“The Best Ever” joins “Pretty Boy” and “Money” as marketing monikers chosen by pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather to describe his in- and out-of-ring exploits, and it has—as is his way—sparked considerable debate about his actual station in the pantheon of boxing legends.
Comparing eras in any sport is tricky business. Athletes change. Society changes. The rules of the game—in many cases—change.
It’s no easier to determine how well Mayweather would have fared in Sugar Ray Robinson’s era than it would be to assess whether Babe Ruth would’ve been a 714-home run legend or a blip on the radar of today’s Major League Baseball.
In boxing, all we have to go on are accomplishments, level of opposition and plain old-fashioned subjective opinion. Every opinion is just that, an opinion, and you’ll be able to find and poke holes in even the best of them.
So, in the words of the immortal Samuel L. Jackson from Jurassic Park, hold onto your butts.
Mayweather isn’t just the best of his era. He is the best ever.
Let that soak in for a minute.
Please make note of what wasn’t said there. Nowhere in that sentence did it say that Mayweather was the best fighter ever. Nowhere did it say that he would be the same undefeated master technician if he fought in one of the so-called golden eras of the sport.
He certainly has the skill set that puts him in the conversation with the likes of Robinson, Henry Armstrong, Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali among others. Would he have beaten Leonard? Roberto Duran? Armstrong?
Nobody knows. Not you, and not me. All we have on that front is speculation. No such thing as a concrete fact exists.
Mayweather himself echoed a similar sentiment in comments to Kevin Iole of Yahoo Sports after his fight with Robert Guerrero last May:
I take my hat off to Sugar Ray Leonard and all those other fighters who paved the way for me to be where I am at today. I'm not here to match myself against them because, like I said before, I'm not in their era. I respect them. I take my hat off to them. But I'm in my era, and I just do what I do.
Mayweather is a prodigious talent. His defensive acumen, ring intelligence and ability to adapt in the ring are on par with any and all of the fighters who commonly make up the list of the greatest of all time.
He has an uncanny ability to see the fight in slow motion, picking off an opponent two steps before he knew what he was going to do. That's something he attributes to a lifetime in and around the sport.
"Well, I can see the shots. Actually, I can feel when a guy's gonna punch. I can feel it. I don't even have to see it; I can feel it. You know, this is just with experience and being around the sport so long," Mayweather said.
"I can just feel a guy when he's going to shoot his shot. A lot of times guys telegraph their shot. Their body language gives away when they're going to shoot because of how they position themselves.
"So when a guy positions himself in a certain way you know what shot he's going to throw, but my thing is whatever a guy's best attribute is, whatever he does best, my goal is to take that away from him and make him resort to doing something else."
Could he have competed in another era? With his skills, the answer is likely yes, but we don’t know the answer any more than we definitively know what tomorrow will bring.
But taken in totality, and by that we mean the whole package—in-ring skills, marketing, impact not just on boxing but on sports and popular culture—Mayweather is simply the best ever.
His in-ring accomplishments speak for themselves.
After scoring a closer-than-expected majority decision victory over Marcos Maidana in a welterweight unification bout this past Saturday, Mayweather’s professional record now sits at 46-0, and you can count on a couple of fingers the number of times he was truly challenged.
Now, win-loss record is something of a blind stat. All that number says is that Mayweather has beaten 46 men. It says nothing about the quality of those men or the level of risk associated with any particular fight.
Needless to say, his victories over Robert Apodaca and Jerry Cooper carry significantly less qualitative weight than wins over Canelo Alvarez or “Sugar” Shane Mosley.
But, yet, Mayweather has opened his career with 46, and potentially counting, straight victories. And that’s something that even many of those often considered better than him have not done.
Robinson, the greatest in-ring fighter of all time by most accounts, didn’t do that. Granted, we’ve delved into the weeds of comparing eras here, but he lost his 41st fight to Jake LaMotta, an affair he avenged just a few short weeks later.
Leonard lost his 28th pro fight to Duran. Duran lost his 32nd fight to Esteban De Jesus. “The Greatest” Muhammad Ali also lost in his 32nd bout, against “Smokin” Joe Frazier.
Two of the greatest of an era long gone, Harry Greb and Henry Armstrong, each lost right out of the gate. Greb was knocked out in his third pro bout, and “Homicide Hank” was knocked out in his first fight and lost three of his first four.
Is Mayweather’s 46-0 mark historic? Certainly not. But it’s impressive, given all the other fighters who failed to match it. And it’s just part of a larger picture.
Mayweather has captured world championships in five separate weight divisions—and the much more historically significant lineal title in three of them—and is currently an eight-time world champion.
People will point out that the proliferation of sanctioning organizations and weight classes somewhat diminishes this accomplishment, but, again, that falls into the territory of faulting someone for operating within the rules of the game.
Mayweather’s run has spanned 24 pounds, from super featherweight all the way to junior middleweight. That may not seem like much—Robinson routinely fought guys much larger than him—but consider that in many of his fights, Mayweather was outweighed by significant margins.
In his most recent contest, both Mayweather and Maidana tipped the scales under the welterweight limit of 147 pounds.
But the Argentine rehydrated all the way up to super middleweight territory, stepping through the ropes at 165 pounds. Mayweather walked into the ring 17 pounds lighter at just 148 pounds. That weight deficit was even larger than the 15-pound gap he faced against Canelo last September.
While we’re on the subject of world championships, Mayweather has a perfect 23-0 mark in fights contested for one or more of the sanctioning bodies title belts. By the time his career is over, it’s very likely that he’ll have fought more than half of his professional bouts with a title up for grabs.
That number isn’t close to the most in boxing history—Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. holds that mark with 37 championship contests—but Mayweather has never lost with a belt on the line and has a chance to build on that number.
The only other fighters in boxing history with an undefeated mark in near that many championship fights? Ricardo Lopez, the Mexican strawweight king, who accumulated a 25-0-1 mark against a whole bunch of guys you never heard of before or since.
And Joe Calzaghe—who ironically ended his career a perfect 46-0—with a record of 22-0, but again, most of those fights came against opposition that was below a world-class level.
Not enough for you? How about a perfect 21-0 mark against former or current world champions?
Mayweather also currently holds two victories over men already inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame—Oscar De La Hoya and Arturo Gatti—but that number is sure to grow. Mosley, Juan Manuel Marquez and Miguel Cotto are locks for induction.
The late Diego Corrales has a decent shot himself, as does another late great former champion in Genaro Hernandez. Mayweather defeated Hernandez for his first world title way back in 1998 and later paid for his funeral to ease the burden on his family.
And who knows? Alvarez certainly has the skills and time to work his way toward Canastota consideration one day.
At super featherweight, Mayweather cleaned out the division, defeating Hernandez, Angel Manfredy, Corrales, Carlos Hernandez and Jesus Chavez.
From 135 pounds and up, he knocked off Jose Luis Castillo on two separate occasions, Gatti, Zab Judah, Carlos Baldomir, De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, Marquez, Mosley, Cotto, Guerrero, Canelo and Maidana.
It's hard to say that Mayweather didn't fight many, if not most, of the best fighters available. The problem is that many of them failed to live up to that standard when they faced him in the ring, something he believes contributes to his lack of credit.
"Yes. I think that I don't get my credit that's due because I think that I make A-level and B-level fighters look ordinary. But that comes from just having a sharp mind and just really, really pushing myself in training, pushing myself very, very hard in training and so when it's time to go out there and perform, everything is easy,” Mayweather said.
But enough about who he did fight. So much of the book on Mayweather, at least in terms of his many detractors, focuses on who he didn’t fight and when he fought certain opponents.
The words ducking and cherry-picking are thrown around an awful lot, but most of the time the people using them don’t understand the realities of the boxing world.
Why didn’t Mayweather fight Antonio Margarito? That’s a name that has gained some traction in recent days, particularly since Maidana, fighting with a similar pressure style, gave Mayweather fits on Saturday night.
Context is key. In 2006, the time period when this bout was most intriguing and talked about, Mayweather instead elected to face Judah. At the time that fight was made, you could easily have made the case that “Super” Zab was the most difficult stylistic matchup of Floyd’s career.
He had him, at least, matched in speed, was powerful and, at the time the fight was originally negotiated, held the IBF/WBC/WBA Welterweight Championships, as well as the lineal title. He lost all but the IBF strap in what was supposed to be a tune-up bout against Baldomir, but the fight went on.
At the same time, Margarito held the then-lightly regarded WBO belt, and his only impressive victories had come over Kermit Cintron and a then-unknown fighter by the name of Sergio Martinez.
Had Mayweather elected to face him, he would’ve been accused of ducking Judah. The prototypical no-win situation. But at the time, Judah was the far bigger name, and likely more challenging opponent.
After dispatching Judah, he elected to face Baldomir, again, a more significant fight owing to the fact that the Argentine was the lineal and recognized 147-pound world champion.
With a third shot during this time frame to face Margarito, Mayweather instead elected to pursue and win a superfight against De La Hoya.
How about Paul Williams? Williams was freakishly sized for a welterweight, but at the time he was pining for a fight with Mayweather, Floyd elected instead to face the then-undefeated British superstar Hatton.
You make the judgement. At the time, which was a more significant fight? Hatton or Williams, who was shortly thereafter outboxed by the smaller and limited Carlos Quintana?
And then the elephant in the room.
Should this fight have happened? Absolutely. Would it provide Mayweather with the chance to secure that one signature victory that many feel is missing from his resume? You better believe it. And it still would.
But you can’t say that Mayweather has ducked Pacquiao without saying that Pacquiao has also ducked Mayweather.
Both sides have been guilty of playing hardball at times, making ridiculous demands and walking away from the table when a fight was close.
Mayweather made some financial demands that he knew that Pacquiao wouldn’t—and in reality probably shouldn’t—accept. And Pacquiao refused to accept the type of stringent drug testing that should always be a part of any sport where the object is to hurt your opponent.
The innumerable reasons that this fight hasn’t happened have been covered extensively in thousands of previous pieces, but suffice it to say that nobody has clean hands. Both men share the blame. And that, at least, is beyond dispute.
How about Mosley and Cotto, two of the future Hall of Famers most boxing fans dismiss after the fact as having been past their best when Mayweather fought them.
A fair bit of revisionist history is going on here.
Many boxers, trainers and media members not only gave Mosley a chance, but a good number of them actually picked him to win the fight. The declarations that he was shot coming in only surfaced after Mayweather took between 10 and 11 rounds from him.
Before that fight, Mosley had just engaged in a war against Cotto that he narrowly lost and bounced back with stoppage victories over Ricardo Mayorga and Margarito. He definitely wasn't shot in those fights.
And Cotto had only lost once in the three prior years to facing Mayweather, and came in on the strength of probably the most personally satisfying victory of his career, a revenge knockout of Margarito in his previous contest.
Was he the same fighter who tore up the welterweight division? Probably not, but he was still an extremely dangerous opponent.
The list of Mayweather’s in-ring accomplishments is legendary and only growing, but that’s only a part of his overall impact on the sport.
Mayweather often refers to himself as the A-Side of boxing, and you’d have a hard time arguing the point with him. You could easily make the case, as some already have, that he’s been the lifeblood of the sport over the past several years, saving it from relegation due to mundane matches, promotional wars and bad, borderline criminal, decisions.
In the process, he’s made himself filthy rich. And not just rich. Richie Rich type of rich. In 2012, Mayweather topped Forbes list of the top-grossing athletes in the world, and in 2013, he earned the distinction as the highest-paid American athlete.
And the remarkable thing about Mayweather is that none of his earnings come from endorsement deals. Every dime he earns—$85 million in 2012, a minimum of $32 million for the Guerrero and Maidana fights and more than $80 million for the Canelo fight—is earned inside the ring.
You cannot underestimate his financial impact on the sport. To receive those lavish paychecks he must be generating massive revenue and attention for the sport.
His fight with Canelo broke all sorts of boxing pay-per-view revenue records, and prior to the fight, ESPN’s First Take debate program openly speculated whether it would be the fight that saved the sport.
All in all, Mayweather is the top-grossing PPV attraction in the history of boxing, generating over $765 million selling fights on pay television. At this rate, and those numbers don’t yet include the Maidana fight, Mayweather could retire having generated over $1 billion in PPV revenues for himself and the sport.
There’s nothing else like him in the sport today, and he’s one of the few major boxing stars to transcend the sport and generate mainstream appeal.
De La Hoya, who sits behind Mayweather on the PPV revenue list, along with Pacquiao, are two others. But neither of them generated the type of attention, beyond just the boxing world, that Mayweather has been able to do, particularly in the last few years of his career.
As he correctly pointed out to Luis Sandoval of BoxingScene.com prior to fighting Maidana, his impact likely won't be understood until he's gone:
"I think that I’ll truly be missed when I’m gone away from the sport," Mayweather said.
He's right, and that's why he's the best ever.
Is he the best fighter of all time?
Maybe. That’s an opinion question. You can debate it forever, make any argument you want and you’ll never reach a definitive answer.
But when you look at the whole picture—encompassing everything inside and outside the ring—you see an all-time great resume in the ring and an incomparable impact on the sport as a whole.
You see the best ever.
Kevin McRae is a featured boxing columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, quotes were obtained firsthand.