This is my Thursday column on Floyd Mayweather. WARNING — this is a boxing column. 49ers’ fans, feel free to skip this.
Muhammad Ali wanted to demonstrate his character to the world. Floyd Mayweather wants to be undefeated. There’s a difference.
Ali fought Joe Frazier five months after not fighting for 31/2 years. Ali was stripped of his boxing license from March 1967 to October 1970 because he wouldn’t enlist in the army during the Vietnam War.
After his reinstatement Ali fought two tune-up fights and quickly built up to Frazier, the heavyweight champion of the world. Ali barely waited. Ali couldn’t wait. He took on Frazier, the greatest challenge available, and lost.
Losing that fight does not diminish Ali’s legacy — it enhances it. He is the greatest heavyweight of all time because he never ducked an opponent. Neither did Frazier.
Sugar Ray Robinson, a welterweight and middleweight, is the greatest boxer ever, pound-for-pound. He was fearless. He fought everyone, and he lost 19 times.
Thomas Hearns, a great welterweight, fought Marvin Hagler, a great middleweight, a bigger man, because Hearns was brave. Hagler knocked him out. But it was one of the greatest fights of all time, and it included the greatest first round of all time. The history of the world is more interesting because that fight happened.
Boxing is about winning — of course it is. It’s also about bravery. Robinson was brave. Ali was brave. Hearns was brave.
Mayweather? Not so brave.
Mayweather is a great fighter, the fifth-best welterweight of the past 75 years behind Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Jose Napoles and Thomas Hearns. Welterweight is 147 pounds, or “47” in boxing vernacular. Mayweather is a defensive genius who can hurt you. But he doesn’t have the heart of a champion inside the ring or outside of it.
He is one of the least-pleasing great fighters ever. He doesn’t want to fight. He wants to dance. He jabs and runs and outpoints opponents like an amateur. He is a safety-first fighter. He refused to step into a ring and fight the best opponent in his weight division, Manny Pacquiao, for five years. He and Pacquiao never could agree until now on testing for performance-enhancing drugs. They’ve finally agreed on a testing protocol and are scheduled to fight on May 2.
One of the basic truths of boxing is this. The fighter who raises the objections is the fighter who doesn’t want the fight. Mayweather raised objections for years. Pacquiao never did.
This fight should have happened five years ago. Pacquiao is 36 now. He has lost two of his past five fights, he has knocked out no one since 2009 and, in 2012, Juan Manuel Marquez knocked him out cold. Pacquiao lay face down on the canvas for two minutes. He looked like a dead man. He may already be a “shot” fighter, someone who has lost his competitive edge. Mayweather likes fighters like that.
Pacquiao poses no threat to Mayweather. Finally, Mayweather wants to fight him. That’s the “character” Mayweather shows to the world.
I object to this fight. Mostly, I object to Mayweather. Forget his legacy — it’s his business if he wants to go down as the undefeated boxer who played it safe and avoided the only real challenge available to him. Mayweather hurt his sport. He could have revived boxing and he chose not to. He valued being undefeated more than being a great champion.
Boxing has been a dead sport most of my life. I was born in 1988. As soon as I understood language, my dad would show me videos of famous fights from the ’80s and narrate them to me. Then I would show the videos to my babysitters and repeat what my dad said. I must have broken down the first round of Hagler-Hearns to 10 different babysitters between 1991 and 1994.
That’s how I experience boxing — watching old fights on tape. The biggest fight since I’ve been alive was the first fight between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield. That was 1996 when Holyfield knocked out Tyson.
Five years ago, Mayweather-Pacquiao could have been bigger than Tyson-Holyfield. Tyson and Holyfield had one great fight. Mayweather and Pacquiao could have had two or three great fights during their primes. It would have felt like the return of the ’80s.
The ’80s was the decade of the welterweights. Most of the great fighters were welters, like Leonard, Hearns and Roberto Duran, who moved up from lightweight. And they all fought each other. Hearns and Duran fought once, Hearns and Leonard fought twice and Leonard and Duran fought three times. And all three of those guys had the courage to fight Marvin Hagler, who was a middleweight (160 pounds). Mayweather would have avoided all four. He never would have risked losing.
Pacquiao was a super lightweight as recently as May 2, 2009. Super lightweight is 140. Mayweather was reluctant to fight a smaller man. What a judgment against Mayweather. Mayweather waited to fight a smaller man until he was absolutely certain he could win.
And here’s the ultimate irony: Mayweather probably would have beaten Pacquiao all along. Even five years ago. Mayweather might have knocked him out. Pacquiao would have thrown a lot of punches but he wouldn’t have landed many — Mayweather is too hard to hit. Pacquiao would have opened himself up and Mayweather would have connected with his jaw. Mayweather is a precise puncher when he decides to punch. Although he is not a devastating hitter, he can knock people out.
Captain Ahab heroically chased the whale. Mayweather fled from it until it could hardly swim.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.