At a major boxing show in the mid-1990s, I sat with a group of my veteran peers, boxing writers who had covered the sport at that point for decades, and listened to them talk about the old days.
Many of them had traveled the world keeping an eye on the sport, going not only to New York, Chicago, Las Vegas and Los Angeles to cover the day’s biggest fights but also to Manila, Munich, Kinshasa and Kuala Lumpur.
They were filled with stories of the greatness of the sport in days gone by, how the boxers were better, the interest was greater, the promotions were bigger and the personalities larger.
I thought of that day and of how scornful many of those great writers I had idolized were of the boxers of the current time when I was looking at the boxers who will be inducted Sunday into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Floyd Mayweather. Andre Ward. Wladimir Klitschko. Bernard Hopkins. Roy Jones Jr. Sugar Shane Mosley. James Toney. Laila Ali. Lucia Rijker. Christy Martin. Miguel Cotto. Juan Manuel Marquez and more.
These fighters were the products of the time that those veteran journalists I spoke to so easily dismissed and looked down their noses at. It was way better before, they said, a refrain that's oh too familiar with today’s boxing fans.
The fighters being inducted Sunday are not simply the best of a woeful era but are deservedly being recognized as among the elite of the elite. Many believe that Mayweather, for instance, is the best pound-for-pound fighter of all time.
He’s not, in my opinion; that’s unquestionably Sugar Ray Robinson. But the fact that “Money May” is even in the conversation says a lot about his greatness.
If you could pit Mayweather at his absolute best against Thomas Hearns at his absolute best, it would have been a nightmare matchup for Mayweather. But as you go through mythical matchups, what you quickly realize is that only the truly elite of the elite could have beaten Mayweather.
Yeah, I’d take a lightweight Roberto Duran over Mayweather any day of the week. But Duran could be undisciplined, unfocused and, as he showed in getting beaten by the unheralded Kirkland Laing in 1982, highly inconsistent. Mayweather was none of that. He always was on top of his game, fully focused. He was always in great condition. He didn’t have the crazy lows that so many other legends have. There is a lot to say for that.
Ward went 115-5 as an amateur, culminating it with a gold medal in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. He turned pro and ran the table, going 32-0 with world titles at super middleweight and light heavyweight.
He was a bright, thinking man’s boxer who was highly athletic and tougher than most gave him credit for being.
Could he have handled Ezzard Charles and/or Archie Moore, the two best light heavyweights in my opinion who ever lived? Well, it would have been difficult, and he’d have been a big underdog in each. But Ward’s defense and ring IQ would have made him a tougher out than he’s given credit for by most.
Jones might have been the greatest athlete in boxing. He was incredibly quick and went all the way up to heavyweight as a professional. But his best days were as a light heavyweight, where he confounded opponents with his speed, quickness and footwork.
A fight between a prime Jones and a prime Moore, or a prime Bob Foster, would have been boxing at its highest level.
It’s hard to wrap one’s head around all the disdain that Klitschko received in his career. It’s mostly because he lost three fights he was heavily favored to win, against Ross Puritty, Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster.
Those are part of his permanent record, to be sure, just as the 64-5 overall record with 53 KOs is. He also won 19 consecutive heavyweight title bouts, including 18 consecutive successful defenses. That’s the third-longest streak in heavyweight history, behind Joe Louis (25) and Larry Holmes (19).
Each of these boxers being inducted Sunday has a similar story. The point is that they should be celebrated for their greatness and should be recognized as among a small handful of the best boxers who ever lived.
They aren’t going in because their era was bad and the competition was substandard. They are going in because they are clearly, and without doubt, among the best boxers who ever graced a ring.
That’s also meant as a tip of the cap to today’s great boxers, such as Oleksandr Usyk, Terence Crawford, Naoya Inoue, Canelo Alvarez and Errol Spence.
Just like Mayweather, Ward, Klitschko and the rest being inducted Sunday, these elite fighters of today will stand the test of time.
Some of the modern boxers won’t make it into a particular division’s Top 3, Top 5 or Top 10 greatest fighters because the competition is so fierce and there are so many options to choose among.
Others, though, no doubt will. Fighters can’t fairly be judged until their careers are complete and you can look at the breadth and depth of their work, but the notion that modern boxers are out of their depth against those from the past is just a fallacy.