against Freitas, Casamayor, Tszyu, Margarito, Mosley or Cotto – certainly, I would have backed him against all six. But despite confidence in his ability to pass the entrance exam for the pantheon of all time greats, the fact remains he has not yet sat the test, and fans may just be justified in feeling that retiring at a time when the welterweight division gives him yet another chance to do so is a pretty pass.