Jack Dempsey was the world heavyweight champion in 1920, considered by many to be the best fighter in the world – as he was the best heavyweight… and then there was Benny Leonard.
Benny Leonard, fought at lightweight and to everyone that saw him fight and understood that boxing was an art, and a craft, was clearly the best boxer in the world. The idea was that while he may have been too small to take on Jack Dempsey, he was a better boxer – and it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t better. He made smarter decisions against a deeper pool of talent.
Hence the term pound for pound. If all the boxers were the same weight, Benny Leonard would beat them all. It seems like a fair compromise but it’s also inherently ridiculous. Fighting at lightweight and fighting at heavyweight are so distant that they are practically different sports. You need look no further than any fight of Max Holloway’s and realize that there are no heavyweights that fight at that pace, nor with that varied a shot selection (though a prime Cain Velasquez made an honest, terrifying attempt).
The size of the fighter informs how they fight and what they are capable of doing. While there are fleet footed agile heavyweights like Cyril Gane or the great Muhammed Ali, they are undeniably rarer and most heavyweights will rely on knock out power and more minimalist block-based defence, if they’re smart. Equally, if we went full ‘Honey I Blew Up the Kids’ with great light weight fighters, they would lose what makes them unique. The agility and speed would be gone.
Would Sugar Ray Robinson, the greatest boxer of all time really beat Muhammed Ali in a fight? Probably not – but there are lighter fighters who have beaten heavyweights.
Going Up in Weight
Harry Greb was a mostly normal sized man. I say mostly because while he was a reasonable 5’8, he did have enormous hands. Standing next to Jack Dempsey, you could even say he looks small. That being said, Harry Greb did become the light-heavyweight champion and won at heavyweight. Although he weighed around 160lbs – he routinely fought up in weight.
Another example today may be Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu, a muay thai fighter, for whom the majority of her fights are contested above her natural weight class. Given that her natural weight is 105 pounds, this is probably out of necessity rather than choice – regardless, she’s won multiple titles at higher weights.
Somewhere it’s common to see the smaller fighter prevail over the bigger fighter, is in grappling. While we do have the famous example of Royce being the smallest man in UFC 1 and walking out with the trophy – it’s important to realise that the original UFC tournaments were fundamentally unfair by design. Royce was able to do that by virtue of being one of two men who actually knew how to grapple – so from the moment the tournament was finalised, the winner would have been either him or Ken Shamrock by default. For an even better example of the power grappling gives you over an opponent, here is Gunnar Nelson against the actual strongest man in the world:
In contests where both competitors can grapple, the larger man will still usually win – but we do have some fun examples of the smaller guy winning through superior technique. Such as the aforementioned Gunnar Nelson, a fighter who is barely a welterweight, defeating heavyweight Jeff Monson.
Meanwhile Kid Yamamoto entered Hero’s Middleweight Grand Prix, a contest made up on 165lb fighters and wondespite being a 5’4 featherweight. Not only did Kid Yamamoto win but he was the more powerful fighter in each bout.
Japanese Freakshow Fights
If you were around for Pride, or at least have checked out their library of fights – you’ll be no stranger to freakshow competitions. Despite Japan being a nation famous for its serious, sports focussed approach to professional wrestling, they treated combat sports like an absolute circus. Pride Fighting Championships was considered the best MMA promotion in the world, with the best fighters, match ups and commentary team. Pride was the type of promotion that would give you Fedor Emelianenko vs Mirko Cro Cop, which to date is the best heavyweight match up we’ve ever had – but they will also give you Minowaman vs Butterbean.
Ikuhisa Minow, who for some reason fought 115 times, may well actually be the greatest mixed martial artist pound for pound in the literal meaning of the term. While he wasn’t the most dominant fighter in his weight division, a brief look at his record will tell you two things. Firstly, it’s a great record with tons of solid victories, secondly, it makes absolutely no sense.
Minowa had a habit of fighting in pretty much whatever division he felt like at the time. You offered him a fight and he pretty much just accepted it. He fought against Gilbert Yvel, Stefan Leko, Bob Sapp, Giant Silva, New Japan Pro Wrestling star Katsuyori Shibata, which is somehow one of the ones he lost, not to mention fighting Mirko Cro Cop, one of the top three heavyweights on the planet and I must stress that Minowa was not a heavyweight.
Coached by Masakatsu Funaki and profession pain merchant, Minoru Suzuki, Minowa outworked his opponents with a combination of Judo and catch wrestling skills. His bouts would often end up with him underneath an unreasonably large man and then wriggling his way into a leg lock to finish the fight. He did this again and again. His superhero like willingness to fight anyone, any time, any weight, led to his moniker ‘Minowaman’.
So, what have we learned?
Size undoubtedly matters in a fight. In contests where two fighters are skilled, you can assume the bigger man will win. Floyd Mayweather’s laughable exhibition with Logan Paul, demonstrated that even for an all time great boxer, actually knocking out a much bigger person is no easy feat – especially if you were never a power puncher to begin with.
But for those few fighters like Kid Yamamoto, Minowaman, Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu, even Saenchai – who are able to actually defeat larger, skilled opponents – maybe size doesn’t matter.
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