The Grantland Boxing Relevance Rankings
Eric Raskin [ARCHIVE]
April 27, 2012
t Facebook t Twitter

Thirteen years ago, Bernard Hopkins, then a sprightly 34-year-old recognized by boxing aficionados as the best middleweight in the world but altogether unknown outside boxing's cult audience, sat in his tiny dressing room at the D.C. Convention Center. He had his red International Boxing Federation belt by his side and a small gathering of reporters huddled around him. Hopkins had just put on a masterful performance to defeat Robert Allen in seven rounds, but he was in no mood to celebrate. He was in a Bernard Hopkins mood. That meant railing against the injustices of the boxing business. And, by extension, against the size of his paycheck.

Not yet a multimillionaire, still just a working-class fighter, Hopkins declared, "I can't go to the electric company and pay my bill with belts."

It is in that spirit, and in the spirit of the sport's alternative name of "prizefighting," that Grantland is proud to unveil its twist on the pound-for-pound list. Being able to hook off the jab and counterpunch and knock guys into Bolivian are all well and good, but excellence in the ring is only half of the equation. In this sport, the skills that pay the electric bills include self-promotion, exposure, branding, and the all-around ability to entertain. When it comes to measuring star power, your reality-TV résumé often outweighs your win-loss record. And fair or not, skin pigmentation and nationality matter enormously in boxing when it comes to putting asses in seats. The sad truth is that if you're African American and you want to sell pay-per-views, you'd better be willing to curse out your dad on TV.

Boxing, though thriving in many corners of the globe, is forever battling to stay relevant in the United States. Thus, the Relevance Rankings blend traditional pound-for-pound criteria with assorted Q-rating quotients. The goal is to strike a 50-50 balance between ability and marketability, but the former always plays some role in the latter.

What you're about to read isn't a list of the 20 best boxers in the world, and it isn't a list of the 20 biggest stars in boxing. It's both of those things and neither of those things. It's a pound-for-pound list for an age when athletic brilliance is only loosely associated with earning power.

1. Manny Pacquiao Welterweight 54-3-2 (38 KOs)

Pacquiao, Mayweather. Mayweather, Pacquiao. Pacquiao, Mayweather. Mayweather, Pacquiao. I changed my mind about the order of the top two a dozen times before I sat down to write this. The pound-for-pound component has been easy since I sat ringside and watched Pacquiao get outboxed by Juan Manuel Marquez last November before escaping with a highly disputed decision; I believe Floyd Mayweather, at this moment, to be the best fighter in the world. But the Relevance Rankings decision is considerably more complicated.

Initially, I was firm in my belief that the top spot belonged to Pacquiao. Then Max Kellerman called Mayweather "the biggest pay-per-view star" in boxing on HBO's Face Off prefight hype show. I e-mailed Max, we chatted on the phone, and by the time we hung up, I was ready to make Mayweather no. 1. Then I spent an entire day flipping and flopping, polling and debating with colleagues, and finally I made my decision. With very little conviction.

Even if Mayweather is the top pay-per-view attraction in the sport, as Kellerman asserts (although official sales numbers are almost never released, so this assessment is based on hearsay, approximation, and the staggering 2.4 million buys for Mayweather's pre-recession fight with Oscar De La Hoya), I keep coming back to Pac-Man as the right guy to place atop this list. Here's why: If you put their faces on a billboard in Times Square, which fighter would a greater percentage of the folks walking down the street recognize? It's fair to say that eight or nine out of 10 everyday Americans know former Dancing With the Stars contestant Mayweather. But somewhere in the vicinity of 95 out of 100 know the smiling, goateed mug of that Filipino boxer who sings on Jimmy Kimmel Live! every six months. Manny Pacquiao, in part because he's the "good guy" and an ambassador we're more comfortable with, is the face of boxing in 2012.

And let's not forget that an entire nation stops working, stops committing crimes, and presumably stops making babies when Pacquiao fights. The Relevance Rankings are presented from a USA-centric point of view, but global appeal has to count for something. Pacquiao also fights more frequently than Mayweather (by a 9-3 margin since 2008) and earns his side coin through endorsements rather than sports betting. How can we give the no. 1 spot to a guy who has yet to reveal the identify of his wild rabbit?

Mayweather's May 5 fight with Miguel Cotto will probably outsell Pacquiao's June 9 fight with Timothy Bradley by somewhere in the neighborhood of a 3-2 margin, and odds are that Mayweather will win his fight with less difficulty. So a reassessment may very well be in order two months from now. But until then, it's "Pacquiao, Mayweather," and not the other way around.

2. Floyd Mayweather Jr. Welterweight 42-0 (26 KOs)

Nobody — perhaps not even Mayweather himself — knows exactly where Floyd ends and his on-screen persona, "Money," begins. But regardless of how much is real and how much is performance, Mayweather has perfected the bad-guy role like no boxer who came before him. Blending hints of Muhammad Ali, Hector Camacho, Mike Tyson, and Naseem Hamed, among others, Mayweather is the undisputed king of convincing people to pay to watch him lose — even though he never loses.

Until 2005, Mayweather was an extraordinary boxer with no profile beyond the sport's hard-core following. Once he began to rebrand himself as a villain, he became a superstar (with a massive assist from 2007 opponent De La Hoya and the spotlight he brought). Floyd is the MVP of HBO's 24/7 franchise, he has appeared in WrestleMania, and he has more Twitter followers than any other fighter.

Plus, with Pacquiao looking slightly diminished from his 2008-09 prime, Mayweather (who in '09 dominated the same Marquez that Pacquiao was lucky to squeak past last November), is the P-4-P king right now. There's a distinct separation in the quality of their performances since Mayweather returned from "retirement" in 2009. Some of that may be due to the styles and talents of their respective opponents (Pacquiao, too, would likely have bombed out Victor Ortiz if he'd gotten the chance to face him). But it's also due to Pacquiao relying on an energy-based attack and not possessing quite the same energy he did in his 20s.

Still, while Mayweather would be a favorite over Pacquiao at the sports book, it's Pac-Man who has been carrying the sport the last few years while Floyd has toyed with retirement. Mayweather's ensuing prison stint...
Next >

t Facebook t Twitter
FLOYD MAYWEATHER VS. MIGUEL COTTO
MORE BOXING COVERAGE
BOXING HOME PAGE
NEWS
ANALYSIS
Back to Top
ESPN Mobile Web Home
En Español
ABC News Headlines
Help and Feedback
Search
Terms of Use
Interest-Based Ads
Privacy Policy/Your California Privacy Rights
SIGN IN