Don't even bother watching the ESPY Awards on Sunday night, if your primary interest lies in who was named “Best Boxer.” The winners have already been announced, because the ceremony happened on Wednesday.
Bernard Hopkins got the nod over three other candidates who probably accomplished more during the period covered by the voting. I say that because something just struck me. The other people up for the award – Winky Wright, Zab Judah and Diego Corrales – basically earned their recognition for taking a shot at moving up in weight and scoring a big win. Think about it: Corrales, the former junior lightweight champ, beat a full-fledged lightweight in Jose Luis Castillo; Wright beat Felix Trinidad, who by this time is a middleweight, in a walk; and Judah went from 140 to 147 to beat Cory Spinks. Meanwhile, Hopkins, who presumably got his votes from the public on the strength of the victory against Oscar De La Hoya, essentially dipped into a lower weight division to engage a fighter who had to visit the buffet table to grow into a very unnatural 160-pounder.
But I guess with his fight against Jermain Taylor upon us, Hopkins' name is the one that is freshest in the memory of most voters.
Let's just say the results of the ESPN popularity contest were unscientific at best.
We go through the same thing when we do the polls for The Sweet Science. Recently we conducted a poll where we asked voters to choose the greatest junior welterweight champion of all time. I originally put five choices in the mix, then added Kostya Tszyu, almost as an afterthought. The other candidates were Hall-of-Famers Tony Canzoneri, Barney Ross, Antonio Cervantes and Aaron Pryor, along with Julio Cesar Chavez, who will certainly be enshrined on the first ballot. I included Tszyu because I figured his name might be fresh in people's minds.
Maybe, in a way, that was a mistake.
Tszyu won the poll with 34% of the vote, beating out Chavez (31%) and Pryor (27%). Ross got just 4%, with Canzoneri and Cervantes neck-and-neck for the cellar (2% apiece).
Interestingly, the results were almost in perfect reverse chronological order of each man's title reign. That brought up a couple of questions in my mind: Would Floyd Mayweather had gotten all the votes if we had put his name on the list? Would Ricky Hatton have placed ahead of Canzoneri? Ross? Pryor?
Surely, you couldn't take a poll of recognized boxing historians that would place Tszyu near the top. And Canzoneri and Ross – three-division champions when that really meant something – would have received considerably more support.
Does that mean our readers are stupid or silly? Not in the least. But they do tend to have a myopic view of things, fostered by what is fed to them by members of the media, most of whom became initiated into boxing during the era of sanctioning body dominance and therefore lack some perspective as to what constitutes a legitimate “champion,” and, it follows, a legitimate “title defense.”
I don't expect everyone to be a historian, but I do want to know what goes through people's minds, so in the future we're going to be conducting polls here on the TSS Blog that are designed to elicit the rationale behind voters' choices.
That having been said, some people need a history lesson, and you know what? Because boxing has such a rich and interesting history, they shouldn't be at all unhappy about it.
Jim Lampley, I figure, is one of those people.
The HBO commentator, in the course of a half-hour show previewing the Hopkins-Taylor fight, was heard to say, “Bernard Hopkins has to be one of the top five or six middleweights of all-time.”
Lampley only put four middleweights in the same league as Hopkins. They included three fighters who are contemporaneous with his tenure as a network broadcaster – Thomas Hearns, Carlos Monzon and Marvin Hagler – along with someone he could not help but have heard of (Sugar Ray Robinson). Hall-of-Famers everywhere are turning in their graves. Suffice it to say the deserving names he failed to recognize could fill up a small conference room (or a medium-sized suite at the MGM Grand).
Having met several of the great boxing historians of the world (including our colleague Hank Kaplan), I would hardly be so presumptuous as to ascribe that designation to myself. However, I could probably teach a remedial course on the subject, so let me start with Boxing History 101 for Mr. Lampley and those of like mind:
Before the De La Hoya fight, Patrick Kehoe, who now writes for us at The Sweet Science, asked me for a perspective of what place Hopkins' accomplishments have earned him in the historical landscape, and whether his record was truly reflective of his abilities, for a story he was doing for another website. This was my response to him at that time (I have already re-posted this once, and promise not to break it out again):
“Is Hopkins' record reflective of his abilities? Yes, relative to what was put in front of him. Certainly it is reflective of what has been in the middleweight division over his tenure, which with all due respect to him, was not a whole lot. Did Hopkins have ‘defining fights?’ Well, yes, within the context of what is an over-used term. The fights with Antwun Echols defined him as someone who was tough enough to take a rough-and-tumble opponent and control him. The fight with Trinidad was a defining fight, because he was able to beat someone who had a level of talent that was above almost all his other opponents, and was able to execute a game plan to exploit his opponent's weaknesses, but by the same token, it was a win against a welterweight.
His loss to Roy Jones was a ‘defining’ fight too, because he failed to defeat the best fighter he ever faced – the only fighter who, when all is said and done, could be listed in the all-time top five of any weight division. He was respectable, but out-classed. It would be a stretch to say he was ‘in the fight’ all the way. I guess in a sense, that one may have been the fight that ‘defined’ Hopkins best of all.
Which is to say – he is an outstanding fighter – tough, durable, hard-nosed, and a credit to the sport inside the ring. He is a very solid champion. And when he is eligible, he will get my Hall of Fame vote. That won't be because of all his title defenses (Orlando Canizales and Virgil Hill had a lot of title defenses too, but they would be, at best, just borderline candidates in my mind), but because in addition to the above attributes, it can be said that he was the best in his weight division for a period of more than ten years.
However, I cannot consider him to be an ‘all-time’ great, if that barometer means that he be rated among my top ten middleweights ever. Certainly he is not the equal of Jones, Harry Greb, Mickey Walker, Sugar Ray Robinson, Charley Burley, Stanley Ketchel, Carlos Monzon, Marcel Cerdan, Marvin Hagler, Tommy Ryan, Jake LaMotta, or Emile Griffith. Bob Fitzimmons, Frank Klaus, and Nonpareil Jack Dempsey might belong on that list too. Ezzard Charles was probably a better middleweight. So was Sam Langford. So was Archie Moore. So was Robert Villemain. And how about Tony Zale, Teddy Yarosz, Jeff Smith, Al Hostak, or Ken Overlin? What about Laszlo Papp? And other non-champions like Holman Williams, Cocoa Kid, and Lloyd Marshall – guys who paid their dues and never got a title shot – deserve to be mentioned in the same category. Sugar Ray Leonard, at 160 pounds, would have outclassed him. Thomas Hearns may have bludgeoned him, if he got to him early in the fight. Hopkins would probably have had entertaining fights with the likes of Gene Fullmer, Rodrigo Valdez, Nino Benvenuti, Joey Giardello, Carmen Basilio, and Dick Tiger, but I don't know that he necessarily belongs so far ahead of them in the pecking order. The same Roberto Duran who beat Iran Barkley at 160 and was ahead on points late in the fight with Hagler may have used his cleverness to take Hopkins to school. John Mugabi was a hard-enough hitter to take Hopkins out. The same can be said for Ruben Carter.
Now, you may want to say this is unfair, because the middleweights have been the deepest of all the weight divisions. Well, that's very true. But at the same time, that's part of my point. Comparatively speaking, Hopkins has had solid command over a division that is perhaps the weakest it's ever been. He hasn't been challenged on a consistent basis the way the aforementioned guys have. Sure, Echols and Robert Allen were tough guys, but they were not ‘special.’ To achieve his biggest career triumph, Hopkins had to find a guy from outside the division (Trinidad). In that fight, Hopkins had a natural size advantage that can not be disputed. It's one thing to have certain dimensions. It's quite another to be conditioned to fight at a particular weight. Hopkins was a solid, chiseled, natural 160-pounder, while Trinidad was at best a 154-pounder, albeit one who steamrolled a limited William Joppy. But there were other reasons Hopkins won – namely, because he took advantage of Trinidad being so, so mechanical. Hopkins did not provide such a willing target, and Trinidad couldn't make adjustments on the fly. And when Hopkins landed, it was the first time Felix had been hit solidly by anyone above 147 pounds.”
In the way of illustration, let's briefly examine the cases of Teddy Yarosz and Lloyd Marshall. What someone like Lampley sees (if he's even looking) is that which is on the surface – Yarosz and Marshall sustained eighteen and 25 losses, respectively, in their careers. But now let's consider that in his thirteen-year, 95-bout career, Yarosz fought 16 times against world champions, and scored wins over Archie Moore, Billy Conn, Ken Overlin, Babe Risko, Vince Dundee and Ben Jeby. And Marshall, in 97 fights over fifteen years, defeated the likes of Ezzard Charles, Jake LaMotta, Charley Burley, Anton Christoforidis, Overlin and Yarosz, and battled world champions – REAL world champions – in 19 of his bouts.
Now consider that during the era these two men were active, boxing was a business where world-class fighters actually fought each other quite often, because that was the only way they could continue to develop their craft, and prove themselves worthy of a title opportunity.
You couldn't be “steered” to a title shot; you had to EARN one. There was very little motivation to protect a won-lost record; those who did it would rarely make it to the big time. Yes, titles occasionally split, but not for long, and below the heavyweight division, the idea of having a “gimme” in a championship defense was virtually out of the question.
It was not uncommon for a fighter to have 10-15 fights a year, many against worthwhile contenders. Indeed, Marshall's victories over Burley, Charles, and Christiforidis happened over a period of FOUR MONTHS.
Contrast this with Hopkins, who has fought four times in the past two years, and has encountered only a handful of true middleweights who have held even a portion of the 160-pound title. And if you're looking for someone Hopkins has beaten who, AS A MIDDLEWEIGHT, even remotely compares to a Moore, a Charles, a Burley, a LaMotta, or for that matter our present examples (Yarosz and Marshall), don't even bother. By the way, that won't change no matter what happens in the Hopkins-Taylor fight.
So why in God's name are Teddy Yarosz and Lloyd Marshall not in the Hall of Fame, while the comparatively unaccomplished Barry McGuigan is? The only plausible explanation is that the bulk of the voters who decide such things share the same sensibilities as the Jim Lampleys of the world.
To imply that Bernard Hopkins is somehow singular as a fighter who took the “hard road” to the top is laughable to some, even insulting, when the travails of Burley, Marshall and Holman Williams are taken into account.
For an interesting angle on this, it might be instructive to visit Hopkins' hometown of Philadelphia, which is exactly what the Boxing Channel crew did in May. Our objective was to capture the essence of Philadelphia boxing, both past and present. Toward that end, we interviewed several Philadelphia middleweights, including a trio of fighters who made the City of Brotherly Love a Mecca of middleweight activity in the early to mid-1970s. Naturally assuming that Philly guys root for Philly guys, and because Hopkins had reigned for years at 160, we asked each of them – Joey Giardello, Willie “The Worm” Monroe, Eugene “Cyclone” Hart, and Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts – what they thought of Hopkins as a fighter. And believe me, we gave them every opportunity to pronounce Hopkins one of the greats; a symbol of Philadelphia's boxing supremacy. But while being cordial about it, they all stopped well short of saying that.
I think I know why, especially as it concerned the latter-day guys. It's not sheer jealousy, but rather the idea that in their day, when people like Marvin Hagler were coming into town and being turned away in defeat (by Watts and Monroe, in fact), there were so many good middleweights in Philadelphia (a group that included Bennie Briscoe and Kitten Hayward, among others) that first you literally had to fight your way out of the city to even be considered for world championship status. And there weren't four different world titles to make it easier to get that big chance.
The path to success that Hopkins has taken, though circuitous for his time, has been much less arduous than that which they encountered. And I could sense some resentment that Bernard really didn't do it the “Philadelphia way.”
Of Hopkins, Lampley says, “You'd be hard-pressed to find four or five middleweights that you think were better.”
Oh no I wouldn't.
It seems to me that if you are going to talk about who is the best of all-time, it helps to be familiar with “all time.” To make an historical evaluation about a Bernard Hopkins, relative to the greatest in the annals of the weight class, and not consider the existence of a Harry Greb, or a Mickey Walker, or a Charley Burley, or an Ezzard Charles, or any of the other aforementioned names, is simply offensive. And it is inexcusable, because Lampley makes significant coin from boxing and represents himself as an authority on the sport by consenting to offer analysis for documentary-type programs, like the recent promo on HBO.
It would be nice if, sometime during Saturday's pay-per-view telecast, color commentator Larry Merchant, who goes back far enough and allegedly knows better, would nudge Lampley and remind him that professional boxing did indeed take place in the United States – and elsewhere – before 1970 …
… and that it was quite a thing to see.