The 100 Greatest Fighters of All Time Part Ten: 10-1
I know, in my own mind, who ninety-six of the top one-hundred fighters are—but separating the top four, for me has been all but impossible…
“I’m not going to bleed any more. I’m not going to spit it on the floor. I’m going to swallow it. I’m going to win this title. Take the mouthpiece out. Don’t give me no mouthpiece. Just let me go.”—Henry Armstrong
“You’ll pardon me, gentlemen, if I make this fight short. I have a train to catch!”—Sam Langford
“When are you going to fight me ya bum?”—Harry Greb
“Do. Or die.”—Sugar Ray Robinson
#10 Roberto Duran (103-16)
Roberto Duran has the appearance of a fighter whose peers can be counted on one hand in terms of skill. So brilliant does he seem that despite his having one of the most celebrated careers in boxing, Hands of Stone may have underachieved on a journey that sprawled from bantamweight to light-heavyweight and across five decades.
It is a fact that Duran lost to every single one of the unquestionably great fighters he faced. In 1984 he was massacred by a terrifying Thomas Hearns at light-middleweight, separated from his senses for the first and last time in a boxing ring by a rampaging all-time great turning in his career’s best performance. Marvin Hagler had beaten him less dramatically five months previously up at middleweight, outpointing him in a close fight that Duran, incredibly, was only two points short of winning in one of the more stirring losing efforts that can be seen. Two years before that, it had been the turn of Wilfred Benitez who outboxed a strangely fireless Duran over fifteen rather tepid rounds, but most famous was his 1980 quit job against Ray Leonard, who had outboxed, bamboozled and, like Thomas Hearns would, out-psyched the ring’s supposed king of machismo.
How then to defend such a high ranking?
Well, firstly, Duran did manage to win a fight against the quadrant of Hagler, Hearns, Benitez and Leonard, and it may be the single greatest win attained by any boxer at any weight. Leonard was absolutely primed in 1980 and must therefore list amongst the most formidable fighters pound-for-pound ever to lace up gloves when Duran, two weight divisions above his natural lightweight, proceeded to kick Ray’s ass in perhaps the most brilliant display by a winner and a loser ever seen in the ring. Much is made of the plan adopted by Ray Leonard in that fight but even more is quite rightly made of the astounding marriage of defense and offense conjured by the animal Duran, a pure embodiment of savagery just as Stanley Ketchel or Terry McGovern was one, but Duran had somehow been harnessed by his own natural understanding of the sport and by the boxing men around him. Whereas his distant ancestors had been hurricanes, Duran was a tornado, focused, the thinking man’s demon.
“Nothing could prepare you for Duran,” Ray Leonard would say after their two infamous clashes. “Duran was a fight within itself. Duran was crazed, talented, technical…an extremely good defensive fighter who was very elusive.”
Duran: “Leonard was shitting his pants.”
That was who he was. He lived and died by that type of brimming emotion. He quit shamefully against Leonard, but he came again against Pipino Cuevas and then Davey Moore to lift a strap at light-middleweight. He lost in that brave, surging, surgical performance against Hagler but aged thirty-eight he came to the middleweight division once more and lifted a strap in that weight division, outhitting a large and aggressive middleweight in Iran Barkley, the man who had just destroyed Thomas Hearns. Duran by that stage was trading on nothing but a name; Barkley came to rub it out forever but flat out could not do it; nobody could. Nobody ever will.
He staggered on for another decade, sometimes surprising us, sometimes boxing in total farces, and sometimes both as was his final but somehow glorious failure against Hector Camacho. It will be for his twelve-defense brutal domination of a lightweight division ruled by borderline great Ken Buchanan when he came to his prime that he will be remembered for, and that stunning performance against Ray Leonard. And those losses? Weighing them against who he was and how he boxed is perhaps the final indictment of a project like this. Trying to measure a fighter like Roberto is like measuring the wind. Number ten, for what that is worth, is where he has blown in. Get yourself a big screen TV and a pair of Sennheiser headphones, some peace, some quiet, and the right fight and he is, simply put, number one.
#9 Joe Louis (66-3)
Joe Louis is the single greatest champion boxing ever produced. He bossed the heavyweight title for an astonishing twelve years between 1937 and 1949. Nor was he a champion who, like John Sullivan or Jack Dempsey, racked up championship years in inactivity. Rather he was the most fightingist champion of them all, boxing twenty-five successful defenses despite the rude interruption that was the Second World War, a conflict that Louis famously claimed the inevitability of victory in because “ we’re on God’s side.” No figure was capable of discharging the wired racial tensions that ruled USA in this time completely, but Joe came close; a legitimately beloved American hero.
And one of the very greatest boxers to have ever drawn breath.
Louis has a single prime loss, if a fighter who has spent fewer than two years boxing as a professional can be considered primed, to former heavyweight champion Max Schmeling in 1936. He avenged it in utterly devastating fashion two years later by way of a first round knockout in what may be the single most significant prizefight in history, fought close to the eve of the outbreak of war between a black American and Nazi propaganda puppet Max Schmeling (who in reality was a decent, moral man). Still celebrated as one of the greatest displays of controlled savagery in ring history, Louis may even have bettered it, albeit in less dramatic circumstances, against the 250-pound Buddy Baer. Outweighed by more than forty pounds, Louis slaughtered Baer in a more cultured fashion than he had slaughtered Schmeling. Enlisting in the army days later, Louis went slightly stale during his enforced ring exodus, raising the terrifying prospect that like his lone heavyweight peer Muhammad Ali, Joe’s absolute peak may have been sabotaged by wider conflict.
Before he even lifted the title Louis had defeated former champions Max Baer, Jack Sharkey and Primo Carnera, all by devastating knockout and in one-sided fashion. Top contenders like Paulino Uzcudun and King Levinsky offered even less resistance. Taking the title from Jim Braddock, he twice defeated his successor, Jersey Joe Walcott having met all but one of the men to even briefly hold the #1 contendership to his title, defeating all of them. He retired (briefly) in 1948 as the undefeated, undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. His comeback two years later was doomed from the beginning, but even devoid of his legendary speed he was so superb a boxer as to be able to decision the top contenders he faced, men like Jimmy Bivins and Cesar Brion. Only other all-time great fighters were able to defeat him, Ezzard Charles outboxing him to a decision, and a superb Rocky Marciano forcing a heartbreaking stoppage.
My selection as the greatest puncher that has boxed at any weight, it is very possible that the heavyweight capable of beating him in his devastating prime of 1938-1942 had not yet been born.
#8 Joe Gans (145-10-16; Newspaper Decisions 14-2-4)
Joe Gans sits atop the deepest pile of lightweights ever assembled and was regarded during his prime as the most brilliant boxer in history. It can be argued that Gans represents the culmination of boxing technique and that since his reign fighters have done nothing more than flesh out the bones of the technical blueprint he embodied. Gans doesn’t scrape the heights of boxing greatness due to his cultivation of what some historians name a more modern style however, but due to his incredible domination of a murderous lightweight scene, additional honors at welterweight and the sum total of the extraordinary list of top fighters he outboxed or dispatched over the course of a two-hundred fight, eighteen-year career.
Gans boxed a lifetime and more before he actually came to the title. When he lost to the wonderful George McFadden in early 1899 he already enjoyed reputation enough that the result was regarded as a real surprise. Gans avenged that particular defeat on five separate occasions, just to be sure that McFadden, the division’s great nearly man, had heard him. Having placed that top contender under control, Gans took his shot at Frank Erne and the title and, likely peaking, outboxed the champion with all the skill that made him great. “The clever and shifty [Erne],” wrote The Evening World, “was like a novice before the superb blocking, the scientific punching and wonderful footwork of the colored lad.” Unfortunately the same newspaper derided him as the “champion quitter” after an accidental clash of heads opened a terrible cut above Joe’s left eye. Claiming blindness, Gans quit in the twelfth. Although the cut was undoubtedly extremely serious, Joe Gans had now handed the white power structure an extremely good reason to keep him from title honors.
Fortunately Gans was too brilliant to be denied. After beating McFadden again and knocking out former champion Young Griffo, Gans seemed to hamstring himself once more, taking an apparent dive against the deadly Terry McGovern. This was perhaps the most controversial fight of the century and such was the disgust it caused it resulted in the banning of boxing in Illinois. In tandem with his quittage in his last title effort, it left Joe’s reputation in near ruins. He produced the only reaction that could have saved him, a three-year, forty-fight long unbeaten streak that saw him tear a swathe through the murderous lightweight division. He twice knocked out his former conqueror and past and future title claimant Bobby Dobbs, as well as fourteen other men, forcing Erne back into the ring. After nearly ten years as a professional, Gans realized his ambition with a handful of punches and in around eighty seconds. He lifted the title with a first round knockout.
The confusion over the details of the Gans title reign seems to be a modern affectation; there is little doubting, despite the claim of the twice beaten Jimmy Britt to a piece of the championship, that Joe’s peers knew who was The Man. He went 18-2 in title matches between lifting the championship and his death in August 1910, hampered in the two losses by the tuberculosis that would kill him. In addition to Britt, he defeated Battling Nelson, Kid Herman, Dave Holly and Kid McPartland as well as Mike Sullivan, adding the welterweight title. He was also busy in non-title affairs in which he bested Jack Blackburn, the tragic Mike Ward and was extremely unlucky not to get the nod over fellow pound-for-pound great Joe Walcott, whom he outboxed over 20 in 1904. Sam Langford described him as the greatest boxer of all time. A close look makes one feel rather foolish in disagreeing.
#7 Muhammad Ali (56-5)
Archie Moore surmised Muhammad Ali brilliantly when he compared him to a man who “can write beautifully but doesn’t know how to punctuate.” He spoke with Ali’s lip in mind when he told this story, but it surmises him perfectly as a fighter, too. Ali did indeed toss out the established grammar of boxing in a sporting career that for a while was almost as controversial as his public life.
The establishment said he danced too much. He ran. He didn’t have the right economy, he would burn out. They said he didn’t sit down on his punches properly because he was always on his toes. Was it the flat out bigotry of a white press disgusted by this “uppity nigger,” a fighter who called sportswriters who disagreed with him “bum” instead of “sir”? Was it just that he boxed in a style so new and shocking to the heavyweight division that the generally conservative sports editors of the time couldn’t understand what they were seeing? Or was it that Ali was so disturbingly fast that they missed the fraction of a second in which he wanted to throw a hard punch that his feet were glued to the canvas, in the old way, done in a new way.
Boxing grammar calls for a fighter to wear his hands high. Ali wore his low, at his waist, but they were rarely still, instead they moved sharply about his hips, touched together, fanning his left out to his side, tipping his right to his head as though in salute, and to the men given the job of appraising him, it looked like some painted dance done for show; “clowning” they called it. In fact, it had more in common with a stoat hypnotizing a rabbit. So fast was Ali that the fluidity in his hands became, as rounds wore on, a terrifying series of feints. Any given movement by Ali’s hands could be a precursor to any number of punches or nothing at all, not a unique tactic even in 1963, but taken in tandem with his floating footwork and his ability to conjure hard punches whilst moving laterally or even whilst retreating made it the most deadly first-line of defense and preparatory offense ever seen in the heavyweight division.
Boxing grammar demands that a fighter move to his left and to his right to slip punches and must not pull back. Ali did the opposite, gliding directly backwards in tandem with head and upper-body movement that left his opponents firing at air whilst showing a completely unparalleled ability to counterpunch with murderous intent purely off the back foot. He did not move back, reset, counter, like the heavyweight technicians before him, nor did he move back into countering position like the heavyweight slickster Jersey Joe Walcott, rather he found the counter whatever his position upon his retreat. He was absolutely unique.
Most tellingly, boxing grammar calls for a fighter, any fighter, to attack the body of the opponent as part of almost any wider strategy. This is the punctuation mark that Ali was most widely fought on by the boxing establishment he invaded and redefined.
“My wife is crazy about him, my kids are crazy about him, and I’m crazy about him,” said Archie Moore upon finally throwing his hands up and admitting defeat in trying to bring home to Ali some of what he saw as the universal truths of the boxing ring, “but he just won’t do what I tell him to do. He thinks I’m trying to change his style.”
Ali never did break. He can be seen on film throwing a few body punches here and there, most notably against Alex Miteff, who he folded in half like faulty deckchair, but in general he stuck to the Ali-ism that he felt suited his style: “Keep punching a man’s head and it mixes his mind.” Sportswriters, commentators, they burdened Ali with a vanity his persona did lend itself to, claiming that he didn’t punch to the body because he didn’t want to “mess up that pretty face,” but in fact Ali had recognized what the rest of the world hadn’t yet come to see—he punched quickly enough and accurately enough to find his way through any guard that existed in the heavyweight division—and he hit hard enough to “mix” a man’s mind, or “stir” it, as Archie Moore put it after their sad 1962 confrontation.
Having torn up the rulebook and absolutely refused to tape it back together under the tutelage of Moore, the search began for the seeming impossible, a cornerman who could work with and improve him. In Angelo Dundee they found the perfect man.
“You couldn’t actually directly order him to do something,” Dundee would say of his charge. “He resented direct orders. You sort of had to mould him…mostly, it was all him.”
Mostly, it was. Dundee’s brilliance as a cornerman and tactician is lauded extensively elsewhere, here it is necessary to point out that style and wider strategy for a fighter regarded as one of the greatest stylists and strategists of all time was almost entirely the per diem of Ali himself. The sportswriters were wrong about him running, clowning and pit-a-patting, but they were right about the question of economy. Ali knew it though, and was working on a version of the legendary rope-a-dope he would use to defeat George Foreman as early as his training for Sonny Liston. The fight in which he won the championship was the first fight where the establishment began to bend. “I think we’ve just seen one of the greatest rounds we’ve seen from anybody in a long time,” Joe Louis said after the first three minutes shared by Ali and Liston. Marciano was less convinced asking nobody in particular, “What the hell is this?” as Ali danced and battered Liston around the ring.
They say the gazelle and the cheetah evolve side-by-side in a symmetrical race to a nonexistent finish line that maintains between them a perfect balance that ensures the survival of each species. In Ali, the scales were tipped forever in favor of the gazelle, so far in excess of his contemporaries that he would go untroubled even by lions. The result was one of the best hauls against contenders for the all-time top ten in a given division by any fighter, ever. He beat Liston twice, George Foreman and Joe Frazier twice for five scalps against men who are arguably top ten heavyweights of all time. Just outside that top ten stand men like Floyd Patterson and Ken Norton, whom he also beat, and even a level down he has a raft of top men—Cooper, Chuvalo, Williams, Folley, Quarry, Bonavena (over who, like Foreman, he holds a unique stoppage), Ellis, Mathis, Mac Foster, Bob Foster, Lyle, Shavers and Spinks—a list of names unequalled by most heavyweights even leaving aside the very best names he took. He defeated ten men who held a version of a world title and was victorious in twenty-two title fights and all of this in spite of the fact that he had the very best years of his sporting prime taken from him by the authorities because of his failure to be drafted into the military during the Vietnam War.
When I was a boy, I was sure Muhammad Ali was the greatest fighter who ever lived. As a young man, I became sure he was not. Now that I’m older I have moments when I wonder to myself, and longer spells when I feel sure that had he been allowed to box on during those three wasted years, he might indeed have been The Greatest.
#6 Bob Fitzsimmons (68-8-5)
Bob Fitzsimmons beat the Nonpareil Jack Dempsey in such one-sided fashion in 1891 that the first chairman of the yet to be founded New York State Athletic Commission, William Muldoon, immediately named him one of the best he had ever seen. “I have never dreamed of such a man,” said the former trainer of John L. Sullivan. “He is a terrific hitter, a two-handed fighter and a great general.” The last point needs to be stressed—Fitzsimmons had outboxed and out-generalled the greatest general the fight game had yet seen, and with great ease.
“It wasn’t a hard fight. I did not even get thoroughly warmed up.”
Dempsey’s face, meanwhile, was a mess of gore.
Fitzsimmons dismissed talk of his challenging the world’s heavyweight champion James Corbett, naming him both too big and too clever. But the seed had been planted. After his single defense of the middleweight title he made his first move in that direction, stopping Peter Maher, who had been beaten just once in his last forty fights, by no less a figure than Peter Jackson, the Black Prince. The Antipodean press had not been shy in comparing Fitzsimmons to the great Jackson and now those comparisons were being justified. Maher, a warrior of the old school, quit to Fitzsimmons: “ I’m done, don’t hit me anymore. I can’t reach you, I’m done.” It emerged afterwards that Bob had “broken” or more likely “dislocated” his right thumb in the first round, explaining what had become one of boxing’s first jab clinics. Weighing in under the modern super-middleweight limit, Fitzsimmons had become a heavyweight contender.
That road ended after the savage beating of Joe Choynski, a knockout of Jim Hall, who held a stoppage over Fitzsimmons from 1890, a tour as middleweight champion, and some other easy victories, at the doorstep of the heavyweight champion Jim Corbett. Another of the era’s admired scientists, Corbett was also teak tough having boxed a sixty-one round draw with Peter Jackson and taken the title from the legendary puncher John Sullivan. But Fitzsimmons was at an excruciating peak. Widely regarded as the best general in the sport—bar, perhaps, Corbett—he had been chin-checked by the huge-punching Choynski who Bob said “came the nearest to putting me out, he gave me the worst punching I ever had.” Regarded, even whilst outweighed by anything up to twenty-five pounds by Corbett, as the puncher in the fight such were the lethality of his fists, Fitzsimmons would need to prove his stamina and overall durability to beat the heavyweight champion.
This, he did, knocking the best fighter on the planet out with a single and legendary bodyshot, “the solar plexus punch,” after fourteen rounds of eating varied heavyweight punches. Fitzsimmons had become the first and remains the last man to hold lineage at both middleweight and heavyweight. His style had endured a total overhaul, turning him from the boxer-puncher of his middleweight days to a punching trapsmith the likes of which had never been seen before. It stressed power over his much admired mobility and was the full reverse of what would be expected from an opponent moving up in weight. Bob made it work because of a unique set of physical and technical abilities that made him the best at any weight despite his own weight.
He also showed outstanding longevity. After losing the title to the marauding James J. Jeffries, a heavyweight even by modern standards, he boxed on for a number of years, adding the linear light-heavyweight title in his fortieth year, an incredible feat for a fighter of that era, and taking his last significant scalp, a great one, against Jack O’Brien two years later. Fitzsimmons’ achievements are as extraordinary as any performed in the ring and arguably are without equal— though the men with cognitive arguments lie below this line. What keeps Fitzsimmons out of the top five is not what he lacks, but rather what these other men have—beginning with the terrifying prospect of a fighter who has beaten no fewer than six of the men who have made the top 100.
#5 Ezzard Charles (93-25-1)
Teddy Yarosz, Charley Burley, Jimmy Bivins, Lloyd Marshall, Archie Moore and Joe Louis are the names of those men. First amongst them is Archie Moore. What makes Ezzard’s three victories over Moore at light-heavyweight incredible is the status of Archie Moore at light-heavyweight. He is almost universally regarded as the greatest or second greatest light-heavyweight ever to box. Charles is the man who holds the other berth. Imagine, if you will, what it would have meant had Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali shared an era and that Joe Louis had three times beaten Muhammad Ali. Can it even be imagined what that would have done for the standing of Louis, especially if Ali had gone on, regardless, to rule the world as perhaps the greatest champion in the history of his division anyway? By my reckoning Moore, the fifteenth greatest fighter in history, was beaten by Charles in a whitewash, once by way of brutal and desperate knockout.
Joe Louis, ranked #8 here, was past his prime and on the comeback trail for his 1950 heavyweight title fight with Ezzard Charles—the heavyweight crown was the only one this great light-heavy would ever wear—but had enough left to come out firmly on the losing end of what was a technical masterclass. Charles showed one of the great jabs that night, and had other punches to match.
Charley Burley, ranked at twenty-five on this list, was an established and experienced operator when he twice met Ezzard Charles in the summer of 1942. In their first fight, Charles was within perhaps a single punch of handing Burley his first and last stoppage loss in the fourth round before coming close to being stopped himself in a torrid fifth. With that horror-show round behind him, he stepped up and in to outfight Charley. Burley, one of the ring’s great learning fighters, organized an immediate rematch tricking, trapping and counterpunching the then middleweight Charles, who boxed clever before once again stepping inside to take the play away from his smaller opponent. He was, at that time, a teenager, and had not yet left school.
Jimmy Bivins, who I have at forty-five, is the last of Ezzard’s top fifty victims, a fighter with whom he went 4-1. He became only the second man to stop Bivins in their 1947 encounter, knocking him out like no man had before or since, stretching him “flat on his back” with a counter over the top of Jimmy’s jab which left him prone “for several minutes” after he had been counted out. Charles lost to Bivins when he was twenty years old, once he hit his stride his domination of one of the all-time greats was complete.
Teddy Yarosz, ranked #79, had, like Louis, seen better days at the time of his 1941 meeting with Charles but Charles was still but twenty years old, and had taken a huge risk in matching yet another great at such a young age. Yarosz was not in the fight. He landed “only about three good lefts” and “clinched frequently” on the way to what reads like a 10-0 drubbing having been dropped in the first and vanishing into a defensive shell.
Finally, there is Lloyd Marshall, the enigmatic Marshall, ranked lowest of the Charles victims at #83, but granted a special place in the hearts of boxing historians everywhere because he has a dubious starring role in one of the greatest films ever made: that of his being knocked out by a prime light-heavyweight Ezzard Charles in 1946. Fought in the tiniest of rings it is a fight that is fought by necessity at a lightning pace, but remains technically brilliant, a showcase of infighting, outboxing, body-punching and defense. Charles demonstrates the sneaky right he uses to poleaxe Bivins, the sublime uppercut he would use to terrorise Pat Valentino in a 1949 title defense, a snapping jab, feints by footwork, but most of all speed that footage of his heavyweight campaign does no more than hint at. The knockout is baited by two feints, one with the lead foot, one with the head, and when Marshall takes the second one Charles steps in and disappears his left fist into Marshall’s ribs. It looks like no other knockout that I have seen aside from one of the most celebrated of all time, the one Charles would suffer at the hands of Jersey Joe Walcott years later. The most telling difference is the art Charles shows in baiting that hook.
I go back to work next week after nearly two months off. My last assignment fell short of my new one by seven weeks and so an unearned holiday is what I got. When people ask me what I did with that time, I shall mutter a platitude or two, infer that we did some decorating and then change the subject; because how do you tell a non-boxing person (and there are a lot of them these days) that you just spent seven weeks writing a series on the top one-hundred boxers in history? To a non-boxing person, that would seem like the worst kind of craziness. And perhaps that non-boxing person would have a point
I can comfort myself that this effort, for all that there may be others that disagree with me, results in my now knowing just who the one-hundred greatest fighters really are. To say that I have learned a lot during this process is an understatement; like Leonard said of Duran, it’s been a fight within a fight. Unfortunately though, that isn’t true. I know, in my own mind, who ninety-six of the top one-hundred fighters are—but separating the top four, for me has been all but impossible.
I built a hunch, then I ran with it, the hunch changed and I ran with it again, I started over when that one petered out and when the old one reared up again I wedged it in there with cement and waited to see if it would crack. When it didn’t, I wrote it up and here it is. I don’t say it’s true, but I say it is the closest I can get to the truth of boxing’s own Mount Rushmore. Now listen.
This, is how I have it:
#4 Henry Armstrong (150-21-10)
Henry Armstrong is boxing’s bogeyman. Yes, he was skilled, so skilled in fact that he remains, seventy years after his retirement, the definitive exponent of the swarming pressure style, but it was not skill that defined him. What made Armstrong perhaps the most dangerous fighter in all of boxing history was more elemental—violent pressure, a blackout punch, an inexhaustible engine, an iron-chin, an iron-will; these were the tools Armstrong used to drive himself to triple-crown immorality. At the sharp end of this list there are only speedsters, technical geniuses, the most advanced of trapping counterpunchers, and Armstrong, and it was Armstrong who can be named the ultimate executioner of champions.
The bloody slaughter of boxing royalty began in 1935 with a ten-round decision over the obese but brilliant former flyweight champion Midget Wolgast who he outworked in the back stretch to outpoint despite a terrifying left-handed rally from the canvas by an inspired Wolgast through the third and fourth. Next up, Baby Arizmendi, who not only enjoyed recognition in some corners as the featherweight champion of the world, but also held not just one but two wins over Hammerin’ Hank. Armstrong would claim that those losses were caused not Arizmendi’s ability but certain business arrangements combined with suspect officiating. True or not, Armstrong leant those accusations weight by way of his 1936 trouncing of the Mexican. The LA Times had it 10-0 to Armstrong and described the champion as “mercilessly outclassed,” and stated that Arizmendi’s “cheekbones, eyes and lips were badly swollen and dripping blood.” Henry had just Armstronged his first world-class opponent, pinned him to the ropes, beat him like a dog. A terrible force was set in motion that night. Just two weeks later, Armstrong buzz-sawed his way through Juan Zurita, a fighter who would snatch up a piece of the lightweight title in Armstrong’s wake but could not last four rounds in the ring with him. Two months later, he crowded, bullied and decisioned NYSAC featherweight champion Mike Belloise in a non-title fight. In early 1937 he rematched the native New Yorker, still recognized as champion is his hometown and left him insensible and unable to continue after four; four rounds, too, was the limit for former light-welterweight champion and Kid Chocolate conqueror Frankie Klick who did well even to survive the first after swallowing a right hand that sent him clattering around the ring like a frightened pony—nobody can have been surprised when the ultra-durable former junior-lightweight champion Benny Bass also managed just four before hearing the first count of his career in the summer of ’37; a terrible and deafening scream of power-punching pressure was hurtling down the corridors of fistic history and it’s champions were being thrown before it like leaves before a hurricane.
Spilling journeymen and contenders about him as he rocketed to the unified title, Armstrong did not establish universally recognized lineage until his six-round destruction of Petey Sarron, who actually befuddled Armstrong in the first as he “jumped about rigidly upright or scrambled about in a low crouch,” (The Pittsburgh Press) but once he found his range Armstrong set Sarron adrift amidst a “blizzard of red leather.” Armstrong forced him to stand and fight in a war he couldn’t hope to win in his wildest dreams, and a withering body attack opened the way for a right hand shot that bundled him to the canvas like a bag of laundry for the only stoppage loss of his fierce life.
Armstrong stopped future featherweight champion Chalky Wright in just three rounds at the beginning of 1938 before pouncing upon world welterweight king Barney Ross and utterly crushing him in fifteen whilst weighing no more than a lightweight, so he remained a lightweight, and demonstrating an unbreakable heart, swallowing the bellyful of blood that poured from his cut mouth to out-tough the sheetrock 135-pound champion Lou Ambers to become undisputed feather, light and welterweight champion of the world. It was the welterweight championship that would make him. He made nearly twenty defenses, defeating future lightweight champion Lew Jenkins, future middleweight champion Ceferino Garcia, who he was unlucky not to get more than the draw against in their 1940 rematch for the middleweight title. When he finally dropped the welterweight title in a bad-tempered fight with back-alley wizard Fritzie Zivic seven months later he had knockout wins over former strap-holders Juan Zurita and Leo Rodak ahead of him still, and not least a revenge win over Zivic; sheet-lightning; a ghost-wave at night; a solar flare, the rarest of natural disasters he cut the flesh of great champions and broken-down journeymen into the same useless shambles of non-resistance.
#3 Sugar Ray Robinson (173-19-6)
“He didn’t knock me out did he?”
“Nobody knocked you out. It was the heat, the heat beat you.”
“It wasn’t the heat. It was God.”
So said Sugar Ray Robinson concerning his failed 1952 tilt at the world light-heavyweight champion, Joey Maxim. By this stage past his very best, a combination of a soaring temperature and a larger, stronger opponent inflicted upon Robinson the only stoppage defeat of his career. During his prime, it is very likely that God wouldn’t have got anywhere near him. So synonymous is he with greatness in the field of pugilism that he has become the de facto #1 on lists such as this one, and this, perhaps, is no bad thing. He is qualified for the spot and carelessly inserting him on the biggest of boxing thrones spares the eyes the pain of looking directly at such deities for prolonged periods. Putting Robinson under a microscope is akin to studying the surface of the sun with a magnifying glass.
Joe Gnouly was faded when they tossed him in with the young lion that was Robinson in in 1941, a 15-0 lightweight of length and speed but very far from the finished article. Such fighters are vulnerable to the machinations of ring veterans and Gnouly was still good enough in that year to have taken on and beaten coming contender Willie Joyce and likely believed himself the equal of the raw-boned youth set down in front of him for the younger man’s Washington debut. Robinson slashed him to ribbons in three, faster than he had been stopped at any time in his career, faster even than Henry Armstrong had managed a year before. The fight that would set him on the road to stardom—the fight after which he would make the greatest call of any boxer’s career, telephoning his mother to tell her she need never work again—came just three months and five fights later. It was a non-title matchup between Robinson and NBA lightweight champion Sammy Angott, who stepped up to the ring a champion stung by the unsightly business that was his underdog status and left it with his tail between his legs, having been dropped and battered by the fighter now being named “the clean-up hitter” for the lightweight division. Angott defended his title against Lew Jenkins and twice tamed Bob Montgomery and then met Robinson again the summer of ’42. Robinson dropped and outpointed him once more, and once more the title was not on the line. In the interim, Robinson battered future welterweight champion Marty Servo and former welterweight champion Fritzie Zivic. This meant two things. Firstly, the Sugar Man had arrived, secondly he wasn’t going to get a title shot at lightweight. Like so many great ones before and after, he headed north. Through ’42 he twice defeated former welterweight champion Izzy Jannazzo and went 3-1 with the great middleweight Jake LaMotta. These were the fights that really made Robinson, pressure cooker wars that taught him to utilize those lightning fast feet, sit down on his punches and vanish, hit, move, slash, batter, brutalize, move, dance, kill. By the time of his domination of Henry Armstrong in the summer of 1943, Robinson had perfected this art as completely as any man ever has, and likely ever will. One of the great reigns of the welterweight division had now begun, hampered only by the detail that nobody had put a title on the line against him yet.
American history is replete with fighters, mostly black, who were excellent, but held no title. Robinson did not become one of these for several reasons and perhaps unsavory connections number amongst them, but most of all it was his sheer unadulterated brilliance coupled with an exciting, punching style that meant the fans loved him. Robinson lost not a fight between his four times avenged defeat to Jake LaMotta in early 1943 and his 1951 loss to Randy Turpin. To say he was busy during that time is an understatement. After Armstrong, he brushed aside Jannazzo in two, decisioned Tommy Bell over ten, brushing aside contenders like George Costner and Jimmy McDaniels on the way through, as though they were nothing. There were occasional scares, like the one against Artie Levine who came extremely close to changing boxing history before succumbing to the inevitable, and then Robinson finally got his shot, against Bell, who had miraculously shot to the front of the queue despite Sugar’s earlier outclassing of him. Bell actually made a much better match of it in their title fight, which was for the crown vacated by Marty Servo, whom Robinson had beaten twice, but was defeated nonetheless by the man who had been regarded by many as the uncrowned welterweight champion for years.
Robinson held the title between 1946 and 1951 and amongst his defenses is the jewel of his welterweight resume, a fifteen-round defeat of Kid Gavilan. It can be argued successfully that this was a fight between primed versions of the two best fighters ever to make 147 pounds and that Robinson won, if not quite at a canter, then without digging in the spurs. A close opening seven was contrasted by a back eight firmly controlled by the champion. Gavilan is in an argument with Thomas Hearns, Charley Burley and Ray Leonard over who is the second best fighter ever to weigh 147 pounds, but it is my opinion that the number one birth cannot be disputed. That belongs to Robinson, and to find meaningful competition he would have to step up to 160 pounds.
It is here that a modern observer gets to know him for there is much more footage of Robinson at middleweight. Perhaps most instructive is his unique stoppage of Jake LaMotta, a TKO in the thirteenth round of their sixth encounter in February of ’51. With the world middleweight title on the line, LaMotta showed everything there is in a bull’s repertoire to try to keep Robinson under control but when he blasted his last surge into Robinson’s midriff in the eleventh only for Sugar to come back at him again, he wilted and was smashed to a stoppage against the ropes by exalted violence rarely seen in the ring. This is what is often forgotten about Robinson. Seen here at the end of the welterweight run and the beginning of his middleweight one, we find him at or close to his savage best and the violence inherent in his style. Yes, he was a boxing genius, but he was also a terrible ring savage who held ring violence in hand. It was a combination of attributes that left great champions wanting at both lightweight and welterweight, but that would also make him a five-time middleweight champion of the world. Past his peak almost as soon as he had stepped out of the St. Valentine’s Day ring he butchered LaMotta in, he lost and regained his title against Randy Turpin, retired, made a comeback and re-took his title with a brutal second round knockout over Bob Olsen, lost and regained his title from Gene Fulmer, lost and regained his title to Carmen Basilio. Other middleweights he brutalized included Holly Mims, Luc Van Dam, Robert Villemain, Jose Basora, Rocky Graziano, Rocky Castellani and Denny Moyer. His form was inevitably patchy at the higher weight but was and remains one of the greatest middleweight warriors of them all. He retired well into his forties in 1965, and is deemed the greatest fighter to have boxed in both the forties and the fifties—arguably the two deepest decades in the history of the sport.
The opinion of their shared peers which seems to be just in favor of Robinson sees him perched on his toes and ready to hit just in front of Armstrong at #3.
#2 Harry Greb (104-8-3; Newspaper Decisions 158-9-16)
I had a dream last night that Harry Greb awaited me at the pearly gates having swarmed St. Peter into a surprised and dramatic repose on the cloud and I had to explain to him just why I saw fit to rank him outside of the top one, where he so clearly belongs. Upon waking I resolved to address the issue post-haste but in the cold light of morning the realization that placing Sugar Ray Robinson at #3 had likely already damned me so to hell with it (and me, probably).
Greb has the best paper resume in the sport’s history, and most of the men he defeated were at or near their absolute best when he trounced them. The men from this list who he defeated are Tommy Gibbons, Mike Gibbons, Mickey Walker, Gene Tunney, Jack Dillon and Tommy Loughran. Men like Gibbons, Tunney and Walker were at one time or another heartily thrashed by him in non-competitive bouts that underline just how much better Greb was than most of these men—as a middleweight, the great Mickey Walker clearly was not in his class. When he first encountered Gene Tunney, the fighting marine, he beat him as though he was a thief and finished the fight covered in the future heavyweight world champion’s blood, himself almost unmarked. Meeting Tommy Gibbons in what was billed as a world title eliminator in their final fight in 1922, Greb beat him so completely and inarguably that Gibbons was considered by the press to have been removed from the title picture having previously been the man deemed most likely to challenge Jack Dempsey. For each of these fights, Greb was suffering from varying degrees of blindness in his right eye.
When he moved up to heavyweight in search of the ultimate of sporting honors, he continued to outclass opponents despite their vast size advantages. There has been conservative enhancements made to a fighter’s all-time standing on this list due to his being able to prove his brilliance in multiple weight classes but as a rule such a fighter will be weighing in at or around the limit for that new weight class. Not Greb. When Greb stepped up to heavyweight, he continued to box as a middleweight or small light-heavyweight. Standing just 5-foot-8 and boxing with the style of a speedster, he had little choice.
Greb attacked with a “sea of gloves,” and was the fastest fighter of his generation and according to those that saw him, was faster than the fastest fighters of the next generation. “He was always on the move – side-stepping, retreating, advancing…” said Gene Tunney of their five battles, “…a memory still terrifying…he was the greatest fighter I ever saw.”
“He’d never stop throwing punches,” confirmed Tommy Loughran. “He had extraordinary ability along the lines of endurance. He never seemed to run out of wind.”
This terrifying speed, grindless engine and astonishing workrate made him all but invulnerable even at heavyweight. Title challengers Bill Brennan and Billy Miske were both entirely outclassed at one time or another as well as numerous journeymen and contenders, some of whom outweighed “The Pittsburgh Windmill” by nearly forty pounds. It made no matter. He tore through the best in the middleweight, light-heavyweight and heavyweight divisions who would entertain him He took no notice of the color-line and met many of the top black contenders of his time, although in the form of the champions of the three divisions he terrorized he found that he himself was avoided. In 1919, he went 45-0 against all comers from those three divisions, including light-heavyweight champions Battling Levinsky and Mike McTigue fighting dozens of world-class opponents at the rate of almost one a week.
Greb edges out Robinson along the simplest of lines: quality of opposition beat. He beat more great fighters. It is also a fact that in Charley Burley and Cocoa Kid, Robinson, known to be a hardline negotiator, left behind two messes that he should have cleaned up in the form of fighters who sought an engagement with him, were good enough to test him, but were denied the right to meet him, whilst Greb met everyone in his era who dared to fight him, usually more than once. In counterweight stands Robinson’s brilliance on film, whilst no film of Greb is said to exist. Rightly or wrongly, a counterview is formed in the mind of Greb’s abilities and skills—simply put he cannot be far behind Robinson, if at all.
Watching fighters like Tommy Loughran, Tommy Gibbons and Mickey Walker and imagining such men thrashed in one-sided encounters by a man of some otherworldly class in dramatic excess of the ability of the best fighters in the era is enough to get him over the line.
#1 Sam Langford (179-30-40; Newspaper Decisions 32-14-15)
In his masterpiece Sam Langford: Boxing’s Greatest Uncrowned Champions, Clay Moyle tells the story of Langford’s June 1917 clash with heavyweight contender Fred Fulton. Meetings between the pair were said to draw laughter from the audience because of the eleven-inch height advantage enjoyed by Fulton, but his manager, Mike Collins, knew better than to take any perceived advantages for granted. In the weeks approaching Fulton’s fight with “The Black Death” Sam Langford, so named for his being credited with stopping more men than the worst pandemic in human history, Collins had drummed into his charge the necessity for extreme caution in boxing Sam: he was to avoid throwing the right hand at all costs. He was to jab, jab, jab and keep Langford at a literal arm’s length.
Fulton took it upon himself to obey these instructions during the opening round, but the sight of Langford’s bloated frame, “layers of extra weight” covering his once muscular frame, slow, stuck on the end of Fulton’s jab, “far from the fighter of old” (The Boston Herald) convinced him that he was safe to throw the right, maybe get the little fat man out of there. In the second, he tried it. Sam slipped the punch, covered the distance between them in a single step and cracked a left hook in behind Fulton’s ear, staggering him. Fulton recovered and in the fourth round, he did land a right hand. The punch immediately blinded Langford in his left eye. As the rounds wore on, the vision faded from his right eye, too. In the sixth, he fought in complete blindness, feeling for the giant he shared the ring with before being pulled by his corner before the seventh could begin.
Hospitalized after the fight, Langford never recovered he sight in his left eye, though he would be able to see out of the right one within a week. Fat, past his peak and now blind in one eye, Langford should have retired. Instead, he boxed on for nearly a decade, losing twenty-five fights as his increasingly sad career wound down. A lavish spender in his prime and lacking a talent for anything but fighting, he was locked into a profession that would see him literally fighting in darkness before he retired. Even in such a condition, he was a dangerous opponent, able to beat Joe Jeannette by knockout, something that neither the dynamite puncher Sam McVey nor the great champion Jack Johnson was able to do in multiple attempts, the great light-heavyweight and colored heavyweight champion claimant Kid Norfolk, who he knocked out in two, world title challenger Battling Jim Johnson, Bill Tate, Jeff Clark, Sam McVey, George Godfrey, Bearcat Wright, Jim Flynn and an astonishing second round knockout of a young Tiger Flowers, a fight in which he was peering through a “good eye” which was giving way to a cataract. His career from 1917 until his retirement in 1926, sad as it was, would alone have been enough to see him included upon this list. These fights speak of the quality of his skill and ring generalship, his incredible durability, his great heart and his terrible punching power. They speak of the lessons learned in a career that saw him beat great fighters from the lightweight all the way to the heavyweight division. They speak of two specific lessons taught to him by two fighters on the same night, one a great, one not. That night was the eighth of December, 1903 and the first lesson was learned at the hands of The Old Master, Joe Gans.
“Gans was the coolest, calmest fighter I ever met,” Langford would later say. “No matter what was happening to him, he never lost his temper…many fighters, when they’re ready to hit, tense their lips or half close their eyes or give a tip-off in some way…Joe never did. A wonder of wonders was that Joe Gans.”
Langford was only seventeen for his fight with Gans who was not at his best, keeping to a hairpin schedule that had seen him fighting the night before. He also carried either a stomach ailment or a stomach injury into the fight, which was originally to be for the 135-pound title which Gans, then in his absolute prime, was defending. Sam weighed in at 136 pounds, denying him the right to fight for it. Langford fought for it anyway and turned in a performance for the ages. The New York Evening World:
“Sam Langford astonishes all…[he] outfought and outgeneralled Joe Gans, the lightweight champion of the world in every round of the fifteen they contested last night.”
Other reports have it closer; all have it for Langford. What Sam learned in the ring that night can only be guessed at, but after the fight he spoke in detail with sometime middleweight and light-heavyweight contender George Byers on how to improve his punching form. “I didn’t know nothing,” Langford would say of their meeting. “I used to chase and punch, hurt my hands. After George taught me I made them come to me. I made them lead.”
Langford became one of the greatest punchers of all time and like Joe Louis after him and Bob Fitzsimmons before he would develop great subtlety in skill to buy that lead. Moyle’s telling of the Fulton fight would illustrate perfectly how dangerous he would become, and remain, even past his best.
After Gans, Langford beat George McFadden and was then matched for the welterweight title against Barbados Joe Walcott. Still a teenager, Langford “completely outboxed” the champion, but the decision was a draw, based almost entirely upon Walcott’s aggression in making the fight. Dave Holly, Young Peter Jackson and Jack Blackburn were the top names Langford tied up through ’05, and then the strangest thing happened. Langford stepped up to heavyweight and lost in eight rounds to Joe Jeannette. Just 5-foot-7 and weighing in under the middleweight limit, Langford obviously found this division to his liking and he rematched Jeanette four months later, this time outpointing him over fifteen. It was the beginning of his domination of the “The Black Dynamite,” a group of black heavyweights who fought each other regularly for walking around money because white contenders avoided them like the plague.
Easily the smallest of them, Langford was also the best of them between 1906 and 1915 when the youth and size of Harry Wills began to wear upon him. Wills, unquestionably one of the great heavyweights, finally got to grips with Langford, but would remain vulnerable to his astonishing punching ability throughout their epic series, losing by knockout in the 19th round of a scheduled 20 after walking onto a Langford left hook in their February 1916 contest.
What sets Langford apart, if he is to be set apart, is his domination of the heavyweight division which saw him beat, amongst other, Wills, McVey, Jeanette, Stanley Ketchel, Jim Flynn, Iron Hague, Gunboat Smith, Jim Johnson, Dan Flynn, John Johnson, Jim Johnson and Jack O’Brien. He was never the champion, but Jack Johnson’s refusal to meet him in the ring for the title, having previously beaten a middleweight Langford whilst enjoying a thirty-pound weight advantage, speaks volumes. Langford’s heavyweight resume is vastly superior to that of Harry Greb, and although Langford is naturally a bigger fighter if not a taller one, he also sports the better wins below middleweight. Greb cannot equal Sam’s best wins in either the biggest or the smallest divisions they fought in, and this is the cornerstone upon which ranking Langford above Greb—above everyone—rests.
It is not a new idea. Both Harry Wills and Jack Dempsey ranked Sam Langford as The Greatest, as did historian and promoter Charley Rose. Hype Igoe, the legendary New York boxing writer and cartoonist who covered the fights between 1907 and 1937, rated him the best fighter he ever saw. His peers Joe Williams and Grantland Rice agreed with him. Existing film gives clues as to why he was and is so highly thought of it, but there is simply not enough of it to ever satisfy. One thing all of those precious fights have in common is the opponent—each and every one of them looks absolutely terrified.
100 Greatest Fighters of All Time Part One: 100-91
100 Greatest Fighters of All Time Part Two: 90-81
100 Greatest Fighters of All Time Part Three: 80-71
100 Greatest Fighters of All Time Part Four: 70-61
100 Greatest Fighters of All Time Part Five: 60-51
100 Greatest Fighters of All Time Part Six: 50-41
100 Greatest Fighters of All Time Part Seven: 40-31
100 Greatest Fighters of All Time Part Eight: 30-21
100 Greatest Fighters of All Time Part Nine: 20-11
100 Greatest Fighters of All Time Part Ten: 10-1