Monday, 2 June 2014

Rankings lists and the inevitable howls of protest

Kevin Mitchell’s list of his top five post-war British fighters in The Guardian, published yesterday afternoon, has certainly rubbed some pugilistic aficionados up the wrong way, provoking some heated debate in the process.

The last time I checked, there were over 200 ‘below the line’ comments on his article online, many of them highly critical and, I felt, excessively hyperbolic in their condemnation of Mitchell’s reasoning. Is a top five of Lewis, Froch, Calzaghe, Buchanan and Benn really “absurd”, “pathetic” or an “embarrassment”. I mean, really? Isn’t Mr Mitchell entitled to, ahem, his own opinion? I guess it’s an occupational hazard of playing the ranking game that you’re going to incur the wrath of a keyboard warrior or two.

Here at Boxiana towers, the sensible part of my brain realises that all-time rankings lists are meaningless and utterly trivial. Nevertheless, regardless of their inherent faults, I am forced to admit that I love compiling my own versions of such lists. If that makes me a hypocrite or a sucker for punishment, then so be it.

With this in mind, here are my thoughts on Mitchell’s list, as well as my own ‘counter-list’ – which is only a top four, for reasons explained later…

(By the way, Mr Mitchell, please don’t take any of what follows the wrong way – your list is your opinions and I’m fine with that. I might disagree with some of your conclusions but, unlike some of those commenting on The Guardian website, I don’t think my own list is flawless or represents some holy and untouchable gospel of objective, God-given truth. Similarly, although I perceive some faults with your list, that doesn’t mean I think you’re a fool or totally ignorant about all matters related to boxing. So, keep up the good work! I always enjoy reading what you have to say, and only wish that The Guardian devoted even more attention to boxing than it currently does. And as for those below the line vitriol merchants out there, for Christ’s sake try to keep things in perspective!)

1. Lennox Lewis
Like Mitchell, I rank Lewis at 1. He won the biggest individual prize in all of sport and beat everyone who was put in front of him at least once. At his best he was utterly dominant, an almost complete boxer-puncher. Mitchell argues that Lewis is a contender for the top ten heavyweights of all-time list, a contention I’d agree with. His failure to fight Riddick Bowe or a peak Tyson weren’t his fault and he retired at exactly the right moment. An all-time great, as well as a British great.

2. Joe Calzaghe
3. Carl Froch

After his knockout of George Groves, Mitchell now places Froch second and Calzaghe third, which seems to have caused a fair amount of outrage. Mitchell’s reasoning is that Froch has fought a consistently higher level of opposition than the 46-0 Welshman, although he admits that in a hypothetical match-up between the pair, Calzaghe would start as favourite. I’d agree that it’s damn difficult to separate these two in terms of their all-time status. For me, what swings it Calzaghe’s way, for now at least, are two factors: one, his victory over Bernard Hopkins, an inarguable all-time great who is still competing at the highest level; and, two, the fact he only needed one attempt to beat Mikkel Kessler. Depending on what happens during the rest of Froch’s career, he could potentially still unseat Calzaghe at No. 2 or even Lewis at No. 1: indeed, if he could somehow engineer a revenge win over Andre Ward and victory against Kessler in a rubber match you could argue that he deserves to overhaul both of the men above him. It’s a very big if though. Whatever the case, Froch deserves his place on British boxing’s Mount Olympus.

4. Naseem Hamed
I can almost hear the howls of outrage as I type this. Well, frankly I don’t care. I’m assessing Hamed’s fistic accomplishments in this list, not his personality or the cleanliness of his driving licence. Some facts to support my case then, as well as a few opinions stated as fact, of course … Hamed only lost one fight. His KO percentage was incredible. He was one of the hardest hitting and most exciting featherweights of all time. He cleaned out his division, beating all his rival champions and effectively unifying the belts. He brought unprecedented excitement, media attention and riches to the lower weight divisions, benefiting many boxers who followed in his footsteps. Talent-wise, he had more potential than probably anyone else on this list, and although he didn’t fulfill his own extravagant ambitions, a record of 16-1 in ‘world’ title fights is pretty darn impressive. OK, he never beat an all-time great, but then neither has Froch or, for that matter, have many other British boxers who are competing for a place in this list. Some of you will still be unconvinced, of course. Oh well!

5. Why-no number five?
To be honest, I simply can’t decide who should round out the top five. I think the top four are several leagues ahead of the rest, both in accomplishments and historical impact. At no. 5 I believe you could construct convincing cases for including any of the following, and probably a few others too, however I don’t think any of them has a cast-iron case: Buchanan, Honeyghan, Winstone, Stracey, McKenzie, Eubank, Hatton, Benn, and Turpin.


Nigel Benn’s inclusion at five on Mitchell’s list bothered me. I know Mitchell wrote a superb book about him (which he modestly neglected to plug, so I'll do it for him), so he’s probably and understandably a bit biased. I also know that the McClellan victory was sensational, but for me Benn's record raises an important point: namely, that evaluating a boxer’s career as a whole is a very different art to assessing ‘one-off’ victories. Ironically enough, arguably the ‘greatest’ post-war British pugilistic victories  - Turpin v Robinson, Stracey v Napoles, Honeyghan v Curry, Benn v McClellan, Laing v Duran - involved fighters whose overall
résumés weren’t strong enough, in my view, to make the top five. In other words, one great win does not necessarily make a great career. Consistent high-level achievement is, for me, more important.

One last point on Benn – Mitchell mentions that he is linked “for all time to Chris Eubank, Michael Watson and Steve Collins”. Benn’s record against this trio? 0 wins, 1 draw and four losses. Hmmm…

At the risk of incurring further opprobrium, I have to say that I’ve never quite understood the fuss about Ken Buchanan. A solid and admirable fighter who enjoyed an excellent career, yes! An all-time great? I have my doubts. I’ve always thought that the fact Buchanan fought in the USA more than many other British fighters has somewhat inflated his reputation, as has the controversy surrounding the Duran bout, which he was losing soundly. From whatever angle I look at his career, I simply can’t regard it as more impressive than, say, Hamed’s. No. 5 on the list? Perhaps. Any higher? Not for me. Maybe someone can enlighten me.

Luke G. Williams
Follow @boxianajournal

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