The Ten Greatest Fighters from Texas – The biggest stateside boxing event of the month transpires in Texas on Sept. 17 when Canelo Alvarez meets WBO 154-pound champion Liam Smith at the home of the Dallas Cowboys. It will be Canelo’s third appearance in Texas. He previously fought at the Alamodome in San Antonio and at Minute Maid Park in Houston.
There are no Texas-bred fighters of note on the Canelo-Smith undercard, but fighters from the Lone Star State are making their presence felt. The Charlo twins from Houston, Jermell and Jermall, own pieces of the junior middleweight title and welterweight Errol Spence Jr. has a big upside.
Based on early returns, Spence, from DeSoto, a suburb of Dallas, has a chance to go down as one of the best prizefighters ever from the state of Texas. It’s a short list and some would find that odd considering that Texas has always been one of America’s most heavily populated states.
The relative dearth of prominent boxers has been explained as a cultural thing. High school football is huge in the Lone Star State, tantamount to a religion. Across wide swaths of Texas, the rodeo also holds sway. A boy tests his mettle on a bucking bronco, not by swapping punches in a boxing gym.
But there’s a historical factor that is no less salient. Boxing won’t flourish where the avenues of upward mobility are closed. Prizefighting was outlawed in Texas from 1895 to 1933. It was legalized with a stipulation that forbid interracial matches. That ban wasn’t lifted until 1954.
Here’s one man’s opinion of the top 10 fighters from the state of Texas:
1 – Jack Johnson — Galveston
Scattered evidence suggests that Johnson may have been born in North Carolina. Regardless, he spent his formative years in Texas. (For the record, Errol Spence Jr. was actually born in Commack, Long Island, but he qualifies as a Texan because, akin to Jack Johnson, that is where he was raised and is the state with which he identifies.)
Among former heavyweight champions, only Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis have had more written about them, but in the eyes of this reporter the “Galveston Giant” is still underrated. Johnson’s signature wins came against Tommy Burns and James J. Jeffries. Historians have focused on the shortcomings of those men, rather than on Johnson’s mastery of them. Yes, Tommy Burns was too small to leave a large footprint as a heavyweight, but he was a murderous puncher, a miniature Marciano. Yes, Jim Jeffries had five-plus years of ring rust, but he was such a towering presence in his prime that there was room for depreciation without him losing all of his formidability.
1A. George Foreman — Marshall
What more can be said about Big George? Twenty-one-plus years after he demolished Joe Frazier, he began a second run as the lineal heavyweight champion with a one-punch knockout over Michael Moorer. The second coming of George Foreman was simply the most astonishing comeback in the history of human endurance sports.
3. Tony Ayala Jr. – San Antonio
A thug inside and outside the ring, Ayala was a National Golden Gloves champion at the age of 16. He was 21-0 (19) as a pro and in training for a match with junior middleweight champion Davey Moore when it all fell apart. He died of heroin toxicity at age 52 by which time he had spent more than half his life in prison.
How good was Tony Ayala? Promoter Lester Bedford, a longtime force on the boxing scene in the southwest region, says that Ayala was “a once-in-a-generation fighter, maybe a once-in-a-lifetime fighter.”
4. Orlando Canizales – Laredo
He never made much money, but he left a large footprint in the record books. During his lengthy reign as the IBF bantamweight champion he made 15 successful title defenses. He retired with a record of 50-5-1 with 37 KOs.
5. Terry Norris – Lubbock
Norris was 19-5 with 14 stoppages in matches sanctioned for the 154-pound title. Two of those losses were by disqualification to Luis Santana. Norris avenged those defeats in their third meeting, blasting out Santana in the second round.
6. Donald Curry – Fort Worth
Fort Worth masonry contractor Dave Gorman had one of the top stables in the country in the 1980s. Gene Hatcher, Stevie Cruz, and Robin Blake bubbled out of his gym, but none went as far as Curry. The Lone Star Cobra won world titles at 147 and 154 pounds.
7. Curtis Cokes – Dallas
Cokes, who began his pro career in 1958 at a high school gym in Midland, Texas, stopped the great Cuban fighter Luis Rodriguez in their rubber match, the springboard to a 25-month reign as the WBA/WBC world welterweight champion.
8. Paulie Ayala – Fort Worth
At one point in his career, Johnny Tapia’s record was 52-2-2. Both losses were inflicted by Paulie Ayala. Their first encounter, with Tapia’s WBA bantamweight title at stake, was named The Ring magazine Fight of the Year. Ayala retired with a record of 35-3.
9. Raul Marquez – Houston
Born in Mexico, Marquez came to the United States at the age of four and represented the U.S. in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The bi-lingual boxing broadcaster had a brief run as the IBF super welterweight champion and concluded his career with a record of 45-4-1.
10. Jesse James Leija – San Antonio
Leija finished his career with a record of 47-7-2 with six of those losses coming in world title fights.
Honorable mention: Jesse Benavides (Corpus Christi), Jesus Chavez (Austin), Gaby Canizales (Laredo), Mike Ayala (San Antonio), Reggie Johnson (Houston), Orlin Norris (Lubbock), Lew Jenkins (Milburn). Did I miss anyone?
The Ten Greatest Fighters from Texas / Check out more boxing news and videos at The Boxing Channel.