By Jason Keidel
Pantheon – noun
a domed circular temple at Rome, erected a.d. 120–124 by Hadrian,used as a church since a.d.
a public building containing tombs or memorials of the illustrious dead of a nation.
the place of the heroes or idols of any group, individual, movement, party, etc., or the heroes or idols themselves. [Dictionary.com]
Some definitions speak to gods. Floyd Mayweather Jr clearly isn’t dead and certainly isn’t God. So when we speak of pantheons, he doesn’t qualify in the classic sense. But since we’ve bastardized nouns to fit the contours of modern culture, we are all wondering where Mayweather ranks in the…Pantheon.
We can talk eternally about Mayweather’s top-five, all-time fighters. But we know it was tilted toward more contemporary fighters who fought around Floyd’s weight.
But when discussing a more logical or linear pantheon, boxing’s Yoda, Al Bernstein, says, “Ray Robinson is the best who ever lived. He was 131-1 as a welterweight. End of sentence, end of discussion, end of story. And he did it against the toughest competition. To not put him in the top five is silly.”
All lists are relative or subjective, so we can’t say with absolute certainty. But still, Bernstein is correct. Sugar Ray Robinson is the boxer nonpareil. Few humans know, follow, or worship Muhammad Ali more than yours truly, but Ali, to quote one of the old scribes who covered The Greatest, was an homage to Robinson.
And Ali would admit as much. Watch his first fight with Sonny Liston in 1964. Before the bell rung, a conga line of luminaries ducked under the ropes, shook hands with both fighters, before slithering back into the smoky ether of the stands.
Ali – who was still Cassius Clay that night – shook every legend’s hand, except Robinson, to whom he bowed. That’s the kind of respect and gravitas the original Sugar Ray had.
CBS boxing analyst – and my comrade covering Mayweather-Pacquiao during the spring – Lyle Fitzsimmons, considers Mayweather in the following context…
“Deep down, I’m quite sure Floyd knows his claim of being ‘The Best Ever’ is far more a great way to sell merchandise and far less a description of where he stands all time. That said, he may be one of the best 38-year-old fighters ever. To be the best in the world at an age where so many other greats were dried husks of themselves is probably his greatest achievement.
Specifically, just dating back to the last golden era at 147, I don’t think he could beat a prime Hearns or a prime Leonard. He may have been able to fluster Duran at that weight, but that was a dozen pounds past Roberto’s best anyway. I think a 140-pound Pryor would have been a terrific fight. Same for Duran at 135, which is a weight Floyd may have reigned at for years had climbing the ladder not become the measure of greatness these days.
Best of a generation… absolutely. Worthy of the label ‘all-time great’… definitely. But ‘The Best Ever’… no way.”
I’ll raise my friend’s dissection another decibel. Mayweather is the greatest defensive fighter ever. Only Ali, in the years before he was banned from boxing, when he was welterweight quick in a heavyweight’s frame, was as good. (Ali actually trained with welterweights in his prime and not even they could hit him.)
And no one was this good this deep into the bowels of a career. At 38, Mayweather still toys with foes, and reduced Manny Pacquiao to a wild-swinging drunkard. Ali was shot long before 40. And even the sainted Robinson couldn’t carry his biblical skills into middle age.
Mayweather is not, however, the greatest fighter ever, for several reasons. But perhaps the most salient reason is he never got a chance to prove it.
Back in 1951, the average baseball player made about $13,000, while Robinson spent the decade making several million dollars. Ali made $2.5 million to fight Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden in 1971, branded The Fight of the Century. Yet Larry Csonka, the star running back for the Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins, made $55,000 in 1973.
So back when boxing bestowed the biggest paydays, it attracted the best athletes. But since the 1990s, when baseball and basketball contracts ballooned into the millions, athletes found they could make the same money sans the head trauma.
No sport has suffered like boxing over the last 15 years. Team sports have poached the sweet science of its 200-pound, balletic baller. Lighter weights are still relevant because the Lakers, Packers, and Pirates aren’t looking for lightweights.
So Mayweather is a victim of his era. More nuanced and neutral lifers, like ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr and referee Kenny Bayless, will say Mayweahter could have fought in any era. And they’re right. Mayweather’s reflexes and instincts translate. Just as Joe Namath could have thrown a spiral in 2015, and Koufax could have spun his wizardly curve, Floyd Mayweather had old-world ability.
But that doesn’t mean he would have defeated the Four Kings, or even survived the more ornery era of the 1990s, before the sport forever surrendered to our trinity of team sports.
“Floyd has benefited in a sense, from the historical point in which he’s fought talented fighters. He’s benefited from when he fought them. He would be terrific in any era. But had he lived in the 1980s he would not be undefeated. Zero chance. You could even argue that if he came up in the De La Hoya/Fernando Vargas/Felix Trinidad/Ike Quartey era he could have lost at least once, as well.
Floyd would be great in any area, between 135 and 147, but objectively speaking, it’s impossible to imagine him beating Sugar Ray Robinson, Ray Leonard or Thomas Hearns. And I think he has a life-and-death struggle with Trinidad, Pryor, and Duran.”
And if you’re wondering why we’re not quoting the Four Kings, it’s because they would serve as an echo chamber of Bernstein’s sentiments. When I spoke to Hagler, he still insists he beat Leonard – which isn’t an insane assertion – so he would bristle at any inference that Mayweather could beat him.
Mayweather has fought the best of his era, including two-dozen current or former champions. But the authentic icons he fought – like Oscar De La Hoya and Shane Mosley – were eons past their prime. It says here his most impressive win was against Saul “Canelo” Alvarez – who was younger, larger, and stronger. Yet Mayweather reduced him to a bewildered amateur.
Millennials have colonized the Internet, especially social media. So they only know Mayweather, with perhaps a dash of Mike Tyson. And since we all like to think we lived through the most epic epoch, any objective take on their guy is instantly branded an incurable case of hating.
Wrong. There was a world before Twitter. (Thank god.) Floyd Mayweather, with old school talent, never got to fight in the old world. If he had, we would still be talking about him in grateful tones, just not godly terms.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.