Floyd Mayweather appeared forlorn on Saturday night. He had over 32 million reasons not to be. But Mayweather looked tired after his latest victory, his second decision win over a welterweight whose best showings in the division are against Adrien Broner, a fighter with no good welterweight wins of his own, and two gatekeeper-types named Jesus Soto Karass and Josesito Lopez. Mayweather’s eyes seemed to glaze off into the distance as reporters peppered him with questions about Manny Pacquiao and the fight that never was. Sweat rolled down his face like tears, and his busted lip seemed to nag at him as if it were a voice from the past he didn’t want to hear, a never quite forgotten love who tortures his soul or a long lost friend buried beneath the ash of youthful mistakes.
All the while, Mayweather wore a black hat with the initials “TBE” emblazoned on it in gold. It stands for “the best ever” and the boxing gods, the likes of which Springs Toledo labels “The Gods of War” in his soulful collection of essays carrying the same title, shudder in disapproval.
They have the right.
There are only a handful of fighters who historians have dared to label as the best ever. Why just that handful? For the historian, perhaps it is the threat of waking up in an age to come and having to explain why they included someone else with the likes of Ray Robinson, Harry Greb and Henry Armstrong. After all, in heaven, God would be on their side.
While Toledo tabs Greb at No. 1, the famed essayist finds himself in the minority on that point. The majority of folks who study the sweet science appreciate the monster that Greb was but subscribe to the idea that “Sugar” Ray Robinson was the finest pugilist who ever lived, and enough film of Robinson exists to help them prove it.
Robinson was born Walker Smith, Jr. At the age of 14, he borrowed the name of another fighter in order to keep his mother from finding out he was as boxer and to circumvent the amateur system that said he needed to be 16 years old in order to compete. The name stuck with him, and “Sugar” was added later when his manager, George Gainford, described his immaculate fighting style as “sweet as sugar.” That stuck, too.
Robinson enjoyed a brilliant amateur career. He went undefeated in 85 amateur bouts and turned professional at age 19. He started his career at lightweight and was welterweight champion six years later. Robinson won his first 40 professional fights before jumping up to middleweight to face Jake LaMotta in 1943. Just three years into his professional career, an out-weighed Robinson couldn’t outbox a bull-rushing LaMotta over ten hard-fought rounds.
After suffering his first loss, Robinson reeled off 91 consecutive victories, including five over LaMotta. In 1946, he defeated Tommy Bell for the world welterweight championship. He held the title for four years before vacating it to move up to middleweight. During his stay at 147, he defeated notables Bell, Jimmy Doyle and Kid Gavilan.
In 1951, Robinson knocked out LaMotta in 13 rounds to become the world middleweight champion. In his tenth bout of the same year, he lost the crown to Randy Turpin on points but knocked out Turpin in the rematch just two months later. After a Round 3 knockout over Rocky Graziano in 1952, Robinson moved up to light heavyweight to challenge Joey Maxim for the 175-pound championship. After dominating Maxim for much of the fight, Robinson retired on his stool in Round 13, a victim of the 104-degree temperature only.
Robinson won the middleweight title a total of five times during his illustrious career. He fought tooth-and-nail with Hall of Famers like Carmen Basilio and Gene Fullmer late in his career when Robinson was still sweet but not quite the same Sugar Ray. He retired after a decision loss to Joey Archer in 1965. Over the span of his 25-year career, Robinson defeated 10 Hall of Famers, including LaMotta, Gavilan, Graziano, Fullmer, Henry Armstrong and Fritzie Zivic. He was named Ring Magazine’s Fighter of the Year in 1942 and 1951.
It’s never easy to compare fighters from different eras, but there are several different ways to approach it. First, there is simply something that could be termed the “versus” approach. In this scenario, the idea is to pit the fighters against each other in one’s mind at each man’s peak. This method is largely subjective, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume each man did meet each other at his best.
How would a prime version of Robinson, a man who was 128-1-2 with 84 knockouts at his peak, do against a prime version of Mayweather? Again, while entirely subjective, it’s hard to imagine Robinson having much trouble with Mayweather at all. He was a busier fighter with tremendous power in both hands who knew how to hurt his opponent and took care of business once he did. Unlike Mayweather’s typical opponents, Robinson wouldn’t have the shorter reach and would also posses comparable foot- and hand-speed. While Mayweather is the best technician of his era, he would be at least matched in this department by Robinson.
Another approach to comparing fighters from different eras is to transport each man into the other man’s time. How would Robinson do against the men Mayweather faced during his career? How would Mayweather do under similar circumstances?
A review of Mayweather’s record does not reveal any fighter Robinson would be an underdog against. Mayweather’s best wins are over Oscar De La Hoya, Shane Mosley and Juan Manuel Marquez. While each of those men are stalwarts of their era, it’s important to note that both Mosley and Marquez would be rated higher historically at lightweight than during their late-career welterweight runs. Other notable wins include Ricky Hatton and Miguel Cotto. Robinson would be a huge favorite against any of them, as well as those Mayweather didn’t face, including Pacquiao and Antonio Margarito.
The opposite cannot be said for Mayweather. He would be in deep waters against LaMotta, Gavilan, Graziano, Basilio, Fullmer and Armstrong. Mayweather has never faced men the size of LaMotta, Graziano, Fullmer or Basilio. Mayweather has fought just three times over the welterweight limit, wins over De La Hoya, Cotto and Canelo Alvarez. Only the latter could be considered a natural at anything above welterweight. At best, Mayweather might be even money against Gavilan and maybe a slight favorite over the older version of Armstrong that Robinson defeated. The notable name of the era Robinson missed, Charley Burley, would be favored over Mayweather.
Finally, one can simply review each man’s resume. Who fought the better fighters during his career? How many times did he fight them? Was there anybody he could’ve face but didn’t? Is his legacy all that it could be?
Robinson faced some of the greatest welterweights and middleweights who ever lived. Moreover, he pushed himself to his absolute limit by moving all the way up to light heavyweight and battling well past his prime years against Hall of Fame middleweights. At his peak, Robinson was considered unbeatable. To his credit, he damn near proved that it was true. Meanwhile, the easiest way to look at Mayweather’s career is to look at recent history. A review of current pound-for-pound rankings, which the undefeated Mayweather sits atop of at present, reveals three to four other fighters of the era who campaign between 140 and 154 pounds. Mayweather has faced and defeated one of them, Marquez, who lost a decision to Mayweather back in 2009 in his first bout at welterweight after jumping all the way up from lightweight. Besides him, and one could argue Marquez’s welterweight peak came much later, Mayweather has chosen less formidable opponents to earn his millions of dollars, such as Maidana and Robert Guerrero, over the likes of the higher rated Pacquiao, Tim Bradley and Danny Garcia.
“No beefs, George,” Robinson told his manager when he retired in 1965. “Sometimes we got the best of it in the past.”
At the time, Robinson was speaking on his better days being him. But in the case of who deserves to be called the best ever, Mayweather or Robinson, it’s safe to say that it’s also true. The best was in the past, and his name was Ray Robinson.