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 firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book – Thomas Hauser on Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press.