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May 14, 2010

Catch 22: Solving The Floyd Mayweather Puzzle

by Matt O'Brien

Part i: The Sugar Man

After taking an early lead in the fight, Mosley came out blazing in the twelfth round as both fighters stood toe-to-toe amid the wild screams of a euphoric crowd. The fight was close, but after catching the judges eyes with his flashy bursts of accurate, powerful combinations throughout the previous twelve rounds, ‘Sugar’ Shane got the exclamation mark he was looking for when he staggered his opponent in the final round with a huge right hand, wobbling his legs for a moment, barely managing to remain upright. “A star is born here”, exclaimed Ian Darke, commentating for Sky Sports, as the final seconds ticked down on the clock. “There really is a new Sugar Man” concurred his co-host Glenn McCrory.

That was ten years ago. On that night Shane Mosley announced himself onto the world boxing stage with his fantastic victory against mega-star Oscar de la Hoya. Following that break-out performance the ensuing decade held many twists and turns for the new Sugar Man – including  a second controversial victory over DLH, three more world title belts, a total of five defeats, and an admission of (inadvertently) using performance enhancing substances. At the end of it all though, life had gone full circle for Mosley, and he found himself once again standing astride the top of the welterweight division after confounding his critics with a sublime title winning effort against Antonio Margarito in January of 2009.

On May 1st 2010, at the MGM Grand, Las Vegas Nevada, Mosley was facing an entirely different proposition to the very, very good (but not quite great) DLH he fought all those years ago. First of all, after advancing ten years in age, he had a minor battle on his hands with father time. Secondly, instead of the somewhat robotic DLH he fought in June 2000, he had to contend with an elite speedster, undefeated and seemingly still at the peak of his powers – a modern day boxing conundrum in his own right.

“I’m like a difficult math problem that can’t no one solve.” – Floyd Mayweather Jr

Part ii: Styles

One of boxing’s oldest truisms tells us that “styles make fights”. Another way to read this would be that just because fighter A beats fighter B, and fighter B beats fighter C, it doesn’t mean that fighter A will also beat fighter C. Case in point: Miguel Cotto beat Shane Mosley; Antonio Margarito knocked out Miguel Cotto; but then Shane Mosley smashed Antonio Margarito.

Regarding the above round-robin, in a now infamous heated exchange with ESPN presenter Brian Kenny, Floyd Mayweather Jr simply argued that, “all these guys beating each other, but nobody has beat Floyd Mayweather”. To the brash undefeated fighter, it merely provided further evidence of his own greatness.

There was only one problem: Floyd didn’t fight any of those guys. So while we knew each of the above trio had the style to get a win over one other in the group, we just didn’t know yet whether they also had the style to beat Floyd Mayweather.

Leading into his fight with Mosley, Mayweather made much of the fact that he still had an “O” on his record while Mosley had five defeats. An interesting question was posed in response to this argument though by Doug Fischer on Ringtv.com: If Mosley fought all of the 39 opponents that Mayweather fought, would any of them beat him? Equally you could ask, pointed out Larry Merchant, would Mayweather be undefeated if he fought Vernon Forrest or Winky Wright? (Or Miguel Cotto, for that matter).

The answers that spring immediately to mind are (1) no – you wouldn’t pick any of the 39 opponents Mayweather has beaten to beat Shane Mosley; and (2) probably not – Floyd Mayweather would likely not be undefeated if he had fought Vernon Forrest, Winky Wright and Miguel Cotto. At least in Mayweather’s mind though, such comparisons were irrelevant: Shane Mosley had been beaten, he hadn’t.

“There is a blue print to beat him because he has lost five times already. But there is no blue print to beat me.”

Part iii: The Blue Print

Many see the foundations of such a blue print – if it is ever found – being laid by Jose Luis Castillo in his first bout with the ‘Pretty Boy’. The Mexican surged relentlessly forward all night, forcing the action and backing the challenger up for large portions of the contest and appearing to take Mayweather closer to the brink of defeat than any opponent before or since. A lot of respected boxing writers will still tell you that the decision in the American’s favour was an absolute gift. Regardless of the controversy surrounding the decision though, there was no doubt that Castillo had more success against Floyd than ever seen before.

Ever since the Castillo fight many commentators and fighters have reasoned that the key to unlocking the Floyd Mayweather riddle could be found by emulating such a strategy. If Castillo could take Floyd so close to the edge with his pressure style, the reasoning went, then surely a bigger, stronger fighter who could replicate Castillo’s style would be able to topple him over the edge. The logic was simple: do everything Castillo did, but just a bit harder, stronger, better.

Over the years though, Mayweather has shown this approach to be somewhat of a fallacy. Perhaps he had an off-night against Castillo; perhaps Castillo had a particularly good night; or perhaps Mayweather learned and grew as a fighter because of the experience he gained that night. Whatever the reason, no pressure fighter since has had as much success against Floyd – despite the fact that they have been bigger, stronger fighters in higher weight divisions.

Carlos Baldomir tried to overwhelm Mayweather with size and strength, and was made to look like a sparring partner as he was countered to death all night long. Ricky Hatton, although slightly smaller, also attempted to rush Mayweather and break him down with the intensity of his attack. Again, he was picked off by sharp-shooting counter shots and eventually knocked out as his energy and defences waned. Oscar de la Hoya, to a certain extent, also adopted a strategy of piling on pressure early in the fight to overwhelm Mayweather with his size and punch out-put. Yet again, he was picked apart by the precision punches of the flashy American as he tired down the stretch.

Two of the above fighters, although ultimately defeated, were not completely without success though. DLH had great success in the early part of his fight by deploying his excellent, long jab. By mixing this with his size and aggression, he was able to back Floyd up and win rounds. Hatton, too, enjoyed brief spells of success with the sheer intensity of his assault. He also surprised Floyd early with his foot speed and a sharp jab-come-uppercut shot that knocked Floyd off balance and briefly staggered him into the ropes.

Perhaps the most success enjoyed by any fighter against Floyd post-Castillo though was Zab Judah. Less aggressive than Castillo, he gave ‘Money’ huge problems and dominated the first four rounds by matching Floyd’s speed, utilizing his southpaw jab, and letting go with explosive counter shots every now and again (even scoring a rare if unofficial knockdown of Mayweather, when his glove touched the canvas after being caught with a quick counter).

Enter Shane Mosley.

The 38 year old ‘Sugar Man’ was largely seen as an opponent with the perfect blend of boxing ability, speed, strength, aggression and experience to give Mayweather all the problems in the world: As skillful as DLH but without the tendency to fade late in big fights; as fast as Zab Judah but without the mental fragility; as intense as Ricky Hatton but with a more sophisticated defence; as aggressive and as good a body puncher as Jose Luis Castillo – but even bigger, stronger, better. He was therefore seen by many as the man who maybe, just maybe, might have the blue print to beat Floyd Mayweather.

Part iv: Catch 22

It’s not for no reason that some of the best fighters in the sport backed by some of the finest tacticians have failed to find a solution to the Floyd Mayweather puzzle. While implementing a solution is something of a conundrum, describing the problem is simple enough though: Mayweather is so quick and his defence so good, that if you attack him with an all-out assault you end up missing with nearly all of your own punches, being punished all the while in the process by his super-quick counters. The energy you end up exerting is therefore completely disproportionate to the damage you are inflicting, and so even the most finely tuned, determined fighter will eventually wilt.

The obvious answer then is don’t rush in, don’t exert yourself too much, be patient and wait for openings. Only, it just so happens that Mayweather is also a master at this game: try and stand away from him and box on the outside, and Mayweather will be content to jab you and make you wait all night long. He is in no rush to score a K.O, and the speed and accuracy of his jab coupled with his own defence means that any round following this pattern in a Mayweather fight is virtually guaranteed to go his way on the scorecards.

It’s a complete catch 22 situation: you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Attack and attempt to overwhelm him with pressure, and get punished by hard, accurate, pot-shot counters; stay safe and try to box on the outside, and get out-speeded and out-jabbed all night long. Mosley though was confident in his ability to solve the riddle.

“He doesn’t realize that I’m just as fast as him, just as slick as him and can out-box him too. I’m not even going by the power because that’s just the icing on the cake. I’m going to beat him at his game.”

Part v: The Fight

Mosley, the WBA welterweight champion, suffered the minor indignity of entering the ring first – contravening an age-old tradition in boxing lore. As he waited, smiling in the ring, Mayweather stalled in his dressing room. It reminded me of another undefeated, self-proclaimed greatest of all time boxer stalling in the dressing room prior to his biggest, “defining” fight: Naseem Hamed against Marco Antonio Barrera. That night Hamed’s pre-fight stalling tactics turned out to be more than just histrionics. They were a real indicator of the ‘Prince’s’ hitherto unforeseen inner self-doubts. He was tamed in the ring over the proceeding twelve rounds as the Mexican great laid a beat-down on the Englishman. Was Floyd Mayweather losing his bottle before the biggest fight of his life? Or just intent on entering to his favoured ring music?

Round one was close with little action to separate the boxers, but it was a good start for Mosley. He established his jab early, using one of Mayweather’s most effective weapons against him by stabbing him to the body. He looked focused, fresh and well up for the challenge ahead. Floyd looked a little less sure of himself than usual. The battle was on.

In round two Mosley connected with probably the best punch ever landed on Floyd Mayweather in a professional prize fight. 55 seconds into the round he connected cleanly with a solid over hand right that forced Floyd to grab on and clear his senses. Then, at 1 minute 45 seconds into the round, Mosley detonated a huge right hand that landed flush on the side of Mayweather’s head. His legs buckled and for a brief moment it almost looked like sending him to the canvas. Mayweathwer managed to stay upright and fought back, but his legs appeared unsteady. “Oh, he was hurt. He was hurt real bad“, reflected Mosley later at the post-fight presser. In forty previous professional fights, nineteen at world title level, you can count the number of times that has happened to Floyd Mayweather with your fingers. On one hand. And still have some spare.

At the end of round two, the 3/1 odds on Mosley were looking very delicious indeed. The odds of 15/2 for a stoppage looked even tastier. Mosley moved forward, but without reckless abandon. He timed his shots to perfection, punched in combination to the body and head, and punctuated his assault with a couple of potentially fight-turning right hands. If he didn’t have it already, he certainly earned Mayweather’s respect during a dramatic three minutes. He showed, in short, precisely why people in the know had considered him all along to be the best candidate to solve the Floyd Mayweather puzzle.

Great fighters do not give up easily though. The greatest in history separated themselves from the pack by demonstrating an ability to bounce back from adversity to win. They adjust, adapt, survive. So it was on this night with Floyd Mayweather. For the remaining ten rounds, he out-boxed, out-foxed and beat-down the Californian great with a mixture of speed, defensive prowess and a successful strike rate that is surely the envy of most stealth bomber pilots. Mosley didn’t manage to connect with another meaningful blow for the entire duration of the fight and failed to win another round on any of the three judges scorecards. As the round’s progressed, Mosley’s head trainer Naazim  Richardson could be heard threatening to do something previously unthinkable to a warrior like Shane: throw in the towel. By that point, the action had become so one-sided, Richardson wouldn’t have been completely unjustified in doing so either.

The old ‘Sugar Man’, it seemed, had long since dissolved. Gone was the “power-boxing” style of old that carried him to eight world title defences at lightweight, all by stoppage. Gone were the fierce salvos that rocked a still-prime Oscar de la Hoya. Absent was the ferocity that stopped a menacing Margarito dead in his tracks in January of last year. In many respects, after the second round, Mosley bore the tell-tale signs of a fighter past his sell-by-date: unable to follow his trainers best advice; unwilling to pull the trigger when the opportunities presented themselves; looking tired and confused going back to his corner between rounds.

Despite Mosley being past his peak though, it’s difficult to take anything away from Floyd Mayweather. Even at 38, ‘Sugar’ Shane would have undoubtedly been a match for almost any other man on the planet weighing 147lbs on that night. Mayweather bested a man lauded as having all the tools to give him his toughest night’s work, and aside from a brief early scare, he made it look easy in doing so.

During the fight, the Floyd Mayweather catch-22 puzzle was in full force. When Mosley did go forward, he was punished by a scary 44% accuracy rate from Mayweather, with 123 of 267 power shots landing across the fight as a whole. As Mosley himself said after the fight, “a lot of times, when you’re too aggressive… it can work against you.”

When he stood off and tried to box with Floyd though (which he ended up doing for most of the fight) he was out-speeded and popped with a disheartening 85 jabs from Mayweather out of 210 thrown (a 40% connect rate) compared to his own 46 landed out of 283 thrown (a 16% connect rate). It’s a complete Catch 22 situation: you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

In the end, Floyd Mayweather showed once again why he is undoubtedly one of the finest boxers of the modern era. Or, as the man himself likes to put it:

“The ultimate goal is to try to solve the problem: How to beat Floyd Mayweather? Like I have always said before – there is no remedy on how to beat Floyd Mayweather. Everyone is trying to solve the problem.”

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