By Chance Boudreaux
Is anyone who’s reading this article older than 35? Because, if you are, you might remember watching boxing in the 80’s. And, if so, then you remember that decade being dominated by the heavyweights Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson. However, what you also remember is those fiery, charismatic guys in the lower weight classes who were not able to get by on size alone, but instead had to electrify you with every victory they earned. For a moment, they could steal your attention away from the big boys and show you just how truly amazing they themselves really were. This is how the whole idea of “pound for pound” came about in the first place.
You see, boxing is what’s classified as a “combat sport”. Even more specifically, it is classified as an “unarmed combat competition”. What this means is that the main purpose of boxing is to determine which of the two combatants would be able to physically conquer the other if there were no weapons involved. When boxing first started back in….. well…. the beginning of human civilization, I would assume (It seriously dates back to pretty much the beginning of our time, as does wrestling), there were no weight classes. Everyone fought everyone until only one person was left standing victorious. This tradition continued on for millennia, until about 200 years ago when the English finally realized that even an awesomely good little guy was still going to get consistently demolished by even a fairly good big guy if they both had to follow the same rules. Thus, the novel idea of separating combatants into groups according to their body mass was born. Once that happened, much more exciting matches took place, and the sport of boxing experienced an unprecedented rise in popularity. Spectators were finally able to appreciate the skills of the smaller guys once they were pitted against men their own size; however, they still appreciated this skill while in eager anticipation for the main event between the heavyweights.
Fast forward to the 1940’s: The heavyweight champion at the time, the legend Joe Louis, was being struck with the misfortune of having one of the worst strings of challengers in any era (it could be argued that the current era of heavyweight challengers is worse, but this one was still pretty horrible). The challengers were so bad they had a collective name: The Bum of the Month Club. Heavyweight Championship Boxing was still the hottest ticket in town outside of The World Series at that point, but the fans just could not help but fall asleep at the thought of these Joe Louis mismatches, which ultimately caused fans to (mistakenly) doubt Louis’ greatness altogether. Meanwhile, his childhood Detroit neighbor and future Army buddy, Sugar Ray Robinson, was busy building the most impressive beginning to any fighter’s career up until that point. He went undefeated in the amateurs, and he had already beaten a Murderer’s Row of (now Hall of Fame) lightweight champions and future champions while amassing an undefeated professional record of 40-0, prior to his second fight with Jake LaMotta, whom he had also already beaten once before. It was somewhere around this time that fans were starting to develop the idea in their heads that, if every fighter was the same weight, then Sugar Ray Robinson would probably beat them all, including Joe Louis.
This concept would die down somewhat whenever a compellingly competitive heavyweight era occurred, such as the Ali-Frazier-Foreman era of the 60’s and 70’s, but as soon as competition got slim in the heavyweight division, then the lower weight classes would always step up and take center stage. This is exactly what happened in the 80’s when “Iron” Mike Tyson was making a habit of knocking his opponents senseless before boxing fans could even figure out what channel the fight was being televised on, and, while this served to add to Tyson’s intimidating mystique, it did nothing to further the competition value of the heavyweight division. That’s when a welterweight named Sugar Ray Leonard showed up to take advantage.
Leonard was the first fighter in the lower weight classes who could draw an audience to rival that of a heavyweight champion (which was a REALLY big deal, by the way). He was everything you wanted a fighter to be: charismatic, technically proficient, athletic, a consistent winner, etc. It was pretty much like having a smaller Muhammad Ali (really, it was THAT big of a deal), so when he eventually fought the smaller version of Joe Frazier (Marvin Hagler), it became THE superfight of the 80’s. Not a heavyweight bout, but a middleweight bout was the biggest bout of the 80’s, and once again, the idea of who is, pound-for-pound, the best fighter in the world was on the line.
Enter the 1990’s, and the heavyweights are competitive again. Tyson is doing a stint in prison, but Evander Holyfield, Riddick Bowe, Lennox Lewis, Michael Moorer, and a returning George Foreman are filling in for him quite nicely as the best crop of heavyweight championship contenders since the early 70’s. These guys are so good that casual fans stop talking about the post-Leonard/Hagler era almost entirely, which is sad, since this is right about the time that the best pound-for-pound fighter of the 90’s actually shows up on the scene, and he is a middleweight named Roy Jones Jr. Unfortunately for him, though, he soon suffers from a similar fate that befell Joe Louis, in that he never really had any major competition in his prime, with the notable exception of Bernard Hopkins, whom he beat by decision. The Hopkins fight, though, came way before any of the historically notable Hopkins victories and, thus, never was seen as the major fight that it should have been.
The next decade, Roy Jones moved up to heavyweight to fight for a title even though he had a much better, more accomplished version of Bernard Hopkins offering a long-awaited rematch at super middleweight. The irony of the situation was that the Hopkins fight was now being pitched as a potential superfight, but the heavyweight match against (extremely boring) John Ruiz was not. This turned out to be par for the course in the heavyweight division for the rest of the decade, even up until now, so all that was needed for the lighter weights to return to center stage was an all-time great rivalry between all-time great fighters. Unfortunately for Roy Jones, even though he came back down in weight, he was defeated by Father Time before the Hopkins fight ever materialized. His reflexes began to betray him, and he started getting regularly knocked out by opponents who would have barely landed a punch on him just a few years prior.
So now we are in the mid-2000’s, and the highest-earning fighter of the decade is, once again, not a heavyweight. It’s a welterweight named Oscar De La Hoya. The popularity of this fighter cannot be overstated. However, his overall pound-for-pound ranking is just a few spots shy of the top at this point, which means that his fight, although major events, are just not superfights, since De La Hoya is not viewed as the best… So we have a fighter who is more popular than any other fighter in boxing, but we have no opponent that can add pound-for-pound legitimacy to his matches. Enter: Floyd Mayweather.
Undefeated, but undervalued, Floyd Mayweather had arrived at the welterweight division with a large chip on his shoulder and an even larger desire to become a pay-per-view star like his former promotional stablemate De La Hoya. Not only that, but Mayweather wanted to surpass De La Hoya and take the crown for himself, and it just so happened that they were now in the same weight class, and De La Hoya was not quite ready to retire yet. That’s how the Cinco de Mayo boxing weekend was born. In 2007, Mayweather defeated De La Hoya in what is currently still the highest-selling pay-per-view boxing match of all time (at 2.4 million buys). It was not a simple task, however. Mayweather undertook an entire strategy of verbal thrashing, histrionics, and general craziness to make sure that EVERYONE was paying attention to this matchup. HBO even had to invent the show “24/7” from the ground up, just to accommodate all of the hype.
Now Mayweather is the alpha dog, and what does he do? He retires shortly thereafter.
As the boxing gods would have it, us fans were not left wanting, because, little did Mayweather know, there was a tiny Filipino powerhouse named Manny Pacquiao that was eager to move up from lightweight to take his place at the top…. and that he did. Not only did Pacquiao proceed to vanquish all of Mayweather’s defeated opponents in ever grander style, but he also won fighter of the decade for the 2000’s. If there was anything that would bring Mayweather back from retirement, it was the idea that someone else would steal his glory. If Manny Pacquiao wanted to be the best, he would have to beat the best, and Mayweather was the best (according to Mayweather, at least). He came out of retirement and immediately made his statement clear by easily dominating Juan Manuel Marquez, the one opponent who Pacquiao could never truly defeat. After Pacquiao KO’ed pound-for-pound superstar Miguel Cotto, whom Mayweather had never even faced, the staged was finally set: We would have a match to end all matches. One that would not only determine who is the best welterweight of the new millennium era, but who is the best FIGHTER, bar none, of the millennium era.
Five years later… and we’re JUST now getting our long-awaited match.
It’s okay, though, because nothing major has happened in between. Pacquiao got knocked out by Marquez in their fourth bout, but he bounced back from it and now Mayweather and Pacquiao are, once again, number 1 and number 2 pound-for-pound in boxing, and they are FINALLY fighting on May 2nd, 2015, and this is truly for ALL the marbles. Vladimir Klitschko has been heavyweight champion for about a decade at this point, and he defended his belt just a few days ago on April 25th. However, the only fight that anyone has been able to talk about all year is May-Pac: Floyd “Money” Mayweather and Manny “Pac-Man” Pacquiao. The little guys are once again the stars of the sport, and they did not have to fight even one heavyweight to get there.