What exactly do we mean by the best fighters in the world, “pound-for-pound”? And how do we decide who gets to be on the list?
Back in the earliest days of pugilism, weight divisions as we know them today simply didn’t exist. By the early 20th century, boxing’s traditional eight weight classes began to crystalize, and later in the century these grew to the now seventeen recognized divisions we see today. For a fighter operating within the lower weight divisions though, no matter how far he excels himself beyond his peers, it is the heavyweight champion who nevertheless retains the title of ‘Baddest Man on the Planet’. He is the guy on the street who stands aside for no one; he is the bouncer where the buck stops; he is the true ‘King of the Jungle’. He is, after all, the only boxer who can claim the beating of “any man in the world” – in the literal rather than figurative sense.
But while heavyweight champion X would easily defeat (e.g.) flyweight champion Y in a “real match”, that is nothing more than an expression of the laws of physics; a result of nature’s genetic lottery. Force = Mass x Acceleration; or, “a good big’un always beats a good little’un”, in the boxing parlance. The point of the pound-for-pound conversation is that these axioms are not a fair reflection of a man’s overall pugilistic prowess, though: they are simply a description of each man’s genetically endowed physical strength, whilst ignoring his achievements, talent, skill set, dedication, heart and in-ring IQ. Unlike natural strength, these intangibles are equal to much more than the DNA from which they arise, and consequently of inherently more value. To deny this, surely, is to deny man the very essence of his humanity.
So what if the flyweight, featherweight or middleweight champion were the same size as the king of the heavies (or he the same size as them)? If we could replicate each of their skill sets exactly, whilst trans-morphing them into identically sized bodies, who would win that fight? In this way – by subtracting from the equation those natural advantages with which the heavier fighter is bestowed but which he did nothing to earn – a much fairer assessment of who “the best fighter in the world is” can theoretically be reached. Herein recognition can be restored to those little men able to exemplify the sweet science at its most complex, technical, artistic, beautiful and brutal best – in spite of their biological shortcomings.
And yet the very assumption on which this hypothetical comparison is based – that each man’s pugilistic prowess can be fairly assessed absent his bodyweight – remains hopelessly flawed from the outset. For while a boxer’s aptitude may fairly be said to amount to more than the sum of his DNA code, he is nevertheless inescapably linked to his body in a way that compromises the attempted thought experiment. After all, isn’t part of the reason that Wladimir Klitschko boxes in the more methodical, plodding, thudding style that he does down to the fact that he is steering over 17 stone of flesh, muscle and bone around the ring? And isn’t part of the reason that Roman Gonzalez boxes in the more agile, finessed, sprightly manner that he does largely a result of the streamlined, nimble 8 stone frame he is commanding? And isn’t the relative dynamic blend of velocity and power a man like Manny Pacquiao exhibits reasonably considered to be, at least in part, a consequence of the natural balance his body size achieves between mass and acceleration? How then can we subtract body mass from each man’s make-up and still arrive at an impartial assessment of his “true” capability as a boxer?
In many ways the problem is similar to that of attempting to compare fighters across different eras (even where their respective bodyweight’s are almost identical). The task here is to suppose that we can extract a fighter and his ability away from the context of which he was borne, and then conceive, in a meaningful way, of how he would fare against a fighter from a different era. Insofar as each man is a product of his environment as well as his genes though, again this task seems hopelessly flawed from the outset. How to meaningfully compare the benefits of today’s advances in the nutritional and sports sciences with yesteryear’s no-nonsense, more grueling fight schedules, for example? We know that “context” is an important factor here, but agreeing a specific method of dealing with it properly and fairly in these discussions is another matter entirely. And it is much the same in the “pound-for-pound” debate: perhaps the best we can hope for is to ignite an honest, critical discussion of the issues – and enjoy the debate that follows.
To this end, recently I put out an article presenting my take on the top ten boxers in the world today, “pound-for-pound”. It’s fair to say that (A) the list wasn’t universally well received; and (B) it generated a sizeable range of opinions and a fairly lengthy discussion of precisely who should and should not have been included on the list (which, of course, was really the point of the whole thing).
Chief among the criticisms noted were the fact that I had the temerity to include Andre Ward at No.2 on my list – despite the fact that he hasn’t fought in the last 16 months. Other readers chastised me for including Wladimir Klitschko as high as No.7, while still others complained that I had undersold the heavyweight champ, and that he ought to be among the top two (sadly, my not-so-subtle attempt at sarcasm when detailing Dr. Steel Hammer’s attributes also seemed to be lost on a number of readers). Numbers 3 through 10 told a similar story: I was either crazy for ranking a guy too high, or on the other hand I was nuts for ranking the same guy too low. I had managed to perform the paradoxical feat of producing a list that was a mere “popularity contest” according to some, whilst including some of the least popular choices available, according to others.
Stepping back and looking at the bigger picture for a moment, it’s clear that while (almost) everyone agreed with each other that my list was wrong, everyone that thought that I was wrong also seemed to think that everybody else was wrong, too. Needless to say, that adds up to a lot of people in the wrong.
Taking a cursory glance around on the internet, it became apparent that this was a rather familiar story. Aside from the fact that Floyd Mayweather tends to be (surprise, surprise) ranked as the No.1 pound-for-pound fighter, for numbers 2-10 there is almost universal disagreement among the rankings of various websites: The Ring has Klitschko at No.2, for example, while Boxingscene has him at No.10. Boxing News places Timothy Bradley at No.3 on their list, meanwhile Boxrec do not even rank him in the top 25. Secondsout have Gennady Golovkin as high as No.4, however Boxing News do not award him a position in the top 10. Roman Gonzalez ranges anywhere from No.2 (Boxingscene) to not even being ranked (Boxrec), and just about everywhere in between. And so it goes on.
Despite the wide divergence of opinion when it comes to where individual fighters should be ranked below the top spot though, a general pattern nevertheless emerges, with the total range of names across the aforementioned five lists being just fourteen – a relatively small pool of candidates. Considering the small total range of boxers between the other lists I viewed, coupled with the fact that the No.1 was universally agreed upon, it is clear that the various rankings are not entirely random then – obviously some common criteria are at work producing the limited candidate pool.
The problem is that while there is indeed some common overlap in the criteria each source is using, there is no agreement upon which criteria constitute the definitive set, nor which one(s) should take precedence over the others – never mind which fighter rates highest based on any given factor. Instead we are faced with a loosely agreed upon, vaguely defined and constantly shifting group of recurring themes. There is then a unique amount of layers of possible disagreement available (even by boxing’s standards) and which criterion we raise above the others in our set will have a significant effect on the fighters we rank.
On the one hand, for example, if we focus too heavily on “current form”, the best pound-for-pound fighter would be switching on an almost fight-by-fight basis. Yet it seems absurd to suggest that there is no continuity among the best fighters in the world. On the other hand, if we focus our criteria towards “achievement/longevity” (i.e. the number of title defenses or belts in different weight divisions) then our rankings seem bound by age and experience, at the expense of giving credit to new and explosive talent. But if we rely too heavily on “perceived talent” (i.e. apparent physical attributes like speed, power and punch variety) we may end up discounting the relative quality of opposition. Conversely, if “quality of opposition” instead becomes our focus, inevitably there comes a point at which this is compromised by recent form. Balancing the quality of a fighter’s opposition against the given context of each division (i.e. the depth of the talent pool) is one more predicament to add to the pot – for it seems both unfair to hold a lack of available opposition against a fighter who has dominated his weight class for years, and yet equally unfair to rank him above other boxers who have defeated a much stiffer level of competition.
The upshot is that regardless of which criterion we select to take precedence, there is an unavoidable tension with other factors that, arguably, equally deserve of our consideration. Therefore, the only sensible, honest solution seems to be a balanced mix of all of the above: paying respect to those fighters who have achieved most, whilst remembering that humans are allowed dips in form; appreciating the new kids on the block, whilst acknowledging that they have yet to provide complete proof of their worth; allowing ourselves to be amazed by authentic genius and artistry in the ring, whilst remembering the level at which it was performed; tipping our hats to accolades earned and records broken, but without losing sight of the context in which these were achieved.
Returning to the Andre Ward issue for a moment then, there was a very good reason that many people disagreed with my assessment: A fighter’s successes cannot sustain a ranking indefinitely, and a line has to be drawn somewhere when a fighter does not enter the ring. For most people, after 16 months without a contest, that line has been crossed. (The Ring and UK magazine Boxing Monthly, for example, both dropped Ward from their ratings in the past month). As I responded previously, I wouldn’t argue much with that line of reasoning. However, I would suggest a couple of points to bear in mind before dismissing his case as a current pound-for-pound entrant completely.
Firstly, Ward is a 31-year-old athlete, potentially in the prime of his life and still the owner of the WBA ‘Super’ World title belt. His recent absence from the ring was not caused through serious injury, ill health, incarceration, retirement – or indeed any other factor that ought to spell the end of his career. Moreover, the contractual issues that kept him out of the ring have recently been brought to a conclusion, and he has just signed a “blockbuster” deal with new promotional powerhouse Roc Nation – finally signalling his return to the squared-circle. On that basis, I think there is a fairly strong prima facie case for including him in any discussion of boxing’s elite.
Secondly, assuming he is included in any discussion, the conclusion that he should be ranked among the best-of-the-best – by almost any set of criteria – is a fairly inescapable one. Consider, for example, the scale of his achievements prior to his ring hiatus: Ward not only dominated a list of respected world-class names (Edison Miranda, Mikkel Kessler, Allan Green, Sakio Bika, Arthur Abraham) but also fellow fighters worthy of pound-for-pound consideration (Carl Froch and Chad Dawson). He emerged at the top of the pile in one of boxing’s most competitive weight classes, collecting numerous title belts along the way, and he did all of this while exhibiting the defensive nuance and ring IQ of a truly elite pugilist.
It’s also worth considering that the “inactivity” virus cuts both ways: on the one hand, it precludes a fighter from demonstrating extra facets to his game, or of elevating his achievements any higher; on the other hand, neither can a dip in form be evidenced, skills shown to be in decline or vulnerabilities in style exposed between the ropes. (Compare the latter against two other pound-for-pound players, Bradley and Marquez, who have gone 0-1-1 and 1-1 in their last two fights, respectively.) It seems difficult in that regard to justify many fighters leapfrogging over Ward: Pacquiao is perhaps the most likely candidate, but a nasty KO victory to Marquez is still perhaps a bit too fresh in the memory. Meanwhile Klitschko, Golovkin, Rigondeaux, Kovalev and Gonzalez – whilst on brilliant winning runs – arguably lack the consistent level of elite opposition that Ward navigated prior to going AWOL.
In Ward’s absence, Froch is now widely considered to be the premier super-middleweight in the world, and a staple of lower top-ten pound-for-pound rankings. Yet the American dominated him in a bout that he was reported to have entered with a serious injury, effectively winning the biggest contest of his career with the full use of only one healthy hand. It seems awry to discount a fighter of this caliber purely on the basis that he has been embroiled in a legal dispute. Athletes still in the prime of their life do not, after all, stop being great athletes because of the finer points of United States contractual law. (It is notable in this regard that when dropping Ward from their rankings, The Ring took the trouble of making it clear that they still considered him to be “an exceptional talent, a superb boxer, and his accomplishments give him every right to be considered the champion of his weight class, not to mention a top pound-for-pound fighter”.)
Essentially, it was this last line of reasoning on which I based my own ranking. And, taking all of the above into consideration, I maintain that once/if you agree to include him in any pound-for-pound discussion, on any balanced criteria there is a strong case for ranking him right near the top.
The wider conclusions to be drawn in the pound-for-pound debate for me though are (1) we have to accept that there is a necessary trade-off between the various factors we use as our criteria (e.g. dominance, achievement, skill-set, quality of opposition, form and activity). Designating a single component of the jigsaw as the absolute decisive factor (even where one can be agreed upon) is bound to result in the exclusion of fighters worthy of acclaim under a different criterion. And (2) without wanting to come over all “everything is like, totally subjective man” (insert Californian-hippy-stoner-voice) in the end we also have to accept that ranking fighters pound-for-pound is a hypothetical, flawed, volatile and inexact science. Every list should probably be taken with a liberal grain of salt. Ultimately, it’s all part of the fun.
Matt can be followed on Twitter @Boxinphilosophy