Sports

Flagrant Fouls: Debating Boxing’s Greatest

Sports fans love superlatives. We love labeling one player, team, or coach “the greatest of all time;” we jump at every opportunity to do so. ESPN panels, online chatrooms and living rooms are routinely filled with the same roar of disagreement, the same arguments over who was more dominant, which stats are more important, who is truly the greatest.

Those arguments, however, grow tiresome. Different statistics, especially across eras, often cannot be soundly compared, and players who played different positions or who made different types of contributions are like apples and oranges. Diehard sports fans are, by nature, among the most stubborn members of society; minds are rarely changed. So, as much as we love to have these arguments, we love even more when the decisions are made for us. Sports fans relish the convenience of having two great athletes or teams face-off, and are always eager to label it a winner-take-all contest for the title of greatest-of-all-time, -of-the-era, or -of-the-year.

On May 2, sports culture’s appetite for a superlative-deciding contest will again be whetted.

Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao are the two most dominant fighters of their generation. Mayweather is ranked the #1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world with a career record of 47 wins, zero losses, and zero draws. Pacquiao, ranked #2 in the world pound-for pound, boasts a record of 57-5-2. Speculation about a possible bout between them has built up for years. Unsurprisingly, the much-awaited clash on May 2 is being heralded as the battle of the era. Once again, sports fans are jumping at an opportunity to have a long raging debate decided for them.

The debate, however, should already be decided, regardless of the outcome of the title bout on May 2nd. The statistics, when examined closely, will settle it for us.
Floyd Mayweather has never lost. With a record of 47-0-0 he currently stands as the second most decorated undefeated fighter of all time behind Rocky Marciano. Marciano, widely regarded one of the all-time greats, finished 49-0-0, but Mayweather has one key stat even over him: Marciano only defended his titles on 6 occasions. Mayweather has already successfully defended at least one title in 16 different fights.

Despite his greatness, Mayweather’s career has not gone untarnished by his actions outside of the ring. Mayweather has been charged with and convicted of domestic battery and assault several times, resulting in his serving of multiple jail sentences. The most recent incident resulted in a 60 day sentence, which he served in 2012. Thus, his dominance in the ring does not in itself make him worth admiring, though it has been unquestionable dominance.

When compared to Pacquiao, Mayweather seems to stand even further ahead than he does when pitted against Marciano. His win percentage is, obviously, 100%. Pacquiao has won 89% of his fights. Mayweather has won 22 titles in his professional career, besting Pacquiao’s 20, and has defeated two current members of the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Pacquiao has only defeated one. With regards to the dominance with which they win, Mayweather again has a narrow lead, having won 91% of his bouts by unanimous decision while Pacquiao has only done so at a rate of 89%.

These are all, with the exception of win percentage, admittedly narrow advantages for Mayweather. The place where he truly separates himself is in the fight itself; when it comes to the analytics of the sport, Mayweather has few equals.

One of the most important statistics in boxing is connect rate (the percentage of punches that a boxer throws that actually reach their target). Mayweather’s connect rate is an impressive 46%, while Pacquiao sits at 29%. But, above all else, Floyd Mayweather is known for his defense; his patented shoulder-roll is famous and feared. The rate that opponents connect their punches against him is a measly 16%, one of the lowest rates for a fighter in recent memory. That, combined with Pacquiao’s less-than-impressive connect rate, gives Floyd a distinct advantage going into this fight.

Those two statistics are used to determine a boxer’s plus/minus, the difference between a boxer’s connection rate and the rate at which people connect against him. Mayweather’s plus/minus is +30, by far the best of any active fighter. Pacquiao’s plus/minus is +4.7.

Finally, if the stats themselves do not paint a convincing enough picture, perhaps the opinions of real experts will. A few years ago, when ESPN ranked the 50 greatest fighters of all time, there was only one active fighter on the list: Floyd Mayweather, ranked 48th. That was nine wins ago.

The evidence seems to tell a clear story here, but it is one that diverges from the media-driven frenzy-fostering narratives we’ve grown accustomed to. Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao are unquestionably the two greatest fighters of their generation, but they are not equals. When we have great matchup that will decide the placement of titles such as “greatest of all time” we should acknowledge them, and revel in the greatness of those moments. But we should not force that narrative when it isn’t appropriate.

March 13, 2015

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