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Tuesday, January 29, 2002
Max: Guys like Forrest, Hopkins just need a chance

By Max Kellerman
Special to ESPN.com

It happened to Vernon Forrest just like it happened to Bernard Hopkins before him. Just as it had happened to Larry Holmes before them. Great fighters without overwhelming offenses are always underrated. They are underrated because on their way to the top they do not blow their opponents away with ballistic attacks. They do not titillate with outrageous displays of firepower and consequently they do not create demand to be seen. They are not Mike Tyson and Felix Trinidad -- the invincible beasts. They are the Beowulfs -- the dragon slayers.

The pity of it all is that without popular demand, the Bernard Hopkinses and Vernon Forrests have to wait too long for their shot. There was a time when I made sure to get Vernon Forrest's name in every single Friday Night Fights show until others sat up and took notice. I did this because I was outraged that a deserving fighter was not getting his opportunity. Looking back, I see the injustice of the situation was deeper and more complicated than I realized.

Denied a crack at the best fighters and the accompanying paydays, fighters like Forrest and Hopkins are forced to fight the second-tier guys. They are simply not able to blow those second-tier guys away in the fashion that the spectacular offensive fighters do.

Enter the opinion makers, guys like Brian Kenny and me from the studio, Teddy Atlas and Bob Papa from ringside, Dan Rafael and Johnnie Whitehead from USA Today, Steve Farhood and Larry Merchant from Showtime and HBO. We all may feel that Vernon Forrest deserves a shot at the big-time, but do we think he will be successful once given the opportunity? The casual fan, who is not blown away by Vernon in the first place, picks up that we essentially see the same thing he does -- a good fighter who is simply not as good as the stars who avoid him. This casual fan concludes that we are championing Vernon's cause essentially as an exercise in moral rectitude. He therefore becomes more disgruntled with the fighters avoiding Vernon than interested in Vernon himself. Sugar Shane Mosley needs to fight Vernon Forrest because Vernon is there, not because "The Viper" actually has a chance to win.

Here's the rub: The Vernon Forrests and Bernard Hopkinses are only able to show their complete selves when matched against other great fighters. Their greatness lies not in their ability to destroy overmatched opponents, but rather in their ability to outthink, outmaneuver, and outbox whoever is in front of them. When Forrest does this to Steve Martinez and Santiago Samaneigo, there is no telling just how good he is. When he does it to Shane Mosley, there certainly is.

Now before everyone starts with the "styles make fights" thing, let me just say that of course they do. But if the great featherweight champion Johnny Dundee's phrase is invoked to imply that Vernon is not as good as Shane, that it is simply a matter of Vernon's style causing Shane uniquely difficult problems, then it is time to address such a notion.

Ken Norton, a very good fighter, presented stylistic problems for Muhammad Ali. Randy Turpin, also a very good fighter, presented stylistic problems for Sugar Ray Robinson. Neither Norton nor Turpin were undefeated for the first eight years of their professional careers the way Vernon Forrest is. Neither Norton nor Turpin were ducked by every top fighter in and around their respective weight divisions the way Vernon Forrest has been. True, this is only the first big win of Forrest's career, and who knows, perhaps history will record him as inferior to the likes of Norton and Turpin. Time will tell. But let's face it -- the "styles make fights" thing is the big move when everyone picked the wrong guy. The phrase reinforces for us what we intuitively believe, and what we don't want to stop believing: that the offensive juggernaut is better than the less spectacular boxer -- even if the offensive juggernaut does not always win.

Let Forrest-Mosley take its place alongside Hopkins-Trinidad as another example of why it is absolutely unacceptable for anyone in the boxing industry -- and that includes the fans, the corporate sponsors, the electronic and print media and anyone else I may have missed -- to stand by and allow deserving fighters to be denied what is rightfully theirs: the chance to prove themselves. This is especially true in the United States of America, where we are at our best when we are the land of opportunity.

As for Shane Mosley, I have heard from some that if Vernon and Shane fight 10 times the result will always be the same -- that Shane has no answer for Vernon. I disagree with this assessment. Shane won the first round, and it is probably not coincidental that it was not until after the second round headbutt in which Shane came out the worse for the wear, that Vernon dropped him (twice in that round). Shane survived on guts and guile but the fight was permanently altered. Even so, Mosley managed to pressure Vernon and even strung together several winning rounds in the middle of the fight. Of course that was before the 10th, when Vernon nearly sawed him in half with some of the most brutal bodywork imaginable. Go ahead, picture the most violent bodyshots you can -- it was worse than that.

Sugar Shane Mosley recently turned 30. He has just lost the welterweight title that he took from his old rival Oscar De La Hoya, after having moved up from the lightweight division's throne. Shane's nicknamesake, Sugar Ray Robinson, had also recently turned 30 when he lost his title to Turpin. Robinson had been welterweight champ and had moved up to take the middleweight belt from his old rival Jake LaMotta. Sugar Ray would win the middleweight championship back from Turpin by knockout in a fight he was losing, and ultimately Robinson would win that same belt back three more times. Yes, Shane Mosley can still be compared to Ray Robinson. It is time, however, to begin comparing Vernon Forrest to the rest of the best, so here it is, pound-for-pound:

Pound-for-Pound List
  • 1. Roy Jones Jr. - I know I had Bernard in this spot after the Trinidad fight, but Forrest-Mosley made me realize what has been true all along -- no one compares to Roy. It's time for we in the media to stop being cute and start telling the truth, even if it is boring and unpopular.

  • 2. Bernard Hopkins - Right near the top in the tradition of Marvin Hagler and Carlos Monzon.

  • 3. Floyd Mayweather Jr. - Best bet to replace Roy one day in the not-too-distant future.

  • 4. Vernon Forrest - Dominance over Mosley more impressive than Barrera's squeaking by Morales and beating up Hamed. Mosley is after all much better than Morales or Hamed.

  • 5. Marco Antonio Barrera - A great fighter in his prime.

  • 6. Shane Mosley - I still think he is perfect, just no longer undefeated.

  • 7. Ricardo Lopez - Also perfect, just no longer young.

  • 8. Oscar De La Hoya - Slept on. The guy fought Pernell Whitaker, Ike Quartey, Felix Trinidad and Shane Mosley, and he won about as many rounds as he lost against those guys. Fernando Vargas is next and then who knows, Hopkins? Forrest? Oscar is building a tremendous legacy.

  • 9. Kostya Tszyu - I know it seems low, but it's crowded at the top. Another potential Forrest opponent -- he manhandled Vernon in the amateurs.

  • 10. Felix Trinidad - Probably deserves to be higher, but he lost to Oscar (yes he did) and was destroyed by Hopkins. Let's see how he looks in his upcoming comeback fight.

    Max Kellerman is a studio analyst for ESPN2's Friday Night Fights.