Alan Greenspan, famous for warning against “irrational exuberance,” helps me warn against a similar phenomenon.
IT’S EASY SOMETIMES in this sport of ours to watch two men duke it out and, based on the outcome of that one span of combat between the duo, come to some rather hyperbolic conclusions about each warrior’s fundamental merits. It’s all the easier because boxing is filled with personalities prone to overstatement. In what other sport do athletes, at the conclusion of a game, routinely declare themselves “the greatest” this or “the unstoppable” that?
A rather virulent strain of this particular condition has flared up in light of Bernard Hopkins’ resounding defeat of Kelly Pavlik. To hear boxing fans, writers and even boxers themselves tell it, Hopkins demonstrated he was a true great of a magnitude far more advanced than we realized, while Pavlik proved only that he was an over-hyped fraud who can’t box a lick. There have been some notable voices of caution* in all this, but those exaggerated evaluations of Pavlik and Hopkins since they fought are more prevalent than not.
Those wilder estimations are correct in the case of Hopkins and incorrect in the case of Pavlik, in my view. But they are incorrect in the case of Pavlik for the same reason they are correct in the case of Hopkins: Track record against quality competition.
I caught some heat for leaving Hopkins, after his loss to Joe Calzaghe in April, at #4 on my list of the current best pound-for-pound fighters in the world — that is, the finest fighters currently in the game, no matter their weight. I ranked him at #4 despite the fact that many writers had either dropped him out of their top 10 entirely or pushed him down to the verge of eviction. Many who found my ranking dubious made note of the fact that Hopkins had lost three of his last five. I instead focused not only on his career-long accomplishments, but also the fact that all three of those losses could just as easily have been scored wins, and that all five of the bouts were against the most elite fighters he could find. In other words, Hopkins very well could have been five for five against Calzaghe and Jermain Taylor — who gave him the three losses — and Winky Wright and Antonio Tarver. I must confess I did so with a caveat: Another big loss would have dropped Hopkins down my list pretty far, especially because late against Calzaghe, Hopkins looked like a fighter whose career was winding down.
Since Hopkins defeated Pavlik, there are some people who even think Hopkins ought to be ranked #1 now. I say that’s not unreasonable. But my question is this: Was Hopkins a terrible fighter before he beat Pavlik, then suddenly is a good one again? Or was he always pretty damn good, and the people who wanted to thrust him from the spot he earned overreacting? I think you can argue that a readjustment in Hopkins’ approach to a focus on aggression in the ring improved his performance, but I think it’s probably more true that he was always pretty damn good and that some people were overreacting to his losses. I confess that even I underestimated him, in retrospect. He deserves the praise he’s getting because he beat a prime young opponent who had earned his own top-10 pound-for-pound status, making Hopkins three for six against the most elite boxers he could get into the ring with him.
Which brings me to Pavlik. Some of the same people who are giving Hopkins so much love for beating Pavlik are simultaneously questioning whether Pavlik was that good to begin with. For starters, those two simultaneous acts are contradictory. If Pavlik wasn’t any damn good, why would Hopkins beating him mean anything whatsoever? But I think the proposition that Pavlik was a bum in disguise who got exposed is false, because Pavlik had already established that he was very, very good. Beating Jermain Taylor twice, when Taylor was still in most people’s pound-for-pound top 10, was impressive. Knocking out Edison Miranda, when Miranda was the most feared man in Pavlik’s division, was impressive. In beating Taylor, he overcame an opponent who was considered a better boxer and a superior athlete. In beating Miranda, he overcame an opponent who was considered a bigger puncher. He also defeated an assortment of other contenders, obliterated a second ex-champ and blew out his mandatory belt challenger, all of which helped firmly establish that he was the real, honest-to-God middleweight (160 lbs.) champ of the world.
Losing to Hopkins disproves none of that. That track record still exists; it’s even got a paper trail. And yet, for some people, it’s like historical fact fades away with one loss. It’s certainly true that Hopkins established definitively that in a one-on-one match-up with Pavlik, he’s the better man. But as I’ve explained before, while the loss Pavlik suffered may raise understandable questions about Pavlik, mitigating circumstances — the 170-pound catchweight, Hopkins being a bad style contrast for Pavlik, etc. — demand that he not be written off so soon. I’d feel more like a shill for Pavlik — a fighter of whom I am a fan — if I hadn’t been saying the same thing about Hopkins — a fighter I have long frowned at — by keeping him ranked highly on my pound-for-pound list.
It’s really just this simple: When good fighters fight other good fighters, there’s a chance they’ll lose. It happened to Hopkins three times in the last couple years. It’s now happened to Pavlik for the first time. Those whose records remain perfect or near-perfect when they fight the best of the best deserve the worship they receive, but that doesn’t mean the very, very good opponents they defeated deserve to be excommunicated. So Floyd Mayweather beat Ricky Hatton. Of course he did. Mayweather beat everyone who got into the ring with him, and he often did it by making his opponents look like they were awful by comparison. But that alone doesn’t mean Hatton should be written off. And there’s a case to be made that this phenomenon leads to excessive exuberance, too. I’m of the mind that Cristian Mijares hasn’t done enough to be listed in everyone’s pound-for-pound top 5, and yet he’s there on plenty of them.
Hopkins is surely as great as everyone now thinks he is. Hell, some are even nominating him as the best athlete ever over the age of 40, and it’s not crazy. Pavlik? One loss to a great doesn’t mean he is an illusion.
*Maxboxing.com’s Doug Fischer was one such voice of moderation, summing up the same phenomenon I noticed here: “That’s modern boxing. Once day you’re the next great champ, the next day you’re a worthless piece of s__t. Check the message boards of any site when you get an hour or two to waste. There is no in-between.”