50 Greatest Welterweights – Boxing’s history is so rich and so deep that a task such as this one can, at times, seem overwhelming. Part Two really underlines that richness, and that associated difficulty.
We delve all the way back into the shadowed 1900s, a time before fight footage was the norm and when aggression was prized above almost all else, while holding and wrestling were, ironically, far more common. From here we arrow through the 1940s when great and feared black fighters were underrepresented in both the media we rely upon so heavily to understand them and the championship rings upon which we rely to reveal limitations – and greatness. We must then compare these men to the wonderful welterweights of the 1970s in all their colored glory. It’s like contrasting a distant and foggy dream with a vivid, overpowering reality.
But that is what understanding history is. It is not easy and nor should it be; as the man once said, if it isn’t hard, you’re not doing it right.
#40 – Cocoa Kid (176-56-11)
Springs Toledo, in his series of articles on Herbert Hardwick, aka The Cocoa Kid, names both Barney Ross and Henry Armstrong as having ducked or avoided the Kid during their respective glittering title reigns.
Ranking as the #1 contender in the eyes of most for most of 1940, it is hard to reject the roots of this claim. Cocoa Kid did great work through the late 1930s and early 1940s before drifting up to middleweight where he continued to distinguish himself, if not quite as boldly.
At 147 lbs, he did eventually corner himself a title shot of sorts, taking on Izzy Jannazzo for the Maryland sponsored strap he was waving about; the Kid blew it.
But that doesn’t mean that he didn’t do good work while he waited in vain. Cocoa Kid dominated the great middleweight Holman Williams when he resided at welterweight so completely that Williams cannot rank here; he utterly dominated the legendary Eddie Booker. Ranked men fell too, among them Earl Turner and Joe Legon who both rated at some point in the top five, as did Holman Williams.
A lot of what is most interesting about Hardwick is unsavory. Business deals, intimidation, the repression of the worthy black fighters by a segregated society. Here, he ranks based upon what he actually did rather than who he might have been, or what he could have done – and the spot he inhabits comes very close to naming him a lock for the top fifty.
#39 – Rube Ferns (45-19-9; Newspaper Decisions 1-0)
Perennially absurdly dressed, Rube Ferns was made of iron. He won the title 1900 from the legendarily filthy Billy Smith who spent much of the fight yo-yoing Ferns up and down from the canvas before handing him the title on a foul. Despite his extraordinary display of heart, winning a title on a foul is not something that leads to a champion’s respect and so Ferns settled down to establishing one of the more extraordinary welterweight title runs of his era, ending with a 7-2 ledger in fights fought for the world’s championship.
The second of these two title losses came at the hands of the butcher that was the Barbados Demon, Joe Walcott, and certainly there is no shame attached to this defeat. The second came the year before in his third title defense, the second of three championship fights with the forgotten Matty Matthews. Matthews was a sharp, clever and experienced boxer who was considered for the #50 spot on this list but he was firmly out-pointed in his first shot at Ferns in a fight entertaining enough that a rematch was called for. Ferns suffered badly in the run up to the second fight with open sores on his shoulder and reportedly suffered from blood-poisoning. Rube being Rube he went ahead with the fight and found himself out-jabbing Matthews but losing out in the extended exchanges on the inside. The title passed from him.
He won it back in 1901 with an outstanding knockout of Matthews and turned in two more title defenses before the Demon got him. One of those was against the reigning lightweight champion Frank Erne. Ferns dropped Erne in the very first round. Cut and bleeding by the ninth he nevertheless pursued his fellow champion relentlessly and finished him with a left-right combination.
I’ve always been surprised that the victory over Erne combined with his victory in the epic series with Matthews (which ended 6-2 to Ferns counting non-title matches) and his seven successful title fights did not add up to more fame for this welterweight king. He has become something of a footnote. Inconsistency and a heavy serving of losses means he can’t rank any higher than he does here – but Ferns deserves a little better than that.
#38 –Billy Smith (32-22-26; Newspaper Decisions 2-3-1)
“Mysterious” Billy Smith’s paper record is a horror-show in this type of company, although there are a few mitigating factors; two ill-advised comebacks in 1910 and 1915 didn’t help but it was the run-in prior to his first retirement that really hurt him: he won just one of his last seventeen fights. He probably made an inauspicious start to boxing, too, winning just half of his first twenty-two recorded contests, though like so many other fighters who turned professional in the 1800s some details of his record are probably lost.
Smith also carried a hair-trigger temperament, and an aggression in the fight to match. As described, he was beating Rube Ferns in their incredible 1900 contest before fouling out and losing on a disqualification, something he managed to do on around a dozen occasions. Finally, he fought consistently and often at the highest level. Smith engaged in as many world-title contests as he suffered disqualifications and his final ledger is a respectable one at 5-2-2.
This is not quite as good as Rube Ferns, but in one further regard, Smith was ill-fortuned: he shared a welterweight era with Joe Walcott, and with the incredible Tommy Ryan. Ryan was always beyond him; too cool to ruffle, too tough to buckle, Ryan went undefeated against Smith, who received numerous shots at the great man – but he did manage to dig out a win against Walcott.
Most interesting about that fight was that Smith managed to drop his granite-jawed foe and seemed on the verge of knocking him out – Walcott survived but Smith took by far his greatest win on points. It is tempered by the fact that Smith got a dozen shots at either Ryan or Walcott and managed just this single win. Still, he was held in high regard by his peers despite his well-earned status as boxing’s dirtiest fighter and it is impressive that he was able to carve out his own title reigns, wearing the championship belts for two lengthy spells.
#37 Mike Glover (30-5-5; Newspaper Decisions 32-10-10)
For anyone who says anything but “who?” upon reading this entry: sir, I salute you.
Mike Glover is far from a household name, and aside from in Boston, where he was thoroughly admired, this was probably true in his own era too. Retrospectively, he is credited with holding the legitimate welterweight championship of the world by the likes of Cyber Boxing Zone but the fact is that his claim appears to have been generally unheralded as being any more legitimate than numerous other such claims. As trade paper Boxing put it in January of 1914, “all an American boxer needs to do to win a recognized word championship is to go around night and day shouting that he is THE champion”. Whilst this is harsh, it is true that the man with the best publicity often won the title in the temple when his efforts on the battlefield were only moderately convincing; whether or not Glover was such a man I leave to better souls than I to determine.
The reason Glover ranks here is also the reason his claim to the title was not universally recognized.
The twin suns that were Ted “Kid” Lewis and Jack Britton hauled Glover out of orbit and into their gargantuan collective slipstream as early as 1913, the year Glover first met Britton. Britton met almost every fighter of his generation of any worth – but it is noteworthy that Glover won that fight. The wire report indicates that he out-boxed Britton, no less, according to one report, using his quick footwork and accurate punching to win seven of the ten rounds according to a second report. Britton righted this wrong not one but twice, returning the boxing lesson Glover provided in the first, outclassing him in a title fight, but Glover has in his possession one of the most desirable scalps in welterweight history.
More, he became one of the few men to defeat both Britton and Lewis when he outpointed the latter over twelve in their second fight of three, in November 1915. A stiff jab to the face was key in overcoming prohibitive 5-1 odds as another boxing lesson was handed out against a different kind of immortal. Like Britton, Lewis went 2-1 against Glover but he has some fine supporting wins to justify his placement here, despite his tragic death aged just 26.
#36 – Pipino Cuevas (35-15)
The tale of Pipino Cuevas is the tale of the very first great disaster inflicted upon the welterweight division by the alphabet madness that is coming so close to destroying the greatest of sports. In short, either Pipino Cuevas or Carlos Palomino should have emerged from their shared era as among the greatest twenty-fivewelterweights in history. What prevented this was the fact that both men could hold a “world championship”, could fulfil their personal and financial ambitions without their ever meeting. This is despite the fact that both men picked up their “world championship” in the same year, staged approximately the same number of defenses and defeated approximately the same number of contenders. Palomino won his first – Cuevas was a month behind him. More importantly Cuevas beat a strapholder whereas Palomino beat John H Stracey, who beat Jose Napoles who beat Curtis Cokes, in other words he was the lineal, legitimate champion of the world.
Were there not a series of crooked organizations flogging their belts to often desperate pugilists, Cuevas would have been rabid to get at Palomino; as it was, he just didn’t need him. And the feeling was mutual. Palomino’s “true” title reign was undermined by the fact that he never met his #1 contender, and Cuevas’s existed only because of the feverish determination of the WBA to empty boxing of money in any and all ways; this, remember, is the crew that even Bob Arum complained bitterly about in terms of moral fiber.
Cuevas was a brute though, and for all that he wore a strap rather than a title, he was still one of the greatest punchers in the history of the welterweight division. Worse, he was almost impervious to punishment at his very best, sometimes set back on heels by a good punch but always stalking quickly back into range wearing the look of a man abandoned by God. He fought thirteen times for that bauble and lost just once, to the monstrous Tommy Hearns, and of the other twelve he won eleven times by knockout, only Randy Shields making the distance in a fight in which Cuevas damaged his left hand. That left hand was devastating. It’s a shame he didn’t get to unleash it on Palomino – or even used it to knock out more than the single top five contender he dispatched in his bruising career.
#35 – Carlos Palomino (31-4-3)
Part of what would have made a Carlos Palomino-Cuevas such a wonderful match was the fine counter-balance of their physical gifts. Cuevas hit like a Mack truck carrying concrete and travelling at 95mph into a reinforced titanium wall and Palomino was as tough as titanium. And they were both Mexican. I’ll let that go now…
…there is little to set Palomino apart from his countryman in terms of opposition bested. Both are short of top-five type opposition with Palomino’s defeat of lineal champion John H Stracey one reasonable way of distinguishing the two. The problem is that Stracey, who was a good fighter, was not really that different from the type of fighters that the two men feasted on; in fact Stracey lost to Davey Green, who Palomino stopped.
In the end, what sets them apart is probably Palomino’s fewer losses; Cuevas has fifteen, and although there were often good reasons for his defeats it’s enough to see Palomino edge in front of him. As to his victories, Palomino achieved these through technical surety, mental and physical fortitude and a searing body attack, three of the closest allies of Mexican fighters.
And the fact that he was the lineal welterweight champion of the world in four calendar years does his standing no harm either.
#34 – Wilfred Benitez (53-8-1)
Wilfred Benitez is hampered in his ranking by the numbers. Although he fought a handful of welterweight contests in the early 1970s before settling down to his famous campaign at 140 lbs, his more significant late 1970s tilt at welterweight boils down to something like 10-1. In title fights he went 2-1. Nevertheless, he did meet a series of contenders at the weight and not least the champion, Palomino. “It was almost like he had a sixth sense,” said the Mexican of the man they nicknamed ‘El Radar’. “I don’t think I caught him solid in my fight with him. It seemed like he knew what was coming all the time.”
This is only a slight exaggeration and only a spirited rally from Palomino late in the fight prevented a landslide victory for Benitez who nevertheless won very clearly despite the split decision victory that appears in the record books. Benitez, still very young, showed the ringcraft of a veteran, moving away and off-center, covering himself with his jab. Palomino was bamboozled. This was perhaps the best of Benitez, a concentrated, disciplined performance from a fighter as given to being distracted by what took place at ringside during a fight as the trapping of fame before the fight. What made it even more extraordinary was that his preparation was a disaster, beset by managerial and training issues.
A converted southpaw, his brilliant left was ably supported by a snappy right, although it should be stressed that he was no puncher, even at 140 lbs. That legitimately observed radar, though, spared him on more than one occasion whether he was badly prepared or sorely tested. His legendary 1977 split decision victory over the savage Bruce Curry where Benitez was within a hair’s breadth of being stopped – and perhaps should have been stopped – his legs completely gone, is the best example of his defensive prowess as, unable to run, he slipped and slipped and slipped Curry’s punches until he was recovered, staging an absurd rally that brought him the narrowest of decisions. Benitez dominated him in a rematch.
The highly ranked Harold Weston was defeated in another late rally that underlined the natural conditioning of a young fighter in his prime in Benitez’s only successful defense. One Ray Leonard out-pointed him for the title.
Benitez only boxed a part of a career at welterweight but it was the important part; further to that, Benitez remains one of history’s more gifted fighters, a difficult match for any of those ranked above him, an enhancement of his welterweight legacy.
#33 – Lou Brouillard (100-31-2; Newspaper Decisions 1-0-1)
Balancing 101 wins against 31 losses is always difficult; here our job is made easier by the divisional distinctions applied to these rankings. Less than a third of Lou Brouillard’s losses came at welterweight but many of his most crucial wins occurred at the 147 lb limit.
Brouillard turned professional in 1928 after a fine amateur career and after winning his first handful went an “educational” 3-4 from which he emerged onto a forty fight winning streak – interrupted only by a disqualification loss – that would carry him all the way to the world’s welterweight title, at the tender age of twenty. He couldn’t defend that title in New York as the NYSAC had ruled that a fighter must be twenty-one years old to be matched for a championship. He was not too young, at just nineteen, to defeat the wonderful veteran “Baby” Joe Gans (89-12-6) breaking his seventeen fight unbeaten streak. More fights followed, including impressive stoppages of Al Mello and Eddie Moore before he met and thrashed the champion Young Jack Thompson in a non-title fight – an even more dominant display over Thompson followed in a second battle with the championship on the line and Brouillard was king. Victories over the contender Bucky Lawless and Paul Pirrone and a draw (fought for charity) with Gans followed; Brouillard then had his title finessed from him by the wonderful Jackie Fields and began to flirt with the middleweight division.
Before he departed, Brouillard battered the great Jimmy McLarnin to a decision leaving him cut above the left eye and with welts across his body. He was a tough and uncompromising southpaw (most of the time), who most certainly goes grossly underrated today.
50 Greatest Welterweights
#32 – Lloyd Honeyghan (43-5)
It is hard to describe the degree to which pound-for-pounder Donald Curry was favored over Lloyd Honeyghan in late 1986. That Honeyghan was able to get 5-1 for his 5k bet on himself speaks volumes.
“Everyone is scared of Donald Curry,” he offered in the run up to their contest for Curry’s world welterweight championship. “But I’m not.”
He certainly didn’t look it when the bell for the first sounded, out-jabbing the jabber, out-speeding the speedster and doing it all with a focused aggression that made him the clear winner of the round even as the American commentary team compared Curry to Ezzard Charles and Ray Robinson.
Honeyghan landed a sizzling right in round two and as Curry held on in protection of his title, the Englishman manhandled him as he attempted to land finishing blows.
It was a high energy performance built in equal parts from technical acumen, physical excellence and a steel-wrought determination. It is one of the definitive title winning performances at the weight (and perhaps at any weight). This is how you take the title from the champion. By the time Curry quit in his corner at the end of round six (“I’m through”) he had been hurt to the body and blasted with punches of all types.
This was Honeyghan’s best performance, yes, but it is often forgotten that he cobbled together three defenses of the title, including a wonderful two round destruction of the highly ranked Johnny Bumphus. This was an enormously confident fighter, throwing the right hand all the way across his stance; Bumphus was positively harassed to the canvas.
He lost his title on a technical decision in a difficult fight to the rugged Jorge Vaca. A clash of heads caused a terrible cut to Vaca and in keeping with the drunken WBC rules, Honeyghan was docked a point for what amounted to an accidental clash of heads before the fight went to the cards for the completed seven rounds – at which point the title was awarded to Vaca by the balance of the point deducted from Honeyghan for accidently bumping into his challenger.
He won the title back and staged a single defense as a two-time champion but lost out to the wonderful Marlon Starling and after then losing to Mark Breland, he departed the division.
His was a splendid and under-celebrated career that saw him run 6-3 in world title fights. In his prime, he would be a tough night’s work for anyone on this list, including the monsters lurking in the top ten.
#31 – Billy Graham (102-15-9)
For a certain type of fan, Billy Graham will appear underrated here. I sympathize with that point of view. Graham, after all, went 52-0-6 before suffering his first loss at the hands of the solid Tony Pellone. Pellone beat Graham only narrowly but he did it twice. He held, perhaps, a hex over his technically superior foe; a dominance over an opponent born not of class but style, and perhaps something darker.
Billy Graham held a half-formed hex over the mighty Cuban, Kid Gavilan.
Gavilan will appear in the top ten of this list and I am sure I am spoiling no surprises in announcing that fact.
The first time the two met, Graham won a split decision that was not popular with the press or with Gavilan who immediately requested a date to file a protest. The win was controversial, although close enough that it cannot be labeled a robbery; Gavilan avenged this loss in a narrow victory nine months later before their third fight in the summer of 1951. This meeting, more infamous than famed, is notorious and an often cited example of the terrors of Mafia manipulated boxing in the 1950s, but I’m not so sure; the fight is readily available on film, and although I scored it to Graham I had it a very close fight littered with very close rounds. If the judging in their first fight was questionable but probably not a robbery, this description fits the third fight, also, in my opinion.
Graham lost his fourth match with Gavilan clearly, the Cuban winning as many as eleven of fifteen and despite the controversy that surrounds their 1951 fight, I think Graham got exactly what he deserved out of his series with the legendary Gavilan – a single, narrow win and although it’s unjust that he had a questionable decision rendered against him for the title, nor was it convenient for Gavilan to have a questionable one rendered against him when he stood as the #1 contender to the welterweight title then held by Sugar Ray Robinson.
This keynote win aside, Graham has but a little, the explanation for his ranking here. A win over Carmen Basilio is nice, but Basilio was unranked, coming off a loss to Chuck Davey, and was 5-4-1 in his last ten. Indeed, it is when we examine his ranked opposition we see him coming up short: the unheralded Aldo Minelli and Art Aragon (then ranked #9) represents his quill. Nevertheless, that juicy win over the Kid in tandem with that excellent early consistency and one or two decent supporting wins find him right on the cusp of the top thirty.
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