Most associate the origin of the "pound-for-pound" title with Sugar Ray Robinson in the 1940s and indeed, to this day most recognize Robinson as the best fighter ever to tie on a pair of gloves. The lore is that the newspaper guys needed a way to distinguish Robinson as the best fighter of the day as Joe Louis, a giant even then, was clearly the sport's emperor. Yes, Louis was the heavyweight champion, a national icon and beloved figure, the king of sport. But pound for pound, Robinson was better.
Some historians trace the concept of a pound-for-pound best back farther, to the teens and '20s, when the great lightweight champion Benny Leonard was one of the kings of the game, even as Jack Dempsey was making his legend at heavyweight.
The greatest heavyweights are never recognized as the best in the game, pound-for-pound. There are two reasons: first, the very designation is a means to separate heavyweight champions, typically the most popular and most watched fighters in the game, from the smaller, harder-working, under-rewarded guys. Secondly, even the best heavyweights are not as skilled, as fast, as good as the smaller guys. There could never be a heavyweight Willie Pep, even on Pep's worst day.
No heavyweight champion - not Dempsey, not Louis or Marciano or Frazier or Ali or Foreman or Tyson - was considered by anyone to be the best fighter in the business pound-for-pound during his reign, because he wasn't. In any era you can name, there was a smaller guy who was better. Faster, smarter, more skilled, you name it.
When in its January 1990 issue The Ring magazine for the first time published its ranking of the best fighters in the world pound-for-pound, it introduced to fight aficionados a whole new realm in which to debate fighters' merits. But fans knew all along that the best fighters in the world, pound-for-pound, were the littler guys. There wasn't as much formal consensus or attention on it as there is now, but real fight fans knew.
While Ali was grabbing all the headlines in the 1960s, it was two smaller guys, Carlos Ortiz and Eder Jofre, who jockeyed for unofficial status as the pound-for-pound best. Ortiz, a marvelous boxer-puncher and brilliant combination hitter, won the world lightweight and junior welterweight titles and defended the lightweight belt nine times over two reigns, including seven title fight wins over future Hall of Famers.
Jofre won his first 53 fights and ruled the bantamweight division from '61 to '65, retired in '67, came back as a featherweight in '69, won the title at that weight and ultimately lost just two of 78 career fights. You can throw into the mix too Pascual Perez, the dynamite punching Argentine who reigned as the flyweight world champ for better than five years.
It got no better in a pound-for-pound sense for Ali in the '70s, even as he grew into the sport's biggest star. Long-reigning lightweight champion Roberto Duran was viewed by many as the best in the sport regardless of size, and he had the record to prove it. He ruled the lightweight division for six solid years and went - get this - 53-1 in the decade.
As great as Duran was, some recognized middleweight champion Carlos Monzon as the sport's best, pound-for-pound. Not as flashy as Duran or as exciting, Monzon nonetheless rode a 56-fight, six-year undefeated streak into the decade, went 26-0 between '70 and '77, made 14 title defenses, and hadn't lost a fight since '64. Ali couldn't touch that.
Dempsey had it even worse than did Ali. Not only did he have Leonard establishing himself as perhaps the greatest lightweight ever, he also had Harry Greb raising hell at middleweight. Greb held the title for three years and tore through the best middleweights and light heavyweights of the era. Many rate him among the three or four best 160-pounders ever.
But fans knew all along that the best fighters in the world, pound-for-pound, were the littler guys. There wasn't as much formal consensus or attention on it as there is now, but real fight fans knew.
If Greb wasn't the best in the game pound-for-pound in the era, maybe it was Jimmy Wilde, possibly the best flyweight in history, or Tony Canzoneri or Barney Ross, a pair of wonderful three-division champions. Either way, you can be sure it wasn't Dempsey, as great as he was.
Dempsey wasn't the first heavyweight champ to be outshone by the smaller guys. The great Jack Johnson fared no better. While he was establishing his legacy at the turn of the century on the way to becoming the first black world heavyweight champion, "Terrible" Terry McGovern was winning the bantamweight and featherweight titles and staking his claim as the best all-around fighter there was.
Unfortunately for Greb, so was the brilliant lightweight champion Joe Gans, over whom McGovern claimed a kayo victory that was a clear fix. Gans, the first native-born black American to win a world title at any weight, won the lightweight title in 1902 and defended it 13 times over two reigns. "The Dancing Master" was universally recognized as the best 135-pounder ever until Leonard came along and even then the old-timers still preferred Gans, who has a legitimate claim to being the best fighter pound-for-pound of his era.
Many of the fighters who have over time been seen as the best pound-for-pound have been, like Gans, more boxer than puncher (though Gans did end up with 85 career knockout wins). Same with Leonard. The great Pernell Whitaker, who spent nearly an entire decade (the '90s) at the top of most pound-for-pound ratings, was his era's Pep, a defensive genius. Mayweather falls solidly in this category. He's the slickest fighter in the business today.
A few pound-for-pound guys have been great punchers. Robinson, for one. Wilde certainly was - he ended up with 101 career kayo wins. Duran belongs in this category (though his skills were criminally underrated) and so does long-time junior middleweight titleholder Terry Norris, who spent some time on the pound-for-pound list. Norris was a crippling puncher when he wanted to be.
The great Sam Langford was a hitter too, who fought in Johnson's era and, as a welterweight, routinely knocked out heavyweights. While not a devastating puncher, Julio Cesar Chavez, who was at the top of the pound-for-pound ratings for several years and is the most accomplished Mexican fighter ever, also qualifies as a great puncher. Ask Meldrick Taylor.
Still, for the most part, the fighters who have spent the longest stretches on the pound-for-pound lists have been efficient boxer/punchers. Think Sugar Ray Leonard, who, at the height of his career, in the early '80s, was the best boxer/puncher in the game. Same with Roy Jones, who was untouchable in his prime primarily for his great speed, but never was enamored of the knockout. Monzon wasn't a great puncher, but he did everything well. Same with the mature Bernard Hopkins, and Oscar De La Hoya and Shane Mosley, all recent pound-for-pound entrants.
As great and as exciting as he was, Kostya Tszyu never got close to the top of the pound-for-pound ratings until he stopped relying so much on the right hand. Marco Antonio Barrera wouldn't be there today if he were still the gun slinging left-hooker that he was 10 years ago. He's a calmer, more complete fighter.
Either way, you don't get called the best fighter in the world pound-for-pound without being special, no matter what the era. The ghosts of the best prizefighters ever will be watching Mayweather on November 4. He's got a lot of history to live up to.
Either way, you don't get called the best fighter in the world pound-for-pound without being special, no matter what the era.