Debate Continues: Greatest Boxer Ever Choices Explained

BY Ron Borges ON June 29, 2009
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With the balloting and the debating having begun on who is the greatest fighter in each of the traditional eight weight classes it seemed logical to weigh-in on the subject and see what debate is sparked.

As a member of the nominating committee one thing was clear – no one agrees on much once you get past a handful of fighters in each weight division but here are my thoughts (and votes) in the first four divisions with a brief discussion of each.

FLYWEIGHT: Miguel Canto

It is difficult to ignore the remarkable record of the Welshman Jimmy Wilde, who is considered by many to be the greatest fighter every produced by British boxing. Wilde was champion from 1916-23, losing his title to Pancho Villa (a word about him in a moment) by knockout in front of over 40,000 people at the Polo Grounds after a two-year layoff. More impressive was his 141-3-1 record and eight title fight victories in nine matches.

Villa somehow didn’t make the list, which was a painful omission in my opinion but so it goes. The argument about him went back and  forth but eventually he came up short a few votes, although the internet community is already urging he be included somehow.

One could certainly make a strong case for Ricardo Lopez, who retired undefeated (58-0-1, 38 KO) and nearly got my vote on the strength of his record of 18 successful title defenses. He was a hammering puncher and a great champion but in the end defense trumped offense and Canto won the debate in this corner.

Considered one of the greatest defensive fighters of all-time, Canto held the flyweight title from 1975-79, retiring with 15 successful title fights (out of 18 title matches) and a record of 61-9-4. Canto was not only nearly impossible to hit, he was a master counter puncher and a guy who elevated the theory of boxing being the art of “hit and don’t be hit’’ to new levels.

A bout between the offensive-minded Lopez and the defensively skilled Canto would have been a classic battle of styles that anyone who knows anything about boxing would have borrowed money to get a ticket to.

BANTAMWEIGHT: Ruben Olivares

This was also a difficult division to make a selection because it required leaving off a personal favorite, Carlos Zarate (66-4, 63 KO,  with two of those losses coming at the end of his career when he was 36), and Wilfredo Gomez (44-3-1, 42 KO), who could punch like a mule.

There was also a glaring omission from the list in that Khaosai Galaxy of Thailand was not included. Galaxy retired with a 49-1 record and successfully fought for the WBA junior bantamweight title 19 times, winning 16 of those fights by knockout. He retired the unbeaten champion in 1992 so how he didn’t make the list boggles the mind but so it goes.

This brings us to Olivares. A four-time world champion in two weight classes (bantamweight and featherweight), Olivares had a left hook that would have made Joe Frazier envious. He won 61 straight fights before his first loss, to Chucho Castillo on a cut in a rematch, a defeat he later avenged.

Were Galaxy in the mix he would be difficult to ignore, as are Zarate, Gomez and Manuel Ortiz but, in the end, you gotta make a pick and I went for the man who was the king of the Forum in L.A. in the 1970s because if you love left hooks his was as good as it gets at throwing one.

FEATHERWEIGHT: Willie Pep

Wilfredo Gomez probably should have ended up in this division and if he had his record would have been difficult to ignore. So, too, was Sandy Saddler’s (144-16-2), especially since he beat Pep three times in four tries; and Salvador Sanchez (44-1-1, 32 KO and 10 world title fight victories before dying at 23 in a car wreck outside Mexico City) was almost impossible not to settle on.

But, in the end, Pep won out as he always has done when the discussion is about the greatest featherweight of all-time. No one was a better defensive fighter than Pep and he was one of the few able to win with defense as well as offense.

Pep became the youngest champion in his weight class when he won the featherweight title from Chalky Wright in 1942 at the age of 20 and would run his record to 62-0 before first being defeated. After a points loss to SammyAngott, the former lightweight champion, Pep won another 73 in a row, unifying the featherweight title he would later lose to Saddler in the first of four bitter fights between them.

Pep would avenge that loss to win back the title but then was twice stopped by Saddler, once when he separated his shoulder and had to retire on his stool and a final time in a fight so filthy both men were suspended by the New York State Boxing Commission for their foul play.

After retirement, Pep made an ill-advised comeback at 43 before finally stopping for good with a remarkable record of 229-11-1. Trying to hit Willie Pep when the Will-’o-the-Wisp was at his best was, in the assessment of a frustrated opponent named Kid Campeche like “trying to stamp out a flame.’’

LIGHTWEIGHT: Henry Armstrong

It was so difficult not to vote for Roberto Duran here that words cannot begin to explain it but Armstrong (152-21-8) appeared only in this weight class even though he should have been listed as a welterweight because that is where he fought for world titles 22 times. But with that being the case, it was impossible to ignore the man Beau Jack, among many others, called “the greatest boxer who ever lived.’’

To not vote for Joe Gans, Benny Leonard or Ike Williams as the top lightweight took some soul searching and it was very hard to skip over Julio Cesar Chavez but to ignore Duran in this weight class was neigh impossible. He was 62-1 as a lightweight, his only loss coming in a non-title fight against EstebanDeJesus . Duran, who won all 12 lightweight title fights he engaged in with 11 coming by stoppage, avenged that loss and a year later abandoned the division to move up to welterweight, where he stunningly dismantled Sugar Ray Leonard.

Although he would go on to win world titles in three other weight classes, the best of him was at lightweight. Were it not for the listing of Armstrong as a lightweight in this balloting even though 22 of his 26 title fights were at 147 pounds Duran would be the choice.

But in the end you have to deal with the reality of how things are and in this balloting Armstrong was listed as a lightweight so how do you chose anyone but Sugar Ray Robinson ahead of a man who once held world titles in three weight classes simultaneously.

Some will argue you do it because Duran was the better lightweight but to leave Armstrong totally off a list of Greatest Ever boxers would have been the greater folly.

To vote in the Greatest Ever online poll go to www.greatestever.com and cast your ballot. Other information on the voting and a Las Vegas event Oct. 2-4 honoring the greatest ever is also available there.

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