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The 12 Greatest Middleweights of All Time

Matt McGrain

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For the middleweights, world-conquering monsters arrived early. Of the three divisions I’ve studied so far, middleweight is by far the most dangerous territory. The top 12 that this division has whittled down through 130 years of competition is a thing of real beauty.

All styles and types are represented from furnace-bought killing pressure to the slick stylings of the defensive genius. Between them, these 12 men scored over 1,200 wins and more than 700 knockouts. Between them, they were stopped on just 16 occasions, incredible given some of the blind alleys even these giants groped their way into at the dark end of their careers.

My 12 will not be met with universal agreement. Accord is impossible. What I can tell you is that the Fifty has been thoroughly researched and the 12 that sits within it has been agonized over. In the end, I am happy with my top nine and for all that I consider 10, 11 and 12 to be interchangeable, which is something I had hoped to avoid, that top twelve is also, I hope, solid.

So listen.

#12 – JAKE LAMOTTA (83-19-4)

Jake LaMotta, the Bronx Bull, is the first man we encounter who has, at some point, ranked among the top ten in an earlier draft on this list. We have been knee deep in true greatness for some time now, but LaMotta represents a new height; he is a gatekeeper, at the very least, for the very greatest of the great middleweights.

“Jake never stopped coming, never stopped throwing punches and never stopped talking,” offered Sugar Ray Robinson, who defeated him 5-1 in perhaps the most celebrated middleweight series in boxing history. “You hit the guy with everything and he would just act like you were crazy.”

It’s as succinct and complete a description of LaMotta as a man and a fighter as you are likely to read. The Italian-American was a monster of durability, stopped just once in a long middleweight career by Robinson, who was in absolute top gear in forcing the referee’s intervention in the thirteenth round of their masterpiece from 1951, their LaMotta surged inexorably forwards, the ultimate middleweight tank, not devoid of skill (his jab is his best punch), but his real strength lay in the hellish pressure he brought to bear upon a generation of middleweights, most of whom folded to him in one way or another. Key among them are Robinson, Holman Williams, Robert Villemain, Marcel Cerdan and Laurent Dauthuille.

What kept him that bare smidge from the top ten are the asterisks that are scattered among those key results. Holman Williams was still dangerous when LaMotta edged him in 1946 but was unquestionably slipping and although probably sound, the decision was booed by some sections of the crowd. His determination to meet Williams and the other inhabitants of the Murderers’ Row marked him out as special but rarely went according to plan; he was soundly beaten by Lloyd Marshall and probably very fortunate to take a decision versus a green Bert Lytell.

Robert Villemain, a superb contender but certainly not a fighter under consideration for this list, split a pair with LaMotta and Jake’s winning effort seems to have been anything but with ringsiders almost unanimous in seeing Villemain as having been robbed. Villemain’s fellow Frenchman Laurent Dauthuile also went 1-1 with LaMotta, meeting first him over ten in 1949 in a thrilling fight that saw both cut and Dauthuile triumph on the cards. He came within seconds of taking the title in their 1950 rematch, ahead on points when LaMotta staged the most incredible rally in the history of the division to score a fifteenth round knockout and protect his championship.

Cerdan was the man LaMotta took the title from and he is fully credited for that thrilling victory – but it should be noted that Cerdan was injured in the course of the fight and certainly entitled to the rematch that fate interceded to prevent.

Nevertheless, LaMotta butchered numerous contenders in an action style. Had he a punch to match his chin, he would likely inhabit a spot in the top five.

#11 – FREDDIE STEELE (123-5-11)

Freddie Steele, possibly the most underrated middleweight ever to draw breath, moved up to the division in 1934 and spent the next three years and slightly less than fifty contests undefeated. Consider in the light of that fact the media cacophony that has accompanied Floyd Mayweather’s similar undefeated streak.

Not as storied as Mayweather in term of titles (he held a strap but never the lineal crown), nor is it likely that Steele defeated competition as excellent as Mayweather but he certainly did severe damage to the middleweight division from his Washington stronghold. Of his early middleweight displays (Steele had already done damage down at welterweight in his youth), his destruction of the creaking Vince Dundee is probably the most impressive. Feinting Dundee out of position, he was brutal in his aggressive rushing of the older fighter and very nearly destroyed him in the first with a flashing left hook that left Dundee sagging on the ropes; he barely beat the count and perhaps should not have bothered as Steele proceeded to batter him around the ring for three rounds until he was quite rightly rescued from his own diamond-cut determination.

Steele was a little over-exuberant once he had Dundee hurt and this caused him to miss often, rather compromising his excellent power, wonderful boxing and superb footwork (watch him repeatedly spin a bewildered Dundee off the ropes) but by 1936 he was in possession of a belt and had evolved into a much more deadly beast. Matching top fifty all-time light-heavyweight Gus Lesnevich he again he dropped his man with a pulverizing left-hook in the first, but this time he did not forget his boxing as he closed and Lesnevich was brutalized, horrifically, pulled before the end of the second.

Fred Apostoli, Solly Kreiger, Ken Overline and Babe Risko were among the other top men to fall to him and while readily available film is limited, he looks, to me, as good in the ring as just about any middleweight that ever boxed.

So why no higher? After all, when he finally began to lose it was only after having his breastbone broken, past-prime, against top-drawer opposition. Well, to my eye, Steele, also not unlike Mayweather, was often a little lucky in the timing of his fights with some of the big names he dispatched. Apostoli was a raw-green 6-0 when Steele defeated him; Solly Krieger was highly ranked at the time of their meeting but had just been beaten by the three-fight losing streak Glen Lee; Babe Risko was 3-3 in his last six; even Lesnevich was a number of years from his best wins. Ken Overlin may be his best victory, but even his form was a little patchy going in.

Steele has an argument for the top ten but it doesn’t quite find purchase here. He heralds monsters.

#10 – HOLMAN WILLIAMS (145-30-11)

Holman Williams washed up in Akron, Ohio, working as a janitor in the Wonder Club, a private establishment which in his final weeks was in the news due to a shooting on the premises. Whether connected or unconnected to the shooting, in the summer of 1967 someone crept into the Wonder Club and set it ablaze. Williams, who slept upstairs, woke to an inferno and “was overcome trying to escape.” He was fifty-two years old.

In his prime, he would have escaped that fire. He escaped, from as early as 1939, when he moved up from welterweight, an astonishing range of middleweight talent, duelling the leading lights of the black Murderer’s Row and others in a grotesquely under-celebrated run that lasted from 1939 until 1946 when the inevitable drop-off occurred. It was only in this late year that Jake LaMotta, certainly not reticent in his determination to meet the best, and the shyer Marcel Cerdan both crossed the street to meet the era’s best defensive specialist; even still, against a veteran of 170 fights, LaMotta struggled and his decision victory was booed by sections of the crowd. If LaMotta was in a nip-and-tuck affair that could have gone either way, Cerdan was outright lucky to bag a win as the bedraggled but still dangerous Williams injured his right in the fourth, boxing one-handed, and his leg in the eighth, unable to utilise his economic and confounding mobility for the ninth and tenth; still, the Associated Press card had the fight a draw.

It seems likely that had he matched these two legends even one year earlier, he would have emerged with two prized victories.

As it is we must judge him upon what he did in his frightening prime. This includes two victories over Lloyd Marshall, victories over Aaron Wade, Steve Belloise and Eddie Booker (who did manage to beat Williams but only at a poundage that rates it a light-heavyweight win), an astonishing four victories over Jack Chase and an epic series against Charley Burley which ended 3-3 with one no contest.

A middling puncher in his youth, Williams, who reportedly had a very relaxed attitude to training, had desperately fragile hands, a heinous disadvantage for a black 1940s middleweight who needed to box fifteen times and more in a year in order to make the ends meet. Williams adapted his style in order that he might survive the maelstrom of brilliance that surrounded him and the regularity with which he entered it, pulling his punches and playing for points. He became a poisonous shadow, hard to hit, lethal in his counters.

A brilliant boxer, he was capable, when necessary, of closing the distance and making war; that said, nothing he did successfully neutralised Cocoa Kid, a fellow Murderer’s Row contender who he met thirteen times and with whom he always struggled. That struggle was played out, for the most part, at welterweight; up at middle it was a closer affair and although the Kid still won their series at the weight, his margin of victory was narrower and it doesn’t form the limiting factor at 160lbs that it will at 147lbs.

Kid Tunero, Bert Lytell, Antonio Fernandez and Joe Carter were the other men to achieve rankings that were out-thought or out-fought by Williams. Some inconsistency dogged him and arguably a slot below Steele and LaMotta is a more reasonable one; that he three times bested Charley Burley was enough for me to nose him over the line and into the ten.

Other Top Fifty Middleweights Beaten: Cocoa Kid (#49), Jack Chase (#47), Lloyd Marshall (#31), Berty Lytell (#27), Charley Burley (Top Ten).

#09 – TOMMY RYAN (84-2-11; Newspaper Decisions 5-1-1)

Count them: three losses in more than a hundred fights. It is a true rarity to see so few losses in any centurion but Tommy Ryan was likely as brilliant and dominant a fighter as has ever lived.

The first of those losses came against the great Kid McCoy in 1896. Ryan was in his prime, but he was in his welterweight prime, and he weighed just 148lbs. Although he was crushed by McCoy it needs to be remembered that the Kid would go on to become a significant force at both light-heavyweight and heavyweight and that he carried a significant size advantage into their fight.

The second was suffered via a disqualification against George Green, the foul blow reported alternatively as “a light blow struck on Green’s shoulder” when he was down and a knee delivered to the face as Green crumpled before Ryan’s assault. Finally, he was beaten by heavyweight Denver Ed Martin in his final fight. He dropped a six round newspaper-decision to the big man having come out of retirement after a four year hiatus. He was forty-one years old.

Other than that, it’s just glory and greatness and the only factor that determines how highly he rates in the divisions he graced is identifying when he should be credited as a welterweight and when he should be credited as a middleweight.

For me, Ryan’s middleweight prime stretches from 1897 through to 1904 and his draw with Philadelphia Jack O’Brien; most primes are barracked by losses but Ryan was all but invincible at middleweight, and seemed literally so during his middleweight prime.

Perhaps his era’s definitive technical genius, he is said to have schooled both Jim Jeffries and, more surprisingly, the supposed “Grandfather of Boxing” James J Corbett on the finer points of boxing technique, but he was also one of the toughest middleweights in history. An orphan, the story goes that he wound up in Michigan scrapping his fellow newsboys for territory in semi-professional contests that morphed into a boxing career. Skin gloves and cobbles wrought a fighter carved of stone as he proved in defeating Tommy West in perhaps the bloodiest fight in boxing history. As well as innate toughness, he proved himself a wilting puncher scoring knockouts, some of them early, in the majority of his title defenses. A shot Jack Dempsey, the legendarily filthy “Mysterious” Billy Smith, West and Kid Carter were among the best to fall to him during the eight years during which he was almost universally recognized as the middleweight champion.

His was not an era of great strength but his consistent and extended dominance over it brings him in here just ahead of the mercurial Williams.

Other Top Fifty Middleweights Beaten: Jack Dempsey (#15)

#08 – CHARLEY BURLEY (83-12-2)

For boxing fans of a certain kind, the high regard in which the great Archie Moore holds the legendary Charley Burley is well known. Moore, who Burley thrashed, called Burley “inhuman” and “a human riveting gun,” striving, even with his dazzling lexicon, to make himself understood on the subject of the man he named “the best fighter I ever met” and a fighter who would have “beaten Ray Robinson”.

Less well known is the admiration of Burley by Moore’s on and off trainer, a man named Hiawatha Gray. Gray reportedly saw not only the greats of the 1940s and intimately knew both Moore and his incredible list of top drawer opposition, but also the greats of boxing’s infancy, men like Sam Langford, Jack Johnson, Joe Gans and Stanley Ketchel. Gray, like Moore, named Burley the best fighter he had ever seen according to Burley biographer Allen Rosenfeld. Ray Arcel, too, ranked Burley among the very greatest he saw. Eddie Futch named him one of the very best and introduced him to Larry Holmes as “the greatest fighter Pittsburgh has ever produced” without apologies to either Harry Greb or Billy Conn. Angelo Dundee was firm about refusing to name the greatest fighter of all time, claiming that opinions were “all about the time you come from” but when pressed, he named a handful of contenders that included Charley Burley.

For boxing geeks the opinion in which both peers and greats held Burley has become something of a cliché, but make no bones about it: those that saw him were enchanted beyond the norm.

I, too, am enchanted by Burley. The grainy highlights of him outclassing a light-heavyweight named Billy Smith is perhaps my favorite fight film. Smith, who was as prestigious a right-hand puncher as ever fought at light-heavyweight, comes charging across the ring and tries to nail Burley straight up with the same punch he used to obliterate Harold Johnson; he would have been as well trying to pick off a humming bird with a canon. Burley sidesteps neatly and then begins ten solid rounds of literally toying with the best puncher of the weight division fifteen pounds above his own, spinning him, feinting him into knots, countering him into a shambles. Most of all he muscles him in the clinches, matching the larger, more powerful man with ease.

Part cobra, part mongoose, Burley’s style was one of enormous complexity. He was a puncher, a defensive specialist, enormously strong physically and was equipped with a long reach and every punch in the book. Archie Moore describes a war machine and heavyweight slugger Elmer Ray, who ran afoul of the diminutive Burley in sparring, claimed that no man he ever faced from Ezzard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott to the murderous Turkey Thompson hit as hard as he. But he will not be remembered as a puncher or a pirouetting dervish; he will be remembered first and foremost as a defensive genius and slickster.

He was all of those things. He was more.

Other Top Fifty Middleweights Beaten: Cocoa Kid (#49), Jack Chase (#47), Berty Lytell (#27), Holman Williams (Top Ten).

#07 – BERNARD HOPKINS (55-7-2)

The Executioner has very little company for contenders matched and dispatched. Lineal champion for only six defenses between his 2001 deconstruction of Felix Trinidad through to his questionable, though not unreasonable, decision loss on points to a motivated and primed Jermain Taylor in 2005, Hopkins was clearly the best middleweight in the world from as early as 1996, resulting in a near decade at the top of a division, a total of nine years. A moment’s pause for each of those years might reveal to the considered soul the level of commitment and the strength of character necessary to remaining the best fighter at a given weight for that length of time, regardless of the level of the competition.

He has named himself “biologically different than anyone else who walks the planet earth” but it is more likely that the difference is mental. Hopkins has eschewed chocolate for decades; the use of alcohol as a relaxant or stimulant is an alien concept. He visits the gym on Christmas day.

He is “different” alright.

But yes, that level of competition. Hopkins bested numerous contenders but he never beat a fighter in contention for this list. Trinidad is the closest he came to taking such a scalp and Trinidad was found to be something of a mirage at 160lbs, for all that he went into his fight with Hopkins as a favorite.

So Hopkins appears here as the ultimate realization of middleweight discipline. His style, too, was underpinned with determination, in fact I have never seen a fighter who boxed without slugging or swarming so married to domination as a concept. Initially aggressive and pressing (though always intelligent), Hopkins evolved into a fighter who dominated by surgery. He always knew the angle. If his opponent had a great jab he circled a half step outside the range and knew when to offer that step up to draw the punch. People say Hopkins “takes away his opponent’s best punch” but that’s not true, or it’s only half true. He turns his opponent’s best punch into a weakness.

This was very much the case against Trinidad. He kept his right hand high, his chin down, moved exclusively in quarter-steps or rushes and remained busy at that range which made a serious advantage of his reach, which forced Trinidad to consider straight punches first and foremost. In the end, Hopkins so entirely neutralized the lethal Tito hook that he was able to block and counter it for the knockout. That he had the presence of mind and physical cohesion to perform both actions with his right hand after twelve rounds is a testimony to both his technical ability and the gym-rat work-ethic that kept his mind free from cobwebs in the final round of a busy fight.

He was a cerebral alpha dog, the thinking man’s prison tough.

Hopkins probably fought defenses against more top five contenders than any other middleweight champion and nobody, until his razor-thin combats with Jermain Taylor, really troubled him. He was as dominant a champion as appears on this list. One can say what one likes about his competition, but in the departments of dominance, consistency and longevity, Hopkins is off the scale. The #7 spot is his due.

Other Top Fifty Middleweights Beaten: None

#06 – MIKE GIBBONS (65-3-4; Newspaper Decisions 48-8-4)

Mike Gibbons is a total anomaly, a white fighter who was clearly the best in the world in his weight division for a concerted spell who never became the champion. He laid claim to the title, like so many others in the wake of Stanley Ketchel’s death, but his claim was never recognized as full.

Mike was able to tempt three of the men who held the lineal title during his career into the ring at one stage or another. George Chip was the legitimate world champion in 1913 and 1914; Mike met and outclassed him on three separate occasions between 1917 and 1919. Al McCoy was the man who took the title from Chip. Three months before he did so, McCoy faced Mike. According to The Pittsburgh Press, McCoy landed “three or four punches” in ten uneventful but one-sided rounds which were hissed and booed by those in attendance. This may have been a part of Mike’s problem: he was a defensive specialist, the “St. Paul Phantom,” a fighter almost impossible to hit and given to taking protracted breaks even against world-class opposition, especially in no contests where no official decision was being rendered.

McCoy reigned for three years and despite his clear superiority over the new champion, Mike was never rewarded with a title fight. “I will meet McCoy any time,” was the line he parroted throughout that reign but it would be Mike O’Dowd who ended the McCoy title-run. Against O’Dowd, Mike enjoyed less dominance, dropping a twelve round decision in the twilight of the career and swapping newspapers decisions with the brutal champion prior to that. Against fellow uncrowned champion Harry Greb he managed a laudable 1-1, although it should be noted that Greb, while far from green, improved considerably after the first meeting between the two, a six-rounder fought in February of 1917.

Two newspaper decisions rendered over Jack Dillon and three over Jeff Smith in what appear to have been fascinating if sometimes slow encounters nail him down as great but his resume has enormous depth to go with these quality wins. Willie Brennan, Gus Christie, Bob Moha, Jimmy Clabby, Eddie McGoorty and Leo Houck, among others, fell to his stylings at some time or other.

A veteran of more than 130 fights, he was never stopped, a granite jaw barracking that legendary defense. Had he been champion he would have cracked the top five.

Other Top Fifty Middleweights Beaten: Jeff Smith (#41), Mike O’Dowd (#25), Jack Dillon (#19), Harry Greb (Top Ten).

#05 – STANLEY KETCHEL (53-5-5)

The definitive monster draws a veil across the top five.

By astonishing coincidence Stanley Ketchel shared an era with perhaps the only middleweight that could have rivaled him for the position of Chief Monster, Billy Papke. They fought wars, savage even for their savage era.

Papke exalted in suffering to an even greater extent than Ketchel, and was delivered to exaltation by his nemesis in June of 1908. Ketchel boxed Papke carefully, “he was not in a hurry” but rather “the coolest man in the house.” He used footwork and a shifting, “sideways” style that reads as almost spiderlike, to keep the brutal Papke off balance and under control; the result was a beating one-sided and impressive, so impressive it led the great Abe Attell to name Ketchel “the greatest fighter that ever lived.”

The rematch, too, provoked admiration. Jim Jeffries, the legendary heavyweight champion, labelled him “the gamest fighter I have ever seen” as Ketchel absorbed perhaps the most hellish beating of an era accustomed to such; so devastating was the punishment that Papke inflicted that by the eighth the crowd, accustomed to the brutalities of boxing in this era, called for the fight to be stopped. Jeffries, a fighter who made his bones soaking up violence, allowed the blood bath to continue into the twelfth. Ketchel’s face “was battered out of shape, as if Papke had knocked him about with a baseball bat as opposed to two fists”. Distracted by talk of a match with world heavyweight champion Tommy Burns, comforted by his one-sided drubbing of Papke on points, Ketchel, perhaps, had not applied himself in the usual way. “His face crooked, his mouth a mere gash,” he vanished into the desert, even his manager apparently unaware of his whereabouts.

When he re-emerged it was with a silent confidence that impressed even the newspapermen who had deemed him damaged goods. At the bell for their rubber, he told Papke, in a steady voice, that he would knock him out one round earlier than Papke had inflicted that ignominy upon him and then proceeded to do so. When he defeated Papke for a third time over twenty rounds some months later he was made Papke’s master for all time.

Ketchel had been an underdog to the much bigger Joe Thomas when he stumbled out of the brush all those years earlier but he crushed Thomas. Hugo Kelly had boxed fifty rounds with Jack Sullivan, thirty rounds with Burns and twenty rounds with Papke without incident; Ketchel dusted him in three. Sullivan, a defensive specialist more accustomed to boxing heavyweights than middleweights, dropped down in poundage to face Ketchel and was destroyed. In fact, while he was beaten by a light-heavyweight Sam Langford and a heavyweight Jack Johnson – no shame in either case – Ketchel was beaten just once at middleweight, by Papke, a defeat he three times avenged.

A lethal pressure fighter with off-scale power, an iron jaw, huge work-rate and limitless stamina, Ketchel dominated a superb era of middleweights during a career that saw him reign twice as the champion of the world.

Other Top Fifty Middleweights Beaten: Hugo Kelly (#50), Billy Papke (#23).

#04 – SUGAR RAY ROBINSON (173-19-6)

Sugar Ray Robinson should always herald something special when it comes to boxing history, and such is the case here; Robinson is the first man on this list to have been considered at some point for the #1 slot.

What caused him to tumble to #4 is his inconsistency at the weight. His incredible longevity in winning the middleweight title an astonishing five times is an achievement that makes it almost impossible to leave him out of the top six, but it must be quantified. Randy Turpin, Gene Fullmer and Carmen Basilio, all champions from whom he ripped the title, were only champions because he lost to them – in other words, it was his ability to win and lose with these men that enhances his standing whereas the likelihood is that Marvin Hagler and Carlos Monzon would have dominated all three twice. Additionally, if list-making is an art that is perfected with practice, I have learned to become wary of fighters who let many other fighters into the argument. Robinson was a champion when he lost to Turpin, Fullmer and Basilio and for all that only Turpin got to him in anything like his prime, those defeats chip away at the gold of his glory. If Robinson were ranked #1, say, then the chips of gold bagged by these wonderful middleweights become even more valuable and this leads to an artificial inflation of their standing. Here, then, is the signal I have heeded in ranking Robinson the least of the faces of middleweight’s Mount Rushmore.

Not that a higher berth would flatter him. Ray Robinson’s famous destruction of Jake LaMotta on Valentine’s Day 1951 is the single greatest performance by any fighter on film in my opinion.

That’s probably worth reiterating: I have never seen boxing done better than Robinson at his middleweight best, not by any fighter in any division. His great weakness at middle, his lack of physicality, he made a strength, crouching and landing booming right hands to the body around the corner of LaMotta’s fearsome tunnel vision, making space and digging with those famous short blows, a tactic he perfected against the granite-chinned Fullmer for the knock-out of the century in their 1957 rematch.

His domination of another champion, Bobo Olson, is also impressive, almost as impressive as his defeat in 1961 of Denny Moyer, not in and of itself a great achievement but a win by which he came to own victories over middleweight contenders from three different decades, something neither Monzon nor Hagler could achieve.

These observations are drier than those I might have made on the incredible gift the man had for moving and punching, of the most fluid yet devastating combinations ever to be performed in a boxing ring, but they are the pertinent ones when it comes to understanding his place in middleweight history.

Other Top Fifty Middleweights Beaten: Bobo Olson (45), Georgie Abrams (39) Randy Turpin (37), Gene Fullmer (24), Jake LaMotta (12).

#03 – MARVIN HAGLER (62-3-2)

Marvelous Marvin Hagler may be the most mis-understood great fighter in history.

Most famous of all his fights was the amazing 1985 showdown with Tommy Hearns in which he swarmed forwards and inside the deadly Hearns jab for an aggressive and brutal face-first assault, the result a third round knockout. Notorious, too, is his final fight, his controversial 1987 loss to Ray Leonard a fight in which, again, he adopted the role of aggressor as Leonard slipped and jived his way to a decision win. But that is not Hagler’s natural style. A stalker, yes, he was that, but more a pressure-stalker than an aggressive, pushy one as he appeared in those two contests. To put it simply, Hagler was a much better boxer than he was a brawler, and he was one of the better brawler’s in the division’s history.

That said, his careful methodology probably cost him the decision against Leonard and let the genius Duran come perilously close to taking a decision from him in 1982; but for the most part, Hagler’s legacy is perhaps the definitive alter to the savagery of the deliberate. The best examples of his true style are likely his two dominations of the direct Mustafa Hamsho. Hamsho, who convinced both media and public that he, of all the ranked contenders, was the best equipped to test Hagler, was in fact the perfect foil for this pragmatic puncher’s style, and in the first fight Hagler slipped, blocked and rode Hamsho’s attack all the while counter-punching him to pieces, remaining always just beyond his opponent’s most tender attentions. The ending was brutal.

But it was less brutal than the rematch, conjured by Hamsho in the wake of some moderate difficulties Hagler had had against the not dissimilar Juan Domingo Roldan. These difficulties were not recreated by Hamsho who once again was dismantled, this time in just three. This fight, in conjunction with the Hearns war, demonstrates the absurd difficulty born in matching Hagler. He had an iron jaw, a world class defense, really good punching power (of his twelve successful title defenses he won eleven by stoppage), was a good mover and a wonderful counter-puncher; but when Hamsho and Hearns plant their feet they get destroyed, are out-thundered by a fighter armed to the teeth and in possession of the accuracy to find all but the most elusive targets with sickening regularity. The surgical precision of the massive variety of right hands he used to butcher Hamsho in the third also special; the uppercuts he used in part to soften him some of the best you will see. This is not a head-to-head list as I have been at pains to stress, but I will say this: any fight in which Hagler be allowed to find those uppercuts is a fight he would win.

They played a part in victories over ranked men such as Mike Colbert, Bennie Briscoe, Alan Minter (the ruthlessly deposed champion), Fulgencio Obelmejias, Vito Antuofermo, Don Lee, Tony Sibson, John Mugabi and others; he was a king who brooked no authority.

Having said that, Hagler had as difficult apprenticeship as any fighter in the Top Ten and although there is no room to explore it here I think it is fair to say that it bore a fighter with a chip on his shoulder and one, too, in need of tactical direction – he could be confused, perhaps, by a vacuum. So few are his weakness though that we are reduced to groping for such quasi-psychological chinks in some of boxing history’s greatest armaments. A colossus of a fighter, Hagler would have made a worthy number one.

Other Top Fifty Middleweights Beaten: None

#02 – CARLOS MONZON (87-3-9)

Inscrutable, impermeable and perhaps unstoppable, Carlos Monzon went an astounding, record-breaking 15-0 in world title fights and went unbeaten despite excellent competition for an astounding twelve years. He was a horror to face and may have been the single best middleweight ever to pull on the gloves.

Why? That’s the question that tortured me; what made him the best, if that is what he was?

I have given up recounting the training regimes and commitment of the great ones – they are all similar in that they call for either Spartan commitment to training, or enormous activity that precluded the need for such training; Monzon trained hard, but he also smoked heavily, reportedly sucking down up to 100 a day, although I can hardly believe this. Smoking, supposedly, even while completing training runs, here was a fighter that was more impressive in the late rounds of championship fights than almost any other. Sparring with an increasing number of statuesque models and South American movie stars as his fame increased, Monzon seems to have actually been what rumor-mongers tried to make Harry Greb: a playboy who trained on pleasure while simultaneously becoming perhaps the greatest fighter of his era. Latterly, his philandering bought him a bullet in the arm which he happily took to the ring lodged in his flesh. It made no difference to his thumping dominance.

If not, then, extraordinary commitment to training, could it be speed and power, the cornerstone of many great title reigns? Frankly, no. Monzon was a consistently hurtful puncher, especially before arthritis began to affect his hands, and he had good functional speed, but he was not fast in the sense that Robinson or Burley were.

I think what made him so difficult to beat was that supernatural engine, perhaps the definitive one for the modern middleweight division despite the abuses he heaped upon it, a machismo unparalleled and, most of all, a strategic deployment that came as close to solving boxing as anything I have ever seen.

In a nutshell, Monzon insisted upon one of two things in the ring: either that you put yourself somewhere where you would be available to be hit for three minutes of every round, (with pressure, say, or aggression), or he would put you there himself. From there, he would rely on work-rate and a consistent and resounding accuracy exemplified by one of the most dangerous jab double-right-hand combinations in history (check out his rematch with Jean Claude Bouttier for a particularly withering example).

If this sounds too simple to work, consider Monzon’s record. He didn’t pick up as many ranked scalps as Hagler, but this may be more to do with cultural bias than anything else. Perhaps the likes of Andres Selpa and Jorge Hernandez did not deserve Ring rankings but their records stood at 119-42-27 and 109-6-1 respectively when Monzon beat them during a savage apprenticeship fought in the figurative bandit-country of South America’s wild-west. And when he hit the heights of Ring’s top ten with his domination of Nino Benvenuti, foes fell to the wayside regardless of what number was propping them up at bell. He probably made Columbian puncher Nino Valdes wait too long but when they met not once but twice, Monzon dropped him and bettered him. His title reign is as close to unimpeachable as it was long.

As close as his crushing excellence brought him to the #1 spot.

Other Top Fifty Middleweights Beaten: Emile Griffith (29), Nino Benvenuti (22).

#01 – HARRY GREB (107-8-3; Newspaper Decisions 155-9-15)

At first I thought Robinson would be #1. Then, when a detailed look started to make me feel that perhaps Robinson’s latter inconsistencies might hamper him, I began to favor Monzon – the greatest of the middleweight champions, after all.

The reason I never figured Harry Greb for #1 is the same reason Mickey Walker didn’t make the top ten. Like Walker, Greb (pictured) did so much of his fighting against heavier men, victories for which he cannot be credited here. If that sounds harsh, consider that I have already credited him for them; he ranked #3 all time at light-heavyweight; he ranked #47 all-time at heavyweight; and ranked #2 all-time pound-for-pound, a ranking that may require urgent review.

So Greb, having received heaped praise for his contribution at these other weights, would, I presumed, come up short, spread too thin.

But here he is.

A key aspect in researching this series of articles has been to try to establish which fighters were ranked at the relevant poundage at or around the time they were dispatched by the subject. This is not possible for Greb as rankings as we know them were not available for most of his career. Fortunately when we research Greb, rather than measuring ranked men, we can measure all-time greats and we can measure champions. He dominated many including, incredibly, almost every man to reign as middleweight champion of the world between 1914 and 1931, from the short reign of George Chip to the abdication of Mickey Walker, excluding only himself and Mike O’Dowd with whom he boxed a draw.

His own stint started late after a round up of underwhelming title-holder Johnny Wilson in 1923 followed by a successful defense against the underrated Brian Downey. Downey is the type of fighter who is key to unlocking the Greb legacy specific to middleweight. Hardly a household name, even in his own era, he nevertheless dropped and defeated the great Mike O’Dowd, boxed a draw with the then champion Wilson after being cheated out of a win against him in their first match, received a newspaper decision over George Chip and dropped and defeated the legendary Jack Britton. Greb utterly thrashed him over ten.

Despite the distraction of wars with the likes of Gene Tunney and Kid Norfolk up at 175lbs, he nevertheless found time to defend against the deposed Wilson, another of the era’s underrated contenders Ted Moore, the monstrous Mickey Walker who he handled with absurd ease, before being unseated by Tiger Flowers in a sloppy, confused fight that reads as both close and difficult to score.

Prior to coming to the title he bested Jeff Smith in a difficult series, twice bested the great Jack Dillon, twice bested champion Al McCoy, twice bested future light-heavyweight champion Mike McTigue, and beat fellow top-ten lock Mike Gibbons.

Tempering his astonishing achievement at middleweight are the defeats he suffered to Flowers at the end of his career and a certain overlapping of series with men like Tommy Gibbons where he avenged defeat at middleweight up at light-heavyweight. Secondly, it is true that Greb, probably due to a lack of knockout punching-power and an “odd” style (think of the initial reaction to the emergence of Muhammad Ali for another example), seemed to impress the era’s boxing men less completely than the likes of Stanley Ketchel and Bob Fitzsimmons.

Those that shared the ring with him, however, are fulsome in their praise. Jack Dillon went to the astonishing lengths of questioning if there were any point in even trying against Greb while naming him so fast that “he didn’t even give me time to spit the blood out of my mouth.” Clay Turner named him “the next best man to Jack Dempsey in the world” – keep in mind that Greb was primarily weighing in at around 160lbs at this time. Gene Tunney named him the best middleweight ever to have lived and Jack O’Brien, who met both Ketchel and Fitzsimmons, named him “the greatest specimen of physical manhood in modern history.”

Nat Fleischer and Charley Rose both ranked Ketchel above Greb; but the 2005 IBRO list went for Greb as their #1. We need to be careful – as the men who saw him fade from view we need to keep an open mind as to who and what Greb was in the ring because the heart-breaking absence of footage makes interpretation a more pointed and questionable tool applied to paper history than it is when applied to film. But I welcome Greb’s new status among history buffs in this new century; welcome and embrace it as my own judgement.

Other Top Fifty Middleweights Beaten: Jeff Smith (41), Jack Dillon (19), Mickey Walker (18), Mike Gibbons (6).

For those of you who have taken the time to read this and all the other installments of my Top Fifty series, I thank you.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was extracted from a story that ran on this site on Oct. 21, 2015 (CLICK HERE TO VIEW IT), and then welded, with slight modifications, to the final installment of Matt McGrain’s middleweight series which appeared on Nov. 6, 2015. If you were expecting to find GGG and/or Canelo on this list, keep in mind that the list was compiled nearly five years ago. Matt McGrain writes from Scotland.

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What’s Your Favorite Boxing Match? Rigby-Ayers Tops My List

Ted Sares

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Many count Castillo vs. Corrales (2005) as their favorite. Fans of an earlier generation were partial to Graziano vs. Zale (1947), Pep vs. Saddler (1949), DeMarco vs. Basilio (1955), and Durelle vs. Moore (1958). The “War” between Hagler and Hearns (1985) rightfully tops many lists. When Hearns came out fast at the opening bell only to be met by a bald-headed monster, it was spine-tingling electricity at its best; it was anticipative mayhem.

Jorge Castro–John David Jackson (1994) was high drama. Morales-Barrera (2000) and Vazquez-Marquez (2008) showcased Mexican fighters who combined technique with a brawler’s proclivity and that amounted to an atomic cocktail. Mancini vs. Frias was short but furious.

Bobby Chacon’s 1982 battle with Rafael Limon, the most compelling and memorable of their four fights, was a classic and Chacon’s battle the next year with Cornelius Boza-Edwards was legendary. The first Gatti vs. Ward is at the top end of many memory banks and, of course, Ali’s bouts with Frazier and with Foreman are up there along with the frenzy of Pryor vs. Arguello (1982).

Lyle and Foreman exchanged bombs and knockdowns in 1976. Then in 1992, Michael Moorer and Bert Cooper did the same. These two brawls could easily be someone’s favorite. However, the Nardico-Norkus eight knockdown Pier Six in 1954 was quintessentially old school and it is on many leaderboards. Under the radar Muriqi vs. Ahmad (2002) was new school but could be any school for its back-and-forth mayhem.

The Tommy Morrison vs. Joe Hipp slugfest in Reno in 1992 was “bone crunching.” Morrison‘s jaw and both of his hands were broken, but Joe lost via a 9th round comeback stoppage by the “Duke.” Not to be outdone, Hipp suffered a complete shattering of his cheekbones.

Bruce Curry and Monroe Brooks put on their own version of “To Live and Die in LA” in 1978 at the Olympic Auditorium. For those who witnessed the fifth round of the incredible Somsak Sithchatchawal vs. Mahyar “Little Tyson” Monshipour savagery in 2006, Brooks-Curry was like that for almost nine full rounds. Neither man died in L.A.; they both lived on, but in different ways.

Thus, it seems that every serious fan, aficionado, or writer has that One favorite fight, the one that is indelible and is locked into the memory like concrete. Here are several on my list:

Lee Roy “Solid Gold” Murphy vs. Chisanda Mutti (1985)

One of the most unique happenings in a boxing match occurred in Monte Carlo in 1985 when Chicagoan Lee Roy “Solid Gold” Murphy (the IBF cruiserweight titleholder) and rugged Zambian Chisanda Mutti simultaneously scored brutal knockdowns in the waning moments of the fight. A badly hurt Murphy barely beat referee Larry Hazzard’s count while Mutti remained down and was counted out. The crowd was up and roaring in disbelief. Mutti had to be helped from the ring.

This was no Rocky movie; this was real and unforgettable and it came after an 11th round that had to be seen to be believed. In fact, the entire fight involved seesaw exchanges that were of the career-ending type.

Carl Thompson vs. Ezra Sellers (2001)

“Thompson looks to be hurt by every shot he takes, but then again so does Sellers.”—Spencer Oliver

High up on my list is Carl “The Cat” Thompson vs. the late Ezra Sellers, a classic match in 2001 (with the somewhat recalcitrant but prime Steve Smoger refereeing) that involved at least six official knockdowns; Thompson hit the deck four times, Sellers twice. This was no boxing match but rather a no-holds-barred fight between two very exciting punchers.

Going into the third round, both men had been staggered and dropped hard; both were on the verge of being put to sleep. Finally, Sellers became the Sandman when he KOd The Cat in the fourth round with a crunching counter right hook, ending a winning streak that started after Thompson lost to Johnny Nelson in 1999. Thompson had been knocked down many times, but he always got up. This time he was separated from his senses and sent to Feline Dreamland. He finally rose from the canvas to the applause of the stunned and worried crowd.

My Number One: Michael Ayers vs. Wayne Rigby (July 1, 2000)

“Squinting at features even more battered than his own, Michael Ayers could tell from the look of resignation in Wayne Rigby’s eyes that his opponent was finished. The fire which raged fiercely for 10 rounds had been doused. Then, with Rigby helpless and American referee Arthur Mercante Jr. hesitating, came a moment unique in boxing.” — Mike Lewis, The Telegraph

…a credit to the sport f—– nearly brought me to tears i would’ve emptied my pockets and thrown it in the ring. — poster named Tony Stephenson

It was a shining example of the old fight game at its noble best. — Mike Casey

This bout, which occurred at the Bowler’s Arena in Manchester, UK, had all the ingredients for a classic Brit dust-up and it didn’t disappoint. And like Mutti-Murphy, it also involved unique happenings. The participants were late-substitute Wayne Rigby (17-5) from Manchester and Michael “Shaka” Ayers (28-3-1) from London. “Shaka” was the IBO lightweight titleholder.

On paper, Ayers, a stylist, looked to be the strong favorite. In fact, the accomplished Ayers had stopped the highly rated Colin Dunn in 1996. But the Mancunian challenger Rigby came to fight.

In the early going Rigby started fast showing surprisingly fast hand speed and a punishing right uppercut that he landed repeatedly. Things heated up in the third round as both men exchanged bruising shots, but Rigby was dictating the action to this point.

In the 4th round, Ayers fought back using a variety of punches behind a good jab and tightened things up. Then, in the 6th, “Shaka” put the lad from Manchester down with a beautiful straight right, but he failed to close matters.

Rigby came storming back in the 7th as both men engaged in mutual savagery, but Ayers managed to get in two crunching blows just before the bell that probably won the round for him. Rigby was fortunate the bell rang.

Again, showing great recuperative powers in the 8th round, Rigby drilled Shaka with every punch in the book and finally landed two hammering left hooks that sent the Londoner to the canvas like he had been hit with a Bobby’s sap. Somehow, someway, the tough champion, who was in danger of being stopped for the first time in his long career, got up and signaled to Rigby at the bell that he had indeed been rocked. Mutual respect and uncommon sportsmanship was now in play. What else was in play was that Ayers was at risk of losing to a man, albeit a former British champion, who had taken the fight on short notice.

Ayers also showed his ability to recuperate as he came out fast in the 9th, but the round was Rigby’s as he forced the action with straight rights, hooks and uppercuts to the rousing approval of his hometown fans. However, he expended valuable energy in the process. Both men continued to engage in malefic violence. Ayer’s mouth was bleeding and Rigby’s eyes were badly bruised.

The first half of the tenth round was even as both combatants continued to engage in what had become a closet classic. Ayers then began to use effective stinging right crosses and right leads. He took control with 1:26 left and accelerated his assault until the gallant Rigby found himself with an empty tank.

Then it Happened!

With only 29 seconds left, Ayers signaled to Mercante that the fight should be stopped, but for some inexplicable reason Mercante was not responsive. Ayers then pummeled his helpless and badly bloodied opponent until both men signaled that enough was enough, touched gloves, and headed back to their corners. This occurred with just 14 seconds left.

It was a rare moment of poignancy that made those who witnessed it feel chills run down their spines.

Mercante finally put his arms around Rigby to officially halt the fight, but the two noble warriors had already taken away that important responsibility from him. In fact, Mercante’s potentially dangerous hesitation could well have resulted in Rigby taking career-altering punishment.

As Mike Lewis writes, “Dropping their hands, Ayers and Rigby decided there and then that this memorable bruising battle was over. They touched gloves, nodded at one another and headed back to their respective corners. [It was] an extraordinary finish to an extraordinary contest. Hardened Manchester ringsiders had never seen anything like it.

“Barry Hearn, my manager, said it was eerie,” recalled the then 36-year-old Londoner Ayers of his remarkable victory which went into the books as a TKO. “It was almost as though Wayne and myself had communicated through telepathy. Somehow he got it across to me that he’d taken enough and I stopped.”

But the very best quote came from Jerry Storey, Ayers’ Irish trainer, when he said, “Those two guys showed boxing still had a soul.”

Like most, I keep my own list of favorite fights. This one is at the top.

What’s yours?

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com

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The Case for Marlon Starling: Why “Moochie” Belongs in Canastota

Jeffrey Freeman

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The Case for Marlon Starling: Why “Moochie” Belongs in Canastota

A TSS CLASSIC — It’s hard for the typical fight fan to understand exactly what the current criteria are for induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Boxing, unlike baseball or professional football, does not rely on a cold and calculated interpretation of statistics to determine eligibility and induction. It’s much more complicated than that. Or far more simple, depending on how you look at it. In our sport, the observer has real power. Greatness is in the eye of the individual beholder. What he or she sees, thinks, and does — matters.

Don’t believe me? Consider any split or majority decision.

According to their website, the mission of the IBHOF (located in upstate Canastota, New York since 1989) is, among other things, to “chronicle the achievements of those who excelled” in boxing. A closer look at the site reveals more about their procedures: “Members of the Boxing Writers Association of America and an international panel of boxing historians cast votes. Voters from Japan, England, Canada, Mexico, South Africa, Germany, Puerto Rico and the United States are among those who participate in the election process.”

I’ve been to the IBHOF many times and the Brophys, Director Ed and historian nephew Jeff, do a great job along with their loyal President Don Ackerman. In recent years, however, the Hall, and some of its young new voters in particular, have come under fire for their selection of some less than unanimous choices such as Arturo Gatti, “Boom Boom” Mancini, and Riddick Bowe. Critics and dissenters point to their losses and other perceived shortcomings while those who voted for them must surely have had their focus on the achievements and fame of those they ultimately helped to enshrine.

Personally, I’d have voted for two of three but that’s just me.

Enter Marlon “Magic Man” Starling, the former undisputed welterweight champion of the world from Hartford, Connecticut. Starling retired from boxing in 1990, a year after the establishment of boxing’s first true hall of fame. In those twenty-five plus years, Starling’s name has yet to appear on the ballot for IBHOF voters to either vote for or not. Before discussing Starling’s qualifications, let me make one thing clear about the balloting process. It’s a closed one. What that means is that a small group of IBHOF insiders figuratively pick names from a hat and then put those choices on the official ballot for the public consideration of their various international voters. Arturo Gatti, for example, could not have been voted for and voted in had his name not been selected by this panel in the first place. The identity and decision making process of this internal group remains a mystery to most outsiders.

They hold the 24K gold key to induction.

Why then would they want to put Starling’s name on the ballot? Well, for starters, theirs is a hall of fame, not a hall of feints. Starling was actually a master of both. When Starling plied his craft in the competitive cauldron of the 1980s, he frequently appeared on network television in primetime. It was there that mainstream fight fans got to know “Moochie” and his “Starling Stomp” signature move. In televised battles against Donald “Cobra” Curry, Jose “The Threat” Baret, and Johnny “Bump City” Bumphus among so many others, Starling made an unforgettable impression on a generation of fans who still remember him today and must wonder why he’s not in the hall if lesser skilled pugilists are. The IBHOF’s inclusion of Gatti could be seen just as controversially as the exclusion of Starling.

Compiling a career record of 45-6-1 (27), Starling made his pro debut in 1979 after an inauspicious amateur career where he lost in Lowell, Mass to Robbie Sims of all people. As a professional prizefighter inspired by the late great Muhammad Ali, Starling had a defensive peek-a-boo style that made him very difficult to hit, let alone beat. Not unlike Ali, Starling also possessed the gift of gab.

The young welterweight ran his record to 25-0 before his first loss, a twelve round split decision to Donald Curry in 1982. To this day, Starling disputes that subjective defeat just as he disputes his lack of inclusion in the hall of fame where he is regularly a guest of honor during annual induction weekends. “The Hall of Fame is special. I think Marlon Starling does belong in there,” says Starling about Starling. Even more ironically, “Cobra” Curry is also still waiting for a call from the hall that might never come. Curry’s qualifications include having been the single best pound-for-pound boxer on the planet for a short period of time, but that’s a debate for another day. (Editor’s Note: Since this story was written, Curry received the call, entering the Canastota shrine with the class of 2019.)

From 1983 to 1986, Starling stayed busy in search of a big money superfight against the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard or Tommy Hearns. Neither match-up was meant to be for “Moochie” who had to settle for televised bouts against contenders Kevin Howard, Floyd Mayweather Sr., and Simon Brown, all of whom Starling defeated by decision. “I have the respect of the Big Four. That’s what matters to me,” says Starling of Leonard, Hearns, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, and Roberto Duran. “Whenever I see those guys, I get their respect.”

A February 1984 rematch against a prime Donald Curry ended in the disappointment of another decision loss for Starling. It was in 1987 however that Starling began to make the most of the opportunities coming his way. A televised shot at the WBA welterweight championship against legendary amateur Mark Breland was all that stood between Starling and the world welterweight title. Following a virtuoso performance from Starling that highlighted the vast difference between a seasoned pro and a professionally inexperienced amateur, Breland collapsed in the eleventh round and just like that Starling was champion of the “whole wide world” as he proudly told Alex Wallau on ABC after the win.

In actuality, Starling was not yet the man who beat the man because of somebody out there named Lloyd Honeyghan. It was Honeyghan who upset Donald Curry for the world welterweight championship in 1986 and before Starling could move to unify or win universal recognition by beating Honeyghan, he’d have to go through the politics of a rematch “draw” with Breland (one judge scored the fight for Starling as did most fans and media) and a strange (again televised) knockout loss-turned-no contest (NC) against Tomas Molinares in 1988. Starling was knocked absolutely senseless from a punch that clearly landed after the bell to end the fifth round. Though it was later ruled a no contest and the result nullified, Starling lost his WBA championship and his momentum. Worse, he was made to look like a fool by HBO’s Larry Merchant during the unforgettably uncomfortable post-fight interview where Starling claimed that not only wasn’t he knocked out, he was never even knocked down.

It looked like the end was near for Marlon Starling.

But like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, Starling’s best days were still ahead of him. Less than a year after the Molinares debacle, Starling received a shot at Lloyd Honeyghan.  Because Honeyghan had so thoroughly thrashed Curry to win the WBC welterweight title, few observers expected “Moochie” to emerge victorious, particularly after his brutal “knockout” by Molinares. Boxing the fight of his life, Starling totally dominated and embarrassed Honeyghan, stopping the puffy “Ragamuffin Man” in nine rounds to lay claim to the undisputed world welterweight championship. By fighting and defeating the very best in the world, Starling had achieved his career goal of becoming the best welterweight in the world, the true welterweight champion of the “whole wide world.”

After reaching his professional peak with the thumping of Honeyghan, Starling defended the championship once before an ill-fated, economically driven, move to middleweight where he came up short against defending 160-pound world champion Michael Nunn, losing by majority decision. One judge scored it a perfectly even draw, 114-114 while two others had Nunn winning by wide scores.

In his final bout, Starling returned to welterweight where he dropped the 147-pound world title to Maurice Blocker by a majority decision before retiring in 1990, never to return, forever young in the eyes of those who saw him box under the bright lights of commercial network exposure. Again, another judge saw it all even in what was a very close fight in the ring and on the final scorecards.

So, does Marlon Starling belong in the International Boxing Hall of Fame? I’d say he does. I asked Starling himself and he answered me with a question. “How can Riddick Bowe be in the Hall of Fame if Marlon Starling isn’t?” he said in his uniquely rhetorical third-person fashion. Still, that’s not the path to Canastota, even if by all accounts Starling should at least be on the ballot by now.

You see, boxing is, like most everything else where so much money and power is involved, very political. Being outspoken, like Starling is and always has been, can hurt you in this game. Rightly or wrongly, it can prevent you from getting where you want to go. As a fight writer, I have experienced it personally and I have seen it applied to some brave souls who make their living in this, the cruelest sport.

Marlon Starling was a master defensive fighter. He won the legitimate world championship of the welterweight division, putting himself on a straight line that can trace its lineage all the way back to Sugar Ray Robinson, the best to ever lace up a pair of gloves. Starling was a TV star during the glory days of Wide World of Sports and Saturday afternoon boxing for the masses. Starling overcame strange and controversial defeats to persevere where few expected he could or would. Starling’s outgoing and accessible personality endeared him to fans and it’s good to see that nothing has changed.

Starling, who will turn 62 (not 61 as widely reported) on Aug. 29, 2020, is still sharp as a tack because boxing is about hitting and not getting hit. Starling still communicates with his many fans and makes himself available at boxing events for them to meet and greet him. In the end, Starling made his mark of excellence on the sport he chose to compete in and he did so in a way that made an indelible impression on all those who saw him fight.

Hope to see you in Canastota someday, Champ.

This is a slightly modified version of a story that ran on these pages on Aug. 29, 2016. Jeffrey Freeman covers boxing in New England for The Sweet Science.

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The KIMBALL CHRONICLES: Bidding Adieu to John Ruiz, The Quiet Man

George Kimball

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A TSS CLASSIC: I wasn’t even in Atlantic City on the night of March 15, 1996. Mike Tyson was fighting Frank Bruno in Las Vegas the following evening, and Don King had dressed up the undercard with four other world title fights (plus Christy Martin-Dierdre Gogarty), so even though I worked for a Boston newspaper and Johnny Ruiz, who lived across the river in Chelsea, was one of ours, there was never any question in my mind where I should be that weekend.

But a bunch of us did get together to watch Friday night’s HBO show, a unique event the network’s then-vice president Lou DiBella had cooked up called “Night of the Young Heavyweights. Not many of the 16 guys who fought that night were especially well known then, though several of them would be later. There were heavyweights from six different countries, and while six of these unknowns would eventually fight for world titles, only two would actually win one – and they both lost that night. Shannon Briggs got stretched in three rounds by Darroll Wilson, and Ruiz was counted out by Tony Perez exactly nineteen seconds into his fight against David Tua.

It was about as devastating a one-punch knockout as you’ll ever see. Nobody, or at least nobody in Boston, was exactly gloating about it, but the long-range implications were obvious. Even though Ruiz and his manager Norman Stone were saying “he just got caught; it could have happened to anybody, anyone who’d spent much time around boxing could have told you that a knockout like this one usually turns out to be the first of many.”

As an amateur Ruiz had been the best light-heavyweight in New England, but never quite made it to the top in national competition. In the 1992 USA Boxing Championships he lost to Montell Griffin. In the Olympic Trials in Worcester that year he lost to Jeremy Williams. You wouldn’t term either loss a disgrace – those two met in the final of the Trials, which Williams won, but then Griffin came back to beat him twice in the Box-off and earned the trip to Barcelona – but it did sort of define Ruiz’ place in the amateur pecking order.

As a pro Ruiz had already lost twice. Both were split decisions (to the late Sergei Kobozev in ’92 and to Dannell Nicholson a year later) and controversial enough that Stone could scream “We wuz robbed!” on both occasions, but now they, coupled with the Tua result, appeared to have defined his place in the heavyweight picture as well.

* * *
Three months later at the Roxy in Boston, Ruiz TKO’d Doug Davis in six. Davis was 7-17-1 going into that one and lost 16 of the 17 fights he had afterward. Davis was a career Opponent from Allentown, Pa., a little guy built like a fireplug who lost to nearly every mid-level heavyweight of his era, so the only real significance to this one was that back then he usually tried very hard to finish on his feet so that he’d be available the next time the phone rang.

To watch Stoney’s reaction, you’d have thought Ruiz had just knocked out Lennox Lewis at the Roxy.

As soon as the main event was over, I’d glanced at my watch and realized there was an edition I could still make if I filed my story in the next 20 minutes. I was already pounding away at my laptop before the fighters cleared the ring.

Next thing I knew, a red-faced Norman Stone was directly above me, bent over and shouting through the ropes, which was about as close as he could come to getting in my face without falling out of the ring.

The invective consisted for the most part of a stream of disconnected expletives, but from the few decipherable words in between I gathered that he hadn’t much enjoyed my interpretation of what the Tua loss might portend for Ruiz’ future.

Since I was on deadline, I just ignored him and kept writing. Trainer Gabe LaMarca and Tony Cardinale, Ruiz’ lawyer, finally dragged him away.

Seated next to me was a young boxing writer named Michael Woods, now the editor of The Sweet Science.

“What, asked Woodsy, “was that all about?

“Nothing, I shrugged without looking up. “He’s just a f—— psychopath, is all.

I finished my story and filed it, and then raced to Ruiz’ dressing room. Stone was still there.

“I don’t come up in the corner and interrupt you between rounds,” I told him. “If you want to act like a jerk (though I don’t think ‘jerk’ was actually the word I used), fine, but don’t try and drag me into it when I’m working.”

Having gotten that off my chest, I added “Now. Is there something you want to talk about?”

Actually, there wasn’t. He’d just been blowing off steam. The point of the exercise had been to remind Ruiz that he was standing up for him.

But I’ll have to admit two things. One was that John Ruiz had 27 fights after the Tua debacle, and he didn’t get knocked out in any of them. (Even when he was stopped in what turned out to be the final bout of his career, it was Miguel Diaz’ white towel and not David Haye’s fists that ended it.)

The other is that if somebody had tried to tell me that night that John Ruiz would eventually fight for the heavyweight championship of the world, let alone do it dozen times, I’d have laughed in his face, so on that count maybe Stoney got the last laugh after all.

* * *
No boxer ever had a more loyal manager. Stone was a hard-drinking Vietnam veteran who eventually kicked the booze and replaced it with another obsession. He had enough faith in Ruiz’ future that he twice mortgaged his house to keep the boxer’s career afloat, and was so protective that he eventually convinced himself, if not Ruiz, that it was the two of them against the world.

At that point in his career Ruiz was still vaguely aligned with London-based Panix Promotions, the same people who were guiding the fortunes of Lewis. It is unclear exactly how beneficial this might have been to Ruiz, who between 1993 and 1996 flew across the ocean to knock out obscure opponents in some fairly obscure UK cards, other than giving him the opportunity to boast that he knocked out Julius Francis a good four years before Mike Tyson got paid a fortune to do the same thing.

Working with Panix’ other heavyweight client was also supposed to be part of the arrangement, but Ruiz’ actual time in the ring with Lewis was brief. Ask Stoney and he’ll say that Lennox wanted no part of him after “Johnny kicked his ass.” Ask Lewis and he’ll laugh and point out that sparring with Ruiz was pretty much a waste of time anyway unless you were getting ready to fight a circus bear.

In any case, a few fights later Cardinal and Stone made what turned out to be a pivotal career move by enlisting Ruiz under Don King’s banner. (Panos Eliades seemed utterly shocked that a fellow promoter would poach a fighter from under his nose. “Ruiz isn’t Don’s boxer, he’s my boxer,” exclaimed Eliades.)

If Cardinale and Stone get full marks for aligning Ruiz with King, matchmaker Bobby Goodman deserves credit for the next critical phase of Ruiz’ career.

In January of 1998 Ruiz fought former IBF champion Tony Tucker in Tampa, and stopped him in 11 rounds. For his next three outings, Goodman was able to deliver opponents who each had but a single loss on their records, and, moreover, to strategically place the bouts on high-profile cards which provided national exposure to The Quiet Man.

In September 1998, on the Holyfield-Vaughn Bean card at the Georgia Dome, Ruiz fought 19-1-1 Jerry Ballard and stopped him in four.

In March of ’99 on the Lewis-Holyfield I card at Madison Square Garden, he scored a fourth-round TKO over 21-1 Mario Crawley.

In June of ’99, on a Showtime telecast topped by two title bouts in an out-of-the-way Massachusetts venue, Ruiz was matched against 16-1 Fernely Feliz, and scored a 7th-round TKO.

Ruiz at this point had been working his way up the ladder of contenders, and by the time Lewis beat Holyfield in their rematch that November, Ruiz was now rated No 1 and the champion’s mandatory by both the WBC and WBA. Ruiz, who at that point hadn’t fought in five months while he waited for the title picture to sort itself out, needed to beat an opponent with a winning record to maintain his position.

Enter Thomas “Top Dawg Williams of South Carolina (20-6). Ruiz knocked him out a minute into the second round.

Was it on the level? Hey, I was ten feet away that night in Mississippi, and I couldn’t swear to it, but I can tell you this much: three months later Williams went to Denmark, where he was knocked out by Brian Nielsen, and then when Ruiz fought Holyfield at the Paris in Las Vegas in June of 2000, Williams and Richie Melito engaged in an in camera fight before the doors to the arena had even opened, with Melito scoring a first-round knockout that was the subject of whispers before it even happened.

Having cut a deal and been flipped into a cooperating witness, Williams’ agent Robert Mittleman later testified under oath that he had arranged for Top Dawg to throw both the Nielsen and Melito fights.

The government had extensively prepped its witness before putting him on the stand. If the Ruiz fight had been in the bag, isn’t it reasonable to suppose that Mittleman would have been asked about that, too?

In any case, when Lewis ducked the mandatory, the WBA vacated its championship and matched Ruiz and Holyfield for the title. Holyfield won a unanimous decision, but under circumstances so questionable that Cardinale successfully petitioned for a rematch.

The return bout, at the Mandalay Bay in March of ’01, produced Ruiz’ first championship, along with another career highlight moment. Like so many of the Quiet Man’s other highlights, this one also involved Stone.

Stone had been foaming at the mouth since the fourth, when a Holyfield head-butt had ripped open a cut to Ruiz’ forehead. Then, in the sixth, Holyfield felled Ruiz with what seemed to be a borderline low blow that left Ruiz rolling around on the canvas. Referee Joe Cortez called time, deducted a point from Holyfield, and gave Ruiz his allotted five minutes to recover.

No sooner had action resumed than Norman Stone, loudly enough to be heard in the cheap seats, shouted from the corner, “Hit him in the balls, Johnny!

So Johnny did. And at that moment, not only the fight and the championship, but the course John Ruiz’ life would take for the next ten years were immutably altered.

The punch caught Holyfield squarely in the protective cup. Holyfield howled in agony, but didn’t go down. He looked at Cortez (who had to have heard Stone’s directive from the corner), but the referee simply motioned for him to keep fighting.

But Ruiz had taken the fight out of Evander Holyfield, at least on this night. The next round he crushed him with a right hand that left him teetering in place for a moment before he crashed to the floor, and once he got up, Holyfield spent the rest of the night in such desperate retreat that he may not have thrown another punch.

Inevitably, the WBA ordered a rubber match. The only people happier than Holyfield himself were Chinese promoters who had been waiting in the wings after the second fight. They seemed to be only vaguely aware, if they were at all, that Holyfield was no longer the champion, but when King announced the August fight in Beijing, they seemed to have gotten their wish after all.

This particular Ruiz highlight doesn’t include Stoney, nor, for that matter, does it include the Quiet Man himself.

Despite sluggish ticket sales, the boxers were both already in China, as was King, that July. I had already secured a visa from the Chinese embassy in Dublin a few weeks earlier, and then after July’s British Open at Royal Lytham driven up to Scotland for a few days of golf.

St. Andrews caddies can often astonish you with the depth of their knowledge, but I guess if a man spends a lifetime toting clubs for the movers and shakers of the world he’s going to pick up a lot through sheer osmosis. And on this occasion I’d come across one who was a boxing buff as well. We’d repaired to the Dunvegan Pub for a post-round pint to continue our chat, and when the subject of Ruiz-Holyfield III came up, I told him I’d be on my way to China myself in a few days.

“Oh, I wouldn’t count on that,” he said ominously. I asked him why.

“Ticket sales are crap,” he said. “Ruiz is going to hurt his hand tomorrow. The fight’s not going to happen.”

The next day I got an emergency e-mail from Don King’s office announcing that John Ruiz had incurred a debilitating back injury and would be sidelined for several weeks. The Beijing fight was indefinitely “postponed.”

At least the paper didn’t make me fly home via Beijing.

* * *
The third bout between Ruiz and Holyfield took place at Foxwoods that December. When the judges split three ways, Ruiz kept the championship on a draw. He then beat Kirk Johnson, who got himself DQd in a fight he was well on the way to losing anyway, and then decided to cash in, agreeing to defend his title against Roy Jones for a lot more money than he could have made fighting any heavyweight on earth.

It was as clear beforehand as it is now that if Jones just kept his wits about him and fought a disciplined fight, there was no way in the world John Ruiz could have outpointed him. The only chance Ruiz had at all was a pretty slim one – that of doing something that would so enrage Jones that he took complete leave of his senses and succumbed to a war, where Ruiz would at least have a puncher’s chance.

The trouble was, Ruiz’ basic decency would never have allowed him to stoop to something like that. But Stone gave it his best shot.

The Jones-Ruiz fight took on such a monotony that it’s difficult to even remember one round from the next, but Stone’s weigh-in battle with Alton Merkerson was pretty unforgettable. Merkerson is big enough, and agile enough, to crush almost any trainer you can think of, and even in his old age I’d pick him over some heavyweights I could name. He’s quiet and reflective and so imperturbable that I’ve never, before or since, seen him lose his temper, and it’s fair to say that’s not what happened that day, either. When he saw Stoney flying at him, he thought he was being attacked (albeit by a madman), and reacted in self-defense.

Stone was in fact so overmatched that even he must have expected this one to be broken up quickly. Instead, boxers, seconds, undercard fighters, and Nevada officials fled in terror for the twenty seconds or so it took for Merkerson to hit Stone at least that many times. It was a scene so ugly that even Ruiz seemed disgusted. It wasn’t the end of their relationship, but it was surely the beginning of the end.

The public reaction to Jones’ win was an almost unanimous outpouring of gratitude. At least, they were saying, “we’ll never have to watch another John Ruiz fight.” But they were wrong.

He beat Hasim Rahman in an interim title fight that was promoted to the Full Monty when Jones affirmed that he had no intention of defending it. (Referee Randy Neumann, exasperated after having had to pry Ruiz and Rahman apart all night, likened them to “two crabs in a pot.) He stopped Fres Oquendo at the Garden six years ago, and then in November of 2004 came back from two knockdowns to outpoint Andrew Golota.

The Golota fight produced yet another Ruiz moment when Neumann, wearied of the stream of abuse coming from the corner, halted the action late in the eighth round and ordered Stone ejected from the building.

Most everyone found the episode amusing, Ruiz and Cardinale did not. LaMarca had retired, and while Stone was now the chief second, he was also the only experienced cut man in the corner. Having forced the referee’s hand, Stone had placed Ruiz in an the extremely vulnerable position of fighting four rounds – against Andrew Golota – without a cut man. Strike two.

Ruiz was reprieved when his 2005 loss to James Toney was changed to No Contest after Toney’s positive steroid test, but he bid adieu to the title – and to Stoney, it turned out – for the last time that December, when he lost a majority decision to the 7-foot Russian Nikolai Valuev in Berlin.

Already on a short leash, Stone had openly bickered with Cardinale the week of the fight, but his performance in its immediate aftermath sealed his fate. When Valuev was presented with the championship belt after the controversial decision, he draped it over his shoulder in triumph. Stone tore out of the corner and snatched it away, initiating a fight with an enemy cornermen. With Russians and Germans pouring into the ring bent on mayhem, Stone had to be rescued by Jameel McCline, who may have saved his life, but couldn’t save his job.

Four days later it was announced that Stone was retiring. Ruiz seemed bittersweet about the decision, but the two have not spoken since.

All of Ruiz’ significant fights over the past four and a half years took place overseas, and while he was well compensated for all of them, they might as well have taken place in a vacuum. Few American newspapers covered them.

I didn’t cover them either, but Ruiz and I did get together for a few days last fall out in Kansas, where we appeared with Victor Ortiz and Robert Rodriguez at a University boxing symposium. He’d brought along his new wife Maribel and his young son Joaquin, and the morning we were to part company we got together again for coffee and reminisced a bit more.

Neither one of us had seen Stoney, though I would hear from him, indirectly, soon enough. Newspapermen don’t write their own headlines, and a few months ago the lead item in my Sunday notebook for the Herald reflected on Ruiz’ upcoming title fight against David Haye in England representing this country’s last best chance at regaining the championship for what could be years to come.

When somebody at the desk put a headline on it that described Ruiz as an “American Soldier, word came back that Stoney – who had, remember, been an American soldier – was ready to dig his M-16 out of mothballs to use on me, Ruiz, or both.

Few Americans watched the telecast of Ruiz’ fight against Haye earlier this month, which is a pity in a way, because his performance in his final losing cause was actually an admirable one. In his retirement announcement he thanked trainers Miguel Diaz and Richie Sandoval “for teaching an old dog new tricks, and while the strategic clinch hadn’t entirely disappeared from his repertoire, it was not the jab-and-grab approach that may be recalled as his legacy.

And while Haye was credited with four knockdowns in the fight, three of them came on punches to the back of the head that would have given Bernard Hopkins occasion to roll around on the floor for a while. If somebody had decked Ruiz with three rabbit punches back in the old days with Stoney in the corner, the city of Manchester might be a smoldering ruin today.

* * *
When Ruiz officially hung up his gloves on Monday he did so with a reflective grace rarely seen in a sport where almost nobody retires voluntarily.

“I’ve had a great career but it’s time for me to turn the page and start a new chapter of my life, he said. “It’s sad that my final fight didn’t work out the way I wanted, but, hey, that’s boxing. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished with two world titles, 12 championship fights, and being the first Latino Heavyweight Champion of the World. I fought anybody who got in the ring with me and never ducked anyone. Now, I’m looking forward to spending more time with my family.

In his announcement he thanked his fans, Diaz and Sandoval, Cardinale, his brother Eddie Ruiz, and his conditioning coach. He thanked everybody, in other words, except you-know-who.

Oh, yeah, one more thing. Ruiz, who has lived in Las Vegas for the past decade, now plans to move back to Chelsea. He hopes to open a gym for inner-city kids. “With my experiences in boxing, I want to go home and open a gym where kids will have a place to go, keeping them off of the streets, so they can learn how to box and build character.

I guess the question is: is Metropolitan Boston big enough for Ruiz and Stoney?

EDITOR’S NOTE: George Kimball, who spent most of his work life with the Boston Herald, passed away on July 6, 2011 at age sixty-seven. In his later years he authored the widely acclaimed “Four Kings: Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Duran, and the Last Great Era of Boxing” and co-edited two boxing anthologies with award-winning sports journalist turned screenwriter John Schulian. This story appeared on these pages on April 27, 2010.

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