10: “Singles Hitters”
Muhammad Ali is “The Greatest,” but former featherweight champ Willie Pep (left) is arguably the sport’s greatest pure boxer, one who could not rely on punching power, to help him log an amazing 229 victories against only 11 losses and one draw. Photo / THE RING
Our sports culture has always been fascinated with displays of offensive firepower – the tape-measure home run, the long bomb, the slam dunk, the blinding slap shot – but nothing thrills the soul quite like a knockout punch.
Boxing lore is filled with moments where a single blow snaps off the lights. The athletes who delivered them live forever either in memory or, in many cases, the Hall of Fame. Thankfully, however, athletic gifts are not isolated to the obvious. For as much as we celebrate the exploits of Ruth, Chamberlain, Elway and Howe, there have been many others who have successfully plied their trade without the benefit of game-changing power: The utility men and singles hitters on the diamond, the unheralded point guards who distribute the rock to the playmakers or the special teams players who make their mark without lots of fanfare. Any coach worth his salt – and any teammate with an ounce of realism – will declare that these role players are valuable to any chase for a championship.
Still, there have been players that transcended their unglamorous roles by executing them at an elite level – Pete Rose and Ty Cobb, Bob Cousy and Steve Nash, Devin Hester and Steve Tasker, Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby to name a few.
More than a few “singles hitters” in boxing have done the same. Of these sports, boxing is the toughest sport in terms of achieving Hall of Fame level success without God-given power. Because they excelled without that vital safety net, their triumphs are largely a testament to patience, technique and especially trust because the light hitters must hope that the judges will pay proper tribute to subtleties over sock.
On Sunday night, one of the first benchmarks of spring will take place when the Texas Rangers play at the Houston Astros to begin yet another MLB season. In honor of this event, this week’s “10 List” will count down boxing’s best “singles hitters” – at least in terms of knockout percentage.
All records cited come from Boxrec.com and the criterion used to assemble this list takes into account a fighter’s entire career. Because of that, one name that would be on many others’ lists will be excluded – Pernell Whitaker. Here’s why: Though he scored only four KOs in his 19 title-fight victories, “Sweet Pete” boasts a career .370 knockout percentage (17 knockouts in 46 fights). Believe it or not, for as brilliant a boxer as Whitaker was, that’s too hefty a number to fit into one of these slots. As for those who did, read on:
10. Sven Ottke: 34-0-0 (6) – .176 knockout percentage
Of the handful of fighters that have accumulated 20 or more title defenses, Ottke has, by far, the lowest KO ratio. Although his critics will declare – and not without just cause – that some of his wins, especially his decision over Robin Reid, were the result of blatant hometown favoritism.
Some of his wins, but not all of them. And that’s why Ottke is on this list. No matter what one may think of his career, one can rightly say that Ottke’s peck-and-poke offense got him much farther than anyone had a right to expect.
Nicknamed “The Phantom” for his ability to avoid fire, Ottke assembled a 256-47-5 amateur career that included three Olympics, two European championships and victories over Antonio Tarver, Michael Moorer, Chris Byrd and Juan Carlos Gomez. Turning pro at a very late age – three months before his 30th birthday – Ottke captured the IBF super middleweight title in his 13th fight with a split decision over Charles Brewer. Over the next five-and-a-half years Ottke defended that belt a division-record 21 times, along the way adding Byron Mitchell’s WBA strap after winning a March 2003 unification fight. During an age where sanctioning bodies strip fighters on a whim, Ottke managed to keep the belts united for four additional defenses before choosing to retire undefeated. Of his 22 title fights, only five ended in knockouts.
Besides Mitchell and Brewer, the latter of whom Ottke defeated in a rematch, the German’s best results include two decisions over Thomas Tate (one of which was an 11-round technical nod) and points wins over Glen Johnson, Silvio Branco, Rudy Markussen, James Butler, Mads Larsen and Armand Krajnc. Ottke added a come-from-behind one-punch KO over Anthony Mundine, a result, given both men’s resumes that bordered on the miraculous.
Ottke’s legacy will forever be fodder for debate, but one can’t deny that he beat the odds in terms of reaching the highest levels without the benefit of a fight-ending weapon.
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