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Let’s not jump the gun when suggesting where fighters rank all-time

15
Feb

Peyton Manning trotted onto the field for the Super Bowl two Sundays ago as a one-time Super Bowl champion and the reigning MVP of the league. He left the field still a one-time Super Bowl champion and still the reigning MVP of the league. Not a whole lot should have changed because his team lost one game. But a lot did change because everyone with a microphone or a keyboard insisted on passing judgment before the opening coin toss.

If you listened to much of the pre-game talk for the two weeks leading up to Super Bowl XLIV, you heard Manning declared unquestionably the best quarterback of his generation and possibly the best ever to play the game. But just one defeat later, everyone with a microphone or a keyboard was quickly backtracking. They stopped comparing him to Joe Montana. Many re-shuffled their ordering of him relative to Tom Brady. And some even went so far as to say that Drew Brees had nudged ahead of Manning as the best in the game at this very moment.

The reality is that the pronouncements made after the game were no more correct than the pronouncements made before the game, because they were all based on partial information. Manning might have five good years left. He might win three or four more Super Bowls, or he might never return to the Super Bowl. He might hold every significant passing record when his career is done, or he might go into a depression over the fourth-quarter interception he threw and never launch another pass.

The point is, Manning’s placement among the all-time greats could still swing wildly based on how the rest of his career plays out. The football experts should have known better than to try to rank him before a pivotal game, or even after that game. And the boxing experts and fans should take an important lesson from this: Enjoy today’s great fighters, compare them hypothetically to each other or to the greats of the past if you want, but don’t try to suggest where they rank all-time while they still have monumental victories or crushing defeats potentially awaiting them.

Manny Pacquiao has become the modern poster boy for this sort of rushing to judgment. After each of his recent wins, slews of experts and fans, appropriately bowled over by the scope of what he’s accomplishing in higher and higher weight classes, are casually making serious declarations. After he KO’d Oscar De La Hoya and Ricky Hatton in succession, they insisted Pacquiao was one of the 20 greatest fighters of all-time. When he then stopped Miguel Cotto, we were told we were looking at one of the 10 best ever to lace on gloves.

Not that those pronouncements are necessarily wrong — Pacquiao is undeniably a great fighter and might one day be remembered as one of the 10 best of all-time. But what if he loses to Joshua Clottey in a few weeks? Doesn’t that change things? It’s foolish to try to rank him before his career is over and we’ve seen the entire trajectory.

“There’s a tendency, I don’t know if I started it, but I’ve at least fallen into it, to rank people. I do books of lists. I’m probably less a writer than a lister,” said Bert Sugar, a former editor-in-chief of THE RING and a historian of boxing, baseball and just about every other sport imaginable. “So people come over to me and ask after a Pacquiao fight, ‘How does he rank?’ And I say, ‘He’s probably one of the greatest, if not the greatest, left-handed boxer in history.’ And I leave it at that, and I try to walk away before it goes any further.

“But, yeah, I fall into the trap. I sometimes rank these guys when I’m put on the spot. And you just can’t do it. It’s just so much easier when you stand back. It’s called ‘history.’ Look, Dwight Gooden was practically elected to the Hall of Fame in his rookie season. Writers tend to overreact, on both sides – they write off people prematurely, or they elevate them prematurely.”

It could certainly be argued that observers have overreacted – both positively and negatively – to the Klitschko brothers. We as fight fans always want to put our reigning heavyweight champions in historical perspective. And particularly in this era, when the Klitschkos have no comparable contemporaries other than each other, it’s natural to compare them to the all-time greats instead.

Some fans will tell you the Klitschkos are knocking on the door of the all-time heavyweight Top 10. Others would laugh at putting them in the Top 30. The reality is that either extreme is possible when all is said and done. Look at Wladimir; he could lose to Eddie Chambers next month, or he could go the rest of his career without losing again. The difference between those two scenarios could add up to a 30-spot difference in the all-time heavyweight rankings.

If there’s an argument to be made that you can rank a fighter among the all-timers before his career is over, it’s for those boxers whose primes are far behind them. For example, though Evander Holyfield is still technically an active fighter, he’s already tarnished his legacy about as much as he possibly can and it seems unrealistic to think he can score additional positive achievements.

For most fighters past their primes, the rule that applies is, “You can still help yourself, but you can’t hurt yourself.” Roberto Duran enhanced his standing with a late-career upset win over Iran Barkley, but all the losses that followed didn’t diminish him. Among active fighters, Roy Jones Jr. appears to be at this stage. Any damage to his all-time ranking has already been done, but if he happens to upset Bernard Hopkins in April, he could rise a few notches.

Ranking an athlete who isn’t finished is just a bad idea. So why do we all do it?

“Bloggers, newspaper writers, television commentators, whoever, there’s a tendency to make everything exciting and the best, which means that you’re watching or reading them because they’re reporting on the best,” Sugar said. “I was guilty of it when I had THE RING and Boxing Illustrated. You put a headline like ‘Is He The Next Joe Louis?’ on the cover and you hope it sells.”

Even after retirement, rankings aren’t always final. Remember, George Foreman was retired for 10 years, yet he forced us to re-rank him by winning the heavyweight title at age 45. And look at baseball player Mark McGwire. He retired a sure-shot first-ballot Hall of Famer, but his use of performance-enhancing drugs surfaced soon after his retirement and now he’s a long shot to ever get in to Cooperstown.

So should we wait until someone has been retired 20 years before ranking him? In order to gain complete perspective, yes, we probably should. But who has that kind of patience? We love ranking the greats, and as soon as someone is retired, he should become eligible.

Just don’t do it before he’s retired. If you’re looking for a rule of thumb, use this: A fighter can appear in either the official RING rankings or the all-time rankings, but not both.

THE ALL-GUS MINI-MAILBAG

I don’t have much to rant about this week, largely because I missed Saturday night’s pay-per-view show, so I’m going with a change of pace in place of “Raskin’s Rants.”

My brief comment last week criticizing Showtime commentator Gus Johnson generated a significant amount of e-mail, and with the exception of one response, it was all pro-Raskin and anti-Johnson. Here’s a sampling of what the readers had to say:

Mark Cunningham wrote, “Showtime is obviously going for ‘tabloid energy/excitement’ with Gus Johnson but, like with MMA, it’s a synthetic injection that has no substance and maybe even a lack of intelligence.”

Scott Grapp wrote, “I thought, Who is this goofball? Does he know who he’s talking to? ÔǪ That comment about being undefeated where Floyd was concerned really iced it for me.”

Eric Voss thought Johnson disagreeing with broadcast partner Al Bernstein should have evoked a physical response from Bernstein. “I was actually hoping for the sound of a smack and a tumbling of a headset,” Voss wrote.

Matthew Blaisdell wrote simply, “Showtime should not have let Gus Johnson in the building.”

And a reader named Ken B. wrote, “Not only was Johnson wrong, but he appeared to be a Mayweather sycophant. Somehow, when Bernstein makes a personal observation, it comes out as a line from a neutral observer. When Johnson spoke, it sounded like he wanted to get in Mayweather’s pants. Bush league all the way -please excuse the pun. His over-the top enthusiasm (shilling?) is also wearing me down.”

There was one reader who disagreed with me, so here’s what Wiley Harris III had to say: “I take exception to what you said about Gus Johnson in your rants. To say that he cannot disagree with Al Bernstein is the same obtuse thinking that most so-called boxing writers have with anyone who has an opinion. Gus defended his guy, and made a statement after Bernstein said that Pac was the best. He made his statement in the flow of the conversation, and many others feel that Mayweather is the best. Who are you to say what he can and cannot say, specifically to Bernstein? Gus is on the broadcast, and has been for years, to call the action as he sees it. However, he does not have to agree with what Bernstein says and keep his mouth shut during his opinionated statement because he hasn’t ‘earned the right’ in your opinion.”

Wiley is entitled to his opinion, but one important point of clarification: Johnson was hired by Showtime in January 2009, so he has not been a part of the broadcast “for years.”

Beyond that, it’s all subjective, and I found it interesting that so many readers had such a passionate response one way or the other – though almost unanimously one way and not the other.

Eric Raskin can be reached at [email protected] You can read his articles each month in THE RING magazine.

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