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The Fifty Greatest Light-Heavyweights of All Time Part Two – 40-31

Matt McGrain

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Welcome to Part Two of the Greatest Light-Heavyweights of All Time, something of a generational sweep for the last decade with no fewer than four of the ten entrants for Part Two active in the last two years. With no truly dominant figure emerging among Glen Johnson, Bernard Hopkins, Chad Dawson, and Tarver it was inevitable that they would all rank in the same clutch; still, I was surprised to see them ranked in this ten rather than the last ten, or even outside the top fifty all-together.

Having done the groundwork for a similar project at middleweight I can advise that 160lbs has roughly double the depth of 175lbs, but there are reasons for this. Firstly, middleweight is much older and the years upon which light-heavyweight missed out were as rich as any period in fistic history. Even when the division was established fighters and promoters were generally suspicious of it and a fighter weighing 165lbs was far more likely to call himself a contender to the middleweight title than the light-heavyweight title. There was an unhealthy suspicion of anything different in boxing as 1899 became 1900 and the emerging 175lb division was no different.

Having said all that, light-heavyweight produced fewer truly elite boxers than middleweight or welterweight even after it had become enshrined as one of the “original eight”, a mistruth that is told and re-told by modern historians for the sake of convenience. But I personally am glad of a certain lack of depth outside the top twenty-five, it has given me a chance to include champions and contenders who perhaps did not box a career at the weight but were nevertheless extraordinary and deserving of praise.

Beginning with a fighter who quite happily admitted that he was not the best but “just the guy who fought the best.”

#40 – GLEN JOHNSON (54-20-2)

Fifty-four, twenty, and two.

And this isn’t some monstrous battler lurching out of the stacked 1920s division with the scalps of a dozen world-class opponents hanging from his bloodied belt, some hideous fistic bogeyman that enjoyed a murderous prime before suffering some terrible drop off in form and talent as his body betrayed him to drunkenness and women. No, this is a modern day road-warrior who racked up numerous losses at middleweight, super-middleweight, and at light-heavyweight, where our interests lie.

But the career of Glengoffe Johnson, out of Jamaica and in to almost every major boxing nation on earth, is more complex than any set of raw statistics could ever capture.

He stepped up to light-heavyweight in the summer of 2001, stopping Thomas Ulrich in six before meeting Las Vegas regular Derrick Harmon in the Hard Rock. The judges saw it a clear ten round decision in favour of Harmon; the crowd voiced displeasure after what I saw as a narrow win for Johnson. Next up was an ugly loss to former Roy Jones victim Julio Cesar Gonzalez in a razor thin decision that one judge managed to score 98-92. I had it a draw.

Johnson managed an actual draw in his very next fight, with the prospect Daniel Judah; the problem was, Johnson dominated Judah almost bell to bell, clearly losing only one round, the eighth. I scored it, ironically, 98-92. In November of 2011, Johnson travelled to the UK and met ranked tough Clinton Woods and fought a draw in a fight I scored him winner. He lost a rematch in 2006 in a fight that again, looked like a narrow but certain Johnson win. Johnson was twice beaten by Chad Dawson as the decade trundled to an end, but again, I thought he was hard done by in their first fight, a clear win for Johnson and a signal for the crowd, once again, to boo a Glen Johnson loss.

This makes appraising him extremely difficult. Between his arriving in the division in 2001 and the end of 2009, I have him losing just twice, to divisional bosses Antonio Tarver and Chad Dawson – according to paid judges he lost six. The job here is to strike a balance between my sense that Johnson’s career is the most tragic in modern boxing, the inevitable realisation of perhaps the most badly run professional sport in world, a perfect storm of bad luck and bad officiating – and what the men paid to be ringside saw. Fortunately, Johnson props himself up with excellent wins that the officials did manage to see, or, as was the case in his famous detonation of huge favourite Roy Jones Jnr., fights he denied them the right to judge.

Johnson launched himself at Roy Jones and threw punches at parts of his anatomy that Jones wasn’t aware he had. At the end of a particularly aggressive fifth, Orlando Cuellar told a bemused Johnson in his corner that “this is what it will take to win this fight!” Johnson looked like a man who had been told riches beyond his wildest dreams were at his finger-tips if only he could swallow a bull. But Johnson stayed the course. He took the snapping punishment Jones crackled into him and maintained a more tempered version of this attack for the rounds that followed, bulldozing Jones into unconsciousness in the ninth. Jones had already been defeated by Antonio Tarver, setting up a showdown between him and Johnson, a showdown Johnson won making him the premier light-heavyweight in the world.

It is enough, along with victories over ranked men Clinton Woods and Eric Harding to place him under consideration for a top fifty spot; the injustice that served him throughout a career fought on the road sees him ranked here at the bottom end of the second ten. Some may not care for this elevated ranking given the losses he suffered, but it is my contention that Johnson is inarguably a better and more significant fighter than his paper record allows.

#39 – GUS LESNEVICH (60-14-5)

Depending upon your point of view, Gus Lesnevich either committed perhaps the most shameful duck in the history of the light-heavyweight title or was a fighter whose legacy was compromised by the outbreak of World War Two. After being thrashed by Jimmy Bivins in a non-title match in 1942, manager Lew Diamond told press that there would be no chance of a rematch between Bivins and Lesnevich. Lesnevich disappeared into the war-time coastguard – his title frozen for the duration, he remained true to his manager’s word. What this adds up to is a title reign of around seven years – but one which encompassed a total of only five successful defences against only three different fighters.

Nevertheless there is much to admire about Lesnevich, not least an outstanding persistence and hearty directness that earned him status as a fan favourite. Thrashed by Billy Conn in his first title shot in November of 1939, Lesnevich was so popular that he was handed a second title shot in the summer of the following year. Beaten again, he nevertheless was able to win more than the four rounds generally reported in the first fight, and it can have been of little surprise when Lesnevich received a third title shot a year later, this time beating out Anton Christoforidis. After making two successful defences against the unranked Tami Mauriello (the first of them desperately close) and the beating at the hands of Jimmy Bivins, the service got Lesnevich and when he re-emerged in 1946 it was thought that he, like peers Billy Conn and Joe Louis, would have left his best behind him. This seemed confirmed when he was smashed out by Bruce Woodcock up at heavyweight, the only time in his career that Lesnevich heard the ten. But Lesnevich came again, and in fact was the Ring fighter of the year in 1947. His brutal stoppage of British rival Freddie Mills, as savage a knockout as can be seen on film, was likely the highlight of this second career; but it was Mills who would take the title from him in 1948 over fifteen after a torrid first round that left Lesnevich cut and hurt.

Other fine wins over contenders like Alabama Kid, Ambrose Palmer and Billy Fox help nurse a ranking earned in the main with elbow grease and hard work.

#38 – AL GAINER (77-23)

Al Gainer’s record against the best he faced makes awkward reading. He went 1-1-1 with Tiger Jack Fox; 1-2 with Lou Brouillard; 2-2-1 with Bob Olin, 1-1 with Al McCoy and 1-1 with George Courtney. Splitting a series with Tiger Jack Fox speaks for, not against him, but the Brouillard series is troubling. The Canadian was a middleweight really, and one that had failed on three occasions to best Marcel Thil. Nevertheless, he twice dominated Gainer and for all that Gainer defeated him “easily” in their middle encounter, Brouillard clearly deserved the victory in their series. Aspects of his confrontation with Olin were more debatable but still, Gainer failed to prove his superiority over Olin just as he did Brouillard. Sometimes Gainer’s failure to equalise these fights with what was perhaps the best left hook of the era seems curious, although such matters are abandoned forever to the realm of speculation.

That left hook did, in part, bring him wins over Olin, McCoy, Brouillard and Courtney and that shouldn’t be forgotten for all that his overall record against them feels somewhat underwhelming. He also pounded out a one-sided victory over Joe Knight and several other solid contenders of this era, from Clyde Chastain to Lou Scozza and Dave Shade. Often his displays were dominant, but he, in turn, was dominated by Tony Shucco. They met four times and Gainer failed to return a single victory.

It is this last that in the end leads me to reject Herb Goldman’s ranking of Al Gainer at #25. Gainer was special and names among the most outstanding fighters never to have earned the crown but a place in the top thirty must be beyond him based upon his actual track record.

On the other hand, he was ranked for an entire decade, the 1930s, mostly in the lower reaches of the Ring top ten, but present none-the-less. This, in keeping with a consistently high level of competition smuggles him in to the top forty – but no more for the once sparkling Al Gainer.

#37 – BERNARD HOPKINS (55-7-2)

As ridiculous as it seems now, the twin defeats of Bernard Hopkins by Jermain Taylor in 2005 was seen as something of a terminal for the great middleweight. If not quite finished, he had perhaps boarded the great train to nowhere, even if there was to be a quick stop at light-heavyweight for a beating at the hands of three to one favourite Antonio Tarver. As is so often the case in boxing, the unexpected occurred: Hopkins kicked the shit out of Tarver.

Tarver had had his problems in training, dropping forty pounds he had gained for a performance in a movie while Hopkins, of course, was moving up. It is this writer’s opinion that no practice in boxing hurts a fighter so much as weight-making, and here was yet another beautiful demonstration of that fact. No longer shackled by the manacles of 160lbs, Hopkins weighed in at a liberating 174lbs and re-hydrated to a luscious 182lbs. It was like putting fuel in. He threw almost one-hundred more punches than he had managed in the first Taylor fight and found Tarver with the old unerring accuracy. Inside, he was clearly the stronger man despite being both smaller and older while on the outside he took by far the more steps but his engine remained greased. Aged forty-one years of age, Bernard’s astonishing assault on the light-heavyweight division had begun.

Truly, these past eight years have had their peaks and valleys, but despite a winding road, Hopkins never stepped off the path that led to and through ranked men, except when he was thrashing the undisputed middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik, or losing a desperately close fight to pound-for-pounder Joe Calzaghe. It looks like that journey has finally come to an end with a dispiriting, damaging loss against the excellent Sergey Kovalev but I can’t imagine marching into a bookmaker and actually laying a bet against Hopkins scraping together a couple more wins against good opposition in this division in 2015 – and perhaps even gaining another spot on this list.

#36 – MICKEY WALKER (94-19-4; Newspaper Decisions 37-6-2)

The absurd Toy Bulldog, Mickey Walker, would have fought a truck piloted by a meth-fuelled werewolf if the money was right. He was crazy.

He slipped his way onto my top 100 at heavyweight, at #94 no less, and his heroics in that division are well documented. Less well respected are his achievements at light-heavyweight, which is a shame, because they are outstanding. Although he never held the title himself, he defeated not one, not two, but three legitimate light-heavyweight champions of the world. Mike McTigue went first in 1925, the reigning title-holder but willing to meet Walker only in a twelve-round no-decision bout, Walker in need of a knockout in order to lift the title. The Bulldog pounded out a twelve round newspaper decision but couldn’t put his man away; infuriatingly, Walker knocked McTigue, an underrated but carefully nursed champion, quite literally out to dry, hanging him over the second rope in a single round in 1927 – by which time he had been parted from the title.

After his overdue knockout of McTigue, Walker, absolutely no light-heavyweight at 5’7 and a great deal of history at welterweight and middleweight, bowled right into the wonderful Paul Berlenbach, who had lost his title to Jack Delaney just a year earlier. Barely over the middleweight limit, Walker gave away eleven pounds to Delaney who was a body-puncher and boxer of real repute – Walker won “every round” and gave his man “an unmerciful beating” according to The Montreal Gazette, even forcing the bigger man to the canvas with his indomitable left.

Last up was Maxie Rosenbloom. Rosenbloom, inevitably, won the championship match between the two but Walker dropped and bettered the champion in a non-title bout a few months later. It was the second time he had defeated a reigning light-heavyweight champion and he had done so an astonishing seven years apart.

Between, he had dropped a split-decision lost to the great Tommy Loughran and twice bested Leo Lomski. It wasn’t quite meant to be for Walker at light-heavyweight – but few fighters have bested more lineal champions than he.

#35 – CHAD DAWSON (32-4)

All but finished at thirty-two years of age Chad Dawson was obliterated in a single round by Adonis Stevenson in 2013, out-fought by Jean Pascal in 2010 and narrowly edged by Nathan Cleverly victim Tommy Karpency in ten rounds towards the end of 2014. The other hand is weighed heavily in his favour, however. Dawson holds two wins over Glen Johnson, two wins over Antonio Tarver and a win over Bernard Hopkins making him a proud holder of victories over every post-Jones pre-Kovalev light-heavyweight of genuine significance apart from Zsolt Erdei, whose history of avoiding name fighters is legendary. His supplementary wins, too, are superb. He handed 31-0 Tomasz Adamek his first loss; clambered off the canvas to defeat the era’s elite gatekeeper Eric Harding in a bloody, absorbing contest; and firmly outpointed the ranked Adrian Diaconu. I will be frank: I don’t personally care for Dawson as a fighter, in hype, style or fistic class, but leaving him out is impossible and given his thorough defeat of Bernard Hopkins and a resume that is likely superior to The Executioner’s, the disturbing nature of some of his losses can be ignored. He slips in here ahead of both Hopkins and Glen Johnson, despite my personal preference for both.

This, more than any other single factor probably indicates that Dawson has earned his ranking. The facts of the case outweigh my feelings.

#34 – JIMMY SLATTERY (111-13; Newspaper Decisions 3-0)

Welcome our first legitimate centurion, Jimmy Slattery, who stopped a total of forty-nine opponents and won sixty-two decisions.

A lot of this work was done at middleweight where Slattery served a long apprenticeship between 1921, when he turned professional, and 1925, when he began to probe the division above. These early advances bore surprisingly ripe fruit as Slattery netted wins over under-developed legends of the poundage, first Jack Delaney and then Maxie Rosenbloom both over the distance of six rounds – but Slattery’s domination of the blooming Rosenbloom continued into 1926 and 1927 by which time Rosenbloom was ranked at the top of the division. This domination ended, however, when Max came to the title. Always a better fighter with the legitimate championship at his waist, Rosenbloom consistently out-scrambled Slattery when it came to that prize.

Slattery held a strap but never a lineage. He inevitably lost to the wonderful Tommy Loughran, too, but was able to scrape past the superb Lou Scozza with the NYSAC title on the line.

He never really delivered on that astonishing early promise. Part of the problem was that he lived like boxed – on his toes but in search of trouble, a fighter that led the life of a rogue and so could never reach his potential as a boxer. Winning a series with Rosenbloom is impressive but it must be said that every top light-heavy of the era seems to have beaten Max at some point – my feeling is that despite an impressive haul of scalps at 175lbs, Slattery doesn’t quite belong up there with the very best.

#33 – JOEY MAXIM (82-29-4)

A grim persistence on the inside combined with a technical surety on the outside, an iron jaw and staid discipline saw Joey Maxim carve out one of boxing’s most underrated careers – but a huge and surprising amount of his best work was done at heavyweight. Maxim was tackling these bigger men as early as his first year and as we have seen, time spent above 180lbs or matching these bigger men at a lighter weight impacts the standing of light-heavyweights because they cease to box in light-heavyweight contests.

But Maxim was the champion of the world at light-heavyweight, coming to the title in 1951, ten long, hard years after he turned professional. He was never going to hold it long with Archie Moore lurking in the brutal shadows of the murderer’s row, but Maxim should be credited for tackling the universally ducked Moore in the first place – and for the work he did in the division before Moore reached him.

He took the title from Freddie Mills who reportedly lost three teeth and never boxed again as Maxim jabbed and hooked him into retirement. Not a puncher, his unerring consistency, accuracy and a persistence born of great durability and strength of character could nevertheless inflict severe suffering on all but the very best opponents. Certainly he had been too much for Gus Lesnevich, dominating him over fifteen rounds eight months earlier as he was for favourite Bob Murphy in his first title defence.

His third defence was far and away his most famous fight, Maxim defeating Sugar Ray Robinson in thirteen rounds as the middleweight champion of the world quit in appalling conditions, the heat in the ring said to be over one-hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Maxim never received credit for this win – Robinson weighed in as a middleweight, and the heat rather than Maxim was perceived as Robinson’s chief foe (Robinson himself naming the source of his defeat as God himself, perhaps demonstrating the kind of self-belief necessary to blaze a trail from lightweight all the way to light-heavyweight). This is perhaps a little unfair. As Maxim remarked, “did people think I had air conditioning in my corner?” It was a victory for durability and size but it was a victory none the less, for all that it is a difficult one to judge. I’ve treated it here as a successful defence against a dangerous but unranked opponent. Robinson was certainly that, taking the lion’s share of the rounds before he was pulled.

Then Moore came calling and Maxim’s time at the top was over. Maxim wasn’t so much out-classed by Moore as seemingly incapable of winning rounds, many of which were close but almost all of which seemed to be controlled by The Mongoose. Maxim fought Moore three times and at no time recorded a win.

Outside of those title fights, Maxim’s best wins at the weight were likely over Nate Bolden and the wonderful if inexperienced Floyd Patterson but Maxim spent so little time actually boxing against light-heavyweights at light-heavyweight that he must even so rank in the thirties, rather lower than I expected to see him. Any Maxim fans who are disappointed in this could do a lot worse than to track down my heavyweight list, where Maxim’s ranking is surprisingly high.

#32 – EDDIE MUSTAFA MUHAMMAD(50-8-1)

Eddie Mustafa Muhammad was dropped in the first round of his 1977 contest with Matthew Saad Muhammad but fought his way back to take a narrow, disputed decision on the scorecards. It was a battle of the greenhorns, and their friendship and shared religion would keep them from ever meeting in their respective primes, but both men carved out extraordinary careers independent of one-another. Eddie Mustafa would forever remain the poorer cousin in terms of legacy but he had his own great moments, not least in losing in his premature title shot against Victor Galindez later that same year. Eddie boxed with such patience, with such maturity that he belied his 22-2-1 record dropping a narrow decision against a wonderful world champion, first jabbing, then introducing the right hand, ending in a tactical stalk that fell just short of enough.

In the last round he showed a strange passivity however that was his greatest weakness. Against the colourful James Scott who forged a famous career from behind the bars of Rahway State Prison he boxed shamefully, holding and stalling his way to an inexplicable and wide decision loss. This postponed what had seemed an inevitable title shot for eighteen months, although when it came, against the deadly Marvin Johnson, he grabbed it with both hands, dominating and stopping the out-gunned champion. When he was on, Eddie was outstanding, but he could be placed under control both by counterpunchers and by maulers and when he was tempted, like so many light-heavyweight champions before and after him, by heavyweight riches, he perhaps gave way to his failings permanently. Beefing up to an absurd 200lbs, he followed a careful Renaldo Snipes around the ring for ten rounds dropping a decision over ten. When he had to drain his way back down to 175lbs to meet the brilliant Michael Spinks he left himself chanceless in what was his third title defence, fading down the stretch, a certain passivity beaten into his work by a Spinks who boxed rampantly in the second half of the fight.

“Not a natural fighter” is how old-timers probably would have diagnosed Eddie and although a little harsh, it might be about right. Certainly not fearful of absorbing punishment, he could be beaten or boxed into a kind of premature submission and that hurts his legacy and my appraisal of him head to head. But he had a superb body-attack is an under-appreciated counter-puncher and a good hitter. Even after the twin debacles versus Snipes and Spinks he remained a formidable fighter, his vicious, surreal knockout of the excellent Lottie Mwale probably the highlight. Certainly he belongs on this list, but a nagging sense that he failed to fulfil his potential remains.

#31 – ANTONIO TARVER (31-6)

Tarver’s elevated position here will be troubling to traditionalist readers but for those men (you never hear it from the fairer, more balanced sex) I have two words: Roy Jones.

Beating Roy Jones is like beating Archie Moore or Harold Johnson. Jones was incredible, a Phenom, a monster, a terrifying mix of power and speed who appeared, from middleweight to heavyweight, the complete superior of all he shared the ring with. The first man to lay him low was always going to establish himself in the annals of history and Tarver has done so.

The first fight was a close decision in favour of Jones, but Roy had been put through his paces, made to fight the fight of his career, Tarver allowing himself to be pushed gently form the box-seat in rounds three to five, Jones fighting to hold it in the eleventh and twelfth. A rematch was inevitable and it is one of the more famous nights in the modern history of the light-heavyweight division. Knocked brutally, unreservedly, spectacularly out by a Tarver left-hand, Roy sat glassy-eyed as Tarver celebrated so raucously that he appeared to inadvertently damage a camera and camera-man; that even Don King seemed reluctant to approach and ingratiate. Immediately, people set out to discredit Tarver – some even produced photographs that appeared to suggest that Tarver “had his eyes closed” when he threw the “lucky punch” that signalled time on one of the greatest ring careers fought entirely in colour, ignoring the beauty of the counter that Tarver unleashed while under fire. So Tarver beat Roy Jones again in a strange and distant fight in which Roy Jones hardly threw and Tarver quietly out-hustled him with economy, patience and an almost uncanny ability to rush the easily startled Jones with near perfect timing.

Tarver was a 6’2 defensively sound southpaw with good athletic ability, and a fine head for distance for all that he could sometimes throw himself off-balance with over-enthusiastic lurching punches, and probably is underestimated in terms of skillset and head-to-head appraisement. In addition to his domination of the series with Jones, Tarver’s most interesting performance may be his revenge TKO of Eric Harding. Harding and Tarver were both inexperienced when they first met in 2000 and went blow-for-blow up until the final third of the fight when Tarver, having suffered a broken jaw at the hands of his surprisingly aggressive opponent, went into survival mode. It was his bravest performance and in many ways I think it made him. By the time of their rematch in 2002 Tarver was a different kind of fighter, exhibiting all that patience and trickery he showed in his third contest with Jones; he took Harding out in five.

Excellent while dominating the veterans Reggie Johnson, Clinton Woods and Montell Griffin, superb in handing Glen Johnson what was arguably the first legitimate loss of Johnson’s light-heavyweight career, Tarver has built a good resume independent of Jones; but those are the wins that absolutely root him in the thirties. Is it possible he cashed in on the decline of Jones to earn his spot? Yes – but it’s always difficult to push a Ferrari off the cliff.

Click here for part One

Click here for part Three

Click here for part Four

Click here for part Five

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The Top Ten Super Bantamweights of the Decade: 2010-2019

Matt McGrain

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It has been interesting to see how transient fighters are when they inhabit the smaller divisions. Up at cruiserweight, fighters spent on average 50% of the decade in their division to earn their spot among the top ten; here at 122lbs it is nearer 30%.

This results in a list of fighters with less purchase on the list, generally. Occasionally though, even at the smaller weights, a fighter will rack up a list of serious victories in a short space of time and hit the heights – and the divisional stalwart is also not unheard of. Here, one of each of these type towers over the rest of the decadal division but the numbers ten through three kick up a lot of interesting fights, and some very interesting fighters.

In accounting for these fighters, the term “one hit wonder” is used liberally. Here I am not seeking to denigrate either the fighter or his wider opposition; it merely denotes a fighter who has one win of real significance which is often accounted for in some detail.

This is another symptom of a generation of fighters happy to put on a mere four pounds to visit the next division up for their next big test.

10 – Rico Ramos

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 16-6 Ranked For: 18% of the decade

The tenth slot was a shootout between Kiko Martinez, who did a little more at the weight, and Rico Ramos, who did a little less, but who was defeated at the poundage only by Guillermo Rigondeaux; Martinez, meanwhile, was thrashed twice by Carl Frampton and once by Scott Quigg. The Scott Quigg tilts me towards Ramos, whose purple patch of 7-1 gets him over the line.

The jewel in his super-bantamweight crown for the period January 2010 until December 2019 was his come-from-behind knockout victory over Akifumi Shimoda, one of the top contenders of 2010 and 2011. Shimoda himself has a claim to the number ten spot based primarily upon his superb victory over Ryol Li Lee, but Ramos eliminated him when they clashed in Atlantic City in July of 2011.

Ramos, an American of Puerto Rican descent, had been boxing since he was eight years old but seemingly had no answer to the Shimoda jab which was opening up other opportunities for the Japanese; Ramos, circling to his right at the beginning of the seventh, brought Shimoda onto a left hand, but it was unheeded and Shimoda continued to boss the real-estate and find a home for his bodypunches. A right hand from Rico seemed to gather his attention though and having landed yet another left Rico finally had his man rooted to the spot, and circling, he landed a left hand as beautiful as any thrown in the 122lb decade. Shimoda was up at nine but immediately took a second header to the canvas.

Ramos was chased from the division by Rigondeaux, as noted, but certainly there is no shame there.

09 – Rey Vargas

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 34-0 Ranked For: 42% of the decade

Rey Vargas has traced an old-fashioned career arc, occupying a spot at super-bantamweight since 2015 and slowly creeping his way up the ranks to inhabit the number one spot, without, really, meeting anyone to justify that ranking. Sometimes longevity is its own reward.

His highest-ranking victim was Tomoki Kameda, and it showed when they met in July of last year; Tomoki had real success early and took a handy lead out of the first third of the fight. Vargas though is a freakishly tall superbantam at near 5’11 and he has the reach to match. From the fifth on, he deployed a controlling jab birthed by a pedigree amateur career that has been augmented by some serious professional experience. The double-uppercut right hand he landed in that round set him apart; the cards may have been a little wide but clearly Vargas was the right man.

He was the right man too five months previously when he was faced with another tough assignment in Franklin Manzanilla. Manzanilla, out of Venezuela, had scored an impressive victory over Julio Ceja in just four rounds in his previous fight and set some problems for Vargas with his rushes and fouling. Vargas found himself with cuts over both brows from “accidental” head-clashes as early as the eighth and Manzanilla had two points docked for hitting on the break and pushing. But Vargas showed some of his best boxing, dominating at distance with the jab and outlanding Manzanilla with fluid combination punching when they met at mid-range.

Vargas has a little more depth than these two fights – Azat Hovhannisyan and Ronny Rios have both made waves since he beat them – but they remain his fistic cornerstones, and despite some impressive boxing this makes him borderline for inclusion. His paper record and longevity in the ratings at 122lbs has seen me favour him over one-hit wonders like Jeffrey Mathebula and Akifumi Shimoda.

08 – Isaac Dogboe

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 21-2 Ranked For: 18% of the decade

Isaac Dogboe’s pressure appeared functional rather than thrilling before his big step up against Jessie Magdaleno in 2018. Magdaleno had been inactive but had also defeated no less a figure than Nonito Donaire in 2016 and was heavily favoured.

In the first round Dogboe was dropped while pressing Magdaleno too hard and he lost the third too, to a gorgeous Magdaleno counter left. But all the while his pressure was beginning to look a little more than workmanlike. He was adept at keeping Magdaleno moving and again and again Dogboe, out of London via Ghana, would fetch his man up against the ropes and let go. Still very much in touch on the scorecards after four, Magdaleno was being aggressively outgeneralled and was steadily losing touch with the fight. His solution was to come out at the opening of the fifth and attack; Dogboe promptly dropped him with a single left hook.

Dogboe so dominated Magdelano that night that the favourite found himself in need of a knockout by the ninth. The then world’s number one super-bantamweight showed no sign he might achieve it and in fact slipped further and further from his technical best, eventually reduced to sagging on the ropes and beckoning Dogboe in. It was a sorry sight and one the referee interrupted in the eleventh after Dogboe perpetrated the second knockdown of the round over his withering opponent.

It was an impressive and rather unexpected performance, albeit against an opponent who seemed to struggle a little with rust after a year out of the sport and it set Dogboe up as the world’s number one super-bantamweight.

Dogboe never added to his 122lb legacy though; his own nemesis was lurking in the wings.

07 – Emanuel Navarrete

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 31-1 Ranked For: 26% of the decade

Like Dogboe, Emanuel Navarrete fought the usual learning fights, stepped up to take on some journeymen and was then launched right into the deep end to face off with the world’s number one super-bantam. Dogboe-Navarrete was a fascinating contest in that it pitted a Johnny-come-lately against an even more recently arrived contender. Dogboe, as the man with the pedigree opponent on his ledger, was favoured.

Navarrete, who is tall with a reach that seems planetary, allowed Dogboe inside to do his work. It felt wrong and even dangerous until Navarrete landed a triple left hook, up and down, on the inside, to win the second round. From here he controlled the fight, impressive and dominant in out-fighting the smaller pressure fighter whose nightmare had come to visit him in the ring: a fighter he could not push back but rather who was pushing him back. The ninth through twelfth were a parade, the bigger man marching down the smaller pressure fighter in what amounts to the most disheartening position a pugilist of any kind can find himself.

Unfortunately for Dogboe he had a rematch clause. Navarrete, who now knew how Dogboe moved, thought and fought, beat him mercilessly in that rematch. The fight becomes difficult to watch around the eighth; Dogboe’s corner, brave to the near last, finally pulled him as he was blasted to the canvas in the twelfth and final round.

It seemed to me that something special had emerged in that fight, but the truth is we don’t yet know. Navarrete has fallen afoul of the ABC strap he wears in defending against underqualified challengers whose selection for their “title shot” is based upon matters other than fistic. So, the jury remains out on Navarrete, who nevertheless was impressive enough in his twin maulings of Dogboe to comfortably make the list.

06 – Jessie Magdaleno

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 27-1 Ranked For: 22% of the decade

Here, we meet the last of the one-hit-wonders on the list but Magdaleno possesses the finest of all of them: Nonito Donaire. Donaire, it is true, had had some of the glitter removed by Guillermo Rigondeaux, but in November of 2016 he remained the top contender to the legitimate title he had once held. Then Magdaleno came calling.

What most impressed me was Donaire’s near abandonment of his left hook. It was oft repeated that he had one of the “best left hooks in the sport” and if Bernard Hopkins had established the removal of such a potent weapon much ink would have been spent on his exaltation. Magdaleno was less fashionable and has remained so, but it was a wonderful technical achievement. Moving unhurriedly, seeking for single shots, he countered beautifully throughout with the right jab and right hook of his own, taking every opportunity to strike without – shades of Hopkins again – ever over-extending himself. The result was Donaire sheathing his own hook in obedience of the rule that you don’t hook with a hooker, while Magdaleno freely threw his own; to the body, especially, he was prestigious.

Donaire went to the straight right and a fascinating tussle ensued, summed up perfectly in the ninth where Donaire hurt Magdaleno on the ropes, only for Magdaleno to charge him and dominate the remainder of the round, putting him out of sight on the cards; Donaire closed with real strength as Magdaleno’s energy waned.

But the decision clearly belonged to Magdaleno.

It was not too long after this that Magdaleno ran into Dogboe. The reasonable question would be, if Dogboe beat Magdaleno how does Magdaleno come to be ranked above him here? It’s a fair question. The mathematics, for me, says that Magdelano’s defeat of Donaire is more impressive than Dogboe’s defeat of a rusty Magdaleno; I accept that this is arguable but balk at Magdaleno as low as eight given his wonderful performance against Donaire.

05 – Toshiaki Nishioka

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 4-1 Ranked For: 19% of the decade

Toshiaki Nishioka was the number one super-bantamweight coming into the decade and remained so until he was removed by the sumptuous power-punching of Nonito Donaire (and an over-excited referee).

How you feel about his overall standing here will depend upon how you feel about Rafael Marquez and his standing in October of 2011. Having lost three of his last six, including two of those wars with Israel Vazquez, Rafael was ostensibly on the slide, but the fight itself shows a fighter that, while no longer at his withering best, remained stoic and technically brilliant, very much a fighter that had to be mastered.

This, Nishioka did. To this day he maintains that Rafael is his most skilled opponent and he boxed with great care to control him, refusing to contest the inside and avoiding any over-commitment with the jab. Meanwhile he drilled Marquez with his trailing left, a wonderful punch that he throws with as much variety as anyone this century. Flying it quickly to the body was his stock in trade in the early going but he began to risk a wilder, wider, harder punch when he realised how wary Rafael had become. Rafael had success, not least in the second half of the eighth round where it seemed he might actually assume control of the fight, but Nishioka out-fought and out-worked the former lineal champion in the tenth and eleventh to put the decision to bed. It was a deeply impressive performance that cemented his status as the first number one super-bantam of the decade.

Nishioka’s other wins do little other than demonstrate his superiority over the field, especially his October 2010 contest with Rendall Munroe. Munroe brought guts but little else as the fight turned into something of a parade down the stretch; still, re-watching it was worth it for the feinted straight and uppercut through the middle that Nishioka used to tilt Munroe’s head back in the third.

Placing him at number five is a borderline call, but Nishioka was a clearer number one than anyone running eight through six. I am happy that should see him placed above, rather than below, the one-hit wonders.

04 – Leo Santa Cruz

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 24-1-1 Ranked For: 27% of the decade

Leo Santa Cruz departed 122lbs in 2015 with his undefeated record intact having made his impact on the first half of the super-bantamweight decade. His meaningful arrival at the poundage, the equivalent of a Mack truck pulling up inside a jewellery store, came in August of 2013 against Victor Terrazas. Terrazas, a tough, dangerous fighter was unsupported by the type of chin that would have made him genuinely world class. Nevertheless, the world’s number two contender was a serious proposition for Santa Cruz, and was coming off a nerveless, brutal battle with Cristian Mijares which he won by the narrowest of margins.

Terrazas started aggressively as Santa Cruz brought pressure, all high guard and work-rate. But, as we saw while looking at featherweight, Santa Cruz is much more than that. His punch selection is excellent, his sense for the backfoot superb for a front-foot fighter, his jab is thudding and accurate but he can box squarely enough – weight generally over his back leg, when he does so – to lead with the right without courting disaster. Terrazas was complimented during fight commentary for “making this an inside fight” – but an inside fight suits Santa Cruz just fine. He has reach and the technique to use it but is comfortable trying to land punches behind the elbows.

The two fought on even terms until they didn’t, when towards the end of the second Santa Cruz, tougher and better, opened up while the two stood head to head at the ropes. Terrazas emerged wounded and in the third, emerged giving ground. Dropped twice, he seemed broken in part by the psychological pressure, although it was the consistent, severe punching that did the damage.

Santa Cruz’s number two win was over Mijares, undoubtedly damaged goods, but still ranked. Santa Cruz couldn’t stop him, but what he did was in many ways worse: in a fight as different as that with Terrazas as could be imagined, he thrashed Mijares and rendered him a fistic irrelevance.

Santa Cruz was a very dangerous super-bantamweight.

03 – Carl Frampton

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 24-2 Ranked For: 35% of the decade

Carl Frampton slotted in right behind Santa Cruz at featherweight, but here he nips in just ahead of his great rival. A clash at 122lbs would have been helpful though – there is very little to separate them.

What does separate them is the additional work Frampton did at the very top of the division. He met no fewer than three top five contenders during his time fighting as Guillermo Rigondeaux’s understudy – the Cuban was champion throughout Frampton’s stay at the poundage – and soundly defeated all of them.

First up was Kiko Martinez, who Frampton had already defeated in a European title tussle but met again in 2014. Frampton, who probably entered his peak that night, couldn’t put the more experienced Martinez away as he had in their first fight but he did dominate almost completely with a healthy mix of jabs and bodyshots. Chris Avalos, who failed miserably when he moved up to featherweight but was a serious super-bantamweight, visited Frampton’s Belfast stronghold in 2015.  This was Frampton’s finest performance at the weight, his right hand excellent, despite the scruffy squabbling in the second his dominance near-complete.

Frampton’s final fight at 122lbs showed the toll weight-making was taking upon him. He was dominant over the first six against a reticent Scott Quigg, even breaking his jaw in the fourth, but the Englishman came on in the second half of the fight which was, in the end, very close.

Santa Cruz was more impressive in the victories he did have at 122lbs but it was Frampton, in the end, who scored the more numerous and more impressive victories.

02 – Nonito Donaire

Peak Ranking: Ch. Record for the Decade: 18-5 Ranked For: 25% of the decade

The decade 2010-2019 produced two legitimate super-bantamweight champions and it is fitting that these two lead the pack. Nor is it close – there is so much clear blue water between Nonito Donaire at #2 and Carl Frampton at #3 that they may as well be on different lists.

Donaire stepped up to 122lbs in 2012 and immediately tackled a divisional strapholder, the number eight contender, Wilfredo Vazquez; after taking a decision form him over the twelve, it was Jeffrey Mathebula, the number six contender who towered over Donaire but nevertheless gave up a similar decision. This second fight is crucial because against both he and Vazquez it is possible to see Donaire over-reaching, under-boxing, pushing far too hard for the knockout which he openly demanded of himself in the press. In the tenth round of his fight with Mathebula, Donaire was so completely out-boxed that in the eleventh and twelfth he limited himself to his more direct sphere of influence and in doing so dominated Mathebula completely, cracking one of his teeth in the process. You could almost hear the penny drop.

I consider that Donaire found himself at 122lbs that night and the result was Donaire’s 118lb form suddenly materialising in the super-bantamweight division. His next fight was against no less a figure than Toshiaki Nishioka, the most accomplished fighter in the division, a meeting between the two best super-bantams in the world and so the beginning of a new lineage at the weight. Donaire was the absolute pinnacle of cool as far as his inherent aggression would allow; he won every round and devastated Nishioka in the ninth round of a non-competitive rout propelled by his right hand rather than left hook. When he butchered Jorge Arce two months later, in December of 2012, he had completed the single best unbroken run of the decade at 122lbs and one of the better runs at any weight.

This being boxing, the end of that run was just around the corner.

01 – Guillermo Rigondeaux

Peak Ranking: Ch. Record for the Decade: 15-1 Ranked For: 92% of the decade

Donaire met with Cuban amateur legend Guillermo Rigondeaux in April of 2013 in a huge fight between the two best super-bantamweights in the world. It was also as one-sided as any top tier match of the decade as Rigondeaux, in absolute control for ten of the twelve rounds, picked Donaire’s wings off in a study of lethal economy.

Rigondeaux breaks rhythm. A combination of feints, very astute defensive dips and slips and single power-punches make establishment of offense against him agonising. Donaire, a fluid fighter who counter-pressures his opponents to the canvas, was particularly afflicted by the Rigondeaux malaise.  Rigondeaux threw infrequently; still he out-landed Donaire in every round but one.

The Cuban spent the years in which Donaire was tying together his superb 122lb run emerging from the pack and was just 6-0 when he tangled with number five contender Ricardo Cordoba. Rigondeaux dominated with ease until Cordoba snapped his head back with a jab, flashing him.  Rigondeaux responded in away entirely unacceptable to the American fight fraternity: he ran away.

Rigondeaux took a split decision and learned his final lesson: professional fighting in America calls for more fighting than amateur boxing does anywhere. Rico Ramos, then still unbeaten at 20-0, was the man to bear the brunt of this newly learned lesson as he was blasted to the canvas in the first round and tormented through the sixth when a body punch – and the better part of valour – kept him on the canvas.

So Rigondeaux was primed when he stepped into the ring with Donaire, for all that he was professionally inexperienced. Donaire was made to understand it and the litany of excuses he laid out after the fight – his shoulder was bad, he didn’t study his opponent, his was distracted by his wife’s pregnancy – could not disguise his out-and-out inferiority to Rigondeaux.

The argument as to who would be the decadal number one at 122lbs ended there, but there is more to recommend Rigondeaux as one of the longest serving lineal champions in boxing. In a division that sees fleeting commitment, even by its most prominent fighters, Rigondeaux’s devotion to super-bantamweight has been unusual.

He never became the superstar his management wanted to make him – too technical, too careful, too defensive – but there is no questioning his status as the best of the decade.

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Remembering “Doin’ Damage”

Ted Sares

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Remembering-Doin'-Damage

On June 3, 1997, Darroll “Doin’ Damage” Wilson met Courage “No Limit” Tshabalala at Philadelphia’s legendary Blue Horizon where no seat was a bad seat. The fight was a true Philly Classic, one of the most exciting fights of the year. The result was a surprise, but not as surprising as the upset that Darroll Wilson pulled off in March of the previous year when he fought the much bigger Shannon Briggs at the Convention Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Wilson vs. Briggs

Brooklynite Shannon Briggs (25-0) had achieved a reputation for being a guy who ended his fights early, as in first-round KO’s, but on this occasion, things kind of reversed themselves, as the gutsy Wilson (15-0-2 going in) survived a furious first round and then used his superior skills to shockingly take out “The Cannon” with a sharp left hook two rounds later.

Wilson, who lived close to Atlantic City in Mays Landing, N.J., had done considerable damage to his opponents until he met David Tua (24-0) in Miami and was KOd in the last second of an otherwise even first round by the streaking “Tuaman.” But losing to the short but super-powerful Tua was no disgrace. In fact, for Darroll, the best was yet to come.

 After beating limited Ron McCarthy, Darroll met the highly-touted Tshabalala (20-1). “Courage” had previously been shocked by Brian “Bam Bam” Scott (21-3) in the late Scott’s career definer in 1996, shattering the myth of the South African’s extraordinary power and alleged 72-1 amateur record (with 71 knockouts). Scott won using a fast and sharp combo, stopping him in the second round. Most of the 270-pound native of Kansas’s opponents had losing records which further amplified the shock factor– though Courage’s level of opposition was equally suspect.

Wilson vs Tshabalala (June 1997)

After Ed Darian Derian announced the fighters, the bell rang and Courage quickly decked Wilson with a power jab and then dictated matters for the rest of the round as he went on the stalk. The second round was uneventful until the last 15 seconds when Tshabalala opened up with a number of power shots. Wilson answered, but his answer came after the bell for which he received a firm warning.

Late in the third round, Wilson was hit clean by a perfect Courage right cross. He went down hard, got up, and then fell back down on Queer Street. Just as Referee Rudy Battle was about to signal the end of the fight, the round ended and Wilson was allowed to continue. Lou Duva, Courage’s manager, protested the call in his usual hyper/hysterical fashion but to no avail. Lou’s signature protests had acquired the feel of the little boy who cried wolf too often and this one was no exception.

Tshabalala came out fast in the next round trying to put away a still stunned Wilson, but the muscular Darroll did what he did against Briggs and, weathering the fierce storm, began to connect with his own shots. Both men went at it full-tilt boogie until the South African, exposing a stamina issue, finally went down, spit out his mouthpiece, and was counted out. He had nothing left. The Blue Horizon went bonkers.

Tshabalala had now participated in one of the upsets of the year and one of the most exciting fights of the year. Though a loser in both, he was nevertheless on everybody’s radar.

Bert Cooper (September 2002)

Darroll would go on to win some and lose some but against the very best opposition including David Izon, Frankie Swindell, Mike Rouse, Tim Witherspoon, Ray Mercer, and Oliver McCall. He ended his career in 2006 with a 27-10-2 slate and– before he took three years off–he scored another big win by stopping Bert Cooper (36-21) at the Blue Horizon in 2002. After this loss, Bert himself would take an eight-year hiatus from boxing, but for all practical purposes, he was done. (Cooper was a tragic figure with a deceptive record—a quintessentially sad boxing story– and the ups and downs of his life beg for a telling.)

As for Darroll Wilson, he always gave his best and on at least three occasions, he did some remarkable damage.

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com or on Facebook.

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Leo Upends Williams as Boxing Returns to ‘Showtime’

Arne K. Lang

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Leo-Upends-Williams-as-Boxing-Returns-to-Showtime

Showtime Boxing kicked off their late summer/fall season tonight with a three-fight card behind closed doors at the Mohegan Sun Casino Resort in Uncasville, CT. Tonight’s show is the first of nine live boxing events that the cable TV giant announced on July 22. The season will run through Dec. 12 with the concluding match a WBC bantamweight title bout between defending title-holder Nordine Oubaali and ageless showstopper Nonito Donaire.

Unfortunately for Showtime, there was a COVID-19 complication right out of the box. Philadelphia bantamweight Stephen Fulton, who would have been the “A” side in tonight’s main event, tested positive on Wednesday, forcing some shuffling. Tramaine Williams was bumped up from the co-feature to challenge Angelo Leo for the WBO world super bantamweight title vacated by Emanuel Navarette.

Angelo Leo hadn’t prepared for a southpaw and it took him a bit find his groove, but he found it and won a fairly lopsided decision over a previously undefeated opponent who was fighting in his home state. The scores were 117-111 and 118-110 twice.

Leo, 26, worked the body well and had more fuel in his tank as the bout progressed into the late rounds. In winning, Leo became the first world title-holder from Albuquerque since Johnny Tapia. Promoted by Floyd Mayweather’s “Money Team”, he advanced his record to 20-0. It was the first pro loss for New Haven’s Williams who fell to 19-1.

It figures that Leo will make his first defense against Stephen Fulton.

Other Bouts

In another 122-pound match that was also penciled in for 12 rounds, Ra’eese Aleem thoroughly outclassed late sub Marcus Bates en route to a 10th round stoppage. This was their second meeting and Bates, who entered the contest 11-1-1, was looking to avenge his lone defeat. In their initial go in Philadelphia in April of 2018, Aleem won comfortably on the scorecards. Bates recently explained that loss away by saying that he believed that someone tampered with his water bottle, giving Aleem an advantage.

Aleem, 30, steadily broke Bates down. The referee halted the one-sided match when Bates, who appeared to have sprained his right wrist, turned his back on Aleem after absorbing a hard left hook. Aleem, the pride of Muskegon, Michigan, improved to 17-0 with his 12th knockout.

In the opener, a light heavyweight match slated for 10 rounds, Houston’s Joseph George (11-0, 7 KOs) landed a bombshell of a left uppercut in the ninth frame to put away Marcos Escudero (10-2) who was well ahead on the scorecards when lightning struck.

This was a rematch. When they fought last November on ShoBox, Escudero outworked George, but George landed the crisper punches and prevailed on a split decision. Escudero, who is from Argentina but had his early pro fights in Florida, outworked George again (George likes to fight with his back against the ropes, a strategy he needs to reconsider) but as they say, it only takes one punch in this business, and Joseph George, who is managed by NFL all-pro tackle Trent Williams, brought the howitzer.

Photo credit: Amanda Westcott / Showtime

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