A rock-paper-scissors contest?

Few gave Bernard Hopkins, left, much of a chance at upending Kelly Pavlik, but that's exactly what he did. Marty Rosengarten/Ringsidephotos.com

The easiest reason for picking Antonio Margarito to beat Shane Mosley on Jan. 24 is right there on the "M" page in the boxing results book.

Against their toughest common opponent, Miguel Cotto, Margarito won with a convincing 11th-round stoppage, while Mosley dropped a unanimous decision. Margarito beat Cotto, Cotto beat Mosley -- so how can Margarito lose now? It would be like the NFC champion losing to the Falcons.

But exactly this kind of twisted-pretzel result happens every so often in boxing -- in fact, it happened in boxing's biggest upset of 2008. If Mosley is able to pull out a win over Margarito, he will achieve one of the sport's rarest and most intriguing phenomena: the elusive rock-paper-scissors victory.

As children, we learned with our fists how difficult it is to predict winners in battle -- by playing rock-paper-scissors. You know the game: After a three-count, you throw a right hand that's supposed to resemble a rock, paper or scissors. The game's rules are straightforward, its logic mind-bending. Scissors beat paper handily -- they rip it to shreds. But against rock, scissors get crushed. Naturally, you'd think rock versus paper would be a mismatch -- after all, rock beat scissors, who beat paper. What sane person would bet on paper in this rumble? But no! Paper comes out on top. Like they say, styles make fights.

It happens in boxing, too: There are three fighters, each with one opponent he tends to handle easily and one he cannot. Oh, sure, the sport has plenty of classic two-man rivalries, and they are entertaining in a kind of simplistic, two-guy, mano a mano way. But the sport's handful of exquisite rock-paper-scissors triangulations elevate the competition to a third dimension, to a third power, if you will. They are rivalries cubed. Mano a mano a mano.

Let's remember the greatest rock-paper-scissors wins:

October 2008. Kelly Pavlik has two emphatic wins over Jermain Taylor. Taylor has twice beaten Bernard Hopkins. A Pavlik win over Hopkins just makes too much sense. But let the game begin. It's once, twice, three -- shoot … and Hopkins is all over Pavlik. Pavlik, with his stone fists, is the rock in this battle, and he doesn't know what has hit him. Hopkins is paper here -- fitting for someone who for years has kept printing presses running with his excellent quotations and prodigious lawsuits.

March 1971. In a battle of undefeated heavyweight champions, Joe Frazier decks Muhammad Ali at Madison Square Garden en route to winning a 15-round decision and the undisputed world title. Two years later in Jamaica, George Foreman crushes Frazier in two rounds. Foreman versus Ali in 1974? Never mind prior results: Ali dominates Foreman, shocking everyone, except for seasoned rock-paper-scissors players.

June 2002. Erik Morales is 41-0, with a prior victory over Marco Antonio Barrera, when they meet again in Vegas, and this time, Barrera beats Morales. Barrera is riding high -- until late in 2003, when he is dominated by Manny Pacquiao. Pacquiao seems to be the new king -- until he comes up against … the Barrera-beaten Morales. Morales delivers the paper, handing Pacquiao an unexpected defeat. Don't call Morales "El Terible." Call him "El Papel."

June 2000. Mosley begins perhaps the most contorted of all rock-paper-scissors rivalries, one that stretches the very nature of the phenomenon. Mosley beats Oscar De La Hoya. Mosley in turn is beaten twice by Vernon Forrest before he returns to winning by defeating De La Hoya again. The victorious Forrest immediately goes out and is thrashed by Ricardo Mayorga -- in fact, he loses to Mayorga twice. Now it's 2006 -- time for Mayorga versus … De La Hoya. Mayorga has beaten Forrest, who beat Mosley, who beat De La Hoya. But De La Hoya turns the tables to beat Mayorga, thereby becoming the mysterious fourth hand gesture that somehow loses to paper but beats rock. What could that be? The guess here is a firm handshake.

Can you recall any other rock-paper-scissors confrontations from boxing's past? Share your comments below.

Don Steinberg, a winner of the Boxing Writers Association of America's award for best column in 2005, covers boxing for The Philadelphia Inquirer.