by Matt McGrain
Rules are everything.
Whether it’s the laws of physics describing the impact of a left hook upon a granite jaw or the Sweet Science’s editor applying the rules of grammar to the work we writers “bless” him with, they describe what we see, do and feel. The process of ordering the Fifty Greatest Lightweights of all time, too, is a process described by rules.
Often, these rules throw up numbering that is counter-intuitive. There is a fine example in this, the second installment in this series, at numbers 38 through 35. At 38 and 37, I name two of the greatest fighters in history, while at 36 and 35 I name two fighters who were never named true champion and who own but a modicum of the fame commanded by the two men they rank directly above. But the rules of this process say that actual achievement within the given division is far and away the most important factor and that fame and overall greatness achieved out-with the division count for less. This is why we run across rankings that are counter-intuitive.
36 and 35 just did more at lightweight than 37 and 38. They defeated more ranked contenders, achieved greater longevity in the division and also happened to be among the very, very best fighters at the poundage in their own eras.
Keep that in mind as we run down the fortieth to thirty-first greatest lightweights in history.
#40 – Billy Petrolle (89-21-10; Newspaper Decisions 34-4-6)
Billy Petrolle did wonders at the limit of 140lbs and against small welterweights. He took scalps like Jimmy McLarnin, Battling Battalino and Jimmy Goodrich above the limit that interests us here, spreading his excellence over three weight divisions and perhaps not getting his due upon any of these lists for that fact.
Luck, too, was against him, in his career.
1932: after more than 100 contests, Petrolle finally gets his shot at the lightweight title. The champion is Tony Canzoneri, a hideous vapor of feints and counter-intuition. Canzoneri’s left was never better and for many, this was the absolute peak of his incredible career. Petrolle, maybe – maybe – could have matched or run him close at his own spectacular best but he had a disastrous battle with the poundage in the week before the fight. His bob and weave, normally so difficult to time, repeatedly saw him bob up onto the Canzoneri left; he dropped a fifteen round decision. He would never be champion.
This was all the more frustrating because two months before Canzoneri lifted the lightweight title, Petrolle had beaten him. Stopped only twice at the poundage, by injury, he had courage and pressure to match that chin and he had a left-hook as fine as any in that stacked division outside of perhaps Canzoneri himself. 1-1 is nothing to sniff at, but working entirely within the weight range we are interested in, his next best scalp belongs to Jack “Kid” Berg, and again, Petrolle failed to prove his superiority going 1-1-1. A series of defeats to the likes of Ray Miller (with whom he also went 1-1-1), Sammy Mandell, King Tut and Tommy Herman also exercises some drag, and for all that it must be allowed that a breakneck schedule like the one he fought to – Petrolle made as many as 24 matches in a year – is going to kick up some losses, Billy had a habit of losing the fight that really mattered.
This puts him below fighters who never proved themselves quite as special but who were a little luckier.
#39 – Edwin Rosario (47-6)
Edwin Rosario had the same unfortunate habit as Petrolle, namely that of losing to the best fighters he fought. This is a typical habit and one held to by surprisingly great fighters, but in Rosario’s case it is hard to argue that Jose Luis Ramirez, Hector Camacho and Julio Cesar Chavez are the most gifted fighters “Chapo” tangled with. But for all that Chavez dominated him, these three didn’t have it all their own way and against Ramirez, at least, he also posted a win. That win, for me, was slightly fortuitous and I think Ramirez can count himself a little unlucky. Rosario dialed in his right hand in the opening six, which he dominated, but Ramirez’s wonderful shepherding footwork and body attack took its toll late and Rosario found himself unable to control the action, his seemingly perennially injured right no longer a factor. Regardless the judges gave Rosario the fight.
If he was fortunate (and that’s just one man’s opinion) he didn’t hide behind his fortune; in defense of the vacant strap he won against Ramirez he met ranked men, blasting out Roberto Elizondo in a single round in 1984, that right the most important punch once more, and taking a decision from Howard Davis Jr. Decking Davis with a left hand in the last round is what made the difference in another desperately close fight, underlining the Puerto Rican’s two-handedness, but Ramirez then exacted a terrible revenge, stopping him in four.
After another hurtful (but close) loss to Hector Camacho, Rosario came again, stopping the superb Livingstone Bramble in just two rounds before Julio Cesar Chavez arrived on the scene.
After that terrible encounter, Rosario would never defeat another ranked fighter.
This leaves him with a ledger of 4-3 against Ring ranked lightweights. Numerically, it’s not a great mark to leave upon the sport, but Rosario ran into some tough hombres.
#38 – Floyd Mayweather Jr. (49-0)
Floyd Mayweather staged a brief, jabbing drive-by of the lightweight division in 2002 to 2003, a visitation defined by his two-fight rivalry with Jose Luis Castillo (more of whom later).The first fight is the most controversial in the Mayweather canon. Starting aggressively, Mayweather stabbed with the jab, bagged the first four rounds on my card and seemed in total control. Then, one of two things happened. Either Floyd exacerbated a shoulder-injury sustained in training or the clash of styles favored Castillo enough that Mayweather found himself under unprecedented pressure. Certainly, Castillo made him work, getting closer and closer, buying inches with every half-step and forcing Floyd to flee before him. This was Mayweather at the end of his first career (Pretty Boy) and beginning of his second (Money) without yet having the studied economy that would sustain him in his quest to dominate bigger men.
Castillo was able to build a head of steam, rattling after him with handfuls of bruising body-punches. My card says Castillo won, barely, and for those who were dismayed by the rise and rise of the man called “Money”, this fight would remain the crown-jewel of their criticism and certainly it is the closest this Rolls Royce came to engine trouble. For me, the result was not so controversial. I thought many of the rounds were close, arguable, and although I do not care for the official scorecards, I think a narrow Mayweather win would have been reasonable.
Having taken the decision against the world’s best lightweight in controversial circumstances, Mayweather dealt the closest thing he would ever have to a nemesis back in with an immediate rematch. Here began the Mayweather “procession,” his relentless spearing of a bigger man who came to apply pressure, a style not beloved by the fans but one that made him the richest boxer in history. In truth, there were breathtaking moments. In the eleventh, with the fight still in the balance, Mayweather turned in a wonderful variety of punches, leading with rights, countering with uppercuts, snapping off the left hook that had been the bane of Castillo throughout. When Castillo dropped his head to bull, Mayweather would throw that left, countering not just Castillo’s movements but his very essence. This fight is closer than is generally accepted in my opinion, but there was only one winner.
Depending upon your own personal view of the term lineage, one or the other of these fights made Mayweather the first lineal champion since Pernell Whitaker, and sealed his legacy at the weight. One of the true jab clinics against Victoriano Sosa and an astonishing show against puncher Phillip Ndou built upon the right hand were the defenses he staged of the lineal title and sneaks him into the top forty.
So lightweight delivers head-to-head monsters in just the second sitting.
#37 – Julio Cesar Chavez (107-6-2)
Here is another one.
Just as Mosley’s lightweight career mirrors Crawford’s, so the legendary Julio Cesar Chavez’s mirrors that of fellow great Mayweather. While Mayweather jabbed and slipped his way to pre-eminence in his stay at the poundage, Chavez marauded his way to the top. Although Mayweather spent more time in the ring with ranked men, Chavez destroyed his with such imperiousness and those men were of such quality that he stands a barrier to a higher ranking for Mayweather.
Enjoying the occasional sojourn from 130lbs to 135lbs as he cut his teeth at the lighter poundage, Chavez arrived in earnest in the division in 1987 at the expense of the superb Edwin Rosario.
Rosario was a wonderful lightweight and a wonderful puncher; Chavez brushed him aside like he was nothing. It was an astonishing performance, one of the best that can be seen on film at any weight and perhaps the single best performance by any lightweight ranked outside the top ten. Chavez wove punches through the eye of the proverbial needle that night and from the very first round. Rasario is disciplined, neat in defense, but Chavez, using the bare minimum in terms of room, happily found him with combinations as complex as a double-uppercut, liver-shot with withering regularity. Much of the success Rosario had on offense was left-handed – Chavez swallowed the puncher’s blows without a blink, kept him smothered, did the superior work. On the rare occasions he allowed Rosario to charge, he out-flanked him with head-movement and surging counter-attacks. He didn’t lose a round.
While Mayweather beat a wonderful drum with his jab, Chavez gave a clinic in combination punching and all that stopped him was the inevitable crumble of his world-class opponent. After ten rounds of hard work taking fire from a world class puncher, Chavez literally runs out of his corner for the eleventh. You could almost see Rosario deflate. He lasted another two minutes, full of guts.
Another first rate lightweight, Jose Luis Ramirez was in desperate need of guts when he met Chavez a year later. Here, Chavez boxed quite differently, the drip-torture feed of his numbing right hand and his terrifying economy in wasting so few punches proving far too much for the veteran when a clash of heads and resulting cut to Ramirez called for the judges scorecards after ten.
Chavez was on rare form at 135lbs and perhaps could have ruled until Whitaker. A shallow resume and a paucity of quality title-defenses keep him from the royal climates above, but he was a devastating lightweight.
#36 – Lockport Jimmy Duffy (36-8-4; Newspaper Decisions 60-12-26)
Lockport Jimmy Duffy turned professional in 1908, so while his record indicates he fell four wins short of the magical 100 mark, in reality he probably managed it; even among the elite for the era, fights tended to go unrecorded.
What we know about Duffy, though, makes him more than qualified for this list.
He never fought for the world title, but he bested champions, most prominent among them the great Freddie Welsh. Duffy was never the pre-eminent lightweight during his career, but he got the best of a series with a man who was, beating Welsh twice to one loss, even dropping him for a short count in their second encounter in 1914. He also took a decision from Johnny Dundee, the great featherweight and a contender for the #50 slot on this lightweight list.
Joe Shugrue was a superb boxer whose career was cut short by eye trouble and one who, despite inconsistency, was able to beat almost anyone on his day, including one Benny Leonard – Duffy took a ten round decision from him during World War One. Leach Cross defeated Battling Nelson in November of 1912, but two months either side of this excellent result he dropped a DQ loss and a newspaper decision to Duffy. Jack Britton, one of the greatest welterweights of all time, had the clear beating of Duffy at 147lbs, but during his lightweight apprenticeship, Duffy twice got the better of him.
Duffy was a giant, for his era, standing more than 5’10” with a reach pushing 72”, making him both taller and rangier than the most recent lineal champion, Terence Crawford. He used his gifts, pumping out a left jab, keeping opponents at range while piling up points on the cards.
It made him one of the crack lightweights of a golden era, and a name sadly lost, for the most part, to boxing in 2016. This is unjust.
#35 – Sid Terris (93-13-4; Newspaper Decisions 6-0-1)
Sid Terris was a contemporary of the great Benny Leonard and according to some, at least, bore comparison for all that he was clearly the inferior model. “Terris was fondled like a second Benny Leonard in New York,” wrote Sam Levy in late 1926. “Sidney could move with the speed of the old champion and he was just about his equal as a boxer, but lacked his prestigious hitting power.” He noted, however, that there was an “existing doubt in the minds of the fistic jurists regarding the courage of Terris.”
This doubt was placed in the mind of the “fistic jurists” by a 1924 loss to Eddie Wagner, a six round stoppage in which Terris was said to show yellow. Terris avenged himself on Wagner and went on a 45-1-1 tear up through the lightweight division that saw him out-think and out-move a veritable smorgasbord of contenders.
He defeated Mickey Walker’s two-time dance partner Ace Hudkins in a “ten round thriller” that saw him handled in the fourth and seventh but come blazing back to dominate his brutish foe in the tenth for a narrow decision. Terris was a defensive specialist who may have operated only a single level below the genius Leonard but he was, like The Ghetto Wizard (Terris carried the moniker “Ghetto Ghost”) capable of turning the tables with real violence when called upon to do so. He was called upon to do so against Billy Petrolle, who he met in 1926. After a fast start, Terris was savaged by a rampant Petrolle in the eighth and ninth but stood his ground to blast out the tenth and take a narrow decision once more.
These occasionally thrilling battles boosted his popularity and quieted accusations that he was “just a dancer,” a fighter who liked to peck out decisions but was afraid to hit the trenches. He hit the trenches in 1927 against feared puncher Billy Wallace. Smashed to the canvas in the first, Terris fought back in a manner Leonard himself would have been proud of, and although ringsiders seem split as to who deserved the decision, it was Terris who got the nod. Stanislaus Loayza, Jack Bernstein, Basil Galiano, Rocky Kansas, Jimmy Goodrich and Johnny Dundee all got the Terris treatment at one time or another and although many of them, like he, are not household names, they were all ranked men.
Nor is the list exhaustive. Terris wasn’t a great lightweight and he never held the title, but he lists among the division’s most storied contenders.
#34 – Wesley Ramey (141-28-12; Newspaper Decisions 11-0-2)
Wesley Ramey turned professional as a lightweight in the 1920s and he retired as a lightweight in the 1940s. Most of the fighters on this list, even legendary lightweights such as Joe Gans and Roberto Duran, did not sacrifice their entire careers to 135lbs. What this means is that nearly every one of the 150 wins Ramey posted in his career were at the expense of a fellow lightweight and makes his resume at the poundage an exceptional one.
Of course it also means that most of the losses were suffered at 135lbs too, but this needs to be quantified. He posted six of those losses in the final two years of his lightweight odyssey and several more during his ill-fated tour of Australia which included a loss at welterweight to legendary Ozzy Jack Carroll. Between his schedule and longevity, losses were inevitable.
Ramey’s greatest night, however, came against legendary lightweight Tony Canzoneri. Canzoneri, then the reigning lightweight champion of the world, was only a few months removed from his shattering performance against Billy Petrolle, a peak night for one of the great fighters; Ramey thrashed him in a non-title fight, winning all but two of the rounds on the Associated Press scorecard. Canzoneri promised Ramey a title shot but had already signed to meet one Barney Ross. Ross took Canzoneri and Ramey was frozen out. On such moments, history turns.
That didn’t prevent Ramey defeating a long list of ranked contenders across the near twenty years for which he terrorized the division. In the modern era he would have worn a strap, at the least.
#33 – Young Griffo (68-11-38; Newspaper Decisions 50-1-30)
A fighter like Young Griffo really tests a project such as this one.
Joe Gans named him the best defensive boxer he ever met; given the level of competition Gans was faced with in the course of his career this makes him as good as almost anyone to come out of boxing’s first fifty years. But as Gans himself also observed, Griffo didn’t take his profession any more seriously than he took his training and seemed more enamored by hellraising than fighting, coming to the ring against even the greatest of his peers underprepared
Furthermore there is anecdotal evidence that Griffo’s main priority was to avoid defeat, not to achieve victory. The rules of the day, which called for dominance in order that judges (or newspapers) might name a victor meant that there was a vast grey area in which a fighter could achieve a draw. This made avoiding defeat a cinch for a fighter of Griffo’s great talent.
And so he scored many – nearly seventy of them, in fact, according to his most complete record. That is absurd and makes judging him absurdly difficult. Apart from Gans, with whom he boxed two draws, he fought stalemates with Frank Erne, Kid Lavigne and George Dixon, each of them among the very best fighters of their era.
But Griffo posted no wins in this type of company and many of those contests were farcical. Chaotic draws with the likes of Lavigne are impressive but do they really forge a great legacy? And what of persistent rumors that these results were agreed upon beforehand or that Griffo elicited his opponent’s co-operation during the contest? The Australian will be back to torture me at featherweight, but as for lightweight, I can force him no higher. It’s frustrating, because if he had applied himself in the same way that Wesley Ramey did, a spot in the top ten would have been his likely reward. Even Gans and the other monstrous lightweights of his era may not have been able to stop his rise to the title – as it is we will never know, and Young Griffo fails to penetrate the top thirty.
#32 – Hector Camacho (79-6-3)
Despite boxing his way through the whole of the 1990s, Camacho never made the lightweight limit after 1986 and spent the early years of his career flitting between 130 and 135lbs. No career lightweight then but the judderingly quick southpaw did inflict serious suffering upon the division in the early and mid-1980s. Included in the suffering were two that readers of Part One and Two will be familiar with — Jose Luis Ramirez and Edwin Rosario.
Against Ramirez, Camacho’s dominance was a wonder. He turned in a perfect performance, a true showcase for his wonderful speed; Camacho, arguably, is the fastest lightweight to appear on film and Ramirez is the fight where he really demonstrated that speed. In the third, he dropped an axe-fall left hand on Ramirez to see him to the deck and only Ramirez’s equally wonderful toughness keeps him from the “ten” in this fight.
Rosario gave him more problems. Quicker pressure, and that dangerous right-hand left Camacho wide open for lefts in the fifth and the eleventh and saw him on rubbery legs on two occasions. Still, a wonderful engine kept Camacho a step ahead for seven of the twelve rounds and bought him a desperate split decision. Lucky to avoid a point deduction for persistent fouling and arguably on the receiving end of a 10-8 round in the fifth, a draw would have been a reasonable result but given the referee’s position on the fouls, I think a Camacho win is the right result.
A true test of character for Camacho, there are those that believe that this fight turned him from an aggressive speedster into a stick-and-move merchant. There is probably some truth to this; certainly for his next and last lightweight contest, against Cornelius Boza-Edwards, Camacho boxed carefully in taking a much more comfortable decision.
Then he bid the lightweight division, and any chance of making the top thirty on this list, adieu.
#31 – Beau Jack (91-24-5)
Beau Jack only made the lightweight limit once after 1944 in his doomed tilt at the great Ike Williams, who then held the undisputed title. Jack was a wonderful fighter, but one who stepped up in pursuit of cash and glory, leaving the poundage which best suited him behind.
Above the lightweight limit he scored great victories over the likes of Bob Montgomery, Bummy Davis, Sammy Angott, Lew Jenkins, Fritzie Zivic, and, most impressively, Henry Armstrong. These are the results that made Beau Jack great but readers of these series’ will understand that he receives no credit for these victories here but rather is credited at welterweight and, of course, in a pound for pound sense.
His glittering ambition – which made him one of the most bankable stars of the era – limited his standing at lightweight to that which he achieved before 1944. These are considerable, but not of the ilk that explains his high placement on Boxing Scene’s excellent top twenty-five. Let’s take a look.
Jack’s finest win was over Bob Montgomery at the lightweight limit late in 1943 winning as many as ten and as few as seven on the scorecards of judges and ringsiders, but in all events winning more than his heavily favored opponent. Montgomery was favored because he had defeated Jack for Jack’s lightweight strap six months before. A brutal body attack registered early and by the end Jack was hanging on in desperation; in the rematch, he smothered the new belt-holder’s attack by keeping close and working hard. The two fought on two more occasions, but Montgomery took the lightweight rubber to prove himself the better fighter at the 135lb limit.
Looking back over his earlier days in the division, Jack did good, but not great work. His knockout victory over Tippy Larkin was impressive, and executed in just three rounds for the vacant NYSAC belt. His best performance may have come during his run to that belt, a seven round hammering of number one contender Allie Stolz, who was heavily favored to beat him. The United Press described his style as “hell-for-leather primitive pummelling” but the more scientifically gifted Stolz, who was riding a hot streak, hardly won a round. A “menacing bundle of wiry muscle,” Jack applied fierce pressure upon the favorite, who melted before him. I suspect Jack was never better at the weight, but if he was, it was probably against Juan Zurita, the NBA strapholder who forced Jack to the ring at 136lbs in order that his title would remain at his waist regardless. Jack was made to miss often by Zurita but kept the pressure on to hammer out a ten round decision from the inside.
Jack beat both beltholders during his lightweight prime and was unquestionably the best lightweight in the world for a spell after his defeat of Montgomery and before Montgomery’s revenge; but he was never the lineal champion and, as described, the overwhelming number of his best wins came at 138lbs or above.