Divsion by Division: Lightweight-Junior featherweight
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 ROBERTO DURAN
Close to a perfect fighting machine at this weight… Unmatched ferocity and heavy-handed, but with underrated defensive skills… Burst onto the scene by stopping Ring/WBA champion Ken Buchanan (TKO 13)… Went on to beat 12 challengers, with only one hearing the final bell… Became less reckless as he learned on the job, due to the teachings of legendary trainer Ray Arcel… “Manos De Piedra” beat Esteban De Jesus in two of three bouts (the loss in their first meeting was a non-title bout); the third fight saw him annex the WBC title and become undisputed champion.
2 BENNY LEONARD
Did not make as many title defenses as Duran but is equally revered by historians… Master tactician who used speed, footwork and defense to nullify his opponents… Beat Freddie Welsh (TKO 9) for the title and reigned for seven years… Retired as champion, age 28, at the behest of his mother… Took on welterweight champs during his lightweight reign but drew with Ted “Kid” Lewis (in an eight-round newspaper decision) and was disqualified against Jack Britton (DQ 13), though he did beat Britton in two non-title bouts… Also beat Lew Tendler (UD 15) and Rocky Kansas (UD 15) in title defenses.
3 JOE GANS
Fought in an era when black fighters seldom received title opportunities but still became the first African American world champion of the 20th century… The Baltimore native was in his prime in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when he halted Frank Erne in the first round for the lightweight title (1902)… never weighed more than 143 pounds but often fought larger men, such as Jack Blackburn (PTS 15); the great Sam Langford, who outpointed him over 15 rounds; and welterweight champ “Barbados” Joe Walcott (D 20)… “The Old Master” made 14 title defenses over two reigns… Vacated his title due to weight issues but returned to beat Battling Nelson (DQ 42) in a brutal, grueling marathon title fight to the finish.
4 PERNELL WHITAKER
Turned professional after winning gold at the 1984 Olympics… Lost a highly controversial fight against Jose Luis Ramirez (SD 12) in his first title shot… Unperturbed, went on to unify all three major titles of the time to become the undisputed lightweight king by 1990… Arguably the best southpaw of all time, “Sweet Pea” exhibited sublime defensive skills and dominated world-class fighters to such an extent that they looked like novices… Bested Greg Haugen (UD 12) for his first title, then unified IBF and WBC belts vs. Ramirez (UD 12) in a rematch that also earned him the Ring championship, shut down the great Azumah Nelson (UD 12) and bested Jorge Paez (UD 12) in his final lightweight bout.
5 IKE WILLIAMS
Fierce African American boxer-puncher ripped the National Boxing Association (later the WBA) title from Juan Zurita (TKO 2) in 1945… Held the title for six years, making eight defenses, including eye-catching knockouts over Bob Montgomery (TKO 6), which earned him undisputed champion recognition, and popular contenders Beau Jack (TKO 6) and Enrique Bolanos (TKO 8/TKO 4)… Often fought world-class welterweights, including Kid Gavilan, Johnny Bratton and Carmen Basilio… When he struggled to get fights, he opted to be managed by infamous mobster Frank “Blinky” Palermo.
A Notch Below: Tony Canzoneri, Henry Armstrong, Carlos Ortiz
1 ALEXIS ARGUELLO
Classy boxer with fight-ending power more than lived up to his “Explosive Thin Man” moniker… Moved up from featherweight, where he was a titleholder, to unseat long-reigning Alfredo Escalera (TKO 13) in a bloody, brutal battle… Made eight defenses, all on the road, turning back the likes of Escalera in a rematch (TKO 13), Rafael Limon (TKO 11), Bobby Chacon (TKO 7) and Ruben Castillo (TKO 11)… Never lost at the weight and vacated to enjoy further success up at lightweight.
2 FLOYD MAYWEATHER JR.
Before he was “Money,” he was “Pretty Boy,” and more than a defensive wizard; the 1996 Olympic bronze medalist had pop in his often-fragile hands… Poise and otherworldly skill came to the fore when he beat up Genaro Hernandez (TKO 8) for his first world title… Made eight defenses before vacating and moving up in weight… Scored wins over Angel Manfredy (TKO 2), Diego Corrales (TKO 10) and Jesus Chavez (TKO 9)… Close to untouchable at 130, he relied more on defense and ring generalship as he moved up in weight… The dominating Corrales performance was particularly eye-opening and arguably one of the best in the division’s history.
3 JULIO CESAR CHAVEZ
Won 43 consecutive outings before, at 22, he became the WBC beltholder when he beat pre-fight favorite Mario Martinez in 1984… Made nine defenses in three years… Handled the firepower of Roger Mayweather (TKO 2) and turned back top-tier veterans Ruben Castillo (TKO 6), Rocky Lockridge (MD 12) and Juan Laporte (UD 12)… Used the division as a springboard to win a lightweight title and then flourished at junior welterweight.
4 AZUMAH NELSON
Went from a raw featherweight novice who tested the great Salvador Sanchez in a 15-round TKO loss to a seasoned fighting machine with a fantastic boxing brain by the time he had matured and moved up in weight… The best fighter from boxing-rich Ghana, but might just be the best from his continent… Made 12 defenses over two title reigns… Holds wins over Mario Martinez (SD 12/TKO 12) and Juan Laporte (UD 12)… Battled malaria as well as Jeff Fenech, who held him to a controversial draw in 1991, but was devastating in the rematch, stopping the Australian in eight rounds… “The Professor” was equally dominant in stopping Gabriel Ruelas (TKO 5) and Jesse James Leija (TKO 6) in 1995 and 1996 return bouts.
5 MANNY PACQUIAO
Despite only fighting in the division eight times over a three-year period, he regularly tested himself, going 7-1… Erik Morales outpointed him over 12 rounds in his first fight at 130 pounds, but Pacquiao rebounded to stop “El Terrible” in two subsequent fights… Also owns victories over Marco Antonio Barrera (UD 12) and Juan Manuel Marquez (SD 12) at 130… Went on to enjoy more success at higher weights but was equally special during his foray here.
A Notch Below: Flash Elorde, Kid Chocolate, Brian Mitchell
1 WILLIE PEP
Thought of as the greatest defensive fighter of his time and one of the very best of all time… Was incredibly active, even by his era’s standards: He boxed 241 fights during a remarkable 26-year career… Won the world title in 1942, outboxing Chalky Wright (UD 15)… Lost for the first time (to Hall of Famer Sammy Angott) after winning his first 62 fights…Defended his title six times (along with 76 non-title fights, the only loss being to Angott) before losing to Sandy Saddler (KO 4), but impressively bested Saddler in their rematch (UD 15), The Ring’s 1949 Fight of the Year… Retained his title three times before losing to Saddler twice more. However, rates above Saddler despite the losses because he was considered past his best when they fought and he defeated more top featherweights of their era, including Sal Bartolo and Phil Terranova… Also beat bantamweight great Manuel Ortiz in a non-title bout.
2 SALVADOR SANCHEZ
The highly skilled Mexican was blessed with speed, power, boundless energy and brilliant counterpunching ability… He was champion for just two-and-a-half years but was exceptionally active, making nine defenses beating the likes of Danny Lopez (TKO 13/TKO 14), Juan Laporte (UD 15), Wilfredo Gomez (TKO 8), and Azumah Nelson (TKO 15)… His life was tragically cut short when he was killed in a car accident at the age of 23… Who knows what heights he could have achieved had he not died at such a young age?
3 HENRY ARMSTRONG
Not many fighters go 1-4 in their first five fights and go on to become much. Armstrong not only went on to become one of the best featherweights ever, he is considered one of the best fighters in any weight class… Won featherweight champ recognition in Mexico and California by outpointing Hall of Famer Baby Arizmendi in 1936 before gaining worldwide status in 1937 with a stoppage of Petey Sarron (KO 6)… “Homicide Hank” also defeated Hall of Famer Midget Wolgast and Mike Belloise, the recognized world titleholder in New York, at featherweight.
4 SANDY SADDLER
Saddler was a big featherweight who regularly fought at junior lightweight… Excellent power and a granite chin saw him score 104 KOs in his 145 victories, and he only lost once inside the distance (in his second pro bout)… The Boston native was just 22 when he beat Willie Pep (KO 4), but already had 94 fights… Won three out of the four times they fought, all by stoppage in often foul-filled contests… Kept an incredibly busy schedule but made just three defenses in a six-year reign… Retired as featherweight champion, at age 29, due to a detached retina in 1957.
5 ABE ATTELL
Excellent boxer who twice held the featherweight title in the early 1900s… Made 22 defenses over two reigns… After twice drawing with George Dixon (D 10/D 20), he beat “Little Chocolate” in their third fight (PTS 15) before becoming world champion with a 20-round decision over Johnny Regan in 1903… Was associated with gangster Arnold Rothstein and implicated in the fixing of the 1919 World Series, though the charges were dismissed.
A Notch Below: Eusebio Pedroza, Vicente Saldivar, George Dixon, Naseem Hamed
1 WILFREDO GOMEZ
The Puerto Rican legend is the gold standard by which all other junior featherweights are measured… “Bazooka” holds the division record for longest reign (5 years, 11 months) and most successful title defenses (17)… He never lost at 122 pounds and later gained further acclaim by winning featherweight and junior lightweight titles… While known for his ferocious power in both hands, which incredibly scored knockouts in all 18 championship fights, he was also a highly skilled boxer… Beat Mexican puncher Carlos Zarate (TKO 5) in a superfight and exhibited his vaunted power vs. Royal Kobayashi (KO 3), Nicky Perez (TKO 5), Juan Meza (TKO 6) and Lupe Pintor (TKO 14).
2 MARCO ANTONIO BARRERA
Won his first world title at 122 pounds, at age 21, and went on to make 13 defenses over two reigns… “The Baby Faced Assassin” was an outstanding offensive fighter, often breaking down his opponents with a debilitating left hook to the liver… Beat former titleholders Eddie Cook (TKO 8), Kennedy McKinney (TKO 12) in an epic battle and Jesse Benavides (KO 3)… Stunningly lost twice to Junior Jones (DQ 5/UD 12) but rebounded to regain his old WBO title… Along with Gomez-Zarate, Barrera’s first fight with archrival Erik Morales is the biggest fight in the division’s history… Although Morales won (SD 12), many believe Barrera did enough and should have been awarded the decision.
3 ERIK MORALES
One of the fiercest competitors of modern times, tall for the weight, with fight-ending power and a sturdy chin to go with his warrior’s heart… Tijuana’s finest showed experience beyond his years to take down old war horse Daniel Zaragoza (KO 11) to win the WBC title in 1997… “El Terrible” went on to stop seven of his nine opponents in subsequent title defenses. Only iron-jawed Wayne McCullough and Barrera lasted the distance… Also beat former titleholder Hector Acero Sanchez (UD 12) prior to winning the world title and stopped Barrera-conqueror Junior Jones (KO 4) in a title defense.
4 GUILLERMO RIGONDEAUX
The polarizing Cuban won Olympic gold in 2000 and 2004 before turning professional amid much fanfare… Although he never lived up to his lofty billing, he was still a master of punch-picking and defense… Won the WBA title in 2012 and made eight defenses… Likely cracks the list because of his 2013 clinic against pound-for-pound-rated Nonito Donaire (UD 12), which earned him the Ring championship and WBO strap. Unapologetically avoided, he was unable to capitalize and further unify with the other champions of his time.
5 DANIEL ZARAGOZA
The former bantamweight beltholder gained more acclaim in the 122-pound division, where he lost to Jeff Fenech (UD 10) in his first bout at the weight, but won the vacant WBC title from a shopworn Carlos Zarate (TKO 10)… Made 11 defenses over three title reigns… Like a fine wine, he got better with age… Fought on the road in South Korea, Italy, U.S. and Japan with success… Not the biggest puncher but a smart, awkwardly effective ring general… A late-career run helped him claim the final spot on this list… Regained the WBC title at age 37, turning back popular Japanese slugger Joichiro Tatsuyoshi (TKO 11/UD 12) in Japan as well as Wayne McCullough (SD 12) before finally losing to Morales.
Questions and/or comments can be sent to Anson at [email protected].