(Bernard Hopkins, standing, walks by Floyd Mayweather, sitting at right)
In the wake of Floyd Mayweather’s routing of young Mexican star Saul “Canelo” Alvarez this past weekend (which the Queensberry Rules team predicted with Nostradamus-like sagacity), attentions have once again shifted to the future. With the so-called biggest challenge out there proving to be anything but, the search has now turned to the opponent who may be able to give the best fighter on the planet a run for his money. Mayweather has four more fights on his absurdly lucrative, record-breaking Showtime deal, and it is unlikely he will be able to find four truly worthy challengers over the next 24 months. Chances are we’ll be served up a dud or two… or three… or maybe even four, if the network completely caves in. Danny Garcia may have joined the conversation following his inspired victory over Lucas Matthysse in Saturday’s joint main event, but the number one junior welterweight is made to order for the Pretty Boy. Put simply, Mayweather would eat Garcia for breakfast, and Danny is not in possession of the name recognition to generate anywhere near the hype and viewing figures enjoyed by “The One.”
From this pugilistic paucity, however, an unlikely challenger may have emerged. Bernard Hopkins’s name is starting to be mentioned, mainly, it has to be said, thanks to his own proclamations about being able to dethrone the pound-for-pound king. The man we should really start calling Father Time, given that he is now pushing 50, has claimed he would be able to come down to 160 pounds to take on Mayweather, in a match-up best described at “intriguing,” rather than, say, “exciting” or “eagerly-anticipated by hoards of rabid #fightfreaks.” Most have merely sighed at the news and dismissed Hopkins’s sentiments as fueled by desire for one last galactic payday, given the euphoric talk of Floyd’s place amongst the all-time greats following yet another impressive win. However, these are two nailed-on Hall of Famers we’re talking about here, and I believe there’s more to it than that. In fact, B-Hop might just have a case for being the loftier placed of the two when the taxonomists come to do their worst.
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? As with all great fighters, both Mayweather and Hopkins’s childhoods were defined by hardship. Floyd tells tales of sleeping seven to a room in his grandmother’s home amidst nights frequently spent with no electricity, while Hopkins is well-known for his upbringing in the now-demolished Raymond Rosen projects of North Philadelphia. Having already been stabbed three times by the age of 13, he entered the local penitentiary four years later with a sentence of almost two decades hanging over his head. While inside, in an almost Dickensian twist of fate, he became the jailhouse boxing champion and grew to value the discipline instilled in him by the sport. Upon his release, he vowed never to return and entered the professional game as a means to salvation. That he made it to the pros by virtue of the prison fighting leagues reads like a discarded Rocky scene, rejected on the grounds of being too dramatic, a bit too Walt Disney in its postcard perfect depiction of shady, unregulated violence.
By contrast, and although far from a red carpet story, Mayweather was somewhat of a preordained star, at least within boxing’s impoverished sphere. Subjected to the finest tutelage from various members of his decorated family, from whom he is said to have developed his famed defensive techniques, he was practically boxing from infancy, with a fierce determination complementing his natural gifts and bringing amateur success and a bronze medal at the Atlanta Olympics at age 19. He might have had to sleep on floors in chilly corners of Michigan, as well as listen to his largely insufferable father on at least semi-regular occasions, but Mayweather, Jr. was a man groomed from an early age, either by his namesake, Floyd Mayweather, Sr, or by his uncle Roger, who took the former’s place during his imprisonment for drug trafficking. Soon after turning pro, Mayweather was lauded as a future world champion and a boxing prodigy, with analysts falling over themselves to proclaim him the class of the Atlanta Olympic Team and a shoe-in for Hall of Fame status down the line.
As far as introductions to the sport go, they could not be more polarised. Hopkins lost his opening bout in 1988, then recorded 21 consecutive victories to little fanfare en route to losing again in his first shot at a title, against the great Roy Jones, Jr. Seventeen more wins, a draw and a no contest followed before B-Hop became the first undisputed middleweight champion in 13 years with a TKO win over Felix Trinidad in 2001. This victory, a major upset at the time, enshrined Hopkins as the rightful successor to Marvin Hagler, with the six defenses of his undisputed title that followed cementing his status as an all-time great. That he became the first man in history to unify all four middleweight belts when he knocked out Oscar De La Hoya on the way to reaching 20 title defenses, obliterating Carlos Monzon’s preceding record of 14, was the icing on the cake.
Unsurprisingly given his tumultuous upbringing, B-Hop was known as a master of the sport’s dark arts. He was grudgingly respected rather than lauded for his achievements, and secured no real crossover appeal in contrast to many of his peers. Clinches, elbows, forearms, constant complaints to the referee and general frustration of his opponents en route to a decision win were his calling cards. Known as The Executioner, he became famed for ruining fighters for the reasons stated above, and can point to countless examples on his decorated resume of opponents being so taken out of their comfort zone when facing him that their careers never truly recovered.
Floyd’s record is less resounding, despite his many years as undisputed pound for pound king. His best win is still Diego Corrales, who let’s not forget was a top ten pound for pounder himself in the eyes of many observers when Mayweather demolished him before scoring a 10th round knock out in 2003. Yet since clearing out the featherweight and lightweight divisions in a similarly decisive manner, he has selected his opponents carefully, with the most skilled among them being either past their best or fighting in the wrong weight division when stepping in with him. Marquez? Blown up, at least back then. Shane Mosley? Shot. Miguel Cotto? Blown up and shot, even if he performed out of his skin that night. Canelo Alvarez? Too green, if anything, although I personally doubt he will ever be ready. That a proposed match-up with Manny Pacquiao never happened is not entirely Mayweather’s fault, given the dogmatic nature of Top Rank supremo Bob Arum, but it still marks a major blot on his record, an ugly coffee ring at the foot of his ledger, faded with time but still visible to all but the most cursory of observers. It’s old hat and tiresome to talk about, but the spectre will always loom over him, perhaps proving to be Arum’s final, lasting act of revenge.
Hopkins, in turn, can count his destruction of Felix Trinidad as arguably his best win, but he also holds notable victories over a prime and absurdly durable Glen Johnson (via KO, no less), titleholders John David Jackson and William Joppy, Roy Jones’s nemesis and massive betting favourite Antonio Tarver, the much-hyped Kelly Pavlik, a faded Winky Wright and Jones himself in a revenge bout almost two decades after their first meeting, as well as the tough Jean Pascal and Tavoris Cloud while in his 46th and 48th year, respectively. Sure, he was comprehensively beaten by a prime Roy Jones and lost decisions late on in his career to another Hall of Fame cert in Joe Calzaghe, as well as the former lineal champion at light heavyweight, Chad Dawson, but this does little to detract from his achievements in my eyes. On another night, he may have beaten Calzaghe, and there is absolutely no shame in losing to the best fighter of your generation or to a man 17 years your junior, who happens to be flirting with the pound-for-pound ranks as Dawson was at the time.
Their common foe is of course The Golden Boy himself, yet Hopkins is given comparatively few props for dispatching with De La Hoya in nine rounds when they met in 2004. Oscar was blown up, people say, and while this is indisputably true, De La Hoya was also 34 when he lost a split decision to Mayweather. As far as I’m concerned, both victories can be largely discounted when you consider the force Oscar was in his prime.
Mindful of this we can take the “Fabulous Four” as a yardstick, which is possibly the most logical measure given the difficulties of comparing the fighters of 75 years ago, such as Henry Armstrong or the original Sugar Ray, with those still operating today. There is no argument that Mayweather lacks names on his resume in the class of Tommy Hearns, Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran. This is indisputable, even when we take his utter dominance over the lightweight and junior lightweight divisions and cementation of lineal champion status at the tender age of 21 into account. Granted, the aforementioned quartet is an exceptionally haughty comparison to draw, and Hopkins cannot boast wins over opponents of quite their level either, but I believe his record comes closest out of the two. Of course you could make the case that Mayweather would beat a prime Duran or Hearns if they were to meet in some Rocky Balboa-inspired alternate reality, but that’s an entirely different story (and a far more controversial article…)
You may have noticed that I’ve neglected to mention Mayweather’s unbeaten record until now. That’s because I deem it largely irrelevant when discussing all-time standings. Fighters go on long undefeated streaks due to their talent, but enjoy undefeated careers thanks to careful matchmaking. I don’t denigrate Hopkins excessively for his losses, coming as they did against opponents of extremely high quality for the most part, and I don’t attach too much weight to Mayweather’s “0.” Entry to the Hall of Fame and ascendancy to the eternal pantheon is not based on perfect records or the speculative results of fantasy match-ups (fun as that would be). It is tied up with issues of longevity, skills, quality of opponents and career-best wins. In my eyes, Hopkins is superior across three of the four criteria, even if Mayweather would likely emerge victorious should they ever meet between the ropes.
Many cite Mayweather’s uncanny ability to outfox his opponents in the ring, to remain perpetually one step ahead, as his defining characteristic. His versatility in this regard is outstanding, certainly, yet it is his speed which is most often cited by opponents as the difference. He is both greyhound and mechanised hare, insurmountably quick and permanently out of range. He remains magnificently so even after 17 years in the game. But, I ask you, who is more adaptable than Hopkins? This is a man who has altered his style so resoundingly he remains able to fight (and win) at a world title level on the verge of his 50th year. When it comes to pure skills, Mayweather has no equal. But his ability to “pay the bills” in this regard may be his only resounding triumph.