Thursday, July 03, 2008

:boxing: Decade's Best...So Far (2007 Edition) :: Boxing's Pound-4-Pound (Top 10) ::: #1 and #2

And now, finally, #1, the best boxer, pound-for-pound, of the decade ( far), and #2...

*All record information comes courtesy of Boxing Records Archive.

1. Bernard Hopkins

Overall Record (as of 2007): 48-4-1 (by KO: 32-0)
Decade Record (as of 2007): 12-2 (by KO: 4-0)
Notable Wins: Syd Vanderpool (2000 – UD), Antwun Echols (2000 – TKO10), Keith Holmes (2001 – UD), Felix Trinidad (2001 - TKO12), William Joppy (2003 – UD), Oscar De La Hoya (2004 – KO9), Antonio Tarver (2006 – UD), Ronald “Winky” Wright (2007 – UD)
Notable Losses: Jermain Taylor (2005 (twice) – SD, UD)
Championships: Middleweight (WBA, WBC, IBF, WBO), Light Heavyweight (IBO, NBA)

Bernard Hopkins had long lacked the name recognition or the fame of a De La Hoya, Mayweather, or even a Trinidad for that matter, for largely much of his career, though he had held the IBF Middleweight Championship since 1995 and had beaten good competition along the way. At the close of 2000, he had successfully defended it against solid opposition in Syd Vanderpool and Antwon Echols. When 2001 came about, Don King started a middleweight title unification tournament, the winner of whom would become the first undisputed champion of the division since Marvin Hagler (1987) and the recipient of the Sugar Ray Robinson trophy (the legend himself once being such a champion), to mark the occasion. The four men involved—WBC Champion Keith Holmes, WBA Champion William Joppy, IBF Champion Hopkins, and No. 1 contender (and King-promoted) Felix Trinidad—would battle each other in a two round eliminator format to determine the single ruler. Hopkins would be paired against Holmes in April, who he would dominate in a unanimous decision victory. In like, Trinidad blew past Joppy with his own succinct victory, by fifth round TKO.

With their respective belts in tow, the two finalists met in Madison Square Garden on September 28, 2001, just a few weeks removed from the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York City, the site of the event (which was slated to take place ten days before). Trinidad was one of the strongest and most feared fighters in boxing and came in with a 40-0 (33 KO) record, thus making Hopkins the heavy underdog. However, the fight itself proved to be a reversal of fortune, as Hopkins managed to nullify Trinidad’s offensive prowess and take his powerful shots, while masterfully outboxing and beating him (along with the employing of some old-school roughhousing). The fight culminated in Trinidad getting knock down in the eleventh round and his father/trainer stepping in to stop the fight after his son struggled stay on his feet.

The fight and its decisive outcome would finally give Hopkins the recognition and acknowledgement he had sought for so long—as well as access to bigger paydays. After defending his collective of middleweight titles successfully once in 2002 and again at the beginning of 2003, he would take on a determined Joppy at before the year’s end. The bigger, stronger Hopkins, confident in his chances, wagered the former champion $50,000 that he would not last the fight, while Joppy himself placed $25,000 down should he be proven right. The December bout saw Hopkins thoroughly dominating it, swelling Joppy’s head a few sizes larger, but he failed in taking him out (the fight could have feasibly been stopped in the later rounds, though it seemed like the referee and the crowd wanted to see Joppy get something good out of all of his trouble). True to the bet, Joppy found himself $50,000 richer.

In 2004, Hopkins agreed to defend his titles against fellow ring legend Oscar De La Hoya. However, before the match could take place, both fighters had to win their respective fights on a June 5 card in Las Vegas. Hopkins met Robert Allen for the fourth time in his career and won once more over him, yet De La Hoya struggled mightily against WBO Champion Felix Sturm. He was pudgy and out-of-shape—and fought like it—yet garnered what was widely considered a “gift” unanimous decision. Regardless, the fight took place in September as planned, though De La Hoya’s earlier lack of conditioning and performance gave Hopkins a greater width in odds-making circles. This time, though, De La Hoya looked much better and more lean and pushed the fight to Hopkins by utilizing his speed and combos, winning much of the beginning rounds in the process. Hopkins, a notoriously slow starter, began to steadily take over after round four, picking his shots and getting more aggressive with his like-minded adversary. As he began to fluster De La Hoya and pull away, he delivered a spot-on liver shot in the ninth and sent him to the canvas. De La Hoya struggled to stand back up, but could not overcome the paralyzing effects of the punch, resulting in his first lost by KO.

With the WBO title now in hand and the middleweight division further solidified , Hopkins successfully beat Howard Eastman in 2005 before taking on hot young prospect, and No. 1 contender, Jermain Taylor in July. Taylor’s offense-centric style and busier movements helped him win many of the early rounds as he managed to keep Hopkins at bay. The champion, though, started up in the mid-rounds and began to turn the tables on the upstart. Taylor had his moments in the final rounds but made it through and became the new undisputed champion via split decision. It was the first time Hopkins lost a fight since 1993 (to Roy Jones, Jr., by unanimous decision) and the first time he had been title-less since then. The controversy surrounding the fight, which many thought Hopkins won, would lead to a rematch in December. The result would largely be the same: closely fought, with Taylor winning the early rounds and Hopkins making the late rally. Taylor fought better this time around and scored a slim unanimous decision (with less, though still noticible, controversy). Hopkins bitterly complained again about the outcome and claimed that he was the victor.

Rather than fight a third time, he made the surprising move up to light heavyweight to challenge the division’s champion, Antonio Tarver. Tarver had recently defeated Roy Jones, Jr. in two out of three bouts (once by second round KO and again by unanimous decision), and avenged a split decision loss to Glen Johnson with a unanimous one. Like the Trinidad fight, Hopkins was the underdog, though now the roles had changed, as he was the newcomer to the division (his first time ever outside middleweight territory) and was challenging its top champion. Thanks in part to an intense nutritional diet (planned by the same person who helped Jones correctly bulk up to win the heavyweight title) and training, he shocked many observers by utterly dominating a sluggish, unresponsive Tarver, battering the usually potent fighter at will and aggressively outboxing him with incredible skill and ease to a near shutout for the IBO and NBA Light Heavyweight titles.

Despite becoming a champion again, Hopkins was reaching towards the end of his career and was already fighting past the age of 41, which was where he promised his mother he would retire at. Keeping this in mind, he soon set himself up against fellow famed technician Ronald “Winky” Wright in 2007 in an anticipated match of masterful, skilled pugilists. Contrary to the predictions, the ensuing fight would be more action than chess match, with both engaging each other in close-quarters combat and trading off shots. Wright would lose energy in the latter rounds while Hopkins continued to considerably keep pace, fighting through his offense and landing the more telling blows. In spite of intermittent sloppiness, the bout went over well with onlookers, though Hopkins won by a questionable near landslide score (most agreed with the results, but by much slimmer margins).

Bernard Hopkins’ place at the top of this list as the “Best Pound-4-Pound Boxer of the Decade (…So Far)” was secured by his exceptional level of ring mastery and skill, his long-running streak of title defenses (the second longest in history and the most at middleweight), and his reign as undisputed champion. In addition, he is the only fighter to have knocked out future Hall-of-Famers Trinidad and De La Hoya, and is the only person to have defeated Wright this decade. His legend thus far is given more weight when taking into consideration his superb performance against Tarver to win (and successfully defend) at the championship level at light heavyweight. Unlike Mayweather or Jones, he did not take the easier routes to claim more belts and instead went straight for the top competition. However, his back-to-back losses to Taylor revealed a stubbornness in changing tactics that do not favor him and his chances when he apparently thinks otherwise and served as another example of him having difficultly with fighters with quicker hands. Despite this, these were his only losses circa 2007 and they were both close and disputed by some.

For all of his accomplishments, feats, and as a consummate fighter overall, Bernard Hopkins is the “Decade’s Best” boxer…

…so far.

2. Floyd Mayweather, Jr.

Overall Record (as of 2007): 39-0 (by KO: 25-0)
Decade Record (as of 2007): 17-0 (by KO: 8-0)
Notable Wins: Emanuel Augustus (2000 – TKO9), Diego Corrales (2001 – TKO10), Carlos Hernandez (2001 – UD), Jesus Chavez (2001 – TKO9), Jose Luis Castillo (2002 (twice) – UD), Zab Judah (2006 – UD), Oscar De La Hoya (2007 – SD), Ricky Hatton (2007 – TKO10)
Notable Losses: None
Championships: Super Featherweight (WBC), Lightweight (WBC), Light Welterweight (WBC), Welterweight (WBC, IBF, IBA, IBO), Light Middleweight (WBC)

Floyd Mayweather, Jr. has been widely considered to be the pound-for-pound best boxer in the world and one of the best ever. Exceptional talent and skill and incredible hand speed, along with a decent amount of power, has typified the undefeated, multi-weight-class champion, who ended the first year of the decade against the popular, and tricky, journeyman Emmanuel Augustus (or Emmanuel Burton, his real name). The fight would be one that Mayweather would later describe as his toughest, though he largely swept it by imposing his skills and physicality. His biggest fight thus far would come in a summit meeting with the undefeated Diego Corrales in 2001. Both youngsters were of the same age and near the top of boxing’s mythical P4P list. As powerful and formidable Corrales was, Mayweather went through him with five knockdowns across the later rounds (when he is at his most dangerous), leading to Corrales’ corner stopping the match against his wishes in the tenth.

With the WBC Super Featherweight Championship in tow, he would defend it successfully against Carlos Hernandez (despite being knocked down in the sixth for the first time ever) and Jesus Chavez in the same year before moving up to lightweight to challenge Jose Luis Castillo for the WBC Championship in 2002. Castillo gave Mayweather a very difficult fight with his own brand of speed and power and constantly had him backing. However, Mayweather did enough in the judges’ eyes to warrant a controversial wide unanimous decision. The rematch in December yielded a reversal of opinions, as Mayweather dominated the fight but narrowly won a second unanimous decision (by, at the most, two rounds) with little criticism.

This match-up would mark the last time that Mayweather would take on such opposition, as he would largely settle for defending his belt against less dangerous and risky battlers from 2003 to 2005. While most had some name recognition, they posed little threat in beating him and served more as showcases for his talent. June 2005 saw Mayweather take apart a bigger name in Arturo Gatti for the WBC Light Welterweight title and again in November against Sharmba Mitchell. Afterwards, he moved up again in opposition to fight Zab Judah for the IBF Welterweight title in 2006. Judah was perhaps the only person that possessed faster hands than Mayweather’s fearsome own, and with more power to boot. This aspect gave him an edge in the first part of the match, posing a difficulty for Mayweather to overcome. However, he played coy and began to open up on Judah shortly after, fighting back and overwhelming the easily flustered fighter. Even a purposeful low blow by Judah in the tenth and a subsequent corner brawl could not save him from losing a clear unanimous decision to the superior boxer.

Mayweather would continue to consolidate the welterweight titles by easily winning a fight against surprise Judah-conqueror Carlos Baldomir in November for the WBC, IBO, and IBA belts. A long awaited match-up against Oscar De La Hoya led him to sail upwards for his WBC Light Middleweight Championship in a very lucrative deal in September 2007. Despite not being as sprightly as years before, the champion did well in staying competitive against Mayweather in the early rounds before giving away too many of the middle rounds and making too late of a comeback in the last rounds en route to a relatively close split decision lost to him.

After the win, Mayweather moved back down to welterweight to take on another high-profile opponent in Ricky Hatton, the undefeated British brawler. The December fight over the WBC Welterweight belt played similarly to the Judah bout, with Hatton pressuring Mayweather and giving him a fight before Mayweather pulled ahead and began to punish him. Taunting by Hatton late in the fight proved disastrous for him, as Mayweather turned up the heat and, in the tenth round, knocked out a battered Hatton for the win.

Floyd Mayweather, Jr.’s fight career this decade, while spotless, has been more of a tale of two records. He started off with notable wins over Corrales, Chavez, and Hernandez and shut down Castillo in a rematch to a fight many thought he did not win. That particular series seemed to lead heavily to his decision to fight only opponents that fulfilled three criteria: one, they were easy to beat; two, they were able to give Mayweather a chance to look good; and three, they had recognizable names. This could be said about a number of fighters, but given the situation and the abilities of Mayweather, the purpose is made all the more apparent. Judah, Gatti, and Hatton were all well-known brawlers and “action fighters”, but one was mentally weak, and another was far too battle-worn and totally out of his league, while the other wasn’t particularly skilled or adept at defense. Meanwhile, many of the fighters he fought between 2003 and 2005, as well as Baldomir, were well below his level. He could have faced De La Hoya earlier but always avoided to until he was older and slower (Mitchell’s no “Golden Boy”, but he, too, was well past his prime when he was beaten). This sentiment can also be seen in his avoidance of taking on rising up-and-comers at welterweight that posed to give him trouble, such as Antonio Margarito and Miguel Cotto, or even moving to a more competitive division.

What gives him this spot despite what has been noted is his earlier accomplishments (Augustus/Burton to the Castillo fight), his undefeated record (to an extent), and his willingness (to an extent) to fight more capable opponents from Judah on. As great a fighter he is physically as well as mentally, his career decisions do hurt his standings, preventing him from reaching the top spot, opening the way for others to possibly overtake him in the future. If he took the chances and challenges instead of ducking or maneuvering around them, perhaps things would be different…

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