Divsion by Division: Middleweight-Junior welterweight
The following article appears in the December 2021 issue of The Ring Magazine. Subscribe here.
A panel of history-minded editors, scribes and pundits contributed their top five fighters in all 17 of the modern weight classes to determine the best of the best in each division.
1 SUGAR RAY ROBINSON
Already viewed as a living legend following his welterweight reign, he added to his mystique by beating archrival Jake LaMotta (TKO 13), his fifth win out of six battles with “the Bronx Bull,” to become middleweight champion in 1951… Surprisingly lost the title to Randolph Turpin (PTS 15) in his first defense during a tour of Europe… However, Robinson upped his game and regained his crown a few months later in New York… Notched title defenses over familiar foes Carl “Bobo” Olson (UD 15) and Rocky Graziano (KO 3) in his second reign before a failed attempt for the light heavyweight crown convinced him to retire for two-and-a-half years… Powers began to wane during a mid-1950s comeback… Regained and defended the title vs. Olson (KO 2/KO 4), then lost and regained it against both Gene Fullmer and Carmen Basilio in 1957 and 1958… Rematch knockout of Fullmer (KO 5) perfectly illustrates how special a fighter he was, even at 35.
2 CARLOS MONZON
Big for the weight, could box and punch in equal measure… Came up on the tough Argentine circuit, losing three times relatively early in his career, and it wasn’t until his 80th fight when he challenged Nino Benvenuti for the title… Battle-hardened, Monzon overwhelmed Nino Benvenuti (TKO 12) in 1970 and reigned for the next seven years, defending the title a record 14 times… Fought at home and in Europe where he was popular, venturing once to Madison Square Garden… Notable title wins include Benvenuti rematch (TKO 3), Emile Griffith (TKO 14/UD 15), and Jose Napoles (TKO 7)… Retired as champion after twice besting top contender Rodrigo Valdes (UD 15/UD 15).
3 HARRY GREB
Fought in an untamed era but was indefatigable and inhumanly rugged even by the rough-and-tumble standards of the 1910s and 1920s…. reigned as American light heavyweight champ before dropping down to middleweight… Claimed the title by outpointing Johnny Wilson (UD 15) in 1923… Made four defenses, notably besting welterweight king (and future middleweight champ) Mickey Walker (UD 15)… Regularly faced top light heavyweights, including Tommy Loughran, Gene Tunney and Maxie Rosenbloom, during his championship tenure.
4 MARVELOUS MARVIN HAGLER
Was considered the best 160-pounder years before he won the title… Many felt he deserved the nod against Vito Antuofermo (D 15) in his first title shot in 1979… Took his frustration out on Alan Minter (TKO 3), winning the undisputed championship in 1980… Made 12 defenses over a seven-year stretch, regularly testing himself against the best middleweights of his era… Most notable defenses were against Roberto Duran (UD 15) and Thomas Hearns (TKO 3) in a shootout for the ages… final defense was a battle of attrition against unbeaten dangerman John Mugabi (KO 11)… Many believe he deserved the nod against Sugar Ray Leonard (SD 12)… The Marvelous One never accepted the loss and walked away from boxing.
5 BERNARD HOPKINS
Born and raised in the tough Philadelphia streets and only made harder during his time in prison, where he picked up boxing… Once released, Hopkins showed incredible focus and steely determination… Lost to the otherworldly Roy Jones Jr. (UD 12) in his first title attempt, however, “The Executioner” beat Segundo Mercado for the vacant IBF title after initially drawing with him… reigned a record 10 years, eventually unifying all four titles and making a division record 20 defenses… Possessing a work ethic that would shame a Spartan, Hopkins was also a master of mindgames, full of guile and ring smarts from bygone years… Notable title defenses and unifications include John David Jackson (TKO 7), Glen Johnson (TKO 11), Antwun Echols (UD 12/TKO 10), Keith Holmes (UD 12), Felix Trinidad (TKO 12) and Oscar De La Hoya (KO 9).
A Notch Below: Jake LaMotta, Stanley Ketchel
1 THOMAS HEARNS
Due in no small part to his large frame and knockout power, the former welterweight champ took to 154 pounds like a duck to water… Outpointed the stylistically challenging Wilfred Benitez (MD 15) to pick up the WBC title and made four defenses before chasing more championship hardware up at middleweight and beyond… Particularly remembered for his shocking one-punch knockout of the legendary Roberto Duran (KO 2)… Despite a relatively short time at the weight, he made a huge impression.
2 MIKE MCCALLUM
Won his first world title at 154 pounds and later enjoyed success at middleweight and light heavyweight… “The Bodysnatcher” was a well-rounded, no-nonsense technician with a granite chin… Held the WBA title for three years, defending it six times… Stopped Luigi Minchillo (TKO 13) in Italy, Julian Jackson (TKO 2) in a shootout, Milton McCrory (TKO 10) and Donald Curry (KO 5)… The ultimate “too good for his own good” fighter, McCallum was unable to lure any of the Four Kings into the ring.
3 TERRY NORRIS
The supremely gifted Texan beat more than a dozen top-notch fighters of the 1990s during three title reigns at 154 pounds… Nobody made as many defenses at the weight (16)… However, he was far from infallible, sometimes let down by his fierce in-the-ring temper, which led to disqualification losses, and his shaky chin, which failed him against Julian Jackson (TKO 2) and Simon Brown (KO 4)… When fully dialed in, he was a joy to behold: an intoxicating blend of speed, power and finesse… During his first title reign, he beat the aging trio of Sugar Ray Leonard (UD 12), Donald Curry (KO 8) and Meldrick Taylor (TKO 4)… Recovered from the Brown loss to soundly outbox him in a rematch.
4 WINKY WRIGHT
Excellent defensive fighter who fought behind a high-held guard and used a fantastic southpaw jab to keep opponents honest… Nothing flashy but highly effective… Learned as he went along… Lost first title try when he was outpointed by the much more experienced Julio Cesar Vasquez (UD 12)… Won then-lightly regarded WBO title and fought in England until he lost to unheralded Harry Simon (MD 12)… Showed his worth in a controversial points loss to IBF boss Fernando Vargas (MD 12)… Won the vacant IBF title in 2001 and then gained acclaim by twice beating favored Ring/WBA/WBC champ Shane Mosley (UD 12/MD 12).
5 NINO BENVENUTI
The hero of Italian boxing won gold at the 1960 Olympics in Rome and was awarded the prestigious Val Barker Trophy for best boxer of those games… Was undefeated in his first 65 pro bouts, during which time he beat countryman Sandro Mazzinghi (KO 6) for the 154-pound title and won the rematch (PTS 15) before losing it to Ki-Soo Kim in Seoul, Korea… Went on to become middleweight champion.
A Notch Below: Emile Griffith, Felix Trinidad, Ayub Kalule, Koichi Wajima, Sandro Mazzinghi, Julian Jackson
1 SUGAR RAY ROBINSON
Widely considered the best fighter pound-for-pound of all time, Robinson beat top fighters – including current, former and future champions – years before he won the 147-pound crown, including the likes of Fritzie Zivic (UD 10/TKO 10), Marty Servo (UD 10/SD 10), Sammy Angott (UD 10/UD 10), Jake LaMotta (four times out of five decisions) and Henry Armstrong (UD 10)… Beat Tommy Bell (UD 15) for the vacant title in 1946… Made five defenses, mixed in with an extremely busy schedule of non-title bouts during his four years as champion before vacating… Notably beat great Cuban stylist Kid Gavilan (UD 15) in a 1949 title defense.
2 SUGAR RAY LEONARD
The darling of American boxing in the 1970s and ’80s… Sprang onto the scene as a fresh-faced 20-year-old gold medal winner at the 1976 Olympics… Beat several Ring-rated contenders on his way to the championship, including Floyd Mayweather Sr. (TKO 10), Randy Shields (UD 10), Armando Muniz (TKO 6), Pete Ranzany (TKO 4) and Andy Price (KO 1) … Stopped Puerto Rican great Wilfred Benitez (TKO 15) for the Ring and WBC titles… Lost to Roberto Duran in his second defense but showed a measure of his greatness by recalibrating and stopping the Panamanian in eight rounds in a direct rematch… Rubber-stamped himself as the face of the division when he came on strong in the championship rounds to earn the WBA title against rival Thomas Hearns (TKO 14) in a classic… Vacated the title due to a retina injury but returned to enjoy further success at higher weights.
3 HENRY ARMSTRONG
A phenom who simultaneously held titles at lightweight and featherweight, but he was most active as welterweight champ… After besting Barney Ross (UD 15) for the title, went on to make a division record 19 defenses… Incredibly made 11 title defenses in 1939, with five of them coming in October… Although he defended the welterweight title, he often weighed within the lightweight limit… Wins over Ceferino Garcia (UD 15), Baby Arizmendi (PTS 10) and Pedro Montanez (TKO 9) helped cement legacy.
4 THOMAS HEARNS
Often in the shadow of Sugar Ray Leonard, but his own ability couldn’t be denied… Possessed devastating one-punch power, which was in evidence when he stopped the respected Bruce Finch (KO 3) and seasoned campaigners Clyde Gray (TKO 10), Harold Weston (TKO 6) and Angel Espada (TKO 4) en route to a WBA title fight with fellow puncher Pipino Cuevas. The long-reigning Mexican was no match for “The Hitman,” who ruthlessly stopped him in two rounds… Made just three defenses, including a late stoppage of contender Randy Shields (TKO 12), before coming up short against Leonard.
5 JOSE NAPOLES
Cuban-born but moved to Mexico and later received citizenship… Smooth boxing style earned him the nickname “Mantequilla”… stopped future Hall of Famer Curtis Cokes (TKO 13) to become undisputed welterweight champion in April 1969… Made 13 defenses over two title reigns… Gained revenge over Billy Backus, who beat him on cuts, in their rematch to regain his titles… Has championship defenses against Cokes (TKO 10) in a rematch, Emile Griffith (UD 15), Ernie “Indian Red” Lopez (TKO 15/KO 7), and Hedgemon Lewis (UD 15/TKO 9).
A Notch Below: Floyd Mayweather Jr., Kid Gavilan, Emile Griffith, Felix Trinidad, Manny Pacquiao
1 JULIO CESAR CHAVEZ
“El Gran Campeon” is widely regarded as the greatest Mexican fighter ever, and his 140-pound stats back up that claim, as he went 18-2-1 in world title bouts at the weight… Stopped old rival Roger Mayweather (TKO 10) to become WBC titleholder… Won the IBF title in a grueling, come-from-behind, last-round knockout of Meldrick Taylor (TKO 12)… Holds wins over Puerto Rican stylist Hector Camacho (UD 12) and drew a mind-blowing 132,000 fans to witness his bludgeoning of Greg Haugen (TKO 5).
2 AARON PRYOR
A punching machine who didn’t stop from the opening bell… Savagely beat long-reigning Ring/WBA champion Antonio Cervantes (TKO 4)… Made eight defenses in the early 1980s… Couldn’t lure Sugar Ray Leonard into the ring but landed three-weight world champion Alexis Arguello. Pryor stopped the Nicaraguan great in two fierce encounters… Battled drug addiction, which shortened his prime.
3 KOSTYA TSZYU
After an outstanding amateur career, the Russian powerhouse migrated to Australia… Moved quickly as a professional, beating former titleholders Juan Laporte, Sammy Fuentes and Livingstone Bramble, as well as Ring-rated Hector Lopez, in his first 11 bouts… Claimed the IBF title in his 14th outing… Made 13 defenses over two reigns from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s… Known for his power but had underrated technical skills and ring generalship… Beat former lightweight champ Miguel Angel Gonzalez (TKO 10) to begin a second title reign, defended against a past-prime Chavez (TKO 6) and became undisputed Ring champion by unifying belts against Sharmba Mitchell (TKO 7) and Zab Judah (TKO 2).
4 BARNEY ROSS
Ross won titles at lightweight and welterweight as well as at junior welterweight… Questionable win over Tony Canzoneri (MD 10) for lightweight and junior welterweight titles led to a rematch, in which Ross edged matters (SD 15)… Made 10 defenses of the junior welterweight title… Vacated the 140-pound title after regaining the welterweight crown from Jimmy McLarnin in their rubber match… Was a decorated soldier who served in World War II following his retirement.
Questions and/or comments can be sent to Anson at [email protected].
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