Of the generation of elite boxers approaching their late 30s, Floyd Mayweather’s career is the standard to which all must be held and measured. Mayweather (44-0, 26 KO), 36, has won eight world championships in five weight classes and multiple lineal titles and has set a new standard for defensive and counterpunching excellence.
Mayweather sports a ridiculous 21-0 record in title fights, and he has defeated 19 current or former world champions. But to simply go through the laundry list of Mayweather’s statistical accomplishments fails to capture the essence of his greatness.
In truth, Mayweather possesses something less quantifiable: He has become a crossover star, who transcends boxing, and is practically known as much for his persona as his sublime skills.
With Mayweather’s career easing toward retirement, will Andre Ward, the logical heir to Mayweather’s mythical pound-for-pound perch, ever be mentioned in the same breath as the man known as “Money?”
The answer to this question is somewhat complex and can be broken down into two categories: boxing skills and accomplishments and transcendent qualities.
Ward (26-0, 14 KO), who at 29 is currently in his prime, can absolutely be mentioned in the same breath as Mayweather in terms of skill and overall boxing ability. While Ward employs a less fluid and spectacularly defensive style than Mayweather, he is a master technician who possesses genius boxing IQ and defensive abilities that rival Mayweather’s in terms of effectiveness.
More significantly, Ward’s most recent victory, a 10th-round bludgeoning of lineal light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson, showed he can provide offensive flair.
That Ward stopped and dominated his most talented opponent to date suggests that, perhaps, ruthless offensive instincts are simply another piece of the puzzle that is falling into place. What is scary for any fighter hovering around 168 or 175 pounds is that Ward seems to still be improving and adding new wrinkles to his arsenal.
So, while Ward might have a different style and skill set than Mayweather, he remains a virtuoso in his own right.
Realistically, Ward will likely make the jump to 175 pounds at some point, though he still won’t come close to matching Mayweather’s feat of claiming titles in five weight classes. And yet, while Mayweather has, at times, been criticized for not striving to make the best possible fights at the right moments (Manny Pacquiao circa 2010 anyone?), Ward has gone out of his way to seek out top competition.
In fact, Eric Raskin makes the very salient point that since 2009, Ward’s resume is more impressive than Mayweather’s, which only strengthens the claim that Ward, as a boxer, is at the same superior level as Mayweather:
Mayweather has beaten some high-profile foes, but there are asterisks almost everywhere: He didn't try to make weight for the Juan Manuel Marquez bout, thus gaining an unsportsmanlike advantage he never needed; he sucker-punched Victor Ortiz, again taking a legal but unnecessary shortcut; he got rocked by Shane Mosley; he had a tougher time beating Cotto than Austin Trout did a few months later.
Again, they were all quality wins, and Mayweather is undoubtedly still very close to the peak of his powers. But Dawson, Mikkel Kessler and Carl Froch were all pound-for-pound top-20 fighters when Ward convincingly beat each of them, and in Ward's lesser tests, he might not have lost a round to Allan Green, Sakio Bika or Arthur Abraham.
In fact, he hasn't lost more than two rounds to anyone in his entire professional career except for maybe Froch—who, by the way, currently resides one spot outside ESPN.com's current P4P top 10.
Instead of easing into a post-Super Six title defense, Ward opted to fight the aforementioned Dawson in a bout that carried pound-for-pound implications. But one has to wonder about the broader recognition of Ward’s scintillating run, which started with a shockingly one-sided victory over Kessler and has currently stalled after his frighteningly complete destruction of Dawson.
Simply put, has Ward’s peak, in terms of a string of major fights against elite opponents, already occurred? And if so, have fans and pundits actually given him the widespread and mainstream respect and appreciation he deserves?
It is in terms of recognition, whether positive or negative, Mayweather will always surpass Ward. It is almost arbitrary, in a sense. Ward could clean out his division (perhaps he already has), fight and dominate the absolute best opponents and do everything the “right way,” so to speak. But it won’t matter. He will never be the crossover star and pay-per-view cash cow whom Mayweather has become.
Mayweather uniquely dictates his promotional destiny and has the kind of contractual and logistical freedom that, perhaps, no fighter in the sport’s history has ever held. He’s the ultimate freelancer, and this entitlement has helped Mayweather create a lucrative empire buttressed by his celebrity status and lavish lifestyle.
Interestingly, part of the reason that Mayweather makes so much money every time he fights is because he is just as reviled as he is respected. Naturally, Mayweather’s boxing brilliance must be acknowledged, but a large chunk of those pay-per-view buys are coming from folks desperate to see him lose (a prospect that seems unlikely).
Mayweather matches his perfect record (the ultimate justification of his antics) by flaunting his wealth and verging on petulance in episodes of 24/7 or All Access, which is perfectly fine. But it is this cultivation of celebrity that Ward—a humble and faith-driven man—cannot emulate.
It is not in Ward’s nature to adopt the same entertaining persona that Mayweather has perfected. This reality, however, isn’t something to lament.
Few boxers ultimately get to Mayweather’s level of popularity. Oscar De La Hoya, Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali similarly captured the public’s imagination, albeit for different reasons. While one could certainly add names to this list, the point is that it is an exclusive club.
The bottom line is that Andre Ward will just keep on doing what he does: winning fights and proving his greatness in the ring. And really, would someone as confident in himself and his abilities as Ward necessarily want to be mentioned in the same breath as Mayweather?
Ward, it would appear, at least deserves a breath of his own.