A few weeks ago, ESPN asked its boxing writers who would win a hypothetical bout between Sugar Ray Robinson (often regarded as the best fighter of all time) and Floyd Mayweather (the number-one guy for most in today's boxing landscape). All of its writers except one picked Robinson; Michael Woods predicted a draw.
Naturally, more than a few in the boxing social media world directed their ire at Woods (who is also the editor in chief of www.thesweetscience.com and a gregarious presence on Twitter, with the notable exception of occasional political disquisitions). Many boxing fans – and more than a few writers – vehemently disagreed with Woods' assertion and started firing tweets at his direction, some respectful, some less so. Under attack, Woods said the following:
None of you KNOW Robinson would beat #mayweather. U [sic] can think he would. But saying u know paints u as a fool. It's all theorizing, boys.
— Michael Woods (@Woodsy1069) June 3, 2013
Woods’ main point was about certainty and the unknown. Of course, no one knows 100% what would happen in a fight between Robinson and Mayweather, just like no one knows what will happen in the stock market tomorrow. If the U.S. decides to invade Ecuador, no one can be certain that America would win. But millions of professionals across the world make their livelihoods in dealing with uncertainty and probability.
One of the truisms of market dynamics or predictive modeling is the lack of perfect information. Business leaders try to account for all the variables in considering a price increase or a merger but there is not 100% certainty in how that eventuality will manifest after enacted. But the lack of perfect information doesn't stop them from considering the probabilities and making decisions accordingly. Professional sports teams have far from perfect information when they draft or sign a player into their organization. They don't know how an athlete will adjust to the city or his role on the club, but that doesn't stop them from acting.
Woods' comment, "it's all theorizing boys," minimizes and dismisses the way people make educated decisions about not just boxing, but life. Would Stanford or MIT be a better choice for a teenager interested in developing applications for smartphones? Would Canada or Mexico be a superior spot for a family vacation? None of these answers is "known,” per se, but to try and assess these situation accurately is not a fool's errand. Theorizing is essential to our way of processing information and making decisions. There will never be perfect information, but we must continue to predict, assess and live. Yes, one should be prudent when judging probabilities, but to dismiss theorizing is antithetical to how we behave.
No, boxing writers are not solving world hunger or reducing nuclear arsenals, but they have a job to do. Many get paid for their opinions, beliefs and "theories." There is a market for their judgment, just like there is a market for the opinions of economists, political strategists and war planners. None of these professionals has perfect information but there is an economic need for their opinions. These predictions play a vital role in their respective economies; no need to downplay this reality.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Woods' comment is, "saying u [sic] know paints u as a fool." Let's brush Robinson-Mayweather aside for a moment. Let's say prime Mike Tyson faces a 5'11" 180-lb., 34-year-old amateur named Adam Abramowitz. Mr. Abramowitz had no more than a few fights growing up, nothing organized. Although he has a pair of boxing gloves and has hit the bags at the gym, his physical skills leave a lot to be desired. What are the odds that Tyson beats Abramowitz in a 12-round fight? It's not 100%. Probably something like 99.9999999%. Why not 100%? Tyson could blow out a knee throwing a first punch. He could turn his back like Oliver McCall and refuse to fight after eyeing Abramowitz's imposing physique (just kidding here).
Would Woods feel comfortable saying that Tyson would beat Abramowitz? Does he have enough confidence to make that prediction and state it as a fact without hedging? He should. I know that I would. Abramowitz is a goner. I think we all would say that too.
This brings up a larger point. Woods is trying to express that he and the boxing public should not have as much confidence in Robinson's perceived victory over Mayweather as they do. According to Woods' internal calculus, Mayweather provides more challenges for Robinson than others have considered. That's fine. I'm not going argue for or against his assessment, but essentially, there is a point somewhere between Robinson-Mayweather and Tyson-Abramowitz where we can safely say with confidence what we think will happen, and state it as a fact. There is a certain confidence level where opinion and probability become factual.
Do we know that a plane will land when it takes off? No. But we act like it will. We live and plan our lives like it will. Do we schedule something for 20 minutes after it's supposed to land? No, we factor in delays. But we all live life assuming that once the plane is in the air, that it will land. Even though that probability is only 99.999-something percent certain. As normal human beings, we assert probabilities close to 100% as fact. We do it all the time. Why do we put our toothbrushes under the faucet? There's no guarantee that water will come out. Why do we order food at a restaurant? There's not 100% certainty that it will arrive at the table.
In Woods' estimation, Robinson's potential triumph over Mayweather has too much uncertainty to be seen as a stipulated fact. Fine, he may be right on that. But his dismissive tone about theorizing is completely off base. Even though perfect information doesn't and won't exist, it doesn't mean that speculation isn't meaningful or vital. And if Robinson against Mayweather is too uncertain to be regarded as a fact what about U.S. vs. Ecuador or Tyson vs. Abramowitz? At a certain point, there is enough available information (not perfect, but enough) to declare a probability a fact in common parlance. If you are uncomfortable stating that Mike Tyson would beat Adam Abramowitz as a fact, then I will pat you on the back, thank you and tell you that you're dead wrong.
But something about Woods' tweet gnawed at me: the certitude that too many boxing prognosticators exhibit regarding fights that are far from a sure thing. And I confess that I have been guilty of this in the past. I remember an exchange that I had with boxing writer Ryan Bivins about Adrien Broner in 2012 – it must have been in the fall (Bivins writes for Bad Left Hook and can be found at @sweetboxing on Twitter). He was lamenting the fact that Broner was moving up to lightweight from junior lightweight without facing most of the best guys in the division. My take was that I was so confident that Broner would defeat fighters like Salgado, Burgos and Mendez that I didn't need to see those matchup (we both thought that Uchiyama would have been an excellent opponent for Broner). The two of us had a spirited back-and-forth but we each held our respective ground.
Thinking about that exchange, Woods' recent tweet and some of the action from this past weekend, I now see that Bivins was correct. Sure, Broner would have been favored against the Juan Carloses (either Salgado or Burgos) but he wouldn't have been such a prohibitive favorite that those fights had no merit. It was much closer to an even fight than Tyson-Abramowitz. Maybe Broner would have been a 4-1 or even a 6-1 favorite, but we see upsets of that magnitude every year – even ones that are more extreme. Danny Garcia and Josesito Lopez were both around 8-1 underdogs when they defeated Amir Khan and Victor Ortiz, respectively.
Adonis Stevenson was not exactly an 8-1 underdog this weekend against Chad Dawson, but he was a sizable one – and he knocked him out in the first round. Erislandy Lara was favored over Alfredo Angulo and almost lost.
Think about probabilities for a second. An 8-1 underdog means that a fighter has a 12.5% of winning (it's math, folks. 12.5 times 8 = 100). While we wouldn't state as a fact that Amir Khan would beat Danny Garcia it's getting in range. Earlier this year, Broner took on Gavin Rees. I saw some sports books that had Rees as an underdog in the 18-1 or 20-1 range. According to that probability, Rees had no more than a 5% chance of winning. If you were to ask knowledgeable boxing people for a prediction of a hypothetical Broner-Rees matchup, they would state something along the lines of, "Broner would crush him." They would say this as a fact not as a supposition, and this is where it gets hairy, and they would be right.
Ultimately, there is a point between 8-1 and 20-1 where enough uncertainly has been removed from a contest where a conjecture slides into factual territory. Yes, there will always be those once-in-a-lifetime upsets like Buster Douglas beating Mike Tyson (Douglas was anywhere from a 40-1 to an 80-1 dog), similar to there will always be a 100-year storm. Freak events occur, but that doesn't necessarily change the decision making process whatsoever. People don't buy earthquake insurance in Philadelphia. Could a severe earthquake damage Philadelphia? It's possible, but no insurance broker in their right mind would offer it in the city and no one would buy it. People walk around in Philadelphia believing that an extreme earthquake will not damage their property. Are they right? Yes. Are they 100% right? Never.
In conclusion, boxing pundits should strongly consider the possibility of uncertainty perhaps more closely than they have been before bloviating with 100% confidence (Good Woods). However, the idea of 100% confidence is a myth of probability and theorizing should not be seen as pejorative (Bad Woods). Woods is right to admonish those that don't exercise enough caution but he's wrong in dismissing the necessity of probability. At a certain point of confidence, a probability becomes a fact. No, Robinson-Mayweather may not reach that threshold and Broner-Salgado wouldn't have either, but Tyson-Abramowitz and many other mismatches would meet that standard. Let's not pretend that this standard doesn't exist. As a confidence level nears 100%, opinion becomes fact.
Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
Contact Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org
@snboxing on twitter
Follow Saturday Night Boxing on Facebook: