The Mystique of the welterweight division

By Budd Schulberg


The Mystique of the welterweight division

It may not be the fight of the century, that honor is reserved for Louis/ Schmeling II, or even the fight of the decade, which fight fans award to Robinson/ LaMotta in the 50’s, but it is certainly the fight of the year, if not of this millennium: Floyd Mayweather vs. Oscar De La Hoya.

The undefeated Mayweather is quite simply the best fighter since the reign of Sugar Ray I.  While not quite as graceful as the inimitable Robinson, he has speed, style and the supreme confidence of a true champion.  As for De La Hoya, he may be the only fighter who has the cross-over appeal of a rock star.  The record purse of $30,000,000 plus for a non-heavyweight is an indication of that appeal not just to fight fans but to the legion of squealing young ladies who show up for his pre-fight press conferences.  Not since the French “Orchid Man” George Carpentier back in the Dempsey days has there been a fighter with this matinee-idol magic. 

Mayweather versus De La Hoya reminds boxing historians and old-time fight fans of some of the legendary welterweight battles.  There was the Belfast kid Jimmy McClarnin who reigned in the 30’s against the likes of Ruby Goldstein, Al Singer, Billy Petrolle, Tony Canzoneri, Lou Ambers, and the aging great, Benny Leonard.  I had tried and failed to see Benny in his prime because I was too young to be admitted, so it was my sad luck to see him only in his fistic old age when he was humiliated by McClarnin.  I still remember how excited I was driving down from Dartmouth College for the great event, and what a painful letdown it was to see only the ghost of my childhood idol on a night for which my father gave me extra money to celebrate the hoped-for victory of what had-been the greatest Jewish fighter of all-time.

And who can forget the classic trilogy between Barney Ross and McClarnin with Ross winning two out of three, each one a battle to be remembered.  Jimmy was the classic stand-up boxer, but a boxer who could punch, and Barney was the perfect foil for him because of his aggressive style.  He kept charging in through a hail of punches just as he did against the enemy in World War II, which he survived as a decorated hero.

Although the fight between them Ross and McClarnin was the fight of the year in 1934 it may not have had the resonance of Mayweather-De la Hoya because the media opportunities to promote the fight are so much greater now with the advance in technology.  Leaving the technological advances aside, the 1934 fight had a passionate appeal to the true fight fans of the period that I can still remember as a college student in New Hampshire as I awaited the battle between the two greatest welterweights of their time, if not for all-time 
How can I ever forget the very first time I ever saw Sugar Ray Robinson in Madison Square Garden. 

He was only twenty-years-old and in there with Tommy Bell, who is totally forgotten now but was as tough as they come.  Bell actually knocked Robinson down in that fight at the Garden, but Sugar Ray rebounded, shifted into a higher gear and finally imposed his will on his stubborn opponent.  That fight in 1946 began his welterweight reign that included bouts against Kid Gavilian and the tricky Bernard Docusen.  Fans thought he was nearing the end of his career when he had to move up to middleweight, but he surprised everybody by winning the title, stopping the bloodied Jake LaMotta in the thirteenth round after hitting him like a punching bag, to the point where his wife Vicky who was sitting a couple seats away from me was screaming, “Stop it, stop it.”

I remember the anticipation I felt as I flew to Chicago with my friend, the young Irish welterweight, Roger Donoughe, to see Robinson battle LaMotta for the sixth and final time.  We boxing writers stayed up all night on the eve of the fight imagining what would happen in this classic battle, but no one could’ve anticipated the unexpected outcome because the brawler LaMotta fooled everybody by coming out with boxing skills that we had no idea he was capable of.  But in the end as he began to tire under Robinson’s remorseless attack he reverted to his old brawling tactics, to no avail, as Sugar Ray hit his bloodied face with so many punches in the thirteenth round that even though he characteristically spread his legs and refused to go down the referee finally had to step in and stop the massacre.
After he beat the Raging Bull on that memorable night in Chicago, Sugar Ray went on to give us many more classic bouts against Randy Turpin, Gene Fullmer, and Carmen Basilio, to name a few.

The welterweight division seems to create classic matchups generation after generation.  From Ted “Kid” Lewis and Jack Britton in the late Teens to Barney Ross, Henry Armstrong, and Jimmy McClarnin in the thirties to Sugary Ray Robinson, Kid Gavilian, and Jake LaMotta in the forties, fast-forwarding to Duran, Leonard, and Hearns in the early 80’s, and now to the Mayweather- De La Hoya current rivalry, boxing always seems to have a way of coming up with natural welterweight clashes of heavyweight proportions.

For Mayweather this fight has added significance because he’s been saying this would be the last fight of his Hall-of-Fame career and of course, in addition, Pretty Boy is determined to prove that he’s the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. For De La Hoya, he’s shedding his suit and tie to come back one last time to solidify his legacy as not only one of the most charismatic fighters ever to lace up the gloves, but also one of the most successful.  Oscar is determined to end his great career on a positive note as the very first conqueror of the as-yet unconquerable welterweight king, Floyd Mayweather. 

No questions why this match-up is already a sell-out as thousands of fans anticipating the magnitude of this bout have already made plans to be in Las Vegas for this shoot-out on Cinco de Mayo, the 5th of May.  With PPV sales promising to set an all-time record for any non-heavyweight bout thanks to the Golden Boy’s rock-star popularity, Mayweather-De La Hoya will likely go down in history as the biggest boxing spectacle that didn’t involve the idolization of Iron Mike.  So fasten your seat belts.

Is it to be Mayweather, our current nonpareil? Or will Oscar De La Hoya add a new shine to his lustre as the Golden Boy?  I can’t wait to find out in what will rekindle the excitement of the historic welterweight fights of old as the ghosts of champions passed will surely be looking on as two of their contemporaries battle it out. Robinson, Armstrong, Ross, McClarnin, they will all be there as will the rest of the boxing world.  See you in Vegas.