Modern LightHeavyweight 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, 147, and 160 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, it’s modern 175-pound greats.
The light-heavyweights chosen for the tournament in alphabetical order are Ezzard Charles, Billy Conn, Bob Foster, Roy Jones, Sergey Kovalev, Archie Moore, Matthew Saad Muhammad, and Michael Spinks.
Six of these fighters tested the heavyweight waters in a meaningful way. Charles and Spinks claimed the legitimate heavyweight championship of the world. Jones bested John Ruiz for the WBA belt. Conn fought Joe Louis twice. Moore vied for the title against Rocky Marciano and Floyd Patterson. Foster fought Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali.
Charles never won the light-heavyweight title. But he’s included in tournament because many people believe he was at his best at 175 pounds. Here, I should note that Charles fought Archie Moore three times and won each time.
I didn’t include fighters who plied their trade prior to the mid-1930s because there’s not enough film footage available to properly evaluate them. Where Sergey Kovalev is concerned; his proponents have complained that none of today’s elite fighters will fight him. Now is his chance.
The panelists were asked to assume for each hypothetical fight that both fighters were at the point in their respective careers when they were able to make 175 pounds and capable of duplicating their best 175-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-six experts participated in the rankings process. Listed alphabetically, the panelists were:
Trainers: Teddy Atlas, Pat Burns, Naazim Richardson, and Don Turner
Media: Al Bernstein, Ron Borges, Norm Frauenheim, Jerry Izenberg, Harold Lederman, Paulie Malignaggi, Dan Rafael, and Michael Rosenthal
Matchmakers: Eric Bottjer, Don Elbaum, Bobby Goodman, Brad Goodman, Ron Katz, Mike Marchionte, Russell Peltz, and Bruce Trampler
Historians: Craig Hamilton, Bob Mee, Clay Moyle, Adam Pollack, Randy Roberts, and Mike Tyson
Modern LightHeavyweight Greats
If each of the eight fighters in the tournament had fought the other seven, there would have been 28 fights. And there were 26 panelists. Thus, 728 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 182 points.
One matchmaker said that he never saw Moore, Charles, or Conn fight and didn’t feel comfortable predicting outcomes for their matches based on film footage. A weighted average from the other electors was used to fill in the fights at issue in his tournament grid.
In the end, Ezzard Charles was the clear choice for #1.
The final rankings and point totals are:
Ezzard Charles 156 points
Archie Moore 120
Roy Jones 104.5
Bob Foster 103.5
Michael Spinks 88
Billy Conn 66
Sergey Kovalev 48
Matthew Saad Muhammad 42
Sixteen of the 26 panelists thought that Bob Foster would have beaten Roy Jones. Nine picked Jones, while one said the match-up was too close to call. But Jones’s record against four of the other six fighters in the tournament was superior to Foster’s. That gave Roy a one-point edge in the final rankings.
Thirteen of the 26 panelists thought that Charles would have won all of his fights. Four thought that Jones would have prevailed in all seven of his bouts. One elector gave Michael Spinks a perfect score.
Among the comments made by electors were:
“The old guys were better boxers. The new guys are better athletes. It’s called boxing, isn’t it?”
“There are some big punchers in this tournament. But it took Rocky Marciano 23 rounds to knock Ezzard Charles out, so I don’t think any of these guys would have done it . . . Moore had a greater career at 175 pounds than Charles did. But Charles had his number . . . I hate to pick against Archie Moore at 175 pounds. But I can’t rewrite history, so I’ll pick Charles over Moore.”
“Archie Moore didn’t have the best chin in the world, but he knew how to protect it and he knew how to disarm punchers . . . No modern-day fighter beats Archie Moore at 175-pounds. He knew all the tricks, and fighters today don’t know those tricks . . . I know Charles beat Moore three times. But a fighter has to prove himnself every time. On Moore’s best night, I’m going with Moore.”
“Jones is the most athletically-gifted one in the group. He would have given all of the others trouble . . . The question about Roy is his chin. He’d be beating a lot of these guys until he got hit. Then, who knows . . . Roy wouldn’t have been able to fight these guys with his hands behind his back.”
“Some of these fighters – especially Jones and Foster – had questionable chins. And all of them could whack. So the guys with questionable chins could have gotten knocked out at any point.”
“I don’t care who you were. If you weighed 175 pounds and Bob Foster hit you on the chin, you were in trouble . . . Foster lost to some great fighters. How many great fighters did he beat?”
“People don’t realize how clever Michael Spinks was. He was old-school in a lot of ways.”
“Billy Conn fought 76 times. He got stopped by some guy right after he turned pro. And the only fighter who knocked him out after that was Joe Louis. Most of the guys on your list could punch. But none of them could punch as hard as Joe Louis . . . Billy Conn had great footwork. He knew how to control distance with his legs, and his legs were great. Styles make fights, and Conn had the style to beat a lot of these guys . . . Conn weighed in at 169 pounds and was ahead of Joe Louis on the scorecards after twelve rounds.”
“Kovalev hasn’t shown that he’s ready for this level of competition yet.”
“I love Matthew Saad Muhammad. He was the most courageous fighter I‘ve ever seen, but I don’t see him doing well in this tournament. He took what he had to take and always came back punching. But he was too easy to hit, and I don’t think he could have taken the punishment that these guys were capable of handing out . . . Saad Muhammad was life and death with opponents who weren’t nearly as good as the fighters on this list.”
“They’re in good company; all of them.”
Charts #1 and #2 contain underlying statistical data from the tournament.
Chart #1 shows that the trainers, matchmakers, media representatives, and historians all ranked Charles in the #1 slot. There was a divergence of opinion after that.
Chart #2 shows how the panelists thought each fighter would have fared against the other seven.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His most recent book (A Hurting Sport: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing) was published by the University of Arkansas Press.
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