Al Bernstein knows more about boxing than me. To be totally fair to him, it’s probably safe to say the recently inducted Hall of Famer has actually forgotten more about boxing at this point in his storied career than I know in total.
Bernstein has done it all as a boxing media member, and he’s done it well. He started as a newspaperman in the 1970s. Soon, he was contributing to Boxing Illustrated and RING Magazine. From 1980 to 1998, he was analyst and host of ESPN’s Top Rank Boxing show. In fact, from 1980 to 2003, Bernstein was the primary voice of boxing for ESPN. And, as you well know, since 2003 Bernstein has been lead boxing analyst for Showtime. He’s also the primary face and leader of our sister site, Boxing Channel.
Like I said, he’s done it all.
One of his signature shows over at ESPN was the Big Fights Boxing Hour. He wrote and hosted 26 episodes of the program, which chronicled some of the biggest fights in boxing history. Honestly, my first encounter with many of the finer points of boxing history came through watching these shows, where old-time masters like Sugar Ray Robinson and Jack Dempsey came to life again through the magic of film.
So when I chatted with Bernstein recently, I couldn’t help but ask him to compare legacies between the two preeminent fighters of this era, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. Who is the greatest of this era, as of today? If I’m honest with myself, I was probably hoping Bernstein would validate my opinion on the matter: Mayweather is an all-time great, but Pacquiao is an all-time greater.
Look, I’m not saying Pacquiao (seen running stairs in Beijing with Brandon Rios, in Chris Farina-Top Rank snap) would’ve beaten Mayweather at welterweight back when the fight should’ve happened around 2009-10. (I’m not not saying it either). But I submit to you, dear reader, that Pacquiao’s wins, both the men he fought and when he fought them, measure slightly better than Mayweather’s grand accomplishment of staying undefeated.
Sure, it’s close. But Pacquiao’s three best wins before he moved up to welterweight (Barrera, Morales and Marquez) are better than any one win Mayweather has enjoyed over his entire career. Right?
And his losses? Give me the fighter who tests himself over the one that doesn’t. I want to see a fighter go beyond his limits, and when he reaches them and gets knocked to the ground, I want to see if he can get back up again.
But what does Bernstein say on the matter? First, I asked him about the fight that never got made. What would a Manny Pacquiao vs. Floyd Mayweather Superfight have looked like back in 2009?
“That would’ve been fun,” Bernstein said. “I always thought that version of Manny Pacquiao had a chance to do rather well against Mayweather. I mean, I may have been wrong based on what has transpired since, but I always thought that the fight would have been really interesting during that time period because of the speed and activity of Pacquiao. That was an A level fighter in Manny Pacquiao who had confidence that was skyrocketing and all the rest of it.”
So Pacquiao is on the same level as Mayweather at welterweight? Among the greatest of the greats?
“Now at those weight divisions, [Pacquiao] is not a Ray Leonard or a Tommy Hearns or a Roberto Duran. Down at featherweight, around those areas, to me he is one of the biggest superstars of all-time along with Barrera, Marquez and Morales. He’s not [quite at that level] at the higher weights, but still terrific.”
Bernstein doesn’t consider Pacquiao an all-time great welterweight, but gives high praise to the Pacquiao of lower divisions.
“Pacquiao had two different careers. The first one was with all those great fighters when they created what I consider to be a mini-version of the 1980s thing of the Four Kings [Hearns, Hagler, Duran and Leonard]. He ended up having the best record of that whole crew, so you have to give him his props. At the end of the day, he was the best of that group probably by a narrow margin.”
Still, Bernstein doesn’t seem quite ready to jump on the Pacquiao train, so I push the issue. Don’t you have to judge Pacquiao’s career a bit differently? I mean, head-to-head is one thing, but don’t you have to judge Pacquiao’s legacy at the lighter weights and Mayweather’s at the heavier? And doesn’t what Pacquiao accomplished later in his career bolster his case of being best of the era?
“When he moved up in weight, he had some amazing performances. But with Mayweather, because he’s still winning and winning convincingly…you have to take the whole body of work. Mayweather’s had these long layoffs and all the rest, so he’s managed his body better in a lot of ways…but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Mayweather’s beaten everybody. Now, were there times when you’d have liked to see him fight Fighter A instead of Fighter B? Definitely. And were there a couple of people that he used what I like to call the Angelo Dundee theory of management of trying to get everyone at exactly the right time? Yes. He did all that. But at the end of the day, he’s going to have glittery names on his resume. Isn’t he?”
It’s true. Mayweather does have a bevy of big names on his unblemished record. De La Hoya, Hatton, Marquez, Mosley, and Cotto are nothing to scoff at. Moreover, he’s just about dominated every single one of them. His wins might not carry watchers to the peak of excitement the way a fighter like Pacquiao does, but Mayweather is the sweetest scientist of his day. In fact, Bernstein argues that Mayweather is so good at what he does, he fools the audience into thinking he’s not standing right in front of his opponents for most of the fight.
“When you dissect a Mayweather fight, when you go back and look at it, he spends a lot of time in the pocket. It’s not as if he’s dancing the whole time. He will move strategically when he wants to, and what he does, if you look at it, his plan is always the same: He might give a round or two early…and then he wins all those rounds in the middle. He does it not by moving, but by landing punches, by slipping, by doing all the things he does and letting the guy know: ‘look, you’re in here, but you’re not going to hit me as much as you want.’ Then, in the later rounds, he’ll employ a little more movement. It’s not running, but employing more movement. Because now…he’s banked a lot of rounds and he now feels like he can peck away and win the rounds he needs to win at the end. So it gives the illusion of how he ran when in reality he didn’t. That’s the part that fascinates me.”
Bernstein said part of the problem is that Mayweather, 36, has never had to face a truly great fighter in his prime. So the entertainment value of a Mayweather fight is reduced to simply witnessing how much better he is than the person standing in front of him. And while Pacquiao had great rivals in the prime of his career, men who tested his limits, fans have missed out on seeing how Mayweather would react facing the same thing.
Bernstein has a point. In 2012, when Miguel Cotto had the audacity to bloody Mayweather’s nose with a steady and stiff jab, for fans it was as if Gatti-Ward was unfolding right in front of their eyes. The excitement was downright palpable, despite the fight being a clear and wide UD win for Mayweather. Why? Because Mayweather so seldom looks as if he’s actually in a fight.
“That’s why, to be honest, sometimes he’s doing great but also it’s the level of opposition. We don’t have a superstar in this era [for him to fight]. We have a lot of terrific fighters, Canelo among them. They’re very good at their craft and fun to watch. We don’t have another A-plus level fighter in those weight divisions. If we had an Andre Ward down there, or someone like that, then it would probably be a great matchup. If we had a Tommy Hearns and a Sugar Ray Leonard or a Roberto Duran or an Aaron Pryor – if we had some of those people, we’d have a better chance of seeing the match we want to have with Mayweather.”
Last month, we were hoping Canelo Alvarez would help give us exactly that. Yet, while the 23-year-old appeared to have all the tools necessary to give Mayweather a stern test, the 12-round bout devolved into that of just about any other Mayweather fight: absolute dominance.
“I thought Canelo squandered his moment in time by fighting the wrong tactical fight,” Bernstein said. “I don’t know if he’d have done any better, but why he did that, I have no idea.”
Still, Bernstein said the stage for the fight, which he called from ringside for Showtime, was up there with any big fight in boxing history.
“That one was right up there with any of them. The level of excitement leading up to it, that weigh-in scene where they open up the entire arena and I couldn’t hear a word Brian Kenny was saying and I had to read his lips because of the noise…it was pretty extraordinary. And because the mainstream sports media covered it, it added another dimension to it, too. The whole event was as exciting as the great fights in the 80s I worked on featuring Hearns, Hagler, Leonard and Duran. Now, that was a different time. There was no social media and the immediacy of coverage, but still those were huge events and spectacular...this one was right at the top of the list.”
It seems Bernstein can’t say enough good things about Mayweather.
“He’s remarkable. He’s 36 years old, pushing 37, and you could never imagine somebody fighting this precisely, this well and this athletically at that age.”
Still, though, all this talk about the Four Kings…these guys were all great, and they all fought each other to prove both to themselves and to the world, which man was the greatest of the era. Isn’t this whole issue, the legacies of Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, something that could’ve and should’ve been settled in the ring back when it might have been the biggest fight in boxing history? Didn’t Pacquiao, the version that butchered Ricky Hatton and tossed Miguel Cotto around the ring like a ragdoll…didn’t he stand the best chance of knocking Mayweather off his throne?
“We would have liked to find out,” said Bernstein, and in the end, it appears we at least agree on that.