Upon turning professional in 1993, you were moved quickly towards a world lightweight title. How did you find that experience?
In my first fight I did a six-rounder and fought a former California State champion. I then fought two six-rounders, two eight-rounders and the rest were 10s. I was trying to get to the title as fast as I could, but it was kind of hard because I didn’t have a promoter at the time. Well, I had a promoter, but I didn’t have a big-time promoter.
When I got with Cedric Kushner, I was able to fight Philip Holiday in my first title (IBF lightweight) shot. For that fight, though, I took too much creatine and got sick. I went to the ring weighing 137 and he was weighing 147. He was 10 pounds heavier than me. I was like, ‘Oh, man, I’ve made this hard on myself.’ But I still outboxed him, moved around and fiddled my way to my first world title.
Did you learn much early on?
Yes, but more due to sparring than anything else. I’ve got two guys to thank: Genaro Hernandez and Zack Padilla. I sparred those two world champions when I was coming up and Zack Padilla broke records with the amount of punches he threw. I would spar 10 or 12 rounds with him almost every day. Fighting hard for 12 rounds was nothing to me. I could just go for the gusto, keep punching and keep punching hard.
I kind of felt invincible as far as fighting was concerned. But when I sparred those two world champions they would cut me down to size and let me know I still needed to work hard if I wanted to keep my world title. I had those two guys to gauge myself.
Those sparring sessions were way harder than any fights I had coming up. I was just going to fights to pick up a paycheck. My sparring sessions, though, were like real fights and they were legendary. The fights were like, oh, he’s fighting Joe Blow, wherever it is. Boom, I knock him out, first, second or third (round), pick up the cheque and go back to sparring again because I had to help them with their fights.
Do you believe you were at your best as a lightweight?
Yes. Those were my most complete days because I had great work with everybody and I showed my full arsenal in those fights. I showed I could go forwards, backwards, side-to-side, and stand toe-to-toe. Whatever you wanted to do, I would beat you at it. Welterweight was really good, too, and I was really fast there, but at lightweight I was really big and strong.
What do you remember about your June 2000 fight against Oscar De La Hoya at welterweight?
People think I won that fight on hand speed but what really paid dividends for me was my foot speed and the fact he got tired trying to keep up with my intensity. The first six rounds were close and then in the last half of the fight I blew him away. He spent all his energy trying to stay with me and my foot speed was a little too much for him. That made it hard for him. Our hand speed was actually similar, but my feet were quicker and my intensity meant he couldn’t match the tempo.
Was Vernon Forrest, the first man to defeat you in 2002, all wrong for you, stylistically?
It wasn’t so much that he was wrong for me. Vernon was a very good fighter in his own right. He had certain advantages, too. He had worked with me on the Olympic team. There were things I did in the ring that he knew about and could take advantage of. And he did.
The big thing with me and Vernon was Vernon’s height and him being able to go over the top of my jab. Usually, when I fought guys at lightweight, they were shorter than me or the same size.
I then go to welterweight and the guys are taller than me and Vernon had a really good long right hand. The way I threw my jab, I guess I brought it back low and he just came right over the top and caught me. I guess you could say it was a style thing but nevertheless he was a great fighter and world champion.
Even after I got knocked down and went down again, I was still trying to win. And the fight, when I watched it back a year ago, was still really exciting to me. We were going back-and-forth and he dropped me and that was exciting. I get up and I’m banging away and I’m trying to make a comeback and he hits me with a good body shot. I stay in there and fight the whole fight. That fight showed not only can I punch hard and have speed but I can also take a good punch and, as much as I can dish it out, I can get it, too. I showed my character, I think. I was no longer a champion but I showed a champion’s heart.
What do you remember about the immediate rematch with Forrest?
The second fight with Vernon was better. I mean, it was the most boring fight I had because there was a lot of holding and stuff, but it was still better than the first one. Well, the first one was better in terms of excitement, but it was better for me than the first one. It was a lot closer.
Of all the fighters you faced over the years, who really impressed you?
I was actually impressed with (Miguel) Cotto. Even though I thought I beat him, I was impressed with him. He had a pretty good jab and kept catching me with it. I thought he was going to be slow. I knew he would have good power, but his timing and his accuracy was pretty good. I did think I beat Cotto, though. Even the punch stats said that. He landed some good shots at the end that could have kind of given it to him but, if you look at the punch stats, I threw more punches and landed more power shots than he did. He landed more jabs than me. I don’t know, I think I won that fight. It was debatable. Another fighter who impressed me early on was Manuel Gomez. I fought him in my first lightweight title defence and he surprised me. I was hitting him on the chin, every which way, and I couldn’t knock him out. I hit him to the body, I drop him, and he gets back up and he’s still fighting me and throwing shots with intent. If I wasn’t careful, he could catch me. He was better than I thought he was going to be.
You scored an upset win of sorts against Antonio Margarito in 2009. Did that level of performance surprise you at that relatively late stage in your career?
I wasn’t shocked when I beat Margarito because I had trained so hard. Even though I had personal problems at the time, I trained so hard. Right before I went to the ring, I told my son, Shane Jnr, ‘Do you see my eyes? Do you see the way I look?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, Dad, I see you.’ I said, ‘Good. This is the way you’re supposed to look when you walk to the ring. I’m going to knock him out. Watch this.’
It was a great fight, a great memory, and I love every bit of it. Everything we worked on as far as jabbing to the body and going over the top to the head, the left hooks… all my hard work manifested right there. I broke his spirit by jabbing him to the stomach and breaking his core down. Then I went to the head and was able to drop him and get him to fall down.
Was the Margarito performance the best of your career?
I think that was probably one of my top performances. It might be the best, especially because I was getting into being the older fighter and Margarito was the younger fighter and someone who could walk you down and bang you out of there. He had a great chin and people were almost afraid of him. I went in there as the older fighter and he barely touched me. He wasn’t hitting me with anything. And I’m scoring shots and breaking him down all the way around. I beat him on the outside and on the inside. Everywhere.
When you recall the moment you rocked Floyd Mayweather in round two of your 2010 fight, do you find yourself thinking about what could have been?
History could have been changed, for sure. I think Floyd thought, Oh, he’s an older guy, he’s not as strong or as fast as he used to be. He didn’t believe in the power. When I hit him the first time, I think it caught him off guard. You could see him thinking, How did he get that right hand in? He still wasn’t convinced, so then he tried his little check hook and I went over the top again with the right hand. That’s when I almost knocked him out.
I think for a moment he saw black and thought he was going to be knocked out. But, in some kind of way, he proved he was a champion by recovering from it. He started holding and doing what it takes to survive. That’s what champions do. They find a way to survive and then win. He did just that. He’s obviously a great fighter. He has great legs and he’s very sharp with his punches. He pinpoints his shots really good. He throws fast shots and his power was pretty decent, too. I was surprised by Floyd’s punching power when I was fighting him. I thought he had some pretty good sting on his shots.
What would have happened if you had met Floyd at an earlier stage in your career?
Oh, man. I was thinking about that when I was in the ring with him. I was like, Man, if I was a little bit younger, how would this fight be going right now? How would it be different? Back in my day, I know I would have knocked him out. I felt I was going to knock him out in the next round but the bell rung. I hit him with the first right hand and wobbled him and hit him with the second right hand and wobbled him, then the bell rang 15 seconds later. I thought, No problem. I’ll get him the next round. I figured I would catch him with some shot he didn’t expect again and knock him out. I didn’t believe he could take my punches. I rocked him in the second round and it wasn’t really that hard. I just kind of slid in and got him. So I knew I was going to get him again.
But it just never happened. I could never get another clean shot. I think if I was a little bit younger and in better shape, I would have been able to throw a lot more punches and get different positions and I think I would have been able to catch him with the shot I was looking for. My timing wouldn’t have been as bad as it was when I fought him. It would have been a lot better and I would have timed him and caught him.