When a fighter combines swiftness and savvy at the highest level of performance, as does Floyd Mayweather Jr., he is exceptionally difficult to beat. Ricky Hatton's trainer, Billy Graham, knows this but reminded me in a recent telephone conversation: "Ricky Hatton's fast, clever and intelligent too, but in a different way."
Purely in the conventional sense, though, Mayweather seems to epitomize the speed-and-smarts school of boxing taken to the ultimate.
Here are some other fighters who come to mind, going back to the late 1970s (hence no mention of Muhammad Ali, who as Cassius Clay in the 1960s brought a blend of speed, skill and even beauty to the heavyweight division).
Roy Jones Jr.
If there was a faster fighter than Jones, I cannot think of one. Top-class craftsmen such as Bernard Hopkins and James Toney were confounded by Jones' rapid movement and hair-trigger reactions.
Jones was a fighter who seemed able to hit an opponent and glide away in one sweeping motion. In his one-off heavyweight excursion, Jones was so elusive that, after a first-round charge, John Ruiz could hardly lay a glove on him.
We can too easily forget what a formidable fighter Jones was when in his prime. I remember walking into the MGM Grand Garden Arena with his longtime confidant Stanley Levin the night of Jones' two-round destruction of Thomas Tate, who was a competent contender at 160 pounds. There had been a fair bit of taunting from Tate in the lead-up to the fight. Levin said: "I've never seen Roy as intense and focused as this before a fight. It frightens me."
Jones was a machine of destruction that night. I reported from ringside for Boxing Monthly: "This was a stunning exhibition of speed, athleticism and power." Promoter Bob Arum told the postfight media conference: "I never saw such speed in the middleweight division."
Sugar Ray Leonard
Speed, smarts, power -- Sugar Ray Leonard had them all. He did not have the sheer, blinding speed of Roy Jones Jr., but a lot of good fighters found themselves in the unfortunate position of getting hit and not being able to land their own punches when they shared the ring with Sugar Ray.
Leonard was a bit more economical in his movements than Jones, less extravagant, but he was -- at his best -- invariably the faster fighter in the ring during his up-and-coming and peak years.
Perhaps Leonard's greatest fight was his role-reversal win when he became the puncher and rallied to stop Thomas Hearns in their classic 1981 fight, but the speed and slickness were very much in evidence against Roberto Duran (second time around) and Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
Not everyone in boxing appreciated Leonard's hit-and-don't-get-hit style, but he told Rolling Stone in a 1980 interview: "People have been criticizing me because they never seen anybody hit me or knock me down the way they want to see it. Well, I like it that way. I'm not in the game to show I can take punch."
Olympic gold medalist, world champion at two weights, Taylor, at his best, was a prime example of flash and dash, darting around the ring, in and out, hitting and sliding away, his fists the proverbial blur of motion.
The Philadelphian was not simply quick and talented. He brought an exuberance to his boxing. Taylor's dominance of Buddy McGirt in a junior welterweight title bout in 1988 showed how speed can kill -- as in killing the other man's attempts to get into the fight. McGirt, a sound technician and hard puncher, as well as the much more experienced man, was beaten at every turn.
As Taylor's trainer, the former middleweight contender George Benton, told the New York Daily News in a 1989 interview: "He hits you so many times, you think it's raining in your face."
When Whitaker moved up in weight he became more of a defensive master than a speed-merchant type of fighter, but as a 135-pound champion he was like quicksilver. Elusive, slick, skilled and smart, he seemed almost impossible to hit with a solid shot. On top of this he was a southpaw. No wonder, then, that Whitaker was virtually unbeatable for years.
Well, Whitaker did lose a decision in Paris to the French-promoted Mexican fighter, Jose Luis Ramirez, in 1988, but the verdict was highly controversial.
Whitaker not only beat the best lightweights of his day, he made it look easy. This was the case in his comfortable win at home in Norfolk, Va., over tough guy Greg Haugen, a world champion who couldn't do a thing with Whitaker.
This bout saw Whitaker at his impossible-to-hit best. By the end of the 12 rounds he was simply having fun. As Phil Berger reported in The New York Times: "Through the final three minutes, Whitaker hammed it up, with fancy footwork, taunting expressions and flurries that reduced Haugen to sheepish smiles and had the crowd howling with delight."
Nunn sadly is perhaps most remembered for a fight he lost -- knocked out when far in front against James Toney. His life outside boxing descended into chaos and he is currently serving a prison term on a drugs conviction. When Nunn was dedicated to his craft, though, he was a remarkable boxer, a southpaw with speed to spare, and quite exceptional reflexes and hand speed.
There were many who thought that Olympic gold medalist Frank Tate would be too strong for Nunn in a 1988 middleweight title fight at Caesars Palace, but Nunn won easily in nine rounds in a meeting of undefeated boxers. I reported from ringside for the British weekly Boxing News that Tate was "bewildered and baffled as Nunn had him missing wildly and peppered him with counters."
Nunn's career at the time was being guided by promoter Dan Goossen, who recalled over the phone from Los Angeles: "In 25 years of working with fighters and promoting them, Michael Nunn was really one of a kind. He was the only fighter where you could walk into the arena virtually thinking there was no way he could lose -- he really was that talented. When he was in the type of shape that [trainer] Joe [Goossen] got him into, he really blossomed as a fighter and he had everything there was, the chin, the speed, the intelligence and the power -- look at Sumbu Kalambay [a surprising one-round knockout win by Nunn over a rival world champion]. I didn't think there was anyone out there that could beat him, and we never had any harsh words in the years we were together."
Tyrone Everett was an ultrashifty southpaw 130-pounder who should have been world champion -- he lost a much-disputed split decision on his home ground at the Philadelphia Spectrum to Alfredo Escalera in November 1976.
Everett's promoter, Russell Peltz, said over the phone from Philadelphia: "He was ahead of his time. He had the tasseled shoes, he was lightning quick, he was a better version of [Hector] Camacho than Camacho. Smaller, quicker, meaner, more like [Pernell] Whitaker but quicker than Whitaker although not such a defensive genius. My only frustration with him was that he could have been better. When a guy forced him to fight, he was terrific. Otherwise he would just do enough to win -- no, I shouldn't say that, because he'd win every round."
Everett didn't win every round against Escalera when he challenged the Puerto Rican for the junior lightweight title but contemporary reports suggest he won most of them. Observers were shocked when Escalera got the verdict.
The Philadelphia Inquirer called the decision: "One of the greatest robberies since the Brink's payroll job in Boston." Vic Ziegel reported in the New York Post that Everett "clearly outclassed the WBC title holder for most of the evening."
"It was a travesty," Peltz said. "It was hard to imagine Escalera winning five rounds. If Bennie Briscoe [the popular Philadelphia middleweight] had been robbed like that I think they would have burned the Spectrum down, but Everett didn't command that kind of love."
Graham Houston is the American Editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for FightWriter.com.