Friday, April 30, 2010

Mayweather vs. Mosley

If boxing were a nation, its capital these days would be the welterweight division. Among the 147-pounders are three or perhaps four of the premier pugilists in the world: Manny Pacquiao (51-3-2, 38 knockouts), Floyd Mayweather Jr. (40-0, 25 KOs), "Sugar" Shane Mosley (46-5, 39 KOs) and, on the cusp, Andre Berto (26-0, 20 KOs).
Messrs. Pacquiao and Mayweather are at the top of this short list and were supposed to tussle this spring. But that contest-in-the-making imploded over Mr. Mayweather's drug-testing demands on Mr. Pacquiao. Still, a matchup between Messrs. Mosley and Mayweather is almost as compelling as the contest that hit the canvas. This bout, which will take place Saturday at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, is being touted as a fight between two of the best boxers of a generation and, for once, the promotion is without hyperbole. Both are certain first-ballot Hall of Fame candidates.
In 40 bouts, Mr. Mayweather, a six-time world champion, is undefeated and relatively untested. The only opponents to seriously challenge the Grand Rapids, Mich., native were Oscar De La Hoya and, to a lesser extent, José Luis Castillo. While some of the all-time greats lost fights and absorbed lessons from their setbacks, Mr. Mayweather's unblemished record is at the core of his sense of identity. For that reason, perhaps, he has not always taken on the most challenging opponents. Many, for instance, believe that Mr. Mayweather's issues with Mr. Pacquiao about the alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs were just an attempt to dodge the dangerous "Pac Man," or at least to postpone a clash with him until Mr. Mayweather was better prepared. But Mr. Mayweather, whose pay-per-view revenues are second only to Mike Tyson's, is clear about the bottom line of his boxing decisions: "I am a competitive athlete and before we make any fight the cash has to be right. When you are young, you fight to show you are better, and then you prove it. At this level, it's about money because I already proved the rest."
For Mr. Mosley, in contrast, boxing is now mostly about legacy. The five-time world champion emphasizes: "I'm fighting for my place in history. To be the best." Mr. Mosley's trainer, Nazim Richardson, was more specific. A few months ago he told me: "Shane wants to earn his 'sugar'—his place with the other sugars, Sugar Ray Robinson and Sugar Ray Leonard."

Before he beat superstar Antonio Margarito in 2009, Mr. Mosley was out-boxed by Miguel Cotto and, earlier, by both Winky Wright and Vernon Forrest. If he can be the first to put a loss in Mr. Mayweather's ledger, it would prove wrong the experts beginning to write his career's obituary. As Mr. Richardson put it: "Shane lives for this kind of fight." Mr. Mosley is as riveted to his task as an aspiring medical-school student boning up for the MCATs. The same can be said for the speedy and crafty boxer who will be his exam on Saturday night.

For all his shenanigans, the 33-year-old Mr. Mayweather is as disciplined as a monk when it comes to his art. He is always superbly conditioned. Emanuel Steward, the boxing commentator and legendary trainer, noted: "Floyd is not fooling around for this one. He is really focused. Honestly, I think this is the first time that he is in there with someone whom he thinks he could actually lose to." And with good reason; at 5 feet 9 inches, Mr. Mosley is a big, powerful welterweight who loves to exchange punches and who, even at the advanced boxing age of 38, is only a few nanoseconds slower than the 5-foot-8-inch Mr. Mayweather.

Mr. Mosley is strategically mum about his fight plan. He did, however, confide that he is working on his speed and on attacking at angles out of the plane of Mr. Mayweather's incomparable counterpunches. An assiduous student of the sweet science who is now training his son, Mr. Mosley is always trying to enhance his game by scrutinizing the films of past masters. Now, his film curriculum is centered on Sugar Ray Leonard. When I asked what he gleaned from watching Mr. Leonard, Mr. Mosley said: "His intense flurries and the way he would keep his balance while throwing all of those punches."

More than any other blow, Mr. Mayweather is vulnerable to a left jab. In the Mayweather vs. De La Hoya contest, so long as Mr. De La Hoya was pumping his jab, he was piling up rounds. But as that doyen of boxing technique, Bernard Hopkins, has commented: "It's true that you can hit Floyd with a jab, but sometimes he is just luring you in, letting you hit him, so that he can turn over that counterright." Mr. Mayweather, who has split-second reaction time, tucks his right by his chin and behind his slightly turned left shoulder, and then uncoils it as his foe comes charging in.

Mr. Richardson offered this appraisal: "Floyd is a sensational athlete. Everyone talks about how fast he is, but it's not his speed that makes him so special. It's his timing and punch placement. He times his counterpunches perfectly and puts them on those points where they really do some damage"—like the neural nexus that is the point of the chin. An example of Mr. Mayweather's crushing counterstrikes can be seen in his dramatic December 2007 knockout of the then-undefeated Ricky Hatton.

Fans of blood-and-guts boxing are not enthralled by Mr. Mayweather's circumspect approach to the sport. Some of these naysayers would even go so far as to suggest that Mr. Mayweather is too timorous to rumble. But Mr. Richardson disagrees: "I expect Shane to come out and hit Mayweather in the mouth with a right hand. Then Mayweather will sprout wings and a tail and turn into a dragon. I tell Shane to step away from his fireballs, step on his tail and punch him in the stomach and get him out of there." One point is certain: Whoever plays the part of the dragon slayer in this event will be looking forward to meeting the Filipino fireball, Mr. Pacquiao, in a fight that looms as large as any bout in decades.Mr. Marino writes about boxing for the Journal.