By Daniel Sharman
Of all the heated debates that occur within the boxing fandom, perhaps that which rages most fiercely concerns the matter of various boxers' place within the so-called 'pound for pound' rankings. And this is no merely theoretical matter: a boxers' having his P4P status recognised is one important way in which he can advance his career, attract fan attention, increase his earnings, and open up new opportunities for himself. In this article, I want to look at WBO flyweight champion Kosei Tanaka's case for being considered P4P, a fighter whose achievements, due in large part to his size and nationality, have gone relatively unnoticed, and who is coming off his most polished performance to date against overmatched Wulan Tuolehazi. To highlight these achievements, and to support the claim that Tanaka's lack of P4P recognition is in large part due to factors unrelated to his talent and skill, I want to contrast Tanaka's case with a fighter who has received much fanfare and critical acclaim in recent months, Errol Spence Jr.
Whilst I could have chosen other fighters from the current P4P rankings, it seems that Spence's P4P recognition in particular owes more to his promotional presence, media advocacy, and fan following, than his actual achievements in the sport to date.1 This becomes even clearer when the matter is viewed from the perspective of Spence's first recognition as a P4P fighter, prior to his fights with Mikey Garcia and Shawn Porter (whilst P4P archives are relatively inaccessible, it seems that Spence has been listed as P4P for getting on for about 2 years now. For instance, TBRB listed him at number 10 as of 22 April 20182). Unlike Spence, Tanaka, despite achievements comparable to others ranked in the P4P, has never been listed, and, as far as I'm aware, has never been close to being listed. This seems to owe to two factors. Firstly, Tanaka is a lighter, smaller fighter (currently fighting at 115lbs), and, secondly, he is a little-promoted Japanese fighter who is yet to fight abroad. Conversely, Spence is an American fighting at welterweight, and has been selected by PBC's promotional machine (and their licensed media acolytes3) as a brand leader, and as such has been heavily promoted.
Now, the method most commentators adopt when drawing up their top 10 pound for pound lists is the same as that used when drawing up divisional top 10 rankings. To determine the overall quality of a fighter relative to his peers, multiple different factors, each of which is taken to be indicative of a fighter's quality, are taken into account. For example, number of championships held, number of weight divisions conquered, quality of opponents, quality of wins, career trajectory, and so on. What is most definitely not relevant to a fighters' P4P status is incidental facts about them, such as their nationality, their fan base, their name recognition, and, most importantly, their size and weight (after all, the whole point of P4P is that it doesn't take this fact into account). Of course, there are some factors which are partially relevant. For instance, whilst the fact that a boxer fights exclusively in his home nation is not necessarily indicative of a lack of skill on his part, a boxer who has travelled around the world beating home fighters in their backyards may be legitimately seen as more talented as a result. Nevertheless, with all this in view, I think it's more than fair to claim that Kosei Tanaka not only deserves a spot on the P4P lists, but should in fact take the spot currently held by Errol Spence.
To begin, lets quickly recap Tanaka's achievements in the sport so far.
Tanaka is a three weight world champion in just fourteen fights, and after only 6 years of being a professional. As such, he is tied with long-reigning P4P top 3 star Vasyl Lomachenko for being the fastest ever fighter to become a three weight division champion, both achieving the feat in just 12 fights.
Indeed, Tanaka has also bested another top 3 P4P entrant, his illustrious countryman and current unified bantamweight champion Naoya Inoue, to become the fastest ever Japanese fighter to win a world title, taking only 5 fights to do so. He achieved this feat whilst only 19 years old, making him at the time one of the youngest belt-holders in the sport. Despite being only 24 years old currently, each of Tanaka's three championships have all been full world titles, and not secondary trinkets such as the WBA 'regular' belt or an interim title (this cannot be said of those such as Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez or Gervonta Davis). Further, Tanaka won these titles legitimately in the ring, not being 'upgraded' from a secondary or interim status (such as in the case of Devin Haney or Jean Pascal).
Furthermore, Tanaka has a record of 9-0 (5 KOs) in world title fights, and a record of 5-0 (2 KOs) against former or current world champions: these include wins against Vic Saludar, Moises Fuentes, Angel Acosta (then undefeated), Sho Kimura, and Ryoichi Taguchi. Given that several of the fighters listed later went onto become world champions speaks well of the quality of Tanaka's defences, and demonstrates his willingness to face tough opponents. Compare this with Spence's current record of 5-0 (3 KOs) in world title fights, and 5-0 against current or former world champions. Also note that when Spence was first listed as P4P, his record stood at only 2-0 (2 KOs), and 3-0 (3 KOs), respectively.
Despite his short career and lack of professional experience (compare his 15 fights with Spence's 26), Tanaka has faced good quality opposition throughout his career. Perhaps his best opposition has come in his fights against Sho Kimura and Ryoichi Taguchi. Kimura, the only reigning champion Tanaka has fought in his career thus far, had only lost on his debut, and so was essentially undefeated going into his fight with Tanaka. Further, Kimura was riding a four fight KO streak going into the bout. Despite being only his second fight at flyweight after moving up, Tanaka and Shimura put on a brilliant display, making for a strong fight of the year candidate. Tanaka won the bout by majority decision, thus becoming a three weight world champion.
Contrastingly, the only reigning champion that Spence has beaten is Kell Brook. Whilst Brook was once a brilliant fighter, at the time of his bout with Spence he was coming straight off a KO loss, having moved up to middleweight to receive an absolute bludgeoning from then unified, undefeated champion Gennady Golovkin. In addition to taking heavy punishment in general, Brook sustained a gruesome orbital fracture on his right eye socket in the fight. Despite undergoing surgery, Brook had no tune-up fight and went straight into his mandatory defence against Spence. Even though Brook was still able to keep the bout competitive, he ultimately had to withdraw from the bout in the 11th round after suffering another orbital fracture, this time to his left eye socket.
Furthermore, and perhaps more impressively, Tanaka voluntarily chose as his first defence the skilled and respected Ryoichi Taguchi, a former unified, Ring magazine light flyweight champion. Whilst Taguchi was coming off his first loss in 5 years, this had been to the highly regarded Hekkie Budler, and the loss was a close unanimous decision. Tanaka won the bout by UD, cementing his place within the division, and is now almost universally regarded as the number one at flyweight, being recognised as such by organisations such as TBRB and the Ring magazine. Notably, despite this tough first defence, Tanaka proceeded to fight twice more in 2019, against skilled mandatory challenger Jonathan Gonzalez, and Chinese breakout Wulan Tuolehazi.
Spence has also made respectable defences of his title, such as against former unified super lightweight champion Lamont Peterson, and undefeated contender Carlos Ocampo. However, whilst Spence's and Tanaka's current championship reigns are roughly equal in terms of quality of opposition, it should be noted that this is Tanaka's third title reign, not his first. As mentioned, he has previously faced stiff challenges as a champion at lower weights against Acosta, Saludar, and so on. Now, of course, Spence, unlike Tanaka, currently stands as a unified champion after his win over WBC champ Shawn Porter. This is a very respectable win, and the fight between the two was exceptional. Indeed, some commentators, such as the Ring's Michael Montero,4 erect new standards that fighters like Tanaka must meet in order to be considered pound for pound, such as needing to unify their title.
However, two things have to be noted. First, Spence won his unification bout by close, somewhat controversial split decision, being taken to his very limits, and leaving a good number of commentators feeling that Porter did enough to win the fight. Second, this standard is not imposed across the board for P4P inclusion, and was not imposed in the case of Spence. Thus, it appears to be no more than a moving of the goalposts to try and justify Tanaka's exclusion from the current P4P rankings. Indeed, not only was this standard not imposed on Spence, but he was actually moved up the pound for pound lists simply for beating an overmatched Mikey Garcia (whose career started at 125lbs) in a more-style-than-substance PBC showcase fight, prior to any form of unification.
Nevertheless, it worth mentioning for those like Montero, who actually claims that Japanese fighters don't care to unify that, if not for injuries sustained against Palangpol CP Freshmart, a unification bout against Ryochi Taguchi likely would have occurred in 2018. If Tanaka had won this bout (and it is likely given that he beat Taguchi just a year later), this would have made him a unified champion in only 11 fights. Also, it is perhaps worth mentioning here that Spence himself has shown relatively little serious interest in pursuing the most obvious unification fight in his own weight class, a fight against P4P star Terence Crawford; this would not appear to be the behaviour of a genuine P4P fighter.
Of course, like everyone else, I want to see Tanaka unify his flyweight title sooner rather than later. My preference would be for a fight against IBF champ Moruti Mthalane, who has dominated in the lower weight classes for years, and is coming off a very impressive stoppage of Akira Yaegashi. If that fight were to happen next, I would give Mthalane a very good chance of winning it.
It might be objected that Tanaka cannot be considered P4P given that he has been knocked down in several fights, and sustained a fair amount of punishment. He was also being outboxed up until his stoppages of Gonzalez and Saludar. To the first objection, I would respond that countless quality fighters (and hall of famers) have been down multiple times throughout their careers, and, more importantly, given how quickly Tanaka has progressed through the upper echelons of the pro-ranks, it is no surprise that his has experienced some setbacks and adversity along the ways (recall that Tanaka fought Saludar in his 6th pro fight).
Indeed, the fact that he has overcome this adversity speaks to his quality as a fighter, showing that he has heart, belief, and the will to fight back when things are not going his way. To the second objection, I would simply note that, one, every fighter has off days (it is known that Tanaka has a virus that prevented effective weight-cutting for the Gonzalez bout), and, two, Deontay Wilder's being comprehensively outboxed up until his stops his opponents is seen as a reason to rank him as P4P and as a top heavyweight, rather than exclude him from it.
Lastly, some might complain that the lighter weight divisions are less competitive than some of the heavier divisions because there are far more boxers in the larger weight divisions. This is a fair objection, and, in general, the greater the number of fighters in a division, the harder it is to get and stay at the top of that division. Nevertheless, I do not think is sufficient reason to exclude Tanaka from the P4P ranks in place of a fighter such as Errol Spence. This is because Tanaka has repeatedly sought out difficult challenges, and these top contenders are easily comparable, from a P4P perspective, with contenders from higher weight divisions. Indeed, despite having many boxers within them, the general quality of some higher weight divisions is for all that is still relatively low.
So what more could Tanaka could? If my argument has been correct, then he has already achieved more than a highly ranked P4P entrant such as Errol Spence Jr. Perhaps he could unify his current division, or, as seems more likely, move up in weight to fight WBO super flyweight champion Kazuto Ioka. If Tanaka were to win this latter bout, he would thereby be a four-weight champion in a record number of bouts; perhaps if Ioka fights and beats Juan Francisco Estrada next, Ioka will take Estrada's current P4P ranking, and then this will be up for grabs if and when he fights Tanaka. However, this is all speculation, and P4P recognition for Tanaka in the near future seems doubtful. After all, it seems a good deal of fans simply can't accept the foundational principle of P4P in the first place: that weight class is irrelevant to fighter's right for a place within it. Rather, they incoherently suppose that being in a glamour division like welterweight or heavyweight makes a fighter more deserving of P4P recognition. If this is indeed the case, it seems all we can hope is that Tanaka keeps winning, and, as he does so, gradually begins to gain the recognition his talents and achievements deserve.
1 As this article is primarily intended to highlight Tanaka's case for a place within the P4P top 10, I have left out any substantial discussion of the notion of P4P itself; nevertheless, I have attached an appendix briefly discussing the idea of the P4P and its purpose.
3 At least amongst hardcore boxing fans, inclusion in the P4P rankings is an effective way to promote a fighter.
4 See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-ZHb0b7Aq4&t=1257s timestamp: 19:35
(Image courtesy of A.McGovern)
These articles are submitted by guest writers and sites. They aren't submitted by the usual folk behind Asian Boxing and don't fall in line with our editorial stance, giving a fresh view on various boxing issues from the Asian boxing scene.