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April 29, 2019

Time for a Welterweight Renaissance

by Matt O'Brien

An edited version of this article was originally published on on April 29th, 2019:

We all have a favourite set of boxers. The ones that helped forge our love for the sport way back when; the ones we still keep on old, worn-out VHS tapes and faded, nostalgic magazines, stuffed away in the loft somewhere. Wind the clock back a couple of decades to the mid-to-late 90s, and you’ll find my own favourite era. It’s fair to say the 90s are not generally considered an historical golden age for boxing, at least not in comparison to when the Four Kings were doing battle the previous decade, or when the mesmerizing career of Muhammad Ali was unfolding in the 60s and 70s. And yet, with the benefit of 20 years of hindsight, it looks pretty damn good from where I’m standing today.

The 90s heavyweight division took us on a crazy, roller coaster ride with the brilliant ensemble of Tyson, Holyfield, Bowe and Lewis culminating in an undisputed champion before the decade closed out. The middle and super middleweight divisions produced some of the most memorable talents and fierce rivalries as Hopkins, Toney and Roy Jones ruled Stateside while Watson, Benn, Eubank and Collins duelled for supremacy on this side of the pond. Down at featherweight, Naz was blazing a trail with his cocksure attitude and dynamite power bringing unprecedented purses to the lower weight classes. But the cream of the crop, surely, was at welterweight.

If you think that today’s 147lb division is red-hot, consider that The Ring Magazine’s 1997 annual ratings contained this mouth-watering top four: WBC champion Oscar De La Hoya (27-0), former champion Pernell Whitaker (40-2-1), IBF belt-holder Felix Trinidad (32-0) and WBA holder Ike Quartey (34-0-1). Such was the pedigree of this bunch they also comprised three of the top four places on The Ring’s pound-for-pound list (Roy Jones Jnr. was number two). The fourth rated welterweight, Ike Quartey, still made the top ten pound-for-pound, coming in at number nine. It was an incredible line-up for a single division, and it led to a series of cracking matches, the story of which should serve as inspiration for the welterweights today.

By 1998, boxing’s “Golden Boy,” Oscar De La Hoya, was already a four-weight world champion, having stepped up to dethrone long-reigning WBC king, Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker, in April 97. He also had the looks to crossover into a hitherto untapped boxing market of screaming teenage fan-girls, and with the help of promoter Bob Arum, the Latino heartthrob with a sweet smile and an even sweeter left hook worked wonders at the box office.

Whitaker, a four-division champion himself and the former pound-for-pound number one, was a decade removed from his first world title fight, and at 34, clearly past prime. Even so, the defensive maestro had the skills to give almost anyone nightmares, and in fact, many felt he’d been a deserving winner against De La Hoya the previous year.

Then there was Puerto Rican assassin, Felix “Tito” Trinidad, and Ghanaian dangerman, Ike “Bazooka” Quartey. WBA champ since 1994, Quartey was coming off a hard-fought majority draw against another top contender, Jose Luis Lopez. Fighting through illness, the African suffered two knockdowns, but dominated enough rounds behind his ramrod jab to retain his title, landing 313 over 12 rounds – an all-time CompuBox record that stands to this day. In contrast to Quartey’s more measured but solid boxing style, Trinidad was a pure, destructive puncher of the highest calibre. 28 of Tito’s 32 victims going into 1998 had been stopped, with only Hector Camacho managing to last the distance in 12 IBF world title fights to that point.

So, what happened next? Simple: they fought each other. Sure, it took a few months to put together, and there were some inevitable road bumps along the way, but by February 1999 we got two superb match-ups between the four of them in the space of a week.

First up, De La Hoya, who’d squeezed in five title defences since dethroning Whitaker, took on Quartey, who hadn’t fought for 18 months and had been stripped of his WBA belt. Still, it was considered easily The Golden Boy’s most dangerous assignment to date, and so it proved to be. They exchanged knockdowns in an explosive sixth round, and when the action slowed it was the Ghanaian who appeared to edge ahead. But with his undefeated record on the line, De La Hoya proved there was real fighting mettle underneath the pop-star persona, tearing out in the final round and sending Quartey to the canvas again before unloading the kitchen sink in an effort to score a last-gasp stoppage. Somehow Quartey fought back from the brink and survived the onslaught, though ultimately lost by split decision.

In the second unofficial “semi-final” bout, former champ Whitaker challenged the formidable Trinidad. Sadly, for Sweet Pea fans, the bout confirmed that his days alongside boxing’s pound-for-pound elite were by now all-but finished. Returning after a 16-month layoff following two positive tests for cocaine use, the American was beaten widely on points, though the fact that a faded, rehab-version of Sweet Pea could compete with a peak Tito Trinidad is really a testament to his ability. Who knows what the result might have been just a year or two earlier? Whitaker was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2007 and is still remembered as arguably the best boxer of the 1990s.

And so, with two of the original quartet left standing and after some financial wrangling between rival promoters Bob Arum and Don King, the stage was set for a mega-fight between Oscar and Tito. Billed as “The Battle of the Millennium,” it was the most highly anticipated welterweight showdown since “Sugar” Ray Leonard and Tommy “Hitman” Hearns, almost 20 years earlier. The two undefeated champs entered with a flawless combined record of 66-0 (56) and 34 world title wins between them, in a fascinating clash between Mexican-American and Puerto Rican boxing icons. It became the richest non-heavyweight event in history, generating 1.4 million buys and over $70m in PPV revenue.

Unfortunately, with so much on the line, the fight itself never truly caught fire. De La Hoya boxed his way to an early lead, but then back-pedalled through the final few rounds only to find himself on the losing end of a controversial judges’ decision. The real lesson to be drawn for today’s welterweights though is not about the anti-climactic battle in the ring; rather it’s the story of how, by signing to fight each other in the first place, four top welterweights chased greatness, and their rivalry served as the catalyst for a terrific sequence of bouts over the ensuing years, involving some of the best fighters of modern times. It went something like this:

Quartey moved to 154lbs but lost to a new young champion, “Ferocious” Fernando Vargas, and disappeared into early retirement. Vargas scored excellent wins over Winky Wright and Quartey, but was then stopped in an epic, six-knockdown shootout with Felix Trinidad. After unifying against De La Hoya at 147 and Vargas at 154, Trinidad blitzed his way to another belt at 160lbs, before the Tito express was finally halted in its tracks by Bernard Hopkins. Meanwhile, De La Hoya lost a fantastic tussle for his old welterweight title against rising lightweight Shane Mosley, then followed in Tito’s footsteps, defeating bitter enemy Fernando Vargas at 154 and claiming another title at 160, before also being stopped by Bernard Hopkins in a fight for the undisputed middleweight championship.

With his brilliant victory over De La Hoya, “Sugar” Shane Mosley was proclaimed the new pound-for-pound star, until Vernon Forrest came along to hand Mosley back-to-back losses. Forrest was then promptly knocked out by Nicaraguan wild man Ricardo Mayorga, who subsequently moved up in weight and was knocked out first by Trinidad, then De La Hoya and later Mosley, although he did claim a late-career win over Vargas. Mosley had also moved up to 154 after losing to Forrest, beat De La Hoya a second time, but then lost a unification fight with Winky Wright, before scoring knockouts of Vargas and Mayorga.

Winky Wright, who’d earlier lost to an undefeated Vargas, finally got his just dues after beating Mosley twice and then giving Trinidad a boxing lesson, before losing to the scourge of the bunch, Bernard Hopkins. Quartey even made a comeback five years after losing to Vargas, scoring three wins before dropping a controversial decision to Vernon Forrest and finally calling it a day after losing again to Winky Wright. Forrest also claimed another title at 154lbs after beating Quartey, but was tragically murdered while still champion, in 2009.

All in all, including the original welterweight quartet plus the fights that branched off from them involving Mosley, Forrest, Mayorga, Vargas, Wright and Hopkins, there were a total of 28 bouts over a period of 18 years, beginning with De La Hoya-Whitaker in April 1997 and ending when Mosley and Mayorga, long over the hill, fought for a second time in August 2015. Whether or not today’s welterweight division can lead to a similarly memorable string of fights remains to be seen, but there’s really only one way to find out: make the best fights.

There’s certainly no shortage of fights to be made. IBF champ Errol Spence vs WBO champ Terence Crawford – like De La Hoya-Trinidad twenty years before them – is not just the best match to make at welterweight, but in all of boxing. In fact, any combination involving those two and WBC titlist Shawn Porter or WBA “super” and “regular” belt-holders, Keith Thurman and Manny Pacquiao, will be excellent fights. And aside from the obvious unifications, ex-world champions like Amir Khan, Danny Garcia and Kell Brook are waiting for another crack at the whip; bigger sharks like Jarrett Hurd and Jamie Munguia are circling at 154lbs; and for those who one day venture as far north as 160lbs – again, as De La Hoya and Trinidad once dared – boxing behemoths Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin await.

We might not get all of the fights, and we might not get an all-time great era even if they do all fight. But if we just start by making some of the best matches, who knows what legacies and great rivalries will follow? Perhaps one day 20 years from now, someone will be inspired to pick up a keyboard and reminisce fondly about how their favourite series of fights once kicked off. They probably won’t have them saved on a dusty VHS collection in the loft, though.

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