THE RING Pound for Pound history: From “Iron” Mike to “Chocolatito”
Over 60 years ago, the term “pound-for-pound best” was coined for Sugar Ray Robinson as a means of recognizing his undeniable superiority in boxing. No matter how good the legendary welterweight and middleweight champion was, he could never win the heavyweight championship of the world so size was removed from the equation by virtue of a mythical accolade.
In 1989, Ring Magazine formally introduced a full top ten pound-for-pound list that would feature the best boxers from around the globe regardless of their respective weight classes. Now, it is literally impossible to be 100 percent accurate when compiling such a list and, for that reason, perhaps no other subject elicits more debate among lovers of the sweet science.
One fan might appreciate the technical side of the sport, whereas another might marvel at the brutality of a clean knockout. One member of the media might appreciate a long reigning champion, whereas another might focus solely on the opposition he has beaten. No pound for pound list is synonymous with truth; not Ring Magazine’s, not yours, and not mine.
In the wake of Floyd Mayweather’s recent retirement, Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez was installed as THE RING pound for pound champion. The unbeaten Nicaraguan, a three-weight world titleholder, is 44-0 (38 knockouts) and his breathtaking skillset and rapidly expanding reputation has shone a refreshing spotlight on a habitually non-profitable flyweight division.
Over the past 26 years there have been ten fighters, including Gonzalez, anointed as pound for pound champion by Ring Magazine. The following is a list of the men who reached the very pinnacle of their sport with a brief description of their notable accomplishments. Not everything could be listed, there isn’t enough space, but hopefully one gets a sense of what made them special.
Former undisputed heavyweight champion
Career Record: 50-6 (44 knockouts)
A facial tattoo, stand-up shows, cartoons and a recurring part in “The Hangover” franchise could never dilute the memories of “Iron” Mike Tyson’s concussive dominance in the 1980s. This reporter’s first boxing memory is watching the 20-year-old Brooklyn native slay Trevor Berbick in two rounds to become the youngest heavyweight titleholder (WBC) ever in November 1986. The school yards were abuzz with Tyson mania, people were naming their dogs after him and he sparked a casual fan revival that worked wonders for the sport. Tyson would unify the division with points wins over James “Bonecrusher” Smith (WBA titleholder) and Tony Tucker (IBF titleholder) before smashing THE RING heavyweight champion Michael Spinks in a 91-second demolition job in June 1988. At his peak, Tyson was deadly and struck pure fear into the glamour division before his personal and professional decline. One thing that does go against the Hall of Famer is that he never defeated another great fighter at his peak of his powers. Larry Holmes was over the hill and Spinks, a great light heavyweight, was merely a splinter for the rampaging Tyson.
Julio Cesar Chavez
Former three-weight world titleholder
Career Record: 107-6-2 (86 KOs)
When “Iron” Mike’s powers of invincibility were shattered by James “Buster” Douglas (TKO by 10) in February 1990, his pound-for-pound successor was approaching the biggest fight of his career. Julio Cesar Chavez, a three-weight world titleholder from Mexico, who was unbeaten in 68 fights, found himself in against the flashy, but immensely gifted, Meldrick Taylor, a former Olympic gold medalist for the United States and reigning IBF junior welterweight belt holder. The lightning-quick American was as good as it gets for huge portions of the contest; nailing his man with rapid clusters of punches while slipping off to the sides to keep Chavez turning. As the championship rounds commenced, the super-tough Mexican suddenly began to land crunching shots to Taylor’s grotesquely swollen face and he continued to apply steady pressure. The American was dropped by a big right hand in the twelfth and final round but referee Richard Steele’s decision to stop the contest, with just two seconds remaining, is regarded as one of the most controversial calls in the history of the sport. The nineties were just underway and we had arguably witnessed the fight of the decade. Chavez, rightfully anointed as pound for pound champion following his greatest victory, was an astonishing offensive fighter with an almost telepathic talent for cutting off the ring.
Former four-weight world titleholder
Career Record: 40-4-1 (17 KOs)
It was always going to take a great fighter to topple Julio Cesar Chavez. Pernell Whitaker, another former Olympic gold medalist, was a brilliant southpaw who reveled in making opponents miss, and miss, and miss. Arguably the greatest defensive fighter in boxing history, this former undisputed lightweight king had his share of critics due to a lack of hitting power but his genius and sophistication was undeniable. Like Chavez, Whitaker had annexed titles at different weights and was now enjoying his time as the WBC welterweight titleholder. A lucrative bout with Chavez had been discussed for years and the pair finally collided in September 1993 at the Alamodome in San Antonio, TX. It was all Whitaker for the vast majority of the rounds and this time there would be no fairytale ending for Chavez, who punched holes through the air as his opponent skipped and squatted around him. The bout was officially declared a majority draw but it was a bogus decision and “Sweet Pea” would take the Mexican’s pound for pound title as well as his pride. Chavez would lose to Frankie Randall a year later but the first man to get the better of the fierce warrior from Culiacan, Mexico, was undoubtedly Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker.
Oscar De La Hoya
Former six-weight world titleholder
Career Record: 39-6 (30 KOs)
Not since the days of Sugar Ray Leonard had a prizefighter appealed to corporate America as much as Oscar De La Hoya. “The Golden Boy” was likable, charismatic and, what’s more, he could fight like hell. That combination juxtaposed alongside a rare hunger to take on all-comers led to pay-per-view figures and purses which were astronomical. De La Hoya had already chewed up the remains of Julio Cesar Chavez with a bloody fourth-round TKO to win a third world title when, almost immediately, he targeted a fiercely competitive welterweight division. Ike Quartey and Felix Trinidad were already forging their own reputations with brutal knockouts at 147 pounds but the ambitious De La Hoya was eyeing the great Pernell Whitaker for his welterweight coronation. That decision almost proved costly on April 12, 1997. Invigorated with a real threat in front of him, Whitaker turned in his best performance in years. De La Hoya had success, particularly with the right lead, but his signature left hook was rendered useless. At the end of 12 rounds the majority of experts had a close fight going either way but De La Hoya prevailed by wide margins; 115-111 and 116-110 twice. The new champion was happy to grant “Sweet Pea” a rematch but his promoter at the time, Bob Arum, thought better of it. De La Hoya transcended the sport and was involved in some of the most lucrative fights in boxing history.
Sugar Shane Mosley
Former three-weight world titleholder
Career Record: 48-9-1 (40 KOs)
“Sugar” Shane Mosley burst on to the professional scene as a lightweight and his incredible blend of speed and power was simply breathtaking. The affable Californian scored a unanimous decision win over Philip Holiday to claim the IBF 135-pound title in August 1997 and defended that belt on eight occasions with all wins coming by knockout. In 1999, Mosley made the audacious choice to jump all the way up to welterweight, with one eye on a “Battle of Los Angeles” with Oscar De La Hoya, who he had known since childhood, and competed against as an amateur. By this point in his career, De La Hoya had dropped a controversial majority decision to the hard-hitting Felix Trinidad and was on the rebuild. As the result of a seventh-round stoppage of Derrell Coley and “Tito” Trinidad moving north to junior middleweight, “The Golden Boy” was reinstated as welterweight titleholder by the WBC and agreed to fight Mosley at the Staples Centre in June 2000. The bout is a lasting tribute to the skills and courage of both men. De La Hoya picked up the majority of the early sessions by applying effective aggression and backing up the smaller man. Suddenly though, at the mid-way point, Mosley picked up the pace and the defending champion struggled for answers. The new “Sugar Man” claimed the second half of the fight and closed out brilliantly in a memorable final round. “Sugar” Shane won a split decision, lived up to his illustrious nickname, and validated his pound for pound credentials in style.
Roy Jones Jr.
Former four-weight world titleholder
Career Record: 62-8 (45 KOs)
Jones was in the pound for pound number one argument from the moment he outpointed James Toney in 1994 but a disqualification loss to Montel Griffin three years later, and a lack of big fights, frequently led to him being leapfrogged by the smaller fighters of his era. However, when Vernon Forrest scored a brace of unanimous decision wins over “Sugar” Shane Mosley in 2002, the boxing fraternity at large recognized Jones as pound-for-pound king. No one particular fight bolstered his status, it was just that Jones could do things that no one else could. A former titleholder at 160 and 168 pounds and, at the time, the reigning undisputed light heavyweight champion, Jones carried incredible speed, lightning reflexes and power in both hands. A 2003 victory over John Ruiz to capture the WBA heavyweight title took the glitzy American’s reputation to even greater heights but incredibly it was the beginning of the end. A decision to return to the 175-pound weight class seemed to take something from him physiologically and after winning a controversial decision over Antonio Tarver to claim the WBC title, he was sensationally knocked out in the second round of a rematch. Known as “Superman”, Jones had lost the ability to fly and seemed to go from one brutal defeat to another for several years. Still active at 46 years old, the “Fighter of the Nineties” is best remembered as perhaps the most athletically gifted athlete in boxing history.
Former undisputed middleweight and Ring Magazine light heavyweight champion
Career Record: 55-7-2 (32 KOs)
Just as Bernard Hopkins struggled for recognition as a great middleweight champion, his path to pound-for-pound supremacy proved equally tough. Due to a dominant run of 160-pound title defenses, “The Executioner” had been included on pound-for-pound lists for years but a brilliant twelfth-round stoppage win over the previously unbeaten Felix Trinidad, in September 2001, placed him very near the top. Only Roy Jones Jr., who had defeated Hopkins on points in 1993, stood in his way but the pair continually failed to agree terms for a rematch at a time when it would have been legacy defining. Now, with Jones’ capitulation at the hands of Tarver, and Hopkins becoming the first man to stop Oscar De La Hoya, it was hard to deny the undisputed middleweight king’s genius. At 39-years-old, his official reign as pound for pound champion was cut short due to a brace of split decision losses to Jermain Taylor but the great Hopkins remained inside the top ten for several more years. The old school Philadelphia general would bounce back with stunning wins over Tarver and Kelly Pavlik and he then solidified his greatness by becoming the oldest professional fighter to capture a world championship by outpointing Jean Pascal in May 2011. Even at 50 years old, he managed to take the monstrous Sergey Kovalev the distance in a losing effort and, if we take him at his word, Hopkins will return for a farewell fight before calling time on a glorious 27 year career.
Former six-weight world titleholder
Career Record: 57-6-2 (38 KOs)
The years of back-and-forth negotiations to secure an instantly forgettable super fight with Floyd Mayweather may have dulled memories of Manny Pacquiao’s zenith but that astonishing run in the lower weight classes should never be forgotten. The Filipino hero was initially a trade fighter who had captured world titles in two weight classes, before unleashing hell on the great Marco Antonio Barrera at featherweight. A shocking 11th-round stoppage of “The Baby Faced Assassin” was his first, and by no means last, victory over a top caliber opponent. Juan Manuel Marquez, Erik Morales, Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, Miguel Cotto, Shane Mosley and Antonio Margarito all succumbed to the thunder and lightning of Pacquiao who amassed a global fan base that was the envy of every elite fighter in the sport. Mixing his fistic exploits with a celebrity lifestyle and political career rarely proved to be a hindrance, unless Juan Manuel Marquez was in the opposing corner. The cerebral Mexican counter puncher is 1-2-1 against his Filipino nemesis but closed out the four-fight rivalry with a crunching sixth-round knockout that had millions of fans in mourning. Pacquiao rebounded with a WBO welterweight title win over Tim Bradley but he was widely outpointed by Floyd Mayweather in May of this year. Like Hopkins and Jones, Pacquiao has been a mainstay on most pound for pound lists for several years and is still rated No. 8 by THE RING (as of November 2015).
Former five-weight world titleholder
Career Record: 49-0 (26 KOs)
From the embryonic stages of his professional career, Floyd Mayweather knew of two things that would lead to a long and lucrative career in prize fighting. First, avoid punishment while dishing it out and second, keep people talking about you, whether it’s positive or negative. The glossy fistic prodigy from Grand Rapids, MI, has been derided for his arrogance for almost two full decades but leaves boxing as the highest earning sportsman in history. Once Pay-Per-View receipts were tabulated, Mayweather’s win over Manny Pacquiao netted him $220 million dollars before tax and expenses and it could be decades before another fighter gets near those numbers. Money aside, which is sacrilege to the self-proclaimed “TBE”, let’s have a look at what he accomplished with his fists. Mayweather won the WBC junior lightweight title from Genaro Hernandez in October 1998 and defeated Angel Manfredy and Diego Corrales on route to eight successful title defenses. In 2002, he took the WBC lightweight title with a controversial decision win over Jose Luis Castillo but solidified his dominance with a decisive victory in a rematch. A brief stop at junior welterweight saw him wrench the WBC title from Arturo Gatti with an easy sixth-round stoppage before he found his real home at welterweight. Mayweather won a myriad of title belts at 147 pounds, besting the likes of Zab Judah, Ricky Hatton, Juan Manuel Marquez, “Sugar” Shane Mosley, Victor Ortiz, Robert Guerrero, Marco Maidana and Manny Pacquiao along the way. Not enough? As natural a welterweight as you could hope to find, he also won junior middleweight titles from Oscar De La Hoya, Miguel Cotto and Canelo Alvarez. Mayweather did that while being barely a whisker over the 150 pound mark. Love him, hate him, or pray for him to get on the wrong side of a fully-fledged middleweight from Kazakhstan; Floyd Mayweather, at his best, proved himself the finest boxer of his generation.
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Tom Gray is a member of the British Boxing Writers’ Association and has contributed to various publications. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing