Floyd Mayweather, Miguel Cotto and the numbers that mislead
As we’ve discussed in the past, numbers never lie but they often obscure the truth.
So next time you watch a boxing broadcast it might help to swallow the CompuBox statistics with a big pinch of salt. The guys counting punches can give a you a general idea of which shots are landing and which are missing, but if punch-counters were as accurate as electronic timers amateur boxing would be a bastion of fair and just decisions.
Let’s not forget that CompuBox told us last October that Antonio DeMarco barely laid a glove on Jorge Linares in their lightweight title bout, leaving viewers pondering a vexing question: If DeMarco was only landing three punches a round, who was raising all those welts on Linares’ face and forehead? Did cornerman Freddie Roach take a baseball bat to him between rounds? If so he’s a worse scourge on boxing than Panama Lewis.
Roach, of course, is a fine trainer and the battering Linares endured came from clean punches CompuBox failed to register.
The bigger point is that while baseball-style statistical analysis can help us understand the action we’re watching, it can only explain so much.
That applies to a provincial level amateur bout, DeMarco’s TKO win over Linares, or to the career of the most numerically dominant boxer to emerge since CompuBox began tracking stats — Floyd Mayweather.
According to this story, published last month at espn.com, Mayweather has a higher plus-minus (+30) than any fighter in history, a figure calculated by subtracting his opponents’ connect percentage (17) from Mayweather’s own (47).
And the stat makes perfect sense.
You don’t need CompuBox to tell you Mayweather is a stunningly efficient fighter any more than you need FanGraphs to tell you Justin Verlander’s fastball is nasty. You only need a pair of eyes.
But while the numbers affirm self-evident truths, they can also mislead.
I can’t, for example, fully get behind the conclusion drawn in this paragraph:
In fact, Mayweather’s plus-30 rating at welterweight (seven fights, all of them spanning his designated nine-fight prime) measures up as the best of his career. After having dominated at junior welterweight (plus-28), lightweight (plus-22) and junior lightweight (plus-23) during a period that often makes up a fighter’s athletic prime, Mayweather, at age 35, seems to be at the peak of his powers.
But combining Mayweather’s widening CompuBox advantage with the precipitous decline in his knockout percentage leads me to conclude something different.
It’s not that necessarily Mayweather is peaking at 35, because if he his punching power wouldn’t decline as his accuracy improves. Peaking means you’re as close as you can be to the top of all aspects of your game.
Instead, he’s managed to carry his speed as he has gained weight, the same way knockout punchers strive to carry their power. Put junior lightweight quickness in a welterweight body and statistical mismatches will follow. The higher the weight class, the more Mayweather is able to exploit a glaring speed advantage over most of his opponents, and the more his defense and economy compensate for a lack of one-punch knockout power.
So what does that mean for this Saturday’s showdown with Miguel Cotto?
A tough night for Cotto if the statistical trend holds up. He didn’t even crack CompuBox’s top 10 plus-minus rankings.
But statistics don’t make fights.
Styles and circumstances do.
Cotto showed heart and craft in dismantling Antonio Margarito in December, but a virtuoso performance against Margarito is no indicator of how a fighter will perform against Mayweather. If you don’t believe me, ask Shane Mosley.
This doesn’t mean Cotto has no chance. If he can land his jab he can disrupt the rhythm that makes Mayweather such a great two-way fighter. And if he can bang left hooks to the body he might dull some of the uncanny quickness that underpins Mayweather’s airtight defense.
But beyond those two gigantic “ifs” lurk unsavory options for Cotto. He can outbox foes who aren’t pure technicians (see Margarito, Antonio), but the welts on his face after his December victory over Margarito suggest he can be hit even when fighting at a distance.
A discouraging note for a guy facing the most accurate puncher in history.
Not that stalking is a better option. Mayweather’s record is littered with the carcasses of fighters who thought pressure alone could break him. A sound theory that doesn’t quite pan out in practice. If you don’t believe me, ask Victor Ortiz.
If it were simply a matter of stats Cotto could compensate for a low connect rate with volume, throwing, say, 60 punches a round hoping to land 20 and in the process impressing judges with this aggression.
But Cotto’s chief challenge is that styles make fights, and Mayweather still presents a stylistic nightmare for any fighter he faces.
If Cotto wants a chess match, Mayweather will out-think him. And if he wants to fight in close Mayweather still will find ways to hit without getting hit, which is any fighter’s key to victory. The other side of that equation is painful and tiring.
And if you don’t believe me, check the CompuBox stats at the end of Saturday’s fight.
They’ll tell the whole story if you’re willing to look beyond the numbers.
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