Like a sabermetrician of the sweet science (or, better yet, like a punch-drunk Bill James), I've decided to invent a new boxing statistic. It's a measurement of pure ring excitement. I call it the Tyson Index.
You might wonder why I bother. Boxing, without any kind of central leadership, has never been good about keeping its numbers straight, unless you consider counting up to 10 an accomplishment. When you consider that the sport has been recognizing world champions since Grover Cleveland was president, you'd think the data-gathering apparatus would be pretty solid by now.
We have decent records of most fighters' wins and losses and knockouts -- and that's about it. We know Oscar De La Hoya landed just 21 percent of his punches against Floyd Mayweather Jr. in May. But if you want to find out the career-connect percentage of all boxers against the slippery Mayweather, or compare his numbers to other great defensive boxers in history, you can forget it. The stats don't exist. CompuBox started counting punches only about 20 years ago, and they still hit their clickers for just a small percentage of bouts, when someone like HBO is paying for it.
Still, good stats help connect fans to a sport and provide cool new things to argue about. So, undaunted, I've applied the crude data available to concoct the Tyson Index. I think it can help explain a few things about boxing -- including why insiders are so excited about the forthcoming middleweight title bout between Jermain Taylor and Kelly Pavlik, in Atlantic City on Sept. 29.
Any fan would agree that knockouts are what we are hoping to see. A guy ending all his bouts early -- think a prime Mike Tyson -- is somebody to watch. Sure, epic battles that go the full distance can be thrilling; Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier showed that. But long fights that require judges' scorecards to tell fans who won (just like in figure skating!) usually are less satisfying than a fight with a clear winner and enough action for a stoppage. Ask any casual sports fan what he thought of the action-deprived Mayweather-De La Hoya fight.
So, here's the new excitement statistic. Technically, it's the percentage of scheduled rounds that a boxer fights. Lower is better. If you're in a match scheduled for 10 rounds, and you win it in Round 4, you fought 40 percent. Your Tyson Index for that fight is 40. If you go the distance, you have the worst possible Tyson Index of 100. This stat is a more refined version of raw "knockout percentage." Here, it matters how soon you end a fight and how many rounds it was meant to go, so you get extra credit for ending bigger fights earlier. Overall, in an analysis of fights in all weight classes around the world, the average is about 72.6. Fights, on average, go 72.6 percent of the scheduled distance.
Of course, every formula needs a standard, so here are a few qualifiers. To make this stat useful, the Tyson Index adds up the results of a boxer's last 10 fights only -- that's the best indication of what each guy is capable of now. (Tyson, after his first 10 fights, had a brutally low Index of 29. That's why this is named after him.) Also, if a boxer in a scheduled 10-rounder loses in Round 4, he still gets a Tyson Index of 40. And why not? The fight wasn't less exciting just because the other guy won. However, I've made sure the list includes only fighters who have been truly road-tested, and the official leaderboard includes only fighters who are ranked in the top 10 by Ring magazine (though I've compiled a separate list of top unranked fighters as well).
So how do the numbers look? Well, a list of ranked fighters with the best Tyson Index numbers contains some of the sport's most exciting performers. From first-round knockout artist Edwin Valero, down to sluggers Miguel Cotto and Joe Calzaghe, these are guys that excite fight fans. Everyone on this list has gone, on average, two-thirds or fewer of his scheduled rounds in his past 10 bouts.
At the other end of the spectrum are the guys making the dullest fights in the game. If you ever considered John Ruiz the most snooze-inducing man in boxing, the numbers support you. His Tyson Index is a soporific 97.5.
Of course, over the course of a career, a fighter's numbers usually rise. He meets better opponents, and early KOs are less frequent. Shane Mosley's last 10 fights have gone a drawn-out 85.3 percent of the distance, while Mayweather's have gone 83 percent, and De La Hoya's, 82. These dreary numbers are indicative of fighters who have settled into a pattern of going the distance more often than not. And let's be honest: Those long-distance fights usually are less exciting.
Which brings us to Taylor's recent opponents. His last five fights have all gone 12 rounds. That's been uncharacteristic; he just happened to have lined up consecutive opponents with the most boring Tyson Index numbers in the business. Bernard Hopkins, when he first fought Taylor, was 90.8. Winky Wright scored a 91. Kassim Ouma: 86.8. Cory Spinks: 93.3. The only thing that does 12 more reliably than these guys is a ruler. After fighting them, Taylor's Tyson Index has slipped to a boring-side-of-average 79.
But before Taylor started fighting this dull bunch, his fights were thrillers. Taylor's Tyson Index was a sweet-and-low 57.4 before the Hopkins clinchfest. Today, that number would put him in the company of crowd pleasers like Rafael Marquez and Kermit Cintron. Now, in Pavlik, Taylor finally will be fighting an opponent who won't drag him into dullsville: Pavlik's Tyson Index is 49, meaning his fights on average go about half their scheduled distance.
Can these stats predict how exciting a boxing match will be? Well, let's say that boxing stats are about as effective as earned-run averages and quarterback ratings in predicting results. Which is to say, they can help. Mayweather and De La Hoya, going into their fight, had very high Tyson Index numbers that promised a lack of excitement -- and their bout lived up to that sleepy promise. By contrast, the numbers predicted fireworks when Pavlik (then at 48) fought Edison Miranda (60) in May. It was slugfest that ended in by TKO in the seventh with Pavlik's third knockdown of Miranda.
Statistics have limits. It's styles that make fights. It's training, desire, attitude and a hundred other X-factors that make great fights. But boxing fans are eager to see Taylor-Pavlik, and are anticipating a more exciting Taylor than we've seen in a while. The numbers show why.
Don Steinberg, a winner of the Boxing Writers Association of America's award for best column in 2005, covers boxing for The Philadelphia Inquirer.