Sugar Ray Robinson is Still #1: Ranking the Middleweight Greats

Ranking great fighters from different eras, when done seriously, is a daunting task. It’s easy to sit down and put together a shoot-from-the-hip list. But that doesn’t do justice to the fighters.

In recent years, I’ve sought to quantify ring greatness in a credible way. I’ve compiled lists of great champions who reigned at 135 and 147 pounds and matched them against each other in round-robin tournaments with the results of each fight being predicted by a panel of boxing industry experts.

This time, in advance of Gennady Golovkin’s next ring appearance, it’s modern 160-pound greats.

The middleweight champions chosen for the tournament, in alphabetical order, are Nino Benvenuti, Gennady Golovkin, Marvin Hagler, Bernard Hopkins, Roy Jones, Jake LaMotta, Carlos Monzon, Sugar Ray Robinson, and James Toney.

The list is limited to middleweights from the post World War II era. It does not include fighters like Stanley Ketchel, Harry Greb, and Mickey Walker because not enough film footage is available to properly evaluate them. Golovkin is the wild card in the tournament. His fans have complained that none of today’s elite fighters will fight him. This is his chance to be matched against the best.

The panelists were asked to assume for each hypothetical fight that both fighters were at the point in their respective careers when they were still able to make 160 pounds and were capable of duplicating their best 160-pound performance.

One can look to side issues such as same-day weigh-ins versus day-before weigh-ins. And there’s a difference between going twelve rounds as opposed to fifteen. But at the end of the day, either a fighter is very good, great, or the greatest.

Twenty-four experts participated in the rankings process. Listed alphabetically, the panelists are:

Trainers: Teddy Atlas, Pat Burns, and Don Turner

Media: Jerry Izenberg, Harold Lederman, Paulie Malignaggi, Larry Merchant, and Michael Rosenthal

Matchmakers: Eric Bottjer, Don Elbaum, Bobby Goodman, Brad Goodman, Ron Katz, Mike Marchionte, Chris Middendorf, Russell Peltz, and Bruce Trampler

Historians: Craig Hamilton, Don McRae, Bob Mee, Clay Moyle, Adam Pollack, Randy Roberts, and Mike Tyson

If each of the nine fighters listed above had fought the other eight, there would have been 36 fights. And there were 24 panelists. Thus, 864 fight predictions were entered into the data base. Fighters were awarded one point for each predicted win and a half-point for each predicted draw (too close to call). A perfect score would have been 192 points.

In two instances, an elector chose not to make a prediction on certain fights. One matchmaker said that he never saw Robinson, LaMotta, or Benvenuti fight and didn’t feel comfortable predicting outcomes for their matches. One historian felt the same way regarding Golovkin. A weighted average from the other electors was used to fill in the fights at issue in those two tournament grids.

In some instances, the fighters actually fought each other at middleweight. For example, Roy Jones conclusively decisioned Bernard Hopkins when they fought at 160 pounds. But Hopkins’s prime middleweight years came after that. Thus, two electors gave Bernard the nod over Roy at 160 pounds and two called their match-up a draw.

Sugar Ray Robinson was the clear choice for #1.

Two years ago, Robinson finished first in a similar 147-pound fantasy tournament with a projected record of 186 wins, 3 losses, and 7 draws. Now the experts have rated Robinson #1 at 160 pounds. Fourteen of the 24 electors predicted that he would win all eight of his tournament fights. But Robinson is considered beatable at middleweight, where his projected tournament record is 173 wins, 17 losses, and 2 draws.

Here, it should be noted that we’re talking about the Sugar Ray Robinson of 1951, who put a brutal beating on Jake LaMotta; not the Robinson who lost desire and saw his physical skills diminish as he got older.

Marvin Hagler, Roy Jones, and Carlos Monzon are grouped behind Robinson in that order.

“Picking against Robinson has become almost a sacrilege,” one matchmaker said. “But I think Hagler at his best beats him.”

Another Hagler backer noted, “I’ll go with Hagler over Robinson. But if Marvin comes out in an orthodox stance and gives away the first four rounds like he did against Sugar Ray Leonard, I’m changing my vote.”

Roy Jones finished close behind Hagler, eliciting kudos such as, “People forget how good Roy was when he was young . . . Jones was so athletically gifted at that time in his life – far beyond anything normal – that I can seen him beating any of these guys . . . Roy at middleweight was special with his amazing speed and power. He did things I never saw anyone else do. He could have stolen this tournament.”

Three of the electors thought that Jones would win all eight of his fights. One elector gave Hagler (who finished second to Robinson in the voting) a perfect 8-and-0 record.

Three voters predicted that Monzon (who finished fourth) would win all eight of his fights. “The downside to Monzon,” one matchmaker said, “is that he fought a lot of elite fighters, but he didn’t fight them at their peak.”

Jake LaMotta, Gennady Golovkin, and Bernard Hopkins were also closely grouped.

“To be fair to LaMotta,” one historian said, “he was slipping when he fought Robinson the last time, which was the only time they fought at middleweight. Was he as great as Robinson? No. But he beat Robinson once, and he was good enough to test him every time.”

Golovkin was 12-10-2 in head-to-head competition against Hopkins and edged Bernard out in the rankings by a half-point. A repeated theme with regard to Gennady was, “He’s good, but I don’t know how good because the best fighters in his weight range are avoidng him . . . We just don’t know about Golovkin. I’ve seen fighters who looked great be great. And I’ve seen fighters who looked great fall short . . . Golovkin is hittable, and these guys could hit. It’s one thing to knock out Daniel Geale after he punches you in the face. It’s very different if you’re punched in the face by Carlos Monzon.”

As for Hopkins; one trainer predicted that Bernard would beat Roy Jones at 160 pounds and fight Sugar Ray Robinson even. “Hopkins got better after he lost to Jones,” the trainer noted. “I think that Bernard at his best would have smothered Roy, roughed him up, and made Roy fight ugly.”

James Toney and Nino Benvenuti rounded out the field.

The final rankings and point totals are:

Sugar Ray Robinson 174 points

Marvin Hagler 134

Roy Jones 131

Carlos Monzon 126

Jake LaMotta 71.5

Gennady Golovkin 67.5

Bernard Hopkins 67

James Toney 54

Nino Benvenuti 39

Charts #1 and #2 contain underlying statistical data from the tournament.

Chart #1 shows that the matchmakers, trainers, media representatives, and historians all ranked Robinson in the #1 slot. There was a divergence of opinion after that.

Chart #2 shows how the panelists thought each fighter would fare against the other eight.

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book – Thomas Hauser on Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press.

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COMMENTS

-Domenic :

I'm a HUGE Golovkin guy, easily my favorite fighter to watch right now (Kovalev's right there too, but I prefer Golovkin) and he's #1 on the planet P4P on my list, but can't rank him in this company yet. He's well on his way, but needs time and opposition.


-New York Tony :

I would have liked to see others included, such as Marcel Cerdan, Tony Zale, and Rocky Graziano.


-deepwater2 :

Greb and Walker are at the top on accomplishments alone. Don't forget Bob Fitzsimmons! These middleweights were beating up light heavyweights and heavyweights for crying out loud. Tiger Flowers anyone?


-Pazuzu :

I'm a HUGE Golovkin guy, easily my favorite fighter to watch right now (Kovalev's right there too, but I prefer Golovkin) and he's #1 on the planet P4P on my list, but can't rank him in this company yet. He's well on his way, but needs time and opposition.
Golovkin has been my #1 P4P since last year, since I figured he'd kill Floyd if they met at 154lbs, but after this past weekend, I'm not so sure. Good God, Floyd looked good. Anyway, I love the middleweights and love what Hauser has done here (especially including Mike Tyson among the boxing historians). It's a great list. But or me, Hagler takes top prize, followed closely by Robinson and Monzon. Whenever I hear the words, "Raging Bull" I can't help but think about Marvelous Marvin...that look on his face and the way he walked back to his corner after the first round with Hearns...a bad, bad man. What an amazing group of fighters...


-Kid Blast :


Interesting timing on this one which has a tone of sour grapes to it given that the writer was banned from the Mayweather fight.


-Kid Blast :

Roy Jones, "hits like a heavyweight and moves like a lightweight?George Foreman." ?A fighter in history is judged by what he did in his prime, like most athletes and most successful anythings?.Roy was one of the best of his time, and that, to me, is the best you can be.??Larry Merchant Through much of the 90's and early 2000's, he dismantled opponents so thoroughly that it was hard to find even a single round to score against him. He was that good. ?Jerry Steinberg He was Oscar Peterson with boxing gloves?Merchant After being painfully robbed in plain sight at the 1986 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, Jones turned professional and went on to win an astonishing number of world titles in the middleweight, super middleweight, light heavyweight and even heavyweight divisions. Jones left his indelible mark on history when on March 1, 2003 he easily won the WBA Heavyweight title against John Ruiz becoming the first former middleweight champion to win a heavyweight title in 106 years. He was named "Fighter of the Decade" for the 1990s by the BWAA and received a number of other awards too numerous to cite here. Over the years, he has won: Fourteen major World Titles: Six minor World Titles: Six regional/International Titles: A seldom acknowledged fact is that he has fought an opponent who has been a world champion at one time or another on 27 different occasions. And ten of his top- tier foes-- like Calzaghe, Montell Griffin, Anthony Hanshaw, and Julio Cesar Gonzalez-- came in undefeated. Mike MaCallum, Tito Trinidad, Virgil Hill, and Calzaghe are in the INHOF. James Toney and Hopkins will get in. Vinny Pazienza, Tarver and Glen Johnson might get in. Roy fought them all. In short, Combining lightning fast hand speed, incredible reflexes, and knockout power, Jones was the best boxer of his generation. Here is a prime Jones using a punishing jab to set up and then decking and dismantling an outclassed Vinny Pazienza (40-5) in 1995 in Atlantic City:
->https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLcYb3o6buE I'll take a prime jones, thank you.


-Froggy :

Golovkin has been my #1 P4P since last year, since I figured he'd kill Floyd if they met at 154lbs, but after this past weekend, I'm not so sure. Good God, Floyd looked good. Anyway, I love the middleweights and love what Hauser has done here (especially including Mike Tyson among the boxing historians). It's a great list. But or me, Hagler takes top prize, followed closely by Robinson and Monzon. Whenever I hear the words, "Raging Bull" I can't help but think about Marvelous Marvin...that look on his face and the way he walked back to his corner after the first round with Hearns...a bad, bad man. What an amazing group of fighters...
I was there to see him walk back to his corner, betting on him paid for my trip, and MMH is my favorite middleweight also !


-dino da vinci :

@Kid Blast. Huh? Do you think this article was written in four days? And, for the sake of argument let's say it was, how did you connect the dots?


-Radam G :

Greb and Walker are at the top on accomplishments alone. Don't forget Bob Fitzsimmons! These middleweights were beating up light heavyweights and heavyweights for crying out loud. Tiger Flowers anyone?
You are dead right. And know that the Sugarman couldn't. And he ducked the whole "Black Murder Row. Holla!


-Kid Blast :

Dino, why would I seek to get into an argument with the guy who runs this site? And why would you single ME out? I enjoy many of the writers on TSS like Frank and David Philips and post accordingly. Hauser is not one of them as I think he is vastly overrated and clearly has lost his edge of late. And why, btw, would this article be posted during a week of heated controversy over banned credentials among other things? Give me a break here. If you don't want honest and frank criticism and debate, just let me know and I'll post elsewhere. Email me and let me know.


-Kid Blast :

One other point. Its not when articles are written; its when they are posted that matters.


-dino da vinci :

@Blast. We all have favorites, I as well. I'm extremely proud of the top of our batting order. Tom had a credential, did an interview that angered those in power, and had it revoked. Tom's an adult, he'll deal with it and move on. My question to you wasn't loaded. He wrote an article on middleweights. You came in guns ablazin'. Just curious on how you made the leap from revoked to middleweight status with a connection, that's all. You are certainly allowed an opinion here, without ramifications, unlike some places, evidently last weekend being one.


-stormcentre :

Sugar Ray Robinson is a (smooth killa &) heavy hitter from waaaaaaaaaaay baaaaaaaack. Like sum1 else I know. Wicked. :) Grebb rules but. Nobody plucked with dat mother when he was in his prime and walked away without lumps. Rock on.


-stormcentre :

Sugar Ray Robinson is a (smooth killa &) heavy hitter from waaaaaaaaaaay baaaaaaaack. Like sum1 else I know. Wicked. :) Greb rules but. Nobody plucked with dat mother when he was in his prime and walked away without lumps. Here's a little something I wrote on Floyd and Roy Jones.
->http://www.thesweetscience.com/forums/showthread.php?19763-Floyd-Mayweather-Can%92t-Win&p=75901&viewfull=1#post75901 Rock on. Did I say previously that Greb rules? Oh, yes, I did didn't I? :)
->http://www.thesweetscience.com/forums/showthread.php?19189-A-boxer-you-want-to-have-a-drink-with&p=73336&viewfull=1#post73336
->http://www.thesweetscience.com/forums/showthread.php?19189-A-boxer-you-want-to-have-a-drink-with&p=73351&viewfull=1#post73351


-deepwater2 :

Greb vs Walker was a real fight of the century.After their wild fight they met at the saloon and got hammered. Drinking ale,whiskey and wine they were the last customers in the bar and preceded to go to a nightclub,the silver slipper. On the way words were exchanged and a street fight broke out which Walker says he won. They went their separate ways and Walker couldn't find his date, a famous Hollywood actress. Mickey went to another bar looking for Doc Kearns and the bartender handed him the phone and said a friend was on the line and wanted to talk with him. It was Greb, he yells at Walker , I can lick you anyplace anytime, you and your whole family. And furthermore ,Walker, I've got your girl! They became friends and Walker said Greb was the greatest fighter he ever saw. The great Jack Dempsey refused to fight 160lb Greb after sparring a few rounds with him. Greb was the only man to beat Gene Tunney.Tunney beat Dempsey twice. Would you expect any current heavyweight champs to refuse to fight 160lb man? Would Klit refuse to fight GGG? Would Holyfield refuse to fight 160lb Jones or Toney? That is the power of Greb.


-SuperLight :

Hagler is one of my all-time favourites. A nice contemporary article:
->http://www.nytimes.com/1987/03/22/magazine/boxing-s-angry-man.html?pagewanted=1


-stormcentre :

Greb vs Walker was a real fight of the century.After their wild fight they met at the saloon and got hammered. Drinking ale,whiskey and wine they were the last customers in the bar and preceded to go to a nightclub,the silver slipper. On the way words were exchanged and a street fight broke out which Walker says he won. They went their separate ways and Walker couldn't find his date, a famous Hollywood actress. Mickey went to another bar looking for Doc Kearns and the bartender handed him the phone and said a friend was on the line and wanted to talk with him. It was Greb, he yells at Walker , I can lick you anyplace anytime, you and your whole family. And furthermore ,Walker, I've got your girl! They became friends and Walker said Greb was the greatest fighter he ever saw. The great Jack Dempsey refused to fight 160lb Greb after sparring a few rounds with him. Greb was the only man to beat Gene Tunney.Tunney beat Dempsey twice. Would you expect any current heavyweight champs to refuse to fight 160lb man? Would Klit refuse to fight GGG? Would Holyfield refuse to fight 160lb Jones or Toney? That is the power of Greb.
Yes, it's a wild story isn't it? Greb used to bash Dempsey in sparring and, if I remember correctly, Dempsey on more than one occasion refused to fight Jack. Imagine those two out at a nightclub together and the security trying to ease them out before they were ready prior to closing time; or even at closing time? Nice !!! :)


-ArneK. :

Kid Blast makes a very strong case for Roy Jones but I respectfully disagree. The problem here, in my book, is that Jones didn't have enough fights in the 160-pound division. He defeated Bernard Hopkins at 160, but that was early in Hopkins' career and Hopkins didn't have Roy's advantage of an extensive amateur background. Jones' best fight in my book was his match James Toney in 1994. Toney's record was then 44-0-2. Jones was very Mayweather-like, winning virtually every round, but by then both guys had graduated to the super-middleweight division. Sugar Ray Robinson was never the same after fighting Joey Maxim in a bout that was effectively contested in a sauna. Heading into that match, Robinson was 131-2-2. The losses were to Jake LaMotta (Robinson won four of their five meetings) and to Randy Turpin on Turpin's home turf in London. Turpin won that bout squarely, but for Robinson this was fight #6 in an 8-week European tour and it figured that he would not be at his best (unfamiliar food, etc.). And then Robinson went and TKOed Turpin in their rematch. If there had been a professional rope-skipping league, Robinson would have been a champion in two sports. I've read that some folks used to go to the gym on days he was working out just to see him skip rope; it was that mesmerizing (sort of like the other sport of the great basketball player Calvin Murphy; he was a national baton twirling champion). But I digress.


-Domenic :

One of the most impressive things about Ray Robinson is February, 1943:
February 5, 1943: Loses a 10-round decision to Hall-of-Famer Jake LaMotta, is outweighed 160.5 to 144.5.
February 19, 1943: Wins a 10-round decision against California Jackie Wilson.
February 26, 1943: Avenges his loss 3 weeks earlier to Hall-of-Famer LaMotta by decision. Outweighed 160.75 to 145. Robinson fought Hall-of-Famer Jake LaMotta TWICE in a short month, down a weight class (NO CATCHWEIGHT), and with a fight in between against a solid contender. For those that claim Robinson ducked the world, they always overlook February 1943, choose to ignore it, because it debunks the entire narrative. A serial ducker doesn't take on a granite chinned all time great twice in three weeks at a massive weight disadvantage (one full weight class). Doesn't happen.


-Kid Blast :

Arnek, point taken


-gibola :

Hopkins in an ATG beyond dispute and his career was amazingly consistent, but a peak, fit Toney was the better middleweight. I think Mike McCallum beats both Hopkins and GGG. SRR may well have been the best welter ever but he wasn't the best middleweight - Hagler, Monzon, Jones could well beat him. Jones Jr at 160 was a force of nature, vastly superior to Hopkins (imagine if Felix Trinidad or ODLH had challenged the 160lb Jones - would RJJ have gotten any credit for KOing them? Would they even has risked going up to 160 if Jones were champ?). Style-wise I do give BHop an edge over LaMotta and GGG. If I was going to throw a pair of other names in the mix other than the aforementioned McCallum, I think Tommy Hearns and possibly a peak Michael Nunn would be competitive even if their achievements at 160 don't warrant inclusion.


-stormcentre :

I think a peak, fit, middleweight Toney (even though Jones beat him) is probably better than the entire list; with the only possible exceptions being LaMotta and Hagler.