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Fighter of the Decade

Purists maintain that the current decade will run until December 31, 2010. Conventional wisdom holds otherwise. The Roaring Twenties encompassed the years 1920 through 1929. Popular culture dictates that The Sixties were over when 1970 began. The new millennium was celebrated as 1999 came to an end.

As the '00s draw to a close, it's time to determine who deserves recognition as the "Fighter of the Decade." Four men merit consideration.

Bernard Hopkins was an unlikely candidate as the decade began. On January 15, 2000, he turned 35 years old. He was the IBF middleweight champion with a record of 36 wins, 2 losses and 1 draw. How much longer could he go on?

A lot longer.

In the decade that followed, Hopkins fought 17 times. On 14 of those occasions, he emerged victorious. His biggest victories were against Felix Trinidad, Oscar De La Hoya, Antonio Tarver, Winky Wright and Kelly Pavlik. Those aren't just names. They're challenges. He lost close decisions to Jermain Taylor on two occasions and was beaten by Joe Calzaghe.

"Bernard Hopkins," Donald Turner says, "does everything the way it should be done, in and out of the ring. Outside of his age, the only problem he has is that he's not the bravest fighter in the world. Being too brave is foolish. Not being brave enough can cost you, like it did with Hopkins against Taylor."

Meanwhile, Hopkins proclaims, "Did you ever notice, when guys fight Bernard Hopkins, they always say afterward, 'I wasn't myself in the ring tonight.' Like I don't have anything to do with it. It's like a baseball player who goes 0-for-4 and strikes out four times. Do you think maybe the pitcher had something to do with that?"

Hopkins will turn 45 on January 15, 2010. He's the best over-40 fighter ever. "It's not about what you did yesterday," Bernard says. "You got to go into every fight with the attitude, 'My legacy starts tonight.'"

Joe Calzaghe entered the decade with a 27-0 mark and the WBO super-middleweight belt firmly in hand. In late 2008, at age 36, he retired as an active fighter with an unblemished record of 46 wins and 32 knockouts in 46 fights.

Manny Pacquiao victorious over De La Hoya

Joe Calzaghe entered the decade with a 27-0 mark and the WBO super-middleweight belt firmly in hand. In late 2008, at age 36, he retired as an active fighter with an unblemished record of 46 wins and 32 knockouts in 46 fights.

Throughout his career, Calzaghe showed physical skills, heart and the ability to make all necessary adjustments during a fight. He beat some good fighters (e.g. Chris Eubank, Jeff Lacy, Sakio Bika and Mikkel Kessler) who weren't great. And he beat a once-great fighter (Roy Jones), who was well past his prime. His most impressive victory came against Hopkins.

After Calzaghe defeated Jones, Hugn McIlvanney wrote, "How can we do suitable honor to the wonderful boxing career of Joe Calzaghe while paying a decent minimum of respect to that battered old punchbag historical perspective? We could start by admitting that what was feverishly hailed as a triumph over a legend in Madison Square Garden looked rather more like the vandalizing of a relic. Roy Jones Jr. went to the ring in New York with his once-beautiful talent blatantly burnt out. Calzaghe's only two assignments in America have confronted him with men whose aggregate age is eighty-two. The years have piled up for him too, but his undamaged looks and physical freshness testify to the benefits of having spared himself the frequent commitment to wars that has been the norm for Jones, Hopkins, and their kind."

Calzaghe doesn't pay much attention to pound-for-pound rankings and the like. He calls them "a mythical load of crap." Still, in gauging his greatness, one must question whether Joe had the inquisitors that a fighter needs to be regarded as "Fighter of the Decade."Floyd Mayweather Jr. started the millennium with 22 wins in 22 fights and the WBC 130-pound championship belt around his waist. Over the next 10 years, he had 18 fights and won all of them. In the process, he captured titles at weights as high as 147 pounds and scored notable victories over Diego Corrales, Jose Luis Castillo (twice), Zab Judah, Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton and Juan Manuel Marquez.

Mayweather's public persona ("Money Mayweather") is a self-creation. Give him credit for good marketing on that. And he has the respect of his peers. Zab Judah once remarked, "Floyd comes into every fight physically and mentally at 100 percent."

Some observers of the boxing scene complain that Floyd runs more than he fights. But Bernard Hopkins rebuts that notion, saying, "Floyd don't run from nobody. I've seen Floyd counterpunch; I've seen Floyd move; I've seen Floyd use his speed, use his quickness. But I've never seen Floyd run."

And Mayweather himself notes, "Boxing is a beautiful sport. Boxing is art. The last time I looked, the sport was called 'boxing,' not '"toe-to-toe.'"

Still, there's a chink in Floyd's armor. His biggest wins were against smaller men moving up and out of their weight classes (Hatton and Marquez) and a split-decision victory over a fast-fading Oscar De La Hoya. For much of the decade, he ducked the tough fights. He avoided Shane Mosley, Paul Williams, Antonio Margarito and Miguel Cotto.

That brings us to Manny Pacquiao.

On January 1, 2000, Manny Pacquiao was 21 years old and virtually unknown outside of his native Philippines. During the course of the past decade, he has fought 26 times and become the most famous fighter in the world. His opponents in that 10-year span included Erik Morales (three times), Marco Antonio Barrera (twice), Juan Manuel Marquez (twice), Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton and Miguel Cotto. In 10 fights against these six Hall-of-Fame-caliber opponents, Pacquiao amassed 8 wins against 1 loss and a draw.

Moreover, unlike Hopkins and Mayweather (both of whom fought many of their biggest fights against smaller men), Pacquiao has consistently challenged naturally bigger fighters. He has hurdled every major obstacle in his weight class and then some.

Unlike Mayweather and Calzaghe, Pacquiao has a less-than-perfect record for the decade. But when a fighter fights the best again and again, sometimes he loses. When Sugar Ray Robinson was young and great, he lost to Jake LaMotta. Muhammad Ali lost to Joe Frazier and Ken Norton before he got old.

History judges elite fighters in large measure by their record against other elite fighters and how they perform in their most difficult challenges.

Mayweather has talked the talk. Pacquiao has walked the walk. And Manny has out-of-the-ring intangibles as well. In that regard, he's similar to Muhammad Ali: a great fighter, a good person and an important symbol for his people.

"I'm just doing my job to be a good fighter," Pacquiao said after beating Miguel Cotto earlier this year.

He's doing more than that. Manny Pacquiao deserves recognition as "Fighter of the Decade."

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at His most recent book
, An Unforgiving Sport, was published earlier this year by the University of Arkansas Press.

"I've seen Floyd counterpunch; I've seen Floyd move; I've seen Floyd use his speed, use his quickness. But I've never seen Floyd run." -- Bernard Hopkins

Posted 12:00 AM | Dec 11, 2009

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