By Ingming Aberia
Years ago, the Associated Press, ESPN, and The Ring Magazine, among many other media organizations, came up with their respective lists of who are the greatest boxers of all time. While they differed in their rankings from the second spot downwards, they had been unanimous in putting Sugar Ray Robinson at the top of those lists. One list picks Henry Armstrong at second, while the other puts Muhammad Ali in that place instead.
Results of last year’s online poll conducted by The Greatest Ever and supposedly participated in by more than half a million respondents further buttress the opinion that Robinson must truly be the greatest boxer of all time, pound for pound. However, this time around, neither Armstrong nor Ali was to be found in second place. Instead, newcomer Manny Pacquiao came in second to Robinson, followed by Ali.
Boxing fans know, of course, that rankings and lists of all-time boxing greats are products of opinion. Thus ranking the world’s greatest boxers (who competed in various eras and across weight divisions) is source of endless debate. And because one’s opinion can neither be right nor wrong, this debate must come down to which opinion has stronger or weaker arguments. My recent book, “Manny Pacquiao: Story Bigger Than Boxing,” argues that is even greater than Robinson. It does so with facts.
The key to our analysis is looking at the fight records of Robinson and Pacquiao (let’s respect the online poll’s ranking and put aside—not forget!—Muhammad Ali for the moment).
Sugar Ray Robinson
“Sugar” Ray Robinson’s resume speaks for itself. A hundred seventy-three wins out of 200 fistic contests in a pro career that spanned 25 years.
But what separates Robinson from ordinary fighters is seen not only by way of looking at the long list of his conquests, but also at the way he conquered his opponents. His technique, boxing skills and ring generalship were simply too advanced to be ignored. To his credit must also go true grit and courage by which he tested his limits inside the ring, as well as an infinite supply of passion for the sport.
Robinson had a natural flair for boxing. Almost always being able to find a way to win, his boxing style was a study of how fighters should respond to any given situation presented to them by their opponents. He was quick with both hands and feet. He was impeccable with his jabs. He loads, unloads and reloads at the perfect time. He was fearless in mixing up with brawlers. He could throw bombs and knock people out double his size, as it were.
And probably the most eloquent expression of his greatness could be found in the way future boxers who would be legends themselves have made his brand of boxing their own.
Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, for example, had displayed boxing wizardry that reminded the fans of Robinson. Applying excellent footwork to launch their attack, they executed one of the most electrifying fistic flurries ever seen in boxing.
Even the rapid hooks for which Roy Jones Jr felt he owned a patent have in some ways been lifted from the vast inventory of Robinson’s arsenal.
Robinson was 19 (in 1940) when he jumpstarted his professional career at 135 pounds. His devastating form manifested early, storming to a 40-0 win-loss record in only 3 years. His first taste of defeat came at the hands of Jake LaMotta who, at 160.5 pounds, outweighed him by 16 pounds at weigh in. They mixed gloves 5 months earlier, with Robinson winning the bout although LaMotta was heavier by almost 13 pounds.
Robinson and LaMotta went on to clash five more times. It was a tough series for Jake, winning once but losing five times (once by TKO).
A breeze of 88 straight wins by Robinson followed that solitary loss to LaMotta. This incredible streak was interspersed only by a couple of draws and a No Contest bout against Gerhard Hecht of Germany on June 24, 1951. The referee, Otto Nispel, had disqualified Robinson for an illegal kidney blow, but the German Boxing Commission would later change the ruling to “no contest.”
In all, Robinson held championship belts for close to 9 years (4 years as welterweight and 5 years as middleweight). He started his professional boxing career at lightweight (135 pounds), ruled the middleweight (160 pounds) division, and tried—but failed—to invade higher territories at light heavyweight (175 pounds) division.
Like most fighters of his time and those who preceded them, Robinson was a busy fighter. On average, he fought once in each month during the first 12 years of his professional career. In one European “tour,” he was inside the ring four times in one month (December 1950) in four different countries.
Wear and tear visibly slowed down Robinson at age 36. He started to pick up a string of losses since then. The rising stars of the middleweight division at the time—Carmen Basilio, Paul Pender and Gene Fullmer—were beating him almost in uniform fashion. Although he continued to be active until he was 51 years old (like appearing in exhibition bouts), he retired from professional boxing at age 44.
He fights—in his own words—”to make the fans happy.” When people watch Pacquiao fight, they see an incredible small-sized package of ferocity and aggression let loose inside the ring.
And the fans love it.
The increasing number of those who follow his fights indicates that Pacquiao does make them happy. Next to Oscar de la Hoya, Heavyweights Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfields, and Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao is the most watched boxer on pay-per-view. Pacquiao has averaged at least 1 million views for a single fight in each year since 2008. Also, next to Ali-Spinks 2 (1979) and Whitaker-Chavez (1993), Pacquiao-Clottey (2010) drew the highest number of live gate attendance in recent times.
But there is something more in a prizefighter’s career that drives boxers to give their all. Attracting attention and in the process collecting fat paychecks even from non-title fights, Pacquiao got something, by way of an unsolicited advice, from WBC President Jose Sulaiman. “Boxers,” Sulaiman says, “are immortalized by the belts they won, not by the money they earned.”
Although Sulaiman did not appear to have moral suasion over Team Pacquiao, what happened next was that Pacquiao went into a belt-grabbing binge in such dramatic proportions not seen since Armstrong did it in 1938.
From the time he turned professional at 16 to the present (he turns 32 today, December 17, 2010), he has already won world titles in 8 different weight divisions. No other fighter in all of boxing history has come close to scaling that height of achievement.
After Pacquiao’s knock out win over Mexican Jorge Solis (33-0-2 win-loss-draw record) on April 14, 2007, Freddie Roach, Pacquiao’s mentor since 2001, bared what he saw in the future. “We will start collecting titles next year,” he said.
First, Juan Manuel Marquez got the rematch he demanded from Pacquiao. They clashed for the second time on March 15, 2008. After 12 rounds of intense battle, the judges ruled, 2-1, in favor of Pacquiao. The result was as controversial as the first fight (2004), and the issues they generated were just as contentious.
If the fight settled one thing, however, it was the transfer of the super featherweight belt from Marquez to Pacquiao.
Pacquiao thus elevated himself to an elite class of 3-division champions that included Sugar Shane Mosley, Julio Cesar Chavez, among others.
Three months later, on June 28, 2008, Pacquiao took away David Diaz’s lightweight title via a ninth round stoppage. His waist brimmed with belts. He now had 4, and counting.
Six months later, on December 6, 2008, he jumped 2 divisions upwards to face Oscar De La Hoya at 147 pounds. He weighed just 130 pounds 9 months earlier. Many people thought the De La Hoya fight was crazy for the immense disparity in size between the two warriors. They expressed concern about Pacquiao being destroyed beyond repair by De La Hoya. But on fight night, their concern soon shifted to the bigger De La Hoya. Pacquiao battered Oscar before the latter gave up the fight and, eventually, his boxing career.
Pacquiao thus conquered 4 weight divisions in 10 months, all of them in blitzkrieg fashion.
He was not done, however. On May 5, 2009, he flattened Ricky Hatton in 2 rounds to wrest his 6th title in as many weight divisions. And, topping it all, after 6 months, he defeated welterweight champion Miguel Cotto on November 14, 2009, for a record 7 titles in 7 weight divisions. A year later, he collected the vacant WBC junior middleweight crown—his 8th—at the expense of former welterweight champion Antonio Margarito.
No one in boxing history had accomplished what Pacquiao has done. Oscar De La Hoya, having won world titles in 6 different weight divisions, comes closest to matching Pacquiao’s achievement. But unlike De La Hoya who started at super feather-weight (130 lbs) and ended at middleweight (160 lbs), Pacquiao navigated a territory stretching over 48 lbs, from 106 to 154.
At the rate Pacquiao is morphing into one weapon of mass destruction, pundits wonder if there is anyone who can stop him. It seems—now or in the near future—no one is in sight.
Is Pacquiao the greatest of all time?
In 2009 the multi-awarded sports broadcast-journalist, Al Bernstein, said in an article that he was willing to talk about Pacquiao in terms of “greatest” and “historically important.”
“But,” Bernstein continued, “I am not totally ready to deify Manny—but I am close. If he can beat Cotto, a true welterweight with power and ability, he will have proved that no one in history has been able to dominate the smaller weight divisions like him. From 112 all the way up to 147 he has performed well. That’s astonishing.”
“Perhaps the most amazing part of all this is that Manny reinvented himself as a fighter when he moved up in weight. He became a true boxer-puncher, using more movement, combination punching and widening his arsenal to include more right hooks. In his recent fights, he has been much more than the power punching, but sometimes one dimensional fighter he was in lower weight classes. He used power and toughness to get through wars of attrition. At the higher weights he has used guile, speed and, oh yes, still lots of power. I can’t remember another fighter who has made such a transformation in his late 20’s. It just isn’t done. So, a unique place in history awaits Manny if he can find a way to beat Cotto. And what if he does that and then beats either Mosley or Mayweather Jr. after that? Well, let’s cross that congratulatory bridge when we come to it. For now, let’s contemplate one miracle at a time.”
As people now know, Pacquiao did not only beat Cotto; he mangled him. As a footnote, Cotto has lost only twice so far in all of his 37 professional career fights: the other loss was against Margarito. Again, as people now know, Pacquiao battered Margarito in a 12-round junior middleweight action.
Sugar Vs Manny
In saying that Pacquiao is greater than Robinson (sorry if some boxing fans feel this defames Sugar), I submit that one good way of comparing the two is to look at the quality and depth of their respective opposition.
Forty-one of Robinson’s 200 fights were against opponents whose average career win percentage was less than 50 percent. In fights where these low-quality opponents were excluded, Robinson’s winning rate goes down to 83.65, compared to his career win rate of 86.50. This pales in comparison to the resume of Pacquiao’s opponents. Pacquiao has an average of 87 percent winning rate against high-quality opponents, compared to his career winning rate of 91 percent.
Even after Robinson had collected world crowns in the Welterweight and Middleweight divisions and after having compiled a ring record of 127-1-2 win-loss-draw record in 130 professional fights, he still fought opponents with dubious ring records—those with either ring experiences of less than 10 fights or winning rates of less than 50 percent.
Altogether—that is, including low-quality opponents—the average career win percentage of Robinson’s opponents was 67, compared to Pacquiao’s 72 percent.
Thus one could even argue that Pacquiao’s sparring partners (some of whom were either title holders or former world champions) have fight records that were superior to that of many of Robinson’s opponents. And Pacquiao goes through at least 130 rounds of sparring sessions to prepare for his big fights.
What about the depth of competition? This point of comparison can be complicated to the point of being irrelevant. The above criterion measures the relative value of competition; this one looks at absolute numbers. The bigger the field, the more meaningful and impressive a championship becomes. Being “second-best” means nothing if there are only two competitors in the field.
There are several factors that either limit or delimit the field of competition. They include sanctioning bodies, promotion and purse issues, geopolitics, and personal convictions, among other things.
Before the 60s, such as in the time of Robinson, there were two sanctioning bodies that conferred world championship belts—the New York State Athletic Commission and the National Boxing Association, composed of several American states (an irregularity, because both did not have a global mandate). When the NBA expanded to become the WBA, alongside NYSC’s siring of the WBC, the rise of regional boxing organizations such as in South America, Europe, Asia Pacific, etc. made it easier for boxers around the world to compete for world rankings and, eventually, championship belts.
Issues among promoters and the need for match ups that offer the highest financial rewards possible can also limit the number of competition that can otherwise enhance the prestige of championship belts. The fights that could have provided a true measure of one’s greatness eluded the likes of Heavyweights Jack Johnson (1878-1946) and Sam Langford (1883-1956) not only because of racism, but indirectly because such a cultural impediment did not support the financial viability of matching them up with other name fighters.
The late Edwin Valero of Venezuela compiled a ring record of 27 wins (all of them by knockout, 18 in the first round) with no losses or draws. But, for various reasons, he did not get enough match ups that would solidify his true worth inside the ring. For example, his inability to secure a US visa prevented him from fighting in the US.
Personal reasons can also prevent fights from happening, or fighters from climbing the ring. Ali invoked his faith—Islam—to defy his government, and was out of ring action for years. Charges that Floyd Mayweather Jr shies away from choice matches may or may not be tenable, but they can be best understood in the context of what privately goes on in their minds.
On surface, Robinson’s 173-19-6-2 (109 KOs) win-loss-draw-no-contest record simply towers over and above Pacquiao’s 52-3-2-0 (38 KOs) win-loss-draw-no-contest log. But if viewed from the perspective of the quality and depth of their respective opposition, Pacquiao would have the edge. As mentioned above, close to one fourth of Robinson’s opponents had fight records that were not even worthy enough to become Pacquiao’s sparring partners; Robinson’s 200 career fights involved no more than 120 opponents (he fought at least thrice against 7 opponents—6 against Jake Lamotta—and had rematches with at least 24 opponents). What sets Robinson apart from the rest of the all-time greats (except Roberto Duran and Chavez, who were in the game for 31 and 25 years, respectively) was his longevity. He competed at a high level for 25 years.
On another criterion—championship belts—we also see Pacquiao’s relative edge over Robinson. Robinson was world champion for close to 9 cumulative years; Pacquiao has been a world champion for 7 years and remains active. Robinson collected championship belts in 2 weight divisions (welterweight and middleweight). He tried—but failed—to annex Joey Maxim’s light heavyweight crown. It was a bout held under steamy conditions (the referee had to be replaced due to exhaustion)—and something which must have kept both fighters from performing at their best. Pacquiao, on the other hand, collected world titles in 8 weight divisions (flyweight, super bantamweight, featherweight, super featherweight, lightweight, junior welterweight, welterweight and junior middleweight). Pacquiao’s successful essays assembled a string of weight classes from 112 pounds to 151 pounds (39 pounds in between) compared to Robinson’s conquests over 13 pounds, from 147 to 160.
Unlike Robinson and other great fighters, Pacquiao needed no tune-up matches leading up to his big fights. The Pacman just gobbled up fighters bigger his normal size one after the other; from one big fight to another big fight. It has been a run that probably will never be equaled, much more surpassed, in the next couple of centuries.
Aside from these quantifiable aspects of the game, all comparisons among boxing’s all-time greats—and in this case between Robinson and Pacquiao—would be products of opinion. This is not saying that opinion is worthless. This is saying that, in the end, comparing boxers against each other maybe irrelevant and unnecessary. What might be more compelling is documentation of the unique contributions by each fighter to the sport—something that forever may keep undefiled the essence of settling disputes among men in a fair and courageous manner.
That’s boxing and that’s where Pacquiao and Robinson have stormed themselves to immortality.
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Hermilando “Ingming” Duque Aberia is a sports fan and a literary enthusiast. He has written a book titled “Manny Pacquiao: Story Bigger Than Boxing.” He has a master’s degree in Development Management from the Asian Institute of Management and is a practitioner in social development work.