By Cliff Rold
The Eight, Pt. 5
For any new boxing fan, the time is not long before a fellow fan points out a magic number which grows more mythologized with time: eight. As in boxing’s original eight weight classes. The number represents in the mind of many a time when the sport was compressed into fields which couldn’t help but be talented, couldn’t help but draw crowds, because there were so few places on the scale to go. They were divisions marked by single champions ever challenged by a depth of contenders today’s seventeen weight classes rarely know.
Reflection and research reveals this was not always the case, but it was true often enough to bestow a mystique on boxing’s ‘original eight weight classes’ which carries through to the modern day. As good as they can be, as great as some of their competitors have been and still are, weight classes prefixed by a “Jr.” designation will always be seen some as bastard spawn which took something away from the game no matter what they added.
Even with classes taking up space in between the old markers, the eight continue to provide memories and spilled blood today. Over the course of this series, homage is paid to boxing’s original eight by identifying the best of their lot through the years.
Previously, numbers 11-25 were unveiled as:
25) Virgil Hill (1984-2007)
24) Dwight Muhammad Qawi (1978-98)
23) Willie Pastrano (1951-65)
22) Paul Berlenbach (1923-33)
21) Dariusz Michalczewski (1991-2005)
20) Joey Maxim (1941-58)
19) Bob Fitzsimmons (1885-1914)
18) Philadelphia Jack O’Brien (1896-1912)
17) Matthew Saad Muhammad (1974-92)
16) Harold Johnson (1946-71)
15) Jack Dillon (1908-23)
14) John Henry Lewis (1931-39)
13) Jack Delaney (1919-32)
12) Roy Jones Jr. (1989-Present)
11) Harry Greb (1913-26
Today, the list moves to the top ten
10) Billy Conn (1934-48)
Record: 64-12-1, 15 KO
World Champion 1939-41, 3 Defenses
Light Heavyweight Champions/Titlists Faced – 2: (Melio Bettina, Gus Lesnevich)
The “Pittsburgh Kid” was almost the Heavyweight Champion of the World. He was great even before that, a picture of technical greatness whose fast feet and hands dazzled legends from Welterweight to, well, Joe Louis. Eschewing a notable amateur run, Conn turned professional as a sixteen-year old Lightweight and took his lumps while learning his profession, losing his debut and seven of his first fifteen. He wouldn’t lose again for 28 fights, dropping a points nod in 1937 to Young Corbett III. Inching into the Light Heavyweight class, Conn would avenge the Corbett loss, split fights with Hall of Famer Teddy Yarosz and future Middleweight champ Solly Kreigel and twice best another future Middleweight champ, Fred Apostoli, finally setting up at July 1939 shot at reigning Light Heavyweight champion Bettina (as recognized in New York; the NBA title was vacant). Conn made good on the shot, winning a commanding decision. Two fights later, he dusted Bettina in the rematch and then won a pair of decisions over future champion Gus Lesnevich, both in defense of the crown in 1939 and 40. Conn vacated the crown, chasing the dollars at Heavyweight while largely still weighing in below the Light Heavyweight line. Longtime contender Bob Pastor suffered a surprising knockout and Lee Savold couldn’t solve the master boxer over 12 frames. In June 1941, Conn led through twelve against Louis before round thirteen ended his dreams. The following year, with a Louis rematch hoped for, Conn bested reigning Middleweight king Tony Zale and then World War II came calling. Inactive from 1942-46, Conn was never the same, losing badly to Louis in his first fight back and posting two wins before retiring.
Why He’s Here: The legend of the first Louis fight so defines Conn it can sometimes overwhelm an otherwise excellent body of work. Without the war, perhaps Conn drops back down and regains the Light Heavyweight throne. The thought of fights with the likes of a young Ezzard Charles or prime Jimmy Bivins are tantalizing. They did not happen and so, while Conn merits placement in the top ten, one looks and sees most of his best wins coming over notable Middleweights whereas others here have fuller bodies of Light Heavyweight work. Regardless, Conn could know he stood a chance of victory with any Light Heavyweight who ever lived. Conn joined the roster of the International Boxing Hall of Fame (IBHOF) as a member of the inaugural class of 1990.
9) Maxie Rosenbloom (1923-39)
Record: 210-38-26, 19 KO, 23 no decisions, 2 no contests
World Champion 1930-34, 7 Defenses
Light Heavyweight Titlists/Champions Faced – 6: (Jimmy Slattery, Jack Delaney, Bob Godwin, Joe Knight, John Henry Lewis, Bob Olin)
Born in Connecticut and fighting out of New York, “Slapsie” Maxie was one of the great defensive specialists and he had to be because power just wasn’t going to cut it. A great chin, dented only twice in almost 300 paid contests, didn’t hurt him any either. Given the sheer volume of bouts, it isn’t possible in this space to go over all of the highlights. A contender by 1925, Rosenbloom would fall short in his first title try in 1927, losing on points to Slattery. He’d do better the second time around, besting Slattery in June 1930 to begin a lengthy run as champion, albeit not recognized by the NBA immediately. He’d best Slattery in the title rematch one year later and outpoint contender Lou Scozza for universal recognition in 1932. Bob Godwin, Hall of Fame great Mickey Walker, and Knight also failed to wrest the title away. It would be Olin who finally wrested the crown away in November 1934. Though active through the rest of the decade, with much success, Rosenbloom largely competed as a small Heavyweight and would not fight for a title again.
Why He’s Here: The above focuses largely on Rosenbloom as champion but there was so much more. Multiple wins, losses, draws, and newspaper verdict bouts throughout his career read as a who’s who of his times: Harry Greb, Johnny Wilson, Ted “Kid” Lewis, Young Stribling, Jim Braddock, Tiger Flowers, Tiger Jack Fox. He didn’t always win, but Rosenbloom held his own. Living in a time when fighters make taking two tough fights in a row, spread six months apart, a point of pride, Rosenbloom’s record just draws a shake of the head. That he also had a quality run as champion only adds to a picture which includes over 200 victories. No one likes to hear from the old timers that ‘they don’t make ‘em like they used to’ but Rosenbloom is a point to the senior statesmen. They don’t make them like Rosenbloom anymore and probably never will again. Rosenbloom was elected to the IBHOF in 1993.
8) Jimmy Bivins (1940-55)
Record: 86-25-1, 31 KO
Light Heavyweight Titlists/Champions Faced – 4: (Anton Christoforidis, Melio Bettina, Gus Lesnevich, Joey Maxim)
Turned pro as a Middleweight, Bivins won his first nineteen including a decision over rated contender Charley Burley in only his 15th pro fight. The first loss came after a win over Christoforidis but Bivins would bounce back with four straight, including a points nod over Hall of Famer Teddy Yarosz. Three losses in five fights followed, including his first stoppage defeat and a points loss to Bettina only for Bivins to post two straight over former Middleweight champ Billy Soose and a non-title nod over reigning Light Heavyweight champ Gus Lesnevich. All of this was before Bivins hit his third year in the ring. A split nod over a young Maxim was still to come in 1942 and, in 1943, Bivins would win nine straight in a banner year. He began with a points verdict over Ezzard Charles (whose name comes up prominently a little later), immediately added Christoforidis for the “Duration” Light Heavyweight title (an honorarium during World War II while many titles were frozen), came off the floor to sop Lloyd Marshall over the summer, and avenged the loss to Bettina just over the Light Heavyweight line. Bivins would rarely fight near the Light Heavyweight limit again, though he would add a knockout victory over the great Archie Moore to his ledger in 1945. Moore, Charles, and Maxim would all figure out Bivins as the 40s dragged on, Bivins best Heavyweight form never quite what it was a division below.
Why He’s Here: Sometimes the world just gets in the way. Being black in the early 1940s made a climb to the title tough enough, but Cleveland’s Bivins also had to contend with the specter of the Third Reich and World War. The non-title win over reigning Light Heavyweight champion Lesnevich in 1942 should have meant a title shot, but the title froze when Lesnevich entered the Coast Guard in 1943, fighting only once that year and not again until 1946. By then, Bivins was gone mostly to Heavyweight…but for most of approximately 1941-43, Bivins was as good as any Light Heavyweight has ever been. Bivins was added to the IBHOF in 1999.
7) Bob Foster (1961-78)
Record: 56-8-1, 46 KO
World Champion 1968-74, 14 Defenses
Light Heavyweight Titlists/Champions Faced – 2: (Dick Tiger, Vicente Rondon)
Bob Foster might not have been a killer in the literal sense, but he had the sort of left hook which could make anyone wonder if his opponents were getting up again. An intimidating 6’3, Foster was matched tough from early on and made the better for it even if he had to take some setbacks. Stoppage losses to Doug Jones and Ernie Terrell in his first seventeen bouts weren’t pleasant, but it said a lot that he would be matched two such quality veterans while still a professional infant. From 1964 to 68, his only other loss would come on points to Heavyweight contender Zora Folley and in March of the latter year, Foster got a crack at the great Dick Tiger for the World title. In a shot still replayed often today, Foster nuked Tiger in the fourth round, only the second man to stop the African warrior and the first in over a decade. Stripped of the WBA half of his crown in 1970, Foster reunified the titles in 1972 with a second round destruction of Vicente Rondon. Later that year, in his following bout, Foster stopped game former Olympian Chris Finnegan in 14 to garner Fight of the Year honors from Ring Magazine. Through a record setting run of 14 straight defenses, his only losses would come at Heavyweight by stoppage to Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. After a draw versus Jorge Ahumada in 1974, Foster briefly retired and vacated the throne, only to return the following year for seven fights at Heavyweight. Following two stoppage losses in 1978, Foster retired for good.
Why He’s Here: Foster may have been the most devastating puncher ever seen at 175. Archie Moore had more knockouts, but it is hard to say he could match Foster’s best blows. While Foster’s lack of success at Heavyweight is unfortunate, it has nothing to do with how he handled the best of the Light Heavies. His biggest drawback is that the best of the Light Heavies in his time weren’t among the best Light Heavies of all time. Like most long reigning champions, Foster’s faces the chick-egg argument of whether he was just too good or the era not good enough. It’s a little of both but there was enough quality in men like Tiger, Rondon, and Finnegan to insure no argument against Foster’s place as a weight class immortal. Foster joined the IBHOF in the inaugural class on 1990.
6) Tommy Loughran (1919-37)
Record: 94-23-9, 17 KO, 45 no decisions, 1 no contest
World Champion 1927-29, 6 Defenses
Light Heavyweight Titlists/Champions Faced – 4: (Mike McTigue, Jack Delaney, Georges Carpentier, Jimmy Slattery)
The “Phantom of Philly” was a master boxer in one of the division’s brightest eras. Turned professional at 17, Loughran began to test the elite in 1922 with a news win over McTigue. Multiple battles with Harry Greb, Gene Tunney, and exceptional Middleweight Jeff Smith, and more with McTigue, would follow through 1923 as Loughran developed his craft. Over the years, he would lose a decision to Delaney while besting former champion Carpentier and former Middleweight champ Johnny Wilson. Sure, he didn’t always win, but he was tough for them all and, by October 1927, Loughran was ready for the biggest step of all. At Madison Square Garden, three fights removed from a points win over Hall of Famer Young Stribling, Loughran took the World title from McTigue over 15. Through 1931, his only losses would come against Heavyweights Jack Sharkey and Ernie Schaff while he posted successful defenses against Slattery, former Middleweight champions Petey Latzo and Mickey Walker, and future Heavyweight king Jimmy Braddock. In 1929, he vacated the crown to pursue the Heavyweights full time and, while he fell short in a title shot against Primo Carnera in 1934, managed wins over Max Baer and Sharkey before he got there.
Why He’s Here: Loughran didn’t reign as long as Foster but his pool of competition was outstanding and his title reign strong. It may not have been as long as Foster’s, but the toughness of the men he defended against is undeniable. In six fights with Greb, he managed only one official win but that’s one more than almost anyone else had. His successes at Heavyweight, with little in the way of punching power, speak to the skill level he held. Perhaps the strongest strike against Loughran is the distinct ‘color line’ drawn through his career but his overall resume trumps that for the most part. Loughran was elected to the IBHOF in 1991.
5) Michael Spinks (1977-88)
Record: 31-1, 21 KO
World Champion 1983-85, 4 Defenses
WBA 1981-83, 6 Defenses; WBA/WBC 1983-85, 4 Defenses
Light Heavyweight Titlists/Champions Faced – 6: (Marvin Johnson, Eddie Mustapha Muhammad, Dwight Muhammad Qawi)
91 seconds. If those were all that most remembered of one’s career, they’d better be the right 91. For this 1976 U.S. Olympic Middleweight Gold Medalist from St. Louis, they were not and his 1988 shellacking by Mike Tyson is still good for a laugh in the barber shop. Spinks, at Light Heavyweight, was no laughing matter. A reluctant professional, Spinks brought his famed right hand “Jinx” to the paid ranks and by his 14th fight was stopping a serious contender in Yaqui Lopez. Two fights later, a fourth round knockout of fellow former Olympian (1972) and former titlist Marvin Johnson set up his first title shot. In July 1981, Spinks hit the desert in Las Vegas, besting Eddie Mustapha Muhammad over 15 to wrest the WBA belt. Five defenses followed before a much anticipated unification bout with WBC titlist Dwight Muhammad Qawi. Spinks right hand power stymied the aggression of Qawi in March 1983 and he left Atlantic City the undisputed king. After four more defenses, with little in the way of a serious challenge looming, Spinks climbed the scale in September 1985 and became the first reigning Light Heavyweight champ to top the reigning lineal Heavyweight king with a decision over Larry Holmes.
Why He’s Here: Spinks caught the tail end of arguably the last great Light Heavyweight era of the 20th century and made a case as its best product. While it would have been nice to see battles with Saad Muhammad or Victor Galindez, the timing just wasn’t quite right. What he did face was excellent in spots, shoddy in others, but that can be said of many. In the end, he never lost in the class and, unlike so many other Light Heavy kings, was able to finish the deal against the best Heavyweight in the world…and one of the best of all time. It took much less than 91 seconds to check off Spinks name when voters had the chance to vote him into the IBHOF in 1994.
4) Gene Tunney (1915-28)
Record: 61-1-1, 45 KO
Light Heavyweight Titlists/Champions Faced – 3: (Battling Levinsky, Tommy Loughran, Georges Carpentier)
Greenwich’s “Fighting Marine” wasn’t always beloved, but his footwork, jab, and ring science were ahead of their time and the fickle public couldn’t keep him out of the winners circle for almost his entire career. A 1922 points verdict over former World Champion Levinsky extended what were become strong contender credentials; his first loss began the proving of his deeper substance. Competitive for the first ten, Tunney was worn down by the more experienced Greb over 15 in May 1922, his first loss in 43 contests. It would be his last and only defeat in over 60. Less than a year later, Tunney would solve Greb in 12 and again over 15 later in the year with a favorable news verdict against Loughran between the loss and wins. A 12th round stop of former champ Carpentier followed in 1924 and in June 1925 Tunney ended the career of Hall of Famer Tommy Gibbons in the 12th, the only knockout loss of Gibbons’ career. With no title shot forthcoming and having grown out of Light Heavyweight, Tunney pursued the big dollars of a showdown with Jack Dempsey, lifting the crown in front of over 120,000 in Philadelphia in September 1923. He’d defend twice, including the infamous “Long Count” Dempsey rematch the following year, before retiring as champion. Tunney would never return and was an inaugural member of the IBHOF in 1990.
Why He’s Here: Like Loughran, there is a distinct ‘color line’ in the resume of Tunney, but that doesn’t mean a ‘quality’ line. Tunney fought some damn good fighters, and he beat just about all of them. Literally. That he did not win the World title was a matter of timing and opportunity and less important than the overall body of work. The Dempsey wins, while not a factor in this ranking, nicely iced the cake for one of the all-time greats.
3) Archie Moore (1935-63)
Record: 184-24-10, 130 KO, 1 no contest
World Champion 1952-62, 9 Defenses
Light Heavyweight Titlists/Champions Faced – 3: (Harold Johnson, Joey Maxim, Willie Pastrano)
The all-time knockout king hailed from Benoit, Mississippi and brought the southern hospitality of a nice nap to some of the best of any time. Turned pro as a Welterweight, Moore would grow into a Light Heavyweight force by the mid-1940s, traveling from East Coast to West for winning and losing battles against the likes of Charley Burley, Eddie Booker, Lloyd Marshall, Cocoa Kid and Jimmy Bivins. In 1945, he became only the second man to stop Hall of Famer Holman Williams in near 200 bouts and in 1947 avenged an earlier knockout loss to Bivins in nine. In between and around those triumphs, Moore battled the great Ezzard Charles three times but never solving the Cincinnati Cobra. 1949 would bring the first of four wins in five contests with Harold Johnson and on it went…mostly winning, occasionally losing through hard years of struggle for a shot at the crown. It would not come until 1952 when, at the age of 39, Moore secured a chance at Joey Maxim, prevailing on points in 15. From a loss to Johnson in 1951 until 1960, Moore would lose only to Heavyweight champions Rocky Marciano and Floyd Patterson while, after winning the title, twice defending against Maxim, stopping Johnson, and destroying reigning Middleweight king “Bobo” Olson. Already approaching his mid-40s, Moore would have arguably his finest hour in 1958, rising from the floor three times in the first and once in the fourth to stop upstart Yvon Durrelle in a legendary battle. Moore would only sporadically defend the crown from there before finally being stripped and petering out in 1963 with a loss to a young Cassius Clay and final knockout of Mike DiBiase, father of professional wrestling star Ted.
Why He’s Here: Someone had to be third and Moore gets the nod in a crowded field at the top of the class. His amazing ability as a finisher, startling longevity, innovative defense and lengthy title reign all receive high marks as does an epic quality of competition. While recent arguments have been made for Bernard Hopkins as boxing’s premiere over-40 warrior, Hopkins only does it once, twice at most, per year. Moore had ten fights in 1958 alone. Through the 1950s, no one at Light Heavyweight could touch him and even Marciano had to come off the floor to find victory. The “Old Mongoose” is the stuff fistic legends are made of and was an easy inaugural member of the IBHOG in 1990.
2) Sam Langford (1902-26)
Record: 167-38-37, 117 KO, 48 no decisions, 3 no contests
Light Heavyweight Titlists/Champions Faced – 1: (Philadelphia Jack O’Brien)
Like Rosenbloom, Langford’s career is so rich as to make a short summary an act of injustice. Unlike Rosenbloom, figuring out which division to rate Langford in can be difficult. Born in Canada, the “Boston Tar Baby” belonged pretty much to the whole of the upper half of the scale. Turned pro somewhere between Lightweight and Welterweight at age 19, Langford would best Lightweight immortal Joe Gans over 15 in only his second year and draw with the best Welterweight of the day, Joe Walcott, in 1904. Competing as a Middleweight by 1905, standing only 5’6 ½, Langford began a career of facing much larger men which in 1906 meant lasting the full fifteen with the great Jack Johnson. He avenged a first loss to Hall of Fame Heavyweight Joe Jeanette more than once before the decade was over, stopped former Welterweight champion Dixie Kid twice, and dusted Heavyweight contender Jim Flynn a few times while besting Middleweight great Stanley Ketchell in a six round news verdict bout in 1910. In 1911, he stopped former Light Heavyweight champ Jack O’Brien in five and in 1912, he’d add wins over Hall of Fame Heavyweight Sam McVea. Around 1913, he’d packed on enough pounds to compete as an outright, if still small and portly Heavyweight with continued success for years. Langford was an inaugural member of the IBHOF in 1990.
Why He’s Here: As noted, Langford is just hard to do justice but this much is certain: any discussion of the greats at Middleweight, Light Heavyweight, or Heavyweight comes around to him at some point. Langford is one of a small handful of immortals who can dispute claims of Sugar Ray Robinson as the best that ever did it, and Light Heavyweight might have been his best weight class. With official weights tough to come by, a degree of presumption is needed but it’s not a reach. That small degree helps to keep Langford out of the top spot but so too does what the man above him got done.
1) Ezzard Charles (1940-59)
Record: 93-25-1, 52 KO
Light Heavyweight Titlists/Champions Faced - 5: (Joey Maxim, Archie Moore, Anton Christoforidis, Gus Lesnevich, Harold Johnson)
After an excellent amateur career, Charles entered the pro ranks as a 19-year old Middleweight, losing only to Ken Overlin and Kid Tunero before beginning to flirt with the Light Heavyweight limit at the end of 1942 after wins over Christoforidis, Charley Burley, and Teddy Yarosz at the lower class. He closed 1942 with a pair of decisions over Joey Maxim but, with impending service in World War II, ended the first phase of his career with a decision and stoppage loss to Jimmy Bivins and Lloyd Marshall in consecutive early-1943 bouts. With only two armed service related bouts in 1944, Charles would return for real in early 1946. Charles would lose only a single controversial decision to Elmer Ray until into 1951. Over that span, before rising to become Heavyweight champion of the world in 1949, Charles wreaked havoc at 175 lbs. Before 1946 was over, he’d top Moore by decision, come off the floor to avenge the Marshall defeat by knockout, and close the year with a unanimous decision over Bivins. Two fights later, in March 1947, Bivins was dusted in four and before the year was out Moore would drop another points nod while Marshall was caved in two frames. 1948 would be another banner year, if marked by tragedy. A January knockout of Moore in eight ended their rivalry but the following month, Sam Baroudi died of injuries sustained in a knockout loss. Many say Charles was never as aggressive again but his skill was such that he kept on winning. Bivins lost again on points and on February 28, 1949, he again outpointed Maxim to set up a shot at the Heavyweight crown left vacant by the retirement of Joe Louis. Finally given a shot at a title after being due for years, Charles defeated Jersey Joe Walcott in their first of four fights. He wasn’t done with the Light Heavyweights though, making his first defense against recently deposed Light Heavyweight champion Gus Lesnevich. Lesnevich never granted Charles a shot at his crown and Charles showed why with a seventh round knockout. He would continue on for years as a Heavyweight, too many years for that matter, winning only ten of his final 23 after an epic pair of battles with Rocky Marciano.
He entered the first Walcott bout with 60 wins against five losses and a single draw. Charles was an inaugural member of the IBHOF.
Why He’s Here: Charles’s Heavyweight work is a likely topic when the best Heavyweights are discussed and can be saved for there. Over the second half of the 1940s, and often before leaving for the service, Charles was a combination of speed, power, skill and killer instinct who faced down one of the most gifted fields the division ever produced. While there are five losses picked up while primarily battling at Middleweight and Light Heavyweight, none came against a fighter who wasn’t world class. They’re all ‘good’ losses. The only great Light Heavyweight who bested him and didn’t pay for it was Harold Johnson and that loss came years later, just prior to the Marciano bouts, with Charles on the slide. He didn’t have Moore’s longevity, and was never given the chance to add the World title which would have complimented his time at 175, but at his best Charles didn’t need the latter and was simply better than Moore.
And Burley…and Bivins…and Marshall…and Maxim…
…and just about any Light Heavyweight who ever laced gloves.
Previous Installments of “The Eight”:
The results here are compiled in two parts which tweaks the format used for the review of the nine Jr. Divisions conducted earlier this year.
First, a points-based comparison assigns points in part based on:
1. Number of fellow champions faced (total) then divided into a competition score to flatten the field due to the fluctuation in titles recognized.
2. Lineal World Titles
3. Sanctioning Body Titles
4. Title Defenses
5. 2 Points per KO; -2 per KOBY; 1 per UD against fellow titlists
6. 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)
7. Quality Losses (Losses to champion opponents -1 point; selective non-title losses)
Draws (.5 points)
From this, a baseline is established and the top fifty fighters are identified. Further analysis focuses on the context of wins and losses, the relative dominance displayed in a fighter’s prime, and the strength of one’s era versus the competition faced, to get to a final top twenty-five.
Note: The websites of the IBHOF, Cyber Boxing Zone, International Boxing Research Organization, and BoxRec.com were all heavily consulted in compiling this effort.
Coming Soon: The Top 25 Welterweights of All Time
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]