One of the things that makes the fighting sports so enchanting for fans is that every single contest is an epic story in miniature. Whether it is a three-round amateur bout or a 12-round world title tilt, the process of preparation and the anticipation before the final test will always echo with the archetypal, heroic themes.
But for the fighter who keeps moving forward, the fights themselves weave together into the story of his career. And some fights end up being chapters that stand out. All fighters, especially the great ones, end up having fights that define them, moments where they hit their highest marks on the big stage.
The eight fighters discussed in this story are not necessarily in the pound-for-pound top 10, though there is certainly plenty of overlap.
But these are the fighters I currently see as the biggest names in the sport, at a global level, in terms of generating fan interest and media attention.
At 48, Hopkins has been fighting since the last century. His career is full of major historically significant bouts. In May of 2011, he became the oldest man ever to capture a major world title when he beat Jean Pascal in Montreal to win the light heavyweight title.
Some would be tempted to view that as the defining moment of Hopkins' career. “Oldest champion ever” will always be uttered in the same sentence as his name whenever he is introduced.
But Hopkins' true career-defining moment has got to be his September of 2001 TKO victory over Felix Trinidad. The win unified the WBA, WBC and IBF middleweight belts and established Hopkins as the premiere 160-pound fighter of his era.
The fight was a classic Hopkins performance on many levels. He entered the bout feeling disrespected by everyone from the boxing media to his own promoter, Don King. It was another night in which he got to do what he loves to do most: tell everybody, "I told you so."
It is probably way too early to talk about career-defining moments for Saul Alvarez, who is still only 22. But he has already achieved superstar status in the sport.
Last April, he stepped into the ring against fellow undefeated junior middleweight belt-holder Austin Trout and established himself as the true champion at 154, winning by unanimous decision.
But fans anticipate bigger nights in Alvarez's future. At this point, nobody else gets more buzz than Canelo as a potential opponent for Floyd Mayweather.
Future fights with middleweights like Gennady Golovkin or Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. could also be major events in Alvarez's developing career.
I often criticize my fellow American fans for failing to properly appreciate the Klitschko brothers. Younger brother Wladimir has compiled a professional record of 60-3, with 51 wins by stoppage. He's had one of the most dominant heavyweight title runs in history.
But for American fans, his career is always going to be defined by his three losses, all of which came by stoppage. And the one that I think stands out the most is the third one, a Round 5 TKO to Lamon Brewster in April of 2004.
Klitschko had been stopped by Corrie Sanders in two the previous year. And he had gone down to Round 11 TKO against Ross Puritty early in his career. His destruction against Brewster, coming again so soon after the loss to Sanders, confirmed to fans for good that the younger Klitschko brother had a fatal flaw in his chin.
It's been nearly a decade now since Klitschko exposed that flaw, and he hasn't come close to doing it again. But the perception still lingers about him, at least in terms of evaluating him in hypothetical arguments against other all-time heavyweight greats.
As was the case with his brother, Vitali Klitschko's career-defining moment came in defeat. But when it comes to the older brother, it was the kind of loss that earns a fighter permanent respect.
In June of 2003, Vitali Klitschko took a short-notice fight with Lennox Lewis. At the time, there was a knock on Klitschko for being soft as a result of his inability to finish a fight in 2000 that he was winning against Chris Byrd after injuring his shoulder.
Klitschko's fight with Lewis ended up being the night people forever stopped questioning his warrior heart. He took the fight to the champion and forced Lewis to engage him in a brutal, entertaining slugfest. Along the way, Lewis managed to open up a nasty cut above Klitschko's eye.
After six rounds, Klitschko's face was too badly busted up for him to be allowed to continue. He was winning 58-56 on all three cards.
There was a ton of money on the table for a rematch. Lewis chose to retire instead.
At this point, Andre Ward's career feels a little bit like a highlight reel. One world-class fighter after another has been completely deconstructed and neutralized by the world's most humble boxing wizard, the Son of God, Andre Ward.
In the Showtime Super Six tournament, Ward easily outclassed all the best 168-pound fighters in the world. In the finals he thoroughly frustrated Carl Froch.
Ward's growing status in the sport motivated light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson to drop down to super middleweight to challenge him last September. When I interviewed Dawson before that fight, he told me it was “the only one that makes sense.”
Dawson vs. Ward caught the public imagination, because the winner would be the undeniable No. 1 fighter in the world within the original light heavyweight division of 161 to 175 pounds. Dawson was a fighter with wins over future Hall of Famers. He had once beaten heavyweight contender Tomasz Adamek.
When Ward thoroughly annihilated Dawson, knocking him down three times and TKOing him in 10, Ward immediately became talked about as one of the sport's true pound-for-pound kings. Some fans and writers moved him over Mayweather following that fight.
Manny Pacquiao's career has been packed with epic ring wars. That's why he has some of the sport's most devoted fans.
He's had his dramatic rivalry with Juan Manuel Marquez. He had the incredible stoppage of Ricky Hatton, on a night when Las Vegas resembled a Man United home game.
But to me, the fight that established Pacquiao as a true icon in the sport was his December, 2008 dismantling of Oscar De La Hoya via Round 8 TKO.
Pacquiao scarcely even gets credit for this fight now. He's much more often criticized for making De La Hoya “drain himself” to get to the agreed-upon catch weight.
My opinion on that is this: Oscar De La Hoya was the biggest boxing star of his time. If he agreed to fight Manny Pacquiao at a certain weight, he did it under no duress, but because he felt confident he could get to that weight and beat Pacquiao up.
I remember at the time De La Hoya receiving a fair bit of criticism for fighting a man who was so much naturally smaller than he was, a former flyweight. I don't remember anybody speculating that De La Hoya was too old to fight Pacquiao.
Nobody thought De La Hoya was too old until about the middle of the fight. Pacquiao's dramatic stoppage of the Golden Boy ignited the Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather rivalry and endless super-fight speculation.
Juan Manuel Marquez and Manny Pacquiao are linked together in boxing lore as strongly as any two fighters in recent years.
Over a period of nine years, while each remained near the very top of the sport, they waged the most competitive, exciting and historically significant rivalry of their era.
For Marquez, the first three chapters of the story were all about frustration and injustice. The first three fights ended in a draw, a split decision for Pacquiao and finally a majority decision for Pacquiao. In all three fights, Marquez felt he had deserved to win.
Finally, last December, Marquez took matters out of the judges' hands. In a fight that started with as much excitement as any of their previous three battles, Marquez and Pacquiao traded knockdowns, and rounds on the scorecards, before Marquez managed to catch up to Pacquiao with a monster right hand counter that put him to sleep at the very end of Round 6.
At 39, Marquez had propelled himself to near the very top of the sport.
Floyd Mayweather is nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career. A resume like Mayweather's is full of great performances that can be held up for admiration. I was tempted to go with his fight against Diego Corrales, because I think of that as the one where he really emerged as a fighter who was undeniably special.
Mayweather and Corrales both entered undefeated and well-hyped. Plenty of people expected the larger-framed Corrales to beat Mayweather down.
Instead, Mayweather showed, for perhaps the first time, how far he was above the average world-class fighter.
But when looking at the entire trajectory of Mayweather's career and all it entails, I feel like his career-defining moment was clearly his record-setting pay-per-view with Oscar De La Hoya in May of 2007.
That fight was when he transitioned from “Pretty Boy Floyd” to “Money.” It propelled him into mainstream celebrity status.
The fight has altered how Mayweather's career is viewed, in more ways than one. I think Mayweather clearly won that fight, despite the split decision. But the fact that it was relatively close, and that Manny Pacquiao later crushed De La Hoya, has always fueled the fire for Pacquiao fans who want to claim Mayweather is afraid of Pacquiao, or that Pacquiao should be reckoned the better fighter.