Since the beginning of time – pug time – there have always been discussions and arguments as to who was the greatest fighter to ever lace up a pair of US Grade A, Government neglected leather gloves… and maybe the answer really isn’t as complicated as it appears… I mean, personal reasons aside as to why we favor one fighter over the other, we really CAN get a sense of how two fighters from different generations would match up (and one would have to do that if you were to truly find out who’s the “baddest man” of any epoch) against one another.
Ok, first and foremost, what are the criteria for being admitted into the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) rankings? Physical fight ability (this is a complex category but basically, the fighter with the best offensive weapons and the best defensive attributes are how we should rate our fighters – in addition to quality of opposition, etc., and so forth) is one of the tools we use to categorize ability; mental strength is another (high pain threshold, the ability to perform under duress or intense pressure, coming from behind or having being knocked down are some ways to measure mental strength). Those categories are the somewhat measurable/immeasurable abilities we can all relate to… and then there are the definitely immeasurable happenings that can effect a fighter’s performance. Certain business or personal relationships that go sour at the most inopportune times, a loss of a loved one, loading of the gloves and favoritism by judges and referees… fighting in someone else’s backyard, etc.
It is a daunting task deciding who is the greatest pound-for-pound fighter to ever lace up the gloves because sometimes you can’t get by the personal favoritism to see your favorite’s shortcomings, but we are gonna try to tackle the gargantuan and feel free to reply… don’t forget to add why you think your selected fighter is the best or different from the “predictable” one I will choose.
Up front, let’s put the collective top-10 fighters in the mix and whittle away from there. Right off the bat we may run into trouble because my choice of top-10 will not be the same as yours, but I am trying to be fair. I am putting in names of fighters I feel are great, but also fighters many others feel are great. In so doing, I am trying not to favor the modern-day fighter. But with yesteryear’s fighters you are taking another person’s word for gospel and if you were to see the fighter on film or live, you may not feel the same way about his abilities as opposed to the abilities of another man. (Also, the attributes that one man uses to rate a guy, you may not.) Some of the more seasoned in fandom may think Henry Armstrong is the greatest fighter of all time, given his wins and being able to move up from one weight to the other. Back in the day when there was only one champion and there were ten pounds between weight divisions… I have only seen clips of “Homicide” Hank fight so this will certainly hinder his claiming the number one spot, but you could make quite a case for him and wouldn’t be wrong.
There’s something else I didn’t consider in terms of looking at aged film of fighters from another decade…. The film footage doesn’t read the same as it does today. So to look at a fighter’s style where he goes from moving real slow to excessively fast at almost convulsing speeds, doesn’t display a fighter’s style accurately… so you must also rely on the history of the fighter, similar styles you have seen throughout your viewing of boxing and you also have to do what dinosaur-ologists do: make an intelligent guess compared to the more “evolved” version of fighter we see today. This leads me to another question… has boxing really evolved anyway? We’d like to think so, but I guess this is a question for another time.
Having said that, in NO PARTICULAR ORDER, (because the only one that counts is #1) we’re off…
1. Jack Johnson – Wiped out any- and everybody put before him… Fought during a time of complete and utter hostility toward a black man… and that was the norm. In fact, he probably heard the word “nigger” so often that he thought it was the name his mother gave him. Watching the film of him let’s you know that he was pretty slick and advanced for a fighter in that era… he used subtle movements, feints and other excellent technical abilities even fighters of today don’t use, like parrying, for example. He also, like Ali, used a strong personality as a form of effective offense. The kind of personality that takes a fighter to a different level… a level most boxers are not used to fighting, and given it was the first time for most of his opponents at that “altitude” (they had the hopes of pretty much all of white America that followed boxing on his shoulders), that type of pressure didn’t help. So, a man that is able to function effectively under the type of hostile circumstances that Jack did, you would think that would be enough to garner the #1 spot; but truth be told, I am not convinced that boxing had evolved enough to the point that all fighters were that advanced and many guys probably trained about as often as your neighborhood stumblebum or saloon brawler. Could I see Jack beating Joe Louis? Muhammad Ali? Joe Frazier? Riddick Bowe? Boxing had really just raised itself up out of the bare-knuckle fighting days and to tell you the truth, they didn’t throw many punches for fear of hurting the hands, not the other guy’s head. So how can you hone your craft if you can’t throw as many punches as you need to in training, never mind build up the stamina and endurance to fight 3 minutes of every round? This lack of training and fighting evidence leads me to say no. Maybe Johnson’s top-10 and obviously a knowledgeable and strong willed individual with characteristic traits that in and of themselves would help defeat the modern-day champions, but he would need more than that to defeat the best of the best of all-time.
2. Joe Louis – The first thing you need to recognize about Joe Louis would be his remarkable power and his willingness to fight everybody. Then you would need to acknowledge his personality, so stoic and graceful in victory as well as defeat. The fact that he has one of the most amazing records in sports – 23 knockouts in 27 title defenses – the most title defenses in the game (?) – but look a little below the surface and you gotta question the opposition… not that he had any control over who he was fighting… and generally you can only fight who is put in front of you… (Larry Holmes was an amazing fighter, BUT he doesn’t make the list due to the caliber of fighters he defended the title against. Holmes’ “Frazier” was Ernie Shavers.) Then you go into the fact that Louis was in dire trouble against guys that weren’t reputed to be that dangerous (Billy Conn)… getting blown out in a fight (during your prime) isn’t going to help matters either (Schmeling 1). Let’s throw Joe’s ability into the deep end and see if it swims… Joe Louis and Big George Forman… what do you think happens? Do Joe’s short powerful punches get inside the hulking Forman’s gargantuan swings and chop him down or will Forman’s devastating early round assault have The Bomber imploding before he gets out of the first round? We can’t guarantee either… Same with Louis vs. Tyson… Heck, Louis and Holyfield. There are similarities in style yet Holyfield was more fluid and probably took a better punch… then, if you want to go pound-for-pound, put Louis in with Sugar Ray Robinson, Leonard, Duran, Whittaker… case closed. Louis makes the list due to his amazing record of title defenses, but for ability/flexibility, he had one way of fighting… and there’s an old adage that was never more apropos than it is here… “that which can’t bend breaks.”
3. Pernell Whitaker – “Sweet Pea” is the most underrated, underappreciated fighter to ever box, period. His talent was so superior to everyone he fought, people had no idea what they were seeing. He had everything Roy Jones had, but without the punch (but better defense). Everything Leonard had but without the charisma (but better technical boxer). Everything Ali had but without the personality (but better body puncher). The only thing “negative” you could say about him was he couldn’t punch THAT hard. And if you can’t hurt your opponent, your opponent begins to get brave and when they get brave, you got problems. People like Jake LaMotta and Tommy Hearns and Holyfield, who aren’t afraid to take a couple in order to land one, love fighting guys like this… but a study in frustration and an exercise in futility is what they are really in for. Trying to hit Pernell is like shadowboxing. Sure, he’s been dropped, but even Ali was dropped by Sonny Banks AND Henry Cooper, so Whitaker being dropped by Roger “The Black Mamba” Mayweather, who could punch like poison, is no shame. Here’s the ultimate, Ali vs. Pernell… This is no Camacho vs. Howard Davis (although both these dudes could do their thing). Both Ali and Pernell, as well as having frustratingly effective defenses, also have viciously competitive sides that when awoken, you wish they did own a one punch knockout punch to put you out of your misery. Here’s how good he was: Pernell had to have a full-blown substance abuse issue before he lost a fight as far as I can tell and he fought anyone who would wanna fight him, on their terms and won. Like Ali, fistic perfection, and if you told me that pound-for-pound in the ring he would beat Ali, you would have a lot of ammo to back your claim.
4. Rocky Marciano – He did retire as heavyweight champ undefeated, but with claims of having wins over relatives and such against him, things can get spotty. But that’s all hearsay. We’ll deal with fact. Boxing’s “free trade act” hadn’t really been enacted. Because the business was a “controlled” one, a fighter with the right “persuasions” could easily avoid stiff competition against deserving fighters… (hey, don’t they do that today as well? Ok, but at least today you could vie for a different title… See, there is a reason for the “alphabet organizations” after all. Proving everything that does exist, exists for a reason). Rocky had wars with Ezzard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott who were amazing fighters but small heavyweights well as past their prime. Joe Louis was considerably past his prime as well. Rocky and his opponents’ size may not have anything to do with the pound-for-pound ratings but ability does. Rocky never fought a fighter that could stick and move or brought considerable power along with various other talents. I hate to say the word “safe” but if you make it to home plate without having to hustle… well, maybe his opponents weren’t ever favored to win. Super fighters fight super fighters when both are at their peak, and I cannot find one fighter on Rocky’s record that is a super fighter AT HIS PEAK. Rock was strong, had a high tolerance for pain, apparently took a great shot, unbelievable endurance and could punch like a f%#&*@g mule kick. But picture Rock against Wilfredo Benitez, Roberto Duran, Pernell, or any of the Sugar Ray’s. … this list can go on for sometime and I am not here to denigrate Marciano. Larry Holmes was inconsiderate saying Rocky couldn’t carry his jockstrap, but really, take a look at fight footage and picture Rocky fighting Larry Holmes. Marciano was excellent given the tools he developed against the opponents he fought, but to consider him pound-for-pound/the greatest of all time, well, NO.
5. Sugar Ray Robinson – Unbeatable at welterweight, he moved up to middle and was able to do amazing things… Had methods of communication been developed to the point they are today, the sky would have been the limit for his earning potential. At first you don’t know what to believe… your grandfather would tell you things about him that was sure to get the “tongue in cheek” reaction from you. Stories of his fights can be made to sound legendary. But everything you would hear coming through your radio offering the blow-by-blow wasn’t hyperbole… Sugar Ray, “the dancing man, as they used to call him, gliding ever so effortlessly to the right, you’d almost think he had skates on… But Fullmer’s been putting on the pressure and getting to Ray consistently now. Gene is just too big and too strong… OH, Fullmer is going to take a 10 count on this one. He was nailed by a perfectly timed left hook and he is out, he won’t make it up!” The most beautiful thing about the Sugarman was his originality… oh he could fight… go to the body, head, throw any combination you could dream of… knock a man out backing up and all without getting his hair too mussed up! Ray’s style was so crowd-pleasing with his ability to make something so brutal look so beautiful, he was the epitome of nature. He also took an unbelievable punch… and that’s where gravity comes into play. Ray unfortunately took too many of them. And that was his biggest shortcoming. In the department of defense he lacked, BIG TIME. It’s almost like his trainers didn’t believe there was such a thing as punch drunk syndrome. I guess boxing still was in its infancy and it’s not like the medical profession was voicing its concerns for the professional boxer and his “sort.” No one ever seemed to have a problem getting to Ray; their biggest concern was getting out of his way… and what a huge problem that was. Of all the fighters of yesteryear, Ray is the most modern and advanced, his style plays in any arena, but the porous defense… the room for error is thinner when you get to the top and when it’s all even, hand speed, reflexes, power, conditioning, attributes like defensive capability start to come into play and against a fighter that could do it all, Ray is in for a long fight, trading punches even the viewer would feel through the TV screen. Robinson Ali? Sugar1-Sugar2? Sugar-Jones? Sugar-Pryor? Sugar-Holyfield? Sugar-Marciano? Sugar-anyone… he definitely gets my “most crowd-pleasing” (Pryor and Hearns are close seconds though) though edged out of the Greatest Of All Time title by the thinnest of margins.
6. Evander Holyfield – This man is like your pet pit-bull, just point to whom you want him to fight and let him go, he will die trying. The type of heart, spirit and ability Holyfield possesses can never ever be sold short. In fact, Evander’s “overachiever/underdog/giant slayer” worked so well for him that people forgot this man was the REAL DEAL. He knew how to fight and had the technical skills of fighters from a bygone era. But there was much more to Evander’s game than courage… to see him execute against Dwight Muhammad Quawi (a hardened and proven champ that was chopping up everyone) over 15 rounds in their first fight… and Holyfield only had something like 12 fights at the time, his roll and counter, his ability to stand in the direct line of fire with some of the most powerful punchers boxing has ever seen, absorb their power and dish it back twofold, that’s the stuff legends are made of. It’s this opinion that what limited Holyfield’s ability as a heavyweight boxer was his weight-training program. In order to bulk up to heavyweight, he had to put on muscle… but someone neglected to remind Evander that boxing is about how often and hard you can punch, not how often and how much you can lift, so I think the weights really inhibited his punch and performance endurance and caused him to tire so rapidly in fights against Bowe (for example) when he was stopped in the 8th round. He had other fights were he almost refused to let his hands go in combination. He could beat the big men, but would lose or have a lot of trouble with a smaller faster man because he had more armor to lug around. Weights add “perceived” strength but zap your spiritual strength and often he went “quietly into the night” against fighters that weren’t interested in doing nothing but jab and move, or jab and hold. Scurrying away with timid decisions, careful not to awaken the sleeping dog. One thing for sure: at any weight, Evander Holyfield can never be discounted. Physically he is as gifted as mentally he is resolute. He can go toe-to-toe with anyone, BUT, should he be fighting a boxer with good wheels, not so interested in physical collisions, Evander’s in big trouble. He can box, but his true nature is that of a fighter and this is his undoing with types like Benitez, Ali, Leonard and so forth. How is this for a mega super fight… Joe Frazier (Ali 1 version) vs. Evander Holyfield (mid to late 80’s version)
7. Roberto Duran – His ability is legendary. He wiped out the lightweights, skipped the super lightweights and jumped to welter and beat the golden goose, Sugar Ray Leonard, continued up and knocked out the champ Davey Moore in the super welterweight division and then took undisputed middleweight champ Marvelous Marvin Hagler to the limit in a close title fight… any slugger, or fighter, that threw round house punches would get eaten alive by this man. Definitely one of the greatest DEFENSIVE fighters to ever lace up the gloves, he was also extremely aggressive and had amazing dexterity with the mitts… here’s something you don’t see which I saw Duran execute… a guy throws a left hook at you, you move into and under the punch and score with your own left hook to the body AT THE SAME TIME… you have to see it! The man was a fistic virtuoso and surely the greatest fighter to ever lace up the gloves. Picture him as a heavyweight – he would eat up Holmes, Forman, Liston, Frazier, Tyson… Duran and Sugar Ray Robinson? That’s a fight! WAIT A MINUTE… But not Ali and certainly not the Ali fight breed. Make Duran move his feet as he had to do against the Viruet brothers, against Zeferino Gonzales, against Sugar Ray Leonard in the second fight, and it’s a new day. If you can move your feet and move your hands at the same time… you are going to do very well against Roberto. Intelligent straight punching boxers were his Achilles heel, always were. With a shortcoming that obvious, no way could he be considered pound-for-pound. OK, no mas on that.
8. Sugar Ray Leonard – I have to be careful with Sugar 2, because I grew up on him, idolized him, was fed a steady stream of him from 7UP commercials to sales of all sorts of product. But I gotta say this about Ray… THE MAN COULD FIGHT! As much as he ushered in the media friendly-packaged smile – mega watt nice guy – he had a wicked competitive streak that you would never want to go up against unless you thrive on that kinda thing. He KO’d the Hitman, when the Hitman was KOing everyone… and continued to afterwards. Lost to Duran, but came back and thumped him right away. I mean, as a boxer, if you can make a man – and not just any man, a great fighter –consciously quit, to your intellectual side it can be as gratifying as knocking him cold. But we know the savage side of the brain always wins out. We prefer to see a man take the 10-count. Leonard beat Marcus Geraldo at middleweight, in 1980… and that’s BEFORE Marvin Hagler beat Geraldo… AND Sugar was a welterweight, Marcus a legit middleweight. Leonard had speed and power… (often he sacrificed it wisely unwilling to go toe-to-toe) was amazing working the body and the head, had amazing reflexes and that certain quality that makes you feel so assured going into battle. A man with a heart and fight spirit like this you always want on your team. He was to boxing what Jordan was to basketball, that simple. Looking at his talent, you could put him in with any fighter from any era at any weight and be relatively secure betting the kid’s college fund… AND your retirement fund, that he will win… But is he my choice for the #1? Alas, no, and I will tell you why: the one loss to Roberto Duran showed me something… psychologically he can be rattled, not often, but it can and did happen and #2, he didn’t adapt in the way you thought he would to win the fight… he kept trying to force something that wasn’t there for him… That looping overhand right… so ineffective against Duran… gotta be laser straight, like he did in the second fight. He fought grade-A opposition and defeated them convincingly and with style… Cream rises to the top, and the Sugar almost made it too. Imagine Leonard vs. Ali… WOW!
9. Roy Jones Jr. – What can you say about a man who possessed god-like instincts – reflexes, power and ability? It really was unreal watching him throw triple and quadruple left hooks against opponents that were otherwise champions if not for him. He went into a fight as Ali did against Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams and fought the perfect fight, nearly landing every punch he threw while not getting hit AT ALL… Knocking out his opponent in the 6th round… maybe he had an “aversion” to being hit that made a couple fights hard to watch, but if you have that ability why not? Every attribute you would want of your fighter, Roy possessed, with the exception of one thing that became more apparent as he continued fighting… a defense. As Howard Cosell would say about Thomas Hearns pre-Sugar 1: “Defense? His defense was his offense.” Which is absolutely cool and crowd-pleasing until you come upon someone with an equally potent offense and what do ya do then? Roy’s offense was amazing speed, intelligence, a healthy fear of getting hit and amazing fistic gymnastics, multiplied by numbing power… His defense consisted of putting his hands to the sides of his head and letting guys whack away at his ribs like a side of beef as long as you don’t give up the headshots. No slipping, ducking, not even the winged feet to provide different angles, nothing. Whenever Roy would punch, his head was ALWAYS right on top of his shoulders, which were always over his hips, which were always over his feet. In other words, as an opponent you didn’t have to see his head to know where he is, you simply had to punch where you last saw his head and BINGO… That’s what we are seeing now, unfortunately. But make no bones about it, when Roy was at the top of his game… as a middleweight, it is virtually impossible to see him lose to anyone fighter… I seen him break unbendable guys. But what about Roy vs. Duran? Leonard? Ali? Hearns? Robinson? All great fights and their outcomes can change depending on what day of the week it is, but alas… Roy don’t get the brass ring either for all the aforementioned champs had potent offenses as well. Check it, everyone’s chin gets tested at some point and that being the case most of the aforementioned passed with flying colors. Roy didn’t. And why didn’t he ever have a nickname? That always bothered me.
10. Muhammad Ali– “I’m the Greatest”…And if you have to ask why, you don’t really know your boxing.