The most important thing to recognize about boxing statistics is that they have no real meaning apart from their context. And given the nature of professional prize fighting, putting them into proper context can be challenging, and a potential source of debate.
It is useful to compare to the situation in baseball, the most statistic-driven sport of all. A position player in baseball makes several offensive attempts everyday, over the course of months. They compete in a formalized league, where everybody competes against everybody else.
So baseball stats are drawn from a large sample-size, gathered in a relatively controlled and consistent environment. For this reason, they can have genuine predictive value.
A world class professional prize fighter competes a few times a year, and while Major League Baseball hitters are compiling statistics against basically the same pool of pitchers, professional boxers often compile their records and stats against entirely different opponents.
There are plenty of fighters who run their professional records up to 30-0 or better, but don't truly have the same talent as a guy like Gabriel Rosado, with a record of 21-7. But if you didn't know a little bit about the sport, and about Rosado's history and who he has fought already, you would never know that.
In boxing, only the action in the ring tells the real story. Still, statistics can add a layer of analytic complexity that has value, if used properly.
To a new fan, the importance of punch totals seems obvious. Boxing is a sport that is built around two athletes trading punches. What could be more important than knowing how many punches each one has thrown and landed?
But in my opinion, punch totals are the most overrated statistic in the sport, at least in the way they are brandished about in arguments over disputed decisions.
Any time there is a disputed decision, the side of the debate who is representing the fighter with the better punch total numbers will always throw out the punch stats as some sort of ultimate proof that their guy deserved the nod.
Knowledgeable fans know better. In a professional prize fight, the quality of punches is far more important than the overall number thrown and landed.
For an example of this, I will use the third Pacquiao-Marquez fight, which I scored decisively for Marquez. To me, the fact that Pacquiao threw and landed slightly more punches was irrelevant.
Time and again I saw Marquez scoring with clean counter punches, delivered from the perfect distance. Many of Pacquiao's landed punches were winged shots that Marquez was able to partially deflect or at least adjust to.
To me, one of the most interesting uses for punch totals is to compare how a given fighter's totals fluctuate across fights. When you see a busy fighter like Pacquiao or Carl Froch throwing and landing less punches against opponents like Timothy Bradley and Andre Ward, it tells you a lot about the way Bradley and Ward are able to control distance and space inside the boxing ring.
I regard power-shots landed as a slightly more valuable statistic than over-all punches landed. This stat separates out jabs and focuses exclusively upon the punches that comprise the majority of significant scoring punches.
Again, context is important. Some fighters, especially heavyweights like Wladimir Klitschko, use the jab as a potent offensive weapon, and if you are actually watching and scoring, the jab needs to factor into the equation.
But for most fighters, the jab functions much more as a defensive weapon. It is used to judge and control distance. It's a momentary blinding device or slight sting to slow the charging bear down, while stepping further out of range, or else circling into position to punish with the power hand.
Consider a round where fighter A is a classic stick-and-move boxer and fighter B is a come-forward fighter. For most of the round, fighter A has a lot of success staying behind his jab and using lateral movement to avoid punishment while racking up minor scoring with the lead jab.
Then, with about 45 seconds left in the round, fighter B manages to walk fighter A into the corner and drill him with a hook to the body/uppercut to the jaw combination. Fighter A survives the round, but is rocked. Fighter B drops a couple more brutal mid-range hooks upstairs on fighter A as the round is coming to a close.
Fighter A could have a much higher total of punches landed for the round, but the advantage in power shots, and a proper evaluation of what happened in the ring, makes it clear that the round belonged to fighter B.
This is a statistical breakdown that I find very useful for analyzing a fight retrospectively. It tells what kind of punches were being used, which tells a lot about how the fight was contested.
Unusual variations in a fighter's punch breakdown for a specific fight are noteworthy, in the same way that sudden drops in punches thrown and landed are noteworthy. If a fighter who normally lands heavily to his opponents body suddenly sees his percentage of body shots landed going down against a specific opponent, it might mean the opponent did a very good job using movement and straight punches to take away the body attack.
The punch breakdown totals demonstrate which punches upstairs landed in the vulnerable jaw, mouth and nose regions, and which punches hit the much harder parts of the head.
I find it important to note here that all of these statistics are only useful to the degree that the technicians recording them ringside are truly accurate about recording them. It's not an easy job, and I have definitely seen fights where I think the technicians have been way off.
This statistic, which measures punching accuracy, is among the most valuable in the sport. It indicates a fighter is hitting his opponent when he wants to hit him. It means he is either seeing and reacting to his scoring opportunities at an above-average rate, or that he is actually creating them, by walking his opponents into situations where they are vulnerable.
Or, very often, it means he is doing both things. A fighter like Floyd Mayweather is a classic case. And not surprisingly, Mayweather's percentage landed versus his opponent's percentage landed is among the very best of all time.
Sometimes a fighter can land a tremendously high percentage of punches and still lose a fight. A great example is the recent Carl Foch-Mikkel Kessler bout. According to the stats cited by the HBO broadcast team at the conclusion of the fight, Kessler landed an impressive 55 percent of his punches.
But Froch was busy, landed at a high rate himself, and nobody disagrees that he deserved to win.
Still, when a fighter can continue to land with tremendous accuracy, while receiving a lot of punches, it often indicates that the opponent's high punch volume is more showy than genuinely effective.
I see knockout totals and percentages as the boxing equivalent of home run totals. In neither sport do you need to be a major slugger to be great. In baseball there are guys like Rod Carew and Tony Gwynn, and in boxing there are fighters like Pernell Whitaker and Willie Pep.
Nobody questions that these types of competitors rank among the greatest of all time.
But there is a special quality of fame for the big bangers, guys like Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron in baseball, or Rocky Marciano and George Foreman in the ring.
Big home run or knockout totals indicate a potential for offensive explosion that heightens the excitement of the sport.
In most cases, I factor a higher knockout percentage as at least a slight edge when analyzing a potential matchup. Just like a three-run bomb in baseball can turn around several innings of floundering, a terrific overhand or counter-hook in boxing can suddenly change the entire complexion of a fight.
Even in a case where he is over-matched in most other areas, a fighter with true knockout power is always a split-second away from victory. A fighter with that kind of ability can afford to go hopelessly down on the scorecards while remaining in a position to win.
James Toney's Round 11 TKO of Michael Nunn in 1991 is a classic example.