By Briggs Seekins
Floyd Mayweather has a favorite line he often falls back on to defend his standing as boxing’s all-time, pound-for-pound great: “Women lie, men lie, numbers don’t lie.”
It’s a clever retort at first glance but hardly the triumphant piece of rhetoric that Floyd and his fans imagine it to be. No, numbers do not lie. But they are also meaningless outside of context.
Just how meaningless an undefeated record can be was driven home once again last weekend, as long-time unbeaten heavyweight David Rodriguez was knocked out by journeyman Darnell Wilson in Atlantic City.
On paper this looked like a complete mismatch to the casual fan. Rodriguez was 36-0 with 34 KOs. He’s built like a linebacker—6’4” and 250 pounds of muscle. Wilson has lost 17 fights and been knocked out five times. At 5’10” and 236 pounds, his physique has seen better days.
But fans who knew how to look behind the records were hardly surprised by the outcome. Wilson is a seasoned professional who has fought around the world. His list of opponents includes the likes of BJ Flores and Denis Boytsov. He has been in the ring with high-level gate keepers like Travis Walker, Jason Gavern and Firat Arslan. Rodriguez was a popular regional attraction in the southwest United States and Mexico, but he hadn’t faced an opponent ranked inside the top 150.
The matchup reminded me a little bit of Bert Cooper’s 1997 KO of Richie Melito at Madison Square Garden. Melito was a former star high school athlete in New York City. He’d built an enthusiastic local following as he shot to 18-0 with 17 KOs. The boys from the neighborhood were shocked when he got blasted in the first round by an old, out-of-shape fighter like Cooper, who’d lost 17 times. But nobody who remembered seeing Cooper rock Evander Holyfield in 1991 was remotely surprised.
Mayweather’s 45-0 is a completely different matter, of course. He’s fought at the world-championship level for over a decade. His list of victims includes future Hall of Famers. Arguments about the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of all time can never be resolved, unless there is a boxing ring waiting in the Sweet Here After. But it’s not out of line to include Mayweather’s name in the debate.
It’s also foolish to pretend his perfect record is some sort of trump card in the conversation. It’s a rare and impressive accomplishment, to be sure, just like Rocky Marciano’s 49-0. But it proves nothing definitive, and has to be weighed within a context.
But a result of Mayweather’s reign at the top of the sport has been an exaggerated fetishization of perfect records, and a tendency on the part of fans and the boxing media to overreact to losses on a fighter’s resume. This leads to cautious match making with prospects and rising stars, as they pad their records with meaningless wins and avoid the kind of risks that would help them learn and provide the fans with more compelling matchups.
To a degree, this is also a product of a modern era when fighters don’t compete as frequently as they did in previous generations. When a boxer was in the ring 8-10 times a year, a loss could be placed in the rear-view mirror much more quickly. It’s a positive development that fighters fight less often now, in terms of their health. But it creates a lot more pressure for them to avoid a loss when they do.
The way things stand now, a fighter who is not carefully handled from the start of his career has little chance of working his way up the rankings. Fighters like Orlando Salido who can recover from being thrown to the wolves early on and forge a world-championship career are extremely rare. Once a fighter has accumulated a handful of losses he is at best in a situation like Gabriel Rosado or Raymundo Beltran, forever seemingly cast into the roll of opponent to the promoter’s fighter, which means, unlikely to catch a fair break on the judges’ cards.
Losing is one of the natural outcomes of competing. Any athlete hates it, but almost none can avoid it while still challenging themselves with the best opponents available. So it’s imperative that promoters and the media look past simple numbers and evaluate fighters based on what they have actually done.