The 15 Greatest Composite Punchers of All Time
A great fighter is so much more than a collection of physical attributes, even if they are lucky enough to possess an absolutely extraordinary one…
“I do not see anything. I do not hear anything. Everything is all quiet, and it is dark. There is no pain, there is no sound. I did not know I was on the floor. Was I on the floor?”—Dick Tiger
Dick Tiger had a jaw of iron but when the right man hits you, you go.
They’re a rare breed the true punchers. We don’t even have a word for them, not really. Has there ever been a more inadequate vernacular in sports for what these most devastating of hitters do in the ring than “big punchers”? Bob Satterfield. Joe Choynski. Aurelio Herrera. Freaks who hit so hard that anything they hit crumbled, sand where once there were cliffs, men for whom the words “weight class” were as meaningless as “big punchers”. But they weren’t great fighters. A great fighter is so much more than a collection of physical attributes, even if they are lucky enough to possess an absolutely extraordinary one. The men on this list differ from Satterfield, Choynski and Herrera in that they deliver that power with the pugilistic equivalent of precision engineering. “Composite” punching is all-aspect punching. We’re looking here at speed, technique on delivery, work-rate, accuracy, aggression, mercilessness, feinting, timing—all of which were owned in abundance by Pernell Whitaker, who doesn’t make the list. In the end unless you can reign down the silence and darkness described by Dick Tiger, you don’t belong.
Apologies to the aforementioned Joe Choynski—and Kid Lavigne and Barbados Joe Walcott and a host of others—but if there is no readily available footage of a fighter that fighter doesn’t make the list. Some of these guys number amongst the hardest punchers in all of history but there are too many factors dependent upon eye for me to be able to ignore them.
Precision engineering. Darkening power. Some special something else, granted by Heaven, or perhaps the other place.
These are the 15 pound-for-pound most terrifying offensive monsters in the history of boxing.
15 – Sonny Liston
“After Liston knocked me out I felt, for four or five seconds, that everybody in the arena was in the ring with me, circled around me, like family…I actually blew a kiss to the crowd from the ring.”—Floyd Patterson
Liston is famous for his power, and it was, quite literally, paralyzing. Three-time opponent Marty Marshall:
“Nobody should be hit like that. I think about it now I hurt. He hit me to the stomach with a left hand in the sixth. That wasn’t a knockdown. It couldn’t be. I was paralyzed. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t move enough to fall down.”
Thirty-one knockouts, eight of them in the first round, also testifies to his power punching, but it is the skills that augmented that phenomenal power that get him onto this list ahead of arguably harder pure heavyweight punchers such as George Foreman and Lennox Lewis. Two-handed and the first stalking heavyweight since Jack Dempsey to draw and counter leads with arbitrary head movement, Liston showed numerous offensive tactical adjustments in his fights, drawing fellow banger Cleveland Williams onto murderous counter-punches in their first fight, crowding and banging him out in the second. He also controlled almost every fighter he ever met with one of the most devastating jabs the prize-ring has ever seen, the ubiquitous Muhammad Ali turning in a magical performance that saw him throw punches from every angle at lightning speed the only real exception.
As comfortable fighting right in the pocket as he was at range, Liston is one of the few great heavyweight technicians, a brutishly strong man—“the only man who ever moved me backwards in the ring” according to George Foreman who sparred with the then ex-champion—who has literally every single punch in the book at his disposal, each of them a knockout waiting to happen. Most terrifying when lifting the title from a deeply intimidated Floyd Patterson, Liston arguably lays claim to both the best uppercut and the best jab in the history of the heavyweight division.
14– Alexis Arguello
“I believe more in precision. Like when you see a mosquito and you hit it with a couple of short sharp shots. That’s beautiful.”—Alexis Arguello
Precision, he had.
“Once he’d measured the distance,” says CheckHookBoxing scribe and Arguello disciple Kyle McLachlan, “he could hit you with any punch from any range.”
This is an accurate a surmise of what made Arguello dangerous as it is possible to make. Allowing him into a fight was an invitation to your own destruction. Against Royal Kobayashi, a sprawling puncher of note in his own right, it took Arguello exactly three rounds to box his way into the fight. The fourth through the fifth saw him miss only a handful of punches as “El Flaco Exposivo” (62 of 77 victims stopped) speared the bull he shared the ring over and over again with perhaps the most hurtful one-two the ring has ever seen. Often compared to Joe Louis, Arguello shared none of the Brown Bomber’s apparent difficulty with the awkward, crowding fighters said to trouble him. Once he had found you, he had found you for all time.
As consummate a punching technician as appears on this list, Arguello wasted almost nothing, and mastered the art of variety in terms of both punch selection and target areas. The dual left-right combinations that set Kobayashi out to sea in the fifth were typical in that their brutality was matched by their precision. “A combination so good that you Americans know that combination!” is how Arguello explained it to American television—as well as countless opponents this dual-tipped spear had pierced the US consciousness. That they served, against Kobayashi, as blows that opened up an opponent for equally devastating left hooks to the midsection spoke of Arguello’s deep well of offense.
“One of the last fighters you would want to get into a fire-fight with” is Kyle’s last word on the subject.
13 – Stanley Ketchel
“He didn’t even bother sitting down between rounds – he just stood there like a caged beast waiting for the trap to be sprung.”—“Dumb” Dan Morgan
Ketchel cleared out perhaps the most stacked division in middleweight history with as undiluted a storm of violence as has been seen in the ring. Ketchel fought like he was literally possessed by some malignant spirit. Only Billy Papke, also a great middleweight and puncher, had any success fighting him toe-to-toe during those prime years, but running from him was all but impossible too—as Dan Morgan put it, you might as well try to out-run a hurricane.
He is known, rightly, as a savage dog on heavy chain, a chain broken upon the toll of the bell, but this aggression was harnessed and honed. In March of 1908, Ketchel’s landmark year, he was matched with Jack Twin Sullivan, a man more accustomed to meeting heavyweights and ranked by Tommy Ryan as one of the three best fighters in the world pound-for-pound. The fight began as a modern observer might expect, Ketchel forcing the action but missing often against one of the era’s defining defensive geniuses. But by the ninth, Sullivan was struggling. Ketchel punched from such a wide variety of angles and targeted head and body with equal regularity and venom. His iron chin and exceptional engine made him impossible for even the most devastating puncher to discourage. Ketchel’s quilted offense was based primarily upon this unerring variety as well as his workrate, which astonished even observers used to seeing fights over longer distances.
There was elegance, too. Ketchel employed a shifting, feinting attack. “He is the greatest fighter to ever have lived,” offered the great Abe Attell after “The Slasher” first defeated Billy Papke. “He is wonderfully clever…and can hit harder than any other man I ever saw. He uses a shift—hits with the right and moves immediately to the left. He has that down better than Bob Fitzsimmons ever did.”
This is astonishingly high praise, but it was not unusual to hear Ketchel’s contemporaries talk about him in this way. Corbett agreed with Attell that Ketchel was the greatest of all time. Joe Gans labeled him a “past master”. When we look at the very limited footage we have of Ketchel we see a thoughtless savage bereft of technique. Reading about him on the internet will generally re-enforce that point of view. A closer look reveals that a monster does exist—but one far more dangerous and pathological than popular opinion holds.
12 – Earnie Shavers
“Nobody hits harder than Shavers. If somebody hit harder than Shavers, I’d shoot him.”—Tex Cobb
When you write, you want to believe in your ability to communicate your ideas to the reader. Sometimes though, it’s necessary to step aside for some poet, some philosopher, and acknowledge that you just cannot match the beauty with which he expresses the idea you are striving for. So in defense of my high placement of Shavers and my opinion that he is literally the hardest puncher in the history of boxing, I give you James “Quick” Tillis:
“The baddest motherfucker I fought was Earnie Shavers. That motherfucker can make July into June and made me jump over the motherfuckin’ moon. Shavers hit so hard he turned horse piss into gasoline! He hit me so hard he brought back tomorrow! When he hit me, I was seeing pink rats and cats and animals smoking cigarettes. I thought I was in the corner smoking a cigarette and eating a spam sandwich. That’s how hard that motherfucker hit.”
Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes, Ron Lyle and Ken Norton all agree with him, though none of them put it quite so eloquently.
11 – Julian Jackson
“He’s a heavyweight trapped in a middleweight’s body.” —Mike Tyson
Early in the first round of his 1991 challenge for Julian Jackson’s WBC strap, Dennis Milton was caught behind the ear with a clubbing right hand bereft of the torque and precision usually seen in deciding punches. Milton’s reaction was extraordinary. First, he wanted to hug it out, trying to wrap his hands around Jackson’s head and draw him in, but his legs betrayed him utterly and instead he vanished into an obscene lean which left him wide open for more punches. Then he stumbled to the short rope and, left hand in the air as if warding off avenging angels only he could see, he grabbed the top strand with his right hand leaving himself almost defenseless against the man labeled by many as P4P the hardest puncher of all time. Jackson, though, looked momentarily disorganized. Perhaps the sight of Milton abandoning any notion of actually boxing and instead taking on the appearance of a man trying to negotiate an icy garden path temporarily threw him. He shouldn’t have been surprised though—Jackson’s ring opponents often put on strange and inexplicable shows for the crowd.
The reasons were simple in Milton’s case. Firstly, he was terrified. “I saw it in his eyes,” Jackson would claim afterwards. Secondly, all control of his legs by his brain had been ceased and desisted by the early warning that had been that clubbing right hand. Off the ropes and across the ring, Jackson worked harder to support Milton’s weight than he did until, around thirty seconds later, Jackson landed a real punch; a clipping right hand driven through the target on the near side of the ear. Milton tumbled over happily and spread himself on the canvas in the repost of Superman in full flight. It would be embarrassing if it were not for the fact that so many of Jackson’s victims ended their nights in such poses.
Jackson’s left hook was sometimes embarrassing and he often forgot his jab. But he was a well-schooled if not a brilliantly skilled fighter and, in the words of manager to Rocky Balboa opponent Ivan Drago, whatever he hits—he destroys. That destructive punching power granted Jackson 49 stoppages and a KO percentage in the 80s. It also earns him the #11 spot on this list.
10 – Sandy Saddler
“I fight rough, sure.”—Sandy Saddler
Sandy Saddler is a proud member of the century club. He has 103 knockouts to his name. Perhaps making him the cornerstone argument for the philosophy that a world-class offense bests a world-class defense, the savage Saddler holds multiple stoppage wins over perhaps the greatest defensive fighter in history, Willie Pep.
Perfectly described by Boxing.com’s Mike Casey as “the ugly duckling of the game who gate-crashed the party and kicked sand in everyone’s face,” Saddler’s cooked style made him unbeatable at his roughhouse best, especially with a cooperative referee at hand.
Raw-boned with a long reach, Saddler’s left hand was extraordinary. He did not make use of his generally superior length and height in the same way that Wladimir Klitschko or Carlos Monzon have, rather he used an ultra-aggressive pressure style in spite of these advantages and that stalking approach was built around that left hand. A long stiff jab, naturally, was crucial, but that jab could be magically transformed into a hook or uppercut at the last second. This was disastrous for an opponent of even Pep’s caliber because it imbued the jab with the virtual power of both of those devastating punches—punches that separated fighters as good as 33-4 contender Lulu Perez from his senses in one fell swoop. The right hand also worked behind disguised left-handed feints, and if Saddler could land lead right hand leads against Pep he could land them against anyone.
The final piece in his out-fighting puzzle was superb ring-cutting footwork. Watching Saddler with Pep we see Pep take advantage of Saddler’s rushing style to spin and punch him over and over again. What we do not see is Saddler left behind by Pep’s dazzling movements. They did not impress Sandy at all—even the deftest of ring movers was never far from range.
With the distance closed, Saddler hit as brutally as any fighter ever at featherweight and with the kind of variety that stretched the most brilliant defense. But more than this, Saddler swamped his man with attacks. There may never have been a fighter so adept at discovering his opponent’s physical weaknesses. He was a horror to share the ring with and brutally jarring his opponents with wrestling, pushing and handling was as much a part of that truth-seeking violence as those huge punches. On the darker side, it is rumored that the gaping cut which stopped Flash Elorde in their 1956 encounter was caused by a headbutt and then ripped opening by repeated lacing—on the referee’s blindside, of course.
One of the most troubling left hands in boxing history married to the ultimate roughhousing style and sporting the 100 plus knockouts that only destructive power can bring, Saddler is overqualified for the #10 spot.
9 – Roy Jones Jr.
“Show me a man in control of his emotions and I’ll show you a dangerous man.”—Roy Jones Jr.
Writing about Roy Jones versus James Toney recently I described the winning performance as possibly “the best performance ever filmed in color.” Roy Jones himself described it as “about 60% of what I got—in both power and precision.” Roy’s tragedy now is something quite different and more disturbing but during the helicon days of his P4P #1 stewardship, Roy’s tragedy was rather that he seemed not that interested. As perfect a fighting machine as the world had ever seen he was generally more interested in fighting dogs, chickens and his beloved basketball. Maybe Jones did fight Toney at 60%—but that seemed some 30% more than he used for any fight that came after. Until, some three years later, Montell Griffin focused his attention. Edging a generally close fight, Jones hit Montell in the 9th after his man had taken the knee. To Roy’s displeasure Griffin made his inability to continue very clear and the resulting disqualification was something he took rather personally. The rematch would be Roy’s most devastating display.
Roy suddenly looked interested again.
A fighter built in a disturbed boxing lab by a father obsessed with his son’s future success, environment and genetics combined in Jones to produce a fighter on offense possibly unparalleled. Against Griffin he opened with a short hook, so short Joe Louis would have been proud of it. Two jabs so fast that the Montell didn’t even react to them were followed by another of those short hooks, this one right on the button. Griffin hurtled backwards towards the short rope as though some gargantuan black hole had materialized ringside and sucked him straight in, a standing eight-count the result. A one-two and a lightning fast but unreasonably formed ice-cream scoop of a left hook followed and Montell was on the run. He tried to establish his jab but couldn’t do so in the light of Roy’s stalking and feinting, he was hypnotized by that left hand and the coiled steel rattlesnake weaving it.
Fans of a certain age may find “Superman’s” inclusion on this list disturbing. For a different generation the fact that he doesn’t hold the #1 spot may be the offending element. For me, only Roy’s abandonment of his superb jab and his lack of focus on the attack in many fights keeps him from one of those very top spots. It is worth noting that in this fight and others, however, Roy just supplanted the jab with the left hook. His one-two was built entirely of power punches. He was that fast. And as Griffin will attest, when he landed—and he was a frighteningly accurate puncher—he was powerful, too. The one-punch finish here totally separated him from his physicality and the title reign of Montell Griffin finished as it started, with him apparently separated from his senses, only this time hopelessly trying to rise as the messages of disastrous punishment spun endlessly inside his head.
8 – Henry Armstrong
“Hall of Famers were sent spinning sideways.”—Springs Toledo
Armstrong’s reputation is of a fighter that wore the opposition down with a fuselage of punches rather than a fighter who carried dynamite in his fists. Not so. As a featherweight he was one of the hardest punchers in the division’s history. In unifying the 126 lb. title, Armstrong came up against a brute of a champion in Petey Sarron, a granite-chinned warrior unstoppable in 142 contests. He finished the 6th round against Armstrong blindly groping the ring-floor, seeking some invisible door-handle at the new champion’s feet, the finishing right hand the punch that Homicide Hank had nicknamed “The Blackout” responsible. It was aptly named. Of the 101 men Armstrong darkened, this was the punch that did the bulk of the business. During his prime, Armstrong delivered similarly brutal knockouts even up at welterweight, many of them quick. It takes an attrition puncher longer than four rounds to stop a welterweight of Phil Furr’s quality. It wasn’t a cumulative effect that resulted in Lew Jenkins visiting the canvas seven times in six short rounds. The ultra-durable Al Manfredo was stopped once on cuts and twice by Henry Armstrong punches—beaten into submission by a fighter who could stop you with one punch, but if that didn’t work, would stop you with hundreds.
The ultimate punching buzzsaw.
7 – Tommy Hearns
“He was a killing machine.”—Ted Sares
Sugar Ray Leonard, as astonishing a boxer-puncher as ever lived, spent 35 rounds in the ring with Roberto Duran without landing blank-dealing punches of any sort. Hagler was extended the distance against Hands of Stone, one of the best middleweights ever forced to settle for a close decision win. Iran “The Blade” Barkley, a huge and aggressive one-sixty crazy was beaten on those cards. Getting Duran out of there during his prime was as impossible a task as existed in boxing.
Step forwards Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns, a fighter who scores at least a nine out of ten in every one of our criteria for greatness. Capable of superb boxing or brutish dismantling rushes, Hearns has laser-guided accuracy to augment his elite speed and numbing power. His knockout of Duran is as astonishing and perfect a knockout as was ever perpetrated against an all-time great fighter. Those two superhuman efforts Duran mounted at middleweight, combined with the seeming certainty that he could mount similar efforts against Hearns one-hundred times and be stopped in two every single time, underlines just how great a performance that really was. The final punch, reportedly sold with a feint using nothing more than his eyes, is the cherry on the top of Tommy’s great legacy. Add 47 more knockouts to this one and consider that some of them occurred up at cruiserweight and it surely becomes apparent that this former welterweight belongs inside the top ten.
6 – Bob Foster
“Quit hittin’ them kids! Push ‘em or slap ‘em!”—Bertha Foster to her son on the occasion of his fracturing a schoolmate’s skull in a fight
It is often said of Bob Foster that he dominated a weak light-heavyweight era. There is some truth to this. It is also true that he fought in a light-heavyweight era stacked with granite-chinned fighters of the highest durability. This did not reduce the likelihood of a Bob Foster knockout victory. In fact, it seems that fighters who trusted in their extraordinary punch resistance to save them were even more unlikely to survive. There was only one way to fight Foster and have hope of success: make sure you did not get hit.
Take Chris Finnegan. Stopped three times on cuts, only a devastating one-two from Foster saw him counted out, tangled in the ropes, his spirited resistance totally broken. Or Dick Tiger, owner of one of the most celebrated chins in history, separated from his sense by one crunching left hook. Frank DePaula was stopped just twice in his career, Foster turning the trick in a single round with a snapping right uppercut. Henry Hank lost 31 fights in his career, but only Foster was able to stop him. Mark Tessman was stopped twice, once by a split eyelid, once by Bob Foster punches. Hal Carroll was similarly prevented from continuing twice by cuts but Foster introduced him to the 10-count in four brutal rounds. See the pattern?
It is also said that Foster never carried his power above 175 lbs. Whilst it is true that Foster never delivered a top scalp up at heavyweight it is also true that he knocked out around twenty men weighing between 180 and 215 lbs.
But power alone wouldn’t get Foster onto this list, and at #6 no less. In spite of his often aesthetically displeasing style, Foster boxed with no little art. On his devastating knockout of Mike Quarry:
“Every time I’d throw a left jab he’d slip it by leaning to his right. He’d bring his right hand back up when he returned to his normal position. I faked a jab and turned it into a hook when he came back up. Bam, I hit him right on the point of the jaw. When he went down, I couldn’t see his eyes. I thought I’d killed him.”
5 – Mike Tyson
“He throws combinations I never saw before. I was stunned. I’ve worked with Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, but I’m seeing a three-punch combination second to none. When have you seen a guy throw a right hand to the kidney, come up the middle with an uppercut, then throw the left hook?”—Angelo Dundee
Tyson used planes of movement no other fighter has ever utilized. He is heavyweight’s Albert Einstein squared, not only recognizing the possibilities of an unexplored universe but putting those theories into practice. He also represents, for this list, something of a fulcrum. Everyone in the top five was at one time or another considered for the #1 spot. It’s possible to spend more time talking about why four of these five aren’t at #1 rather than talk about what makes them great.
To get the negative stuff out of the way, Tyson was a specialist at mid-range whilst bull-rushing. His physical limitations—short arms, short stature—limit him on the outside and a propensity to allow himself to be held and walked limited him on the inside. In the period between his leaping from our television sets and his destruction at the hands of Buster Douglas, however, Tyson was a cyborg—sent from the future to show us how Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey should have done it.
Ultra-elastic, Tyson was taught to pivot and slip on the spot by Cus D’Amato’s teardrop sandbag, fist-sized and zipping around Tyson’s head like a giant and aggressive blue-bottle. He may have learned to punch in combination whilst ripping out these unique defensive maneuvers on Cus’s patent “Willie Bag”, named for Willie Pastrano, from whom Cus associate Jose Torres lifted the world’s light-heavyweight title. Reportedly made up of five mattresses and a supporting frame, the contraption was marked with eight numbers each of which represented a certain kind of blow, a hook to the jaw, a jab to the chest. Tyson would stand with it for hours whilst either Teddy Atlas or Cus himself (sometimes via a tape recorder) barked out numbers to which Tyson would react. Like Roy Jones, Tyson was a perfect storm of boxing brought together by an upbringing that left him thirsty for direction and acceptance as much as by those fast-twitch muscle fibers.
For a short while in what became a long career Tyson was all but unboxable. At the end of the second round against Trevor Berbick he landed two jabs, came square for a right hook to the kidney, came upstairs with a second right hook, moved back to make room for a left hook as Berbick charged and then tagged on another right for good measure. Spring-tight combinations thrown against a sprawling, moving opponent. The shot that ushered in his “title” reign just seconds later was an absolutely superb punch in its own right, but notable because of its normality; Tyson threw extraordinary punches from angles that just didn’t exist in boxing before his time. Finding sparring partners to replicate his style was easy because anyone can walk in, but finding sparring partners to replicate his dipping, vanishing, off-kilter defense and throw punches going out and coming back from those positions was impossible. None existed. None have ever existed. Probably, none will ever exist.
4 – Sam Langford
“I fought most of the heavyweights including Dempsey and Johnson, but Sam could stretch a guy colder than any of them. When Langford hit me it felt like someone slugged me with a baseball bat. It was like taking ether. You just went to sleep…”—“Fireman” Jim Flynn
In December of 1903 the great Joe Gans stowed the gloves he had used the night before to outpoint the superb Dave Holly and traveled 400 miles in a single day to put his lightweight title on the line against a mercurial teenager named Sam Langford. Complications with the weight meant the fight would go on, in spite of Joe’s stomach trouble, without the title being on the line. For “The Old Master”—then in his absolute prime—this was a glad happenstance; the 17-year-old Langford absolutely thrashed him, outboxed and out-generalled the greatest general seen on the face of the earth up until that point. It was easy.
Fast forward to February of 1916, 13 long years and 100 defeated opponents behind him, a past-prime Sam Langford separates all-time great heavyweight Harry Wills from his senses with a single left hook in the 19th round of their 20-round contest.
Zip on to June of 1922. Langford shares the ring with another all-time great, the middleweight Tiger Flowers. Standing just 5-feet-7-inches, Langford is better suited to this weight-division, but perhaps the most storied of all ring careers has left him blinded. Fighting against shadows, the partial sight that remained him was enough to allow him to land a right hand which traveled “no more than six inches” according to author and historian Clay Moyle, which saw Flowers just about reclaiming all fours at the count of “Ten”.
Viewed on film, Langford looks frighteningly modern. A clearly terrified (and firmly beaten) Joe Jeanette, one of the great heavies of his era, provided the best opposition on video, but it is against Bill Lang that “The Boston Terrier” shines brightest. Crowding footwork maintains the perfect distance for right and left hand punches that are sold behind the narrowest of shifts and the subtlest of feints. A counterpunching pressure fighter, he was as difficult for his peers to box as anyone on this list. As a finisher he is arguably without equal, and as a pure puncher? We’ll let perennial opponent Harry Wills answer that one.
“I’ve met some hard punchers in my time, and all I can say is that the hardest blows any of them ever landed on me were like a slap in the face from a woman compared with those bone-crunching wallops from Langford…[W]hen he knocked me out in New Orleans in 1916, I thought I’d been killed.”
3 – Bob Fitzsimmons
“Whilst physicians were examining him, Ruhlin opened his eyes and faintly asked for water. This was given him as he again lapsed into a sort of stupor. Blood at this time was trickling from his ears and nose.”—The San Francisco Call
Nobody hit like Fitz.
Boxing at the then middleweight limit of 154 lbs., he stopped the granite-chinned nonpareil champion Jack Dempsey in just 13 rounds in what was described as the most scientific display of boxing seen up until that point. Then a boxer-puncher known for his exceptional poise in the ring, Fitz spent the next years adding layer upon layer to one of the most studied, devastating offenses in history. The March 9th, 1893 edition of The Times Democrat published as beautiful and complete a description of Bob’s style as can be seen:
“He will advance when his antagonist least expects it, and often when in full retreat will wheel suddenly about and meet his advancing rival with right or left just in time to borrow his momentum and add it to the force of his own blow…”
Fitzsimmons was the ultimate trap-smith, perhaps unparalleled even today at laying bait, guiding opponents onto his punches, switching the attack at the last possible minute.
“..[T]hough exceedingly apt to advance and force the fighting at times, he has a wonderful faculty of doing so just when his opponent is not ready to meet him with a blow, and by the time a blow is launched in his direction he is generally in the act of getting away…”
An opening rarely missed, Fitzsimmons would become famous in his career for picking certain vulnerable spots and landing upon them, accuracy above and beyond what can be seen in even a world-class fighter.
“…[W]ith all his violent exertion, he never seems to become tired.”
An engine almost infallible, Fitz carried one-punch knockout power of the most devastating kind to the late rounds. His 14th round one-punch knockout of James J. Corbett, which caused the champion’s eyes “to roll back into his head until no pupil was visible,” is amongst the most famous in history. Landed by hands so fast that many at ringside did not see it go in, Corbett was all but paralyzed, crawling pitifully across the ring floor, arguably the greatest heavyweight of his generation laid low by a single blow from a man fighting at the modern super-middleweight limit.
His one punch knockout of middleweight contender Jim Hall was so violent and sudden that onlookers thought him dead; tragically, two men would indeed go to their graves behind punches landed by Ruby Red.
Other victims such as world-class heavyweight Peter Maher were dropped—unconscious—by invisible punches that left their eyes rolling in their heads, confused, when revived, as to what had actually happened to them. Speed enough to make punches invisible to the naked eye. Perhaps unequalled pound-for-pound power. Traps, feints and counterpunching skills unmatched in his era. What kind of fluidity and devastation on offense can keep this monster from the top two?
2 – Sugar Ray Robinson
“I don’t know anything about that punch. Except I watched it on movies a couple of times.”—Gene Fullmer
Fullmer was as tough a middleweight who ever lived, a man who lived face-forwards in the ring, thick-necked, his face as immobile and daunting as his rough-hewn style. Mauling, driving fighters are the easiest to knock out on paper, busy and aggressive they afford plenty of punching opportunities for the opponent. Nevertheless, Florentino “The Ox” Fernandez, one of history’s hardest pure punchers could not make a dent in the granite battlement that was Fullmer’s chin despite landing his terrifying left hook flush at least once. “The Cyclone” just took a quick moment for himself, shrugged off the punch and then went back on the attack. Rescued between rounds by a concerned manager in his very last fight, he never heard the ten.
Except for once.
Sugar Ray Robinson, behind on the cards and a three-to-one underdog to reclaim the middleweight title he had lost to Fullmer, landed perhaps the most perfect punch in the history of boxing. After leading with a hard right hand to the body, Sugar was bulled back and away, making space for himself before assuming the exact stance he had used to throw that right hand to the body—and then, form the hip, all gunslinger, he tossed out a short left hook, driven not by the left or the right foot, but by both feet, and you can’t see it land on film without slowing the film down, and then Fullmer crumbled, managing just a single step in support of his defense of the middleweight title, reduced to nothing less than a back alley drunk on payday, perhaps the most iron-chinned of middleweights missed gaining his feet by a single second.
Is this Robinson’s most impressive feat as a puncher? Possibly not. There’s the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre perpetrated against Jake LaMotta, a fighter legitimately stopped during action just once by this punching display so varied and savage it is likely no fighter in middleweight history could have deciphered or survived it. There’s the terrifying move through the gears in his second fight with Randy Turpin as Robinson, on the verge to losing to Britain’s greatest ever middleweight for a second time, did what all great champions do and found a solution, a fluidity on offense so brutal and alarming that even a 1950s referee couldn’t stand by and do nothing.
As Carmen Basilio, who spent 30 rounds in the ring with Sugar put it, “He was the best puncher, he was the hardest puncher.”
1 – Joe Louis
“It ain’t like a punch. It’s like someone nailed you with a crowbar. I thought half my head was blowed off. I figured he caved it in. After he hit me I couldn’t even feel if it was there.”—James J. Braddock
“God how that man can hit. I can’t remember anything after the first knockdown.”—Johnny Paycheck.
“You’d take one shot from him and you were sure he’d have seven or eight more coming for you.”—George Foreman
“Joe Louis uncovers dynamite.”—Richard Wright
“I was worried he would break someone’s neck.”—Arthur Donovan
“He hit me eighteen times as I was in the act of falling.”—Max Baer
Joe Louis is my choice for the #1 spot. As capable a combination puncher as ever lived, his hands were lightning, devastatingly accurate, he punched with huge power and maximum economy. A superb counterpuncher but one who could force the attack with horrifying results, Louis ticks every single box required to be named the greatest composite puncher of all time. For anyone interested in a detailed breakdown of his skills on both offense and defense, one is available here, in six parts:
How to Box by Joe Louis: Part 1—The Foundation of Skill
How to Box by Joe Louis: Part 2—The Jab & Left Hook
How to Box by Joe Louis: Part 3—The Right Hand
How to Box by Joe Louis: Part 4—The Uppercut; Bodywork
How to Box by Joe Louis: Part 5—On Defense & The Shadow of Jersey Joe Walcott
How to Box by Joe Louis: Part 6—Putting It All Together
For the moment, let’s just satisfy ourselves with Joe’s own perspective on his job of work:
“He can run. But he can’t hide.”—Joe Louis
A word for the men who would have rounded out the top 20 on this list had space allowed: Wilfredo Gomez, Archie Moore, Carlos Zarate, Ruben Olivares and Jack Dempsey. A word too for Terry McGovern, excluded on the footage rule due to only his highly suspect stoppage of Joe Gans being readily available.