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26 APRIL 2018


Rankings By The Number

By John Lumpkin

Imagine if you have been asked to rank two fighters whose records stand at 20-0 (18) and 14-5 (6). The casual fan might assume that the undefeated fighter should be ranked higher. But would your opinion change if you knew that the undefeated fighter’s opponents had a combined winning percentage of 98% while the other fighter’s opponents had a winning percentage of just 86%?

How about if you learned that the undefeated fighter held a victory over a former World Champion? Would you be influenced by the knowledge that the 14-5 fighter lost his last two fights and that his best victory came over an opponent who is not ranked by any organization?

The experienced boxing fan knows that none of the above factors are in themselves or combined together sufficient to determine how two fighters should be ranked. The key factor missing from the equation is the level of competition these fighters faced in compiling their records. It certainly would make a difference if you knew that the 14-5 fighter lost his last two fights in world title contests and his best victory came against a fighter who was ranked #1 when they fought. You would know exactly what position to rank these fighters if you learned that the undefeated fighter never fought a fighter with more than 12 victories, but still you would not necessarily be right all of the time. So, assuming that all fights are contested fairly and the appropriate person wins, how would you design a system to fairly rank fighters?

All of the current leading ranking organizations employ a kind of a nomination and voting system. The first step to obtain a ranking in these organizations is to perform well enough and be visible enough to get noticed by the organization’s representatives. The difficulty of this task will depend a great deal on where the fighter fights, who he fights, how often he fights, the connections the fighter’s people have with the decision makers, and whether or not the fighter appeals to the fans. This is problematic for fighters from poor nations as well as fighters who fight in places where there is an abundance of fighters. If the system is to be fair, it must be able to address these inequities.

The best way to eliminate the political problems of a voting system is to replace it with a numerical system. The biggest advantages to a numerical system is that everyone involved will know where the fighter stands and what they need to do in order to climb the rankings. Mechanisms can be easily implemented to identify mandatory challengers and prevent undeserving fighters from rising faster in the rankings than they should. And of utmost importance, numerical systems in which the numbers are made public make inappropriate manipulation obvious.

Numerical scoring will not fix everything in boxing because ultimately, a numerical system must rely on results and we all know that the results do not always tell the story. Another significant hurdle to implementing a numerical ranking system is that it thwarts the powers that be as it eliminates a lot of the potential gain currently available for the individuals who possess voting power. This would seem like a good thing, but just try it within an existing organization and see what kind of resistance you face. This means that a numerical system will likely have to be implemented as yet another sanctioning body. This would be especially true if we wanted to use this system in conjunction with actual titles because there are several key functions that sanctioning bodies perform beyond rankings to perpetuate the sport.

So, how does a numerical system work? Numerical systems depend on a number being assigned to everyone that participates. This would require every person wishing to be ranked to register with our mythical sanctioning body and receive a score (rank). It is possible that our new sanctioning body could adopt different sets of base points for different caliber of fighters to prevent ranking fighters too low in the new system. From the point of registration forward, all of the fighter’s fights would be recorded and his rank would be adjusted according to the result. To get off the ground, the new sanctioning body would be well served to assign a score to all known active fighters and would likely need to track their progress under this system for a period of time before accepting registrants. They could even use the records kept on (with permission) to backfill numerical rankings throughout boxing history to provide data for our favorite pastime of comparisons as well as setting a baseline for today’s participants.

Numerical systems must employ the same logical consistently to maintain their credibility. In a ranking system, however, the logic must be applied relative to the contestant’s rankings. This means that if a fighter who is ranked ahead of his opponent wins the contest; his gain in the rankings will not be as large as if the opponent won the contest because the assumption in the rankings is that the higher ranked fighter should have won. The greater the discrepancy between the contestants’ pre-fight rankings, the less gain the higher ranked fighter can hope to achieve in victory. The opposite will hold true for the fighter who is ranked lower. This prevents fighters from rapidly rising in the ranking by taking on lesser competition and rewards fighters who seek challenges.

Some of the existing sanctioning bodies include the ability to award a fighter with a higher ranking based on the nature of the victory. Numerical systems are particularly well suited to handle this type of situation as percentages and bonus numbers can be added and subtracted from points earned during a contest. It is even possible to include calculations to handle situations whereby the official results do not accurately reflect the tone and tenor of the contest, although this gets a bit tricky because it is matter of opinion and probably should only be utilized for obvious exceptions.
If one wanted to create a new sanctioning body, it could be funded by charging a nominal fee relative to the participant’s home country (to account for the vast differences in the value of currency). This would make it feasible for even the poorest professional fighters to gain a modicum of recognition and enable their accomplishments to be recognized. The fee charged would actually be the same regardless of the contest because the cost of recording a fight in the system is not related to the caliber of the fight. This is possible because the sanctioning body would be earning revenue from every fight as opposed to just a few fights.

What is most interesting is that numerical systems are rather simple, can be developed for a very low cost, and can be implemented quickly. In fact, the base code already exists. Any number of current organizations, publications, networks, web sites or even individuals could pull this off and provide much better rankings than those achieved by voting as with the advent of the Internet, it is actually somewhat easy to secure the results of the hundreds of fights that take place all over the world. Don’t you find it odd that we continue to rely on old ranking systems that we all agree have huge flaws?

June 4, 2008

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