Ranking THE RING’s 31 middleweight champions
Over the past 84 years, THE RING Magazine has crowned 31 champions at middleweight. Some have been more successful than others in terms of opposition faced and longevity. Some have had single standout victories. Six fighters have won our middleweight championship more than once.
Who was the best? Keep reading.
In this feature, our editorial staff ranks all of our 160-pound champs – from Marcel Thil, the first RING Magazine middleweight titleholder in 1933, to current beltholder Canelo Alvarez, who will defend it against Gennady Golovkin on September 16 – in an exercise we hope will spur debate.
Only one thing is definitive: The day after Canelo faces GGG in the only superfight of 2017, this list will require an immediate reshuffle.
Note: The years the champions held the RING title are included here.
1. SUGAR RAY ROBINSON (1951, 1951-52, 1955-57, 1957, 1958-60)
The original “Sugar Man’s” five-way rivalry with Jake LaMotta, Gene Fullmer, Carmen Basilio and Bobo Olson rubberstamped an unmatched legacy at 160 pounds. What’s more astonishing is that the five-time middleweight champion peaked at welterweight. For many, the perfect fighter.
2. CARLOS MONZON (1970-77)
The legendary Argentine pressure-puncher is a popular choice for being the greatest middleweight of all time. He won the championship with a 12th-round stoppage of the superb Nino Benvenuti and made 14 successful defenses, nine of which came by knockout.
3. MARVIN HAGLER (1980-87)
This steel-headed southpaw sorcerer decimated an era of middleweights. “The Marvelous One” never shied away from a war but his boxing skills were also superb. Hagler’s sensational third-round stoppage of Thomas Hearns in 1985 set the benchmark for middleweight superfights.
4. BERNARD HOPKINS (2001-05)
“The Executioner” was 36 years old when he schooled Felix Trinidad to secure superstar status. Smart, freakishly dedicated and a golden era throwback, this old-school Philadelphia general posted an incredible 19 successful defenses of his IBF title (among others) – a division record.
5. MARCEL CERDAN (1948-1949)
He stopped Tony Zale to win the title in the RING Fight of the Year. The brilliant Cerdan would suffer a shoulder injury in a knockout loss to Jake LaMotta and, just weeks out from a rematch, was tragically killed in an airplane crash.
6. DICK TIGER (1963, 1965-66)
Perennially mistreated by management, Tiger still attained Hall of Fame status. The savvy Nigerian won the championship by defeating Gene Fullmer during a memorable trilogy. He was outpointed by Joey Giardello but avenged that defeat before losing controversially to Emile Griffith.
7. FREDDIE STEELE (1937-1938)
THE RING would recognize Steele as champion after Marcel Thil vacated the title. A solid competitor, hard-hitter and part-time actor, Steele was then shockingly upset by Fred Apostoli in a non-title bout. He refused to defend against Apostoli and was stripped.
8. JAKE LAMOTTA (1949-51)
A deal with the mob, a controversial world title win over Marcel Cerdan, a last-minute victory over Laurent Dauthuille – in a fight he was losing – and a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre defeat to Sugar Ray Robinson. No wonder his life became a movie.
9. TONY ZALE (1941-47, 1948)
“Man of Steel” was an apt nickname for one of the most chilling middleweight punchers of all time. Zale outpointed Georgie Abrams to reign supreme but it’s the unforgettable trilogy with Rocky Graziano for which he’s best remembered.
10. NINO BENVENUTI (1967, 1968-70)
A former lineal junior middleweight champion, the great Benvenuti won his first 65 contests. At 160 pounds, the highly skilled Italian won two of three fights against fellow legend Emile Griffith. He made four successful defenses of his titles before being succeeded by Carlos Monzon.
11. EMILE GRIFFITH (1966-67, 1967-68)
The great three-time welterweight champion spotted middleweight king Dick Tiger 9½ pounds but remarkably became the first fighter to floor the talented Nigerian. Griffith won a hotly contested decision but made up for it with two action-packed reigns at 160 pounds.
12. JOEY GIARDELLO (1963-65)
After a patchy start to his professional career and mob intervention blocking his path to a title shot, Giardello finally broke through. He upset Dick Tiger to win the championship and defended successfully against Rubin “Hurricane” Carter before Tiger claimed revenge.
13. GENE FULLMER (1957)
He fought the fight of his life to outpoint Sugar Ray Robinson for the championship but, just four months later, Robinson took revenge, knocking Fullmer cold with a single left hook. The Utah native took on the best middleweights of his generation.
14. BOBO OLSON (1953-55)
When Ray Robinson retired, Olson picked up the vacant title by outpointing Randy Turpin. Short on finesse but game as they come, the Hawaiian puncher successfully defended three times against quality opposition. Robinson then returned to action and stopped Olson in two rounds.
15. RANDY TURPIN (1951)
When Turpin faced Sugar Ray Robinson for the title, the legendary American’s record was 128-1-2 and he hadn’t lost in eight years. Turpin’s subsequent victory remains arguably the greatest upset ever on U.K. soil. The elusive Englishman was stopped in a direct rematch.
16. CARMEN BASILIO (1957-58)
Following two championship reigns at welterweight, the teak-tough Basilio moved up to middleweight for the ultimate challenge. His upset victory over Sugar Ray Robinson was the performance of a lifetime and he gave his rival absolute hell in a rematch defeat.
17. MARCEL THIL (1932-37)
THE RING’s first middleweight champion and, along with Marcel Cerdan, one of France’s finest. Thil had defeated Gorilla Jones and Len Harvey when he was awarded the title. He held the title for five years, lost to Fred Apostoli in a non-title bout and then vacated.
18. ROCKY GRAZIANO (1947-48)
A fierce and charismatic knockout artist who won the title by avenging a previous defeat to the great Tony Zale. Graziano was hammered inside three rounds of their rubber match but his toughness and determination are legendary.
19. SUGAR RAY LEONARD (1987)
He only made a cameo appearance at middleweight but it was an Oscar-winning performance. Leonard’s 1987 upset of Marvin Hagler is arguably the finest comeback in boxing history. Like his namesake, Sugar Ray Robinson, Leonard was at his best at welterweight.
20. SUMBU KALAMBAY (1988-90)
A wonderful technician, Kalambay had already defeated Iran Barkley, Mike McCallum and Robbie Sims in title fights when he was awarded the RING middleweight championship. His victory over the then-unbeaten McCallum was a near-perfect display of boxing skill.
21. PAUL PENDER (1960-61, 1962-63)
The determined battler defeated a fading Sugar Ray Robinson by a controversial decision to win the title but earned a clear victory in a rematch. He lost his belt to Terry Downes, regained it against Downes nine months later and then retired.
22. TERRY DOWNES (1961-1962)
The tough-as-nails Englishman avenged a stoppage defeat to Paul Pender to win the middleweight championship but lost it immediately in the rubber match. He would have one more big win, against an aging Sugar Ray Robinson, before moving up to light heavyweight.
23. HUGO CORRO (1978-1979)
A slippery technician who fought in the shadow of countryman and world title predecessor Carlos Monzon. Corro had his moment in the sun when he outpointed Rodrigo Valdez for the title before making two successful defenses in his native Argentina.
24. RODRIGO VALDEZ (1977-78)
The Colombian boxer-puncher would lose two championship fights to Carlos Monzon. Following Monzon’s retirement, Valdez captured the vacant undisputed title with a decision win over Philadelphia bomber Bennie Briscoe before being outpointed by Hugo Corro.
25. SERGIO MARTINEZ (2010-2014)
This superb Argentine southpaw sliced up Kelly Pavlik to become champion and then staple-gunned Paul Williams to the canvas with one volcanic left hand to establish middleweight dominance. “Maravilla” was an incredible athlete with lightning reflexes and adept defensive skills.
26. KELLY PAVLIK (2007-10)
The gutsy and hard-hitting 160-pounder from Youngstown, Ohio, got off the canvas to knock out Jermain Taylor in a modern classic. A lack of discipline probably led to a shorter-than-expected title reign but, at his best, Pavlik was an exciting and durable warrior.
27. JERMAIN TAYLOR (2005-07)
The Olympic bronze medalist ended Hopkins’ amazing run with a razor-thin points victory and then repeated the result five months later. Athletically gifted with a superb left jab, Taylor was unable to maintain that form during a brief championship reign.
28. CANELO ALVAREZ (2015-)
In an era of catchweights, Canelo outfought the superb Miguel Cotto at 155 pounds to win the title. The Mexican boxer-puncher has defended once, against Amir Khan, at the same weight and is now preparing for his ultimate test: Gennady Golovkin at 160.
29. MIGUEL COTTO (2014-15)
Three-division world champion targeted middleweight champion Sergio Martinez in a bid to become Puerto Rico’s first four-weight king. Aided by Martinez’s injured knees, Cotto produced a punch-perfect display to claim a 10th-round stoppage.
30. ALAN MINTER (1980)
A tricky southpaw technician, Minter became Britain’s first middleweight champion in 20 years when he outpointed Vito Antuofermo. He repeated the feat by cutting up the former champion in eight rounds but was destroyed by Hagler in his next defense.
31. VITO ANTUOFERMO (1979-80)
The grizzled and super-tough Italian warrior had an up-and-down championship career. He defeated Hugo Corro on points to win the title but was extremely lucky to retain it against Hagler in a controversial draw. Antuofermo was outpointed by Minter in his next defense.
The RING championship policy was abandoned when the magazine came under new ownership in 1990 and was reinstated in 2002. During that period, some of the best 160-pounders of that era were at or near their peaks. Here is our ranking of the fighters who were unable to fight for our middleweight championship because of bad timing.
1. Roy Jones Jr.
2. James Toney
3. Mike McCallum
4. Michael Nunn
5. Chris Eubank
6. Nigel Benn
7. Gerald McClellan
8. John David Jackson
9. Jorge Castro
10. Reggie Johnson
Five more (in alphabetical order): Steve Collins, Herol Graham, Keith Holmes, Julian Jackson and Michael Watson
Tom Gray is a U.K. Correspondent / Editor for THE RING and a member of the RING ratings panel. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing
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This article first appeared in the November 2017 of THE RING Magazine. THE RING, boxing’s foremost publication since 1922, contains in-depth features and commentary from some of the sport’s top writers. You can get the digital edition of the magazine as part of our new Ringside Ticket package by subscribing here.
Can you name the middleweight champs in our collage? Answers are below.
Top row: Marcel Cerdan, Ray Robinson, Carlos Monzon, Marvin Hagler, Freddie Steele, Bernard Hopkins, Jake LaMotta, Dick Tiger
Second row: Emile Griffith, Tony Zale, Randy Turpin, Nino Benvenuti, Ray Leonard, Joey Giardello, Sumbu Kalambay, Bobo Olson
Third row: Carmen Basilio, Sergio Martinez, Gene Fullmer, Marcel Thil, Vito Antuofermo, Paul Pender, Kelly Pavlik, Rodrigo Valdez
Bottom row: Jermain Taylor, Rocky Graziano, Miguel Cotto, Hugo Corro, Alan Minter, Canelo Alvarez, Terry Downes