The 100 Greatest Fighters of All Time Part Eight: 30-21

By Matt McGrain on April 8, 2013
The 100 Greatest Fighters of All Time Part Eight: 30-21
Tony Canzoneri and Jimmy McLarnin split two savage battles at the Garden in 1936.

A destructive vapor of leans, feints, sells, pulled-punches and hard counters, he is a prototype too complex for mass production…

We go all the way back to 1890 to present to you “The Barbados Demon,” perhaps the hardest puncher in history; we revive the here and now recalling the prime years of the man they called “Superman,” perhaps the single most astonishing boxer there has ever been. Two men, separated by a century, united in brilliance, both listed amongst the dizzying array of talent that makes up the first installment of the thirty greatest boxers of all time.

#30 Joe Walcott (95-25-24; Newspaper Decisions 9-7-3)

“Barbados” Joe Walcott, a wrecking ball of a fighter, is a pound-for-pound legend who struggled to beat the best of his own size—or, I should say, his own poundage, as listed at just over 5’1 he rarely met his opponents eye to eye. Ironic, then, that he was capable of laying waste to men above his own poundage and up to a foot taller than him. In 1893 aged just twenty, he knocked out New York light-heavyweight Jimmy Carroll (mistakenly listed as the lightweight Englishman on BoxRec) boxing as a lightweight, announcing his arrival as perhaps the greatest slayer of giants in all of history. When he stepped up to take on his first top man at his own poundage, meeting Billy Smith in March 1895 for the American welterweight title, he came up short, floored in the sixth and letting an apparent lead slip as Smith fought back in the second half of the fight to claim a fortunate draw. An April 1898 rematch produced the same result over twenty-five, the New York Sun stating that “neither man had a decided advantage.” The Sun then describes a one-sided victory for Smith when they met for a third time that December, and it would in fact take four attempts before Walcott was able to beat Smith, which he finally did over twenty-five rounds in the year 1900.

He also lost twice to Kid Lavigne, although in the first fight there was “some astonishment” concerning Walcott’s lack of aggression in a fight he had to win by knockout to lift the world’s lightweight title. Many believe that Walcott’s record is hurt by the business arrangements apparently forced upon many fighters in this era. A technical knockout loss in an 1897 rematch is also suspect, although most ringside reporting indicates a straight-up fight in which Walcott was beset by cramps; nevertheless, it is the case that he had yet again failed at the highest level against a fighter of his own weight—but during this entire period, Walcott was knocking out bigger men. Middleweight contender Dick O’Brien, twenty pounds heavier, knocked out in one. Former British Empire heavyweight champion Dan Creedon, knocked out in one. The sixteen pounds heavier, ten inches taller Joe Choynski, who had knocked out Jack Johnson, stopped in just seven. Whilst he struggled with the Tommy Wests of the world he was laying his era’s bigger men low with a punch that may have been the pound-for-pound hardest of all. In all of hundred names on this list there is perhaps not another who may legitimately lay claim to the hardest punch and the hardest chin in all of boxing, his stoppage losses a mix of quit jobs (usually with a suspect “bad arm”), low blows, disqualifications and technical halts.

Into the 1900s he dominated a series with Young Peter Jackson, took the lead in his series with Billy Smith and Tommy West and lifted the welterweight title of the world, although he seems to have been lucky in drawing a bout with Sam Langford in defense of that title and later in making the same result against Joe Gans. Going 1-10-3 in the last months of his career certainly took the shine off his paper record and his strange struggles with the best men of his own size even as he exterminated those bigger than him makes him difficult to quantify, but I feel he is deserving of his spot just inside the top thirty.

#29 Roy Jones (56-8)

Roy Jones was a phenom, one of those one-in-a-lifetime talents that comes along and just dazzles. Of all fighters that appear on film, Jones is the one who appears most otherworldly. For all that the other phenoms in boxing history are extraordinary it is Jones who has the appearance of being plugged into a totally different matrix; he was a fighter upon whom gravity seemed not to work the magic that left the professionals with whom he shared the ring earthbound. 

He fought his sixteenth professional fight against former strapholder Jorge Vaca, playing a seemingly crude fairground game against the fleetingly aggressive Mexican, winging in the kind of wide hooks a prospect must be cured of in order to progress. Such was Roy’s speed that not only could Vaca not take advantage, but in fact he was stopped in the first round, a look of confusion betraying his uncertainty as to what had hit him as he struggled to regain control of his forearms, which gingerly controlled his swaying weight. Not a technician in the truest sense of the word, Jones punched all the way from his boots and had a supernatural grasp of positioning from his earliest days as a professional. He organized himself in ways that demonstrated natural feints against an opponent desperate for any opportunity to land on an opponent who was almost impossible to hit. If an opponent moved in the way Jones expected, his trap was sprung without providing an opportunity for the opponent to react—and if they didn’t move in he had still positioned himself in such a way as to throw his punches with fractions of seconds shaved from them, fractions that mattered because he was a fighter already arguably peerless in terms of speed.

This brought him wins in twenty-two “world” title fights between 1993 and mid-2004 from middleweight up to heavyweight. His most notable victims include three men from this list, James Toney, Mike McCallum and Bernard Hopkins. All were completely outclassed, world-class talents who looked to all intents and purposes as though they did not belong in the ring with Jones.

Arguably his best win came up at heavyweight, when he became the first man since Bob Fitzsimmons to hold titles at both middle and heavy. Ruiz was a strapholder rather than a legitimate champion, but even so, like the greater but smaller men Jones dominated, he offered little in the way of resistance. Roy’s one loss during these peak years was a questionable and brutally avenged disqualification.

Such was his domination and pound-for-pound standing in his own era that his crash was bound to be spectacular, and so it proved. Devastating knockouts rendered by fighters not of his standing brought into question a chin that was so rarely tested in his dizzying prime, but from late ’94 to early ’96, Jones appeared peerless—not just in his own time, but for all time.

#28 Gene Tunney (65-1-1; Newspaper Decisions 15-0-3)

Readers of this series may have noticed the tendency amongst even the greatest fighters to drop numerous losses in newspaper decisions. These were fights where the boxers were fighting to “no decision,” that is, the rules of the time and place they fought in did not allow a decision to be rendered in a prizefight, so there would be no official victor in the event that the two remained on their feet at the end of the agreed distance. Newspapermen in attendance would have their say the next day but there was no “official” victor. Many fighters slacked off in such contests. During the era and for many years afterwards, no-decision bouts were reported as just that when a fighter’s record was being discussed, the fight regarded as neither a win nor a loss but a no-decision—so what was the difference?

Doubtless Gene Tunney did not see it that way. In all his eighty-six fights, including the eighteen no-decisions he competed in, Tunney officially lost just once. This is extraordinary. Even the other greats who competed in nearly ninety contests during a career that spanned more than ten years have many more losses to excuse.

Of course, he was lucky. After Harry Greb gave him the beating of a lifetime in their 1922 affair, his face so distorted by Greb’s punches that “The Fighting Marine” avoided family and friends for days afterwards, the two fought a rematch which reads like a blatant robbery for Gene (an “unjustifiable” verdict according to New York commissioner William Muldoon, and almost every other unbiased observer). Tunney can be credited for agreeing to a third fight in 1923, which he won clearly, a fourth fight was then seen by most as a draw. In the fifth fight Tunney finally proved his clear superiority, winning a one-sided decision in 1925 but by this time Gene was a 186-pound heavyweight and Greb had begun to slip, blind in one eye and past his best. 

There are other concerns about Tunney’s opposition. Tommy Gibbons was ring-worn and had been chasing Tunney for years by the time they met; Carpentier was past his best, having lost two of his last five; Tommy Loughran was young and green when Tunney and he boxed a draw and the fact that they were never rematched is peculiar. Jack Dempsey, famously, was nothing like his magical best when Tunney twice outpointed him for the heavyweight title.

I personally have some sympathy with this point of view. Tunney’s best opposition tended to be notably smaller than he or past prime, and he never matched a black contender in a very carefully handled—one might almost say stage-managed—career. But there are still those eighty wins to weigh against a single loss, a loss that came against a fighter who would surprise absolutely nobody were he to appear at #1 in this list, a fighter that Tunney showed great determination, mental strength and brilliance in eventually mastering. More, like Michael Spinks he lifted the heavyweight title as a former light-heavyweight. No mean feat against a great champion, whatever his condition.

#27 Billy Conn (64-11-1)

Billy Conn had no amateur background. He was the purest of professionals, taking up the cudgel as a teenager under the tutelage of defensive specialist and kindred spirit Johnny Ray (“As soon as he put up them little fists, I fell in love with him”). An apprenticeship served against older men in the tough spots in and around the fight-crazy city of Pittsburgh did harm to his paper record seeing him lose seven of his first fourteen but built a fighter who had learned the hard way how to win and what it meant to lose. By the time he had grown his way into adulthood and the middleweight division he had developed some of the skills that would make him great. Between 1936 and 1948 he would face just one opponent he could not beat: Joe Louis.

Even in that fight, Conn added to legend, turning in perhaps one of the most lauded and famous losing performances of all time. Despite the emergence of footage it has become truth by repetition that Billy ran his way through that fight—in fact, he fought Louis, fought him hard, even in the pocket. Johnny Ray had told their story a year before, telling pressmen that “you have this Louis guy all wrong. You can put all the boxers you want in front of him and he’ll catch them. You need someone who can fight him.” Conn was that man and he boxed, fought, spoiled and blasted his way through twelve rounds, demonstrating a brilliant grasp of broad strategy and an iron jaw. Conn famously came out for that thirteenth ready to fight a ring war with the last man in boxing history whom you would want to meet for one, a step too far for even this brilliant talent—but by then, he was already a great.

Conn had defeated Teddy Yarosz, Fritzie Zivic and Young Corbett III, all of whom appear on this list, former middleweight champions of the world Vince Dundee and Babe Risko, reigning middleweight world champions Solly Krieger and Fred Apostoli in non-title affairs—twice each.  And he did all of this before his twenty-third birthday.

He then took the light-heavyweight championship from Melio Bettina, before beating him again for his first defense, then twice defeated successor to the crown, Gus Lesnevich before relinquishing the title undefeated. Up at heavyweight he found his punch, even knocking out Bob Pastor, something nobody other than Joe Louis was able to do in Pastor’s entire career.

He couldn’t beat Louis, but he beat everyone else he faced in his prime building an incredible win ledger over three divisions, leaving us to wonder what damage he might have done over the six his career would have spanned in the modern era.

#26 Holman Williams (146-30-11)

Holman Williams owns the best win resume in middleweight history; one more time: no middleweight in history has a deeper win ledger than the man Eddie Futch called “a great fighter with the finesse of Ray Robinson.” 

He needed every drop of that finesse to compensate for what has been mistakenly described as a lack of power but what were actually terribly fragile hands. Holman redesigned his style to take this into account and then, boxing at welterweight, he beat Cocoa Kid, Fritzie Zivic, Gene Buffalo, Ceferino Garcia and Jimmy Leto. Moving into the middleweight division, he defeated Charley Burley on three occasions, the bigger Lloyd Marshall on two occasions, the monstrous Jack Chase four out of four, Eddie Booker, Kid Tunero, Steve Belloise, Aaron Wade, Bert Lytell twice, a light-heavyweight Archie Moore, legendary puncher Bob Satterfield, and Joe Carter, as well as others. Past his best and giving away a definitive weight advantage to a primed Jake LaMotta he ran the Bronx Bull close, dropping a close decision that was booed by sections of the crowd. This was part of the run that saw him lose ten of his last seventeen. Taken in tandem with his eight losses to Cocoa Kid, a brilliant fighter too inconsistent for this list, who had a strange hex over Williams, more than two-thirds of Holman’s defeats are accounted for. Utterly brilliant at his best, his transformation from boxer-puncher to defensive specialist made him perhaps the definitive technician of his era, a man Eddie Futch claimed he would rather watch shadowbox than see his contemporaries fight. 

#25 Charley Burley (83-12-2)

It was explained to Charley Burley by Henry Armstrong’s management that he could not fight for Henry’s welterweight title because Henry was dropping back down to lightweight after his next title defense…and after the next one—and after the next one. After a record number of defenses, Armstrong did indeed give the title up, to Fritzie Zivic, a fighter that Charley Burley had already beaten twice and who was ranked behind him at welterweight. The story goes that Zivic, rather than meet a fighter that had proven himself the superior of the two, bought out Burley’s contract in order that he might avoid meeting him. Burley went hunting bigger game, up at middleweight, but fought almost perennially at a disadvantage, keeping his poundage low in order that he might quickly boil down to 147 pounds should his moment come at the lower weight.

When it passed instead to Red Cochrane, equally unsure about the benefits of meeting Burley ring-center, Charley went to the bizarre lengths of meeting the future heavyweight champion of the state of Texas in order to attract what he hoped would be the necessary attention. J.D. Turner, though not a special heavyweight, was purportedly smooth in style, although ponderous—at 220 pounds he was entitled to be. Just a month before he had extended Billy Conn the distance and he held a win over the ranked Neville Beech. Not the most formidable of heavies, but not someone a common garden 150-pound fighter should be messing with, Turner represented a new angle for a fighter desperate for a title shot. Obtaining special permission from the Athletic Commission of Minnesota due to “a shortage of opponents in his own class,” Charley Burley proved he was anything but common, stabbing and staving a bewildered Turner to a seventh round TKO, the giant sure he wanted no more of the 70-pound lighter steel-spring rattlesnake in the opposite corner. Promoter Tommy O’Loughlin attempted to ride the crest of this strange wave all the way to New York, where Red Cochrane sought an opponent to box him in a charity event. Burley was passed over for the honor despite volunteering his services for free.

According to biographer Harry Otty, no less a personage than Sugar Ray Robinson turned down an invitation to dance with Burley that included a career’s best payday. Marcel Cerdan was rumored to have spent an uncomfortable afternoon watching the always vicious Burley sparring, after which he was said to dismiss out of hand the notion of ever meeting him. When Jake LaMotta was asked about a possible meeting with Charley he is said to have muttered, “What do I need Burley for when I have Zivic?” Telegrams offering up Burley as an opponent for both Conn and Zale apparently went unanswered. He was a problem nobody needed.

Those that took to the ring with him during his breathtaking prime were left with even more terrifying impressions. Archie Moore, who met a prime Ezzard Charles, a prime Rocky Marciano, a prime Floyd Patterson and a prime Holman Williams, who watched and even trained men like Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, named Burley the best fighter he had ever met, and the best fighter he had ever seen. “He did things I’ve never seen anybody else do,” Moore explained. “He could feint you like crazy. The man could feint you with his eyebrows! Fighting him was inhuman. He was like a human machine gun.”

Moore is to be congratulated for showing the guts to take to the ring with Burley, but it should be noted that he doggedly avoided any rematch. Picked by Arthur Donovan as the superior of Henry Armstrong, Archie Moore as the superior of Sugar Ray Robinson and Eddie Futch as the superior of everybody, Burley ranks here one slot higher than Williams by virtue of two facts. Firstly, he didn’t have Holman’s desperate struggle with Cocoa Kid, in fact he beat the mercurial stylist with as much ease as just about anybody. Secondly, he was unlucky to go 3-3-0-1 with Williams, repeatedly flooring his greatest foe in their first fight in December of 1939 and dominating him up until the ninth when he dislocated his shoulder. He hung on in there, but couldn’t lift his arm to win another round, dropping a close fifteen-round decision. When their May 1943 meeting was thrown out and ruled a no contest after the two defensive geniuses were seen to be missing one another just a little too often, Burley was ahead on the cards, deeply unfortunate not to take the deciding fight between them. In his best years of ’41-’46 only four fighters were able to defeat him, Holman Williams, and three all-time great light-heavyweights Jimmy Bivins, Ezzard Charles and Lloyd Marshall, Marshall taking him to a split decision win against a Charley Burley nursing a broken hand. He beat Turner, Williams, Moore, Cocoa Kid, Shorty Hogue, Gene Buffalo, Fritzie Zivic, Jimmy Leto, Billy Soose, Jack Chase, Aaron Wade, Bert Lytell and in the only film to emerge of Burley, one of the era’s hardest punchers, a man who had knocked out Harold Johnson with a single punch and boxed Archie Moore to a draw, light-heavyweight Oakland Billy Smith, who until the emergence of additional footage showing him to be something of a technician, was regarded by history as no more than a buffoon—Burley made him appear as one.

Most likely it was the overprotective businessmen whose job was to draw maximum reward for minimal risk from their opponents that kept Armstrong and Robinson from Burley’s munitions, but maybe, just maybe, it was the only fear truly great athletes ever really suffer—the fear of being made look a fool by a fighter too good for his own good.

#24 Stanley Ketchel (51-4-4; Newspaper Decisions 2-1-1)

During his savage prime Stanley Ketchel was regarded as one of the greatest fighters in boxing’s short history—Abe Attell went so far as to name him just that. Battling Nelson labeled him the greatest fighter of his time and James Corbett agreed with him. Jim Jeffries named him the gamest fighter he had ever seen. Joe Gans labeled him a “past master.” Those that saw him, including Charley Rose and Dumb Dan Morgan, named him the greatest middleweight in the history of the division. That was by the end of 1908—the strange truth is that at the beginning of that year, Ketchel was just another fighter.

This was due to the terrible strength of the middleweight division in which he found himself. The world’s best middleweight may have been Jack Sullivan, named the best fighter in the world at the end of 1907 by Tommy Ryan. Sullivan was busy battling it out with heavyweights, the most recent fighter to hold a victory over champion Tommy Burns he was determined to cash in those chips but he moved back down to take on the man that had smashed his brother to pieces in just one round three months before. Sullivan had just extended 200-pound heavyweight contender Al Kaufman to twenty-five rounds. Ketchel rounded him up, set him on fire, brutalized and stopped him in twenty.

Next up was Billy Papke. If there is a single middleweight—if there is one, single fighter—who personified ring savagery to a greater degree than even Ketchel, it was Papke. Given credit by many as technically less baggy than Stanley, he fought with even greater abandon, and it was his undoing in the first meeting between these two—Ketchel kept a cool head and took Papke apart in the dramatic exchanges that punctuated each of the ten rounds, coming within a hair’s breadth of stopping him.

Next up was the world’s #2 middleweight going into ’08, Hugo Kelly. Kelly hadn’t been stopped since his second fight and had boxed draws with Sullivan, Papke and heavyweight champion Tommy Burns; Ketchel tore him to pieces in three. He moved on quickly, a shark in pursuit of prey, stepping up to light-heavyweight to meet the Joe Thomas for a fourth and final time. They had first met in the middle of 1907, Thomas the ranked fighter, Ketchel the wild usurper from the Montana hills. Their twenty-round draw surprised many; when Stan knocked Thomas out in thirty-two rounds of their torrid rematch, a star was born. Winning a twenty-round decision in their fourth fight seemed to put the matter to bed, but Thomas demanded more. Ketchel laid the table and smashed his one-time peer into the ground in just two rounds. He was disappointed, he said, not to have done it in one.

He then posted a loss to Billy Papke, impressing his peers even in defeat, absorbing perhaps the most astounding beating of the era. Many thought he wouldn’t make it back—he did, knocking Papke out in eleven rounds, three minutes earlier than Billy had turned the trick against him. A twenty-round victory in their fourth fight in ’09 made him forever Papke’s better, a year in which he also destroyed Jack O’Brien in just three. Already, though, there were signs of slippage. The talk in the press was of his keeping strange hours with strange people. Ketchel was working on the opium addiction that would send him drifting from the world of boxing. There were still a few good performances left in the can; the strange loss to the great Jack Johnson, the brutal dispatch of heavyweight Dan Flynn, the narrow newspaper loss to Sam Langford, the draw with Frank Klaus.

One of the greatest punchers of all time, he sported an iron-jaw and almost limitless stamina. Also a more thoughtful boxer than the scant footage and his terrifying reputation allow, Ketchel was amongst the very greatest fighters of the pre-television era—and to hear his contemporaries tell it, during his rare and savage peak of 1908, he was perhaps the best.

#23 Sandy Saddler (144-16-2)

Sandy Saddler boxed like a stylist who hated the world and everything in it. Some of the most brutal offense in boxing history brought him 144 wins and 103 knockouts. Only a tiny handful of men have more stoppage wins to their name, and none of them boxed at featherweight.

Saddler’s legacy is defined by his series with Willie Pep. Between 1940 and 1951, Pep was defeated by exactly one featherweight, and that featherweight was Sandy Saddler. Their first fight saw Pep made a strong favorite and with good reason—he was as brilliant and dominant a champion as had lived—but some saw upon looking closely reason to favor Saddler. For two years he had been trailing Pep and seemed eerily confident of his chances, with good reason. He found Pep with ease, busting him up, cutting him, stopping him in four with a brutal left hook. In the rematch, Pep found his range and put up a brilliant foraging fight against a blank-faced Saddler, waiting to take advantage of every single mistake. And, despite the loss, he did that. Pep won clean but his face at the finish was anything but, some of the same cuts that adorned his face after their first fight adorning him once more. 

Pep had hoped to see the back of his brutal foe, but Saddler simply wiped the floor with the wider field, winning twenty-three in a row, eighteen of these by stoppage, lifting the 130-pound championship in the process. Pep could make him wait no more, and in 1950 they met once more. 

“He got me in a double arm-lock,” sulked Pep after his ninth round quittage with an apparently damaged shoulder. Saddler saw it differently.

“Body punches. I could see in his eyes something was wrong with him but I didn’t think it was no shoulder.”

Whether by way of Saddler’s brutality in the clinch or brutality in the body attack, Pep had begged “no mas” and Sandy was the champion again. A fourth meeting was inevitable and was a farce. Saddler was slipping by this time and met Pep between losses to Tony DeMarco. What had become a bitter feud ended amidst bitter scenes, the fight running badly out of control and turning into as savage a foul-fest as had ever been seen in a New York ring. Both men had their licences to box suspended in the aftermath. Pep was generally handled in what was very much Saddler’s fight; in the second round he was dropped with what the Telegraph-Herald described as a combination thumb and “straightening head-butt.” But it was Pep who had the seventh taken away from him for excessive roughness and who at the end of the ninth round calmly quit on his stool for the second time.

Saddler’s overall offense, the knotted branch of his summary attack, was too much for Pep. No matter what this defensive genius threw up to protect himself Saddler found a crack for a one form of torture or another. Pep, basically unbeatable at the weight according to all other evidence, bowed to Saddler three times.

In a wider sense, Saddler did not achieve anything like as much as Willie, managing fewer defenses and showing greater inconsistencies throughout his savage career, but he remained absolutely deadly even past his very best, knocking out Lulu Perez with a single punch in four, breaking down Flash Elorde in thirteen. His prime domination of the field combined with his domination of a series against a genuine giant—no, God of the sport—makes a high ranking a must.

#22 Jimmy McLarnin (54-11-3)

Jimmy McLarnin blew his first title shot. His 1928 tilt at Sammy Mandell’s lightweight championship proved premature as he repeatedly walked onto the champion’s sharp left, lost his temper, missed. McLarnin would later claim that he had been thumbed, but to ringsiders it looked like what it was, a boy trying to outfight a man. It was five years before he was presented with another chance, facing the brilliant Young Corbett III for the 147-pound title. Corbett had never been stopped at welterweight; he would never be stopped at welterweight again; but McLarnin walked him onto punches for a KO1, perhaps the most sensational in boxing history. He immediately lost his title to Barney Ross before reclaiming it again only months later. When Ross grabbed it back it was clear that for McLarnin, the end was near, but he closed out his career going 1-1 in two incredibly savage battles with Tony Canzoneri before outpointing the great Lou Ambers in his very last fight.

As top-to-bottom win resumes go, McLarnin’s is amongst the best of all time. As a teenaged flyweight he picked off the future all-time great Fidel LaBarba twice, then moved up to box a draw with a veteran Pal Moore and beat no less a figure than Pancho Villa. Still serving his apprenticeship, he defeated future welterweight champion Jackie Fields, future bantamweight champion Bud Taylor, world title challenger Joe Glick and when he hit his prime, contenders and greats fell like bowling pins. He took vengeance against Mandell on two occasions, beat Petrolle twice, Sammy Fuller, Ray Miller, Ruby Goldstein, an aged Benny Leonard, Al Singer who declared McLarnin the best puncher he had ever faced and that he feared his neck had been broken by the knockout blow.

A boxer of the highest class as well as a puncher, few men match him out-and-out for names on a list. This must be tempered by the fact that he was often the bigger man and that the best he faced generally managed steal from him at least one in a series. 

#21 Tony Canzoneri (141-24-10)

Tony Canzoneri’s fifteen-year, 175-fight career was a series of surges and spurts towards greatness that confuse both the eye and the mind. He won more than McLarnin, he lost more than McLarnin, and like McLarnin he blew his first title shot, going 0-1-1 against bantamweight champion Bud Taylor. He bested an emaciated Johnny Dundee struggling with the comeback trail in 1927 and then avenged himself upon a deposed Taylor before lifting the featherweight title against Benny Bass. Frenchman Andre Routis separated him from it a few months later and the following year he was beaten out up at lightweight by Sammy Mandell in his quest for another title. When Kid Berg decimated him in January of the new decade, Canzoneri’s journey seemed over; but in a second attempt at the world title Canzoneri shocked the world, separating champion Al Singer from his senses in a single round.

His pathology ran so deep that even his extended apprenticeship did not meet his potential. He needed more time to perfect his method. Short, thick, hair slicked back and placid of face even in the worst of pinches, Canzoneri had the look of a gangster but the style of a physicist. A destructive vapor of leans, feints, sells, pulled-punches and hard counters, he is a prototype too complex for mass production, a dead end in the expansion of boxing technique but personally brilliant enough to make it work. He was hell to box. He took his revenge on Kid Berg in an unprecedented three rounds, then outpointed him over fifteen, adding the junior-welterweight title to his lightweight kingship. Successful defenses followed against Philly Griffin and the brilliant Kid Chocolate. Losing the 140-pound championship, he continued to defend the lightweight title, beating both Petrolle brothers and re-lifting a piece of the light-welterweight title before he ran slap bang into Barney Ross, the man he would never beat. Still, he was not finished, beating Frankie Klick, Chocolate and Baby Arizmendi, the great Lou Ambers in a fight that restored his lightweight title to him and then, for good measure, Jimmy McLarnin up at welterweight. The beating he absorbed winning that fight was horrific and signaled the end of his prime, enabling Ambers and McLarnin to take their revenge but Canzoneri’s monumental greatness was established.

A three-weight world champion, elite at five, a ready dispatcher of fellow 100 ranked men and it is still not enough to break the top twenty. Above him lurk the behemoths, big and small but massive as planets, gravity spanning the years.

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

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Roy Jones Jr vs Montell Griffin II 36th of 63

Gene Tunney -vs- Jack Dempsey I 1926 World Heavyweight Championship (Restored Full Fight))

Joe Louis vs Billy Conn, I

Holman Williams-Young Gene Buffalo III

Charley Burley vs Oakland Billy Smith

1909-07-05 Stanley Ketchel vs Billy Papke (ROUNDS 1,9,13,17,20)

Willie Pep vs Sandy Saddler

Jimmy McLarnin vs Tony Canzoneri I (Highlights)

Tony Canzoneri vs. Kid Chocolate - 1

Discuss this in our forums

Related Articles


This is a place to express and/or debate your boxing views. It is not a place to offend anyone. If we feel comments are offensive, the post will be deleted and continuing offenders will be blocked from the site. Please keep it clean and civil! We want to have fun. We want some salty language and good-natured exchanges. But let's keep our punches above the belt...
  1. Matt McGrain 05:51am, 04/16/2013

    Michael, Springs, thanks for the kind words…I think I can reveal that you’re going to be half-way happy Springs, for what that’s worth.

  2. Michael Hegan 04:58am, 04/14/2013

    I like matt mosley’s comments…but the chat about how RJJ beat upon Virgil Hill….Hill was five years older than Jones….and Hill was definitely at the last part of his career….respectfully.
    Not so big a victory as all that.  Like Cassius Clay beating Archie Moore…sort of.

  3. Michael Hegan 04:42am, 04/14/2013

    Lewis was a big strong ...well trained amateur Olympic Gold medal winner…Huge right hand….questionable chin…and footwork of a camel.

    Two big losses..agreed rematches followed…remember the one where his opponent stopped fighting and was crying ???

    Years of good amateur training…and some well placed choices of opponents…or when he chooses to match certain fighters(Tyson, for one)...
    PLUS….the lack of his match up with Bowe…..( no sincere effort was made to come to an either camp)
    Lewis is recent…was at the top of the ‘hill’ ...but not above many already listed on the ‘BIG LIST’

    I just love these series…by Mr McGrain…Great research…well presented…..

  4. Springs Toledo 11:05am, 04/13/2013

    Solid work, Matt. The disputes will rage no matter who you have where, but no one in their right mind will contest your knowledge. You can probably guess what vibes I’m sending your way: The name at #1, a name that should be in the top 10, and one that should not be in the top 10. If those vibes fail, I’m gonna go consult Cocoa Kid and send a HEX across the pond! Haha

  5. Matt Mosley 01:15pm, 04/11/2013

    Unlike Teddy Atlas, who, for some reason known only to himself, ranks the dreadful Sven Ottke as the best 168er of all time.
    UGH!!  :)
    I like Atlas in general but i’m not sure which is more ridiculous; him thinking that Ottke was better than Roy Jones at the weight, or him thinking putting Alexander Povetkin in “behind closed doors exhibition fights” would in some way aid him for a potential fight with Wlad K.
    Stick to commentating Teddy.

  6. Matt Mosley 10:36am, 04/11/2013

    I definitely rate Roy as the best super middleweight of all time.

  7. Mike Casey 06:36am, 04/11/2013

    Yes, Jim, Roy’s opposition is the problem. I don’t rate him among my Top 20 middleweights, but then I base me ratings on all factors and not exclusively who-would-beat-who.

  8. Jim Crue 06:30am, 04/11/2013

    The Herbert Goldman interview you make reference to was done in 2001. I have seen, sorry can’t find it on the web, an interview done with him a few years later and he did a lot of backtracking and himming,and hawing about that ranking and if I remember correctly he no longer had RJJ at #1. It was an interesting interview because Mr Goldman who I don’t think knows any more than other boxing historians sounded like Ralph Cramden when Alice caught him doing something she did not like. Humina, humina, humina. I would be surprised if he did not look at this site. Maybe he can chime in.
    It is not possible for me to believe anyone could rank RJJ #1 at middleweight given the state of boxing and level of competition in his generation. He was, until his always suspect chin was totally exposed, thought of as a talented athletic fighter. After the knockouts by not great fighters it’s easy to understand why he avoided the really tough guys. I know, he fought Hopkins but Bernard is a shuck and jive fighter and does not like mortal combat.

  9. Mike Casey 06:06am, 04/11/2013

    Yes, I find it very hard to judge Roy, Matt. He was definitely ‘other worldly’ at his very best. Was he being flattered by his opposition or would he have caught out the past masters too? Confoundedly difficult to judge! But I do think Herb jumped the gun a bit and was too gushing in his praise.

  10. Matt McGrain 05:58am, 04/11/2013

    Very interesting read that…picking him out as #1 IS “dramatic” (his word) but then there are clearly those who think placing him at #29 is “dramatic” too.  I think that with the right kind of criteria #1 is almost justifiable.  It would never be me but he was absolutely incredible… frightening really.
    @Mosley, I’d agree with you that Roy’s regarded prime could be longer, BUT, I do think that he made certain compromises with himself as regards style when he moved above 168 that helps define his absolute peak. Inevitable really given his height.

  11. Mike Casey 05:12am, 04/11/2013

    Don’t know if you fellas have seen this - a 2001 interview with Herb Goldman in which he discusses his rating of Roy jones -

  12. GlennR 01:54am, 04/11/2013

    Good points MattM.
    Think about RJJ was he could just do things no one else could, he dominated in his prime that few can approach

  13. Matt Mosley 01:11am, 04/11/2013

    I believe RJJ’s prime lasted longer than “early ‘96”.
    Look at what he did to Virgil Hill in April of ‘98 for example.
    One of the best body shots i’ve ever seen to end a fight, and Hill was a pretty good fighter in his own right.
    Add to that the McCallum shut out and the Montel Griffin wipe out, both in 1997, and i think it can very easily be said that Jones was still in his prime at that time.
    Of course he was a light heavyweight by then, so it could be argued that he wasn’t at his prime weight, but i still say he was in prime form.
    Personally i would not have Jones quite so high, maybe 10 places down or so.
    Still, Jones is no doubt a true ATG, just on prime ability and name wins alone.

  14. Matt McGrain 10:22am, 04/10/2013

    You’re true with a capital T, ny…but tell you what, Tony sure as hell laid some leather upon him the following day.  Hellish fights.

  15. NYIrish 10:09am, 04/10/2013

    Notice the straight nose and lack of eyebrow scar tissue in the shot of McLarnin. There was a guy who apparently knew how to get away from a punch.

  16. Matt McGrain 04:17am, 04/10/2013

    Zarate was ranked at 72 Eric.  I agree he’s a lock for a hundred.

  17. Eric 06:09pm, 04/09/2013

    Oops. Forgot about Joe Gans. Gans will definitely make the top 20 if not the top 10. Surely, Jack Johnson won’t be there. Ugh.

  18. Eric 05:44pm, 04/09/2013

    Well so we have only 20 more to go. Ali & Louis for heavyweight, Moore, Langford for light heavyweight. Maybe Ezzard Charles because he really was just a light heavy. No cruiserweights. Middleweights-Robinson, Greb, Walker. Welter-Armstrong, Ray Leonard. Lightweight-Duran, Leonard. Feather-Pep. Bantam-Don’t know, but did Carlos Zarate make this list? Don’t think the Zman is top 20 but he was definitely top 100. Legitimate triple crown winner Bob Fitzsimmons has to rank in the top 20. Has little Jimmy Wilde made the list? Fitz and Wilde, two of the best punchers ever P4P.

  19. GlennR 02:14pm, 04/09/2013

    Thanks Matt
    Actually, talking of those two, how good do you think McCall could have been without his various issues?

  20. Matt McGrain 02:07pm, 04/09/2013

    @Eric…agree that Ketchel was very very special…and let’s not forget that Langford was far and away the heavier man in that fight.@Glen, you’re right that these fighters were more than journeymen of course.

  21. GlennR 01:56pm, 04/09/2013

    Well Matt, i think both those fighters were a bit more than just journeymen, and i think you have to look at a lot of your higher ranked fighters that lost to seemingly average fighters as well… it happens.

    Good comments from all about sandler, theres just “something” about him that makes the thought of fighting him a nightmare, FWIW i would have had had him one place higher than Pep

  22. Eric 01:16pm, 04/09/2013

    The six rounder that Ketchel had with Langford was one of those “no-decision” affairs and some thought that Ketchel had got the better of Sam. More of those “judging” the six round tussle had Langford winning but it was close enough for some to acknowledge Ketchel as the winner. IMO, Ketchel is a very close second in the greatest middleweights of all-time behind Harry Greb. Ray Robinson might be the greatest welterweight of all time but Greb & Ketchel rank ahead of Sugar Ray in the middleweight category if you ask me. A fight between Greb & Ketchel would have been a helluva fight.

  23. Jim Crue 05:40am, 04/09/2013

    Roy “China Chin, let me pick my opponents” Jones is way too high.

  24. Matt McGrain 05:11am, 04/09/2013

    Ach, i’m sure you could guess it if you put your mind to it…especially with Ketchel already up there.  Not that i’ll acknowledge should you get it right you understand!

  25. Mike Casey 04:51am, 04/09/2013

    Ooh, Matt, you dreadful tease!

  26. Matt McGrain 04:49am, 04/09/2013

    Yeah Mike…I reckon he’s literally the last man you’d want to see in the other corner, pound for pound. Horrific, the ring’s ultimate brute…or maybe not.  I won’t name the guy I got in mind on account of he appears in the next batch.

  27. Matt McGrain 04:48am, 04/09/2013

    I’ve always considered Canzoneri to be “locked” in front of McLarnin, but I came very very close to reversing them here after a detailed look.  I think that Canzoneri edges this based upon size.  For Canzoneri to go 1-1 with the slightly bigger McLarnin punches his ticket.  Very close though.
    Big call on Saddler, I think personally you can rank him ABOVE Pep with the right kind of eyes…i don’t see it that way here though.

  28. Mike Casey 04:43am, 04/09/2013

    Sandy must have been a nightmare to fight, Clarence - highly competent boxer, big puncher, great spoiler - the works!

  29. Clarence George 03:28am, 04/09/2013

    Very good installment.  I’m delighted that the original Joe Walcott made the cut, and I guess Williams and Jones are about where they should be.  As for the others…some relatively minor differences of opinion.  I’m not sure, for example, if I’d place Canzoneri ahead of McLarnin.  But the only significant “complaint” pertains to Saddler.  Second among featherweights only to Pep, I would have him much higher—at least among the top 10, and probably among the top five.

  30. Mike Casey 03:20am, 04/09/2013

    Yes, Matt, two very bad blots on the Lewis record. I can’t get them out of my mind either when judging him in an all time perspective. The Rahman loss was so unnecessary. Lennox kept telling us that he wasn’t being distracted by appearing in that movie, but he was in poor mental and physical shape for that fight. We can’t just erase that one from his record.

  31. Matt McGrain 03:12am, 04/09/2013

    I hear you.  I could stand to see him in the 80’s probably.  The problem is that there exists a decent counter-argument for his total exclusion, namely his being the only heavyweight champion to have lost to two fighters regarded as journeyman types going in to those meetings.

  32. GlennR 02:52am, 04/09/2013

    I bloody did!

    He should have been higher IMO

  33. Matt McGrain 02:14am, 04/09/2013

    Ah, you missed him Glenn:

  34. GlennR 01:48am, 04/09/2013

    Im pretty sure of the remaining 20 Matt, but theres an elephant in the room IMO.

    Lennox Lewis.

    If youve left him out i think thats huge, if he’s top twenty even huger!

  35. Matt McGrain 01:43am, 04/09/2013

    Infinitely debatable tux, no doubt…cheers Glenn.

  36. tuxtucis 10:36pm, 04/08/2013

    Very very interesting, but debatable…
    I see Tunney much higher, Williams and Burley far lower…

  37. GlennR 09:37pm, 04/08/2013

    Oh, and great to see Tunney so high

  38. GlennR 09:36pm, 04/08/2013

    Great list Matt, though im sure a few will moan at RJJ’s high position.
    Personally, i think he’s about right

Leave a comment