The Cream Rises

By José Corpas on February 14, 2015
The Cream Rises
At the very top of the list with 23 years and counting is Philadelphia’s Bernard Hopkins.

One thing that is certain is, no matter the era or the competition, the object of the game is to be the best…

Grab a cup of coffee. It doesn’t matter how big or small, or how good the coffee tastes, when you add cream it always rises—like the best boxers—to the top. Whether it’s an Ethiopian bean or a Hong Kong roast, the result is the same. Such is the case in boxing regardless of which era we are talking about. Some say the Roaring Twenties had the best fighters while others insist the 1970s were better. A large amount will tell you the athletes of today are bigger and better. One thing that is certain is, no matter the era or the competition, the object of the game is to be the best. 

With that in mind, let’s take a look at who succeeded at being among the ten best for the longest period of time using the rankings that mattered—the official rankings of the various organizations throughout history including the NBA, WBA, WBC, IBF, and WBO. For good measure, and a dose of sanity, the unofficial but popular Ring Magazine ratings were included. The organizations were each treated evenly since their rankings have all proven to be equally suspect throughout the years. But despite the favoritism, the paid for, and the just plain ole wrong, they were the official rankings and, the cream always rose to the top.

The heavyweight who was ranked the longest was Muhammad Ali. He rose to top- ten status in 1961 and stayed among the elite until he retired in 1978. Ali poked around briefly in some rankings when he returned to challenge Larry Holmes and for the Trevor Berbick match. Rounded off, Muhammad Ali’s stay at the top was 19 years. 

Next on the list, with roughly 17 years at the top, are Joe Louis, Floyd Patterson, George Foreman, and Evander Holyfield.  Gaining on them is current titlist Wladimir Klitschko who is currently in his 16th year. Klitschko is only a few months away from surpassing the trio for sole possession of the second longest tenure at heavyweight.   

Larry Holmes would be next with a roughly 15-year run among the best. Jack Johnson appears to have been in 16- to 17-year range also but since he boxed before ratings were used, we can only estimate.

No cruiserweight comes close to Johnny Nelson who spent 16 years swapping punches with the best. 

Archie Moore and Harold Johnson are in a virtual tie with 16-year runs at the top.  Roy Jones Jr. put in 14 years at 175 pounds with Bob Foster, Gus Lesnevich, Virgil Hill, and the “Road Warrior” Glen Johnson coming next with 12. Old-timer Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom’s run at the top appears to have been about a dozen years as well.

Joe Calzaghe leads the 168-pounders with a run just shy of 12. Carl Froch is next closing in on 9 years.

Bernard Hopkins was ranked among the top longer than anyone else at 160 with his 14-year run. Sugar Ray Robinson, Carlos Monzon, and Marvin Hagler had roughly 11-year runs. Old-timers Harry Greb and Tommy Ryan were in the vicinity of these fighters as well with Tony Zale, Gene Fullmer, and Joey Giardello with-10 year stays.

Winky Wright leads all with just under 10 years on top. 

This division had the closest knit group after Ray Robinson who paced the division for 10 years. All of the following had, or have, 8-year runs with only a few months separating them. Floyd Mayweather Jr. will reach 9 years soon. He’s followed by Jack Britton, Jimmy McLarnin, Kid Gavilan, Luis Rodriguez, Jose Napoles, Marlon Starling, and Felix Trinidad with 8. Old-timers, who boxed top 10 rankings were kept, Tommy Ryan and Joe Walcott are estimated to be in the vicinity of 8 years as well.

Mere weeks separate Antonio Cervantes, Julio Cesar Chavez, and Kostya Tsyzu with 8 years. 

Old-timers Benny Leonard and Joe Gans appear to lead this group with an estimated 11-12 years at the top. Behind them is Joe Brown with 9. A group with 8 years including Tony Canzoneri, Ike Williams, Carlos Ortiz, Ismael Laguna, and Roberto Duran are next. Old-timer Battling Nelson approached 8 years as well.

Azumah Nelson eked out the longest run at 9 years with Flash Elorde close behind. 

Willie Pep had a 13-year run with his nemesis Sandy Saddler right behind him with 12. Old-timers who may have reached these amounts include Johnny Kilbane, Johnny Dundee, Abe Attell, and George Dixon. 

The longest run is a tossup between Wilfredo Gomez, Daniel Zaragoza, and Marcos Antonio Barrera at just under 8 years.

Manuel Ortiz’s 12-year run tops the 118-pound class.

Khaosai Galaxy leads the way with 8 with Johnny Tapia and Masamori Takuyama just missing with 7.

Pascual Perez and Betulio Gonzalez were ranked for 11 years with Miguel Canto and Chartchai Chionoi at 10. Old-timer Jimmy Wilde also appears to have spent about a decade amongst the best. 

Below flyweight Ricardo Lopez spent 12 ranked among the best with Myung Woo Yuh and Chana Porpaoin at 10. 

The pound-for -rankings differ from the divisional rankings since many fighters hopped around between divisions. Of all pros who have competed over the years, my tired eyes found about 30 who lingered among the best for longer than 15 years. Here, in reverse order, they are. 

The still active Wladimir Klitschko joins Leo Gamez, Oscar De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad, and Larry Holmes with 15-year runs. Manny Pacquiao’s run through the divisions has lasted 16 years so far. That total matches the runs of Emile Griffith, Harold Johnson, Johnny Nelson, and Thomas Hearns. 

Joe Louis, Mike McCallum, Julio Cesar Chavez, Azumah Nelson, Erik Morales, and George Foreman enjoyed 17 years among the top. Active fighters who have also reached that total include Floyd Mayweather Jr., Juan Manuel Marquez, and Guillermo Jones. Old-timers like Mickey Walker, Jack Johnson, and Tommy Ryan were also in this neighborhood.

The still active but no longer ranked Roy Jones Jr. shares an 18-year run with Shane Mosley. 

Coming next with 19 years are Muhammad Ali, Floyd Patterson, and James Toney. 

A total of five fighters have reached or topped the 20-year mark with old-timer Sam Langford being a possible sixth. And it may have been seven if George Foreman didn’t take a 10-year break. 

Sugar Ray Robinson and Roberto Duran each punched their way to 20-year runs in multiple divisions with Robinson being rated in multiple divisions at the same time during some stretches. 

Evander Holyfield was the Real Deal for 21 years and just ahead of him was the Ol’ Mongoose, Archie Moore with a 22-year run between middleweight and heavyweight. 

At the very top of the list with 23 years, and counting, is Philadelphia’s own, Bernard Hopkins.  The still ranked Hopkins first popped into the top 10 before he had a cell phone, before “lol,” and before Derek Jeter played his first minor league game. 

Curiously, what stands out from this group is that the majority are boxers who competed after 1980. This lends credence to those who argue that athletes are better now than in the past. They can point to longer careers and less retired boxers swinging at doorbells. Others may counter that the boxers of the past did more in less time. Who’s right? Like coffee, it may all come down to preference. I prefer a Guatemalan or Colombian roast but some I know swear by the stuff inside the Styrofoam cups the guy at the corner hotdog stand sells. 

At any rate, these boxers have succeeded at rising to the top longer than anyone else with the “Alien” Bernard Hopkins taking the cake. And this is one cake even a notorious health food freak like he may eat. Perhaps with a cup of Joe—no cream needed.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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  1. Glen 05:03pm, 02/17/2015

    Actually, being ranked that long is a testament to a fighter’s ability.

  2. Eric 02:58pm, 02/16/2015


  3. Ant 02:10pm, 02/16/2015

    Hearns is mentioned in the pound for pound section Eric.  Surprised to see guillermo jones up there.  Thought it was a mistake but he challenged for the junior middle title way back.  I didn’t know that.

  4. Eric 12:18pm, 02/16/2015

    Tommy Hearns was ranked in one weight class or another for years. Maybe not a long time in a single weight class, but the guy was top ten in different wt. classes for years.

  5. nicolas 12:02pm, 02/16/2015

    I guess the title of the article really made me feel that it was about great fighters. Perhaps the better title would have been, “They were there so long”.

  6. Eric 09:01am, 02/16/2015

    Without a doubt, Holyfield is the best cruiserweight of all time, even though his time there was pretty brief. I always wondered why Michael Spinks never took a crack at a cruiser title after the Cooney bout, or even after the rematch with Holmes. Michael Moorer is another one that totally skipped over the cruiserweight division, Moorer certainly could have made 195lbs at the time if he had wanted. Holyfield’s victories over title holders like DeLeon & Rickey Parkey were pretty easy wins for the Real Deal while unifying the title. Back then, the only one in the 190-195lb division that was capable of giving Holyfield a fight was Qawi. By the time the rematch rolled around, Qawi was not only older but battling drug and alcohol problems. Cruiserweight division is the ONLY division that should have been added to the original 8, but it just hasn’t produced that many super talented fighters.

  7. Glen 06:26am, 02/16/2015

    Nicholas- by your own descriptions of the two, it sounds like Nelson was better. 

    however, the point of this piece is not about who was better.  Think Pete Rose.  Some say Cobb was the better hitter, some say Ruth- but Rose had more hits than anyone.

  8. Ant 05:16am, 02/16/2015

    Nicholas, it seems to me you’re placing one organization over the other.  Nelson was a mainstay in the wbo rankings throughout the 90s and half the 2000s. 

    I’m not a Nelson fan mind you,  personally I think holyfield was best cruiser.  But I don’t dislike Nelson enough to try and discredit his accomplishments.  He wasn’t perfect, but, apparently much better than the US press gave him credit for.

  9. Ant 05:08am, 02/16/2015

    Nicholas, that’s all fair enough.  But, the point is Nelson was ranked by the organizarions at cruiserweight longer than anyone else.  No where does the writer say these are the best fighters. 
    The other thing that boggles my mind is how long wladimir has been around.  Love him or leave him, hats off to him.

  10. nicolas 09:50pm, 02/15/2015

    ERIC: Cooney did not knock out Gordon, he was by DQ. Cooney outweighed him by so much. In the rematch with De Leon, Carlos gave Gordon a boxing lesson in Gordon’s hometown of Las Vegas, knocking Gordon down in the first and 12th. true that the Cruiserweights were just starting at that time, and perhaps was not the whose who of fighters. But it is also true that De Leon was at the top, and I think longer than Nelson. It just seemed so funny to me that Nelson was mentioned in the same article with some of these other gentlemen. Perhaps he would have been one of the greats. I just feel that he remained at the top for so long, not because the cream rises to the top, but because of the men he did not face.

  11. nicolas 09:39pm, 02/15/2015

    If we look at the Ring Rankings, I don’t think Mr. Nelson is at the top for 16 years. He did start out earlier fight De Leon, had the draw, and not long afterwards lost a pretty wide decision to James Warring. He did test the heavyweight waters, even being a world boxing Federation champ. true he did finally win the Cruiserweight championship of the WBO over Carl Thompson. After Hollyfield left the Cruiser weight division, De Leon did gain one of the alphabet titles, and it was during this time he fought Nelson. He was in the ring rankings during this time, but most likely was not ranked again until about 1999 with his win over Thompson, and this if you look at the ring ranking at the end of the year annually, you will find him pretty much at top of the division, but at what price. He did defeat some good fighters during his reign at WBO champ, but he more often fought not the best, that seemed to be in the other organizations.

  12. Ant 06:34pm, 02/15/2015

    Me thinks Nicholas missed the entire point of the story. 
    Eric- felt the same way about Chuvalo.  I looked at annual ratings Ring has in their record books and looks like George was ranked about 9 years.
    Didn’t pay Nelson much mind when he was around.  But didn’t realize he was in contention for that long.

  13. Eric 03:45pm, 02/15/2015

    nicolas…Carlos DeLeon seemed like he was involved in 60% of all cruiserweight title matches back in the 80’s. Of course, the cruiserweight division was in its infancy when DeLeon was defending or fighting for the title. Until Qawi moved up to the division, it was filled with light heavyweights who were past it like Yaqui Lopez, or guys who were just too small for heavyweight, ala Leon Spinks & Ossie Ocasio. The division was pretty lackluster to say the least during that time. DeLeon was squashed in 2 rounds by S.T. Gordon, not exactly a household name. Gordon was a decent fighter and even beat Trevor Berbick but he had already been knocked out by Cooney early in his career. Qawi would take the title from Piet Crous, another fighter who isn’t exactly that memorable. DeLeon would regain his title from Gordon, only to lose it to Alphfonso Ratliff, “Bigfoot” Ratliff was the same guy that Tyson put away in the first or second round (can’t remember which) back in ‘86. Ratliff was literally running for his life in that fight. Other than an aging, and overweight Qawi & a young Holyfield, the cruisers were a pretty sorry lot in the ‘80’s. Bert Cooper decided to jump to heavyweight, and small “heavyweights” like Marty Monroe & Marvis Frazier chose to fight the bigger guys too. All 3 of these fighters were capable of snatching a cruiser title back then, instead they opted to fight amongst the heavyweights. DeLeon was around a long time because of a division that was one of boxing’s worst at that particular time.

  14. Glen 02:11pm, 02/15/2015

    What’s to disagree with Nicolas?  DeLeon was top 10 for 9-10 years.  Nelson was for 16 years.  Wajima 6-7, maybe 8 years.  Wright was 10.

  15. nicolas 02:05pm, 02/15/2015

    Also at Jr Middleweight, while I think that Wright has a better resume overall than this fighter, what about Koiji Wajima of Japan, who was Jr. Middleweight champ,, even by both organizations for quite a while, from 71 to 77.

  16. nicolas 02:01pm, 02/15/2015

    I have to differ with this writer putting Johnny Nelson at the top. In fact the man who he is fighting here is far more deserving than Nelson. Carlos De Leon. Nelson’s run as champion was courtesy of the fact that the three other boxing organizations exist. I disagree that he swapped punches with the best, if he had fought many of the other champions he probably would not have been champion, or champion for very long. De Leon was the major force in the Cruser weight division from 1980 to 88. He did lose that title twice during that reign, before his loss to Evander Hollyfield, perhaps the greatest Cruiserweight champ ever.

  17. ch. 08:37pm, 02/14/2015

    Very interesting piece, Jose. GIARDELLO was first rated in 1952 until early 1966 as a middleweight, he was first rated at # 1 in 1954. He was also briefly rated in the top 10 lightheavyweights in 1967. The only time he was out of the 160 lb. ratings was part of 1955 + part of 1956 when he had to deal with criminal charges.

  18. Eric 03:50pm, 02/14/2015

    George Chuvalo was ranked in the top 10 for many years although I’m not quite sure for how many. George never captured the big crown but it seemed he was a contender a good deal longer than most. Don’t know about adding cream or sugar to coffee, I drink mine black as coal, steaminng hot, and the stronger the better. No fancy dan exotic coffees for me, I prefer Mickey D’s over some pumpkin flavored latte anyday. However, I do love Cuban coffee and will enjoy a cup after filling my gut with chicken & yellow rice, with black beans and delicious Cuban bread. Gots to stay away from the buttered Cuban bread, rice and black beans, tends to put weight on me like crazy. Of course an Irish Coffee beats them all naturally.

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