TWENTY years ago, there were three Americans at the top of the mythical pound-for-pound list and each of them fought within a week of one another at the start of 2002. In order of appearance, we had “Sugar” Shane Mosley, the welterweight king, we had Bernard ‘The Executioner’ Hopkins, the middleweight ruler, and we had Roy Jones Jnr, the leader at light-heavyweight. All three presented a good case for pound-for-pound supremacy yet nobody at the time could decide which of this trio deserved to fill the number one spot.

Over the course of two Saturdays – January 26 and February 2 – there were three fights involving these champions. However, only one of these fights was considered intriguing and only one of these fights threatened to upset the order at the top of the boxing world. It wasn’t, you won’t be surprised to learn, Roy Jones Jnr’s fight against unknown Australian Glen Kelly in Miami, Florida. Nor, for that matter, was it Bernard Hopkins’ routine title defence against the solid but unremarkable Carl Daniels in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Instead, the fight that promised something other than a predictable victory for the favourite was the January 26 encounter between Shane Mosley and Vernon Forrest at Madison Square Garden, New York. This fight, unlike the other two, was a meeting of men close enough in terms of ability for it to be competitive at the very least and also boasted two essential plot points the others lacked. One, Forrest, standing at six feet, had three-inch height and reach advantages over Mosley, and two, Forrest had beaten Mosley when the two first met as amateurs.

That night, all the way back at the Olympic trials in 1992, Forrest outscored Mosley to deny Mosley, the number one in the world at 139 pounds, a place on the US Olympic team heading to Barcelona that summer. It was enough to wreck not only Mosley’s plan to emulate his idol ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard and win Olympic gold but also threatened his earning potential when deciding to turn pro in ’93 (some three months after Forrest).

Forrest, too, eliminated from the Olympics in the first round, faced up to a low-key start to his own pro career. To no great fanfare or expectation, he won his first six pro fights by knockout, yet wouldn’t compete for a sanctioning body belt until August 2000, almost seven years after turning pro. Even then, an IBF welterweight title fight against Raul Frank ended in disappointment when a cut to Frank meant the fight was declared a ‘No Contest’ in the third round. Only in the rematch, which happened the following year, did Forrest get to dominate Frank over the 12-round distance and claim the vacant belt.

Mosley, on the other hand, having won his first nine pro fights via knockout when nobody was watching, had grown to become one of the biggest names in the sport. After beating Philip Holiday in ’97 to win the IBF lightweight title – a belt he defended eight times – he moved up to welterweight in 2000 to outpoint Oscar De La Hoya and take his WBC crown. That was a belt Mosley had defended on three occasions by the time he reunited with Forrest and Forrest, a man with plenty to prove, was deemed that January night to be merely the fourth opponent against whom Mosley would successfully defend his latest belt.

In many ways, then, the storyline from their amateur days was repeated. Mosley, the favourite, was one step away from global superstardom, whereas Forrest, the understudy waiting in the wings, had plans nobody wanted to hear, yet a style few wanted to fight.

“It wasn’t so much that he was wrong for me,” Mosley told Boxing News. “Vernon was a very good fighter in his own right. He took after Tommy Hearns and Mark Breland. Long and lanky. 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.”

Others saw upset potential, too, even if few were willing to back Forrest at the time. HBO’s Larry Merchant, for example, told us before the first bell, “Some fighters over history have just had the stuff to beat other fighters who are considered better. Ken Norton gave [Muhammad] Ali trouble, Iran Barkley gave Tommy Hearns trouble, Junior Jones beat [Marco Antonio] Barrera twice. You wonder if Vernon Forrest is going to be that for Shane Mosley.”

Shane Mosley

Collectively, we wondered for all of four minutes, during which time Mosley was Mosley, full of explosive speed, rapid right hands, and ideas. Then in the second round we wondered no more. A head clash started it, leaving blood on Mosley’s forehead, but it was mostly Forrest’s deadly overhand right that nailed Mosley in the centre of the ring that had us – and Mosley – acutely aware of the ‘The Viper’s threat.

For if Mosley had taken the first round, Forrest had now taken over, exploiting his rival’s low left hand and bullying him to the ropes with crosses and uppercuts. In his presence, Mosley all of a sudden seemed small, vulnerable. Worse than that, he didn’t know how to protect himself because, to this degree, he had never before had to protect himself. He was therefore little more than a sitting duck for Forrest. Against the ropes, his head was snapped back by uppercuts and eventually he went down.

To rectify this error, Mosley then revealed the extent of his previous dominance. Which is to say, whereas most seasoned fighters would have used the count to clear their head, Mosley, in all his ignorance and arrogance, jumped up immediately, back on his feet by the count of four. Not used to being down there, Mosley didn’t know how to react and allowed pride to overrule common sense. He got up the way any unbeaten champion gets up: too quickly.

Things then got worse. With a minute left, Forrest came steaming after him, throwing left hooks and right uppercuts, and Mosley found that same spot on the ropes again, both hands down. He tried grabbing on only to find himself stumbling to his knees. “That’s why I don’t like to call these guys pound-for-pound anything,” said HBO’s George Foreman, “until you see the whole story – adversity.”

On cue, another right hand from Forrest sent Mosley spiralling and with him unsteady on the ropes he dropped once more to the canvas. This time he found it tougher hauling himself up, though he still did so on four, and he appeared to all intents and purposes out on his feet, saved only by the bell to end the round.

“In the amateur programme you win some and you lose some,” said Mosley. “Even after I got knocked down and went down again, I was still trying to win. And the fight, when I watched it back, was still really exciting to me. We were going back and forth and he dropped me and that was exciting. I get back 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.”

That second round was, on reflection, the round that changed not only the course of a fight but also ‘Sugar’ Shane Mosley’s career. Never before knocked down, he was in an instant beatable, fragile, a mere mortal. He could be attacked and he could be hurt. He could look uncertain and scared and beaten. He was no different than anyone else.

This revelation, which at the time is what it felt like, buoyed Forrest and allowed him to dominate the rest of the fight. Smooth and steady, his legs spread wide in a stance that seemed impossible to upset, he measured Mosley time and time again with his long left jab and then introduced his hammer of a right hand either in the form of a cross or uppercut, punishing Mosley whenever he tried to drag himself back into the fight.

“The big thing with me and Vernon was Vernon’s height and him being able to go over the top of my jab,” Mosley said. “Usually, when I fight guys at lightweight, they’re shorter than me or the same size. I then go to welterweight and the guys are taller than me.

“Vernon also 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. He could counteract speed the right way and let that right hand go. I just think maybe he had my number and was able to slow me down and stop me getting off the way I wanted to.”

As proof of this, in six of the first eight rounds Mosley landed punches only in single figures. He had moments after that – moments of success, yes, though mostly moments of courage – but cut a sluggish, despondent figure throughout the fight’s final third. By then, the praise being bestowed on Mosley was praise he never wanted to hear in his career. Praise like this from Foreman: “Mosley’s got heart. I didn’t know he had that kind of heart.” But no amount of heart could turn scorecards of 118-108, 117-108 and 115-110 in his favour.

“I had a dream last night that I won it, and when I woke up this morning I was thinking I was going to be sore from the fight,” Forrest told Larry Merchant in the aftermath. “Then I realised that I hadn’t won it yet, so I had to go ahead today and win it.

“People think speed is everything. But I know how to fight speed. A jab stops speed. Young fighters out there, anytime you fight a guy with extremely fast hands, just use your jab. That’s all it takes.”

Mosley wouldn’t have known it at the time – nor wanted to acknowledge it, even if he had known it – but in the process of losing his undefeated record to Forrest he exhibited many of the qualities fans would later recognise as ingredients of his greatness. Forget the hand and foot speed, the punch power, and the combinations, all attributes he used to race to 38-0 (35), what Mosley showed against Forrest, in defeat, were the attributes that guarantee both longevity and the respect of fans: heart, determination, toughness, resilience. He stuck around in the fight when most would have looked for a way out and he tried to win even when winning seemed nigh on impossible. He had been blemished; his face, his record. He had also been knocked down for the first time in his pro career. But still, somehow, he smiled.

“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,” Mosley said. “I showed my character, I think. I was no longer a champion but I showed a champion’s heart.

Larry Merchant, sitting ringside at Madison Square Garden, agreed. He told Boxing News 20 years later, “Mosley, to me, was a great prizefighter. That is to say, I wouldn’t want to dishonour him by calling him a boxer, though he could box. He was a very good boxer but he also wanted to hit the other guy, and he had the speed, the quickness, and the smarts to both box and bang. There were very few Shane Mosley fights, until he got older, that were not crowd-pleasing fights.”

One of these, by Mosley’s own admission, was the Vernon Forrest rematch, which took place in July 2002 and again resulted in a decision loss. “The second fight with Vernon was better,” he said. “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.” He paused for a moment. “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 and some people even thought –” he laughed now – “Man, it was so boring, it doesn’t even matter.”

Revered in the end more for bringing excitement to the ring than perfection, Shane Mosley continued fighting professionally until eventually he retired in 2016 at the age of 45. His bogeyman Vernon Forrest, meanwhile, was shot dead during an armed robbery at an Atlanta gas station in 2009. He was just 38.