A few weeks ago I argued that the basis for charges that Manny Pacquiao is using steroids - his success moving from super featherweight to welterweight in only 18 months - was built on a faulty premise. While it is true he has moved up in weight very quickly this is largely the result of no longer losing massive amounts of weight before the weigh-in and then rehydrating before the fight. I argued that while this doesn't prove Pacquiao isn't using steroids, it does mean that critic's arguments that he has undergone some radical physical transformation in an impossibly short period of time are simply not true.
Some readers offered that while my point was valid I was only looking at the most recent part of Pacquiao's growth. If we go back to his pro debut, they say, he has moved up from an impossible to believe 106 lbs. This, one might argue, is definitive proof.
To test their argument I decided to compare Pacquiao's movement up the weight classes to some other notable weight jumpers in boxing history. I am using notable points in each fighter's career. For title fights I am not using the official weight, but the weight limit. Partially inspired by a post on boxingtalk, here's what I found.
Age 16: Pro Debut: 106 lbs
Age 19: Flyweight title vs. Sasakul: 112 lbs
Age 22: Super bantamweight title vs. Ledwaba: 122 lbs
Age 24: Featherweight title vs. Barrera : 126 lbs
Age 26: Super featherweight title vs. Morales: 130 lbs
Age 29: Lightweight title vs. Diaz: 135 lbs
Age 30: Welterweight tile vs. Cotto: 147 lbs
Weight gained from earliest competition: 41 lbs
Weight gained from early 20s: 25 lbs
Pacquiao's growth has been truly incredible. He has won titles in more divisions than any other fighter in boxing history. Moving from a 106 lbs to the welterweight championship is a breathtaking accomplishment.
This is mitigated by the fact that Pacquiao began his career at the incredibly young age of 16. Many accomplished fighters haven't even had significant amateur experience by that point. At 19 Pacquiao won the Flyweight title. While incredible, this was something of an aberration for Pacquiao. He was losing that fight to Sasakul before he scored a shocking come-from-behind knockout. He would lose his title on the scales months later and immediately move up three weight divisions. Pacquiao's early career, while impressive, is a bit misleading. I would compare it to saying that a bruising NBA power forward was the point guard for his high school team. Interesting, but not particularly relevant after he grew into a more natural body.
By the age of 20, when most fighters are just starting their professional careers, Pacquiao was fighting at 122 pounds. Moving from super bantamweight to welterweight is also incredible, but comparable to what we will see in other fighters.
Age 16: first amateur fight: 106 lbs
Age 19: Pro debut: 130 lbs
Age 21: Junior lightweight title vs. Hernandez: 130 lbs
Age 25: Lightweight title vs. Castillo: 135 lbs
Age 28: Junior welterweight title vs. Gatti: 140 lbs
Age 29: Welterweight title vs. Judah: 147 lbs
Age 30: Junior middleweight title vs. De La Hoya: 154 lbs
Weight gained from earliest competition: 48 lbs
Weight gained from early 20s: 24 lbs
Pacquiao's accuser, Floyd Mayweather, has also been an incredibly successful weight jumper. While his growth has been more steady than Pacquiao's his performance has been just as spectacular. Of particular note is that both Mayweather and Pacquiao weighed 106 lbs at sixteen years old.
Age 18: Amateur: Light welterweight 141 lbs
Age 19: Second pro fight: 144 lbs
Age 21: Welterweight title vs. Cuevas:147 lbs
Age 24: Junior middleweight title vs. Benitez: 154 lbs
Age 26: Middleweight title vs. Hagler: 160 lbs
Age 29: Light heavyweight title vs. Andries: 19 - 175 lbs
Age 30: Super middleweight title vs. Kinchen: 30 -168 lbs
Age 35: Cruiserweight title vs. Ward- 35 - 190 lbs
Weight gained from earliest competition: 49 lbs
Weight gained from early 20s: 43 lbs
The great Tommy Hearns was one of the most exciting fighters in history. Known for his tremendous power and unusual physique he was a very successful weight jumper.
Age 17: Pro Debut: 120 lbs
Age 23: Western featherweight title vs. Alton Black: 126 lbs
Age 25: Welterweight title vs. Barney Ross: 147 lbs
Age 26: Lightweight title vs. Ambers: 135 lbs
Age 27: Middleweight title vs. Garcia (draw): 160 lbs
Weight gained from earliest competition: 40 lbs
Weight gained from early 20s: 36 lbs
Henry Armstong is widely considered one of the greatest fighters ever. Pacquiao has often been compared to the three division champion over recent years because of his success in multiple weight classes. These statistics are a little misleading because Armstrong would often come into a fight well under the weight limit. It was a different sport back then. Fighters were made to weigh-in just hours before the bout and rarely drained such massive amounts of water weight.
Age 16: Pro Debut: 119 lbs
Age 21: Lightweight title vs. Buchanan: 135 lbs
Age 29: Welterweight title vs. Leonard: 147 lbs
Age 31: Junior Middleweight title vs. Benitez: 154 lbs
Age 32: Middleweight title vs. Hagler: 160 lbs
Age 38: Super Middleweight vs. Leonard: 168 lbs
Weight gained from earliest competition: 49 lbs
Weight gained form early 20s: 33 lbs.
The fierce Duran took on all comers during his decades long career. He started as a bantamweight before becoming one of the greatest lightweights in history.
Age 17: Golden Gloves National: 139 lbs
Age 20: Second pro fight: 155 lbs
Age 24: Middleweight title vs. Hopkins: 160 lbs.
Age 25: Super middleweight title vs. Toney: 168 lbs
Age 27: Light heavyweight title vs. McCallum: 175 lbs
Age 34: Heavyweight title vs. Ruiz: 193 lbs
Weight gained from earliest competition: 54 lbs
Weight gained from early 20's: 33 lbs
Roy Jones had an outstanding amateur career, culminating in a shocking robbery at the Olympics. At the age of 17 he won the golden gloves at 139 lbs. Pretty unbelievable when you see his incredible physique against John Ruiz when he challenged for the heavyweight title.
Above is a look at all of these remarkable fighters' career paths. When we look at it we discover something we already knew; they are all great champions. Pacquiao's growth does not stand out as aberrant when compared against these other notable fighters. Indeed, the only path that seems particularly unusual is that of Henry Armstrong; a testament to the different era he fought in and his unquestioned place as a boxing immortal. I fear to imagine what abuse he would endure if he had similar succes today.
Perhaps a more telling comparison would have been to look at the different times when these men fought. During Armstrong's time and into the 1980s there seemed to be a willingness to trust in athletes, to believe in heroes. When someone did something remarkable it was looked at with amazement, but rarely skepticism.
We live in different times. Perhaps it's a good thing, but athletes will never be seen in the same way. We live in an age of skeptics and doubters, where accomplishment is not only worthy of praise but also of investigation.
Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather, and Roy Jones may all be steroid users (in fact Jones did once test positive, though the circumstances were somewhat dubious.) We will never know for certain. I happen to give them the benefit of the doubt but I can understand those who don't.
We do, know, however, that they, along with the other men on this list, were some of the greatest fighters in history. Hopefully we can all agree on that.