Wherein I Try To Convince You My Subjective Pound-For-Pound Criteria Are Better Than Yours

Every time I produce a pound-for-pound list — that is, an accounting of the best fighters in the world, regardless of size — it prompts a heated debate about my placement of some boxer or the other. That’s not a bad thing. It’s kind of the point. I’m trying to be a tastemaker of sorts by aiming to convince you of my view about who’s the best of the best. It must be said that they are heated debates that no one can win. There’s no right and wrong.

The subject came up again indirectly after Nonito Donaire’s win last weekend, and we had a good discussion in the comments section of this post about where he should be on the pound-for-pound lists.

But rather than address it piecemeal, I thought, “Why don’t I just get mega-explicit about my criteria in a bid not only to convince everyone that I’m right about my placement of some boxer or the other, but my very criteria?” This is partially an act of egomania, I suppose, but in all things subjective, there is such a thing as “more justifiable” and “less justifiable.” You can go ahead and say, subjectively, that you think Hasim Rahman, at this point in his career, is the best pound-for-pound fighter alive. But you’d be laughed out of whatever bar, boxing chat room or mental ward you were in when you said it. And it’s not just because it’s silly on its face — it’s because if you tried to explain how you arrived at that conclusion about Rahman, you’d be confronted with all manner of questions about your methodology. Therefore, why not just go one step further and try to win you over at the most fundamental level?

(It’ll also come in handy when I next produce a pound-for-pound list and someone tells me I haven’t done a good enough job of explaining my criteria. Now I’ll just hyperlink to this, and I’ll never be accused of this again.)

Track Record Against Quality Competition, With An Emphasis On Recent Accomplishments

This, really, is my most important criterion. It is arguably my ONLY criterion — everything after it is roughly some variant. On one level, it kind of speaks for itself. If you don’t need, and aren’t interested in, a lengthy treatise on my pound-for-pound philosophy, you can literally stop reading here. But for those who enjoy these kind of arguments, let me get more specific.

“Quality competition” is subjective, but there are ways to estimate it, roughly. Let’s say a guy is in the (admittedly subjective) top 10 of the Ring magazine divisional ratings, the ESPN.com ratings and several of the sanctioning organization ratings. It’s fair to say he’s probably a “quality” boxer, yes? Beating a lot of top-10, or even better, top-5 divisional opponents counts a good deal in my eyes. The higher a boxer goes in his division’s rankings — he beats the #2 guy, the #1 guy — the more I hold him in esteem. But let’s say his division is weak; beating top-10 opponents doesn’t count as much. Let’s go one notch higher: What if the boxer we’re rating has beaten another boxer who is ranked in the top 20 or top 10 of most peoples’ pound-for-pound lists? Even better. And the higher ranked the opponent in the pound-for-pound lists, the better there, too.

One dilemma I run into sometimes is what to do with fighters who have beaten one pound-for-pound, elite fighter versus a fighter who hasn’t beaten anyone in the elite but dominates his division. I don’t have a strict point system or anything, but I’ve got a kind of algebra — a win over a pound-for-pound-level opponent is worth a lot of points; a win over a top-10 divisional type is worth less. A fighter with a bunch of wins over top-10 divisional types can exceed a fighter with a win over one pound-for-pound-level opponent, because maybe that one win was just a fluke or the product of a beneficial match-up. A “track record” is just that — something that you establish over time and repeatedly. It’s also why Fighter A who got beat by Fighter B can outrank Fighter B on my list. It’s the body of work that matters.

The “emphasis on recent appearances” is necessary for the following reasons: Old, aged fighters who have a lot of quality wins on their record but are way over-the-hill and unable to beat anyone on a high level anymore don’t deserve to be on pound-for-pound lists. And if you’re not out there constantly beating good opposition, don’t you deserve to be passed up by boxers who are?

Something worth noting here is that I don’t penalize fighters who lose against quality competition as much as some others do because I recognize losses against quality competition as a by-product of… fighting quality competition. Don’t get me wrong — a fighter has to win more than he loses. But if you fight the best all the time, rare indeed is the boxer who never loses. Those guys often have the #1 spot on my list. So I look at track record as a whole, not just “did so-and-so lose his last fight?” Losing a fight will bump someone down my list, but it’s not the only thing that gets someone bumped down, and it won’t guarantee someone gets bumped down very far.

A Rough Assessment Of Overall Talent And Potential

This is as subjective as it gets. It’s just me using my eyeballs. But you have to start somewhere — how do you know if a guy deserves top-10 status in his division because he beat “quality” competition, and how do you that competition is quality, unless at some point you begin the entire process with your eyeballs? It’s a factor for everyone in these kind of debates. Maybe you look at Chad Dawson and don’t see a very good fighter with oodles of potential. You probably won’t put him as high as I will, because I look at him and do see a very good fighter with oodles of potential. But my eyes are a lesser factor than the first criterion, which feeds into my next point.

How The Fighter Would Fare In A World Were All Boxers Were The Same Size

This, actually, is the original definition of “pound-for-pound.”  It’s a standard worth considering, but not the only one, and here’s why (repeating myself from the earlier conversation on the topic):

“Styles make fights.” Sometimes, the best fighters on the planet run into lesser fighters who give them style difficulties. For instance, I think Bernard Hopkins beats most anybody he fights, even at age 44, in a mythical world where all fighters are the same size. But I think Dawson beats him with speed, which gives Bernard trouble. Yet I think Kelly Pavlik, with his punching power, in that same mythical world, knocks out Dawson, but gets destroyed again by Hopkins. Who’s the better fighter overall? I say it’s Bernard. Why? He’s proven himself against more quality opponents, and some of his best wins have come in the last few years, so he’s still a vital force.

I find it unsatisfactory to rely entirely on this kind of imaginary battle of hypothetical against hypothetical because, like, as of this moment, Juan Manuel Lopez looks to me like he could beat anyone. But how do we know until he does it? In my mind, I could see Juan Manuel Lopez beating Juan Manuel Marquez, size being equal. But I KNOW what Marquez can do. Because he’s proven it. And that’s the only way I know he’s a great fighter. And that’s why Marquez is #2 and Lopez — who looks to me like a good fighter who has oodles of potental — is sitting outside my top 20.

That’s just a couple examples. If you don’t like those, I’m sure I can throw you others that will be more to your liking. Manny Pacquiao’s a hard case — I think he beats just about everyone in an “everyone is the same size” world, but that’s only because he’s SO good, you know? Here’s my #1 pound-for-pound fighter because there’s not a criterion on this list where he isn’t tops. What do you do with less clear-cut cases? I think you have to go back to track record against quality competition, with an emphasis on recent appearances.

How A Fighter Performs In Fights

I don’t mean by this how exciting they are. I’ve personally enjoyed maybe 10 percent of the Hopkins fights I’ve seen, but I know he’s a great fighter. There’s no correlation between how entertaining a fighter he is and how good a fighter he is, or else Micky Ward would have been the pound-for-pound king during his time.

What I mean is, how well the fighter performs, how dominant he is, that kind of thing. This is, overall, a small factor in my consideration. There were long stretches of Ricky Hatton’s recent reign where he looked like crap, but he kept winning. Likewise for Jermain Taylor. I never penalized them — as long as they beat top opponents, they either moved up or stayed put. But let’s say you have two fighters who have beaten roughly the same level of competition. I’m going to favor the guy who has done it more definitively. It’s because he’s the better fighter by one factor, and is more likely to win his next fights, all things being even, which goes back to the “rough assessment of talent and overall potential.”


My rule here is that you have to fight at least once a year to even qualify for pound-for-pound status. It’s an arbitrary time limit, to be sure, but I think a time limit is necessary. It’s not fair for a guy to hang around and take up space on the pound-for-pound list based on tremendous accomplishments from more than a year ago, if everyone around him is active but not capable of producing accomplishments for whatever reason on the inactive fighter’s level (like, say, a paucity of competition in his division, or fighters avoiding him, that kind of thing). Often in the case of fighters who are inactive for more than a year, their future in the sport is uncertain, as is the case of the injured Israel Vazquez. Vazquez is back on the mend though, reportedly having been cleared for gym w
ork, and as soon as he gets back in the ring and demonstrates his old form, he’s back on my list. Maybe not where he once placed, but he’s back, because if Vazquez even looks like his old self in a return bout versus soft opposition, he meets most of the criteria on my list.


You know who I bet had a dynamite pound-for-pound list? Rene m-f’ing Rene Descartes, that’s who.

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.