At the moment, the junior welterweight division is the toughest and most talent-laden division in boxing. During the month of June, all four 140 pound belt holders are scheduled to defend their titles. On June 4, Kostya Tszyu faces Ricky Hatton in Manchester, England for the IBF version of the crown. On June 11, Miguel Cotto defends the WBO belt at Madison Square Garden against former amateur nemesis Muhammad Abdullaev. On June 25, Arturo Gatti defends the WBC belt in Atlantic City against Floyd Mayweather Jr. Vivian Harris will also be defending the WBA title against Carlos Maussa on the undercard of Gatti-Mayweather.

Last year, Aaron Pryor complained to me that one of the problems in the division was that the best weren’t fighting the best. I certainly agreed with his assessment at the time. However, in 2005 we seem to be moving in the right direction, and it seems possible that we’ll find out who the best 140 pound fighter in the world is sometime during 2006.

On most pound-for-pound lists, Floyd Mayweather Jr. occupies the number two slot behind Bernard Hopkins. Mayweather may not currently hold a belt at 140 pounds, but he is the best pure technician in the ring today. He possesses blinding hand and foot speed, and is difficult to tag cleanly even when he’s standing in the danger zone directly in front of his opponent.

When the dust clears, many believe he’ll emerge as the true champion at 140. If Floyd is successful against Gatti, and ultimately emerges as the undisputed champion at 140 pounds, boxing historians will certainly rank him amongst the absolute elite in junior welterweight history because he fought during an era when 140 pounds was considered the toughest division in boxing. It is indeed a tall task and a much tougher endeavor than he faced at 130 and 135 pounds.

Mayweather would agree with that assessment. Nevertheless, despite the fact that he should be considered among history’s elite at 140 if he prevails, he still won’t be the best pure technician in junior welterweight history. To find the most elusive technician in 140 pound history you have to go all the way to Argentina. That seems a little strange, because Argentina is known for tough, macho brawlers like Bonavena, Firpo and Galindez. Monzon was a master at 160 pounds, but he was a standup boxer puncher; not a defensive phantom. The sweetest sweet scientist at 140 pounds in boxing history is Nicolino “El Intocable” Locche.

Nicolino Locche was born on September 2, 1939 in Tunuyan, Mendoza, Argentina. He turned professional in 1958 after a 122 bout amateur career where he only lost five fights. Like many great South American fighters, Locche was inordinately active early in his career. He started as a lightweight and labored long and hard while making his bones against rough competition. In his twenty-sixth pro fight, Locche won the Argentine lightweight title in 1961 with a 12-round decision over 90-bout veteran Jaime Gine.

Just five years into his career in 1963, Locche sported a record of 38-1-7 and a startling 432 rounds of ring activity when he won the South American lightweight title from Sebastio Nascimento in Buenos Aires. Locche lost the South American lightweight title via a twelve round decision to Abel Laudonio in 1964, but regained the title from Laudinio the following year. Locche vacated the South American title in 1966, and began competing as a junior welterweight.

Just before vacating the South American lightweight title, Locche fought to a ten-round draw with the great Carlos Ortiz at Luna Park in Buenos Aires in April 1966. After the Ortiz draw, Locche won a stunning 28 consecutive bouts before battling to an eight-round draw with Anibal Di Lella in October 1968.

Two months after the draw with Di Lella, Locche was granted a title shot against WBA light welterweight champion Takeshi Fuji. Despite rarely fighting outside of South America, Locche was completely unperturbed by fighting on Fuji’s home turf of Tokyo, Japan.

Over nine one-sided rounds, Locche feinted, slipped and counterpunched the aggressive Fuji into submission. Locche’s performance against Fuji was the most unique display of pure ring generalship in junior welterweight history. Locche rarely utilized lateral movement during the bout, and used immaculate economy of motion and upper body movement to slip Fuji’s power shots while landing left hooks, right hands and uppercuts of his own. At times Fuji was visibly frustrated and befuddled, and roughly backed Locche into the ropes and corners with hopes of stifling Locche’s masterful counters. Much to his chagrin, Fuji’s could only strike air, as Locche ducked, pivoted, and countered Fuji silly at close quarters.

After the ninth round, Fuji’s corner called a halt to the action, and Locche won his first world title. I never saw Floyd Mayweather Jr. or James Toney do it better. More importantly, I never saw Wilfred Benitez do it with such classical, textbook mastery.

At the time Locche unseated Fuji as the WBA titleholder, “El Intocable” had an unconscionable 989 rounds of ring activity and a record of 90-2-14.

Over the next four years, Locche successfully defended his title five times, and was undefeated in eleven non-title bouts. Locche’s most notable defense was against the young, fresh, hard-punching Antonio “Kid Pambele” Cervantes in 1971. Locche clearly outpointed the future Hall of Famer over 15 rounds.

Locche ultimately lost his title to Alfonso “Peppermint” Fraser on a 15 round decision in March 1972. Frazer lost the title to Cervantes later that year on a tenth round knockout.

Locche attempted to regain the title from Cervantes on March 17, 1973 in Maracay, Venezuela. Locche was 33 years old with over 1,000 rounds of ring activity under his belt. He was balding and battle scarred. Albeit far past his prime, Locche used all his tricks to neutralize and frustrate the great Cervantes during much of their bout. At times Locche would stand directly in front Kid Pambele with his hands at his sides and easily slip razor sharp four and five punch combinations from the 27-year-old champion. Steadfast and patient, Cervantes kept pecking away, opened a cut early in the bout, and methodically gained control as the ring worn Locche began to tire. After the ninth round, the cut was deemed too severe for Nicolino to continue, and Locche suffered the first stoppage loss of his 127 bout career.

After the fight was stopped, Locche passionately pleaded for the bout to continue. Cervantes was definitely in control at the time of the stoppage, but Locche was unhurt and never in serious trouble. In tears, Nicolino had to be restrained by his cornermen as he refused to accept defeat.

Locche was inactive for two years after his loss to Cervantes. He was never able to secure another title shot for the remainder of his career. Amazingly, from August 1975 through August 1976, Locche closed his career on a seven bout winning streak. His final record was a stunning 117-4-14 (14 KOs).

To understand Locche’s greatness, one must realize that Locche was a defensive savant with no punching power. Even great Hall of Fame fighters like Joe Brown, Carlos Ortiz and Ismael Laguna couldn’t get the better of him, even though Nicolino wasn’t an offensive threat. As mentioned above, Locche battled Ortiz to a draw in 1966. Locche won a ten-round decision over Brown in 1963. Locche and Laguna fought to a draw in 1965.

Locche exemplified the true art and craft of boxing. He could find subtle angles to pile up points despite not being naturally gifted with unusual hand and foot speed. More interestingly, by the end of Locche’s 18-year career, he had compiled over 1,300 rounds of ring activity, but was a known chain smoker. Locche was an anomalous fighter like Willie Pep who made it look easy against the best. Like Pep, Locche was able to compete at the elite level over multiple decades because he mastered the fundamentals of the game and possessed abnormal ring intelligence. In my opinion, Pep and Locche are the two top defensive fighters in boxing history.

Locche was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2003. Obviously, Locche’s induction was long overdue. Perhaps one of the reasons for Locche’s delayed induction was because he was a South American fighter who rarely ventured to foreign locales, and thus wasn’t given the proper exposure over the course of his long and distinguished career.

Locche currently resides in Argentina. Due to years of chain-smoking, Locche has experienced cardiac and respiratory problems over the last decade. In 2004, Locche was in the intensive care unit of an Argentine hospital, but reportedly has stabilized over the past year. Tobacco has proven to be the only opponent he couldn’t evade.