A short history of P4P

Luke G. Williams
04/09/2016 7:39am

As the Boxing Monthly online team prepare to announce our ‘Pound for Pound’ top ten, Luke G. Williams traces the history of the term and finds that the idea the phrase was coined during the era of Sugar Ray Robinson is a myth …

The source of the phrase – and concept – of a pound for pound ‘king’ of boxing has usually been traced to the days of Sugar Ray Robinson, the great welterweight and middleweight champion who was at the peak of his powers in the 1940s and early 1950s.

The Ring magazine, for example, claimed last year that: “Over 60 years ago, the term “pound-for-pound best” was coined for Sugar Ray Robinson as a means of recognizing his undeniable superiority in boxing. No matter how good the legendary welterweight and middleweight champion was, he could never win the heavyweight championship of the world so size was removed from the equation by virtue of a mythical accolade.”

It’s a neat story, which has regularly been recited as a way of reinforcing the almost supernatural aura that still surrounds Robinson. Hey, Sugar Ray was so amazing they had to invent a mythical, weight-free boxing classification in order to truly express the magnitude of his greatness!

However, I’m afraid the claim made by the ‘Bible of Boxing’ isn’t accurate.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest known occurrence of the phrase ‘pound for pound’ in any context is to be found in an obscure and anonymous play written in 1600 called Looke About You.

OK, that’s interesting enough I suppose, but how about the first usage of the phrase within a boxing context?

Sadly, the OED does not offer any information about this.

However a trawl through searchable online newspaper archives does reveal that the term ‘pound for pound’ was being regularly applied to boxers long before the time of Sugar Ray Robinson, even if the phrase didn’t possess quite the level of widespread popularity that Robinson’s exploits arguably later lent it.

The earliest verifiable reference I have yet found to the phrase ‘pound for pound’ being used within a boxing context comes from an edition of the Evening Star newspaper published on 3 April 1906 in Washington D.C. (Actually Gary Lucken found this reference and most of the following ones for me).

Describing the great Battling Nelson, the Star declares that after his victory against Jimmy Britt, the Dane was regarded as “the fighter of the century at his weight, and it was believed that he would never back water or split hairs when required to meet any boxer on a pound for pound basis”.

In 1909, the phrase appears again, this time in the Tacoma Times, when assessing the speed of heavyweight Jim Jeffries. “Few realize,” the paper declares, “that big as he is, Jim Jeffries is one of the fastest men in the prize ring; “inch for inch and pound for pound,” he is the fastest fighter that ever pulled on a padded glove.”

One year later, a further reference in the Evening Statesman newspaper reinforces the idea that the ‘pound for pound’ concept was in common usage in boxing circles during these early years of the 20th century, specifically in terms of assessing and comparing the greatness of fighters from different divisions and eras.

In a 1910 article about former welterweight and middleweight champion Tommy Ryan, the Statesman declares that: “Ryan … has been accused of almost everything on the crooked fighters’ calendar, but nevertheless was the greatest fighter, pound for pound, that America ever produced.”

I've also uncovered two interesting occurrences of the phrase in the 1920s. In 1928, as reported in the Brooklyn Standard Union, fight promoter Humbert J. Fugazy described Leo Lomski as “the best pound for pound fighter in the world today,” while in 1929 Munsey’s Magazine declared that: “Pound for pound there is no question but that Bob Fitzsimmons was the finest piece of fighting mechanism ever cast in the mold of man.”

And these are just the references that have been found in one day of research, no doubt there are many more out there, perhaps even one that is earlier than 1906.

Although ‘pound for pound’ debates were part and parcel of the experience of being a boxing fan or sports writer for decades, it was not until 1989 that The Ring magazine, with the introduction of its pound for pound ratings, offered a more formal channel and focus for such discussions.

Since The Ring’s decision to feature P4P ratings ten boxers have topped their charts – Mike Tyson, Julio Cesar Chavez, Pernell Whitaker, Oscar De La Hoya, Shane Mosley, Roy Jones Jr., Bernard Hopkins, Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather and now Roman Gonzalez.

These days pretty much every boxing magazine and website joins in with the pound for pound fun, and you can see the inaugural P4P rankings the Boxing Monthly online team have come up with on our website from tomorrow.

With thanks to Gary Lucken