By Cliff Rold
The Eight, Pt. 7
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 revealed as:
25) Roy Jones Jr. (1989-Present)
24) Holman Williams (1932-48)
23) Marcel Thil (1920-37)
22) Tommy Ryan (1887-1907)
21) Teddy Yarosz (1907-22)
20) Gene Fullmer (1951-63)
19) Sam Langford (1902-26)
18) Mike Gibbons (1907-22)
17) Charles McCoy (1891-1916)
16) Tony Zale (1934-48)
15) Charley Burley (1936-50)
14) Jake LaMotta (1941-54)
13) Ezzard Charles (1940-59)
12) Marcel Cerdan (1934-49)
11) Dick Tiger (1952-70)
All of this leads to the Top Ten.
10) Tiger Flowers (1918-27)
Record: 115-14-6, 53 KO, 21 No Decisions, 1 No Contest
World Champion 1926, 1 Defense
Middleweight Champions/Titlists Faced – 3: (Johnny Wilson, Harry Greb, Mickey Walker)
One of the rare Black fighters to get a title shot in the years between Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, the “Georgia Deacon” was one of the game’s greatest southpaws, a combination of expert defense and awkward offense who befuddled those who couldn’t catch him. Flowers turned professional at 22, winning his first two contests by knockout and was undefeated until 1921 when the forgotten but tough Panama Joe Gans stopped him twice in an otherwise unblemished thirteen fight year. His increasing level of competition through twenty fights in 1922 saw four more losses, again all by knockout, two of them against Hall of Fame Light Heavyweight Kid Norfolk and an aged, Heavyweight Sam Langford; he draw with Norfolk later in the year, but be stopped in the first round of their third contest in May 1923. The latter year wasn’t all bad with Flowers avenging a previous knockout loss to Jamaica Kid and earning a news verdict over Gans. A September 1923 stoppage loss (on an injury) to Fireman Jim Flynn was the last official defeat for some forty fights into the beginning of 1925. During the run, Flowers battled on largely even terms with Middleweight Champion Harry Greb in a no verdict affair, further avenged the loss to Jamaica Kid and another earlier loss to Lee Anderson while knocking out recently deposed Middleweight king Johnny Wilson in three. His chin bite him twice in 1925 at the hands of future Light Heavyweight king Jack Delaney but he avenged a disqualification loss to Lou Bogash early in the year with three decision wins by year’s end. 1925 ended with Flowers’s first decision loss, a debatable split with former Light Heavyweight champion Mike McTigue at the Garden. His first fight of 1926, on February 26, would provide him his finest moment, though not without some argument in the press. Back at the Garden only two months after McTigue, Flowers captured a points verdict over Greb for the Middleweight crown over fifteen rounds. Undefeated in six non-title affairs, Flowers returned to New York to make his first and only successful defense of the crown in an August rematch with Greb. As was the case in their first two bouts, opinions varied about the better man but Flowers left the winner in fifteen. Four fights remained in the year, two of them losses. In October, he was disqualified in the ninth against Hall of Fame Light Heavyweight Maxie Rosenbloom and, for the title in December, lost what some recount as one of the worst decisions to Mickey Walker. He would never get a rematch, though he did his best to drum up interest with 19 contests in 1927 which featured only one loss to contender Leo Lomski against wins over former Welterweight king Petey Latzo, Bogash, Jock Malone, and two draws with Rosenbloom. In November 1927, Flowers died of anesthesia complications on the operating table in a procedure to remove scar tissues from his eyes at age 32.
Why He’s Here: Flowers might be too low, or too high, depending on who is being asked. A technically brilliant fighter, Flowers had some flaws which separate him from some of the men in front of him. In his official losses, ten came via stoppage and nine of them came by way of leather. While it could be pointed out that many came to larger men in terms of weight class, Langford and Norfolk were the only men who were considerably larger than him when they fought him. His chin was vulnerable but, like a Tommy Hearns or Terry Norris in more modern times, if one didn’t get to it they probably weren’t going to win. His sheer volume of fights was impressive and the wins over the great Greb, and the mastery of Walker in defeat, speak to how tough an out he could be for those who lacked in power or couldn’t get to him. Had he lived, it would have been interesting to see what Flowers had left to give and whether he could have snared another shot at the crown. What he did was enough with plenty of tough competition amongst champions and top contenders of his day. Flowers was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame (IBHOF) in 1993.
9) Bob Fitzsimmons (1885-1914)
Record: 74-8-3, 67 KO, 30 No Decisions
World Champion 1891-95, 2 Defenses
Middleweight Champions/Titlists Faced – 1: (“Nonpareil” Jack Dempsey)
The U.K.-born “Ruby Robert” was boxing’s first Triple Crown winner, a World Champion at Middleweight, Heavyweight and Light Heavyweight (in that order) who rarely came close to the modern Light Heavyweight limit of 175 lbs. on the scale. Reed thin but possessing reach and incredible power, Fitzsimmons turned professional at 17 and began his career in Australia, losing only twice on a pair of knockouts, before bringing his talents to the U.S. in 1890. Fitzsimmons scored three knockouts in a row before ending the reign of the first Jack Dempsey with a 13th round knockout in Louisiana in January 1891. He would reign at Middleweight four years, but rarely defended the crown, instead pursuing larger men and dollars. Sometimes giving up close to eighty pounds in the ring, Fitzsimmons would lose only once from late February 1890 to June 1899, the loss coming via disqualification to Hall of Fame Heavyweight Tom Sharkey, while winning most of over forty fights by knockout and engaging in countless exhibitions across the country. Across the span, he avenged a knockout loss to Jim Hall and bested undefeated Jim Creedon in defense of his title. Fitzsimmons vacated the throne in 1895 and challenged for the Heavyweight crown in 1897. Weighing in at 167 lbs., Fitzsimmons gave up seventeen pounds but found a devastating blow to the body to stop James Corbett for the honors in March 1897. He’d avenge the Sharkey loss by knockout before being stopped himself by the great James Jeffries in June 1899.
Why He’s Here: Far from done, Fitzsimmons would add the Light Heavyweight title with a decision of George Gardner in 1903, making him the only man to last the distance in losing his crown to the reed thin terror. Fitzsimmons can be difficult to rate with modern fighters. He’s easier to read about than to witness on film. What can be seen points out the passage of time. The style was different then, the gloves were different, but different isn’t a bad thing. A great fighter is a great fighter in any era and Fitzsimmons was great at what he did. Power is evident in any era as well and Fitzsimmons punches evidently hurt no matter the size of his foes. In another era, he could have mastered other techniques, but the hammers in his gloves carry across eras. Despite his size, much of his best work was done as a Heavyweight and the Middleweight division of his day was less defined. His seminal place in the lore of the sweet science is indisputable no matter where he is rated. Fitzsimmons was an inaugural member of the IBHOF in 1990.
8) Mickey Walker (1919-35)
Record: 93-19-4, 60 KO, 46 No Decisions, 1 No Contest
World Champion 1926-31, 3 Defenses
Middleweight Champions/Titlists Faced – 3: (Harry Greb, Tiger Flowers, Lou Brouillard)
While reigning as the Welterweight champion of the world, the Middleweight championship proved elusive for Elizabeth, New Jersey’s “Toy Bulldog.” A July 1925 challenge of Harry Greb at the Polo Grounds in New York fell short. Just months after losing the Welterweight title to Petey Latzo in May 1926, he’d make good with his second chance (sort of). In a decision which sparked an investigation from the state commission, Walker won the crown in December 1926 on a ten round points verdict from Tiger Flowers in Chicago. The controversy of the decision could take nothing away from the body of work which followed. While he defended rarely, Walker shied away from few and regularly sought out bigger men. Former Light Heavyweight champion Mike McTigue was stopped in a single round in November 1927; later in the month, he sent another former Light Heavyweight champion, Paul Berlenbach, to the floor en route to a decision win. In March 1929, he’d fall just short of the title in the higher division, losing a split verdict to the great Tommy Loughran but he was far from done. Regularly giving up better than 30 pounds, contesting below the 170 lb. mark on the scale until a couple years into the 1930s, Walker began chasing Heavyweights to great success. Top contenders like Bearcat Wright and Paulino Uzcudun fell short; future champion Jack Sharkey was held even over fifteen rounds in July 1931. Max Schmeling pummeled him the following year but Walker wasn’t done yet. Losses to smaller men like Lou Brouillard and Young Corbett III were offset by a split with Light Heavyweight great Maxie Rosenbloom. The wild ride came to a close in 1935 with a stoppage loss to Erich Seelig but Walker had more than etched his spot in fistic lore.
Why He’s Here: When old-timers argue about the tougher men of days gone by, Walker can never be far from the conversation. Today, a former Middleweight moving up to face a single Heavyweight can get big headlines after months of manufacturing extra body mass. Walker didn’t care who he fought and didn’t care about the spread on the scale. He cared to compete, loved to win, and did tons of both. Fast, aggressive, deceptively skilled, and with power in both hands, Walker is one of the true pound for pound immortals. If he suffers in comparison to the Middleweights ahead of him, it is only because his resume against Middleweights is slightly limited. The best Middleweights he faced, in his prime and late in his career, had a better time against him than most of their heavier counterparts. It’s a small difference and, considering the men above and below him, nothing more than hair splitting amongst a pool of fantastic talent. Walker was an inaugural member of the IBHOF in 1990.
7) Bernard Hopkins (1988-Present)
Record to Date: 50-5-1, 32 KO
World Champion 2001-05, 6 Defenses (IBF Titlist 1995-2005, 20 Defenses)
Middleweight Champions/Titlists Faced – 8: (Roy Jones Jr., John David Jackson, Felix Trinidad, Keith Holmes, William Joppy, Oscar De La Hoya, Jermain Taylor, Kelly Pavlik)
Philadelphia’s “Executioner” is a modern great who, competing now as a 45 year old Light Heavyweight, continues to grow his legend. It started quietly enough, Hopkins losing a four rounder in his pro debut in 1988 before returning in early 1990 to win 22 in a row while building a reputation as a puncher and earning a shot at the vacant IBF belt in May 1993. Hopkins would give a good account of himself but ultimately lose a points verdict to a young Roy Jones. Four more wins followed and, when Jones vacated the belt, Hopkins got a second chance. Coming off the floor twice, Hopkins was forced to settle for a draw versus Segundo Mercado in December 1994. He made the third try the charm, brutalizing Mercado in seven rounds five months later to begin a steady climb to recognition. Stoppages of former titlist John David Jackson and a then-undefeated future Light Heavyweight titlist Glen Johnson helped but it was Don King’s Middleweight unification tournament in 2001 which brought Hopkins to greatness. A lopsided decision over two-time WBC titlist Keith Holmes led to a Madison Square Garden showdown with WBA titlist Felix Trinidad in September 2001. Delayed by the specter of 9/11, Hopkins put forth a masterful effort, undressing and stopping the undefeated Trinidad in the twelfth round. Moving forward as the undisputed king at 160 lbs., Hopkins battled more often with King behind the scenes than in the ring, defending only three times from 2002-03 but finishing with a beating of Joppy to close the promotional battle. A 2004 win over De La Hoya, via ninth round body shot, gave Hopkins his richest encounter and, in 2005, a pair of decision highly debatable decision losses to the ill-presumed heir apparent, Jermain Taylor, ended his decade at or near the top of class. Hopkins would bounce back with a Light Heavyweight win for the Ring Magazine title over Antonio Tarver in 2006 and added the scalps of former Jr. Middleweight champion Winky Wright and reigning Middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik, with a competitive loss to Super Middleweight stalwart Joe Calzaghe in between, through 2008.
Why He’s Here: While he wasn’t the outright Middleweight champion for the bulk of his reign, his easy wins over the two most prominent pretenders to his throne (Joppy and Holmes) were an exhibition of just who the man was all along. However, Joppy and Holmes point out a distinct problem in rating Hopkins. It’s more than fair to say, for the bulk of it, Hopkins ruled a lesser era. To his credit, he did what a great fighter would be expected to do in lesser times, rarely losing rounds for long stretches of time against any level of competition. He made Trinidad look as ineffective as Antwun Echols. Hopkins wasn’t, still isn’t, always exciting to watch but he’s a master of his craft and a remarkable example of the success of professionalism; his work ethic is unquestionable. Backstage for the Trinidad-Ricardo Mayorga bout in 2004, Hopkins could be heard organizing his team for an early morning run in Central Park just a month after his win over De La Hoya and with no future fight imminently planned. There used to be t-shirts speaking to the idea that, while some are sleeping, others are training to beat them. That’s the kind of competitor Hopkins was and is. Hopkins’s numbers are impressive no matter how they’re sliced, and his longevity as a fighter adds to his greatness, but he had the least in terms of quality opposition of any fighter on this list short of a Roy Jones who wasn’t around long. It’s enough for the top ten but not the top five. Hopkins will be a first ballot entrant to the IBHOF the day he becomes eligible.
6) Stanley Ketchell (1903-10)
Record: 52-4-4, 49 KO, 4 No Decisions
World Champion 1907-08, 6 Defenses; 08-10, 1 Defense
Middleweight Champions/Titlists Faced: 3 - (Billy Papke, Hugo Kelly, Frank Klaus)
The “Michigan Assassin” left an indelible impression even with a life ended at the point of a gun at age 24. Like Masao Ohba and Salvador Sanchez many years later, Ketchell remains frozen forever at his peak, a reigning champion. A professional at age 16, Ketchell won his first bout by opening round knockout in and by the end of 1904 had reached a mark on 13-2-1. All of the wins were by knockout. He wouldn’t spend much time losing from then on. It wasn’t until the second win in three consecutive fights with Joe Thomas in 1907 that Ketchell picked up the first decision victory of his career to extend his mark to 39-2-4. In that series, Ketchell also laid claim to the World Middleweight title vacated by Tommy Ryan the year before, strengthening his claim in the first half of 1908 with consecutive knockouts of the excellent Sullivan brothers, Mike and Jack, and a decision win in his first bout with defining rival Billy Papke. And knockout of Thomas, and Tommy Ryan’s attempt at a chosen successor in Hugo Kelly, was followed with a stoppage loss in the Papke rematch in September. The notorious rematch was begun with a foul blow to the head or throat of Ketchell during ringside introductions and Ketchell wasted little time avenging the 12th round loss. Two months later, he met Papke again, savaging the Illinois native in eleven to regain the crown. A ten-round no decision contest against former Light Heavyweight champion “Philadelphia” Jack O’ Brien in early 1909 set up a June rematch; Ketchell stopped him in three, following less than a month later with a twenty round decision to end his rivalry with Papke. The year closed, famously, with a challenge for the Heavyweight crown. Giving up over 25 pounds, Ketchell dropped the great Jack Johnson in the 12th but, rather than hurting his man, Ketchell served only to anger him. Johnson rushed across the ring, forcefully removing Ketchell from his senses and some teeth from his mouth. He opened 1910 with no decision bouts against Frank Klaus and the great Sam Langford, the latter of whom ringside opinion was mixed as to who won. Perhaps they would have squared off for the crown one day but the chance would not arise. Ketchell managed three more knockouts before he himself was put down for the final count.
Why He’s Here: Watching old film of Ketchell reveals a fighter who some would see having a hard time in the modern world. He can appear crude. However, sometimes crude works (after all, Ricardo Mayorga and Antonio Margarito managed championship glory in the modern era) and Ketchell had a skill set for his time and the ability to get his bombs home against just about anyone in his prime. He was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, pure punchers of all time. While death at 24 leaves only a short window of consideration weighed against others on this list consider this: following Ketchell’s death, men like Papke, Kelly and Klaus were joined by others in all laying various claims to the title well into the ‘teens. Had Ketchell stuck around, chances are his reign goes on a few more years. Langford would have had a hell of a chance to beat him but may never have gotten the chance as resentment towards the Heavyweight reign of Johnson grew more fiery and political. Regardless, it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t have been in the mix for at least a few more years, adding to an already astonishing knockout percentage for any generation. Ketchell was an inaugural member of the IBHOF in 1990.
5) Freddie Steele (1926-41)
Record: 125-5-11, 60 KO, 1 No Contest
NBA/NYSAC Middleweight Titlist 1936-38, 5 Defenses
Middleweight Champions/Titlists Faced - 8: (Ceferino Garcia, Gorilla Jones, Fred Apostoli, Vince Dundee, Babe Risko, Ken Overlin, Solly Krieger, Al Hostak)
Born in Seattle and reared in Tacoma, Washington, Steele turned professional at only 13 years of age, as a Flyweight, and did little but win for almost twelve years, growing into one of the most accomplished Middleweights of the 1930s. Steele was officially defeated only twice in more than 130 contests, both short round decisions, both avenged. Before he got to those mind boggling numbers, Steele developed slowly through his pubescent years and, by age nineteen, he was pasting his first future World Champion, knocking out a young Ceferino Garcia in two rounds in May 1932. Nine fights and four months later, he turned the feat again in the same round, growing out of his native Washington and into the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. He stayed largely centered in Washington after the short trip south, even luring former titlist Gorilla Jones to his turf and securing a draw in May 1934. Wins over tough outs like Babe Marino, Joe Glick, Baby Joe Gans, and a knockout of young future champion Fred Apostoli continued to bolster his record. Perhaps his most important win came in July 1935. Less than a year before, Vince Dundee had reigned as the NBA’s Middleweight champ, winning four of five since in building the hope to regain his title. Dundee, who had never been stopped in over 140 fights, was floored eleven times before the massacre was halted in the third. Steele followed two months later with a decision over Jones and 1936 would only get better. Winning all 12 of his bouts, Steele made a significant impression in March with a non-title decision over NBA titlist Babe Risko to set the stage for a title shot in July. Still only 23, Steele won a masterful fifteen round rout to out the title around his waist. Before the year was out, he’d add a second round knockout, and first knockout loss, to the ledger of future Light Heavyweight champ Gus Lesnevich. Steele would go six for six in 1937, notching four title defenses including wins over Jones and Risko (in Steele’s Madison Square Garden debut) and a knockout of future champion Ken Overlin that rates as one of his best performances. It was also his peak as a professional. A January 1938 non-title Garden war with a matured Apostoli resulted in a nine-round classic but Steel came out on the wrong end, stopped in the ninth for the first time and suffering a broken breastbone which he never allowed to heal. Steele was back in the ring a month later and won three more times, the last victory coming against future champion Solly Krieger by decision in June. Little over a month later, hampered by injury, Steele was floored four times before being counted out in one against Al Hostak for the title. Steele retired only to make a quick comeback, and knockout exit, against Jimmy Casino in 1941, still only 29 years old.
Why He’s Here: Steele might be the most underrated Middleweight in boxing history but there are reasons for that, fighting the bulk of his career in the Pacific Northwest and his rapid descent from his peak strong among them. None of those things outweigh the body of work he built or the skills he had. An excellent boxer, blessed with speed and great feet to go with finishing power, Steele took no losses and a lone draw in almost sixty fights between his second and third losses. He had a great chin until the very end with all of his three stoppage losses coming in his last six bouts. The impact of the sudden death of his manager, injury, over 120 contests by his mid-twenties and the wear of the savage second Apostoli war explain much of his quick fall from grace. At his best, Steele faced nine champions and defeated eight. Jones and Apostoli are in the Hall of Fame; Garcia, Overlin, and Lesnevich are all well overdue for induction and Hostak is on the ballot still as well. Steele received his induction in 1999.
4) “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler (1973-87)
Record: 62-3-2, 52 KO
World Champion 1980-87, 12 Defenses
Middleweight Champions/Titlists Faced - 5: (Vito Antufermo, Alan Minter, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns, Ray Leonard)
Along with Rocky Marciano, the Marvelous one proved that when Brockton, Massachusetts made a great fighter, they went all in. Hagler had it all, able to box effectively and brawl entertainingly from both the right and left side. The 1973 AAU amateur champion, Hagler entered the paid ranks at age nineteen and won his first seventeen contests. A November 1974 draw with 1972 Olympic Gold Medalist Sugar Ray Seales was his first blemish and their second fight, Hagler winning the first match by decision three months earlier. Struggling for attention, Hagler made a move to the hot Philadelphia scene in 1976, losing in his first two trips versus the talented Bobby Watts and Willie Monroe but never again in the City of Brotherly Love. He stopped Cyclone Hart, brought Monroe to Boston in February 1977 for a 12th round knockout win, and then went back to Philly six months later to knock out Monroe in two. He’d return to Philly one last time before challenging for the title, decisioning aging local favorite Bennie Briscoe in August 1979. He’d win five more, including a first round knockout of Seales, before challenging Vito Antufermo for the World title in November 1979 on the undercard of Ray Leonard-Wilfred Benitez. Hagler appeared to do more than enough to win but was forced to settle for a contentious draw after fifteen. It would take only three more fights to get another chance, a run which included a second round avenging of the Watts loss. In September 1980, Hagler traveled to Wembley, busting then-champ Alan Minter open early, forcing a stoppage in round three, and then being forced through the indignity of ducking garbage as Minter’s fans rioted. Hagler, in his 54th fight, was king and wouldn’t let go for a long time. Over the next six-plus years, only one challenger would last the distance while tough contenders like Tony Sibson, Mustafa Hamsho and Juan Roldan, former champion Vito Antufermo, and future titlists John Mugabi and Fulgencio Obelmejias were felled inside the distance. The lone man to hear the judge's cards, Lightweight great Roberto Duran, furthered his own legend in November 1983 while assisting Hagler in reaching the wider audiences he craved. Legendary status was conveyed in April 1985 when Hagler survived the classic first round and knocked out an already two-division champion, Tommy Hearns, in round three of the Fight of the Year. The man Hagler always craved most, “Sugar” Ray Leonard, agreed to exit retirement and challenge for the crown in April 1987. While many a fan argument still rages about the final verdict, Leonard won the decision in twelve rounds to end a lengthy and memorable title reign. Hagler never fought again.
Why He’s Here: If there was a knock on Hagler, it was that he was the sort of fighter who had to learn to deal with new high pressure environments before he could thrive in them…and, by learn, it is to say take a setback. He lost before he won in Philly, but once the winning started he was a beast. He drew with Antufermo and, while the draw was unjust, it came about partly through a late surge by the champion as Hagler slightly gassed; he rebounded to lay waste in his second title shot and the Antufermo rematch. In his first Superfight, Duran took him to the wire; in his second, he went through Hearns. In the biggest fight of his career? Whether one thinks Hagler deserved the verdict or not (this scribe sides with not), his early strategy to fight right handed and refusal to pressure Leonard from the outset combined for one of the worst strategies conceivable. Being Hagler, he probably comes back to knock Leonard silly. He chose to tell boxing to go to hell instead and, in the long run, it didn’t matter. His reign as champion was remarkably consistent in its outcomes. There is some analogy to be gleaned with the later era of Hopkins, and the analogy favors Hagler. Like Hopkins, he didn’t have a great Middleweight class to work with, but it was better in the 80s than in Hopkins time as king. The smaller men who rose to challenge Hagler were better as well, history and results favoring Duran and Hearns over De La Hoya and Trinidad. The only thing really separating Hagler from two of the men in front of him is that they all were blessed with superior, natural Middleweights to test them and the other managed to leave on his own winning terms. He is life and death with all of them, and they with him. Hagler was inducted to the IBHOF in his first year of eligibility, 1993.
3) Carlos Monzon (1963-77)
Record: 87-3-9, 59 KO
World Champion 1970-77, 14 Title Defenses
Middleweight Champions/Titlists Faced - : (Nino Benvenuti, Emile Griffith, Rodrigo Valdez)
Argentina’s “Escopeta” was a strong, rugged, deceptively skilled warrior who amassed one of the greatest Middleweight title reigns of them all. Tall at almost 6’ foot and never stopped, Monzon began his career at age 20 and picked up all of his losses by twenty fights into his career. Learning as he progressed, Monzon would be undefeated in 81 bouts from October 1964 until the day he retired and picked up his final draw in 1969. Among the draws was a 1967 push with rough Bennie Briscoe, the beginning of a rivalry to be picked up later for both men. Monzon fought in South America, mostly Argentina, exclusively until his first title shot. Traveling to Italy, he knocked out former Olympic Gold Medalist, Jr. Middleweight king and two-time Middleweight champion Nino Benvenuti in the thirteenth round in November 1970. It was the Ring’s Fight of the Year and, in May of 1971, they did it again. Benvenuti could only last into round three and Monzon had the first defense of what would become a record setting reign. Four months later, he added the scalp of former champion Emile Griffith in round 14, one of only two men ever to stop the five-time, two division champion. He’d add four more defenses the following year, including a knockout of aged former Jr. Middleweight king Denny Moyer, a thrilling stoppage of Jean Claude Bouttier, and a unanimous decision over Briscoe. Griffith and Bouttier both got rematches in 1973, and both lasted the distance with Griffith turning in a surprisingly spry performance. Reigning Welterweight champ Jose Napoles got a shot to kick off Monzon’s 1974 campaign but was overwhelmed and forced to surrender on his stool after seven. Ridiculously stripped of a belt by the WBC, Monzon made three more defenses of the WBA belt before squaring off in a pair of unification battles to put both belts back together. In a classic June 1976 encounter, Monzon edged the talented and hard hitting Rodrigo Valdez over fifteen rounds, making a mockery of his being stripped in a fight which begged for a rematch. Monzon obliged in July 1977, coming off the floor in round two to outwork Valdez and retain his crown for the last time. Monzon would retire one month later at age 35 and lived a tumultuous post-boxing life. Convicted of killing his girlfriend, Monzon was sentenced to over a decade in prison and died in a car accident while on weekend furlough in 1995.
Why He’s Here: Regardless of his out of ring failings, Monzon was a great fighter and a great champion. While Hopkins ultimately broke his general record for consecutive title defenses, Monzon still holds the record in a lineal sense. He won and defended the undisputed crown for all but a handful of later fights, and made a joke of the fights where he didn’t by taking the WBC belt back to where it started. His reign is not without its drawbacks. Some of the better names on his record, Griffith and Moyer, were past their peak and the depth of quality in terms of Middleweight challengers was lacking. However, Briscoe and Valdez stand out as genuine quality in any era and the man he won the title from, Benvenuti, is an underrated great. For well over a decade, no one could figure out how to beat him and he was the rare champion who went out a winner and stayed that way. He didn’t have the quality of foe the men in front of him on this list had, but the pool was more than good enough to prove he belonged in their company. Monzon was an inaugural member of the IBHOF in 1990.
2) Sugar Ray Robinson (1940-65)
Record: 173-19-6, 108 KO
World Champion 1951; 51-52, 2 Defenses; 55-57, 1 Defense; 57; 58-60
Welterweight Titlists/Champions Faced - 9: (Jake LaMotta, Randy Turpin, Bobo Olson, Rocky Graziano, Gene Fullmer, Carmen Basilio, Paul Pender, Terry Downes, Joey Giardello)
Arguably the greatest fighter who ever lived, the Detroit born and New York reared Robinson stands out as the greatest Welterweight of all time and could well be argued as number one here. Testing the Middleweight waters long before he actually chased the Middleweight crown, Robinson had already won four of his first five contests with LaMotta and knocked out Bobo Olson (for recognition as Middle champ in Pennsylvania) for the first time before challenging LaMotta for his crown on Valentine’s Day, 1951. In one of boxing’s seminal moments, he stopped LaMotta in round thirteen to begin his first of five title reigns in the divisions. A tour of Europe in the spring and summer following would end the first reign quickly, Robinson outpointed by Britain’s Randy Turpin in July. The return would come only two months later and while Turpin was still a handful there was no upset was in the offing. Cut badly and threatened with the fight being stopped, Robinson battered Turpin in the tenth to score the dramatic knockout. March and April of 1952 provided Robinson two successful title defenses, Olson lasting the full fifteen and Graziano dropping him before being knocked senseless in the third. An ill-fated move up the scale to challenge Light Heavyweight champion Joey Maxim over the summer ended in heatstroke, a corner surrender, a vacated Middleweight title, and two and a half years of retirement. Like most fighters, Robinson couldn’t stay away and on January 5, 1955, he returned with a knockout win. Just two weeks later, he lost a decision to rugged spoiler Ralph Jones, leaving the world to question whether a great Robinson had truly returned. Robinson answered with four straight wins, including an off the floor decision over contender Rocky Castellani in July, before finding old nemesis Olson wearing the crown he’d left behind in November. Robinson needed only two rounds to get it back and five months later knocked Olson out again in the lone successful defense of his last three title reigns. He’d lose the title twice in 1957, first to Gene Fullmer and then to Carmen Basilio. In between he landed arguably the greatest left hook ever to knock Fullmer out in five and regain the crown. In March 1958, he won the title for the last time in the Basilio rematch; both of their fights were selected as Fights of the Year. Flirting with the idea of challenging Floyd Patterson at Heavyweight, Robinson mostly rested, fighting only once for close to two years and never defending his title. The NBA stripped him of their title share and, in January 1960, Paul Pender stripped him any claim in the ring. Six months later, Pender retained (though the scoring of both fights roused debate) and, in December, despite looking the part of victor over fifteen, Robinson was forced to settle for a draw with NBA titlist and old rival Gene Fullmer. Fullmer battered an almost 40-year old Robinson in the immediate rematch the following year and Robinson would receive no further title opportunities, finally retiring for good in 1965.
Why He’s Here: Robinson fought some great Middleweights and, through the 1950s, beat them. His longevity, when factoring in his sheer volume of fights, is remarkable. However, a certain degree of inconsistency must also be taken to account. Robinson was virtually unbeatable at Welterweight and against Welterweights; it wasn’t the case at Middleweight, though aging played a factor as did the layoff between the second and third reigns in determining his place. Had he decided to keep fighting between 1952 and 55, his defense numbers probably grow and there wasn’t much on the horizon yet to threaten his reign. While he had to lose it four times, the fact that Robinson could win the title five times is awesome stuff and spoke to the incredible will to win he had. As noted, a case could be made to place him in the top spot. The man in front of him just manages to overcome the objection. Robinson was of course a, perhaps the, inaugural member of the IBHOF in 1990.
1) Harry Greb (1913-26)
Record: 105-8-3, 48 KO, 183 No Decisions
World Champion 1923-26, 6 Defenses
Middleweight Champions/Titlists Faced – 7: (Eddie McGoorty, George Chip, Al McCoy, Frank Mantell, Mike O’Dowd, Johnny Wilson, Mickey Walker, Tiger Flowers)
Previously, and shortly, reviewed as one of the top Light Heavyweights of all time, the “Pittsburgh Windmill” was even better at Middleweight. A non-stop punching machine with speed and a mighty chin, Greb found no harm in bending and breaking rules on the way to building his legend. The volume of his fights is such that he can be hard to summarize in a small space, but the attempt is made. A professional at 19, Greb would suffer the only real knockout loss of his career within his first six months as a pro (a later stoppage came on a broken arm). Fighting in the heart of the no decision era, most of his contests weren’t allowed an official verdict but accounts describe him as the winner more often than not through early years that included affairs with an aging Jack Blackburn, upstart versions of Hall of Famers Billy Miske and Tommy Gibbons, and former Middleweight champion George Chip. Of the men who appeared to defeat him, Gibbons was joined by Hall of Fame brother Mike and Chip. All of them were eventually solved, as were former champion Al McCoy, the great Jeff Smith, and Light Heavyweight exemplars Battling Levinsky, Jack Dillon, and Mike McTigue. Each of these challenges was faced within five years of turning pro, many of them multiple times, and almost always with the news win going to Greb. Eddie McGoorty lost an official verdict in 1918; the great Kid Norfolk lost an unofficial one in their first of two contests in 1921; and Tommy Gibbons joined Gene Tunney (in the first of five fights) in the official loss column in 1922. It would be for Tunney, the future Heavyweight champion, his sole official defeat. After defeating Tommy Loughran for the American Light Heavyweight title in January 1923, and losing it to Tunney three fights and one month later, Greb would finally get a shot at the Middleweight crown in August at the New York Polo Grounds. He bested Johnny Wilson on points to begin an entertaining reign. Spending more time at Light Heavyweight than Middle in between, Greb would fight eight times before a January 1924 rematch for the title at the Garden, again outpointing Wilson. In April of the year, he’d drop a nasty, foul filled encounter to Norfolk on a disqualification, the only time he’d look the loser either officially or unofficially in a seventeen fight campaign on the year. He’d go into the ring 25 times in 1925, looking the loser only once versus Tunney in a year that featured fights all over the scale versus Loughran, Wilson (again for the title), Maxie Rosenbloom and, in perhaps his most famous encounter not involving Tunney, in successful defense of the title in July against Mickey Walker. The following year would see the end come in many forms, first in two debated but official losses for the title to Tiger Flowers and then on the operating table. Attempting surgery on his nose and eyes, Greb died from a heart attack brought on from anesthetic complications two months after his last fight, aged only 32. It would be revealed that, while dominating the game for years, he spent as much as a third of his career blind in one eye due to a thumb foul.
Why He’s Here: There are few fighters who can contest Robinson’s claim as the greatest who ever lived. Harry Greb is one of them and this was as much his domain as Welterweight was Robinson’s. While no known tape exists of Greb fighting, and the few training films look awkward, plenty of tape exists of men who made up his opposition. Any man who could get the better of Loughran, Tunney, Walker, Rosenbloom, and the Gibbons brothers with one good eye had to be one hell of a fighter. Anyone who seemed to like beating and facing that level of opposition dozens upon dozens of times is the kind of crazy anyone can admire. So too was his disregard of the color line. While many white fighters and champions avoided the best black fighters of the day, Greb was not among them, happy to engage in series’ of fights with Norfolk and Flowers among others. His approximately 300 fights might be hard to summarize, but Greb, an inaugural inductee to the IBHOF in 1990, is certainly not hard to characterize.
Harry Greb was a great fighter.
And Harry Greb was the greatest Middleweight of them all.
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:
• 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
• Sanctioning Body Titles
• Title Defenses
• 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)
From this, a baseline is established and (as an exception here considering the depth of talent at Middleweight) the top seventy-five 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 Heavyweights
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]