By Lyle Fitzsimmons
For so many years, it was so easy.
Love him or loathe him, Floyd Mayweather Jr. laid consensus claim to at least one title for the bulk of his unbeaten, career-defining run between 2009 and 2015:
Best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
But since the bell that ended Money's competitive swan song against an outgunned Andre Berto two Septembers ago, the number of camps declaring a hold on that handle has swelled dramatically.
Perhaps the most legitimate of those suggestions was the one proffered by former Olympic gold medalist Andre Ward, who had already cleared out the 168-pound ranks before Mayweather's departure and proceeded to scale heady heights at 175 – in the form of two defeats of multi-belted champ Sergey Kovalev – in 2016 (UD 12) and 2017 (TKO 8).
That was enough to satisfy the gang at The Ring, who'd positioned Ward at No. 1 on the magazine's highest-pedestal list thanks to his voluminous body of work and had kept him there right up until mid-Thursday afternoon when the announcement of his sudden exit began making social media rounds.
"I want to be clear – I am leaving because my body can no longer put up with the rigors of the sport and therefore my desire to fight is no longer there," Ward, 33, said in a statement on his website. "If I cannot give my family, my team, and the fans everything that I have, then I should no longer be fighting."
The statement came under the title "Mission Accomplished," and he posted a video online that spelled out his satisfaction at having hit career benchmarks. The first was becoming a boxer in the first place, winning an Olympic gold medal and then becoming a world champion.
"To the sport of boxing – I love you. You've been by my side since I was 10 years old," he said. "You've taught me so much. You've humbled me. You've promoted me. I've sacrificed a lot for you, but you've given me more than I ever thought possible. As I walk away from the sport of boxing today, I leave at the top of your glorious mountain, which was always my vision and my dream. I did it. We did it."
It was a sudden decision that jolted even Ward's close colleagues, including HBO's Jim Lampley, who said the fighter had talked to him as recently as two weeks ago about anticipated bouts – including the prospect of stepping all the way up to heavyweight to face Anthony Joshua.
But Lampley indicated Ward had also taken a long view when it came to life after boxing.
"He is financially secure, wants to be a totally involved parent, doesn't want to risk his health anymore," Lampley said. "A year ago he told me the 'triple crown' for a boxer is to retire with your legacy, your faculties and your finances intact."
Ironically, Ward's exit came just days after The Ring's No. 2 pound-for-pound commodity, middleweight Gennady Golovkin, faced seventh-ranked Canelo Alvarez in a fight that was promoted as much to crown a new "face of boxing" as a potential challenger to Ward's throne.
The split-decision draw that resulted, however, does little to clarify the position of either man, and the lack of certainty on whether they'll meet again in the near future creates a P4P stardom vacuum others will surely aim to fill.
In fact, the fighters occupying Nos. 3, 4 and 5 on the Ring list – Terence Crawford, Vasyl Lomachenko and Guillermo Rigondeaux, respectively – would seem to have an inside track toward staking a claim for the top spot while the Golovkin and Alvarez camps jab, parry and thrust about their future plans.
Crawford has been quietly building a case as boxing's best for the last several years, capturing a mantel's worth of belts at 135 and 140 pounds – including one-sided unification bout defeats of previously unbeaten foes Viktor Postol (UD 12) and Julius Indongo (KO 3).
He's suggested that similar conquests at 147 are on the agenda as well, and a promotional alliance with Top Rank has again made a paradigm-shifting bout with aging ex-champ Manny Pacquiao a possibility—or, if not, a duel with the Filipino's most recent conqueror, Australian Jeff Horn.
Horn beat Pacquiao by controversial unanimous decision in July.
"We've got other offers to fight Crawford and some other guys," Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach, told Sky Sports this week. "He's close to the end yes, but he's not finished yet though.
"He is still very dedicated, he works really hard and he puts 100 percent into training every day when we're getting ready for a fight."
As for Lomachenko and Rigondeaux – who've combined for four Olympic golds, 859 amateur wins and four professional title belts across three weight classes – they'll pursue pound-for-pound supremacy by meeting in a fight for Lomachenko's WBO junior lightweight title on Dec. 9 in New York City.
Lomachenko, in just 10 pro fights, has become a television fixture on basic and premium cable thanks to his connection to Top Rank; while Rigondeaux, who also was a champion while still in single-digit fights, began his career a commodity on HBO before splitting with Top Rank – though he most recently appeared on HBO PPV on the undercard of Ward's rematch with Kovalev.
"Rigo feels like he can go anywhere from 122 to 130 pounds," said his promoter, Dino Duva, via ESPN's Dan Rafael. "Rigo wants to and has to make a statement, and this is the fight he can make a statement in. He feels he can beat anybody. He realizes Lomachenko is a tough fight."
Aside from the 34-year-old Kovalev at No. 6 and the aforementioned Alvarez at No. 7, residing in the back half of The Ring's list is an exciting trio of title-holders whose average age is 26, whose combined record is 73-0 (with 61 knockouts) and whose average fight lasts barely more than five rounds.
And it'd certainly be no shock if one of them – whether three-division champ Mikey Garcia, two-division kingpin Naoya Inoue or former U.S. Olympian and new welterweight claimant Errol Spence Jr. – is atop the P4P pack when the century's third decade begins in January 2020.
Not surprisingly, Spence, who impressively dethroned Kell Brook in May, thinks it'll be him.
"You just have to have that 'it' factor, and I think I have it," Spence told The Ring, days prior to his 11th-round stoppage of Brook in the then-IBF champ's Sheffield, England, hometown. "I'm not worried about the crowd. I'm not worried about the boos or anything like that. I can't let the fans get to me. … I love all boxing fans, and they don't know yet, but at the end of the night they are going to be rooting for me.
"They'll be my fans."
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This week’s title-fight schedule:
WBC cruiserweight title – Riga, Latvia
Mairis Briedis (champion/No. 3 IWBR) vs. Mike Perez (No. 12 WBC/No. 33 IWBR)
Briedis (22-0, 18 KO): First title defense; Two fights have gone beyond nine rounds (2-0, 0 KO)
Perez (22-2-1, 14 KO): First title fight; Second fight at cruiserweight limit (1-0, 1 KO)
Fitzbitz says: Perez is an interesting cruiserweight case after typically fighting at 230 pounds and beyond, but he’s not fighting just another small guy. Briedis is a rugged customer at 200. Briedis by decision
Last week's picks: 4-0 (WIN: Ramirez, Valdez, Linares, Parker)
2017 picks record: 68-25 (73.1 percent)
Overall picks record: 890-299 (74.8 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.