If you didn't know any better, it would be reasonable to assume that the best way for Floyd Mayweather to prove himself a superior welterweight champion to Oscar De La Hoya is to just keep beating De La Hoya head-to-head. "Pretty Boy" did it once, in May 2007, and he hopes to do it a second time in September.
Unfortunately, Mayweather could beat up on Oscar every Saturday night from now until an album is actually released by Philthy Rich Records, and it wouldn't make him a better 147-pound ruler than De La Hoya was. In fact, the more Mayweather punches De La Hoya, the further away he'll move from surpassing him.
The dream scenario for a fighter who hungers to be great is to come along at a time when the competition is suitably spectacular. As welterweight champion, Mayweather is fortunate enough to have all the worthy competition he could ask for. Ten years ago, the same was true of De La Hoya. Along with Sugar Ray Leonard, they represent the dominant figures and money men of the three modern welterweight "golden ages."
In the early 1980s, Leonard presided over a welterweight division that included Tommy Hearns, Roberto Duran, Wilfred Benitez, Pipino Cuevas and Carlos Palomino. At that weight, he established his greatness by fighting the very best and most worthy challengers: Duran (twice), Hearns and Benitez.
In the late 1990s, De La Hoya was the central figure in a division that included Felix Trinidad, Pernell Whitaker, Ike Quartey, Jose Luis Lopez, Shane Mosley and Oba Carr. He fought every one of them except Lopez.
A decade later, Mayweather is the linear welterweight champ and his potential challengers include Miguel Cotto, Paul Williams, Mosley, Antonio Margarito, Kermit Cintron, Zab Judah, Luis Collazo and Joshua Clottey. So far, Floyd has fought one of them: Judah, whom he decisioned in his last fight prior to winning the real 147-pound title.
In his first full year as champ, Mayweather took on junior middleweight De La Hoya and junior welterweight Ricky Hatton. (If you're keeping score at home, that's zero defenses against welterweight contenders.)
Later this year, in probably his only '08 appearance, he'll again face De La Hoya in a non-title fight. That rematch is directed purely toward the mainstream; to the hard-core boxing fan, it's a slap in the face (delivered not with an open palm, but with a thick roll of C-notes).
Many of those hard-core fans have expressed their disappointment in Mayweather reaching for the cash carrot that De La Hoya dangles rather than catering to those who support the sport 365 days a year, not just on the days when Floyd and Oscar are "saving" it.
So here goes one last shot at reasoning with Mayweather: Instead of dangling a carrot, I'm dangling 24 carats, in the form of this "golden age" comparison. Floyd, take a look at what Leonard and De La Hoya did. If you want to go down in history as half the welterweight champion they were, you have to follow in their footsteps.
"What I love so much about [Muhammad] Ali and Leonard is you used to pick up a magazine and look at all the guys listed in the top 10 and say, 'Oh wow, I wish he fought this guy or that guy' -- and they always fought those guys," said Jeff Ryan, a longtime columnist for The Ring magazine.
"For me, the whole thing right now boils down to Mayweather and Cotto. They have to fight. But I get very nervous about these kinds of matchups when I start to hear a guy talk about retirement, or he's bored or he's starting to look for other things to do. When I see him on 'Dancing with the Stars' -- it's like Roy Jones when he was playing basketball, you could tell he was starting to get bored, and it started to show in his fights. This looks like a guy that's bored to me. And Oscar's not going to relieve his boredom, going out there and winning another decision. I think he has to fight Cotto. And the time to make it is this year, 2008."
Max Kellerman, the HBO analyst who will be ringside in Temecula, Calif., this Saturday for a welterweight doubleheader headlined by Williams, has a different view on what Mayweather's responsibility to the sport is right now.
"Because Floyd is so good and he has proven himself, is it incumbent upon him to fight everyone? You could argue not necessarily," Kellerman said. "You could argue that if his approach is to let someone emerge as a money guy and then he'll fight that guy, that's an OK approach. The whole division is fighting each other, and then the most worthy guy steps forward and Floyd has to fight that guy.
"I think if Cotto were to beat Margarito, or vice-versa, and Floyd didn't fight that guy, that would be a real problem, wouldn't it? But that has not yet happened. So for those who are complaining that Floyd is ducking guys, hey, someone needs to emerge to create true demand for it."
Cotto and Margarito are sharing an HBO bill on April 12, facing Alfonso Gomez and Cintron, respectively, and the tentative plan is for the winners to face each other over the summer (possibly at Yankee Stadium). So by the time Mayweather finishes counting his millions from the rematch that real fight fans wish wasn't happening, there probably will be that "true demand" Kellerman referred to.
And if Mayweather chooses not to engage at that point well, Kellerman offered up an alternative scenario that may still give fight fans something resembling what they pine for.
He noted that in the early '90s, Mike Tyson was the money man at heavyweight. But he was also the division's most prominent convicted rapist, and that prevented him from clashing with all of the top fighters of the time. So in his absence, Evander Holyfield stepped forward and became the division's unifying force, battling Riddick Bowe three times, Lennox Lewis twice, Michael Moorer twice, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Ray Mercer and, of course, Tyson twice. Nearly every one of those fights was thrilling, and those that weren't were still historic and memorable.
Would it be the worst thing for boxing fans if Cotto -- no stranger to crowd-pleasing fights -- became this extraordinarily deep welterweight division's Holyfield?
It might, however, be the worst thing for Mayweather's legacy.
He has fighters out there who can play Duran, Hearns and Benitez to his Leonard. The question is whether he wants to play Leonard.
He has fighters out there who can be the Trinidad, Whitaker and Quartey to his De La Hoya. The question is whether he wants to be De La Hoya.
Maybe he's satisfied being the B side to De La Hoya on pay-per-view instead. But if he wants to actually be the Golden Boy of this new welterweight golden age, he's sadly mistaken if he thinks beating the man makes him the man.
Eric Raskin is a contributing editor and former managing editor of The Ring magazine.