Is there room for Floyd Mayweather at the top table of boxing's greats?
Opponent No 44 has come and gone. Another who saw a way of hurrying Floyd Mayweather Jnr to a first defeat is back in the shadows reconsidering his position. Is this further evidence of the magnificence of a fighter for the ages, or a notch on a career record that owes more than it might to artful matchmaking?
There were a number in the boxing ministry investing in the idea of a Robert Guerrero victory. The calculation came down to a weighing of an ageing champion against the upward thrust of the younger man. Guerrero's bustling intensity was convincing enough to allow the idea that 36-year-old Mayweather, one year after his last fight and following a two-month stretch in a Nevada correctional facility, might at last be eclipsed. There were signs, we thought, that a fading Miguel Cotto had exposed areas of fallibility that Guerrero would rip into. Mayweather must have laughed at that.
There is no greater expert in the game, no finer judge of the merits of another, than Mayweather. His career is littered with the carcasses of fighters he caught at the right time. Every one of them thought they had either enough talent or enough left in the tank to take him down. But in the main he met them on his terms, when he was ready for them. Oscar de la Hoya came closest, losing on a split decision, but it was his fifth defeat, two bouts from the end of his career.
Ask Barry McGuigan what he thinks of Mayweather and the words "Sugar Ray Leonard" come spilling from his mouth like a right hand over the top. It is meant to silence any argument about Mayweather's right to share top table in the boxing pantheon. Leonard had every ounce of Mayweather's defensive talent and counter-punching finesse but fought them all, McGuigan argued. All they needed to do was ask.
The siren call for Mayweather to meet Manny Pacquiao is the best part of a decade old, yet still we wait. Mayweather made much of Pacquiao's awkward stance over drug testing, citing his refusal to engage in comprehensive blood analysis as a reason not to fight him. Maybe Juan Manuel Marquez does not share Mayweather's concerns over drug testing or Pacquiao's ability to carry power from light flyweight to welter. Or perhaps it is just the Mexican in him that won't allow a "no" to a gauntlet thrown.
Mayweather speaks of offers made to Pacquiao direct, of boasting that he has dangled $40m before him, available by immediate bank transfer. Pity Marquez got there first, and for the fourth time in a remarkable career of his own. The bouts were mighty close, each fighter defining the other with the lengths they were required to go to summon the means to win.
In his book A Century of Boxing Greats, Patrick Myler makes the case for his top 100 boxers. Mayweather doesn't make it – the publication date in 1997 coincided with the start of his professional career. He would make it now, but where on the list would he sit? Myler is not interested in titles as such. Many of the men he brings to our attention fought by the week in the early part of the 20th century. Henry Armstrong fought five times in October 1939, as many bouts as Mayweather has had in five years.
More than 30 years on, Leonard's epic encounters with Thomas "Hit Man" Hearns, "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler and old hands of stone himself, Roberto Duran, remain reference points in a sport that catalogues its heroes all the way back to John L Sullivan, who was challenging all comers – African Americans apart – to measure themselves against his fists 150 years ago. Leonard is important in the Mayweather debate since he fought in broadly the same divisions and is the gold standard against which Pretty Boy Floyd judges himself.
Leonard makes Myler's top 10 at No 8. Duran is in at No 6. For the sake of this particular parlour game, his top table reads like this: 1 Sugar Ray Robinson, 2 Muhammad Ali, 3 Joe Louis, 4 Henry Armstrong, 5 Willie Pep, 6 Roberto Duran, 7 Archie Moore, 8 Sugar Ray Leonard, 9 Jimmy Wilde, 10 Benny Leonard. Which one of those would you flick to accommodate Mayweather? Which challenge did Mayweather meet to match or better any of the above?
The test for Myler was that a fighter must stir the heart as well as tick a technical box. It is beyond argument that Mayweather does the latter, but does he leave you wanting more?
The swatting aside of Guerrero was another triumph. It cannot be said that his preference for not getting hit constitutes an aversion to mixing it when the question is put: Mayweather is as hard as nails. Just ask Ricky Hatton, who threw the full Mancunian weekend at him and still ended on his backside.
Personally, I'm an admirer of "The Money", but I'll never persuade Irish warrior McGuigan to invite him to dinner with the Sugar Rays, Hearns and Duran.