The 50 Greatest Lightweights – When I composed a list of The Fifty Greatest Middleweights I thought, probably, I had reached the nadir of boxing excellence, that there would likely be no division that would equal the assorted wonderment boxing history presents us at 160lbs.
I was wrong. The lightweights are just as deep, and, due to the incredible array of talent that passed through it without taking up residence, monstrous fighters wash up as early as the thirties and forties. This mixture of career lightweights building deep resumes and wonder-making pound-for-pound beasts paying a fleeting visit has produced a list as stuffed with talent as middleweight; with a gun to my head, I’d probably name lightweight the deepest division in boxing history, although this is debatable.
The boring stuff: this is a complete process running from heavyweight down to flyweight taking in the eight classic divisions. In the course of this process, no fighter is credited more than once for any given win. This means that defined weight ranges are required in order to appraise these fighters divisionally. In this case, we are looking at fights that were fought within the lightweight range plus 2.5lbs; anything over this is appraised as a welterweight (or light-welterweight) contest and anything below it will be appraised at featherweight. Furthermore, the heaviest fighter denotes the weight class; if one fighter weighs 136lbs and the other weighs 142lbs, that is a welterweight contest. I have made an exception, which will be explained in due course for Henry Armstrong. One often has to make exceptions for Henry.
As to what is considered for each fighter’s placement, opposition bested is the most pressing consideration. “Who did he beat?” is always the first question I ask, quickly followed by “how?” Ability on film, when it can be seen, plays a part, as do prime losses, dominance and certain other intangibles that can make a difference between a lower spot and a higher one as they throw indistinct shapes from history into focus.
That’s the dull stuff out of the way – now let me introduce you to the fifty greatest lightweights of all time.
This is how I have it:
#50 – Juan Manuel Marquez (50-7-1)
Juan Manuel Marquez (pictured) was the king of the lightweights for three years between 2008 and 2011. He was beaten in that time, in a depressingly one-sided match with the great Floyd Mayweather at welterweight and in a desperately close encounter with Manny Pacquiao at the same poundage; at lightweight, he was never beaten and departed the division as the undefeated champion of the world.
That said, Marquez did not spend a lot of time in the division he ruled over and his defenses were limited, as was his overall presence. Marquez was a great fighter, so far as I am concerned, but he was not a great lightweight. Still, despite the wealth of contenders for the #50 spot, guys like Ray Mancini, Sammy Fuller and Johnny Dundee (who we will be hearing from at featherweight), Marquez is the guy that has landed here, not least due to his status as lineal champion and pound-for-pound excellence in his own era.
Marquez’s most impressive outing at the weight, and perhaps his most impressive performance full stop, was in his 2009 encounter with Juan Diaz. Diaz, a younger, stronger, volume-puncher held every conceivable advantage that mattered, except for all the ones that counted. The most brilliant technical boxer in the world at the time outside of Mayweather, Marquez weathered an early storm. Seen live, I thought Marquez was in trouble; he was certainly losing rounds. In fact he had already developed a program of block and counter so deep and varied that the ninth round knockout he would go on to score seems almost inevitable in retrospect. His fight plan of volume and war stood in contradiction to his age and his strengths but the end result was a championship clinic for the uppercut as spectacular as any.
The two fought a rematch which was considerably less thrilling only because it was a more consummate display by Marquez. Diaz tried to mix boxing in with his pressure and for all that his commitment to his jab was impressive, Marquez was always going to find him with punches and won most of the rounds in doing so.
Marquez only fought a handful of contests at the weight and his two best performances were against the same man but his reign was a lengthy one and I suspect he would do very well against some of the men ranked above him. The #50 spot is his due, for all that it could equally have belonged to someone like Joe Shugrue or Benny Valgar.
#49 – Ray Miller (66-28-4; Newspaper Decision 12-8-6)
Ray lost plenty, hence the ranking in the low forties; but he is buoyed by some very credible wins.
They fed him the great but faded contender Sid Terris in 1928 and Miller, whose left hook was already considered that of an artist, blasted him out in a single round. Four months and a typically patchy 2-2 ledger later he was matched with the anointed Jimmy McLarnin, already an icon to New York City’s Irish. McLarnin doesn’t quite make the list. One of the great welters, he was far less a force at lightweight, as Ray Miller underlined, crushing him seven one-sided rounds that same November. It was not a close fight.
Miller moved on to a ranked man, Tommy Grogan, in 1928, matching him twice in quick succession. Their first fight was one of the greatest in lightweight history not to have survived on film. Had it done so, Miller would likely be a cult hero rather than a shadowy contender. By some accounts, Miller was down six times in the first three rounds, caught with a perfect one-two in the opening frame and blasted about the ring for much of the following nine minutes. But Miller was made of granite; despite all those losses he was never stopped. Grogan, himself, was hard even for the era, and himself had never been dropped for the count. Miller changed that in the fourth.
“Grogan, like Jimmy McLarnin several weeks ago,” wrote the Associated Press, “dropped his right hand for an instant, and the touted left crushed him to the canvas.”
That’s all it took with Miller – an instant. But he was also capable of laying siege, as he did in the rematch, taking a ten round decision upon being unable to find a way through against a naturally more cautious Grogan.
Miller went 1-1-1 with Billy Petrolle and took the scalp of the capable Johnny Jadick, and that’s just enough to see him over the line; no more though – too many obscure names troubled him.
#48 – Rocky Kansas (65-11-6; Newspaper Decisions 59-15-9)
It is hard to imagine the frustration of a fighter doomed to share an era with the great Benny Leonard. All great fighters torture the ambitions of their peers but fewer fighters can have blunted more dreams in a single division than the great Leonard. Rocky Kansas can number himself among them.
The two first shared the ring in February of 1916 with Kansas fresh from the featherweight division and Leonard not yet the fistic god he would become. Nevertheless, Leonard was dominant and Rocky, who fought gamely, “wilted every time” Leonard “crushed over his right.” The two wouldn’t meet again until 1921, an absolute age in the parlance of the time, Leonard’s title on the line. Despite Rocky’s strong finish, Leonard was once again triumphant. But Rocky just wouldn’t go away. He went unbeaten in nine, including a victory over Lew Tendler, forcing Leonard to give him a second title shot in their third fight. “He is strong, willing and has plenty of courage,” noted the Quebec Telegraph. “He likes to fight. That makes him dangerous.”
He was dangerous enough to go six rounds without losing one to the great man, winning the first four in some accounts; thereafter, the champion ran away with the fight and Rocky was sent spinning out of title contention once more. But such was the impression that he had made with those opening eighteen minutes that two wins later he was back in the ring with Leonard once more.
This time Leonard crushed him, beating him into submission in just eight rounds. It seemed that Rocky’s title aspirations were finally at an end.
What are they made of, these boys who keep coming back for more, who cannot be turned away? When Benny Leonard retired in 1925, Jimmy Goodrich, a fine fighter, became the champion. And Rocky was still winning. He had been in the ring for fourteen hard years but against Goodrich, he found himself with one last chance.
The Associated Press reported a near universal feeling at ringside that he would once again fade, that he could not possibly sustain the savage pace he set at the bell; that feeling was born out. But this time, he did not wilt. Kansas split lightweight series with the likes of Johnny Dundee and Jack Bernstein but when his last best chance presented itself, he took it. The veteran threw the championship aloft at the bell.
I love Rocky’s narrative. He was a lion who had the terrible luck to share a cage with a tiger who, despite all those maulings, had enough to see off the cub they tried to move on to his territory.
#47 – Jose Luis Ramirez (102-9)
A boxing centurion is a rare and wonderful thing, and one that fought his last fight in the 1990s is even rarer. Ramirez pulled the trick of winning a hundred fights and, barely, the trick of boxing in three distinct decades, turning professional in 1973 and retiring in 1990 having lost three of his last four fights.
One of those losses was a clear decision dropped to Pernell Whitaker. This was their second meeting and the record books show that Ramirez won the first; in reality, Whitaker had perhaps the worst decision in boxing history perpetrated against him – Ramirez receives no credit for that “win” here.
Ramirez spent almost his entire career in the lightweight division and that means that the overwhelming bulk of those 100 wins belong to that division. Among those fights, certainly, there are more than a few fighters of low repute, and it is also true that almost every time he stepped up to the highest level – against Whitaker, against Hector Camacho, against Julio Cesar Chavez, against Ray Mancini, against Alex Arguello (where he was perhaps a little unlucky) – he was beaten, but there are some very nice wins tucked away in that enormous ledger. Principal among them is his 1984 stoppage of Edwin Rosario.
This fight was a rematch and a fascinating one. Rosario looked a class above in the first fight, until he didn’t, at which point Ramirez took over completely. The theory is that Rosario didn’t quite have the engine to measure up to the relentless stalking that Ramirez brought to the table. Rather than go through that again, Rosario brought destruction, looking for the knockout. When an almost casual right dropped Ramirez apologetically on the seat of his trunks just seconds in, this strategy seemed justified; a brutal thrashing inflicted upon Ramirez in the second precluded a more serious knockdown. But as well as serious power (that brought him eighty-two knockouts) Ramirez had a chin of granite and the heart of a lion. He fought back in the third and by the end of that round was coming on strong. In the fourth, he sent Rosario to a dark place and won what remains one of the best fights of the 1980s.
A narrow decision win over Terrence Alli and a knockout of Cornelius Boza-Edwards were other highlights and get him into the fifty.
#46 – Stevie Johnston (42-6-1)
Even after thirteen years fighting in the lightweight division, Stevie Johnston leaves a legacy as something of a nearly-man. In part, this is due to the high expectations foisted upon him by an American press hungry for success but it is true that he boxed in the shadow of Shane Mosley as it is true that he was never the lineal lightweight champion. An amateur rival for Mosley, he was expected to rekindle that rivalry in the pro ranks, and it wasn’t hard to find people who expected Johnston to emerge from that rivalry the victor.
That was not to be, but Johnston did spend more time in the division than Mosley, and did assemble more scalps in that time. His first win of real significance was over Senegalese Frenchman Jean-Baptist Mendy. Mendy had served his apprenticeship in defense of the European title and was the more storied of the two. Johnston, who had travelled to France for the contest, showed his inexperience in the fifth when, after a bright start, he sustained a cut in an accidental clash of heads. He abandoned what had been a savage body-attack and reverted to the type imbued in him by a lengthy amateur career and Mendy took over. But Johnston had a wonderful habit of finishing fights with phenomenal strength. He closed out wonderfully here to edge a decision and pick up a strap on the road. A lop-sided decision win over the ranked John Scott followed before Johnston was matched with the giant Cesar Bazan.
How Bazan made the 135lb weight limit is beyond me. He was 5’11 and heavy-boned, a veritable giant and for the 5’4” Johnston a unique challenge. It was a challenge Johnston treated uniquely, coming all the way inside to try to out-fight his enormous foe in the pocket. It made for a fascinating squabble and a match I scored a draw – the judges gave it to Bazan. So the two met again in a fight that saw Johnston turn in the best performance of his career.
Another fascinating pair followed for Johnston, against one Jose Luis Castillo. Castillo was a relative unknown at the time of this fight, but he was not inexperienced, having duked it out with the snarling ranks of featherweights and lightweights in Mexico for a number of years, a grossly underestimated apprenticeship. Knowing what we know now, the regularity with which Castillo began to land his left hook to the body in the second is more than ominous; but Johnston was equal to the punch, and almost equal to Castillo, losing the fight by a single round on my card. Their rematch was a heartbreak for Johnston, who scored a draw for me but a narrow win on the judge’s cards – at the time of the first reading. When a mistake in the arithmetic of one scorecard was corrected, Johnston slipped into Castillo’s dressing room and returned to him the strap he had retained via what was in fact a majority draw.
Johnston’s career was full of such little oddities, but I feel he’s good for this spot. It’s a shame he never met Mosley – he could have caused him problems, I think – but in addition to Mendy, Scott and Bazan, he beat ranked men Angel Manfredy and Alejandro Gonzalez.
A car crash and a reported hundred stitches in his face ended his time as a top contender in 2003.
#45 – Shane Mosley (49-10-1)
I think a lot of readers will be disappointed to see Shane Mosley ranked in the bottom clutch; it’s pleasing, then, that he appears on the same page as a breakdown of my criteria. For all that Mosley is a brutal and dynamic head-to-head threat to the men who are ranked above him, his actual labors in the lightweight division are not comparable to the leviathans who lurk below.
That said, he went unbeaten at the weight, putting together a ledger close to 30-0, and picking up a strap during that run – but he was never lineal. In obtaining and defending that trinket, he managed to round up only three men to appear at that time in the Ring rankings, arriving in earnest in 1999, out-pointing the well regarded Philip Holiday.
Holiday was a volume puncher, but Mosley shut him down, out-working him over the first six so completely that a mid-fight lag didn’t hurt him. A mature body-assault made a late-fight rally unlikely and although Holiday was pretty much unstoppable at 135lbs, Mosley did everything but, dropping either two or three rounds only.
This performance bought Mosley his strap, but in defending it, he was underwhelming. He never again faced a man ranked in the top five, and the unranked opposition he met, men like Demetrio Ceballos and Wilfrido Ruiz, provided no test. To be fair to him, nor did the ranked opposition; Holiday was out-classed, the veteran John John Molina was brought to a shuddering halt in the eighth and Jessie James Leija was driven repeatedly to the canvas before refusing to answer the bell for the tenth. In these latter two efforts, Mosley exemplified the “power-boxing” style he laid claim to, (mostly) slick moves complimented by a serious punch.
But most of Mosley’s big nights lay north of 135lbs against men like Oscar De La Hoya and Antonio Margarito.
#44 – Terence Crawford (28-0)
Terence Crawford’s career echoes Mosley’s in many ways. Like Mosley, he is unbeaten at the weight and now that he has departed it for 140lbs, he will remain so. Like Mosley, he only found the time to tangle with three ranked men. Unlike Mosley, he lifted the lineal title, starting a new lineage with his defeat of Raymundo Beltran late in 2014, a contest fought between the #1 and #2 lightweights in the world. Crawford never defended that most important of titles, departing the division for his next contest, but it is this detail that edges him in front of Mosley, although he did manage to beat two fighters ranked in the divisional top five to Mosley’s one. So small are the differences that separate these lightweights.
Crawford’s lineal title win was a performance of the highest quality. Beltran, every inch the honest pro, never gave up on his quarry but he didn’t win a single round on my card. Crawford totally dominated with a smooth-boxing switch-hitting style barracked by a judge of distance so wonderful that he maintained it almost throughout the entire twelve rounds. By the end, Crawford was spending more and more time on the front foot (one or the other) while Beltran had been reduced to a square, narrow stance, practically hobbled by his opponent’s superiority.
Crawford had arrived in earnest in the division earlier in 2014 with a similarly dominant twelve round domination of #3 lightweight Ricky Burns. This was seen as a rather pedestrian performance at the time, perhaps, but Burns has since become the first Scotsman to hold straps at three different weights. Crawford’s ownership of Burns looks more impressive in retrospect.
In between taking on these two top ranked lightweights he dispatched the mercurial Yuriorkis Gamboa by a knockout, the maturation of his southpaw ventures, the fight that rendered him a true switch-hitter of the highest quality.
Crawford’s potential is enormous – alas, it will be spent at 140lbs and above, as he departed the division after his victory over Beltran.
#43 – Battling Nelson (59-19-22; Newspaper Decisions 10-14-5)
Battling Nelson lost to Freddie Welsh, Ad Wolgast, Leach Cross, Jimmy Britt and Terry McGovern. In short, he lost to every top man he ever met, including Joe Gans; he also beat Gans – twice.
The value of a single great scalp, one of the hallowed fighters in the top ten no less, is a problem I am familiar with. How to rate Lennox Lewis conqueror, Hasim Rahman at heavyweight? What to do with a problem like Buster Douglas? Nelson, “The Durable One”, isn’t quite as one-dimensional as those two, having once bested Jimmy Britt, the excellent featherweight Young Corbett II and Dick Hyland, but his presence here hangs almost exclusively on his two defeats of the Old Master. It is certainly true that Gans was ripe, but someone has to do the plucking; that someone was Nelson.
Gans won their first fight via a “wonderful endurance and willpower” By 1908, his endurance if not his willpower had slipped as illness and wear and tear bore down on the Old Master. Nelson was described by the San Francisco Call as a “combination of youth, perpetual motion and a concrete wall,” and this seems apt. Gans, meanwhile, looked “as though his heart had been broken” as early as the end of the eighth, while Nelson “hardly drew a long breath all fight.” Gans, shaking with apparent exhaustion, still covered up beautifully in the seventeenth, but Nelson’s body attack was among the most terrible of his era; Gans crumbled.
So wonderful a fighter was he that he was able to carry Nelson all the way to the twenty-first before he crumbled in the rematch just over two months later. Reading the round-by-round accounts of this second fight are fascinating, as despite Joe’s trickery and generalship, Nelson whittles the ring down to more claustrophobic dimensions almost by the round.
Nelson was champion, but he shared an era with a fighter he could never best: Ad Wolgast. Wolgast beat him three times, taking his title from him in 1910. Yet Wolgast does not appear on this list, and Nelson does. Like Nelson, Wolgast lost to most of the best men he faced, including Freddie Welsh, Rocky Kansas, Leach Cross, Willie Ritchie and Joe Rivers. In total, he lost more than thirty contests in his career. He redeemed himself with his domination of Nelson, but it is not enough to pry open the top fifty.
Nelson, on the other hand, in twice defeating Gans and in taking his title from him, is awarded with guaranteed immortality. To put it more simply, beating an ageing Gans is more impressive than beating Nelson himself.
#42 – Lew Jenkins (73-41-5)
A savage puncher despite his gaunt appearance Lew Jenkins was a horrible opponent for even the best of fighters, but he sabotaged himself. Better than his record indicates, better than this slot on the list, he was, in his early incarnation, a horror-show of a fighter, a terminator type with an axe to grind with whoever was unlucky enough to stand in the opposite corner come bell.
But he had vulnerabilities. His chin was certainly not soft, but nor was it rock, and he could be out-boxed by the best boxers just as he could be unexpectedly stopped by good punchers.
He became a fully fledged lightweight around the same time that he abandoned the eight-round contests that litter the first part of his career, perhaps without the expectation that he would shake the world in the way he did given his patchy form over the shorter distance. But when he arrived in earnest against Mike Belloise on the eve of the 1940s, it was with a bang, breaking one of Mike’s ribs on the way to a stoppage win. Tippy Larkin followed in a single round and Jenkins was granted on the strength of these knockouts a title shot against the brilliant Lou Ambers.
At one point a 13-5 favorite, Ambers was in the prime of his life and had lost just one of his previous twenty-eight fights – to Henry Armstrong. Never stopped, Ambers was considered too clever and tough to fall prey to a fighter who had spent the same years the champion had spent contesting the title treading water. Jenkins cocked his right hand, breathed air into his slender body and blasted Ambers apart in three rounds, twice dropping him, stopping him on his feet.
Jenkins came very close to dropping his title in his very first defense against Bob Montgomery, a deadly fighter who would go on to help define the stacked division in the decade ahead, but he rallied in the tenth to eke out the closest of decisions in another career-defining bout. The grim destruction of Pete Lello, then ranked #3 in the world, followed, and Jenkins seemed to be threatening to clean out the division. It was not to be. Jenkins lived with the same fierce intensity that he fought and the two are not compatible.
Although a draw with the great welterweight Fritzie Zivic and another victory over Ambers (who then retired) followed, a love of fast cars and allegedly faster women mixed caustically with a fondness for whisky and the wheels flew violently from the wagon. He lost 13 of his next 16 fights, and although few of them were at lightweight (and thus, are not considered here) he never recaptured his devastating form.
Boxing was the loser.
#41 – Jack Blackburn (46-9-12; Newspaper Decisions 69-16-11)
Jack Blackburn has become one of the most celebrated fighters of the pre-film era, a drunken terror who did time for manslaughter in between matching the best fighters in five different weight divisions, winning more than his fair share. He was a wonderful fighter, with a wonderful left hand, a left-hand that no less a fighter than Sam Langford spoke of in awe; Joe Gans claimed that Blackburn was the single fighter he had met that he feared.
So why the relatively low ranking?
Blackburn emerged from an era when boxing was semi-legal. The Emancipation Proclamation was not yet twenty years old when he was born; he remained a second class citizen; a young African-American fighter took his living where he could, regardless of weight class. A fighter’s poundage was not only rarely recorded it was often of no consequence.
Long story short: Boxrec records but four occasions upon which Blackburn fought in a weight range that interests us for the purposes of this list. Furthermore, conversations with the owner and operator of the wonderful Senya 13: Annals of Boxing History blog underlined to me the likelihood that Gans made the lightweight limit far less frequently than is assumed. Certainly proof of his doing so is almost non-existent. Despite this, he is usually reported online as occupying the weight range of “132-142lbs”, probably because he was referred to as weighing “between 132 and 140 lbs” in the July 1942 edition of Ring Magazine. Research has since revealed that he weighed in over 150lbs as often as he weighed in under 135lbs. This makes sense. Blackburn was 5’11 in an era where 5’7 made a tall lightweight.
In discussions for his 1908 meeting with Jack O’Brien, Blackburn spoke candidly about his weight, The Washington Evening Star noting that “Blackburn, while posing as a lightweight, weighs many pounds more.” This was a rare occasion where the weights had been agreed by contract prior to the fight and sure enough, Blackburn weighed in at ringside at just over the modern welterweight limit. The same newspaper reported that Blackburn was in better condition than O’Brien on fight night; there is no reportage of his having fought overweight or out of shape.
That said, Blackburn did fight in contests where he was weighed in in a similar fashion and fought and won at or near the lightweight limit. Unfortunately, the opposition in these fights often did not, thus rendering even these fights welterweight contests on occasion.
Still, he famously edged Joe Gans over six rounds after coming off the canvas in the first (Gans twice avenged this defeat), and he won other lightweight contests for all that the opposition was less impressive. What all this adds up to is a ranking in the forties and an enhancement in my eyes to his pound-for-pound standing which should never be in doubt. Blackburn was a great fighter. But he probably wasn’t a great lightweight.
We will be edging closer to the legitimately great ones by the end of Part Two.
The 50 Greatest Lightweights / Check out Mcgrain’s Top 50 Welterweights starting right here.