2009 Year-End Boxing Pound-For-Pound Top 20 Update

I have to invoke The Queensberry Rules mascot in the art of constructing pound-for-pound lists, Rene Descartes, to modify a guiding principle or two for the last pound-for-pound list of 2009. By the way, doesn’t Rene look dashing sans mustache?

Anyway, the major guiding principle for my list as always is quality wins, with an emphasis on recent activity. A minor principle is the “I know it when I see it” eyeball test, which works for pornography and to a lesser degree P4P assessments. Another minor rule is that anyone out of action for a year does not qualify. But I’ve noticed a gap between those three principles has led to results that are not as defensible as I’d like. I have historically not moved people down sans a loss so much as I’ve moved other people up. By this I mean, a highly-ranked boxer usually has to be passed by someone who has racked up quality wins. That translates to cases where boxers can effectively “sit on” their rankings in my system by fighting weak competition, only to be toppled when somebody does something dramatic to beat them. Likewise, a fighter with a weak strength of schedule can move up merely by waiting for someone else to lose. (I’m not saying they do these things BECAUSE of my rankings — I’m just describing the effect.)

One example of where this gap has caused problems on my list is that middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik — whose last truly significant win was in February of 2008 — stood to be my #7 pound-for-pound fighter with this update, by virtue of losses above him and the failure of anybody just beneath him to do anything in recent months to leapfrog him. These things are subjective as subjective gets, but as I’ve often said, there are “more defensible” subjective views and “less defensible” subjective views. I don’t think anybody would think Pavlik at #7 makes much sense. I don’t either.

So the modification is as follows: If a boxer hasn’t faced top-notch competition in a full year — I’m thinking, top-10 divisional opponents, at minimum — I might move them down even if they are winning fights against subpar opposition. It will be situational, and won’t usually result in a major demotion, but it can still result in a drop; I think there’s a value in not dropping people in a reactionary way, as too often people’s rankings seem subject to arbirtrary whims of the moment. Demotions will likely depend on the eyeball test, too. The new modification affected Pavlik’s ranking this time, as well as the ranking of cruiserweight champion Tomasz Adamek. And it led me to drop featherweights Rafael Marquez and Israel Vazquez, #15 and #16 last time out, entirely.

The simpler the formula, Descartes would probably tell us, the better. And ultimately, “quality wins, especially of recent vintage” remains the simple version of the formula. But I think this slight modification results in a better list.

One more thing: I’ve settled on a once every-other-calendar-month update schedule.

(The October update, for comparison’s sake, is here.)

1. Manny Pacquiao, welterweight

With Pacquiao winning our Fighter of 2009 and Fighter of the Decade awards recently, I’ve spilled a lot of ink on how good Pacquiao is. I’m not going to revisit it all. But if there’s anybody out there who still would consider Mayweather for the #1 spot after what Pacquiao did to Miguel Cotto in November, I don’t “get” those people. If Mayweather and Pacquiao meet in March (we’ll find out soon, I expect) and Mayweather wins, then he definitely deserves the #1 spot.

2. Floyd Mayweather, welterweight

See #1 above. Honestly, Mayweather would finally be doing what we all want him to do — fight top-notch opposition rather than, say, blown-up featherweights like his most recent opponent, Juan Manuel Marquez — and beating Pacquiao would eliminate what’s held him back in my rankings, which is choice of opponents. Beating the man doesn’t always make you the man when it comes to pound-for-pound rankings, but in this case Mayweather’s career resume and a win over Pacquiao would more than do the trick.

3. Shane Mosley, welterweight

I could see bumping Mosley up one spot if he beats the inexperienced but talented Andre Berto in January. It’s a “wait and see,” with an impressive performance obviously helping his case more than a lackluster one. I’m not sure what losing would do for him, however. He’d move down, of course, but how much? And how much would Berto move up? Mosley’s here because of a tremendous career resume and a 2009 win over the previous #1 welterweight, Antonio Margarito, but young Berto’s resume is far more shallow. Would a Berto win mean Mosley’s losing it? Or would it mean Berto was better than we realized? Again, it’ll depend in part on the performance — of both men.

4. Paul Williams, middleweight

You can look at Williams’ difficult December win over Sergio Martinez as evidence that Williams has serious flaws; you can look at it as evidence Martinez is really freaking good; you can look at it as evidence that style-wise, speedy and tricky counter-punching southpaws are a style nightmare for Williams. I say it’s all of the above. But Williams still got the win, and a high-quality win it was, and he dug deeper than he ever had before to get it. I say that’s good enough for him to keep his #4 spot even with the return of Bernard Hopkins to the rankings. A Martinez rematch or a Pavlik match-up, the two next big fights on his horizon, offer him advancement opportunities, although since those fights aren’t likely to come until the spring, a Mosley loss is his best short-term bet.

5. Chad Dawson, light heavyweight

The consensus was that the young, improved Dawson would probably defeat the one-year-older Glen Johnson in their November rematch, and probably do so with greater ease than he did the first time. I doubt many thought it would be THAT easy. You can hate his style all you want. Pound-for-pound rankings ain’t about pretty, or half the men on this list wouldn’t be here — it’s about beating the best. Dawson beat the man who gave him his toughest fight without a moment of difficulty, an opponent who was the #3 light heavyweight in the world right behind him. It’s not clear what Dawson will do next. Prospective spring opponent Jean Pascal is injured and unavailable until summer, while Hopkins isn’t interested, so that means a Mosley loss is about all that could move up Dawson in the immediate future.

6. Bernard Hopkins, light heavyweight

Hopkins gets back onto the list just by getting back into action after not fighting since October of 2008, but a December win over a smaller, limited opponent like Enrique Ornelas isn’t enough to return him to his old #4 spot while Williams and Dawson charge ahead. Like a lot of people on this list, he’s probably not back in action until the spring. His two likeliest opponents are Danny Green and Lucian Bute. Of the two, Bute, whom I considered very strongly for a top-20 pound-for-pound ranking this time, offers him chances for a real move up.

7. Juan Manuel Marquez, lightweight

Marquez moves down one spot to make room for Hopkins, not because of anything he did. He’s been idle since September and a hoped-for fight at junior welterweight with Ricky Hatton in mid-2010 may or may not happen. I’m really of the mind that Marquez isn’t a junior welterweight; hell, he isn’t even a lightweight. But junior welterweight presents more options. Even if he goes back down to lightweight, I’m of the mind that Marquez is over the hill now and could lose to even a middling opponent in his next appearance.

8. Miguel Cotto, welterweight

I contemplated dropping Cotto much farther, so bad was the beating Pacquiao gave him — the second prolonged beating and knockout loss for Cotto in consecutive years. But I held the trigger for this reason: Cotto was more competitive against Pacquiao than anyone since Marquez in March of 2008. Cotto will be out of action until probably the summer of 2010, so he’ll be vulnerable to be leapfrogged as it is.

9. Ivan Calderon, junior flyweight

My higher-than-most ranking of Calderon looks a little more defensible in light of Rodel Mayol’s 2nd round knockout of Edgar Sosa, a top-20 pound-for-pound boxer. Mayol, you’ll recall, had given Calderon all kinds of trouble in 2009 in a draw and Calderon win, both bouts stopped short by head butt-induced cuts. Mayol’s head butt of Sosa contributed to his win, surely, but nobody can deny that Mayol looks like an improved fighter in his recent fights, so maybe the aging and slowing Calderon still has some of “it” left. We’ll sure as heck find out what Calderon has left if he gets the March fight with Brian Viloria he’s pining for.

10. Chris John, featherweight

Spring, spring, spring. There was some talk of John fighting Robert Guerrero at junior lightweight, a quite enticing bout, but John’s team shot down the claims of Guerrero’s team that it was happening. John’s happy, his team said, with the potential competition at 126 — which is ample, but much of it is tied up fighting each other. The latest rumor is that bantamweight Hozumi Hasegawa could move all the way up to 126 to fight John. Either way, John’s team says he’ll be fighting next in April, probably.

11. Arthur Abraham, super middleweight

When last we saw Abraham in October, they were scraping Jermain Taylor off the mat, shipping him to the hospital and testing how much memory he’d lost courtesy another of Abraham’s trademark brutal knockouts. Now, beating Taylor by knockout just as Taylor was coming off a knockout loss doesn’t by itself make Abraham a major pound-for-pound player, but his methodical destructiveness against top-10 opponents (like Taylor) in his division keeps inching him up my list. He’s scheduled to fight Andre Dirrell in March, where a win could inch him up yet further.

12. Nonito Donaire, junior bantamweight

Hey, look, it’s somebody who isn’t fighting in March or April! In February, Donaire’s slated to be part of a small pay-per-view card against Gerson Guerrero. Who’s that, you ask? He’s a 34-8 boxer who got knocked out by Daniel Ponce De Leon in two rounds a few years ago. Sounds like a waste of everyone’s time, including Donaire’s, unless the thinking is that Donaire needs target practice after a sloppy performance against Rafael Concepcion last time out. Far more enticing is talk — from both sides — of Donaire-Vic Darchinyan II.

13. Wladimir Klitschko, heavyweight

Klitschko may still be a tad underrated here, given the similarities between himself, Calderon and Abraham in the “copious domination of non-elite competition” measurement. Even though Eddie Chambers will come in as the heavy underdog, justifiably, when he fights Klitschko for a bout penciled in for March, beating Chambers almost certainly would get Klitschko into my top 10. Chambers is rightly ranked the #3 heavyweight by Ring magazine, and arguably the best guy Klitschko has faced in about three years.

14. Timothy Bradley, junior welterweight

Bradley’s another fellow I considered moving up higher. He’s the clear #1 man in one of the best divisions in boxing, and has demonstrated growth in every fight in a 2009 campaign — including a dominant win in December over a game and talented Lamont Peterson — that I thought warranted a Fighter of the Year finalist nomination. BoxingScene’s Cliff Rold put Bradley in his top 10, and it’s not far-fetched. I’d had him just outside my top 20, so this is a big promotion. It’s unclear what Bradley does next, but plenty of junior welters have said they’d like to fight him.

15. Kelly Pavlik, middleweight

Here’s what Pavlik has done since scoring his last important win in a rematch against Taylor in February of 2008: a knockout of woeful mandatory title contender Gary Lockett; a thrashing he suffered at the hands of Bernard Hopkins; a knockout of borderline top-10 middleweight Marco Antonio Rubio; a knockout of no-hoper Miguel Espino. You can see why I moved him down this far, right? I thought he looked OK against Espino, who did better than expected on his own merits, so he’s still safe on the eyeball test front. Rumor mill has it his next opponent could be Williams, Martinez or Felix Sturm, all very worthy opponents.

16. Tomasz Adamek, cruiserweight

I moved Adamek up pretty quickly since he beat Steve Cunningham in late 2008, but looking at his year since, I shouldn’t have. He beat Jonathon Banks, a solid prospect; Bobby Gunn, a brave but overmatched club fighter; and Andrew Golota, an over-the-hill, out-of-shape heavyweight. Now, he looked great beating them all, but in retrospect I had him too high off that resume (which, it must be said, also includes wins over O’Neil Bell, Paul Briggs and some other quality fighters in previous years). The hot rumor is that he might fight Chris Arreola at heavyweight in the spring, a mouth-watering fight that would offer Adamek a slight bump if he wins. After all, Arreola isn’t an elite fighter, either.

17. Vitali Klitschko, heavyweight

Like his brother and some of the others, sustained dominance moves Klitschko up some — well, that and the departure of Vazquez and the younger Marquez. He, too, had a Fighter of the Year-worthy campaign in 2009, although it must be said he beat opponents who ranked nearer to the bottom half of his division’s top 10. He’s talking about Nicolay Valuev next, which is par for his 2009 course, and wants David Haye, which would do him more favors. (I have Haye as a near top-20 guy — consider his cruiser resume, his recent win over Valuev and the eyeball test.)

18. Celestino Caballero, junior featherweight

I remain confounded about how Ring mag has Caballero in its top 10 P4P at all. If your best win is over Daniel Ponce De Leon, you better have a lot more wins like it, and Caballero has a decent handful but not enough; he’s also wildly inconsistent. He’s chased fights with nearly everyone and his absurd stringbean physique and inability to sell tickets in the United States makes it hard for him to get opponents. He deserves better. One person who wants to fight him, though: super prospect Guillermo Rigondeaux. Color me interested.

19. Juan Manuel Lopez, featherweight

See Caballero above, i.e., “best win is over Daniel Ponce De Leon.” Some have him in the top 10, which is way too high. Anybody who struggles that badly with Rogers Mtagwa has some work to do. He still has gobs of talent, but he needs to prove he’s who we think he is. After a sheltered 2009, it looks like we’ll see if he’s who we think he is against Steve Luevano (Ring-rated #2 featherweight) in January, and if both he and ultra-talented Yuriorkis Gamboa win their next fights, each other after that. A win over Luevano would be his best career win, actually.

20. Hozumi Hasegawa, bantamweight

As much as I respect Rold and SC over at Bad Left Hook, I still think both men are way off-base to have Hasegawa in their top-10 P4P. For 3.75 years, he hasn’t fought anyone in his division ranked higher than #7. It’s a good division, but it isn’t that deep. Now, he’s knocked out those opponents in style, plus he’s given a few unproven prospects the same treatment, but if you’re the #1-ranked man in your division and you aren’t knocking out bottom-10 division contenders or unproven prospects in style, there’s something wrong with you. It’s really easy to look good against that level of opposition. That said, Ring’s Doug Fischer made a good case for Hasegawa recently, which was enough for him to get into my top 20 again. A win over John would obviously win me over, and in a big way — he’d be beating someone in my top 10, and climbing two divisions to do it.

Honorable mentions: Vic Darchinyan; David Haye; Andre Ward; Lucian Bute; Roman Gonzalez; Sergio Martinez; Nate Campbell; Omar Narvaez; Joshua Clottey; Steve Luevano; Israel Vazquez; Rafael Marquez

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.