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Shane Mosley: The Most Overrated Fighter of His Generation?

Is the recently retired Shane Mosley overrated in a historical context? (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Is the recently retired Shane Mosley overrated in a historical context? (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
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Shane Mosley, one of my favorite boxers ever, announced his slightly overdue retirement earlier this month. Mosley is a man of great dignity and clearly demands the utmost respect from his peers and boxing fans. He nearly had it all in the ring: blazing hand speed, heavy punch, iron chin, toughness, and great stamina. Outside of the ring he was recognized as a well-mannered man that was willing to fight anybody. If you wanted a fight with Sugar Shane you got one. There is little doubt Mosley will be in the International Boxing Hall of Fame five years from now. His title reigns at 135, 147, and 154 speak for themselves.

Let everything I have told you sink in. Also know that he started his career with 38 straight victories, 34 of them ending before the final bell. Also know that in 2001 The Ring Magazine listed Mosley as the 13th greatest lightweight of all-time. One spot ahead of Henry Armstrong, seven spots ahead of some guy named Oscar de la Hoya.

Want one more thing to know? He may be the most overrated boxer of his generation.

Having the nickname "Sugar" can bring great expectations. Two fighters with that moniker, Ray Robinson and Ray Leonard, are among the absolute greatest fighters (heck, athletes) of all-time. The nickname began when a newspaper writer turned to Robinson's manager and told him that he had a sweet fighter. Robinson's manager replied, "Yes, sweet as sugar." So dazzling was a young Mosley that they saw fit to bring back the most glamorous nickname in all of boxing.

Mosley absolutely decimated some fighters on his way up in California. He ran his record to 23-0 with 21 knockouts when he got his first major title shot against Philip Holiday for the IBF lightweight title. Holiday was also undefeated, but not nearly in the same talent class as his 25 year-old opponent. Mosley won a clear decision, but failed to impress. Afterwards, he would complain of having stomach cramps.

Mosley's lightweight title reign is a bit of an enigma. In the ring, at 135 pounds, he appeared unbeatable. He had a rare blend of speed and power that, frankly, I'm not sure if anyone else at that division has ever had. Not Roberto Duran. Not Floyd Mayweather. Not Benny Leonard, Ike Williams, or Alexis Arguello. Shane Mosley may well be the single most talented fighter in the whole history of the lightweight division. And therein lays the disappointment. To quote Spiderman (and countless other movies and TV shows): "With great power, comes great responsibility."

First, the good news. He made eight successful title defenses, and all eight of them ended inside the scheduled distance. In fact, he barely lost a round along the way. He also defeated two former beltholders in Jesse James Leija and John-John Molina.

The bad news? Well Leija and Molina, while good, competent fighters, are not exactly representatives of the elite. In fact, De la Hoya had already beaten each of them a few years earlier. For the record, Oscar dusted Leija in two, three years before Mosley stopped him in nine (For irony's sake I must note that Leija felt Oscar was the better fighter, and the much harder puncher. When asked, he decisively predicted Oscar would defeat Shane.). The rest of his title challengers are a bunch of guys one would only know if he following boxing very closely in the late ‘90's. Demetrio Ceballos, Manuel Gomez, Wilfredo Ruiz, Eduardo Morales, Golden Johnson, and John Brown make up a very average group of title challenger to one of the best fighters in the world.

Admittedly, the lightweight division was not completely stacked at this time. However, there were at least a few people that could have provided "Sugar" Shane with a challenge. The most notable of these was WBC titlist Stevie Johnston. He and Mosley had matched up three times in the amateurs, their final match resulting in a tight win for Johnston. For whatever reason, they never met again in any capacity. Johnston, a southpaw with excellent skills that loved to trade, would have been a wonderful fight for Mosley at this stage.

A few more people Mosley could have potentially matched up with are Cesar Bazan, Angel Manfredy, and, yes, Floyd Mayweather Jr. Bazan won the WBC belt from Johnston then lost it back to him. He was a solid, exciting fighter that Mosley likely would have blown out in all honestly, but we will never know. Manfredy is probably most famous for being on the bad end of a quick stoppage when he faced a prime Mayweather at junior lightweight. He also owned wins over Arturo Gatti and Ivan Robinson, with a loss to Johnston on points. He would have likely been handled pretty easily by Shane, but again, we will never know.

The potential lightweight matchup with Mayweather was a somewhat hot debate two years ago when they finally did meet, albeit ten years and twelve pounds later. Did Mosley really want the fight? Did Mayweather really want the fight? Who knows. In terms of in-ring talent this fight boggles the mind. It would have been difficult to see their punches with the naked eye. However, in terms of finances, the matchup probably didn't make a ton of sense. Neither man was well-known at the time, and by the end of 1999 Mosley was already up at welterweight. Although we all would love to have seen it, I can't really blame Mosley (or Mayweather) for this not happening.

In the late ‘90's to the late ‘00's Oscar de la Hoya was the real cash cow in boxing (Mike Tyson was also hanging on too.). Everyone near him wanted a shot, and Mosley was no different. Mosley leapfrogged the junior welterweight division to enter 147, and elbowed his way up to the front of the line. He and Oscar had history. They both grew up in Southern California, and had met in the amateurs with Mosley coming out the winner.

They met again in June of 2000 in what was a truly great fight. Both guys emptied out their guns in a very high-level boxing match that tested both men's resolve. In the end, Mosley took home a split decision that probably should have been unanimous. Afterwards, he shot up many pound-for-pound lists, never mind the fact that De la Hoya was by far the only thing close to an elite fighter that he had beaten.

As indifferent as his lightweight reign was, his welterweight title run ended up worse. His title challengers were Antonio Diaz, Shannan Taylor, and Adrian Stone. Diaz was an exciting junior welter contender that was simply in over his head. Taylor was a borderline top ten fighter due mostly to the fact that guys like De la Hoya, Felix Trinidad, Ike Quartey, Pernell Whitaker, Oba Carr, and Jose Luis Lopez were no longer around. All fell within the distance. The Stone knockout, in particular, was a highlight.

After three easy defenses Mosley took on his toughest contender to date. Vernon Forrest had beaten him in the 1992 Olympic Trials, and was a lanky nightmare. He stood around 6 feet, and used every inch to his advantage with a steady jab followed by a long right hand. They banged heads in the second round, Mosley emerging with a cut on the hairline. Later that round, Forrest hit him with a long right that backed him into the ropes. With his opponent's back to the ropes, Forrest unleashed a massive right uppercut that put Mosley down. Another knockdown occurred later in the round, and Forrest went on to win a wide decision. They did a rematch a few months later with the same result. This time Mosley tried to make Forrest come to him, but it didn't work. After a very tepid 12 rounds "Sugar" Shane lost another clear decision.

Was Vernon Forrest a tough style matchup for Mosley? Yes, he was a tough style matchup for anybody except, of all people, Ricardo Mayorga. Nevertheless, he was easily the toughest title challenger that Mosley had ever fought, and he lost. Not only did he lose, but he was truly dominated.

These losses were also symbolic of something else: the ending of Shane Mosley's prime. After the Forrest fights we were treated to more good performances, but the hands weren't quite as fast, the body attack not quite as debilitating. Part of it was certainly physically. Part of it was also mental from having his cloak of invincibility shattered.

From here he quickly moved up to junior middleweight. His debut at his new weight was a dubious one. Facing Raul Marquez, a decent but flawed former titleholder, he looked pedestrian for three rounds before an accidental headbutt gashed Marquez and forced a premature stoppage. Amazingly (or not if you follow boxing), despite not having won a fight in two years he was granted a title bout with his old rival, Oscar de la Hoya.

De la Hoya was experiencing a career resurgence of sorts. Undefeated since the loss to Mosley, he was generally recognized as the world' best 154 pounder unless you were a Winky Wright fan. In May of 2003 they charged fans $49.95 to watch him take batting practice on what was left of Yori Boy Campos, and the "Golden Boy" was in need of a reasonable autumn pay-per-view dance partner. Enter Shane Mosley. Mosley was a perfect opponent for Oscar here. A big enough name that mainstream people will know him, and deteriorated enough so that Oscar could avenge his only clear defeat at that point.

The fight itself was an anti-climax. Taking a page from Forrest, Oscar boxed his way around Mosley for most of the fight. Truthfully, Oscar is at his most effective when he is in his counterpuncher mode. He made a strategy mistake in their first fight by attempting to overpower the smaller man. This time he jabbed and moved more, only stopping to throw the occasional flurry. Nevertheless, Mosley was awarded the decision. The majority of the press seemed to score it for Oscar, but some did have it for Shane. However, George Foreman, working as an HBO commentator, wondered aloud if corruption was at work. He even suggested that perhaps somebody was trying to send Bob Arum a message. Controversial decision or not, Mosley had won his first fight in two years, and was now considered the man to beat at junior middleweight.

There was one other man, however, with a legitimate claim to be the best at 154 pounds. The aforementioned Winky Wright was a converted southpaw from hell that jabbed the bejesus out of people behind a tight defense that was as hard as a turtle's shell to crack. Wright wanted his shot, and Mosley obliged. Their first meeting was a clear boxing lesson. Wright was bigger, better, and, most importantly, a very tough style matchup for Shane. Mosley could not get past the stiff right jab nor incise Wright's wall of defense. Wright took home a wide decision. A few months later they had a rematch, and the result was similar. It was a little tighter, but ultimately an almost mirror image of their first fight.

Very similar to Forrest, Wright was a tough style matchup for just about anybody. However, Mosley clearly was bested twice here, and was forced to lose his championship to the first serious challenger he faced. At this point he owned three championship reigns. He had made 11 successful title defenses with each opponent being stopped within the allotted distance. On paper, that is very impressive indeed. On closer inspection, however, the only two men with a real chance of taking his titles were able to handle him. Pretty easily, in fact. One could also argue that he had been given a gift verdict for the De la Hoya rematch.

After the Wright bouts he went back down to welterweight for a couple stay-busy types of fights. Afterwards, he was offered the chance to matchup with Fernando Vargas in 2006. Vargas had seen better days, and was, in fact, best known for being knocked out by De la Hoya and Felix Trinidad in great fights. He was attempting to return as a middleweight, but came back down to junior middle for a good payday against Mosley.

Their first fight was good, and featured some live exchanges. Late in the fight, Vargas suffered grotesque swelling on his left eye from Mosley's right hands. It was stopped during the tenth round with Mosley declared the victor. Just a few months later they staged a rematch. This time Mosley completely dominated Vargas from the start, and finished him with a massive left hook in the sixth round. This was the best he had looked since his welterweight days. The flipside, of course, was that Vargas had not been a very relevant fighter since De la Hoya destroyed him. He would retire after his next fight.

From there, Mosley took several months off until he met welterweight contender Luis Collazo. Collazo was best known for nearly upsetting Ricky Hatton in Hatton's welterweight debut. Against Mosley he was in a little over his head. Mosley befuddled the young man at times with his guile, and even scored a brief knockdown in the eleventh. This performance earned him a shot at Puerto Rican star Miguel Cotto.

This was prime Cotto. Before the Margarito war, before the Pacquiao beatdown, and before the Mayweather struggle. You knew what you were going to get with Cotto circa 2007. Pressure, body punching, heavy hands, underrated speed, and blood. It's what Zab Judah had received five months earlier in Madison Square Garden during a memorable fight. It's what many thought Shane Mosley would receive as well.

To Mosley's credit he never backed down. This was a very good, high-level boxing match featuring two of the finest fighters in all of the world. In fact, in the late rounds it was Cotto who was backing up. Nevertheless, Cotto won a close unanimous decision. Great fight, but Mosley came up just short against an elite fighter.

The following fall saw him matchup with former welterweight champion Ricardo Mayorga. This was intended to be an easy, stay-busy sort of bout, but became a bit of a dogfight. Mayorga's wild swings kept him off balance much of the night until the final round when Mosley finally floored the crazy Nicaraguan. With only a mere second remaining on the clock Mosley put his man to sleep with a wicked left hook.

Shane Mosley's next fight may ultimately be what he is remembered the most for. Antonio Margarito had destroyed Cotto in his previous bout, and looked to be indestructible. Shockingly, before the match took place a plaster-like substance was found in Margarito's hand wraps. Forced to re-wrap his hands, the "Tijuana Tornado" looked terrible in the ring as Mosley bashed him from one corner to the next. Finally, it was stopped in the ninth after a pair of knockdowns. Afterwards, Mosley bowed to the crowd as if to signal that he knew this was his magnum opus.

The rest of Shane Mosley's career is more of an afterthought. He and Mayweather finally faced each other in May of 2010, and Mosley was utterly dominated outside of the second round when he hurt Floyd with a pair of right hands. He looked lost for much of the fight and thoroughly outclassed while backing away from Mayweather. A year later he met Manny Pacquiao in what was another embarrassing performance. After being floored in the third round, Mosley backpedalled for the rest of the night on his way to losing a wide decision. Finally, he met Canelo Alvarez in his last fight. Mosley never stopped trying, but could not keep the pace with the younger, stronger man.

So there we have it, "Sugar" Shane Mosley's entire boxing career. When we look it over in hindsight it becomes very clear that victories against elite fighters are absent, save for two against the same man, Oscar de la Hoya. And I would heartily debate that their second meeting should have gone to the "Golden Boy". Also let's not forget the doping issues dealing with that fight. It was later determined that Mosley did indeed use performance enhancing drugs in preparation for the fight. His other big wins came against Antonio Margarito and Fernando Vargas. Vargas was on retirement's doorstep, and Margarito was proven to be somewhat of a fraud.

However, what really hurts Mosley is the simple fact that his title reigns were pedestrian despite their sexiness on paper. He never could successfully defeat another top fighter while he was champion. Vernon Forrest and Winky Wright, his toughest challengers, clearly proved to be his master. Why were there no fights with Stevie Johnston or even Cesar Bazan? How was he so thoroughly outclassed by Floyd Mayweather as if he was terrified of getting hit? Remember all of those cute little glove taps he instigated?

Overall, Mosley's career was not great. It was good, and that is nothing to be ashamed of. But whereas he could have perhaps been fondly recalled as one of the greatest lightweights ever, comes up at least two levels below the absolute highest ever at that class. He deserves credit for defeating a prime De la Hoya in a great fight along with destroying Margarito. He also gets props for going to war with a prime Cotto.

In closing, let me state that I firmly believe Shane Mosley will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame someday. He had a good career, an exciting style, he's a nice guy, and will likely be forgiven for the doping incident in the long-run. What I also firmly believe is that he was not a legitimately great fighter. A fan favorite and an all-around great guy? Yes. A great fighter that deserves mention alongside other contemporary greats like Mayweather, Pacquiao, Bernard Hopkins, and Roy Jones? No. In fact, "Sugar" Shane isn't even close.

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