For pound-for-pound list compilation, there are two competing standards at infinite war with one another, a bloody conflict that is more important than World War I and World War II combined: 1. an assessment of each boxer’s achievements in the ring; and 2. the “eyeball test.” I’m in the first camp. It often puts me at odds with people who think things like “Andre Ward is a better boxer than Carl Froch and should rank higher pound-for-pound.” While I agree Ward is the more talented and complete pugilist, Froch has beaten better competition and therefore resides at a higher spot on my list of the best fighters in the world regardless of weight class.
But every now and then, once a year, to be exact, I don the garb of the enemy and red team myself. Usually, I do employ the eyeball test as a secondary factor in assessing fighters. But this is a wholly eyeball test-based standard. Since I don’t trust the eyeball test because I find it inherently unreliable — time and again, a boxer who looks all the world like a future great gets his ass kicked when he suddenly steps up the competition — this amounts to a thought experiment and a potential trigger for debate. I encourage everyone to compose your own lists, in the comments.
There is much less of an attempt at being rigorous about logically-adhered to standards than usual. It’s just whether I think someone looks talented and whether I’d think they’d beat a bunch of other good people. There’s some measure of this that involves actual performance, I guess, since I’ve gotta base my estimation of talent off something. With one exception, everyone on this list is already at least a “contender” or better, for that reason. I also didn’t honor the usual “has to have fought in the last year” rule.
Here’s last year’s edition. People who were here last year and aren’t anymore: Andre Dirrell (simply because I have no conclusion, only suspicion, about whether he’s actually suffered from brain problems or what he’ll be like when he comes back); Juan Manuel Lopez (his technique has degenerated sorely since last year, as has his physical commitment to the sport, both of which are partially to blame for him suffering his first loss); Paul Williams (he got knocked the hell out in 2010 and in his last fight looked like a shadow of his former self); Devon Alexander (his technique has degenerated, too, and he’s suffered one loss and a shoulda-beena-loss since the last list); and Erislandy Lara (he’s been up and down and all over the place in the past year, and merely got forced out by better options).
Credit to Hamilton Nolan for the inspiration for the original idea, which as of now is an annual tradition.
1. Yuriorkis Gamboa, featherweight
And YURIORKIS GAMBOA! takes the top spot. Honest to goodness, I went through any number of variations shuffling around the top SIX people. It was that close. Last year, a semi-rough outing against Orlando Salido docked Gamboa, but since then Salido has legitimized himself a great deal more. When you see what Gamboa did to a pretty good fighter like Jorge Solis — who, incidentally, said Gamboa hits harder than universal consensus pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao — it makes you realize that this is an outrageous talent. You can dock him for his tendency to get decked or his occasional less-than-scintillating efforts, but he’s better on defense these days than ever and the less-than-scintillating efforts are a result of him being smarter about not getting decked. When it comes right down to it, Gamboa at his best is, to me, the best talent in the sport. Now watch him lose to Daniel Ponce De Leon in September.
2. Nonito Donaire, bantamweight
Donaire contended for #1. Like Gamboa and Sergio Martinez, Donaire has that awe-inspiring combination of speed and power that separates them from everyone else. And while I tried when conducting mythical match-ups of the people on this list to imagine them as resizing themselves to parallel dimensions, I had a tough time doing that with Gamboa-Donaire because they might actually meet soon at featherweight. When I did that, I imagined Gamboa winning on size alone, simply because Donaire’s power is unproven at feather. Yet while Gamboa blew out a pretty good fighter in Solis this year, Donaire blew out an excellent one in Fernando Montiel, and I think Donaire’s boxing skills are superior. Yup, nothing logical about this pursuit. It’s really just a feeling.
3. Floyd Mayweather, welterweight
Depending on what day or week or month you ask me, I’ll tell you that Pacquiao would beat Mayweather or vice versa. Today is a Mayweather day. Yeah, he struggled early against Shane Mosley and Pacquiao never struggled against him for a second, but I think that version of Mosley had more left than the version Pacquiao fought and didn’t perform like such a scaredy-cat. Today, if they fought, I imagine Mayweather outboxing Pacquiao. I have no idea if Mayweather’s infrequent ring appearances will have dulled his reflexes and made it so he has to rely more than usual on his ring intellect, but it’s not like Pacquiao’s hit it out of the park lately like he used to, either.
4. Manny Pacquiao, welterweight
I don’t think Pacquiao’s a welterweight, you see. His speed and power combination isn’t as lethal as it was at lower weights, and I’m judging him by who he is now. Granted, neither Miguel Cotto nor Joshua Clottey nor Mosley engaged enough to see what kind of pure power Pacquiao has at 147 (Antonio Margarito cooperated, but that was at the even more difficult junior middleweight limit), and Pacquiao flashed plenty of the stuff against those guys. But did he flash more than Gamboa and Donaire are flashing right now in their divisions? And while I think reports of Pacquiao’s decline are overstated, they’re not wholly without merit, as the defense he had briefly honed has been tossed out the window and he’s saying that he cramps up more the older he gets. But I thought about putting him at #1, same as the first three men.
5. Sergio Martinez, middleweight
This is not an easy task, friends! It isn’t! You try it. Martinez has come into his own at an absurdly late age and is better than ever at 160 pounds, where, like Gamboa and Donaire, he’s demolishing good-to-excellent fighters with a combination of speed and power that only the three of them possess in such quantities, and he’s doing it against better people than both of them. If you put Martinez #1, how could I argue with it? Your feelings are your feelings. But for some reason I see Martinez being here. And I could see him being beneath the next man, too.
6. Andre Ward, super middleweight
Of all the people here, Ward is the least quick, which suggests to me that speed matters a whole lot. And it’s not like Ward isn’t fast; he is. What he does have is a versatility and intelligence and grit that no one else has in such quantities all at once. Beats me, who I’d pick if Martinez and Ward fought as though they were both naturally in the same weight class. I guess I put Martinez one notch above Ward because he’s faster and more powerful and is at least in shouting distance when it comes to ring IQ. Ward took a drop from last year, but it’s only because some superior physical specimens began to assert themselves.
7. Amir Khan, junior welterweight
There’s a slight drop-off around here because while I think Khan is in the talent class of the men above him, he’s not a finished product. But I said last year that if he makes it past Maidana and proves he can somehow beat someone with serious power who won’t stop coming, it’s game over for the junior welters. I still think that. When it can be convincingly argued that Khan, at age 24, is the biggest threat today to Mayweather outside of Pacquiao from welterweight on down, then you gotta wonder what tomorrow brings.
8. Lucian Bute, super middleweight
Ugh, does Bute’s situation ever exasperate me. He hasn’t beaten a fraction of the quality competition that Ward and Carl Froch have, but he’s in the top 10 pound-for-pound all over the place on everyone’s list. I guess it’s because a lot of people really, really like the eyeball test. And obviously, by that standard, I somewhat agree. Bute is arguably in the Gamboa/Donaire/Martinez class of speed and power, and he’s a lefty, and it’s really easy to imagine him giving anyone he fought a handful, including Ward and Martinez.
9. Wladimir Klitschko, heavyweight
For all his flaws, for all his poor competition, Klitschko just keeps beating people in the same way over and over and over and over again. It’s not a coincidence. It can’t be solely attributed to people not trying hard enough, a la David Haye or anyone else Klitschko has fought. The fact of the matter is that with Klitschko’s size and style and athleticism, he’s a bitch and a half to fight. He would be for anyone, ever.
10. Brandon Rios, lightweight
Surprise! This dude right here is the crudest dude on the list so far by a longshot. But with his raw power and relentlessness, he’s piling up the bodies and he’s doing it to boxers with any variety of styles. Wanna try to bang with Rios? You’re gonna get overpowered and knocked out. Wanna try to outslick him? He’ll hunt you down and knock you out. No combination thereof has gotten anyone very far against Rios. I realized I might be underestimating the lad when I recently considered whether he’d beat my regular-universe pound-for-pound #3 man Juan Manuel Marquez, the lightweight champ, and concluded that the answer was “yes.” People might be sleeping on Rios as a quality fighter. Appearances can sometimes be deceiving.
11. Giovani Segura, flyweight
Rios and Segura are in the same camp of crude-but-winning, only Segura has better wins. Thing is, I usually list a fighter’s division as the one in which he’s fighting next, and Segura is unproven at flyweight. Therefore, he’s one spot below. Eyeball test, you make me feel strange on the insides. This feeling-over-logic thing doesn’t come naturally for me.
12. Timothy Bradley, junior welterweight
I can’t put him above Khan because I think Khan would beat him. But Bradley has a rough kind of craft, a certain kind of fox-like intellect, a healthy apportionment of speed and a mean determination that would make him my pick against anyone I can think of at 140 or below other than Khan, although a fight with Rios when he moves up to 140 or the winner of Robert Guerrero-Marcos Maidana would give Bradley a challenge.
13. Gary Russell, Jr., featherweight
He’s the most prospect-like of all the people on this list, but that could change soon. Dan Rafael of ESPN reported on Twitter that Russell could be facing Luis Franco next month on HBO, a prospect-vs.-prospect match-up that would turn the winner into a legit contender. Here’s the deal with Russell: He’s got good boxing skills, physical coordination and an Olympic background, but what sets him apart is his speed. I think he’s got the fastest hands in the sport right now. Check out the combination he puts together at the end of this highlight; those are real punches, not shoe-shining shots producing the illusion of quickness. If Russell had any power whatsoever, he’d be much higher, even.
14. Chad Dawson, light heavyweight
Dawson wasn’t around last year because he’d recently suffered his first loss and looked far too tentative in said loss. Now he’s got Manny Steward training him and Steward might end up making him too aggressive. If they find a nice medium, Dawson could live up to his potential. As of today, I think he’ll beat Bernard Hopkins in October. Then there are some issues with his head. Kevin Iole wrote this recently, which is a bit of an overstatement but gives you a sense of the kind of ability Dawson has: “If it were possible to give Hopkins’ attitude and work ethic to Dawson, he’d probably be one of the greatest fighters ever.”
15. Juan Manuel Marquez, lightweight
I know I’m contradicting myself from what I wrote about Segura, since Marquez’ next fight is at 144 pounds where I believe he’ll be slaughtered by Pacquiao, but I don’t view Marquez as a future welterweight. He’s a lightweight who will come back down to the division after fighting Pacquiao, unlike Segura, who’s leaving his division for good. There, Marquez’ intelligence and craft are enough for me to pick him against anyone but Rios, although Marquez would make a dogfight of it, I bet.
16. Bernard Hopkins, light heavyweight
B-Hop was a tough one. Like I said, I favor Dawson over him, but not by much. Lately, because it’s come up in a couple discussions, I’ve gotten to thinking if Hopkins isn’t underrated in terms of his historical placement. Contemplate what the man has done. At age 46, he’s still dangerous to anyone near him, although he doesn’t win quite as comprehensively as he once did against the second-tier boxers. If he did, I’d have him higher.
17. Abner Mares, bantamweight
Once upon a time I thought Mares could mature into a future pound-for-pound king, but he’s shown us just enough good and bad since then to make me revoke that card, plus he’s in a division with Donaire, a boxer I think would starch him but good. Hell, he might lose this weekend to Joseph Agbeko. But Mares is a good all-around fighter and talent.
18. Vitali Klitschko, heavyweight
Yeah, he ran into a brief spot of trouble against Odlanier Solis in the 1st round of their fight, but it ended that round with a Vitali victory, too. He’s an older, slower but better-chinned version of Wladimir, but that’s still good enough to do the same thing his brother would do: be a bitch and a half for any heavyweight in history.
19. Guillermo Rigondeaux, junior featherweight
He probably shouldn’t have struggled as much as he did against Ricardo Cordoba, but the scorecards were not accurate about the degree of his struggles and mainly he just kind of was boring. But there are still flashes of “special” in Rigondeaux, perhaps the greatest amateur boxer ever, and it’s inevitable that a great amateur would have a difficult fight in the pros. If the Cordoba battle woke him up, a fight against Rico Ramos could confirm the Cuban’s greatness.
20. Robert Guerrero, junior welterweight
Competition was fierce for the final spot. I went with Guerrero because he’s already gotten a lot done in his career, and much of his inconsistency appears to have disappeared. Guerrero when he’s on his game has the look of a serious talent, as he showed against Michael Katsidis.
Honorable mentions: Carl Froch; Andre Dirrell; Adrien Broner; Jorge Linares; Ismayl Sillakh; Erislandy Lara; Pongsaklek Wonjongkam; Juan Manuel Lopez; Joseph Agbeko; Roman Gonzalez; Nkosinathi Joyi