Who Is Number One?

Right now, there’s no question as to which boxers should be regarded as the very best in the world, whose names belong at the top of everyone’s pound-for-pound list. It’s either Terence Crawford or Naoya Inoue—good luck making a cogent argument for anyone else. Sure, you can’t blame Oleksandr Usyk for the fact that Tyson Fury is ducking him, but nonetheless the clash that would potentially put “The Cat” at number one  hasn’t happened. Yes, Artur Beterbiev is dominant, but he’s never held a title outside 175, nor has he defeated his chief rival, Dmitry Bivol. And while a prime Canelo can be spoken of with Bud and “The Monster,” he’s on the back nine of his career and it’s starting to show.

inoue defeats fulton
First, Inoue overwhelmed Fulton.

Crawford and Inoue are the two who have not only won belts in multiple divisions, but dominated those weight classes, and in the past week both scored stupendous victories that showed their generational greatness. A lot of people have Crawford in the top spot, with Inoue a close second, while some put them in a virtual tie. But I’m not going with the trend or copping out: for my money, Naoya Inoue clearly deserves to be number one.

Before I go on to state my case, let me be clear about my criteria. Both fighters are well on their way to being Hall of Famers, so I’m just talking about today, right now, who is the best pound-for-pound man in boxing. I’m rating both boxers on their recent, extraordinary fights, and their activity since 2018, which is when Crawford moved up to 147, and when Inoue entered the bantamweight division.

Who is Number One?
Then Crawford demolished Spence.

So first of all, looking at the past five years, Inoue’s record is, in my opinion, more impressive than Crawford’s. While Bud’s utter destruction of Errol Spence may be, on paper, the best single victory between him and Inoue, his wins before that don’t jump out as best-in-the-world impressive. Since moving up to welterweight, Crawford has beaten Jeff Horn, Jose Benavidez Jr., Amir Khan, Egidijus Kavaliauskas, Kell Brook, Shawn Porter, David Avanesyan, and Spence. Khan, Brook, and Porter might look like impressive scalps, but all were well past their primes when Crawford faced them. Porter even retired immediately after being stopped for the first time in his career. The Spence win, while a massive victory, is the only one that’s truly remarkable. It was also the only time Crawford fought for a welterweight belt besides that from the WBO, which Terence won from Horn and defended seven times, but never against another titleholder until facing “The Truth.”

Meanwhile, in the same span of time, Inoue has beaten Jamie McDonnell, Juan Carlos Payano, Emmanuel Rodriguez, Nonito Donaire, Jason Moloney, Michael Dasmarinas, Aran Dipaen, Paul Butler and Stephen Fulton. Fighter for fighter, this is, at least to my eyes, a stronger list of wins. And while Donaire was past his peak when he fought Inoue, I judge him to be at a higher level than Crawford’s aged competition, and in fact Donaire regained a world title strap immediately following his 2019 defeat to Inoue.

Fight of the Year
Against Donaire, Inoue had to dig deep.

More to the point, Crawford has yet to be tested the way Inoue was in that first epic war with “The Filipino Flash.” Inoue had to overcome not only one of Donaire’s career best performances, but a broken orbital bone, before finally winning by unanimous decision. To then turn around and score a dominant KO over the same fighter who put him through hell in their first meeting also scores major points in my book.

Plus, “The Monster” not only cleaned out the bantamweight division over the past five years, he beat a different champion for every strap from every major sanctioning body. Inoue defended his own titles, and then took the others, one by one, until he was undisputed. That is an accomplishment deserving of serious plaudits. Plus, he prevailed by knockout in every one of those matches, with the exception of his first extraordinary battle with Donaire.

Crawford vs Spence
Crawford shocked fight fans with his beatdown of Spence.

Those stoppage wins for Inoue are another major factor that puts him ahead of Crawford in my mind. “The Monster” possesses the kind of one-punch power you rarely see at the lower weights, along with an impressive 88 percent knockout ratio. A young Muhammad Ali was the heavyweight who could move like a bantamweight. Well, Inoue is a bantamweight who hits like a heavyweight. The only recent example of a smaller fighter with this kind of game-changing power is a prime Roman Gonzales, who at one point boasted a 91 percent KO ratio, and was also in the running for the top pound-for-pound boxer on the planet when he was at his best.

Crawford, while a technically gifted fighter who is one of the best switch-hitters I’ve ever seen, just doesn’t have an attribute as unusual and game-changing as Inoue’s punching power, a weapon which, incredibly, has followed the Japanese warrior as he’s moved up in weight. Both Crawford and Inoue are excellent at everything: they can box, they can punch, they have extraordinary ring IQs, and they stay cool and fluid in the toughest situations—but Inoue’s power is the attribute of historic proportions. And this in turn is where Inoue’s stoppage of Fulton strikes me as a more impressive win than Crawford’s over Spence. “Bud” has been a full-fledged welterweight for some time now, but when Inoue took on Fulton, he was going up against a fighter with obvious natural advantages in terms of size and weight. It didn’t matter: he rendered Fulton helpless.

Inoue’s punching power is something special.

I also cannot ignore the fact that Crawford is now 35-years-old. Nothing about his destruction of Spence leads me to think that Crawford’s skills have diminished even a little bit, and sometimes with athletes it’s about miles not years, but Father Time often comes fast for boxers. So while this is another small factor, I think that Inoue being five years younger puts him exactly in his prime, while Crawford, despite his domination of Spence, is much closer to the end than the beginning.

It’s been great reading some of the arguments regarding who deserves to be number one, Inoue or Crawford, and a strong case can be made for both. Boxing fans frequently have this sort of debate over fighters who are long retired or even long dead, but it’s not that often we have such a close pound-for-pound debate in real time. I might favor Inoue, but that’s no knock on Bud Crawford. Both are great champions, and long may they reign.         — Joshua Isard 

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