The Top 20 Junior Featherweights of All-Time
By Cliff Rold
The Other Nine, Pt. 6
Follow the sweet science long enough and even a passing fan will hear, with sounds of awe, about an ‘original eight,’ about a bygone era when the sport’s weight classes were limited to just that number with (usually) just that many World champions.
The era didn’t last very long.
As early as the 1920s, prizefighting saw extra prizes added by way of Jr. Divisions at Featherweight, Lightweight and Welterweight. Over the course of time, the total number has grown to a modern seventeen weight classes. Sometimes derided as bastard divisions, most didn’t begin with particular esteem. As the years and indeed decades have passed, all have built their own legacies in blood and all have produced greatness in the ring.
Through the course of “The Other Nine,” the best of each of the in-between classes will be given their due, examining how the champions of each performed against and in comparison to each other.
While it rightly feels like a thoroughly modern weight class, Junior Featherweight did have a quickly aborted run in the early 1920s. Jack Wolfe decisioned Bantamweight great Joe Lynch to become the first champion in 1922 and was knocked off less than a year later by Carl Duane. Duane abandoned the title and it remained on the heap for 53 years, or until the WBC saw a chance for a new sanctioning fee.
Fans can be glad they did. In the years since Rigoberto Riasco stopped Waruinge Nakayama on April 3rd, 1976 to rebirth the class, 122 lbs. has seen some of the sport’s most memorable and savage affairs along with many of the best fighters of the last thirty plus years.
As was the case in the previous list focusing on the 130 lb. class, the cuts were rough at Jr. Featherweight. Quality battlers like Junior Jones and Oscar Larios, men with wins over others very highly rated here, fell short. It speaks to some of the amazing work done in just more than a generation. In total, some 75 men have laid claim to a major title at 122. The following rate amongst the best of them.
The Top Twenty
20) Samart Payakaroon – 3.32 Points: The Thai warrior captured gold in only his 12th professional outing…career mark 21-2, 12 KO…WBC title 1986-87, one successful defense…Payakaroon faced three titlists at 122 (Lupe Pintor, Juan Meza, Jeff Fenech), stopping Pintor in 5 for the crown and Meza in 12 for his only defense. Defense number two ended the way many of the young Fenech’s fights did, Payakaroon run over in four…Payakaroon would fight twice more before sitting out from 1988-93, returning to win five straight and set up a losing bid for Eloy Rojas’s WBA title at Featherweight.
19) Daniel Zaragoza – 3.56 Points: The Mexican craftsman can still spark a good debate among history buffs about the merits of his International Boxing Hall of Fame (IBHOF) induction in 2004, but there was no doubting the cerebral talents honed by Nacho Beristain…career mark of 55-8-3, 27 KO…Three-time WBC titlist (1988-90, 91-92, 95-97) after a brief WBC run at 118…eleven total defenses… knocked off an aged but still game former Bantamweight great in Carlos Zarate for his first vacant crown…faced ten titlists (Fenech, Seung Hoon Lee, Paul Banke, Valerio Nati, Kiyoshi Hatanaka, Thiery Jacob, Tracy Harris Patterson, Hector Acero Sanchez, Jose Sanabria, Erik Morales) 14 times at a mark of 6-5-3, stopped by Banke, Patterson and Morales with decision defeats to Fenech and Jacob…defeated Banke two of three times in intriguing rivalry…perhaps most remarkable for longevity against various adversities and gets extra credit for underdog win in his late career against undefeated Bantamweight titlist Wayne McCullough.
18) Welcome Ncita – 3.57 Points: South Africa’s “Hawk” put together an impressive run in the early 1990s...career mark of 40-3-1, 21 KO…IBF title 1990-92…six title defenses…faced four titlists (Kenny Mitchell, Fabrice Benichou, Jesus Salud, Kennedy McKinney) five times, losing only to McKinney by stoppage for his belt and then majority decision…also snuck in two wins over former lineal Jr. Bantamweight champ Sugar Baby Rojas, though no extra credit is leveled for those wins.
17) Seung Hoon Lee – 4.14 Points: Korea’s Lee would be the first IBF titlist at 122, defeating Prayurasak Muangsurin in nine in 1987...reigned throughout the year before being forced to vacate when Korea ceased recognizing IBF title fights…three title defenses...faced three titlists (Victor Callejas, Sanabria, Zaragoza), losing, winning and drawing against them…title win came after three previous tries, all losses to Rafael Orono (at 115), Pintor (at 118) and Callejas….Zaragoza draw would be his last title shot.
16) Manny Pacquiao – 4.5 Points*: In many ways, the most important title of the Filipino icon Pacquiao’s career as the win made him in America…current career mark of 48-3-2, 36 KO…IBF titlist 2001-03…four successful defenses…faced two titlists at the weight, stopping Lehlo Ledwaba in six as a late replacement and attempting unification with then WBO titlist Agapito Sanchez…the Sanchez fight ended in a technical draw through six based on an accidental headbutt cut to Pacquiao…Pacquiao would of course go on to greater notoriety as a champion at 126 and 130 lbs. and is preparing for a shot at 140 king Ricky Hatton currently.
15) Jeff Fenech – 5.81 Points: The all action Australian didn’t have a ton of fights, in his career or at 122, but the business he got done was fantastic …career mark 29-3-1, 21 KO…WBC titlist 1987-88…two successful defenses which, like Zaragoza, included a win over the aged Zarate, though …faced two titlists (Zaragoza pre-title, Payakaroon), defeating both before moving up to capture a Featherweight title against Callejas…the Callejas win is notable but as it clearly happened in another division does not count here…Inducted to the IBHOF in 2002.
14) Mahyar Monshipour – 6 Points*: The Iranian-born brawler fought out of France and gave those fans memories the envy of any U.S. fans of men like Bobby Chacon and Arturo Gatti...career mark to date of 31-3-2, 21 KO…WBA titlist 2003-06…five successful defenses…faced three titlists (Salim Medjkoiune, Yoddamrong Sithyodthong, Somsak Sithchtchawal) four times, stopping Medjkoune (twice) and Sithyodthong in wars…perhaps always to be best remembered for losing the YouTube cult classic and 2006 Fight of the Year to Sithchatchawal.
13) Antonio Cermeno – 6.75 Points: Venezuela’s tough Cermeno, like the man who will follow him here, might well have been more remembered with opportunities at more famous fellow titlists in his time…career mark of 45-7, 31 KO…WBA titlist 1995-97…seven successful defenses…faced three titlists (Wilfredo Vasquez, Salud, Yober Ortega) four times, defeating each one time by unanimous decision and getting by Ortega in their second fight on a narrow majority decision…would later hold the WBA title at 126 in his second try at that crown, but couldn’t handle the slick Freddie Norwood, losing to him in his first shot at the vacant title and then later in defense of it.
12) Vuyani Bungu – 6.91 Points: South Africa’s second entrant racked up impressive numbers but missed most of the best payday and fighters until a late rise to Featherweight…career mark of 39-5, 19 KO…IBF titlist 1994-99…13 title defenses…faced two titlists (McKinney, Salud) three times…the first McKinney win, for the belt, was Ring’s 1994 Upset of the Year but Bungu was a tad lucky to get a split decision in the 1997 rematch in Bungu’s backyard…May have stayed too long, ending an 18-fight win streak with a fourth round knockout loss to Naseem Hamed for the lineal World Featherweight title in 2000…would also later lose, at Featherweight, to Lehlo Ledwaba in an all-African showdown in 2002.
11) Sergio Palma – 7 Points: Argentine may not have a big knockout ratio but he could crack when it mattered...overshadowed by Wilfredo Gomez, Palma made his own nice run at 122…career mark of 52-5-5, 21 KO…WBA titlist 1980-82…five successful defenses…faced three titlists (Ricardo Cardona, Leo Randolph, Leonardo Cruz), splitting with both Cardona and Cruz…best win was a stoppage of Randolph for the title in 1980, Randolph famous for being one of the U.S. Olympic Medal class of 1976.
10) Kennedy McKinney – 7 Points
Record: 36-6-1, 19 KO
IBF Titlist 1992-94, 5 Defenses; WBO Titlist 1997, 0 Defenses
Titlists/Champions Faced – 7: (Banke, Ncita, Salud, Bungu, Marco Antonio Barrera, Sanchez, Junior Jones)
A 1988 U.S. Olympic Gold Medalist, McKinney would be a central figure at 122 for a large part of the 1990s. He defeated Banke in six rounds to set up a knockout win over Ncita for his first title, giving Ncita his first loss and adding the first loss to the ledger of the capable Richard Duran in his first defense. A points win over Jesus Salud would follow before a second, closer win over Ncita. His 1994 title loss to Bungu was, as noted, a big surprise at the time but it was far from over for McKinney. Two fights later, in early 1996, defeat would find him again but the only surprise was how savage the American and Mexico’s Barrera could be. Both men hit the floor, Barrera once and McKinney four times, in a bout which forever defined what it should mean to be an HBO “Boxing After Dark” brawl. Another loss to Bungu might have signaled the end but McKinney still had some serious victory left. He outpointed Hector Acero Sanchez and then traded knockdowns with Barrera conqueror Junior Jones en route to an upset fourth round knockout win. It would be his last great moment. In his next fight he moved up a weight class and was stopped in two by WBC Featherweight titlist Luisito Espinoza, the first of three losses in his final six fights.
9) Victor Callejas – 7.65 Points
Record: 26-3, 22 KO
WBA Titlist 1984-85, 2 Defenses
Titlists/Champions Faced – 2 (Loris Stecca, Lee)
Who knows what might have been with Callejas? After losing his pro debut in 1979, he walked a victorious path all the way to a showdown with the then-undefeated Stecca in 1984. Eight rounds later, Stecca was undefeated no more and Callejas could call himself a champion. One of many in a long line of Puerto Rican greats, the power punching Callejas may well have been an heir of sorts of his island’s nations hero, Wilfredo Gomez, but after two defenses his reign closed. Those defenses were both notable, a unanimous decision over Seung Hoon Lee and a shorter, sixth round, stoppage of Stecca in a return bout by the end of 1985. Outside ring issues kept Callejas away from the ring again until 1987 and two wins over soft foes set up a losing showdown at Featherweight for the vacant WBC titlist against Fenech. Three fights later, he fell on points and ended an already truncated career. Still, in the time he had, it was not a bad run at all.
8) Celestino Caballero – 9 Points*
Record: 31-2, 22 KO
WBA Titlist 2006-08, 6 Defenses; WBA/IBF Titlist 2008-Present, 0 Defenses
Titlists/Champions Faced – 5: (Ricardo Cordoba, Daniel Ponce De Leon, Ortega, Sithchatchawal, Steve Molitor)
Given his status as an active fighter, Caballero’s standing can rise or fall over time. The fall could happen as early as his next fight. For now, it’s worth noting he’s one of less than a handful of fighters in the history of the class to compete in a unification bout and win. The Panamanian is a bit of a freak of nature, standing 5’11 and still managing to squeeze down this far on the scale. His only loss since 2004 has come versus the current WBA ‘regular’ titlist Cordoba and he’s shown great professional growth since. A lopsided points win meant the first loss on the ledger of then-future and now past WBO titlist De Leon and he also easily decisioned former WBA titlist Yober Ortega. Sandwiched around those wins were the two title winning knockouts which currently define him. He walked through Sithchatchawal in 2006, a third round drubbing reminiscent of Tommy Hearns-Roberto Duran. In the fall of 2008, he added a second title by pancaking undefeated to unify the IBF belt to his standing as WBA titlist. Aged 32 at this writing, it will be intriguing to see how much more, or less, Caballero adds to his run.
7) Ji-Won Kim
Record: 16-0-2, 7 KO
IBF Titlist 1985-86, 4 Defenses
Titlists/Champions Faced – 2: (Sung-In Suh, Bobby Berna)
Like Callejas, this swarming southpaw brawler was a case of what might have been as much as what was. One of the few fighters to retire with a major title and sans a loss, Kim’s career would be over by age 26. What limited body of work he left behind gave fans a glimpse of a thrilling fighter. Capturing the IBF crown from fellow Korean Suh with a tenth round KO in 1985, Kim would mount four defenses with only eventual WBO Featherweight titlist Ruben Palacios lasting the distance. Those defenses also included a rematch, first round knockout of Suh and a fourth round walkover of former titlist Bobby Berna. Kim was gone one fight after the Suh rematch and it’s hard to say what drove him from the sport so early. That he posted a career to be proud of in so short a time cannot be denied.
6) Israel Vasquez – 9.5 Points*
Record: 43-4, 31 KO
Lineal World Champion 2005-07, 2 Defenses; 07-Present, 1 Defense
Titles: IBF (2004-05, 2 Defenses); WBC (05-07, 2 Defenses; 07-Present, 1 Defense)
Titlists/Champions Faced – 2: (Oscar Larios, Rafael Marquez)
As is the case with Caballero, this still active and indeed still reigning World champion at 122, the first near universally recognized lineal champion since Wilfredo Gomez, Mexico’s Vasquez could rise or fall on this list with time. No matter what the liquid flow of history determines, it is certain Vasquez will never be forgotten. His three fight series with former Bantamweight titlist Rafael Marquez likely put both men over the top and into the Hall of Fame, along with generating the Fights of the Year in 2007 and 2008. Had Arturo Gatti-Mickey Ward I taken place in any other year besides 2002, Vasquez’s second bout and sole loss in a trilogy with Oscar Larios would likely also have been so honored. Vasquez is everything real fight fans can embrace: humble, brave, professional…and violent. How else to describe, for instance, his off the floor twice comeback knockout of Jhonny Gonzalez in 2006? That he would be forced to quit on his stool in the first bout with Marquez, losing his title in the process, and then return to win fights which got better in sequel is remarkable stuff as well. It’s the stuff of one of the best Jr. Featherweights yet in this still young division.
5) Tracy Harris Patterson – 9.83 Points
Record: 63-8-2, 43 KO
WBC 1992-94, 4 Defenses
Titlists/Champions Faced – 5: (Mitchell, Jacob, Zaragoza, Benavides, Sanchez)
The adopted son of the late former two-time Heavyweight Champion Floyd Patterson, Tracy proved himself the rare ring son who could rest on his own laurels. A New York favorite in the old Tuesday Night Fights days, Patterson was a tricky boxer-puncher with a dependable chin who made many a long night for some of the game’s best. Turned pro in 1985, Patterson would suffer his second and last defeat for some five years when outpointed by former Featherweight Champion Steve Cruz in 1989. Fourteen wins in a row, including a knockout of middling former titlist Mitchell, would follow to set up a shot at a Jacob who’d unseated Daniel Zaragoza earlier in 1992. It would be no contest, Jacob trounced in two rounds. His most notable defenses would of course come in two bouts against Zaragoza, the first a competitive draw and the second a stoppage win for Patterson on a cut. There was also a unanimous decision defense against eventual titlist Benavides before a decision loss to Sanchez which served as Patterson’s exit from the division. Later, at featherweight, he would also lose a decision to Junior Jones, but in between he managed a brief run as a 130 lb. titlist, stopping undefeated Eddie Hopson before losing two memorable battles with Arturo Gatti. He may not be as remembered as the old man, but he deserves remembrance nonetheless.
4) Wilfredo Vasquez – 10 Points
Record: 56-9-2, 41 KO
WBA 1992-95, 9 Defenses
Titlists/Champions Faced – 3: (Raul Perez, Jacob, Cermeno)
A champion in all three weight classes from 118-126, Puerto Rico’s Vasquez would find his finest reign at 122. A third round stoppage of Perez in Perez’s native Mexico would kick it all off and Vasquez would rule with a firm grip in the following years. Two challenges from Jacob sent Jacob home early in eight and then ten. That both came on Jacob’s turf in France made victory all the sweeter. Sensing a trend here? Notable throughout his reign was Vasquez’s ability as a road warrior. He traveled to Japan to beat native sons Hiroaki Yokota and Yuichi Kasai but those were small compared to what may have been his greatest, and yes on the road, win. In his final successful defense, Hall of Fame Bantamweight Orlando Canizales brought Vasquez to his Texas stronghold with sixteen IBF title defenses at the weight and nearly a decade without a loss. Vasquez edged past Canizales by split decision and gets credit for the feat here. Ironically, it would be his first attempted defense on his own court which would see him unseated, outboxed by Venezuela’s Antonio Cermeno via narrow unanimous decision. Vasquez of course was not done, rising to win the lineal World Featherweight title before losing it to Naseem Hamed, but it was the work at 122 which continues to make his case as an option but not yet a selectee to the IBHOF.
3) Erik Morales – 12.41 Points
Record: 48-6, 32 KO
WBC 1997-2000, 9 Defenses; WBC/WBO, 0 Defenses
Titlists/Champions Faced – 5: (Mitchell, Sanchez, Zaragoza, Jones, Marco Antonio Barrera)
A consummate Mexican warrior, the thin Morales often found ways to war no matter the opponent. He could have made many a night easier, using his height and jab to escape danger, but he had a blood lust in the ring which wouldn’t allow it. After pre-title wins against Kenny Mitchell and Hector Sanchez, Morales crossed the threshold to ‘must-watch- young star in a competitive battle with Zaragoza for the WBC crown, Morales’ youth and strength eventually too much to overcome. Three defenses later, Morales would further his stature in a fast-paced four round win over Junior Jones. His reign would close with two more wars, both of them the sort which leave fans fawning. While dominant in winning a unanimous decision, Morales exposed the pain threshold of Wayne McCullough at unreal levels and never was allowed a moments rest. In his final bout at 122, Morales would capture a controversial decision which still sparks healthy arguments about a) whether he won and b) whether a brutal twelve rounds, against the man who follows him here and which ended up as the 2000 Fight of the Year, was the best fight of what would become one of the great rivalries of all time. Morales would go on the win titles at 126 and 130, even picking up a non-title win over Manny Pacquiao at the latter. In the end, Erik Morales is one of the genuine Mexican greats, a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame, and his best work was done at Jr. Featherweight. ‘nuff said.
2) Marco Antonio Barrera – 14.91 Points
Record: 65-7, 43 KO
WBO 1995-97, 8 Defenses; 1998-2000, 2 Defenses; 2000-01, 3 Defenses
Titlists/Champions Faced – 8: (Jimenez, Sanchez, McKinney, Benavides, Fernandez, Jones, Morales, Salud)
No matter what the score cards said, Morales probably should have fallen just a bit short in the first classic with the number two man here and falls just a bit short of the overall body of work of the equally great Mexican warrior Barrera. From the old Forum classics to the birth of B.A.D. and into a new economic paradigm for men in the Featherweight classes, Barrera was a special fighter from early on. Once considered a potential heir to Julio Cesar Chavez, Barrera ended up being his own very distinct man. Fans who missed his younger days might remember him best beyond 122, a more intelligent boxer who picked his spots to war. That was not the young Barrera. The warrior who wrested his first WBO crown from Daniel Jimenez, dominated Agapito Sanchez, and blew through Benavides and Fernandez often seemed fearless and because of it thrilled anyone who tuned in. The will to win he showed against McKinney, driving his man to the floor repeatedly and raging off it himself, made it all the more shocking when Junior Jones drilled him in five rounds. Fact is, it should have counted as a knockout loss and did not only by way of a corner jumping into the ring to force a DQ instead. The loss, his first, set the stage for the fighter fans would get to know beyond the blood baths. In the Jones rematch, he boxed more, was less reckless, and came within a hair on two judges cards of victory. While seven straight wins after that, and picking up a then-vacant WBO title in late 1998, might not seem like it, Barrera was in a bit of a fistic wilderness until he faced Morales. He entered the underdog, seen almost as a faded warrior there to bolster the new face. Instead, he was reborn in defeat and off for seven more genuine years with the game’s elite.
1) Wilfredo Gomez – 21.66
Record: 44-3-1, 42 KO
Lineal World/WBC Champion 1977-81, 17 Defenses
Titlists/Champions Faced – 5: (Dong Kyun Yum, Kobayashi, Leonardo Cruz, Juan Meza, Lupe Pintor)
As many times as his name has already come up, could there really be any doubt. In many respects, no matter how good things get, the 1995 IBHOF inductee Gomez remains a shadow over everything accomplished after him at 122. He was that good. He was that devastating. He may well have been Puerto Rico’s greatest fighter in any weight class. After a career opening draw in November 1974, Gomez would see nothing but victory for almost seven years. That first loss, at Featherweight to the great Salvador Sanchez, would also be the only bout since his debut which didn’t end with a knockout victory. Astoundingly, it would take from that first fight until he captured a Featherweight belt from Juan Laporte in 1984 for a Gomez bout to last the distance. In between, he amassed one of the nastiest title reigns ever. After knocking out Dong Kyun Yum in twelve to seize the WBC honors on May 21, 1977, Gomez would post seventeen knockout title defenses. Sure, there were some lesser lights in those seventeen. There was also some exceptional quality. Former WBC champ Riasco…out in three. Cruz TKO13. The 52-0 best bantamweight in the world Carlos Zarate? TKO 5 in an epic showdown on October 28, 1978. The numbers mounted on the way to the ill-fated challenge of Sanchez but Gomez wasn’t done yet. He’d return down the scale to stop Juan Meza in six and in his final defense win what, until Israel Vasquez-Rafael Marquez III, was probably the division’s greatest fight. For fourteen rounds on the undercard of Thomas Hearns-Wilfred Benitez, Gomez warred with Bantamweight and future Jr. Featherweight titlist Lupe Pintor. Pintor’s future 122 reign was still just future when Gomez was done. There would be only eight fights after Pintor and Gomez was never very good above 122 outside the LaPorte win. Outside ring living and the rigors of time made him an easy mark for the great Azumah Nelson at 126 and, while the cards read out to a win, he was extremely lucky to skate by Rocky Lockridge for a 130 lb. title. It was all but over when the unexceptional 13-5 Alfredo Layne stopped him in his first defense there but the end didn’t really matter.
Gomez’s place was already set in stone as a standard set so high in the young 122 lb. class it will be unlikely any fighter ever surpasses him.
The results here are based on a numerical comparison, adjusted slightly from the previous weeks, which assigns points in part based on:
Number of fellow champions faced (total) then divided into a competition score to flatten the field due to the fluctuation in titles recognized.
Lineal World Titles (Noted; 1 Point)
Sanctioning Body Titles (Points Assigned based on number of bodies; i.e. .5 pre-IBF; .25 post-WBO)
Title Defenses (Points assigned in correlation to title points)
2 Points per KO; -2 per KOBY; 1 per UD against fellow titlists
Quality Wins (Points Assigned based on opponent accomplishments; i.e. lineal champions can count for 1, a single sanctioning body champion based on their sanctioning body total, discretionary points for established champions from other weight classes)
Quality Losses (Losses to champion opponents -1 point; selective non-title losses)
Draws (.5 points)
*Still an active professional
Coming Soon: “The Other Nine, Pt. 7: The Junior Bantamweights”
Pt. 1 – Cruiserweight: http://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=18179
Pt. 2 – Super Middleweight: http://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=18376
Pt. 3 – Jr. Middleweight: http://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=18452
Pt. 4 – Jr. Welterweight: http://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=18632
Pt. 5 – Jr. Lightweights: http://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=18886
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]
[QUOTE=giacomino;4926499]Can't argue with the first 6. Gomez is the gold standard of this division and probably always will be. Ji-Won Kim is a huge reach at #7. The two "champions" he beat, Berna and Sung In-Suh, were C-level fighters who…Comment by krazyx19 on 03-18-2009
Where's Larios or Pintor?Comment by Boxeo_Boricua on 03-18-2009
Wilfredo "Bazooka" Gomez, the BEST Puertorican fighter of ALL time! Period.Comment by bigdaddysback on 03-18-2009
I loved it when Barrera said about Morales - "I only need to worry about his right hand". Morales beat Junior Jones and Barrera didn't thats the thing that stands out. And obviously Morales beat PAC and Barrera didn't.Comment by DarkSpyder on 03-18-2009
I'd swap Morales for Barrera, but I suppose that it interchangeable depending on who you had winning the first fight.Post a Comment - View More User Comments (13)