In recent weeks, just as I was getting ready to update my pound-for-pound top 20, out of nowhere several friends virtually simultaneously remarked to me or in print that such lists of the best boxers in the world across all weight classes were worthless. It never occurred to me that anyone wouldn't find them valuable. When things like that happen where a fundamental, institutional concept is challenged, I get to pontificating about whether it deserves to be. It's a good thought exercise. Maybe this thing I take for granted deserves scrutiny, I says. So I scrutinizes it. If it makes me rethink matters, that's great, because I've learned something, I says. And if I come out thinking the same as I did before, at least I've now battle-tested the idea, I says.
I did it, and I came out with pound-for-pound lists being the battle-tested kind of thing. Maybe it needs more battle-testing yet, and feel free to battle it. But here's what I'm thinking, as I try to take a break from some negativity in these parts. (It also amounts to the second installment in my "Defending The Establishment" tour, after the first installment.)
Any Rankings Will Do?
I've not encountered anyone who thinks all boxing rankings are bunk. Most seem to value, in some way shape or form, divisional rankings. But let's knock down that straw man just in case he's out there: Divisional rankings are very helpful. They give you a sense of who has accomplished what within his weight class. That's valuable for lots of reasons, some similar to the reasons pound-for-pound lists are valuable. But the one that stands out as unique to weight class rankings is that no matter what boxing championship policy you subscribe to (my allegiance, which I beat into the ground every chance I get, is to Ring belts), they help fill vacancies and determine the best challengers. That has almost inherent value -- a la the oft-stated proof for utilitarianism that at a certain point, you don't have to defend wanting to be happy -- but I'll try to describe it a little. One of the main ideas of sports is to determine who's the best via athletic competition. There are very few sports these days where everyone wins. Every professional sport I can think of has as its ultimate goal determining the best, or else it wouldn't be a competition. It would just be some dudes and dudettes doing some athletic stuff and at the end there's no winner or loser -- everyone just shakes hands and walks off. So, champions matter. You can argue as some have that they don't matter as much these days with boxers shifting back and forth between weight classes, that all that matters is good fights, but I don't think anyone argues that divisional rankings don't matter at all.
It Measures Achievement In A Different Way
If you can accept the value of divisional rankings, then it's not too far a bridge to cross to see the value in pound-for-pound rankings. Divisional rankings by themselves can't always tell the whole story of a fighter. The very fact that boxers move around so much is an argument in favor of the value of pound-for-pound lists. Let's take a couple hypotheticals.
Let's say Robert Guerrero, a boxer who has fought from 126 to 135 pounds, had the option of fighting at 126 pounds against Juan Manuel Lopez, who's ranked #2 at featherweight by Ring magazine, or against Mzonke Fana, ranked #1 at 130 pounds. I think most boxing fans would answer that Lopez presents a more meaningful fight, even though he's ranked lower in his division than Fana. The reason is because Lopez is widely considered the better overall fighter, by virtue of having acquired better wins in the divisions he's won in than Fana has in his career.
It doesn't require division-hopping, of course. I think most people would consider Ring's top heavyweight, Wladimir Klitschko, a better overall fighter than Fana, not to pick on him, and Klitschko won't ever fight someone not in his division. But he's acquired enough wins in his division that his top ranking at heavyweight eclipses Fana's top ranking at junior lightweight. You can say it's apples and oranges, but Chuck Klosterman would answer that there isn't much difference between apples and oranges, and I would say it's easier to compare boxers in different divisions than one might think. Boxers are boxers. You can rank them roughly the same way across divisions the same way you rank them within: Who's that person beat, and who have the people he's beat beat, and so forth. So there is value in estimating who's #5 pound-for-pound versus who's #15 pound-for-pound, because the #7 guy deserves more credit for beating #5 than #15 should #7 meet either of them.
Likewise, if you dismiss pound-for-pound rankings, you make it extremely difficult to rank boxers all time, since it's not like you can say "every top heavyweight is better than every top light heavyweight ever." You have no choice but to rank boxers pound-for-pound, in effect (which adds a different dimension of difficulty, given the difficulty of comparing eras, but that's another story).
Lots Of Different Views Don't Hurt
The standard I've been describing for measuring a pound-for-pound fighter -- quality wins, within and across divisions -- isn't the one everyone emphasizes. Some emphasize raw assessments of talent, some emphasize who would beat whom in a bout where both fighters were magically transformed into the same size. It's not my way, and I can argue endlessly why, but it's not like I discount those other methods entirely; they're a lesser part of my assessments, overall.
There are also lots of valid differences of opinion over whether one pound-for-pound boxer's best wins trumps another's pound-for-pound boxer's best wins. This stuff is, after all, entirely subjective. In an argument about subjective things, there's only "more defensible" and "less defensible." But if no one can agree on how to do the rankings, it's a point worth considering how meaningful they are.
But all the different opinions actually enhance the fighters who pass muster across the board. The consensus adds meaning. I rank Klitschko #6 pound-for-pound, and maybe someone else would have him at #10. So if Sam Peter beat him next weekend, I'd be more impressed than the guy who ranked him #10. That has meaning for me. But I can recognize that if a lot of people have him in the top-10, it's impressive in a whole different way for Peter to have beaten a consensus top-10 pound-for-pound fighter.
All Sports Do It, Because It's Fun To Debate
And, again, this all has meaning because of the nature of sport. We want to see know who's the best, or at least most of us do, and I mean in the whole sport, not just in one division. These kind of rankings happen everywhere.
Klitschko and Pongsaklek Wonjongkam, a flyweight, are as different as Dwight Howard, a center, and Chris Paul, a point guard. Yet you'll find NBA fans readily debating and ranking the best basketball players in the L regardless of position. Some of them do it via fantasy basketball rankings, which my brother just sucked me into for the first time this year. There are just as many ways of ranking NBA players -- player efficiency rankings, etc. -- as there are ranking boxers, and if there are debates about the usefulness of ranking basketball players (I'll diss the specific methods all day, like John Hollinger's crap), I must not follow basketball all that closely.
In the big scheme of things, pound-for-pound lists aren't the most important thing in the world. I think, at minimum, it's fun to debate and argue them for most of us. It's a form of participating in the sport as best as most people can as fans, not unlike betting on boxing or playing prediction games.