ESPN analyst and former trainer Teddy Atlas spoke with Fighthype.com recently, and in light of the looming mega-match between Floyd Mayweather Jr(47-0, 26KO’s) and Manny Pacquiao(57-5-2, 38KO’s), he compared the two top welterweights of our day to the man who cast the longest shadow over the previous generation; ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard.
Leonard was the poster-boy for boxing in the late 1970’s as Muhammad Ali slowly edged out of the picture. He turned professional after winning the gold medal at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, running through twenty-seven opponents -winning the welterweight title from Wilfred Benitez in the process- before solidifying his reputation by showing both heart and smarts over his two meetings with Roberto Duran.
The first was a gruelling fifteen-rounder where Leonard failed in his attempt to out-man the ‘Hands of Stone’ in an up-close battle, but in the rematch five months later he miraculously made the most macho man in town quit in frustration by clowning him and dancing around, landing jabs and hurtful combinations all the while.
The next year he halted the undefeated knockout king Tommy Hearns in the fourteenth round after a thrilling back and forth affair, a victory that is still considered perhaps the most significant ever in the 147 .lb. division. If that wasn’t enough, in 1987, after almost five years away from the ring -interrupted by one attempted comeback- due to a detached retina, Leonard moved up to middleweight and dethroned the great champion Marvin Hagler by split decision in a result that still divides opinion to this day.
After a few more comebacks that brought him all the way up to 1997, some successful, some ill-advised, he eventually retired with a record of 36 wins with 25 knockouts, 3 losses and 1 draw. His numbers aren’t that impressive but it is what he achieved in such a short space that means he is still held aloft in the minds of those who experienced his prime first-hand, and so it is with Teddy Atlas.
“Taking nothing away from Pacquiao or Mayweather, they’re terrific, you don’t need me to tell you that, and they’re earning the money, so what do they care what I say? But Leonard was better, Leonard would have done everything they can do and done it better, and done it more ferociously, and if he had a chance to get to you, you know what, he went and got you. He did it responsibly, he wasn’t stupid, he was very smart, but he went and got you. That’s what you wanna see; you wanna see if a guy can break you down and can find a weakness. Don’t you wanna see a guy go and do that? That was Leonard’s mindset; it was beautiful.”
This aspect of Leonard’s personality slowly revealed itself with each big assignment, justifying the fanfare that accompanied his turning professional. This killer instinct, the desire to finish a fighter when possible, is what Teddy feels separates him from Pacquiao and Mayweather. That is definitely true for Mayweather, whose knockout wins have always been a consequence of his accuracy and speed, never his main objective. The same is also true for Pacquiao at this stage of his career, his blades seemingly blunted both by an increasingly cautious approach and the size of his opponents. Though he was obliterating his foes all the way up to light-welterweight, which seemed to be the ceiling for the effectiveness of his power.
Their upcoming meeting on May 2nd has the potential to do our niche sport both good and bad in the eyes of Teddy, and he explains why.
“Everyone’s talking about how it’s doing good for boxing, which it is, it’s making boxing relevant again, people are talking about it, we’re talking about it and that’s good but it can do damage too. When people are asked to pay $89 and then $99 with HD, if it’s not a good fight feds are gonna be angry. And you know what? That’s gonna suffer the sport a little bit; that could hurt so hopefully it’ll be a good fight.”
The reason we remember the big fights from days past like Ali vs. Frazier and Leonard vs. Hearns is because those fights had substance that matched the hype that preceded them. They were epic battles that encapsulated the attention of the masses, not just boxing fans. If Mayweather vs. Pacquiao can exceed expectations in this way, not in revenues garnered or pay-per-views sold but in real, tangible, quality violence, then nobody will ever complain about the price of admission. Boxing may enjoy a few years in the sun, as a result.