As Manny Pacquiao nears the end of his boxing career, we are hearing the story of his greatness more and more. Hype, after all, is what announcers are paid to do. And Pacquiao has made it easy, having won recognized world titles in six weight divisions. (I don’t count Ring magazine.) He has been a champion at 112, 122, 130, 135, 147, and 154 pounds. It’s an incomparable feat. Almost. If you put pressure on the semantics of “world title,” you figure that if different sanctioning bodies recognize different world champions, the only true world champion is someone who holds all the belts in a weight class. Pacquiao has never done that, has never been the unified champion in any division. Part of that has to do with the politics of boxing; he would have been favored to unify a few. However, it is doubtful that Pacquiao could ever have merged the tiles at 147 and 154 pounds with Floyd Mayweather and Canelo Alvarez around. It still has been a remarkable run. But when you dial back the hype a bit, you see that you can put Pacquiao’s record in a real good conversation with Henry Armstrong’s---and comparisons could favor Armstrong.
In a time before multiple world champions, Armstrong was the only world champion at 126, 135, and 147 pounds---simultaneously. While holding the 126-pound crown, he weighed in at only 133 pounds to win the 147-pound title. Then he added the 135-pound belt. The men he beat, Petey Sarron, Barney Ross, and Lou Ambers, are all in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. If you grant that he would have reigned supreme at 130 and 140, what Armstrong did is the equivalent to someone in modern times being the unified champion in five weight divisions at one time. I don’t argue that Armstrong was a sure bet to accomplish this or that he performed the greater feat, only that his story has to be one of the best ever. And it was almost better. While still the 147-pound champion---he had abdicated or lost the other two titles---he challenged Ceferino Garcia, another future hall-of-fame boxer, for the 160-pound championship and was held to a draw.
My point is not to debate Pacquiao vs. Armstrong but to link them. I’m a huge Pacquiao fan. I just hope that the newer story leads folks to the older one. The praise will continue to find Pacquiao as it did, say, Muhammad Ali, though not so much Larry Holmes. I once wrote that we need a literary movement for Holmes. I’m now thinking that way about Armstrong.