By Cliff Rold
Who is the best professional boxer in the world? The question fascinates many and has for years, allowing for comparisons of accomplishment and skill across the weight scale.
It’s a question asked too often the wrong way.
No matter how much mythical mumbo jumbo goes into the silliness of “pound-for-pound,” if Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao fought tomorrow, the only question being literally settled, beyond doubt, would be who is the best Welterweight in the world in 2011.
In other words, who is the real champion at 147 lbs…and the winner would have a strong championship claim indeed, the division all but wiped out at that point between the two of them.
Real boxing doesn’t happen in a virtual cell of the imagination where Jimmy Wilde and Jack Dempsey can be magically matched at equal sizes. Real boxing happens in the ring, in weight divisions (or the occasional catchweight) and in those divisions there is no shortage of men calling themselves champions.
No shortage at all.
With interim belts and ‘super’ champs to be found dotted all over the scale, picking out those fighters who truly represent championship excellence isn’t always easy. It’s worth it anyways. Once a year, it’s more than fair to put the pretend of pound-for-pound aside and ask about the reality of championship excellence.
Noted in 2009 and repeated in 2010, let’s consider the following a mantra for this now annual “Champ for Champ” analysis:
A champion isn’t just a guy who holds a belt. A real champion is a fighter who holds his crown for a while, matching at least semi-regularly with real top ten contenders, and leaving the ring still buckling the strap around his waist.
The first list, in 2008, focused on the limited field of lineal World Champions. Since 2009, it has looked at the ten fighters claiming the status of champion who best exemplify the honor. In 2010, the selections were:
10) Marco Huck – WBO Cruiserweight
9) Vic Darchinyan – Lineal World Jr. Bantamweight (Since Vacated)
8) Chris John – WBA Featherweight
7) Vitali Klitschko – WBC Heavyweight
6) Timothy Bradley – WBO Jr. Welterweight
5) Anselmo Moreno – WBA Bantamweight
4) Ivan Calderon – Lineal World Jr. Flyweight (Since Defeated)
3) Juan Manuel Marquez – World Lightweight
2) Fernando Montiel – WBC/WBO Bantamweight (Since Defeated)
1) Wladimir Klitschko – World Heavyweight
Much has changed since the August 2010 “Champ for Champ” list. Montiel and Calderon lost their crowns while Darchinyan left the 115 lb. class behind. All three exit. Who shall replace them? Does anyone else from the 2009 list miss this year’s cut? And who improved their standing in the last year and change?
This is Champ for Champ 2011.
10) Timothy Bradley – WBO Jr. Welterweight – 3 Defenses
Bradley (27-0, 11 KO) has gone to scratch at Jr. Welterweight only once in the last year. However, that one appearance in the division was the right one. For the second time since capturing a belt at Jr. Welterweight in 2008 (and he’s been through a few, or his defense count would be higher), Bradley won a unification bout at 140 lbs. and for the second time wound up without the WBC belt afterwards. Bradley’s win over Devon Alexander was hardly the stuff of legends but it was, competitively, the correct fight for a champion to take. Since, he has been entangled in managerial issues and was unable to make a fight with the even more dangerous Amir Khan while Khan surged through a string to top ten foes. The argument over which is the better man at 140 lbs. can rage on. Compared to his championship peers across the scale, he loses footing but Alexander gave him enough in the last year to not be overlooked.
9) Toshiaki Nishioka – WBC Jr. Featherweight – 6 Defenses
Nishioka fell short in four tries at a Bantamweight belt against Veraphol Sahaprom, only to capture his own bit of magic late in life. At 35, the Japanese veteran (38-4-3, 24 KO) has emerged as the leader of the 122 lb. class with defenses against solid veteran Genaro Garcia, an off the floor shelling of Jhonny Gonzalez (seen winning and defending a belt at Featherweight since), and outboxing solid contender Rendall Munroe. On October 1st, he’ll defend in what might be the best fight no one is talking about yet against Rafael Marquez. The former Bantamweight and Jr. Featherweight champion can still go and this has the makings of a classic. Win and the only thing truly left for Nishioka is a unification contest or two to solidify his place in the growing Jr. Featherweight pantheon.
8) Juan Manuel Marquez – Lineal World Lightweight – 3 Defenses
While little brother prepares for Nishioka, the elder Marquez (53-5-1, 39 KO) prepares to challenge for a Welterweight crown, something many a Lightweight king has tried and failed over the years. That he was for most of his career a Featherweight, and is now 38, make the odds long. That he is facing the rival who defines him, Manny Pacquiao, gives him a shot after taking Pacquiao to the edge twice before at lower weights. This challenge has little to do with Lightweight but excuses there being only one defense of that crown in the last year. It also helps that one defense came in a barnburner against top contender Michael Katsidis, Marquez coming off the floor to carve the younger puncher to shreds. Since winning the lineal Lightweight crown from Joel Casamayor in 2008, Marquez has also twice bested Juan Diaz, the first time in the 2009 Fight of the Year. He’s met his obligations as a divisional king, even if greater activity at 135 lbs. would be preferable. Should he fall to Pacquiao, and continue with his career, the champion’s obligation would be to take the challenge of Lightweight’s newest menace: Brandon Rios.
7) Marco Huck – WBO Cruiserweight – 7 Defenses
Still barely known outside Germany, Huck (33-1, 22 KO) added four more title defenses since last year, defeating two undefeated fighters (Ran Nakash and Denis Lebedev), a legitimate contender (Matt Godfrey), and a former titlist (Hugo Garay). The Lebedev fight could have gone the other way but both men left the ring having given the fans a noble endeavor. The only man to defeat Huck, America’s Steve Cunningham, is still lean largely as the leader of the class but is barely active while Huck does most of a champion’s heavy lifting. A rematch between the two is long overdue. Huck’s activity, and reasonably solid opposition, has made for a hearty and earned jump.
6) Sergio Martinez – Lineal World Middleweight – 2 Defenses
The speedy, thrilling Argentine (47-2-2, 26 KO) would be even higher but for one thing: Darren Barker. Team Martinez has opted for a breather in the unheralded challenger after a strong run of competition, something long the purview of champions. With some strong young contenders coming up at 160 lbs., the 36-year old champ won’t breathe easy for long. And it’s fair to say he earned something like a Barker fight, having played the heavy as champion in his first two defenses after coming off the floor to decision Kelly Pavlik for the title in 2010. Martinez whacked out Paul Williams in two and then added undefeated, leading Jr. Middleweight titlist Sergiy Dzinziruk with five knockdowns.
5) Carl Froch – WBC Super Middleweight – 1 Defense
Now in his second reign as a WBC beltholder, Froch (28-1, 20 KO) doesn’t have as many defenses as the other titlists in the division and, without boxing politics, wouldn’t have a belt right now. Put that aside and no one in the sport has faced what Froch has over six consecutive fights beginning with his first WBC title win over Jean Pascal. On October 29, he will be the underdog in a unification battle with Andre Ward, the Super Six tournament championship also at stake. So be it. Heading in, no one in his division can say they have done more to live up to the standard of ‘taking on all comers’ than Froch and while some may point to the structure of the Super Six playing a role in his run of comp, it’s worth noting half the field didn’t have the grit to get through the preliminary rounds, much less make the final. Carl Froch should be the rule, not the exception.
4) Vitali Klitschko – WBC Heavyweight – 7 Defenses
If the competition isn’t there, the elder Klitschko (43-2, 4 KO) is proving dominance can have a powerful aesthetic all its own. After a meager 2010 campaign that included two of the worst title challengers in an era with plenty of bad ones (a shot, undeserving Shannon Briggs and woeful if tough Albert Sosnowski), the 40-year old Klitschko walked through a pair of real challengers in 2011. Odlanier Solis was a former Gold Medalist who had risen to a mandatory slot and arrived in the ring the least fat he’s been in ages. Klitschko busted him on the temple, Solis’s knee gave way, and the game was up. Weeks ago, Klitschko beat what might have been the most accomplished, capable, and well rounded foe of his career in former Light Heavyweight and Cruiserweight champion Tomasz Adamek, a laudable victory. The number that is most impressive is not seven defenses; it’s 72. That’s the number of rounds Klitschko has engaged in since being out of the ring almost four years and returning to take a belt off Samuel Peter. 72 rounds. He’s lost none of them.
3) Bernard Hopkins – Lineal World Light Heavyweight – 0 Defenses
In his second reign as Ring Magazine champ at 175 lbs., and first as lineal (it’s a complicated technicality; see Hill-to-Erdei elsewhere), Hopkins has barely begun to be a champion again. He’s here anyways. Why? At 46-years old, Hopkins (52-5-2, 32 KO) bested an almost two decades younger Jean Pascal on his second try and in October is headed straight to the next best, and also much younger, Light Heavyweight in the World, former titlist Chad Dawson. In his first reign as a Light Heavyweight champ, he bested Antonio Tarver for the crown, worked over Winky Wright, and then lost a close one to Joe Calzaghe. There isn’t a dog in the bunch. His two softest fights since coming up to Light Heavyweight, Enrique Ornelas and old rival Roy Jones, came when no titles were on the line. Oh, and let it not be forgotten the 20 defenses of the IBF Middleweight title way back when Hopkins was still mostly in his 30s, unification of all four major alphabet straps added along the way. Hopkins might sometimes be prickly outside the ring but inside he was and remains the model of championship excellence.
2) Amir Khan – WBA Jr. Welterweight – 5 Defenses; IBF – 0 Defenses
Khan (26-1, 18 KO) was given for dead after a first round knockout loss to Breidis Prescott on his way up the ranks. Khan has made a mockery of those forecasts and exploded into maturity at 140 lbs. Since besting Andriy Kotelnik for his first belt in 2009, he’s defended five times, winning a unification contest with Zab Judah his last time out. There has been only one soft defense, against undefeated but far less talented Dmitry Salita, and the rest have been an array of quality in boxing deepest division. Khan, who failed to get Bradley in the ring through no fault of his own, has been far more the champion 140 lbs. has deserved over the last year than his chief rival and will face yet another serious top ten contender before year’s end in Lamont Peterson. And, of course, no one has forgotten his valiant battle with the most dangerous man at 140 lbs., Marcos Maidana, last year. Khan, in his prime at 24, has taken to being a champion as few in recent memory.
He’s not quite caught up to the man in front of him…
1) Wladimir Klitschko – Lineal World Heavyweight – 3 Defenses
For the third year in a row, there was only once choice. Since the last “Champ for Champ” list, Klitschko granted a rematch to the last man to truly test him, Samuel Peter, and knocked him stiff. He followed, after some purported injuries, with a showdown against his leading rival over the last few years, former Cruiserweight Champion David Haye. Klitschko won easy, if not pretty, his jab the winning weapon against an opponent who saw the opening but was too fearful to throw at them. Klitschko (56-3, 49 KO) does that to a lot of guys. It’s why he’s into double-digit defenses of an IBF belt. It’s why he has every alphabet strap available at Heavyweight accept the one belonging to his brother (and, to be fair, that belt was won from Peter after Wlad was through with him the first time).
He might not always be fun to watch in the ring for some, but Klitschko fights who he is supposed to, dominates, and acts as a high character ambassador for the sport, involved in high priority global charity work for years. The Heavyweight Champion of the World is still, literally if not mythically, the best fighter in the world.
2011’s Heavyweight king is also, literally and any other way measured, the premiere champion the sport has to offer.
The Weekly Ledger
But wait, there’s more…
Gonazalez Blasts Mtagwa: http://www.boxingscene.com/third-shot-no-charm-jhonny-gonzalez-defends-easy--43819
Old School Nasty: http://www.boxingscene.com/-money-shot-weekend-review-ratings-update--43938
New Divisional Ratings: http://www.boxingscene.com/forums/view.php?pg=boxing-ratings
Picks of the Week: http://www.boxingscene.com/boxingscenecoms-television-picks-week--43980
Cliff’s Notes… All of the lineal champions mentioned above also hold alphabet belts but, really, when one is THE champ, does it really matter? All of the lineal champs mentioned fit that mold...Chris John, for all his stats (14 defenses), saw Yuriorkis Gamboa win a unification match before he did and his competition shows no signs of improving. He’s a champ by numbers only right now…If Bob Arum is telling the truth in the press (always a risky proposition to bet on), and WADA can handle PED testing during the Philippines portion of a Manny Pacquiao training camp, AND Pacquiao would genuinely submit to blood and urine testing all the way through, then if Manny Pacquiao defeats Juan Manuel Marquez, the world gets it’s fight, right?...Right?...If all the if’s pan out, fans could finally get their answer on just who is ducking who or whether there really has been any ducking at all…The U.S. version of X-Factor rocked. I’m trippin’ on “Young Homie”…Is Joe Cortez paying attention yet?
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel, the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org