Photos: Ed Mulholland and Will Hart
By Kieran Mulvaney
The March 18 fight card at Madison Square Garden was advertised as featuring the consensus pound-for-pound No. 1 boxer – Nicaragua’s Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez – and the man most frequently offered as No. 2 on the list, middleweight Gennady Golovkin. The night ended with Gonzalez losing his undefeated record in a decision shared by virtually no one outside the three official judges, while Golovkin retained his with a points verdict that was similarly, although not equally, disputed. In the wake of those stunning turn of events, who can reasonably lay claim to the best boxer on the planet, pound-for-pound, right now?
One person who surely no longer can is Gonzalez. Leave aside for a moment the widespread disagreement with his majority decision defeat to Srisikat Sor Rungvisai – although the fact that all three judges scored the bout essentially the same suggests that this was one of those battles that looked different at the very closest of quarters than even from near-distance. Even had the judges’ verdict tallied with that of most other observers, Chocolatito’s struggles with Rungvisai were the latest in what is now unmistakably a trend.
From July 16, 2011 to October 17, 2015, Gonzalez was taken the distance just once in 16 fights, and scored stoppages in the last 10 of those. In three contests since then, he has gone the full distance each time. There is a consistent element to these relative struggles: the first, a unanimous win over McWilliams Arroyo, was his final fight at 112 pounds, and continuing to make that weight was proving a debilitating burden. His subsequent two outings – a close win over Carlos Cuadras and the loss to Rungvisai – saw him step up to 115 pounds, the fourth weight class he has contested as a professional. He hit Cuadras and, especially, Rungvisai repeatedly with ferocious power punches; yet, although he clearly stung both men on numerous occasions, he did not come close to stopping them.
For most of us, the difference between 112 and 115 pounds might be barely noticeable, but at the highest levels of the sport, and the lowest levels of its weight divisions, it can mean the difference between punching power being imposing and middling. For Gonzalez, who started his career 10 pounds lighter and 47 fights earlier, this final step appears to mark a turning point, the transition from being an overwhelmingly dominant fighter to a merely very good one.
Figuring out exactly where to now place Gonzalez on any pound-for-pound list is a complicated one. Should he be below Rungvisai? Should his loss be treated as the flawed victory that many considered it to be? Fortunately, that’s a matter for another article. The question at hand for this one is simply: If Chocolatito is no longer on top of the pile, then who is?
The most obvious answer is Golovkin, but his coronation couldn’t come at a more awkward time in his to-this-point stellar career. After Gonzalez was outpointed by Rungvisai, Golovkin underwhelmed in a disputed decision win over Daniel Jacobs that saw him taken the 12-round distance for the first time since he pulled on a pair of boxing gloves as a pro. The glass-half-full explanation of what happened against Jacobs, the one that would justify calling GGG the best boxer in the world right now, would likely incorporate some or all of the following sentiments:
• Styles make fights, and a tall, rangy, hard-hitting guy like Jacobs, particularly one who showed such good footwork, was always the most likely to give Golovkin fits.
• It's just one fight. In Marvin Hagler's last bout before beating Alan Minter to win the middleweight title, Hagler was taken the distance by the unremarkable Marcos Geraldo, who a couple of years later was knocked out in the first round by Thomas Hearns.
• Jacobs was not only by some distance the bigger, heavier man on March 18, but his weight advantage would likely have been exacerbated by the early 9 a.m. weigh-in the previous day, giving the American an extra half-day to replenish and refuel.
• And, as much as some fans – OK, numerous fans – didn’t like it, he did win the fight, according to all three judges, the HBO announce crew and at least half the ringside media (and most of those in the last category who favored Jacobs did so by only a point or two).
The glass-half-empty objection would presumably be: “Dude, he struggled to beat (or, depending on your perspective, lost to) Danny Jacobs, and you’re telling me he’s the best boxer in the world? Seriously?” Apart from anything else, that’s unfair to Jacobs, who fought a tactically sound fight and whose sole career blemish prior to March 18 came at a time when he was struggling with family tragedy and was just months away from being diagnosed with cancer. It’s possible that Jacobs is now every bit as good as plenty of observers thought he might be before that 2010 loss to Dmitry Pirog, and that Golovkin’s win, close though it was, ought to be celebrated and held up as a rationale for his exalted position atop the pound-for-pound rankings rather than as Exhibit A against it.
Perhaps Golovkin should, in the fight's aftermath, be considered the interim best, with permanent status dependent on his performance in his next fight – rumored to be against Billy Joe Saunders in June – and perhaps the one after that. Should he splatter Saunders, the “styles make fights/Jacobs was better than we realized” arguments will likely be in the ascendant and carry GGG into a possible fall showdown with Canelo Alvarez. If he were to then beat Alvarez, he would almost certainly stand tall and undisputed as the baddest guy in boxing – with, perhaps, a Jacobs rematch around the corner to settle the score once and for all.
It is possible, though, that Golovkin may have reached his peak. He may struggle with Saunders and/or lose to Canelo. In which case, who outside of GGG and Chocolatito might stake a claim?
We can begin with Alvarez – who might be boxing's biggest star in the last year or two, but has not been considered its best, or even necessarily among its most elite. That’s slowly beginning to change: He is now on most P4P top-10 lists, and victory over a significantly larger Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. in May, followed by a win against Golovkin in September, would enable him to stake a legitimate claim.
Let us not forget, though, that just last November the light-heavyweight clash between Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev was billed as “Pound for Pound.” Ward in particular has his advocates; indeed, he was tucked in at No. 2 behind Floyd Mayweather on many lists before electing to absent himself from the ring as a result of promotional issues. Still, although he emerged victorious on points against Kovalev, the verdict was so close and – again – controversial that it is difficult to make a case for elevating him without taking Kovalev along with him. The tea leaves are predicting a summer rematch between the two; a clear victory for either would give the winner a strong case for pound-for-pound supremacy.
Coming up on the rails, meanwhile, is Terence Crawford, who won the Fighter of the Year award from the Boxing Writers Association of America in 2014, was in the running for it again last year and has added excitement to his technical proficiency. The ease with which he dispensed alleged rival Viktor Postol was testament to his superior skill set. Alas, the lack of any big names on his résumé – or indeed of many obvious career-defining rivals in the future, save perhaps cross-promotional clashes with Keith Thurman or up-and-coming future P4P contender Errol Spence – make it difficult for him to separate himself from the pack.
That may not be the case, however, for the man with arguably the most natural talent of them all – who, as it happens, will be the next man to headline an HBO Boxing card, on April 8. Vasyl Lomachenko already is the best in the world, according to none other than Roy Jones – who was once, and for some time, the undisputed holder of that crown himself. Lomachenko’s skills at times appear to border on the supernatural, and the way in which he is able to practically pirouette around world-class opponents is practically hypnotizing.
And yet, Lomachenko has fought only eight times as a professional; can such a neophyte truly be considered pound-for-pound king? Perhaps not yet, even with his two Olympic gold medals and reported 396 wins from 397 amateur contests. But he may well have more opportunities than any of the others to demonstrate his quality: The 130-pound division in which he presently resides boasts real talent, in the form of Takashi Miura, Miguel Berchelt, Francisco Vargas, Jezreel Corrales, Gervonta Davis and Orlando Salido, the only professional to blemish Lomachenko’s record. And just five pounds farther north lies the tantalizing prospect of a clash with Mikey Garcia – himself once a P4P entrant who, like Ward, spent a long time away from the sport as he resolved promotional disputes.
It is the Ukrainian, then, who in the medium-to-long term seems the best bet to seize the mantle and keep it; for now, like it or not, the crown is Golovkin’s. But he will need to look more like the Golovkin of old, and less like an old Golovkin, if he is to keep it for long.