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May 1, 2010

‘Money’ Mayweather: Stepping Up To The Plate

by Matt O'Brien

After a run of fourteen years and forty fights undefeated as a professional boxer, including nineteen world title fights, Floyd Mayweather will step into the ring for what most people consider to be his toughest challenge to date. Perhaps more importantly, despite Mayweather competing in the welterweight division for five years already, it is also considered by many to be the first time he has fought a truly elite 147lber. Rightly or wrongly, there has been a common perception of Floyd in recent years of “ducking” the most serious challenges available whilst making his name against smaller and/or older opponents. This perception was given further credence when the much-hyped super fight with Manny Pacquiao fell through.

When it became clear the aforementioned mega bout would not get past the negotiating table, Mayweather was left with a choice: Find the most dangerous opponent in the world not named Manny Pacquiao, or fight a hand-picked lesser accomplished foe, and thereby forever risk the taunt of “running scared”. To his credit, Floyd stepped up to the plate. By taking on the legitimate welterweight champion and future hall of famer Shane Mosley, Mayweather has fired back the best possible response to silence his critics, out-flanking Manny Pacquiao somewhat in the pound-for-pound stakes in the process by taking on the better and more dangerous opponent of the two subsequent to their proposed fight collapsing. Aside from maybe Paul Williams, there is no other fighter in the world you could reasonably claim would be a more suitable opponent for Floyd to test himself against at this time.

It is in many respects though quite amazing to be talking of a fighter who went into his first world title fight after only seventeen fights and two years as a pro, as taking his first “real test”. On that night almost twelve years ago the young ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd stepped into the ring against accomplished veteran champion Genaro Hernandez, whose only previous defeat in forty fights came against a blazing early-career Oscar de la Hoya. Incredible now to think there was concern going into the bout that it might be too much too soon for the flashy young fighter. In the ring it was Mayweather who fought well beyond his years and looked like the seasoned vet though, completely outclassing the proud champion until it was stopped after eight rounds.

Floyd immediately followed this great win with a resounding victory over another fighter rated as a very dangerous opponent in the division at that time, Angel Manfredy. The WBU champion was considered a serious test for Floyd and was certainly no easy picking for a first title defense. Floyd destroyed Manfredy in two rounds. After five more dominant wins in the division, Mayweather took on the formidable undefeated IBF champion, knockout artist Diego Corrales. Corrales was freakishly tall for a super featherweight and had blasted his way to 33-0 with 27 knockouts going into the fight, making him one of the most feared punchers in the whole of boxing – never mind the super-featherweight division. Many astute experts were tipping him for the victory. What transpired was one of the most clinical boxing exhibitions you’re ever likely to witness, as Mayweather bamboozled the bigger man with his speedy boxing and knocked him to the canvas on five occasions before his corner mercifully threw in the towel in the tenth round. Mayweather was still just twenty-three years old.

So how is it then, almost a decade later, and with a further five title belts behind him in four more weight divisions, that Floyd Mayweather is only now taking on a “real test”?

On the one hand, we might say that Floyd is somewhat a victim of  his own early career success: he made every perceived challenge look so easy that he raised peoples expectations of himself too high. This has been a burden for many of the greatest fighters. On the other hand though, Mayweather has actively encouraged people to raise their expectations of him, in his wild yet virulent claims that he is not just a great boxer, but the greatest boxer – ever. Judging him as he has asked himself to be judged then – against the best that ever did it in this sport – there is a lot to be said for the “ducking” accusations that have plagued his post-lightweight career.

After escaping with what many labelled a “gift” decision in his first lightweight title fight against Jose Luis Castillo, and then winning a clear decision in the immediate rematch, for a long time the strength of Mayweather’s competition waned compared to his early career challenges. Although he continued steadily with two more title defenses at lightweight, before moving up to collect titles at light-welter, welter and light-middleweight, it is Floyd’s competition post-Castillo – or perceived lack thereof – that has lead to harsh taunts such as “Gayweather” and “Scareweather” appearing over internet message boards.

Arturo Gatti, despite being the WBC champion at 140lbs, was known for his guts rather than his world class credentials and barely even made it into the division’s top five at the time. Moving up to welterweight, victories over Sharmba Mitchell, Zab Judah and Carlos Baldomir only seemed to give his critics further ammunition: Mitchell was old and fighting above his weight; Judah was soundly beaten in his previous fight to Mayweather against Baldomir; and the champion Baldomir was considered a limited fighter whose skills presented almost no danger.

Subsequent to the title winning victory over Baldomir, Mayweather again began to add some star names to his resume, yet for one reason or another, each seems to have come under fire: De la Hoya was aging and yet still able to take Mayweather to a close split decision; Ricky Hatton was perceived as too small and even over-hyped in some quarters; and while Juan Manuel Marquez was without doubt an elite fighter, he was also moving up two weight classes to tackle Mayweather.

Perhaps just as much ammunition has been found by Mayweather’s critics due to the fighters he has failed to meet in the ring, rather than the ones he did meet. Consider that at 140lbs, where Floyd hand-picked a WBC title  from Gatti, boxing legend Kostya Tszyu, undefeated British star Ricky Hatton, and red-hot WBO Puerto Rican champion Miguel Cotto were all active in that weight division at the time, and yet he failed to meet one of them in the ring (Hatton eventually came later at 147lbs). Up at welterweight cries of Floyd “running scared” really intensified when he chose to box Baldomir instead of feared puncher Antonio Margarito, and then chose to retire instead of fight undefeated star Miguel Cotto. With Margarito dismantling Cotto, and Shane Mosley subsequently undressing Margarito, these are two potentially “legacy defining fights” that passed Floyd by.

Add in the recent collapse of the aforementioned Pacquiao blockbuster, and the flashy man who calls himself ‘Money’ finds himself, after nineteen world title victories, “proving” himself in the ring.

Yet for all the criticisms, it should be noted that in his last four fights Floyd Mayweather has defeated the reigning linear lightweight, light-welterweight, light-middleweight and welterweight champions. Should he win against Mosley, we can add another welterweight champion to that amazing list. Aside from a certain Mr. Pacquiao, you’ll be hard pressed to find an achievement like that in boxing unless you go back to 1950’s boxing immortal Henry Armstrong – famed for holding titles at featherweight, lightweight and welterweight concurrently. Some will argue that all but one of the contests in Mayweather’s win streak took place in his favoured 147lb weight class, and that the victories were tarnished because they were against smaller or older fighters. As Floyd rightly points out though – he himself used to be a smaller fighter; he himself came up through the divisions. Why shouldn’t he accept the challenge of other fighters attempting to do the same thing?

Whether you take a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty view of Mayweather’s career to date though, one thing cannot be denied: on Saturday night he is fighting against a bona fide, world class welterweight who cannot be dismissed as an easy nights work even by Mayweather’s harshest critics. We might say, finally, he is stepping up to the plate. Again.

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