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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Pacquiao Aims for Four (and Six): Real History - Thoughts

The old timers are right of course.

They look around at the fighters in recent times collecting belts in an assortment of weight classes and say, “It’s not the same as it used to be.”

While the idea that titles were once always undisputed is flawed, the term “World Champion” still meant one guy more often than not prior to the 1960s and into today. In our time, stats and belt accumulation are easier to amass and manipulate. There are more belts lying around in every weight class, meaning that star fighters can be selective in their choices as they venture up the scale.

They can occasionally cherry pick (see: dictionary definition with picture of Sugar Ray Leonard-Donny LaLonde fight poster corresponding).

Upon his retirement, there were headlines proclaiming Oscar De La Hoya a ‘ten-time’ champion, and grey hairs the boxing world over could be seen shaking.

For Sugar Ray Robinson to be a five-time Middleweight champion, he had to lose (or vacate) the title on four occasions. Then he had to regain it, from a Hall of Famer no less, every time. For De La Hoya to be proclaimed a ‘two-time’ Lightweight champion is just basic arithmetic without context or thought. He picked up a vacant belt against a blown up Jorge Paez and then won a unification fight with Rafael Ruelas, sure, but he never lost one them to regain it.

It’s not the same.

Therefore, the really special occasions, the truly remarkable accomplishments, have to be pointed out vigilantly or risk being lost in a sea of less. This weekend, what Manny Pacquiao (48-3-2, 36 KO) will attempt to do in pursuing a lineal crown in a fourth weight division, a title in a sixth division overall, is one of those times.

Over the last two months, this corner has examined the title reigns of Manny Pacquiao ( ) as well as the men who have held title claims in four, five and six divisions, identifying their various title claims to understand where each fell short, including Pacquiao so far, of becoming the first man in the sport’s history to capture four lineal World titles. Those men are:

Four Division Claimants
Roberto Duran -
Pernell Whitaker -
Roy Jones Jr. & Leo Gamez -
Five Division Claimants
Sugar Ray Leonard -
Thomas Hearns -
Floyd Mayweather Jr. -
And the lone Six Division Claimant
Oscar De La Hoya –

Look closely at the list again. Eight names, seven easy first ballot Hall of Famers, and Leo Gamez was a pretty good fighter in his own right. Even without ‘lineage’ in their favor at each weight class, even with seventeen weight classes where once there were as few as eight, this is the quality it takes to hop around the scale picking up belts along the way.

Maybe it isn’t the same, but the caliber of prizefighter which makes up this class says something significant.

It says it sure as hell ain’t easy either.

What Pacquiao has done to date is already special no matter the outcome against World Jr. Welterweight champion Ricky Hatton (45-1, 32 KO). In staking a claim to three lineal World championships so far at Flyweight (112), Featherweight (126) and Jr. Lightweight (130), he went through the hardest roads available.

In winning the first two crowns (against Chatchai Sasakul and Marco Antonio Barrera), he defeated not only the champion established by historical lineage but also the consensus choices at the time for best fighter in the division when he met them. In winning the third crown, vacant prior to the bout, he had to get by the easy choice for ‘other’ top contender in class, Juan Manuel Marquez.

Winning titles in just four divisions, lineal or otherwise, has been a mountain too high for some outstanding practitioners of the sweet science.

England’s scrappy Duke McKenzie thrilled audiences throughout the 1980s, winning non-lineal titles at Flyweight, Bantamweight (118) and Jr. Featherweight (122). A trek to Featherweight in 1994 saw him broken down in nine by WBO titlist Steve Robinson, but he gave it a go.

Hall of Famer Alexis Arguello couldn’t do it. Strong lineal runs at Featherweight and Lightweight (135) were sandwiched around a WBA title reign at Jr. Lightweight which may have been the finest in run in the division’s history. The dream of four was stopped short in one of the greatest fights of all time, Arguello’s first clash with Aaron Pryor at Jr. Welterweight in 1982.

Hall of Famer Jeff Fenech, sans any lineal crowns, should have pulled it off from Bantamweight straight through to Jr. Lightweight but judges blinded by the hot Nevada sun ruled his 1991 thrashing of Azumah Nelson a draw. Mexico’s greatest of all time, Julio Cesar Chavez, ran off belts at 130, 135 and 140, making clear claims to the outright World title in the latter two but history eluded him too as Chavez needed big time judging help to muster a sport-embarrassing draw in chasing Pernell Whitaker for the Welterweight title in 1993.

Future Hall of Famers Erik Morales and James Toney missed for different reasons. Morales found his body worn down just enough to finish a round or so shy of pulling it off against David Diaz for a belt at 135 in 2007 after titles at 122, 26 and 30 over the previous decade. Toney accomplished the feat in the ring by decisioning John Ruiz in 2005 at Heavyweight, almost fourteen years after winning the lineal Middleweight crown and later adding titles at Super Middleweight and Cruiserweight.

Then Toney failed a urine test for performance enhancers. Hello “No Contest;” farewell divisional title number four.

The point of these trips down memory lane is simple. It illustrates the variables which go into accomplishment in sport. Timing, opportunity, the toughness of opposition, and the quality of officiating can all derail even the best of fighters.

Nowhere is that more the case than in the biggest historical names which are likely to can be used as comparison points should Pacquiao topple Hatton this weekend.

The first is the most obvious, bandied about freely since Pacquiao’s win over De La Hoya last December even if their circumstances are wildly different. Henry Armstrong (149-21-10, 101 KO) didn’t just win three lineal titles in three divisions; he held three of them at the same time. In a savvy move intended to move Armstrong out from under the shadow on the Heavyweight division, Armstrong defeated Petey Sarron to win the honors at Featherweight in October 1937, leapt all the way to Welterweight to knock off Barney Ross for the championship in May of the following year, and then three months later dropped to Lightweight to defeat Lou Ambers for a one-of-a-kind triple crown.

By all accounts, Armstrong earned another piece of history in March 1940 and this is where a stronger comparison can be drawn with Pacquiao. While not entirely undisputed, Ceferino Garcia probably held the strongest claim to the Middleweight title when he took the challenge of Armstrong. Armstrong had successfully defended the Welterweight title against Garcia in 1938 and over ten rounds appeared to outwork him again only to come up short with a draw.

Had he been given the verdict, Armstrong would have captured titles from limits of 126 to 160, a span of 34 pounds. Pacquiao is attempting this weekend to bridge 112 to 140, coming up a few pounds short at a span of 28.

Another name which hasn’t come up as often as Armstrong’s found the draw verdict preventing him from history on the front rather than the back end. Twice in 1927, Tony Canzoneri (144-24-10, 44 KO) faced off with future Hall of Famer Charles “Bud” Taylor for the vacant National Boxing Association (precursor to today’s WBA) crown at 118 lbs. Their first bout ended in a draw; the second with a decision loss for Canzoneri.

It turned out the great Canzoneri would find success elsewhere.

From 1928-36, Canzoneri would win and lose the titles at Featherweight, Lightweight and Jr. Welterweight, amassing one of the deepest resumes in the history of the sport. In many ways, Canzoneri’s career parallels Pacquiao’s more closely than forced comparisons to Armstrong.

In an era not allowing day before weigh-ins, Pacquiao may well have begun contesting for titles at 118 rather than 112, the same as Canzoneri.

Pacquiao moved from those small points on the scale to post a victory over the former Welterweight champion De La Hoya in the now retired Golden Boy’s final fight.

Canzoneri found a way to split two fights with great former Welterweight champion Jimmy McLarnin in McLarnin’s penultimate contests before a farewell win over win over Lightweight great Lou Ambers.

Had he won titles in more divisions, McLarnin’s journey up the scale would be a strong point of comparison here as well. And, okay, McLarnin had much more in the tank at his end then De La Hoya did. So it’s not the same.

It’s still healthy food for thought.

None of this analysis means a Pacquiao win automatically puts Pacquiao on a pedestal next to the Armstrong’s and Canzoneri’s of history. Those are debates for after the fight, and for all time, if it happens.

None of this even should be taken to mean Pacquiao is certain to succeed. Hatton will have a ton to say about it on Saturday night. He’ll come to win and if history has anything to say about it, the odds are in his favor to do so (or at least draw).

Have no doubt about it though.

This is one of the really special occasions, a moment when one of the men of our time will try for one of the truly remarkable accomplishments.

This is the chance for real history and Saturday can’t get here soon enough.

The Weekly Ledger

As always, there’s more:

Spinks-Latimore Coverage:
Froch and Lopez Shine:
Top 20 Jr. Flyweights:
Picks of the Week:

Cliff’s Notes…

All this and still no pick for Saturday’s fight? Tune in later this week for the pre-fight report card. Not that this has been a sterling year for picks from yours truly or anything…Seriously, when Cory Spinks is even getting in wars, you know Boxing is hot…The ticket sales for Wladimir Klitschko-David Haye are mind boggling. Imagine if the fight is actually good…Sucks that Jr. Welterweight titlist Timothy Bradley was stripped by the WBC but Junior Witter-Devon Alexander is an intriguing fight and Bradley pays one less fee. That’s a win-win right?...So is Mayweather-Marquez on or not? We should know by the weekend…Finally, Rest in Peace to former WBA Heavyweight beltholder Greg Page.

Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at


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