Commentary

The Greatest of All? Time.

Updated: September 20, 2013, 2:07 PM ET
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Greek BoxersGetty ImagesBoxing (and bragging) predates written history as seen in this 1500 B.C. fresco in Akrotiri on Santorini.

Lots of loose talk this week about Floyd Mayweather being the "Greatest of All Time." He is not. "All time" is a very long time indeed, so bear with me and Homer a moment.


And a powerful, huge man loomed up at once, Panopeus' son Epeus, the famous boxing champion. He clamped a hand on the draft mule and shouted, "Step right up and get it — whoever wants that cup! This mule is mine, I tell you. No Achaean in sight will knock me out and take her — I am the greatest! So what if I'm not a world-class man of war? How can a man be first in all events? I warn you, soldiers — so help me it's the truth — I'll crush you with body-blows, I'll crack your ribs to splinters! You keep your family mourners near to cart you off — once my fists have worked you down to pulp!"

Dead silence. So the armies met his challenge. Only Euryalus rose to take him on, heroic volunteer, bred of Talaus' blood and a son of King Mecisteus who went to Thebes in the old days, when Oedipus fell, and there at his funeral games defeated all the Thebans. The spearman Diomedes served as the man's second, goading him on, intent to see him win. First he cinched him round with the boxer's belt, then taking rawhide thongs, cut from a field-ox, wrapped his knuckles well. Both champions, belted tight, stepped into the ring, squared off at each other and let loose, trading jabs with their clenched fists, then slugged it out flurries of jolting punches, terrific grinding of jaws, sweat rivering, bodies glistening — suddenly Euryalus glanced for an opening, dropped his guard and Epeus hurled his smashing roundhouse hook to the head — a knockout blow.

He could keep his feet no longer, knees caved in on the spot — as under the ruffling North Wind a fish goes arching up and flops back down on a beach-break strewn with seaweed and a dark wave blacks him out. So he left his feet and down he went — out cold — but big-hearted Epeus hoisted him in his arms and stood him upright. A band of loyal followers rushed to help him, led him out of the ring, his feet dragging, head lolling to one side, spitting clots of blood ... still senseless after they propped him in their corner, and they had to fetch the two-eared cup themselves.


The Greatest!

Fighters and the boxing press have been bragging, lying and trash-talking since before written history. That's Homer's "Iliad," Book 23. Pub date 2,700 years ago or so. And spoken and sung much further back into history than that. Homer likely on a junket paid for by Epeus' publicist. Even then, boxing was a little bubble of corruption and hype.

[+] EnlargeFloyd Mayweather Jr.
AP Photo/Eric JamisonDoes a perfect record make you the best of all time if you never faced a significant rival?

So no knock on Paulie Malignaggi, but "ever" is a mighty big mouthful. Floyd Mayweather is a fine boxer (if demonstrably a bum, many times over), but ranks well outside the top 10 for all-time fighting greats. Likely outside the top 25 of just the past 100 years. Which is what we're really talking about when we say "all time." Prisoners of the present, "all time" always means "our own time." It's a way to fix ourselves against the river of history.

And what's the measure? Floyd's perfect record may not mean much. Is there a well-read fight fan anywhere who believes Rocky Marciano at 49-0 was the Greatest Of All Time?

There's a lot of talk-radio nonsense and television profiteering and magical fan thinking not only in boxing, but across baseball and football and every other sport, too. '27 Yankees or '04 Red Sox? '72 Dolphins or '66 Packers or '58 Colts? Brady Patriots or Bradshaw Steelers or Montana 49ers? To be the best you have to beat the best. But many times "the best" retired decades before you were born. Now what? How ruthless a thing is time to every athlete, and how cruel history to every ambition. Comparisons are the least and the most of it.

The greatest of all time in golf? Is it Jack? Tiger? Sam Snead? What's your metric? How about tennis: Steffi or Serena? Rafa or Roger? NASCAR. Jimmie Johnson or Dale Earnhardt or Richard Petty?

"The Greatest of All Time" really means "greatest since we last asked the question," which was probably last Wednesday. In a 50-click listicle. Even when it's not link bait, "The Greatest Of All Time" is a fools' errand, a suckers' game. A fiction. Boxers, writers, painters, cellists, certified public accountants – we all crave to know where we stand. And how and how long we'll be remembered.

Who outlasts fad or bombast and who does not has a lot to do with who was writing about you, and how well. Most of us won't make it.

But you know who was a hell of a fighter? Ulysses was a hell of a fighter.


Every one assented, and Ulysses girded his old rags about his loins, thus baring his stalwart thighs, his broad chest and shoulders, and his mighty arms; but Minerva came up to him and made his limbs even stronger still. The suitors were beyond measure astonished, and one would turn towards his neighbor saying, "The stranger has brought such a thigh out of his old rags that there will soon be nothing left of Irus."

Irus began to be very uneasy as he heard them, but the servants girded him by force, and brought him in in such a fright that his limbs were all of a tremble. Antinous scolded him and said, "You swaggering bully, you ought never to have been born at all if you are afraid of such an old broken-down creature as this tramp is. I say, therefore – and it shall surely be – if he beats you and proves himself the better man, I shall pack you off on board ship to the mainland and send you to king Echetus, who kills every one that comes near him. He will cut off your nose and ears, and draw out your entrails for the dogs to eat."

This frightened Irus still more, but they brought him into the middle of the court, and the two men raised their hands to fight. Then Ulysses considered whether he should let drive so hard at him as to make an end of him then and there, or whether he should give him a lighter blow that should only knock him down; in the end he deemed it best to give the lighter blow for fear the Achaeans should begin to suspect who he was. Then they began to fight, and Irus hit Ulysses on the right shoulder; but Ulysses gave Irus a blow on the neck under the ear that broke in the bones of his skull, and the blood came gushing out of his mouth; he fell groaning in the dust, gnashing his teeth and kicking on the ground, but the suitors threw up their hands and nearly died of laughter, as Ulysses caught hold of him by the foot and dragged him into the outer court as far as the gate-house. There he propped him up against the wall and put his staff in his hands. "Sit here," said he, "and keep the dogs and pigs off; you are a pitiful creature, and if you try to make yourself king of the beggars any more you shall fare still worse."


One punch. Badass.

But like the unmade Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, Ulysses dodged a defining bout with the best of his own time, Laodamas. He demurred, and instead praised Pollux as the greatest boxer in history.

Of course Pollux had the advantage of being not only fictional, but immortal. Like Archie Moore, or Bernard Hopkins.

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