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"Who’s the Man?"
By Martin Wade (May 12, 2004) 
Muhammad Ali
Sometimes, even for a self proclaimed “Boxing Junkie” the numbing effect of a dull boxing card (this time courtesy of Showtime) is enough to make the mind wonder. Fortunately enough when the mind wonders it settles at the usual and most preferred destination of (you guessed it) boxing. It started at the end of the first televised fight between two non descript middleweights who were fighting for some abstract, low carb version of the WBA belt. Masoe? Ashira? who are these guys?.

I like most boxing fans accepted this fight with a synchronized “huh?” how uninspiring it is to watch a fight for a “title” when everyone remotely involved with the sport knows who “the man” is. Don King was funny though; watching him try to manufacture genuine enthusiasm in the post fight interview was great elixir for a raging case of irreverence. Which led me back to the designation “the man”, it’s a time-honored position in the noble art bestowed on the likes of Jack Dempsey and charismatic Heavyweights past and present. The title of “the man” is elusive and rare in the sport, a combination of varying factors, climates and public response. To be “the man” is to have power, by way of your accomplishment and the attention you generate each time you participate in what Donald McRae called “the dark trade”. Some people think the definition involves unification or beating a linear champion in a division, I myself subscribe to the logic of the following exchange.

I think it was earlier in the day that I watched the post fight interview after Ali/Frazier 2 between Howard Cosell and Angelo Dundee that went something like this:

Cosell: “Will you be looking for a championship fight with George Foreman?”

Dundee: “Oh no, we aint looking for nobody, he knows where to find us, my guy’s the man.”

There it is in a nutshell for all to see, the truth about the power of celebrity in life and sport of boxing.

If there were a boxing book of terminology Muhammad Ali’s picture would be right next to “the man”. When you’re “the man”, you’re on everybody’s dance card and you know it. When you’re the man your time spent without a belt is more of a self-imposed exile, you can have a shot at the title when you feel you’re ready. If you happen to be a smaller version of “the man” your very entry into a division is greeted with anticipation from all belt holders, fringe and linear. When you’re “the man” you’re aware of this fact, and your decisions frequently overshadow legitimate champions in your weight division. Lennox Lewis, already firmly established as a worthy heavyweight champ felt it paramount to fight Mike Tyson because Tyson was “the man”. Tyson’s enduring appeal is “exhibit A” in our psychological attachment to “the man”, he hasn’t won a championship fight since 1996 yet being “the man” is a transcendent role. When Roy Jones, JR. struggled against Antonio Tarver last winter I vividly recall one of my guests emotionally vowing, “I don’t care what happened tonight RJ is still the man to me”.

So, without further delay I present you the boxing public with the mischief of an idle mind starving for a big fight. While most writers (who I consider “the man”) flex historical muscles with “All Time” lists I choose to present you (by division) fighters who for one reason or another wear the title of “The Man”.

I’m starting with bantamweights; Ricardo Lopez would appreciate this gesture, if he were paid by skill instead of by the pound he’d be Holyfield’s neighbor.

Bantamweight/Super Bantamweight: Vacant: By way of his late 90’s run on HBO Johnny Tapia was the closest thing resembling “the man” in the division. The future hall of famers fighting style, exposure and personal struggles made him a fan favorite during this brief run. Don’t think he was “the man?” ask Mark Johnson and Tim Austin what kind of impact not getting “Mi Vida Loca” in the ring had on their careers. Tapia still has characteristics of once being “the man” with a gift shot at Marco Antonio Barrera and surviving lackluster performances at featherweight.

Featherweight: Marco Antonio Barrera. The Early King of HBO’s Boxing after Dark, inherited the throne by dismantling the previous “man” Prince Naseem Hamed. Marco Antonio Barrera is a brand name Mexican warrior and it will take more than the beating he sustained from Manny Pacquiao to supplant the legend. Trust me, if Pacquiao defeats Marquez and Barrera impresses against a game Paulie Ayala “Pacman” will come to Marco not the other way around. I’ll even be daring enough to predict that if Hamed show’s glimpses of his old self in his “comeback” he will catapult to “the man-A”. We will clamor for Hamed /Barrera 2 as if it were a Ring Championship Fight. When you’re “the man”, you transcend belts.

Junior Lightweight: Bob Arum

Lightweight: Diego Corrales is “the man” in waiting. The reclamation project has been in there with the best and can secure his role by defeating Freitas in August. Diego’s power and loose affiliations make him the man; he can also use his great height and name value to avoid boxing’s “politricks”. At 6 ‘1 he can realistically (more so than Floyd Mayweather, JR.) seek bouts as high as middleweight, so if a fighter (or promoter) balks he can just move up.

Junior Welterweight: Arturo Gatti. Thunder Gatti is the epitome of the term “made for TV.” The gritty veteran is in the gravy stage of his illustrious career, his ability to provide action allowed him to generate great income that included a shot against the Golden Boy. Arturo Gatti is an HBO house fighter for life! His trilogy against Mickey Ward probably did for boxing what the McGuire - Sosa homerun race did for baseball. Don’t think he’s the man? The best pure boxer in the game calls him out specifically in boxing’s most talent rich division. Addendum: Ricky Hatton, despite the negative press in America is Europe’s version of “the man” in this division. When you’re “the man” you can develop at an unacceptable pace and be wealthy by the time to engage any real risk.

Welterweight: “The Man” in this division weighed in at 153 in his last fight. Word to Cory Spinks, get out there in non-boxing media and push your story! The guy is a talented fighter, the son and nephew of former champions, a survivor of trauma and generally a nice guy. Hell, I could manage this guy.

Junior middleweight: Shane Mosley. Inherited the throne from the Golden Boy himself. Despite his drubbing at the hands of Winky Wright the sugar man still had options. We also want him to succeed don’t we? He hasn’t been the same since his career defining first defeat of De La Hoya in 2000. Shane will always be in the mix for fights against “names” despite crushing defeats by Forrest and Wright. When you’re ‘the man’, we tend to hang on to past images of you, this gives you the equivalent of a cats nine lives. I’m a Sugar Shane man, like me many fans are rooting for Goosen to return the California good guy to form.

Middleweight: Pleeeeeeaaaaaaassse. Do you even have to ask? The Golden Boy. Oscar De La Hoya is “THE MAN ” in boxing period, end of story. Don’t believe me? Ask Bernard Hopkins. Remember, “the man” transcends the term “best”; the man is sought out by the best. This means “the man” can fight for the WBO belt, render “the best” to opening act and charge us 50 bucks to watch him do it. Like Leonard and Robinson before him, Oscar is one of the exceptional small men to be surrounded by heavyweight ambiance and compensated heavyweight money. Put it this way whatever room Oscar walks in where Ali, Leonard or Tyson aren’t, he’s “the man”.

Honorable Mention: Make no mistake, Mayorga/Trinidad is big! The winner may not be “the man” but close enough to mention in this piece.

Super Middleweight: Who?

Light Heavyweight: Roy Jones, JR. is the Light Heavyweight division! He’s “the man” based on his long-term excellence, earnings, a Heavyweight belt, and stylistic contribution. Roy Jones is to boxing what Bruce Lee was to martial arts. He’s the only fighter that you can pretty much guarantee will do something you’ve never seen before and that includes video games. Think he’s not the man? Then answer this, if Roy had decided to hit Tarver where it really hurts what would Tarver have done? Exactly. When you’re “the man” careers are impacted by your whims, divisions are put on ice and deserving fighters are relegated to obscurity.

Cruiserweight: Vacant Historically. But, “the man” in the Light heavyweight division (Roy Jones) looks scary at the cruiserweight limit of 200 pounds. Hell, so does James Toney for that matter. Hmmmmmmmmmmm?

Heavyweight: Mike Tyson is “the man” with Lennox Lewis rising to “assistant to the man”. I once heard somewhere that each generation has a heavyweight champ; Mike Tyson is the champ to several segments of society. Mike is the Heavyweight champ to generation X’ers, the Hip Hop Generation and the current thug element enjoying mainstream acceptance. He’s the Heavyweight Champ of a sensation-seeking tabloid driven culture that loves a car wreck. Lennox Lewis is now starting to caste a shadow based on the sorry state of the “glamour division”; his victory over Tyson and the evoking of his name by WBC champ Vitali Klitschko. If Evander Holyfield can somehow find a youthful performance and wrangle a belt away from one of DK’s big guys he will once again enjoy status as “the man”.

This list isn’t about what’s fair, or who’s the best; it’s not even about which fighter deserves what. This is a list about what “is” in boxing and nothing more. In my opinion the best pound for pound fighter is Floyd Mayweather, JR., but I understand enough to know he is not “the man”. If it were up to me, in a perfect world all great fighters who have paid their dues would be “the man”.

Until the Next Jones, the Boxing Junkie.

Questions or comments,
Martin Wade:
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