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Sugar Ray Robinson is Still #1: Ranking the Middleweight Greats

Thomas Hauser

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Ranking great fighters from different eras, when done seriously, is a daunting task. It’s easy to sit down and put together a shoot-from-the-hip list. But that doesn’t do justice to the fighters.

In recent years, I’ve sought to quantify ring greatness in a credible way. I’ve compiled lists of great champions who reigned at 135 and 147 pounds and matched them against each other in round-robin tournaments with the results of each fight being predicted by a panel of boxing industry experts.

This time, in advance of Gennady Golovkin’s next ring appearance, it’s modern 160-pound greats.

The middleweight champions chosen for the tournament, in alphabetical order, are Nino Benvenuti, Gennady Golovkin, Marvin Hagler, Bernard Hopkins, Roy Jones, Jake LaMotta, Carlos Monzon, Sugar Ray Robinson, and James Toney.

The list is limited to middleweights from the post World War II era. It does not include fighters like Stanley Ketchel, Harry Greb, and Mickey Walker because not enough film footage is available to properly evaluate them. Golovkin is the wild card in the tournament. His fans have complained that none of today’s elite fighters will fight him. This is his chance to be matched against the best.

The panelists were asked to assume for each hypothetical fight that both fighters were at the point in their respective careers when they were still able to make 160 pounds and were capable of duplicating their best 160-pound performance.

One can look to side issues such as same-day weigh-ins versus day-before weigh-ins. And there’s a difference between going twelve rounds as opposed to fifteen. But at the end of the day, either a fighter is very good, great, or the greatest.

Twenty-four experts participated in the rankings process. Listed alphabetically, the panelists are:

Trainers: Teddy Atlas, Pat Burns, and Don Turner

Media: Jerry Izenberg, Harold Lederman, Paulie Malignaggi, Larry Merchant, and Michael Rosenthal

Matchmakers: Eric Bottjer, Don Elbaum, Bobby Goodman, Brad Goodman, Ron Katz, Mike Marchionte, Chris Middendorf, Russell Peltz, and Bruce Trampler

Historians: Craig Hamilton, Don McRae, Bob Mee, Clay Moyle, Adam Pollack, Randy Roberts, and Mike Tyson

If each of the nine fighters listed above had fought the other eight, there would have been 36 fights. And there were 24 panelists. Thus, 864 fight predictions were entered into the data base. Fighters were awarded one point for each predicted win and a half-point for each predicted draw (too close to call). A perfect score would have been 192 points.

In two instances, an elector chose not to make a prediction on certain fights. One matchmaker said that he never saw Robinson, LaMotta, or Benvenuti fight and didn’t feel comfortable predicting outcomes for their matches. One historian felt the same way regarding Golovkin. A weighted average from the other electors was used to fill in the fights at issue in those two tournament grids.

In some instances, the fighters actually fought each other at middleweight. For example, Roy Jones conclusively decisioned Bernard Hopkins when they fought at 160 pounds. But Hopkins’s prime middleweight years came after that. Thus, two electors gave Bernard the nod over Roy at 160 pounds and two called their match-up a draw.

Sugar Ray Robinson was the clear choice for #1.

Two years ago, Robinson finished first in a similar 147-pound fantasy tournament with a projected record of 186 wins, 3 losses, and 7 draws. Now the experts have rated Robinson #1 at 160 pounds. Fourteen of the 24 electors predicted that he would win all eight of his tournament fights. But Robinson is considered beatable at middleweight, where his projected tournament record is 173 wins, 17 losses, and 2 draws.

Here, it should be noted that we’re talking about the Sugar Ray Robinson of 1951, who put a brutal beating on Jake LaMotta; not the Robinson who lost desire and saw his physical skills diminish as he got older.

Marvin Hagler, Roy Jones, and Carlos Monzon are grouped behind Robinson in that order.

“Picking against Robinson has become almost a sacrilege,” one matchmaker said. “But I think Hagler at his best beats him.”

Another Hagler backer noted, “I’ll go with Hagler over Robinson. But if Marvin comes out in an orthodox stance and gives away the first four rounds like he did against Sugar Ray Leonard, I’m changing my vote.”

Roy Jones finished close behind Hagler, eliciting kudos such as, “People forget how good Roy was when he was young . . . Jones was so athletically gifted at that time in his life – far beyond anything normal – that I can seen him beating any of these guys . . . Roy at middleweight was special with his amazing speed and power. He did things I never saw anyone else do. He could have stolen this tournament.”

Three of the electors thought that Jones would win all eight of his fights. One elector gave Hagler (who finished second to Robinson in the voting) a perfect 8-and-0 record.

Three voters predicted that Monzon (who finished fourth) would win all eight of his fights. “The downside to Monzon,” one matchmaker said, “is that he fought a lot of elite fighters, but he didn’t fight them at their peak.”

Jake LaMotta, Gennady Golovkin, and Bernard Hopkins were also closely grouped.

“To be fair to LaMotta,” one historian said, “he was slipping when he fought Robinson the last time, which was the only time they fought at middleweight. Was he as great as Robinson? No. But he beat Robinson once, and he was good enough to test him every time.”

Golovkin was 12-10-2 in head-to-head competition against Hopkins and edged Bernard out in the rankings by a half-point. A repeated theme with regard to Gennady was, “He’s good, but I don’t know how good because the best fighters in his weight range are avoidng him . . . We just don’t know about Golovkin. I’ve seen fighters who looked great be great. And I’ve seen fighters who looked great fall short . . . Golovkin is hittable, and these guys could hit. It’s one thing to knock out Daniel Geale after he punches you in the face. It’s very different if you’re punched in the face by Carlos Monzon.”

As for Hopkins; one trainer predicted that Bernard would beat Roy Jones at 160 pounds and fight Sugar Ray Robinson even. “Hopkins got better after he lost to Jones,” the trainer noted. “I think that Bernard at his best would have smothered Roy, roughed him up, and made Roy fight ugly.”

James Toney and Nino Benvenuti rounded out the field.

The final rankings and point totals are:

Sugar Ray Robinson 174 points

Marvin Hagler 134

Roy Jones 131

Carlos Monzon 126

Jake LaMotta 71.5

Gennady Golovkin 67.5

Bernard Hopkins 67

James Toney 54

Nino Benvenuti 39

Charts #1 and #2 contain underlying statistical data from the tournament.

Chart #1 shows that the matchmakers, trainers, media representatives, and historians all ranked Robinson in the #1 slot. There was a divergence of opinion after that.

Chart #2 shows how the panelists thought each fighter would fare against the other eight.

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book – Thomas Hauser on Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press.

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The Ups and Downs of Hall of Fame Boxing Writer Jack Fiske

Arne K. Lang

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Hall of Fame boxing writer Jack Fiske passed away 15 years ago this coming Sunday, Jan. 24, 2006. Fiske was 88 years old.

Fiske was one of the last of the breed, a full-time boxing writer for a major metropolitan daily. They don’t make them like that anymore.

In his final years as a journalist, however, Fiske no longer worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, his longtime employer. To read his stuff required a subscription to a newsletter. And the newsletter, in common with Fiske, had become a dinosaur in a world where the only constant is change. It went belly-up several weeks before Fiske passed away.

Born in New York City in 1917, Jack Fiske attended the University of Alabama where he covered the school’s boxing team for the school newspaper. The star of the team, Fiske was fond of recollecting, was a fiery bantamweight, George Wallace. America would come to know Wallace as the fiery segregationist who served four terms as Governor of Alabama and was a failed U.S. presidential candidate.

After graduation, Fiske worked for a paper in Virginia and two small papers in the Bay Area before latching on with the Chronicle. In addition to covering the fights as a ringside reporter, Fiske authored a twice-weekly feature called “Punching The Bag” that circulated widely among hard-core fans and industry insiders.

Fiske had to be on his toes because for much of his tenure at the paper the arch-rival San Francisco Examiner had a fine full-time boxing man of their own, Eddie Muller, whose son of the same name hosts “Noir Alley” on Turner Classic Movies.

“Punching The Bag” was jam-packed with information and editorial content. Fiske had little tolerance for inept ring officials and regulators who owed their cushy jobs to political connections. First-time promoters, the lifeblood of the sport, were assured of positive ink. But once a promoter became established, he had to earn his props by making competitive matches.

During Fiske’s early days with the Chronicle, the top sports in terms of newspaper coverage were baseball, horseracing, and boxing, and the Bay Area was a beehive of boxing activity. In 1955, there were 73 boxing shows in San Francisco, Oakland, and nearby Richmond. The biggest shows were usually held at the Cow Palace. Ten title fights were staged here beginning with Ezzard Charles’ 1949 world heavyweight title defense against local fan favorite Pat Valentino.

One can guess where this is heading. Bit by bit, the Bay Area boxing scene became fallow. In the eyes of the Chronicle higher-ups, Fiske came to be seen as superfluous. In 1992, the paper let him go. “Punching The Bag” died after an amazing 43-year run.

Fiske hastened his demise as a newspaperman by his disinclination to become more versatile. He never wanted to cover any sport other than boxing. His attraction to the sweet science was manifested in his vast collection of boxing memorabilia which dominated every room of his home.

In 1994, Fiske was persuaded to resurrect his column for “Professional Boxing Update” and its sister publication, “Flash.” These were 12-page newsletters cranked out by a fellow from Capitola, CA, named Virgil Thrasher, a big boxing buff with a second sideline as a blues harmonica player.

At their peak, Thrasher’s newsletters had 6000 subscribers, 10 percent overseas. Circulation-wise, this was a big comedown for Fiske, but he was too professional to approach his assignments half-heartedly. Although he held a grudge against his former employer, his bitterness surfaced only once.

When the Chronicle made no mention of the passing of World War II era lightweight champion Ike Williams, Fiske carped that the sports department was run by clowns more attuned to women’s volleyball than to matters of significance.

“Professional Boxing Update” and “Flash” were modest endeavors, but the contributors were first-rate, most especially during the mid-1990s. Jack Fiske was then in good form, as was acerbic Las Vegas oddsmaker Herb Lambeck, a peerless boxing pricemaker. In those days, no one was better at dissecting a forthcoming fight than lead writer Graham Houston, himself a Future Hall of Famer. Houston, who was the North American correspondent for several British publications, stayed on with Thrasher’s newsletters until the very end.

For some subscribers, these publications functioned mostly as tip sheets. When the opinions of Houston and Lambeck dovetailed, one could wager with a high degree of confidence.

Within four years of joining PBU/Flash, Jack Fiske’s health began to fail and he was unable to meet his deadlines. To ease Fiske’s slide to infirmity, Thrasher took to reprinting some of his old Chronicle columns.

When Virgil Thrasher launched his newsletters in 1985, he stole readers from established magazines by delivering information in a timelier fashion. Ironically, he became a victim of the same force. A new generation of fight fans, weaned on the internet, demanded updates quicker than the mailman could bring.

It would have been nice if Thrasher had continued on for a few more weeks, thereby affording readers a tribute to Jack Fiske on the occasion of his passing. But at least Fiske wasn’t entirely forgotten.

In 2003, at age 85, Fiske was ushered into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. As is the custom when an inductee passes away, the flag atop the Canastota shrine was lowered to half-staff when news arrived of his passing.

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Michael Coffie vs. Darmani Rock Smacks of Joe Joyce vs. Daniel Dubois

Arne K. Lang

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Although it wasn’t a world title fight, the match between Joe Joyce and Daniel Dubois which took place in London on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, attracted a lot of buzz. Only one heavyweight bout in 2020 was more eagerly anticipated, that being the rematch in February between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder.

Joyce vs. Dubois was that rare pairing of two undefeated heavyweights who were roughly at the same stage of their career. Dubois was 15-0 (14 KOs) heading in; Joyce was 11-0 (10).

And that brings us to the crossroads fight on Jan. 30 at the LA Shrine Expo between Darmani Rock (17-0, 12 KOs) and Michael Coffie (11-0, 8 KOs). Unlike Joyce vs. Dubois, this is not a well-marinated showdown, but yet there are some parallels, most notably it’s a match between unbeaten heavyweights in which the victor will undoubtedly make a big jump in public esteem and the loser, more than likely, will be pushed back into the shadows.

There was a big age gap in the Joyce-Dubois fight. The 35-year-old Joyce was the older man by 12 years. Likewise, Rock vs. Coffie features a young old-timer vs. an opponent who is merely young.

Michael Coffie, 34, came to boxing late after serving eight years in the Marine Corps. He entered the New York City Golden Gloves tournament on a whim and with virtually no formal training and yet he succeeded in reaching the finals.

When Coffie (pictured)  turned pro, his manager was none other than Randy Gordon, the former chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission who has kept his hand in boxing as a journalist and radio personality, co-hosting a boxing-themed talk show on Sirius FM with Gerry Cooney. Gordon knows more than a little about heavyweights, having been involved with Bonecrusher Smith who was briefly (very briefly) the WBA world heavyweight champion.

“(Bonecrusher) was not anywhere near the fighter that Mike is,” Gordon told Hall of Fame boxing writer Bernard Fernandez on the occasion of Coffie’s pro debut in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. On that night, Coffie needed only 61 seconds to dismiss his opponent, ending the contest with a short right hand. The sacrificial lamb, wrote Fernandez, “went down like an anvil dropped in the ocean.”

In his most recent fight, on Nov. 7, Coffie was matched against Minnesota veteran Joey Abell, a noted spoiler. Abell would have been a good measuring rod for assessing Coffie’s progress, but unfortunately the bout was over almost before it started. Early in the second round, Abell suffered a biceps injury while throwing a punch and couldn’t continue.

The “A” side in this fight, however, isn’t Coffie but the other guy. Darmani Rock, 24, had an outstanding amateur career, winning several important tournaments including the 2014 Youth World Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria. Rock was upset in the finals of the 2016 Olympic Trials and then turned pro, signing with Roc Nation, the deep pockets sports management company founded by Jay-Z.

darmani

Darmani Rock on the right

Questions have been raised, however, about Rock’s dedication. He weighed 278 pounds in his last fight, 30 pounds more than in his pro debut. (Coffie’s fighting weight also hovers around 270 and he is the same approximate height – both are listed at 6’5” — but Coffie has always been big.)  Moreover, Rock has been inactive for 15 months and may have trouble shaking off the rust.

Darmani Rock hails from Philadelphia; Michael Coffie from Brooklyn, more fodder for the tub-thumpers. Philadelphia was the stomping grounds of Smokin’ Joe Frazier. The City of Brotherly Love has arguably produced more good prizefighters per capita than any city in the country. Brooklyn spawned Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe, and Shannon Briggs, all of whom bubbled out of gritty Brownsville which also happens to be the neighborhood where Michael Coffie spent much of his youth until he was spirited away to a less threatening environment by foster parents.

I don’t want to get carried away with the Joyce-Dubois analogy. Joe Joyce had a stronger amateur pedigree than Darmani Rock. Daniel Dubois had a spectacular run leading up to his match with Joyce including a one-sided triumph over well-regarded Nathan Gorman. Moreover, neither Joyce nor Dubois had ever fought an opponent with a losing record. The same can’t be said of Coffie and Rock who have built their records on the backs of the usual suspects. Darmani Rock’s last two opponents were both 42 years old.

Moreover, Coffie vs. Rock isn’t the main attraction on the PBC card. Top billing goes to Caleb Plant’s 168-pound title defense against Caleb Truax.

As we recall, the Joyce-Dubois fight produced a major upset. Dubois was understood to be faster on his feet and more heavy-handed – considered more likely to turn the tide with a single punch – but youth was not served on that night at the historic Church House in Westminster. Joyce methodically peppered Dubois with his jab which caused a big lump to develop over Dubois’s left eye. The eye eventually shut completely and the fight ended in the 10th round with Dubois taking a knee and allowing himself to be counted out. Joyce’s victory elevated him to #2 in the WBO rankings, a notch below Oleksandr Usyk who is potentially his next opponent.

One doesn’t know what will transpire when Coffie fights Rock, but as Michael Buffer would say, “someone’s ‘O’ will have to go.” Fights of this nature are inherently intriguing and that goes double when the combatants are heavyweights.

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“One Night in Miami”: Film Review by Thomas Hauser

Thomas Hauser

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On February 25, 1964, Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. defeated Charles “Sonny” Liston in Miami Beach over the course of six remarkable rounds to claim the heavyweight championship of the world. Late that night, the new champion found himself in a room at Hampton House (a black hotel in segregated Miami) with Malcolm X, several other followers of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, and football great Jim Brown. Soul singer Sam Cooke (a friend of Clay’s) had been at the fight, but there’s no historical record of his being in the hotel room with the others at that time.

One Night in Miami is built around imagining what transpired in that room amongst Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke. Directed by Regina King from a screenplay by Kemp Powers, it’s available on Amazon Prime.

The film fits into the genre known as historical fiction. Dramatic license was taken. Viewers should understand that, at times, it’s allegorical rather than an accurate factual recounting. The larger question is whether the film is impressionistically honest. The answer is “yes.”

One Night in Miami begins with the 1963 fight between Clay and Henry Cooper in London. It then segues to Cooke being treated rudely by an all-white audience at the Copacabana, followed by Jim Brown (the greatest running back in National Football League history) being reminded by a patronizing southern gentleman that he’s just a “n—–.” Next, we see Malcolm as the Nation of Islam’s most charismatic spokesman, after which the scene shifts to Liston-Clay I.

Thirty-four minutes into the film, the drama moves to Hampton House.

Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke were prominent in different ways. Each was young, black, and famous. But Malcolm was a social and religious figure of considerable intellect while the other three were known as entertainers.

The dialogue between the four men is light at first and then turns serious.

Malcolm is played by Kingsley Ben-Adir. On what should have been one of the greatest nights of his life, his world is slipping away. His deadly rupture with Elijah Muhammad is almost complete. Soon, Clay will abandon him. Ben-Adir comes across as a bit weaker and more tentative than one might expect, although Malcolm’s intellect is evident in his performance.

It’s hard to imagine anyone playing Cassius Clay well except the young Muhammad Ali. But Eli Goree bears a resemblance to Clay and is pretty good in the role.

Jim Brown was an intimidating physical presence. Aldis Hodge lacks this physicality but his performance is solid.

Leslie Odom Jr, who plays Sam Cooke, has star quality. He’s the only one of the four major actors who has the charisma and presence of the man he’s portraying. But as a result, Cooke has a stronger on-screen persona than Malcolm. That’s a problem as tensions between the two men boil over.

Toward the end of the film, Malcolm reveals that he intends to leave the Nation of Islam because of differences with Elijah Muhammad and will found a new organization.

“Who’s gonna be in this new organization?” Clay asks.

“I think lots of people will follow me over,” Malcolm answers. “Especially if you come with me.”

Clay, of course, didn’t follow Malcolm. He sided with Elijah Muhammad. One year later, he and Jim Brown were the only participants from the hotel room gathering as portrayed in the film who were still alive. Sam Cooke was shot to death in a California motel on December 11, 1964. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.

One Night in Miami cautions us that our icons are flesh and blood human beings with strengths and flaws. In its best moments, the film is a powerful reminder that the issues of self-respect, black empowerment, and racial equality are timeless.

Pictured left to right: Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown), Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X) Leslie Odom Jr (Sam Cooke) Eli Goree (Cassius Clay)

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, he was selected for induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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