Friend of the site (and quality boxing writer in his own right) Hamilton Nolan recently proposed a fun idea to me, based on our mutual slavish fanboyishness for YURIORKIS GAMBOA! Gamboa, you see, never cracks my pound-for-pound top-20 list, and Mr. Nolan thinks he should, based primarily on his stratospheric talent, whereas I tend to make my lists based heavily on in-ring accomplishment with only a modest dash of consideration for stratospheric talent. So what if, Mr. Nolan proposed, I were to make a list of the best fighters based solely on talent? Where would I put my (our) precious GAMBOA! then?
This is the result of that thought experiment. It is not an approach I endorse. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing for the purposes of prompting discussion, mind you, or else I wouldn’t do it. I just think that any kind of ranking system should be based more on what a fighter accomplishes than by what I think he might. Boxers, after all, often prove themselves to be less than we thought they were after the first time they face some trouble, and sometimes boxers with lesser talent who appear unlikely to conquer the world find a way. The best measure of how good a fighter is, I insist, is repeatedly besting the highest-level opposition.
There is no criteria to this list, no real serious calculus, other than picking people who had at least advanced to the “contender” level — no prospects. It’s just who I think is good, based on my personal impression of who I think might win a lot of fights and have some talent and stuff. And just to give you an idea of how ephemeral it is, GAMBOA!, despite my generally being pleased with his performance over the weekend, may have fallen a spot or two from where I’d have put him before Saturday, owing to a performance that wasn’t as good as expected.
1. Manny Pacquiao, junior middleweight
It’s kind of a “duh” pick, with only one other person even getting consideration. (And I listed him at junior middleweight because that’s where his next fight is, Pacfans. I know he’s more of a welterweight. It’s just how I do it.)
2. Floyd Mayweather, welterweight
After Mayweather beat up Shane Mosley, I switched to thinking that Mayweather would probably beat Pacquiao, after originally thinking post Pacquiao-Ricky Hatton that Pacquiao would probably beat Mayweather. But perceptions are a fluctuating thing. That Mayweather seemingly so desperately doesn’t want to fight Pacquiao makes me think he doubts himself more than even I realized. And I never was outright convinced Mayweather would beat the guy. If he isn’t, then I sure ain’t. Thus, Pacquiao ranked above Mayweather.
3. Andre Ward, super middleweight
The only person around his weight class that I think might beat Ward is Andre Dirrell, and even then if that fight ever happens I’d pick Ward. There are harder-hitting fighters (most of them) and faster fighters (Dirrell, Chad Dawson) from 160 to 175, but Ward is so versatile, so crafty, that I think he’d figure out a way to beat all of them.
4. Wladimir Klitschko, heavyweight
He does suffer from lack of competition, sure, but I think when people imagine shrinking him down to middleweight they don’t do it right. Klitschko, as a middleweight, would still be 6’4″ or so, proportionally, and he’d have the best jab, and he’d have the biggest weapon (straight right), and he’d be more athletic than most anyone, and his spoiling style would be a style-killer for everyone he fought. Think of him as a better, bigger, harder-hitting version of Sergiy Dzinziruk, a guy who’s pretty highly-regarded. Klitschko’s style and talents are a walking pain in the ass against even good competition.
5. Guillermo Rigondeaux, junior featherweight
Fast, good power, technically brilliant. He might be higher if I had even a modicum of a sense of how he’d fare as a pro against top guys. I know I said this wasn’t about in-ring accomplishment but he just has so little track record to judge by. I’m going with his Olympic experience as a mitigator of that. And while he’s barely a “contender,” he is in the literal sense, with his bout against Ricardo Cordoba for an interim alphabet strap.
6. Nonito Donaire, bantamweight
The only way Donaire can be on a pound-for-pound list of mine, given his complete non-record over the last three years, is under this standard of evaluating talent. He hasn’t beaten anyone, really, but Vic Darchinyan, and that was ages ago. Can anyone tell this frustrates me? Do I talk about this very much? I love the kid and his game, and HE’S WASTED THREE YEARS OF PRIME TALENT WITH YET MORE WASTING AHEAD SINCE THE FERNANDO MONTIEL FIGHT ISN’T HAPPENING THIS YEAR.
7. Yuriorkis Gamboa, featherweight
I’m still a believer. Orlando Salido was tough on Saturday, and it was a big step up, like I said already. But he did tumble a few spots. That said, show me a fighter on this list that doesn’t have flaws, and keep in mind Gamboa has already addressed some of them early in his pro career. Then show me someone on this list who has his mixture of speed and power. I’ll give you a hint — it’s the #1 guy. I’m not convinced Rigondeaux is better than him, by the way, but Rigondeaux hasn’t encountered any trouble yet and Gamboa has encountered some. Ephemeral.
8. Sergio Martinez, middleweight
Gasp! How do I have Martinez ranked above my boy Paul Williams? I legitimately think Paul beat him, although I know it was close and others disagree. What I know is that Martinez beat Kelly Pavlik and I’m not sure Paul would have, and that Martinez did better against Kermit Cintron than Paul did, and Martinez has a bigger palate to paint with. Looking at 154 to 160, I’d be more confident picking Martinez in his wins than I would Williams in his, and that includes Williams-Martinez II.
9. Abner Mares, bantamweight
Mares has long been on my list of potential future pound-for-pound kings. He went from 0 to 60 by fighting Yonnhy Perez; his level of competition was negligible before taking on that beast. Early on against Perez, I was feeling justified. Middle rounds, worried. Final rounds, I moved into downright conviction. It was a draw, but one most people thought he won. If Mares can effectively beat a monster like Perez with virtually no preparation for someone like that career-wise, I am of the mind he’s got future bantamweight dominance ahead of him.
10. Lucian Bute, super middleweight
Right around here, I get a lot less convinced of anyone on the list. I just think there’s a drop-off of some note from here on out. But Bute, he’s pretty good. Wouldn’t beat Ward, I don’t think.
11. Timothy Bradley, junior welterweight
His stretches of inconsistency worry me a little or he’d be higher.
12. Amir Khan, junior welterweight
I thought about putting Khan above Bradley, so consider this an asterisk pick. If Khan beats Marcos Maidana in December — the fight that appears likely — I think it’s game over for 140. He’ll have answered the very serious questions about his ability to take a punch, and given the struggles Bradley had against Luis Carlos Abregu’s height, the far more physically talented Khan might eat him alive from the outside.
13. Juan Manuel Lopez, featherweight
After last weekend, Lopez-Gamboa looks like a toss-up to many. I still like Gamboa to take it, obviously. And for that matter, you’ll note I have both above Celestino Caballero. Who doesn’t make the list. Because as much as I think he’s a difficult match-up, I think his periodic struggles with lackluster fighters are troubling, and the best person he’s ever beaten is still Daniel Ponce De Leon. When Caballero’s good he’s good, but I don’t think the best of Caballero is likely to beat Lopez or Gamboa.
14. Andre Dirrell, super middleweight
Dirrell has an asterisk similar to Khan’s. There’s a vital piece missing. Dirrell still comes off as more athlete than fighter, as we’ve discussed in this space. I think he took a giant step in the fighter direction against Arthur Abraham by dominating Abraham then enduring some trouble then coming back strong in the 11th round before the Abraham disqualification. If I can see him maybe beating Ward (I can) and Bute (even more so) and he’s already beaten Abraham and Carl Froch (at least in my mind) then I think he belongs on this list. But he’s not higher because I’m not sure if he can get rid of that asterisk entirely.
15. Devon Alexander, junior welterweight
I know he had a rough time with Andriy Kotelnik, but I was on board before and I still am. I think Bradley-Alexander is still basically a toss-up.
16. Paul Williams, junior middleweight
I love Paul and admittedly I worry about some recent shakiness in his performances. But he still figures as trouble against most folk from 147 to 160. Hell, even if he lost he’d be trouble against them. His style (and dimensions, and left-handedness) is a pain in the ass in a whole different way from Klitschko’s.
17. Juan Manuel Marquez, lightweight
I’m not totally certain he’ll beat Michael Katsidis next, or else he’d be higher. I like Katsidis, don’t get me wrong, but if I don’t know if you can’t beat him it’s not the biggest endorsement of you in a “best 20 fighters in the world based on talent” kind of way.
18. Vitali Klitschko, heavyweight
Kind of a similar deal to Marquez. Anybody who struggles at all with Albert Sosnowski, can’t be sure about you. Especially if you’re old as hell when you do it. Klitschko would be a LOT higher otherwise, but I used to think Vitali would beat his brother and I obviously don’t think that anymore.
19. Giovanni Segura, junior flyweight
Far and away the least skilled man on this list, I nonetheless have a hard time imagining him losing to anyone at 108 or coming up from 105. He hits too hard and he’s too relentless.
20. Erislandy Lara, junior middleweight
In one of boxing’s deepest divisions, I think he would come out pretty good against everyone except Martinez and maybe Williams. Plus, I have a boxing fetish for Cubans, obviously.
Honorable mentions: Celestino Caballero, Fernando Montiel, Yonnhy Perez, David Haye, Miguel Cotto, Arthur Abraham, Chad Dawson, Jorge Linares, Brandon Rios, Sergiy Dzinziruk