Ranking the 10 Most Skilled Fighters in Boxing Today
One of my favorite quotes about boxing comes from former heavyweight champion and longtime color commentator George Foreman: "Boxing is sort of like jazz. The better it is, the less people appreciate it."
This is why I so often urge casual fans to take the time to learn what's going on in the ring.
Like anybody, I get drawn into the emotional intensity of a give-and-take slugfest. Those kind of fights will always be a part of the sport and exciting. Those battles give fighters an opportunity to show their heart and courage.
But even a fat, belligerent drunk can stand and throw haymakers. To develop the finer skills that constitute the art of boxing requires a focused commitment and thousands of hours of practice and drill.
And a fan who truly understands how hard it is to use defense and movement to hit and avoid being hit will never find a brilliant technical performance boring, any more than a jazz aficionado gets bored by a John Coltrane solo.
Here are the 10 most skilled fighters in boxing today.
10. Wladimir Klitschko
Wladimir Klitschko's vulnerability to the big punch is no secret. Between 1998 and 2004, he was stopped three times by opponents whom he should have beaten with relative ease.
A questionable chin is normally a death sentence for a heavyweight boxing career. But since losing to Lamon Brewster by Round 5 TKO in April 2004, Klitschko has put together a stretch of dominance to rival nearly any champion in the sport's history.
He has done it by cultivating a style that is technically perfect for his tall, powerful frame. Under the guidance of late trainer Emanuel Steward, Klitschko has developed a set of skills that make his weak chin virtually impossible to reach.
9. Miguel Vazquez
IBF lightweight champion Miguel Vazquez is a defensive specialist. His only losses have come against Saul Alvarez (twice) and Timothy Bradley. When he has competed below 140 pounds, he has been perfect.
Vazquez's nickname is "The Puppet," which is a testament to his tricky use of precise movement to baffle opponents. It's not accurate to call him a runner. He engages, but on his own terms.
His last fight in December 2012 against Mercito Gesta was boring, but that was due to Gesta's inability to do anything more than stand in the center of the ring and wave his arms in frustration.
Against a fighter like Raymundo Beltran, who can apply pressure intelligently, Vazquez would have a much more exciting fight.
8. Timothy Bradley
Timothy Bradley can be an awkward fighter, but that's the result of his shrewd ability to take away space and tie his opponents up to prevent them from launching any offense. While I agree with the majority of fans who feel that he did not deserve to win against Manny Pacquiao in June 2012, I also think he deserves more credit than he received for nullifying the explosive Pac-Man's attack.
Bradley has great defense and counterpunching abilities. His wins over Ruslan Provodnikov and Juan Manuel Marquez this year have finally earned him an appropriate level of respect from boxing fans.
Aside from Pacquiao, there's not a better opponent out there for Floyd Mayweather than Bradley.
7. Mikey Garcia
Undefeated WBO super featherweight champion Mikey Garcia comes from a boxing family. His father Eduardo is a longtime trainer, and his older brother Robert is a former world champion and one of the most successful current trainers in the sport.
The benefits of that lineage have been obvious since the start of Mikey's career. Even as a rising prospect, he fought with the patience of a crafty veteran.
I would rank him as among the most complete fighters in the sport today. With 28 of his 33 wins coming by stoppage, he has always been a strong finisher.
But the amazing thing about Garcia is that he has grown more confident in his aggression as his level of competition has risen. That should be a sobering thought to any top fighter at 130 or 135.
6. Paulie Malignaggi
Paulie Malignaggi is a two-division world champion with a 32-5 record as a pro. He's been among the most successful fighters of his generation.
But he's knocked out just seven opponents. Clearly, he's not getting by on his power.
Malignaggi relies on craft and guile. He has very good defense and movement and an exceptional ring IQ.
His lack of power gets somewhat overemphasized by fans who don't look past his KO total. He hits hard enough to bust up an opponent's face.
But his inability to throw concussive, fight-ending punches means he has less margin for error than most other world-class fighters. He has to be technically better instead.
5. Juan Manuel Marquez
Juan Manuel Marquez is an accountant by trade, a profession he worked at for much of his boxing career. His sharp, analytical mind has always been obvious in the ring, where he fights the same way that a shrewd investor works the stock market.
Marquez manipulates the terrain and conditions of his fights and then takes the big risks once the odds line up in his favor.
His skill has been most obvious in his great rivalry with Manny Pacquiao. Pac-Man is a highly skilled boxer with phenomenal speed and explosive power.
Marquez has been the thorn in Pacquiao's side for more than a decade, thanks to his exceptional footwork and timing. Figuring out Pacquiao has been one of the great puzzles for fighters of this generation, and Marquez has been pretty much the only man to solve it.
4. Guillermo Rigondeaux
Guillermo Rigondeaux is a two-time Olympic gold medalist who is considered by many observers to be the greatest amateur boxer of all time. That shining pedigree has served him well in the professional ranks, where he has established himself as a top pound-for-pound star in a mere 12 fights.
Last April, he turned in one of the most virtuoso boxing performances in recent years, when he handed Nonito Donaire a boxing lesson. Donaire entered the fight ranked between three and five on virtually every pound-for-pound ranking in existence.
Donaire is one of the most explosive punchers in the sport, with a highlight reel filled with knockouts of elite world champions. Rigondeaux beat him with shocking ease.
The fearsome Donaire struggled to get into position to unload his punches all night long.
3. Andre Ward
Andre Ward is the undefeated, lineal world champion at super middleweight, and he has beaten every serious contender in the division over the past few years. In 2004, he won an Olympic gold medal.
He has not lost a boxing match since before he was a teenager, when he was competing in the boxing equivalent of Little League.
The key to his success is exceptional versatility. He can box well on the outside and can get rough on the inside. He can counter and fight off his back foot or close the distance and beat his opponent to the punch.
He has tremendous skill, adequate power and the best boxing IQ of his generation.
2. Bernard Hopkins
If Bernard Hopkins didn't actually exist, you could never make up a fictional character like him. Nobody would believe it.
At 48, he is the defending IBF light heavyweight champion. He's not only surpassed all longevity records in boxing, he's surpassed the longevity accomplishments of any professional athletes in any sport.
Hopkins has always been a highly skilled boxer. Ten years ago, he had already put together one of the best runs in the history of the middleweight division.
He is a genetic freak and has always been exceptionally disciplined in his training and diet. But he couldn't be winning and defending world championships two years shy of 50 if he wasn't a technical wizard in the ring.
1. Floyd Mayweather
Floyd Mayweather Jr. grew up in one of boxing's most accomplished families. His father and two of his uncles are highly respected trainers.
Boxing is second nature to Mayweather. No fighter of his generation is better at reading and adjusting to opponents.
He is outstanding when fighting at any distance. He can stick and move from the outside, but his ability to avoid punches against the ropes or in the pocket is dazzling.
To a degree, his technical brilliance has ended up working against him with the public. He has consistently made his victories look so easy that a lot of fans can't bring themselves to give him the credit he deserves.
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