'Pound for Pound' myth

To gain a real estimation of a boxer'sworth in the long view, we need a rational debate with proper criteria. The `pound for pound' myth is just airy fairy flattery, writes Michael Klimes.

In boxing, the ultimate prize that can be bestowed upon a boxer is `pound for pound' status. It is considered a worthy achievement if a fighter can become a world champion but if a boxer really wants to become great then he/she must ascend the `pound for pound' rankings. In the last 10 years, these rankings have featured mouth-watering names such as Oscar de la Hoya, Sugar Shane Mosley and Bernard Hopkins.

No one can deny the records and pedigrees of these fighters in their respective weight classes. Hopkins had been (until his twin defeats to Jermain Taylor) the king of the middleweight division, setting that impressive record of 20 world title defences. Similarly, Mosley and De la Hoya have been multi-weight world champions, bathing in the sun of victory.

However, these three fighters demonstrate the myth in the feted `pound for pound' psyche, which plagues fans' minds. For `old school' fans, Hopkins earned success the correct way by paying homage to tradition: He campaigned at one weight, unified the four major belts and avoided the dreaded word of `fragmentation'. Boxing for once had a dominant linear champion who proved that he was the best by beating the best of his era. Hopkins, like Marvin Hagler before him, could be described as a `blue collar' fighter. He never was blessed with the `stardust' quality that Oscar de la Hoya has, the effervescent charm, good looks, the perfect smile combined with beautiful boxing skills. Conversely, de la Hoya, and to a lesser extent Mosley have moulded their reputations from fighting at different weights and triumphing. Here lies the crux of the problem. Fighters are garnished the `pound for pound' myth in differing ways — we have the `glamour boys' and `blue collars'. Sugar Ray Leonard is seen as the first boxer to have brought that glamour to being a multi-weight world champion. Leonard, with his flashy charisma and flashy belts, brought Hollywood to boxing. Sugar Ray's legacy, aside from his classic fights, is that he altered the path to glory forever. Originally, it had been the hard working approach of Hopkins and Hagler, which got you to the top. By the time Leonard was done, the opposite was true. Instead of slugging away for years in mediocrity and steadily progressing up the rankings, why not take the short cut whilst becoming a movie star? It sounds far better to have been a five time multi-world champion than having stayed at the same weight for an entire career. Leonard, for better or worse, has perhaps been the most influential presence on the ring since Muhammad Ali retired.

It is true that Ali and Jack Johnson are comparable figures and have exercised a similar influence to Leonard but the little man was the first to have done something on such scope in a division other than the heavyweight. It is a well known fact that many harbour resentment against fighters like Sugar Ray who they see as having been spoilt children blessed with immense boxing skills that got title shots and money easily because they were box office draws; hence promoters prioritised their mutual interests.

Certain traditionalists would like to see less weight hopping from contemporary fighters and more of a focus on remaining at a single weight. It is easy to find sympathy with this as the `pound for pound' accolade seems to have less meaning than it used to because there are now more weight divisions in boxing making it easier to win the title at multiple weights. Professional boxing used to resemble the present situation in the amateurs where there are 11 weight classes (at the Olympics) stemming from light flyweight to super heavyweight. Currently there are 17 weight classes identified by the four major organisations. From this some fighters are accused of seeking shallow success by weight jumping. Roy Jones Junior became the first former middleweight champion to win a world heavyweight title since the legendary Bob Fitzsimmons back in 1897 after out-pointing John Ruiz in 2003. Although this made him a four-weight champion and reinforced his `pound for pound' decoration, did this add anything to his reputation of being a superb fighter? Probably not apart from the statistics and Roy Jones was also the same man who moved up in weight in 1996, thus avoiding fights with Chris Eubank, Nigel Benn and Steve Collins.

Similarly, moving up in weight can ruin a fighter. Sugar Shane Mosley was one of the most magnificent lightweights of recent memory, why he ever moved up in weight is no mystery. Mosley did not receive the adulation he deserved after eight consecutive world title defences at lightweight and only made his reputation after the sterling victory over de la Hoya at welterweight. It became rapidly apparent though, he had moved up too fast (foolishly bypassing the light welterweight division). He subsequently melted in his two encounters with the talented Vernon Forrest and his flirtation with the junior middleweight division was equally doomed as he was taken apart by Winky Wright twice as well. The case of Mosley demonstrates that `pound for pound' glory can ruin a fighter. He did become a three-weight champion but at what cost?

Ultimately, Oscar de la Hoya suffered the same fate in challenging Bernard Hopkins in September 2004. Just prior to this encounter, de la Hoya took on the German Felix Sturm in positioning himself for the tilt against Hopkins. He looked like an inflated shrimp as he won an undeserved points victory, taking the WBO Middleweight Title.

The showdown with Hopkins was the biggest clash at middleweight since Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard in 1987.

It echoed this fight with the two top `pound for pound' stars colliding, yet was simultaneously a mismatch between a `glamour boy' and a `blue collar'.

Although it was a fight everyone wanted to see, the thinking that it would resolve who was the best `pound for pound' fighter of the generation highlights another fallacy in the myth.

Fans twist the `pound for pound' rankings. It makes logical sense to debate who is the superior `pound for pound' boxer in Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales as they are men of similar dimensions, each has won world titles in the same weight categories (bantamweight, featherweight and super featherweight respectively) and fought each other. It is therefore illogical to put a heavyweight or a cruiserweight in a `pound for pound' list ahead of a featherweight. How can we possibly compare average boxers, let alone elite boxers when say a featherweight weighs 118 to 122 lb and a heavyweight weighs over 200 lbs?

This is not to say fans cannot have a constructive debate about which fighters are the best in their respective divisions but does boxing really need the `pound for pound' jewellery?

In the grand scheme of things, do we really need to rate Muhammad Ali above Roberto Duran or vice versa in the all-time great `pound for pound' ratings? Even more significantly, would it reduce our perceptions as either of them being great fighters?

And the final and most impossible question: How could we ever create a comprehensive and fair table of the top `pound for pound fighters' of all time?

The sheer choice of Sugar Ray Leonard, Benny Leonard, Sugar Ray Robinson, Julio Caesar Chavez, Archie Moore, Carlos Monzon and so... the list and debate is infinite. Equally, boxing has changed so much in the last 100 years.

To gain a real estimation of a fighter's worth in the long view, we need a healthy and rational debate with proper parameters and criteria. The `pound for pound' myth is just airy fairy flattery boxing indulges in.