There will be much discussion the next two weeks about the relative significance in boxing history of 48-0, which is Floyd Mayweather’s career record; 49-0, which was 1950s heavyweight legend Rocky Marciano’s record; and 50-0, which could tease Mayweather in 2016 despite his insistence that his career won’t extend beyond this year.
As for comparing Mayweather and Marciano, have at it. They are among history’s pound-for-pound greats.
But 48, 49 or 50, and comparing raw records as if one fight either way matters, is contrived.
Mayweather faces Andre Berto, 30-3 and loser in three of his last six fights, in a Sept. 12 welterweight title bout which he says will mark his career finale.
Mayweather will be 49-0 if he wins, tying Marciano, and there’s always the possibility he will renege on next week’s swan-song promise.
But if he fights a 50th time, it will be the allure of money, perhaps a new arena opening, free-agent television status, and a final windfall in what would have to be an explosive matchup to seize the world’s attention — and his own — and not because a heavyweight who retired 60 years ago happened to have the same number of wins.
At issue is that 49-0 is the best unmarred record for a world champion who retired undefeated. Marciano doesn’t have the most wins by a champion who retired undefeated. He’s not even close to the best record at the start of a championship career.
But he does have the most wins, without a loss or draw, by a retired champion.
The last time 49-0 really mattered was when 48-0 Larry Holmes got his comeuppance after saying Marciano couldn’t have carried his jock strap. Holmes promptly lost his disputed 49th fight, to Michael Spinks in 1985, and fell short of The Rock. But people who know boxing history knew what Holmes, who was two months shy of 36 and in his 21st championship fight when he lost, meant with the jock-strap remark.
Marciano had seven title fights, the last seven fights of his career, and was 32 years old at retirement.
He didn’t lose for the same reason anyone who retires from boxing undefeated didn’t lose — he didn’t fight long enough.
Holmes went on to fight past age 50 and finished 69-6. Does that make him a lesser champion than Marciano? No, but it marred his career in a way Marciano didn’t hang around to have happen. Holmes’ final loss was to a heavyweight named Brian Nielsen, who got to 49-0 himself before losing, all without becoming a legitimate contender. Does pancaking 49 tomato cans mean we should compare Nielsen’s record to The Rock’s?
Marciano’s record mattered to Holmes, who also was a heavyweight, and with a win over Spinks would have set his sights on Joe Louis’ record of 25 consecutive successful title defenses in a single weight division. Louis’ record is a real, tangible measure of championship greatness. Mayweather once said he wanted to pursue it while dominating at 130 pounds, though after eight defenses, he decided eating was more important.
But raw win-loss records can be extraordinarily misleading and skewed by many variables, often to the point of virtual irrelevance.
One of Mayweather’s most rugged fights came in 2000 against Emanuel Augustus, who had 16 losses and finished his career 38-34-6. Likewise, two of his most impressive knockouts came on the two occasions he faced fellow champions with no losses or draws, Diego Corrales in 2001 and Ricky Hatton in 2007.
The best way to pursue a record like Marciano’s is to win a lot of early-career preliminaries, then take a handful of big fights late, just like him.
Mayweather is 38 years old and was a world champion in his 18th fight, at age 21, with 25 title fights for his career, all thresholds Marciano never approached.
And 48, 49 or 50 matters?
Several fighters have retired as undefeated champions. Joe Calzaghe (46-0) and Sven Ottke (34-0) did so this century, with 51 championship defenses between them at 168 and 175 pounds. Why weren’t they preoccupied with 49?
The retired champion with the most victories was Mexico’s Ricardo Lopez, at 51-0-1, so if Mayweather fights into next year, will there be an outcry for him to chase the record of a 105- and 108-pounder whose championship reigns overlapped his own, yet was known only to the most ardent boxing fans?
Holmes fell one win shy of tying Marciano, but Julio Cesar Chavez didn’t. Chavez was 87-0 before a draw against the great Pernell Whitaker. Chavez’s first loss was in his 90th fight, and his 28th championship bout, four times Marciano’s total title bouts. Chavez could have retired years before he finally lost to Frankie Randall in 1994 and shredded Marciano’s record. But Chavez kept punching until Father Time’s inevitable victory.
When Chavez finally lost, there wasn’t a peep about Marciano regaining the mantle of retired undefeated champion with the most victories, either.
Mayweather, 38, neither retired early nor lost, which is why he is still around to discuss a 49th fight at all.
Only a handful of opponents next week would have satisfied the boxing public, and after his megafight victory over Manny Pacquiao in May, Mayweather wasn’t going to select one of those to complete the six-fight Showtime contract he signed in 2013. In truth, unless Mayweather taps one of those foes next spring — i.e., a Pacquiao rematch, an unlikely jump to middleweight against rising star Gennady Golovkin, or perhaps a rematch against the Saul “Canelo” Alvarez-Miguel Cotto winner — they’re all just fights now anyway.
Mayweather and Pacquiao spent seven years chugging uphill toward each other, which portended a precipitous drop past the apex.
Mayweather’s place in history took on greater clarity after he defeated Pacquiao. Few variables remain. His own late-career performances obviously could have an effect. He also could get a post-career boost if Alvarez, who is 45-1-1 and faces Miguel Cotto next, enjoys a long championship reign with only the Mayweather loss marring his record.
As for Mayweather and Marciano, they shared similar career records; a common affinity for West Michigan, where Mayweather is from (Grand Rapids), and Marciano trained (Holland); and worked in the same profession.
Otherwise, they were from different eras, approached the path to a championship much differently, and Mayweather fought to a much older age.
If it comes down to a 50th fight next year, that will matter, not because of the number, per se — it’s a contrived record, whether at 49-0 or 50-0 — but because Mayweather would create an open bidding war for a fight that would have to reach a competitive threshold not required of the Berto bout, which concludes a contract which already paid off beyond expectations.
It isn’t unlike Mayweather to wave a hand in apology, saying he’s only human and prone to changing his mind, and please forgive him for fighting next year when he vowed he wouldn’t.
Beyond that possibility, 49 matters only briefly next week, if achieved, and strictly because it means preservation of the lone number on Mayweather’s record that does matter, the zero.