Kory Kitchen is back at Bad Left Hook today for part one of what will be a three-part series. In part one, Kory looks back at the 2001 year-end pound-for-pound top ten from RING Magazine.
One of the constant remarks heard within boxing circles is "they don't make ‘em like they used to". Typically, this may be the old crotchety guy down the street that claims to have seen Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis, and Willie Pep perform their trade when they were in their respective primes. You know the type. The kind of guy that tells anyone who will listen that Marciano would have walked right through the Klitschko brothers like Patton through Africa. If Beau Jack were around today he would whip Juan Manuel Marquez and Manny Pacquiao on the same night. Then he would knock out Floyd Mayweather on the next night. That kind of guy.
However, to a certain degree these people are right. As a whole, boxing is inhabited by fighters that do not have quite the same level of skill and experience that their counterparts from yester-year had. This is not argument or debate. It is fact. If one looks at records of fighters from decades past, he will notice that it was not uncommon for a man to have over 100 professional bouts, and some to have well over that. If one were to watch film of high-level fights from the past several decades, it would become apparent that the overall skill level of the "average" fighter has eroded a bit.
This is not to say that all of today's boxers are bad, and that all of the older ones were better. We are fortunate enough today to have some men with special enough talent and skills to have likely competed with any era of prizefighting. Names like Mayweather, Pacquiao, Marquez, and Bernard Hopkins are frequently brought up when discussing "all-time great" status. However, I do get the feeling that we are at a time in the sport when perhaps we have the fewest active fighters that one could nominate to be a truly great fighter in the whole history of boxing.
We all like to use the term pound-for-pound when debating who we feel are the best fighters in the sport. Some people are of the opinion that the term is overrated, and they have a valid point. Why bother getting upset and heated over a list of fighters that is completely hypothetical? If they will never meet in the ring due the size differences then why bother with even making a list and debating about it? Well, for lack of a better term, it is because we are human. We like lists and we like to argue. As long as people don't get too insane about it, it's a fun topic to discuss with people that actually have a clue about what they are talking about.
If we gaze at our pound-for-pound list in boxing right now something becomes readily apparent, and it has been constant for the past couple of years. There is Floyd and Manny (or Manny and Floyd if that's how you prefer), and then there is everyone else. Maybe you have dropped Pacquiao after the Marquez fight, or maybe you think Mayweather is overrated. Either way, clearly the two most common names atop the pound-for-pound charts over the past few years have been Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao.
After them would be men like Sergio Martinez and Juan Manuel Marquez. These are two Hispanic fighters that are supremely talented, but don't have the fanbase that some of their peers have enjoyed. Marquez, ever the consummate professional, just lost a razor-thin decision to Pacquiao that many felt should have gone his way. Martinez, the undisputed middleweight champion, knocked out Darren Barker in a fight that may have been his worst performance of the past five years. After his fight with Barker, Martinez received some stern criticism not being up to his usual high standards. When referencing Martinez being generally considered the third best fighter in the world, Steve Kim of maxboxing.com wrote on Twitter that we were a long way from when Marco Antonio Barrera was tabbed the third best fighter in the world (I assume behind Roy Jones and Bernard Hopkins circa 2003).
The implication that I get from him and others is that not only has the quality of fighters dropped over the past few decades, but there has been some significant drop off in only the past several years. It's an intriguing point, and one that boxing fans need to confront. Have boxers really devolved over the last few years? It's a question that is worth tackling, and that is what I am going to try and accomplish.
First, I will examine the top ten pound-for-pound entrants at the end of 2001 according to Ring Magazine. Then, in part two, I will look at the top ten at the end of 2006. Finally, in part three, I will go over this year's pound-for-pound best, and see how they stack up compared to the last ten years. I am using the Ring's pound-for-pound list because they have been around long enough to be consistent and legitimate. Not saying that their lists are perfect, but they will have the boxers necessary to manage the discussion. Finally, I do not feel that being owned by Golden Boy has compromised their rankings. If you want to debate that go somewhere else.
Ring Magazine's P4P 2001 (Records as of the end of 2001.)
1. Shane Mosley, 38-0 (Welterweight)
This may seem like a peculiar choice to some to place "Sugar Shane" ahead of names like Hopkins, Jones, and his conqueror, Mayweather. However, at the time Mosley was undefeated, and thought to be possibly unbeatable. He had knocked out all eight of his lightweight title challengers, and was even listed as the 13th greatest lightweight of all-time by the Ring Magazine (a bit high if you ask me). He skipped to welterweight where he defeated Oscar de la Hoya via split decision in a wonderful fight. In his prime he possessed outstanding hand speed, fairly heavy hands, and a suffocating body attack. His eventual losses to Vernon Forrest, WInky Wright, and Mayweather (he was totally done by the time he got to Pacquiao) are valid proof that he is not a bona-fine all-time great fighter. That's said, he will surely be in the Hall of Fame someday unless voters hold the doping incident of 2003 against him.
2. Bernard Hopkins, 40-2-1 (Middleweight)
This was right around when the "Executioner" was reaching his peak at the ripe age of 36. In fact, he was generally considered the fighter of the year in 2001 for defeating Keith Holmes and ambushing Felix Trinidad to become undisputed middleweight champion. This was the culmination of many grueling years of fighting for respect while other less talented but flashy fighters received more press. At this point he had made a record-tying 14 successful defenses of his IBF crown, and would soon break the record (he would get to 20). Hopkins would have had a credible argument to be ranked one spot higher at the time. He is one the best middleweights ever to lace on a pair of gloves, and is a sure-fire Hall of Famer.
3. Roy Jones Jr, 45-1 (Light Heavyweight)
Jones was in the midst of a long reign atop the light heavyweight division at the end of 2001. He had been mentioned as a possible Trinidad opponent if Tito had gotten past Hopkins, but we all know how that turned out. Jones had undeniable physical gifts that few in the sport's history can replicate. The only problem was that he didn't always use them to their fullest potential. His reign is littered with names like Richard Hall, Rick Frazier, Otis Grant, Glen Kelley, David Telesco, and others that nobody will remember in ten years. Some could argue him deserving the top spot on his talent alone, but I will not. Nevertheless, he is considered an all-time great fighter by many, and is a possible top-12 to 15-type in all-time light heavyweight standings. He will easily make it to the Hall of Fame someday. Not bad for being ranked third in the world.
4. Marco Antonio Barrera, 54-3 (Featherweight)
Barrera had just schooled Naseem Hamed over 12 rounds in 2001, and was in the middle of the second wind of his career. After losing twice to Junior Jones (once by corner stoppage), he regrouped to have a war with Erik Morales in 2000 at 122. He lost a deserved decision, but came back a year later to defeat Hamed and be hailed as the best featherweight on the planet. This is the period when Barrera transformed from left hook-to-the-liver-Mexican-warrior into more of a boxer-puncher type. At this point, he was possibly the best non-American boxer in the world (Morales, Trinidad, Ricardo Lopez, Kostya Tszyu, and Lennox Lewis could have also made arguments for that spot). Although his evolution from "Baby-Faced Assassin" to the boxer of his later years may have turned down the drama some, it unquestionably aided his longevity in the sport. He will likely be remembered in the lower half of the ten greatest Mexican fighters in boxing history, and one could argue him higher. A first-ballot Hall of Famer.
5. Floyd Mayweather Jr, 27-0 (Jr. Lightweight)
What ever happened to this guy? In all seriousness, it is Mayweather's placement at fifth on the list that shows how deep this talent pool truly was. At this point, "Pretty Boy" Floyd had virtually cleaned out the junior lightweight division. Long before he was fighting once every 20 months, Mayweather let his fists do the talking. After only 17 professional bouts he dominated the highly respected champion Genaro Hernandez over eight rounds to take the WBC title. His first defense was a wipeout of top contender Angel Manfredy in two rounds, only two months later. However, some insiders had begun to suggest Diego Corrales was the top dog at 130 by 2000. Floyd then called a proposed $12 million, six-fight contract from HBO "slave wages", and he had a nine month inactive period. Nevertheless, any doubts were swept away when he put on one of the best performances of the decade by dropping the undefeated Corrales five times on his way to earning a tenth round stoppage victory. He followed that with a decision over Carlos Hernandez; a fight that saw Mayweather injure both hands and suffer the only official knockdown of his career when the referee ruled that his gloves had brushed the canvas due to the immense pain. His last fight at 130 was possibly the most exciting outing of his career as he traded shots with Jesus Chavez, and got the win due to Chavez's corner stopping the fight after nine rounds. Mayweather at 130 was the total package. Phenomenal hand/foot speed, perfect technical skill, sublime defense, solid punch, and a sound chin all accounted to make up easily one of the most gifted fighters of any generation.
6. Felix Trinidad, 40-1 (Middleweight)
Trinidad, by the end of 2001, had already seen the peak of his career come and go. He had just gotten thoroughly outboxed and outfought by Hopkins, and was on the verge of his first retirement. However, he remained placed at sixth due to his longevity atop the boxing hierarchy, and the fact that he was a favorite of fight fans. Win or lose, one knew that he could count on an exciting night when Trinidad fought (well, unless De la Hoya was running from him). His fight with Fernando Vargas was an amazing slugfest, and one of the best bouts of the decade. His five round destruction of the capable William Joppy netted him the WBA middleweight crown, and convinced some insiders to name him the best boxer in the world, pound-for-pound. Trinidad featured very solid skills with a big punch (especially his left hook), and a chin that was a touch on the soft side. It was not uncommon for him to get decked early, only to comeback and stop his opponent late. He is perhaps a top-15 all-time welterweight, and had a great, brief run at junior middle. His limitations were exposed by De la Hoya and ultimately led to his demise against Hopkins and Winky Wright. However, his wins over De la Hoya, Pernell Whitaker, David Reid, Vargas, Joppy, 15 successful defenses of his IBF welterweight crown, and his massive fan support have made him a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame in a couple of years. Not bad for the sixth best boxer in the world.
7. Oscar de la Hoya, 34-2 (Jr. Middleweight)
Only a couple of years earlier boxing's "Golden Boy" was on top of many expert's pound-for-pound lists. Title belts at 130, 135, 140, and 147 through the first eight years of his career made some insiders drool over his abilities and charisma. He stayed at welterweight for a few years; picking up wins over Whitaker, Ike Quartey, Julio Cesar Chavez, Oba Carr, and a few others. His decision loss to Trinidad was met with derision by most, but Oscar's choice to run the last four rounds lost him any sympathy. He lost another decision, this time to amateur rival Shane Mosley the following year. The fight was a great, see-saw battle, but some wondered if De la Hoya was perhaps a little on the downside at this moment. Not only that, but some questioned his focus to the sport that had made him a multi-millionaire. In 2001 he overwhelmed the much smaller Arturo Gatti over five rounds, and picked up the WBC 154-pound strap by outboxing Francisco Castillejo over 12 one-sided rounds. At this stage, Oscar was still an excellent fighter with great natural ability. He was probably slightly past his prime, but nobody at 154 was better than him at the time. Fernando Vargas would find that out a year later. De la Hoya is a figure that many people either love or hate. Regardless of how you feel about his legacy, he will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer in a few years unless he was to make a sudden return to the sport.
8. Ricardo Lopez, 51-0-1 (Jr. Flyweight)
Lopez is, without a doubt, one of the absolute best boxers of the 1990's. It's a shame the guy had to make a living at strawweight where the competitors were literally half the size of someone like Evander Holyfield. If only Lopez could have weighed 147 or even just 126, more people would have been able to witness one of the finest boxers that the country of Mexico has ever had to offer. By the end of 2001 Lopez was essentially done with career. He had just won his final bout; a ninth round stoppage of former 108-pound champion Zolani Petelo on the Hopkins-Trinidad undercard, and looked like his usual dominant self. One of the few fighters in boxing history to retire with a legitimate undefeated record, he made a record 21 successful defenses of his WBC title at 105. Until Rosendo Alvarez in 1998, nobody came close to beating Lopez. Good fighters like Saman Sorjaturong, Rocky Lin, Kermin Guardia, and Alex Sanchez were no match for "Finito" at his peak. Only Alvarez, himself the WBA champion and excellent boxer in his own right, was able to give him a true push to the limit. Many felt Alvarez had bested him in their first bout after he floored Lopez for the first time in his career. The fight was halted and announced a technical draw after an accidental headbutt opened a cut over Lopez's eye. They had a rematch a few months later, despite Alvarez being overweight, and Lopez took the decision in a wonderful, bloody fight which proved there was toughness beneath the deep layers of talent and skill. If you have not seen him at work, do yourself a favor, and check him out. Lopez was enshrined in Canastota in 2007.
9. Kostya Tszyu, 28-1-1 (Jr. Welterweight)
Of all of the fighters in this list, Tszyu may be the remembered as the least accomplished (I think it's between him and Mosley). That said, 2001 must have been awfully deep because he was one heck of a boxer. At this point, he had just stopped Zab Judah in the second round from a right hand that put the Brooklyn-native on his back, saw him get up to talk to the referee, then fall down face first to the canvas again. Jay Nady took care of the rest. One can certainly make the case that it was an inappropriate stoppage, but it doesn't matter. Looking back, it will likely be remembered as the biggest win of Tszyu's career, and it is what made him top dog at junior welterweight for the next four years until he ran into a prime Ricky Hatton in England. Before his signature win over Judah, he also defeated the likes of Rafael Ruelas, Miguel Angel Gonzalez, Sharmba Mitchell (which gave him the WBA crown), and the corpse of Julio Cesar Chavez. Tszyu was a more versatile fighter than what many give him credit for. He was primarily known for his heavy hands and subtle pressure, which he would use to great effect against boxers like Judah and Mitchell (especially in their rematch in 2004). However, he could box when needed. He put on a masterful display of boxing in his shutout decision over Ben Tackie (Quick notes: This was before Tackie became everybody's punching bag and he was a legitimate contender at the time. Also, this was the same night as Gatti-Ward I so it was overshadowed for obvious reasons). Tszyu was consistently one of the best fighters in the world for the first half of the last decade, and is one of the greatest junior welterweights of all-time. He was voted into the Hall of Fame alongside Chavez and Mike Tyson at the end of last year.
10. Erik Morales, 41-0 (Featherweight)
Morales, a personal favorite of mine, has been one of the most exciting fighters of the last 15 years of the sport. Most know him today as the last man to defeat Pacquiao, but that would be later in his career. At this stage, he was still undefeated and already held victories over Daniel Zaragoza, Wayne McCullough, Junior Jones, a faded Kevin Kelley, and his most heated rival, Marco Antonio Barrera (albeit a controversial decision). It speaks to the breadth of depth during this year to have Morales on the border of being left out when "El Terrible" was in his prime and unbeaten. His fights with Zaragoza and McCullough proved that he had something under the hood that seems to be required of Mexican fighters. In fact, he later said that he wanted to quit after the sixth round against McCullough but kept going to get the victory after his corner motivated him to continue. However, it was his war with Barrera that showed everyone what he was made of. Although the decision probably should have gone to Barrera, Morales proved his spunk by never backing down in one of the best fights of the decade. There are two main reasons why Morales is ranked beneath his foe. First, most felt that Barrera deserved the decision. Two, Morales was going through a rough patch in his career. His only fight of '01 was a pedestrian decision over Guty Espadas that some feel he was lucky to get. Morales brought good power, solid technique, and a great chin to the table. He wasn't the fastest guy around, but generally made-up for it by being tireless in the ring. When he eventually retires he will be an easy vote for the Hall of Fame.