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.1 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
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 2012.2
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.
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.3 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 this June doesn't make him any less relevant or marketable — see the PPV sales for Tyson versus Peter McNeeley — but it does make his boxing plans for the remainder of 2012 harder to map out. So, for now, we're ranking Mayweather no. 2. Don't feel bad for him, though. As long as the wireless connection at the Clark County Detention Center allows him to access score updates on his tablet, Floyd will be just fine.
3. Juan Manuel Marquez
54-6-1 (39 KOs)
Even if Marquez lacks the star power to carry a pay-per-view event on his own, in recent years he has cemented himself as one of the most reliable B-sides of all time. His bout with Mayweather was largely viewed as a mismatch and was predicted to sell about 750,000 PPVs; it sold more than 1 million. Before his third fight with Pacquiao, the bout was generally viewed as noncompetitive; it is rumored to have sold 1.4 million PPVs. Other than his dalliance with urine consumption, there's nothing compelling about Marquez outside the ring. But once the bell sounds, you know what you're going to get from him, and it's all positive, even at age 38.
Not only has Marquez surpassed his Mexican contemporaries Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales in accomplishment, but he may have equaled them in entertainment value. Once viewed as a boring, counterpunching craftsman, JMM has given us a couple Fight of the Year candidates against Pacquiao and an actual Fight of the Year against Juan Diaz, not to mention solid action scraps with Michael Katsidis, the typically unwatchable Joel Casamayor, and Barrera. He's gone from the Greg Maddux mold of yawn-inducing efficiency to the Curt Schilling mold of gripping efficiency. He's no Pacquiao or Mayweather at the box office, but Marquez is a perfect complement to either man on a fight poster, and only those two can top him for a combination of skill and name recognition.
4. Wladimir Klitschko
57-3 (50 KOs)
It pains me to rank Klitschko this high, because I'd rather spend 36 minutes trapped in John Ruiz's sweaty embrace than watch most of Wlad's fights. But he's the legit heavyweight champ (or, at least, as legit as one can be when the top contender is his brother and they refuse to fight each other). He's won 15 consecutive fights over the course of eight years. He's beaten everyone of note in the division except for brother Vitali and contenders like Alexander Povetkin who have avoided him. And the man draws 50,000 fans in Germany every time he fights. It's one thing to draw 50,000 against a well-hyped foe like David Haye. It's another thing to do it against Jean-Marc Mormeck. Wlad's tentative-Goliath routine doesn't play in America, but it whips those Germans into a frenzy like nothing this side of "Jump In My Car."
Klitschko is automatically relevant because he's the lineal descendant of past heavyweight champs Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali. But he has also earned some relevance. He's a 6-foot-6, 245-pound force who, along with his brother and Lennox Lewis, has transformed the perception of oversize heavyweights. No longer do we see a boxer that size and assume he'll be remembered as a sideshow curiosity like Primo Carnera. There's no shortage of smart boxing observers who legitimately believe the Klitschkos would be favored against any heavyweight in history. Dominance, no matter how boring, has a way of winning people over.
5. Sergio Martinez
49-2-2 (28 KOs)
On every respectable pound-for-pound list, Martinez resides between third and fifth. He's the one, true middleweight champion of the world. He provided the best knockout boxing has seen since Lennox Lewis and Hasim Rahman were crumpling each other a decade ago. And some have taken to calling him "Zoolander" on account of his side career as a male model. Martinez is, theoretically, enormously marketable. The only reason he isn't a notch or two higher on this list is that nobody's quite figured out how to cash in yet.
"El Maravilla" does respectable ratings numbers on HBO and has little trouble selling out 5,000-seat ballrooms on the East Coast, but he isn't nearly as large a draw as the far less proven fighter (and potential Martinez opponent in late 2012) Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. Being an Argentine who doesn't speak English isn't helping Martinez's cause. Then again, that stuff doesn't always matter; Roberto Duran was a superstar without needing a rabid Panamanian-American fan base to support him. The bigger obstacle for Martinez might be a lack of opposition. By vanquishing Kelly Pavlik and Paul Williams back-to-back in his 2010 Fighter of the Year campaign, Martinez essentially cleaned out his division. His star has stagnated facing the likes of Sergei Dzinziruk, Darren Barker, and Matthew Macklin. All of the individual ingredients are there for Martinez to become the third-biggest draw in America, but they haven't come together yet. Is it any wonder he's willing to accept Chuck E. Cheese tickets as payment for a fight with Chavez?
6. Vitali Klitschko
44-2 (40 KOs)
If Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko fought each other tomorrow, most experts would favor big brother Vitali. And if their careers ended right now, there's almost no question that Vitali would rank higher among the all-time greats. Yet Wladimir is currently ranked higher everywhere you look. Including here.
Hey, it's boxing. Nobody ever said it's supposed to make sense.
The one-sentence explanation is that Vitali was retired from 2004-08 due to an accumulation of injuries, allowing Wlad to emerge as king of the division, and there hasn't been a justifiable excuse to demote baby bro since. Wlad has three alphabet belts, plus the once-sacred The Ring magazine belt; Vitali has one alphabet belt. So Wlad is generally identified as "the champ." And it doesn't hurt, for the purposes of the Relevance Rankings, that he has more career left in front of him, is better looking, and used to date a moderately noteworthy American actress. But Vitali is the one who has never been knocked down, who has never trailed a fight on points, who convinced Lennox Lewis to retire, and who makes for more entertaining (or at least less un-entertaining) fights. Wladimir has always been the Klitschko who boasts greater potential. Vitali remains the Klitschko who has fully realized his.
7. Nonito Donaire
28-1 (18 KOs)
If you were part of a boxing fantasy keeper league, where maximum points would be earned by fighting frequently, engaging in 12-rounders, appearing on HBO or Showtime, and, of course, winning, Donaire would be one of the first guys drafted. For starters, he's the first fighter in the Relevance Rankings who's under the age of 30 (which doesn't say wonderful things about the state of boxing). The "Filipino Flash" is reliable for two or three fights a year (sadly, respectable numbers these days), all scheduled for 12, all on HBO or Showtime, and all ending with Donaire's hand raised. If you're drafting a fighter you expect to hold on to for three to five years, there isn't a safer pick in the sport.
And as sub-featherweights go, he's marketable. He's an American citizen who speaks perfect English (with an engaging personality), but he also benefits from the built-in Filipino fan base and is better positioned than anyone to catch Pacquiao trickle-down. Though he makes many of the technical mistakes that plague the we-grew-up-watching–Roy Jones generation, Donaire's talents are sublime. There are inconsistency issues, to be sure, but when he's on, Donaire's fists put dents in dudes' heads. It's not easy for a 122-pounder to cross over into legitimate mainstream superstardom, but hey, this guy was a 122-pounder once, too.
8. Bernard Hopkins
52-5-2 (32 KOs)
The very thing that has threatened to make Hopkins irrelevant since about 2005 is precisely what makes him relevant: his age. Hopkins is almost five years older than Mariano Rivera. He's a year older than Jack Nicklaus was when he won his last Masters. At 47, Hopkins is still arguably a pound-for-pound top-10 fighter and is the recognized light heavyweight champion of the world. Every time he competes, there's a built-in angle for the mainstream media.
Offsetting that, however, are the following: B-Hop is boring; his last fight is rumored to have sold as few as 40,000 pay-per-view units; he was booed out of the arena after that fight when he may or may not have injured his shoulder too severely to continue. But name recognition is name recognition, and aside from "Pacquiao," "Mayweather," and "Klitschko," is there a more recognizable surname among active fighters than "Hopkins"? Relevance is often a matter of attrition. There's a reason Hector Camacho Sr. and Larry Holmes drew the biggest ratings to USA's Tuesday Night Fights in the mid-'90s, and it wasn't the thrills they delivered. Hopkins can still fight — at least until Chad Dawson possibly proves otherwise on April 28 — and as long as that's the case, the genetic-freak angle will make every Hopkins bout meaningful.
9. Andre Ward
25-0 (13 KOs)
The pound-for-pound list has always been flawed in that it tends to value accomplishment and longevity over actual in-the-moment capability. In that way, it fails to fulfill the stated mission of answering the question, "If every fighter were the same size, who would win?" Because many of the "best" fighters in the world are somewhat unproven, we're reluctant to rank them atop the P-4-P list, instead favoring more established boxers who are a bit past their physical primes — which describes both Pacquiao4 and Mayweather.5 So if you don't know who Andre Ward is, listen up: He might just be the best fighter in the world right now.
Ward won Olympic gold in '04 and hasn't lost a fight, professional or amateur, since he was 12 years old. From 2009 to 2011, he dominated Showtime's "Super Six" tournament, handily defeating pre-tourney favorites Mikkel Kessler and Arthur Abraham and then upstart Carl Froch in the finals. Maybe he's not blessed with the fast-twitch muscle fibers of a Donaire or a Yuriorkis Gamboa, but he doesn't have their flaws, either. He's actually somewhat reminiscent of Hopkins in terms of his intelligence in the ring and his ability to succeed via the less-than-scintillating approach of forcing his opponents to fail. But at 28 years of age and without a signature name on his résumé yet, Ward lags behind in the area in which Hopkins soars: fame. It will come, but somewhat like Ward's fights, it will be a slow grind.
10. Miguel Cotto
37-2 (30 KOs)
In the same sentence in which Kellerman told Mayweather he's the no. 1 draw in pay-per-view, he pronounced Cotto no. 3. That's more fact than opinion — and the gap between third and fourth is substantial. Cotto is going to do huge business as Mayweather's VP of PPV (expectations are for about 1.5 million buys), and he can also get the job done as the main attraction (his rematch with Antonio Margarito last December, which was arguably a meeting of two shot fighters, stirred up a purported 600,000 purchases). Oh, and Cotto versus a burlap sack filled with Styrofoam peanuts could sell out Madison Square Garden on the eve of the Puerto Rican Day Parade.
He's beloved. He's exciting. He's a bad-ass and a sympathetic figure all at once. You could probably make a good case for ranking Cotto in the top five here. The only problem is that he might be in year four of the "damaged goods" stage of his career. There are some who are speculating that his fight with Mayweather will look like Arturo Gatti's fight with Mayweather, which was basically Sonny Corleone versus Carlo without the trash can lids. The Gatti comparison is probably overblown, but the fact is that nobody really knows what Cotto has left at this point. He might be spent. If he's not, and he looks remotely competitive against Money on May 5, he'll deserve to climb the Relevance Rankings in defeat.
11. Timothy Bradley
28-0 (12 KOs)
Bradley has never been the beneficiary of hype. He came up the hard way, turning heads one win at a time on under-the-radar ShoBox broadcasts, almost always by decision. Then he upset Junior Witter, got off the canvas to beat Kendall Holt, and later beat three undefeated fighters in a row: Lamont Peterson, Luis Carlos Abregu, and Devon Alexander. There's nothing marketable about Bradley other than the zero on the end of his record. But he's about to transform instantly from an underappreciated boxer to one of the biggest names in the sport, at least for a few weeks. Bradley will face Pacquiao on June 9, and that means Bradley matters for a little while, the same way Victor Ortiz did briefly last year. And if the 28-year-old Bradley can pull off the upset — and many among boxing's nerderati believe it's possible — then he might matter for a very long while.
12. Amir Khan
26-2 (18 KOs)
Khan, who desperately wanted to fight Bradley last year, only to see every offer rejected,6 is in many ways the anti-Bradley, for better and for worse. Khan is highly marketable. He can sell tickets (at least in his native England), he was blessed with punching power, and his style is fan-friendly. But his chin is questionable and his performances are inconsistent. Bradley just wins. While Khan has a magnetism Bradley will never have, he has suffered two massive upset losses in his last 10 fights. Just when it seemed like he'd gotten it all together under trainer Freddie Roach and was emerging as a possible successor to Mayweather and Pacquiao, he came up short last December against relatively anonymous Lamont Peterson (though there are many who feel Khan deserved to win the decision, even after two controversial point deductions). Khan has a chance to right that in a May 19 rematch. It's as must-win a fight as you'll find for a 25-year-old these days.
13. Lucian Bute
30-0 (24 KOs)
If not for the fact that 50,000 fans fill up stadiums in Germany to watch two boring brothers who aren't even German, it would seem remarkable that the Romanian-born Bute consistently draws 12,000 to 16,000 for his fights in Montreal. The reality is, Canadian fight fans are among the best in the world, whether the fighters are wearing gloves or dropping them. And Bute is the best boxer they have going now, birth nation be damned. He's probably the no. 1 body puncher in the sport, his ring entrances are top-notch (in a sea of AC/DC, Eminem, and songs found on the Rocky IV soundtrack, "Where the Streets Have No Name" has emerged as an unexpectedly invigorating ringwalk alternative), and he's undefeated. Bute has yet to fight an A-level foe (The Contender's Sakio Bika and a 42-year-old Glen Johnson are the closest he's come), but that will change on May 26, when he faces Carl Froch in the Englishman's backyard. If Bute wins, then Ward versus Bute becomes the poor man's Mayweather-Pacquiao — hopefully with the crazy twist that the fight actually gets made.
14. Saul "Canelo" Alvarez
39-0-1 (29 KOs)
Red hair. Freckles. There, now that the obligatory acknowledgement of Canelo's unique visage for a Mexican fighter is out of the way, we can focus on what the hell he's doing on this list. In a pound-for-pound sense, I'm not so sure Alvarez cracks the top 50 right now. But as a draw, he's probably top five, at least in North America. He's that once-in-a-generation boxing rock star, the post–Oscar De La Hoya Oscar De La Hoya, and even though most of us guys look at him and see Opie with muscles, the young girls shriek, and we have to defer to their judgment on this sort of thing. And as a fighter, Alvarez isn't half-bad. He's a bit slow-fisted and there are still questions about his chin stemming from the time two years ago when a guy two weight classes smaller nearly took him out, but he's only 21 years old and presumably several feet below his eventual ceiling. Does he get embarrassed by Mayweather if they fight later this year? Absolutely. But you could fill a 100,000-seat stadium in Mexico with that fight. Boxing is as much a business as it is a sport, and very few brands are selling better than Canelo's right now.
15. Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.
45-0-1 (31 KOs)
When you've been a "dying sport" for as long as boxing has, certain patterns emerge, and one is that every five or 10 years, when the leading star in the game is showing his age, the public speculates that we're seeing the sport's final superstar and final mega-event.7 Not surprisingly, there's an undercurrent of thought that when Pacquiao and Mayweather are gone, that will be the end of the end. Just don't tell that to the promoters who stand to make $100 million in live-gate and PPV revenue matching Chavez with Canelo in a year or two. From a Relevance Rankings perspective, Chavez is the same guy as Canelo, just with less surprising hair and a last name that resonates. He's not a top-50 P-4-P guy, he's being maneuvered more like a prospect than a champion, it's turning out he can actually fight better than we thought a few years ago, and he's responsible for some of HBO's best ratings. If you have the same name as the greatest Mexican fighter ever and you can find a way to keep winning for the first nine years of your career, you can make a little money in this game.
16. Carl Froch
28-2 (20 KOs)
Imagine an NBA team hitting a stretch on their schedule where they play, in direct succession, the Lakers, Heat, Spurs, Thunder, Pacers, Celtics, Grizzlies, and Bulls. And imagine that team goes 6-2 or 5-3. That's what Froch, who was inconsequential outside the U.K. prior to his last eight fights, has done. Serious fight fans know what a ludicrous gauntlet this is: Jean Pascal, Jermain Taylor, Andre Dirrell, Mikkel Kessler, Arthur Abraham, Glen Johnson, Andre Ward, and, next month, Lucian Bute. Without a single tune-up. You have to respect Froch. (And not just because this is his girlfriend.) He's come a long way from when tongue-tied Showtime broadcaster Antonio Tarver repeatedly called him "Crotch" a couple of years ago.
17. Brandon Rios
30-0-1 (22 KOs)
You might not want Brandon Rios dating your daughter. You definitely don't want him giving her lessons in political correctness or refined dialogue. And his crash-dieting tips are probably going to do her more harm than good. But when it's Saturday night and the bell rings, there's no fighter you'd rather have F-bombing his way across your TV screen than Rios. It's unfair to compare any action fighter to Arturo Gatti, but there are elements of Gatti, inside the ring, outside the ring, and on the scale, in "Bam Bam" Rios. That Gatti remained competitive into his mid-30s is a minor miracle, and it wouldn't be a surprise if Rios, currently 25, flames out in the next five years. Or the next five months. Hell, he looked three-quarters spent in winning a controversial decision over Richard Abril last Saturday night. Still, however long this lasts, it's going to be entertaining.
18. Lamont Peterson
30-1-1 (15 KOs)
It's hard not to include somewhere on this list a likable American fighter who just four months ago beat the guy ranked no. 12. Peterson doesn't have the eye-popping talent or half the natural power of Khan. And he's still obscure to the mainstream, even after beating Khan. As for his gripping backstory, boxing fans have been hearing it on an endless loop for the last five years. At this point, short of Peterson getting a massive back tat of his brother and him sleeping beneath an overpass, he has squeezed as much mileage out of his upbringing as he can. But he's a versatile, no-glaring-weaknesses fighter hitting his stride at age 28. We in sports constantly complain about athletes who are all sizzle and no steak. Peterson represents the opposite and deserves to be recognized.
19. Yuriorkis Gamboa
21-0 (16 KOs)
For jaw-dropping physical talent, former Cuban Olympian Gamboa is right up there with Mayweather, Pacquiao, and Donaire at the top of the sport. But jaws aren't the only things that drop when "The Cyclone of Guantánamo" fights. Gamboa has had to climb off the canvas to win four times already. There's also drama developing outside the ring, in the form of Gamboa having agreed (at least verbally) to a salivation-worthy April 14 HBO fight with Brandon Rios only to blow it off as the press tour got under way, making himself unpopular with the network that has the deepest pockets in the sport. The surest way to become irrelevant is not to fight. Gamboa could have been about five slots higher on this list by proceeding with the Rios fight, and five slots above that if he'd won.
20. Orlando Salido
38-11-2 (26 KOs)
With more than twice as many losses as the rest of the bottom 10 combined, Salido is in his own category. He's a late bloomer and a true feel-good story. Since starting out 14-8-2, Salido has only lost in the past decade to Juan Manuel Marquez, Cristobal Cruz (later avenged), and Yuriorkis Gamboa. And he has completely redefined his career with two thrilling TKO wins in the past 12 months over previously unbeaten Juan Manuel Lopez, the latter currently the leading candidate for 2012 Fight of the Year. Perfect records make a boxer more marketable. But most of the time, a perfect record is a sign of a guy who hasn't faced the toughest available challenges. Salido is the best example going that perfection is overrated. Whatever level of relevance Salido has attained 16 years into his pro career, he's earned every bit of it.
Eric Raskin is a former managing editor of The Ring magazine. He co-hosts the twice-monthly boxing podcast Ring Theory and can be found on Twitter: @EricRaskin.