It’s time for a reality check. Over the weekend “the two best fighters of their generation” fought in what was a very disappointing showing. Of course anyone who followed the sport knew it would be (as “superfights” almost always are). Mayweather is too skilled defensively and too protective of his undefeated record to pull a Sugar Ray Leonard circa Montreal in 1980 to make it interesting, and Pacquiao is too small and has slipped a bit into one-dimensionality to force Floyd to do so. But there has been a lot of talk as both of these fighters being “all-time greats” as though there is generational forgetfulness on what a real greatness looks like.
Of course “who is the greatest fighter ever” is entirely based on opinion. There is NO answer and rather than say this is a “definitive list” of the greatest fighters of all time I thought I’d say these are the 3 greatest fighters in MY opinion, meaning the ones I like to watch the most and whose abilities have made us stand in awe. And neither Pacquiao, and I love Manny and think he has accomplished a lot, nor Mayweather, who has made a career avoiding the hardest fights, have come close to these legends.
3.) Marco Antonio Barrera: Probably an strange choice for many, but Barrera was without a doubt a pound-for-pound all-time great who could both box, counter, or brawl. In legendary performances against Erik Morales (who many fans appreciate more for his all-guns blazing style), a beautiful chess match with Prince Naseem Hamed (who he battered essentially into retirement), and an all guts battle with Kennedy McKinney Barrera showed ring intelligence, heart, power, and adaptability that is almost never shown nowadays. He could jab southpaws, blast you with right hands, and crush you with left hooks to the body. An aging Barrera looked helpless against the young hungry Pacquiao in their first fight, but lured him into a slower pace in their second. Barrera has faded from collective memory in modern boxing, but people wanting to learn how to be an effective boxer-puncher-brawler need to sit down and watch Marco’s 75 fights.
2.) Roy Jones Jr: This is going to be unpopular, I know, but I have my reasons. In his prime Roy was supernatural. He was the fastest, wiliest, most elusive fighter to ever live. Robbed at the Seoul Olympics, he turned pro in 1989 and essentially didn’t lose a fight (one controversial DQ) until 2004. He had power in both hands and made other all-time greats look like absolute amateurs. Bernard Hopkins, James Toney, Virgil Hill, all great champions made to look slow, awkward, and helpless again Roy Jones. Light Heavyweights, who in any other era would have battled it out for light heavyweight supremacy, skilled fighters, all called uncompetitive and weak challenges. Montel Griffin, Reggie Johnson, Clinton Woods, and Julio Gonzalez, all shelved with contemptuous ease. Even mandatory and lesser defenses against David Talesco (who followed Roy calling him out for months only to lose 12 out of 12 rounds against a one-handed Jones) and Richard Hall (one of the greatest of Roy’s performances) showed what an artist he was. He started at junior middleweight, became middle weight champion, super middleweight champion, light heavyweight champion, and cherry-picked a heavy weight title, easily beating John Ruiz. As with most fighters who rely on athleticism over well-schooled boxing ability, he faded badly and from 2004 onward has had a career that has been a shame to see (though he can still turn on some preternatural abilities even at the age of 40+) but if you look at his career from his heavy weight performance backward to his pro-debut you will see possibly the greatest-skilled pound-for-pound fighter ever to live.
1.) Roberto Duran: What needs to be said? Duran turned pro in 1968 (a year after Ali was forced into exile). Was lightweight champion, possibly the greatest lightweight of all time, from 1972-1979, handed Ray Leonard his first defeat to become welterweight champion in 1980, defeated young champion Davey Moore to become junior middleweight champ and took the greatest middleweight champion in the modern era, Marvin Hagler, to his only 15 round defense in 1983. He won the middleweight title from tough, younger, stronger champion Iran Barkley (scoring the fight’s only knockdown) in 1989. And even won a minor Super Middleweight title from journeyman Pat Lawlor in 2000 (19 years after Ali retired!).Fighting in FIVE decades, winning titles in FOUR. Duran was a brutal warrior with a fighting IQ above anyone who has ever stepped into the ring. He didn’t always look brilliant and lived an entire life in the ring, showing excitement, depression, indifference, joy, rage, and pride under the hot lights. Known for his aggression, Duran was also one of the greatest defensive fighters to ever fight, very hard to hit with clean shots and able to stand in front of you and still be elusive while crushing you with either his left or right hand. There’s never been a more effectively aggressive and brilliant street fighter to ever step into the ring. One Hundred and Thirteen fights. In the modern era that is epic and they are some of the greatest ring performances in history.
Just for fun three honorable mentions:
Marvin Hagler: Essentially unbeatable. He was another guy who could fight, box, brawl, or counter punch. His last fight, a shame, where he was out-PR’d by Sugar Ray Leonard in the ring. Even as a Ray Leonard fan I think Hagler won it on aggressive, effective punching, but beat himself by starting too slowly and giving away the first 3 rounds. Marvin was involved in the greatest single fight ever. Out-willing, out-fighting, and out-slugging dangerous puncher and brilliant boxer Tommy Hearns in under three rounds.
Arturo Gatti: Not the most skilled fighter, but good god what a heart and what a warrior. He could lose every second of every round and you’d still cheer for him because he never stopped trying. He could be battered into a swollen pulp and with one left hook change your life. His ring life is linked forever to his wars with Mickey Ward; probably the three greatest fights of all time. You were always on the edge of your seat when Arturo fought.
Vitali Klitschko: Yeah. I said that. Vitali is one tough mo-fo. Though not showing his brother’s pure athletic skill, this is a guy who never was a afraid to fight anyone. Anywhere. Any time. He NEVER lost from being out-fought, losing only twice and only through injury; once from cuts and once from having an injured shoulder. Never knocked down, never knocked out, never visually in trouble in a fight. Vitali was one hell of a smart, strong, SOB who would have been a threat to just about any heavyweight. Ever. Even Mike Tyson says so!