There’s a faint air of impossibility about Manny Pacquiao’s achievements that, to this day, makes it hard for me to fully accept them. It all just seems so damn unlikely, especially when you review where he started 2000 and where he ended up in 2009. But it’s all very real, and that’s why Pacquiao is the Fighter of the Decade in the 2000s, heading up a class at the start of the new millennium that is pretty stellar.
This is my top 10. What’s yours?
1. MANNY PACQUIAO, junior featherweight – welterweight
Three best wins: Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, Juan Manuel Marquez
I don’t think there’s any question that this decade belongs to Manny. We’re living in the Manny Pacquiao era, basically, and almost everyone knows it. (It’s a cop-out to say as Boxingtalk did that we won’t know who the top boxer of the 2000s was until after Pacquiao fights Floyd Mayweather. The 2000s are over in a couple weeks. You decide who’s best in a decade by what everyone does in that decade. It’s like waiting to give a 2008 Oscar until 2009.) We’ve been over it a lot lately, so let’s just review fairly quickly. He twice won Fighter of the Year from Ring magazine, in 2006 and 2008, and he’s sure to do it again in 2009. He’s the only person on this list who’s beaten two other people on this list, twice avenged his only loss and he added as many as three other Hall of Famers — Miguel Cotto, Ricky Hatton and Oscar De La Hoya. He won five of his six divisional belts and more importantly, three of his record four lineal, true championships in this decade. Some serious historians rank him as high as top 20 all-time in boxing history, based largely on accomplishments since 2003. He is more beloved in his nation of the Philippines than probably any boxer has ever been beloved by his people. He became a pay-per-view star, was one of the most exciting boxers in the sport with numerous Fight of the Year contenders and the Queensberry Rules Knockout of the Decade — one of the best one-punch KOs ever — and in 2009 became the face of boxing. I really don’t even think it’s close. Pacquiao is the Fighter of the Decade.
2. FLOYD MAYWEATHER, JR., junior lightweight – junior middleweight
Three best wins: Diego Corrales, Jose Luis Castillo, Oscar De La Hoya
There are two phases of Mayweather’s decade, one more impressive than the other. I’m not trying to revive old arguments here, because with Mayweather getting close to agreeing to fight Pacquiao, I have largely stopped harping on his choosiness about his opponents. But from 2000, when Mayweather delivered his magical performance against Corrales, to 2002, when he defeated Jose Luis Castillo in their rematch, Mayweather routinely sought out and beat the best available opponents. After that, his career was mostly marked by wins over excellent opponents who often delivered nice paydays but rarely the best opponents he could fight. Wins over De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, Zab Judah, Arturo Gatti and to a lesser extent a blown-up Juan Manuel Marquez were impressive in their own ways, and as many as six of his opponents might crack the Hall of Fame. It does still pain me how much better it could have been had Mayweather found a way into the ring with Shane Mosley, Miguel Cotto, Antonio Margarito, Kostya Tszyu, Joel Casamayor and Acelino Freitas. I honestly think he would have beaten all of them, or at worst almost all of them, and had he, I think he’d be #1 for the decade. But what he got done in the 2000s — two lineal championships, belts in five divisions, Ring magazine Fighter of the Year in 2007, pound-for-pound #1 for three years (longer than anyone else), record for most pay-per-view sales in one year, the aforementioned wins — was more than enough to give him the runner-up spot.
3. BERNARD HOPKINS, middleweight – light heavyweight
Three best wins: Felix Trinidad, Oscar De La Hoya, Winky Wright
There are two ways to look at Hopkins’ decade: It’s better than it looks, or it’s worse. It’s kind of a mix. Four of his five best wins were against people who had weren’t the same when they moved up to his weight class — the above three plus Kelly Pavlik. Those were pound-for-pound top-10 fighters when he beat them, but for all the hell Mayweather catches for having beaten the smaller Hatton and Marquez, Hopkins catches hardly none for doing much the same. On the other hand, he did move up to 175 and throttle borderline Hall-of-Famer and pound-for-pound top-10-worthy Antonio Tarver for the lineal light heavyweight title after owning the middleweight from 2001 to early 2005, where he broke the record for middleweight alphabet title defenses. He can argue feasibly that he didn’t lose either fight to Jermain Taylor or his one bout with Joe Calzaghe (I thought he lost all three, but they were close), and if you add those as “wins” to his record, his decade gets much more impressive. But it’s indisputable that the 2000s were the decade where he became one of the handful of best middleweights ever, and where he became one of the three best “old” fighters — above 40 — of all time.
4. JUAN MANUEL MARQUEZ, featherweight – welterweight
Three best wins: Marco Antonio Barrera, Joel Casamayor, Derrick Gainer
If Mayweather had a big “what-if” decade and Hopkins’ resume would have been enhanced by a few more close decisions going his way, Marquez had them both trumped. Those three best wins do not at all tell the story of Marquez’ decade. A draw and a loss to Pacquiao say as much about him as anything else. In their two fights, they are separated by a grand total of one point on one of six scorecards. I thought he won the second and lost the first, but anyone who walked away from those fights convinced Marquez wasn’t nearly as good or even better than the top man of the 2000s… I don’t know what to say to them. Give Marquez one or two wins over Pacquiao and throw in in the Chris John loss that could have gone either way — and John has subsequently proven he’s worthy of top-10 pound-for-pound consideration and wasn’t some overprotected Asian fighter — and how much better would Marquez’ resume look? Would he have gotten a fight with Erik Morales and beaten him? In the end, he still proved to be the best of the three Mexican greats of his generation; beat the #1 man, Juan Diaz, in the lightweight division where he became lineal champion; and transformed from a technician to a crowd-pleasing warrior who was one half of the biggest-selling pay-per-view for “small” fighters ever.
5. SHANE MOSLEY, welterweight – junior middleweight
Three best wins: Oscar De La Hoya twice, Antonio Margarito
Mosley briefly ruled as the pound-for-pound king, in 2001, and was on and off the list for the rest of the 2000s. He was hurt somewhat by five losses — twice to Winky Wright, twice to Vernon Forrest and once to Miguel Cotto — but three of them were fairly close. His first De La Hoya win is tainted by the revelation that he used steroids (unwittingly, he said) and there was a dispute over whether he deserved the second win (I thought he did). If it seems like I’m spending more time knocking Mosley than praising him, I’ll add this — I originally discounted his two wins over Fernando Vargas, thinking Vargas wasn’t all that at the time, but looking back, he was a top-ranked junior middleweight, a division where Mosley was a notch above his comfort zone. And that beatdown of Margarito, the top welterweight at the time and maybe the most feared man in the sport, was epic. What gives him the edge over those below him is his sustained high level of competition from 2000 to 2009, faring well throughout, and the fact that he was visibly one of the most intoxicating mixtures of speed, power and skill over the duration, second only to Pacquiao.
6. JOE CALZAGHE, super middleweight – light heavyweight
Three best wins: Bernard Hopkins, Mikkel Kessler, Jeff Lacy
It took forever for Calzaghe to get around to fighting top competition, but once he did, he did well for himself. He’d beaten terrible-to-good opposition until 2005. Then he became the best super middleweight ever in the division’s relatively short history, claiming the lineal championship with his awe-inspiring ass-whooping of highly-touted Jeff Lacy to complement his eventual 21-fight streak of alphabet title defenses — the third-longest in boxing history in any division. Kessler was the clear #1 man in his division, a prime, proven opponent, and Calzaghe cleanly beat him, then he won the lineal light heavyweight championship from Hopkins and closed out his career with a win over an aged but still somewhat dangerous Roy Jones, Jr. He retired undefeated as one of the best boxers Great Britain produced in its long history with the sport.
7. MARCO ANTONIO BARRERA, junior featherweight – lightweight
Three best wins: Erik Morales twice, Naseem Hamed
Picking between Barrera and Morales was fairly difficult; Barrera won twice over Morales, but Morales beat Pacquiao and Barrera got stomped by him. In the end, the Hamed win more than anything else pushes Barrera over the top. There’s this retroactive view that Hamed wasn’t all that great, but I came around this year to the idea that he was Hall of Fame-worthy, and Barrera owned him. Another edge for Barrera: He was more consistent in the decade than Morales, with Barrera still a vital force into 2007. Barrera finished the decade one of the best Mexican fighters ever and one half of one of the best trilogies in boxing history. That’s a good decade.
8. ERIK MORALES, junior featherweight – lightweight
Three best wins: Manny Pacquiao, Marco Antonio Barrera, Paulie Ayala
Morales was the only person to cleanly beat Pacquiao in the 2000s, which counts heavily in his favor. He was very competitive in the second fight, too. Maybe he didn’t deserve the win over Barrera in their first meeting, but it’s commonly thought he did in the second. Some of his secondary wins were quite good as well — Jesus Chavez, for instance. Thinking about all this makes me wistful for the days of Morales, Barrera, Marquez and Pacquiao roaming the featherweight division and thereabouts, which has been called by some historians the best era ever for that weight class. Morales at minimum held his own in that crew.
9. WINKY WRIGHT, junior middleweight – light heavyweight
Three best wins: Shane Mosley twice, Felix Trinidad
I struggled with Wright’s placement. His three best wins were really about his only really three good wins, and two of them were over a version of Mosley that weren’t ideal — Mosley was best at lightweight and welterweight — and the third was over a strangely zombie-like version of Trinidad. What then? The struggles he had with Sam Soliman? Beating a very bloated Ike Quartey? I say his draw with Jermain Taylor helps him more than it hurts him. Also on the plus side, he spent four years in the top-10 pound-for-pound, and he most certainly was the most avoided fighter in the sport for a long stretch. Had he gotten his mitts on Oscar De La Hoya, I’m guessing he beats him, and maybe some others. Overall, I’m going to say he’ll end up overrated on most top-10 lists but still is very much worthy of being on those lists and punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame in the 2000s.
10. RAFAEL MARQUEZ, bantamweight – featherweight
Three best wins: Israel Vazquez, Mark Johnson, Tim Austin
Marquez gets the nod in the Vazquez-Marquez rivalry for a few reasons. One, I think an uncalled-for point deduction in the third fight that gave Vazquez a one-point win rather than a draw is all that kept the trilogy from going 1-1-1. Vazquez beat the likes of Jhonny Gonzalez and Oscar Larios, but I don’t think that stacks up to Marquez’ win over Johnson, a pound-for-pound top-10 boxer not long before Marquez beat him twice, and Austin was the #1 man at bantam two years running before Marquez took his undefeated record away. As far as separating himself from others just outside the top-10, Marquez is helped by sustained excellence from 2001 to 2008 and being one-half of not just one of the best boxing trilogies ever, but maybe THE best.
That said, it hurt me bad to leave Miguel Cotto out, who took out a long list of junior welterweight and welterweight titlists and ex-titlists, plus scored a great win over Mosley; Vazquez gets an honorable mention for reasons just described; Oscar De La Hoya deserves an honorable mention for being the first to win titles in six divisions, being in the pound-for-pound top-10 for four years and, you’ll note, he counts as four of the best wins for boxers in the above top 10; Kostya Tszyu and Ricky Hatton took turns dominating at junior welterweight; and Lennox Lewis put a capstone on his career with a series of wins that make him worthy of consideration for one of the 10 best heavyweights ever.
Ten years of boxing, boiled down to the “best of” in four categories: Round of the Decade, Knockout of the Decade, Fight of the Decade and Fighter of the Decade.
Sunday: Round of the Decade candidates, plus Knockout of the Decade candidates. Monday: Round of the Decade and Knockout of the Decade winners and Fight of the Decade candidates. Today: Fighter of the Decade top 10 now, plus Fight of the Decade winner earlier. Wednesday: an awards-season Open Thread.