THE GREATEST FEATHERWEIGHTS, PART TWO OF A FIVE-PART SERIES: Legacy used to be a big word but as Lou Dibella puts it in “Rocky Balboa”, “every jock has a legacy these days.”
If the clothes make the man then the results make the legacy. Sometimes the narrowest of decisions can spell the difference between historical impact and interminable exclusion. Sometimes it is fair; often it isn’t. But that is why we watch. The turn of the coin is so often the turn of the screw, and if there was no pain for the loser what is at stake becomes unclear.
Also, this is boxing: there’s always a comeback.
More than one comeback impacts Part Two of the Fifty Greatest Featherweights of all time.
40 – Antonio Esparragoza (30-2-4)
Antonio Esparragoza was one of the more outstanding lineal champions to hold the true featherweight championship in the wake of the last great divisional king, Eusebio Pedroza. He held the title from 1987 to 1991 and staged an impressive seven defenses, albeit against middling competition.
His best scalp was that of Steve Cruz, who held the legitimate championship when Esparragoza came calling. Cruz had taken the title from Barry McGuigan in a fight of the year candidate, needing the two knockdowns he dug out in the fifteenth and final round to edge the narrowest of decisions. Cruz was proven under fire; Esparragoza took him out in twelve. It was an astonishing title-winning performance, a fast-handed fuselage of punches winging in behind a rhythm-busting jab. Esparragoza was a hideous opponent, lengthy, ice-cool, hard-hitting and granite-chinned, stopped just once very early in his career.
Probably he did not scale the heights of the Cruz fight again. He managed only a draw against top contender Marcos Villasana, making his victories over Johnny De La Rosa and Jose Marmolejo his next best wins; he failed to entertain Jeff Fenech, which may have been a fight for the ages.
39 – Young-Kyun Park (28-3-1)
Antonio Esparragoza’s prime was short, and the man who took advantage was Young-Kyun Park who out-mauled and out-worked the Venezuelan in South Korea in 1991. Esparragoza promptly retired, Park the new legitimate featherweight champion of the world.
Best for best, Esparragoza looks more impressive on film but Park staged one more successful title defense and, of course, defeated Esparragoza, not always the final word in these matters but hard to ignore on this occasion.
Of those fights which are readily available, however, the best example of Park’s style is the first of three torrid fights with Eloy Rojas. Park boxes like a man possessed, threshing, wrestling, fouling and bulling his way to a clear points win, Marciano’s ghost come to life and absolutely furious. There has never been a fighter quite like Park, in truth, but it did not prevent him putting together more title defenses than any other featherweight post-Pedroza. Outside of Rojas, his opposition was not exceptional as he repeatedly chose to take the soft option offered up by the WBA rather than face the best available.
It was Rojas, who suffered a lengthy and bemusing mauling in his first fight with Park, who returned to unseat him via split decision in 1993.
38 – Johnny Famechon (56-5-6)
Frenchman Johnny Famechon was the caretaker of the featherweight championship during Vicente Saldivar’s brief retirement, holding the title in 1969 and 1970. When Saldivar returned, he was powerless to resist and retired in the wake of that defeat.
For all that he was only keeping the title warm for the brilliant Mexican, he met legitimate competition both in earning the right to fight for, and in guarding the gold.
He took the vacant title against Jose Legra in 1969, boxing behind a lightning jab and employing equally quick and unexpected movement. He earned that shot, in the main, by beating Don Johnson out in his adopted home country of Australia, taking an unpopular decision protested even by a partisan home crowd; but there would be not protesting when he travelled to London to meet Legra who was on a fifty fight winning streak. Famechon ended that streak by out-slicking the slickster.
He was presented, then, with the deadly Fighting Harada.
Harada was a serious proposition at flyweight and a lethal one at bantamweight; up at featherweight he was clearly outsized, but still boxed his way to the #3 slot as a 126lb contender. The first fight between the two was desperately close. Famechon scored often and well with a left jab; Harada scored often and well with a right hand and a body attack. The result, a victory for Famechon by a single point, was controversial, not least because referee Willie Pep at first announced the contest a draw, but also because Harada had dropped Famechon three times, himself visiting the canvas just once. Personally, I am unclear as to where the extra points for Famechon had come from, and I scored it a narrow victory for Harada.
Famechon did the right thing though, travelling to Japan for the rematch and ending any discussion by scoring a fourteenth round knockout. It sealed his legacy for all Saldivar would soon reveal his limitations, as he did for so many of that era’s featherweights.
37 – Howard Winstone (61-6-0)
That the Welsh idol Howard Winstone has cracked the top forty will be of little comfort to his countrymen, should any of them be reading. They will want to see “The Welsh Wizard” much higher.
Unfortunately, Winstone’s three tilts at the world featherweight championship ended in brave failure. Three times he went to the mat with the seemingly invincible Vicente Saldivar and three times he was bested. Branded an “epic trilogy” by the BBC, these fights were, in all honesty, not particularly close.
Winstone started well in the first contest, jabbing with that gorgeous left and maintaining the distance; but he was steadily ground down, then cut and finally out-classed by the deadly champion. The Associated Press awarded Winstone just three of the fifteen rounds. He started well in the second fight, too, but finished it in a storm of abuse as Saldivar found his way all the way in to heap punishment upon his game foe. I found four rounds for the Welshman in that fight. In the third, Winstone’s corner took the action it should have taken in the second fight and pulled Winstone during a torrid twelfth. There was simply nothing he could do with Saldivar.
He did pick up an alphabet strap in his very next fight against top contender Mitsunori Seki. Seki, like Saldivar, was a southpaw, and like Winstone he was a Saldivar victim. Their fight was quick-paced and satisfying but the ending was disappointing as the referee pulled Seki with a cut above the eyebrow in the ninth, perhaps prematurely.
Jose Legra took the strap from him in his very first defense, something of a massacre as Winstone was dropped in the first round and cut above and below his long suffering left eye causing a fifth round stoppage that certainly was not premature.
Either no champion at all or not a great one depending upon your perspective then, but Winstone’s longevity as a contender was considerable. He ranked among the ten best in the world in the division for most of the 1960s and already held a close decision win over Jose Legra at the time of their second bout. In addition he defeated the excellent and highly rated American Don Johnson on two separate occasions and holds victories over fringe contenders Richard Sue and Yves Desmarets. He was the British and European featherweight champion in a time when such titles held more meaning than they do today and was the proud owner of the most cultured left hand in British boxing prior to the emergence of Ken Buchanan.
36 – Ernesto Marcel (40-4-2)
Elegant and blessed with extraordinary balance, Ernesto Marcel may be my favorite of all the great Panamanian stylists. Equally comfortable circling or backing his opponent up with technically sure punching, he defines his given style as well as any fighter which is why it is such a shame that he met so few ranked men in his career, something made all the more frustrating for the fact that it perhaps was not Marcel’s fault. Had he been awarded the decision in his 1971 title fight with Kuniaki Shibata, he perhaps would have faced some top opponents in what I suspect would have been a hatful of title defenses.
He did not win that fight, however, despite dominating the action while mobile and despite his winning most of the exchanges Shibata was able to force. It was a beautiful performance that brought him ten of the fifteen rounds on my card and should have brought him the title. Sadder still, he would never go on to right that wrong, although he did lift an alphabet strap from Antonio Gomez the following year and stage four defenses; the last of these is the reason for his gaining this slot.
Alexis Arguello, “El Flaco Explosivo” was his opponent that night and Marcel beat him like he was his daddy. Arguello came out steaming, attacking directly, but within thirty seconds Marcel was landing booming punches of his own, using Arguello’s momentum against him to shoot withering hooks and sneak rights through and around that lengthy reach. In the seventh he landed so many punches as to give the fight the appearance of a technical mismatch.
Arguello would get better, but this was an astonishing achievement.
Marcel had promised before the fight that he would retire, win, lose or draw and he stayed true to his word.
35 – Chris John (48-1-3)
Chris John was never the lineal champion of the world, but rather a strapholder. I think most people think that this is a matter of no concern, a technicality, but this is not the case, and John is a good example as to why.
In order to begin a new reign as true champion a fighter has to do one of two things. First, he can beat the reigning lineal champion. This makes him the best fighter of his poundage in the world; secondly, he can become one of the top two contenders in the world and then defeat the other man who makes up the top two. Now consider – what is the difference between a lineal champion and a strapholder? The answer is that the lineal champion has beaten the very best fighter in the world at his weight, excepting himself. The beltholder has not as a general rule (occasionally a true champion running scared of a challenger brings the whole house of cards tumbling down; see Alvarez-Golovkin for a perfect example).
Having never done that, John does not receive quite as much credit as some might expect for his “title” run in the 2000s. He boxed most of his early contests at home, in this case Indonesia, where he built himself a record of 48-0-3 before losing his final contest in 2013.
That astonishing run, almost all of it boxed at featherweight, included a perfectly reasonable win over the great Juan Manuel Marquez, as discussed in Part 1. It also included victories over American Rocky Juarez in Las Vegas and Hiro Enoki in Tokyo at times when both men were ranked in the top five. The Enoki fight is recommended for any reader who hasn’t seen it; John eschews his usual careful jab-boxing and goes chest to chest with the rugged Japanese, the result a lo-fi classic.
34 – Eugene Criqui (101-16-5)
Parisian Eugene Criqui was the featherweight champion of the world in 1923 and a legitimate centurion, a man with more than a hundred victories under his belt.
There was, perhaps, a little snobbery in the American press surrounding that record, built, as it was, outside of the USA. But Criqui was learning his trade, and not just in his native France but on the road, in Belgium, in Morocco, in Britain, and Australia. By the time he crossed the Atlantic he had served an early apprenticeship that saw him try and fail three times to win the European featherweight title and a later one, which saw him annex the belt and defend it three times before relinquishing it undefeated to cross the sea and win himself the big prize.
Earlier, his boxing career had been interrupted by the First World War. He had seen action at the slaughterhouse that was Verdun and sustained a bullet wound to the face. This was a serious man.
The champion was Johnny Kilbane, another serious man who had reigned as the division’s king for more than a decade; within moments of the opening bell of his New York date with Criqui, Kilbane knew he was in for a serious discussion. Criqui drilled him repeatedly with right hands to the body that drew a laugh from the champion. “The laugh was not real,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted dryly.
At the opening of the sixth Kilbane was arguably without a single round for his trouble and even his fake smile was long gone. In that round Criqui was merciless, battering Kilbane’s body and forcing him back before detonating a wild right-handed swing on his chin. The great reign of Johnny Kilbane was at an end via the only stoppage loss he would ever suffer at the weight.
Criqui didn’t last. Johnny Dundee pounded out a vicious points win over him in a broiling Polo Grounds the following month. But here he stands on merit, nonetheless. It is true that France did not produce the type of competition that America did, that Mexico did, even that Britain or perhaps Australia did, but Criqui’s grounding was good enough that he was able to crush America’s longest reigning champion.
33 – Fidel LaBarba (69-15-6)
Fast, slippery and armed with an unerring punch, converted southpaw Fidel LaBarba was never a featherweight champion but he built the resume of one.
After coming out of retirement in 1928, the former flyweight king flirted with bantamweight but after posting losses to Kid Francis and Kid Chocolate he concluded it was not for him and departed for featherweight where he would make a new career in the 1930s. His decision was borne out not least by revenge over Francis and Chocolate. Bear in mind that those losses took place at bantam and do not harm his standing here whereas the victories took place at featherweight and are considered accordingly.
Other major scalps included Bud Taylor, the former bantamweight champion who had joined him on his featherweight campaign, and made mark enough to earn himself a ranking in his new division. LaBarba climbed from the canvas to earn himself a decision in April of 1930, a trick he turned again seven months later in a rematch. Naturally bigger men, too, struggled, Chicagoan Varias Milling unable to come to terms with LaBarba’s shadowy boxing in 1932 when the former flyweight took the time to dust him off three times; Tommy Paul boxed a draw with no less a figure than Panama Al Brown before he met LaBarba in April of 1930 – LaBarba handed him the usual serving of ten round decision loss. Claude Varner fared little better and Earl Mastro, then ranked number two in the world, dropped a decision to the New Yorker at a crucial time in his hunt for the title
For all that, LaBarba’s own hunt for the title came to nothing, turned away by the brilliant Battling Battalino when his opportunity came in May of 1931. He does hold a victory over a future title-holder, however, dominating Petey Sarron in a one-sided drubbing a year after his failed title-tilt; probably it was his best performance at the weight.
So, a stirring campaign with shades of a champion’s dominance sees LaBarba obtain a higher ranking than I expected, for all that his failure to take the title remains a limiting factor.
32 – Baby Arizmendi (87-26-14)
Contrary to popular belief, Baby Arizmendi did not beat Henry Armstrong at 126lbs. He weighed in over the modern super-featherweight limit for their 1934 contest, 130lbs on the nose for their first contest in 1935, 132lbs in in 1938 and 136lbs in 1939. The two men did hit the featherweight mark for 1936 contest, but Armstrong was the victor.
That said, he did beat some wonderful fighters including Mike Belloise and Fidel LaBarba, both ranked #2 in the world at that time, the storied Eddie Shea, Varias Milling and Tommy Paul. His finest moment at featherweight came against another towering figure in that division’s history, Freddie Miller. Both Miller and Arizmendi laid claim to the legitimate championship in the mess that was the featherweight division between the retirement of Battling Battalino and the emergence in earnest of Henry Armstrong, but neither claim is generally recognized today. Still, when the two met in 1933 they were unquestionably among the two best featherweights in the world; Miller shaded that one, but Arizmendi’s revenge the following year was terrible. Miller dropped him with a thumping right hand in the third, but Arizmendi pulled himself up and then pulled himself together, unleashing a hellish body attack to bank every remaining round.
Like LaBarba, Arizmendi was never the legitimate featherweight champion of the world, but he sneaks in ahead of LaBarba here based upon his victory in their meeting.
31 – Marco Antonio Barrera (67-7)
Given how closely the two are linked it is perhaps fitting that this accounting of Marco Antonio Barrera’s ranking begins with a discussion of Erik Morales. Morales did not make this list.
This seems odd given how closely matched Morales and Barrera appeared and indeed, Morales came extremely close to making the cut; he was unlucky #51. The main reason for his exclusion is that Morales defeated very few ranked contenders at the poundage. This is the gold standard because it tells us who an opponent was at the time of the meeting and Morales staged some very strange matches at 126lbs. His 2003 meeting with Eddie Croft, for example, was a disgrace; his 2001 meeting with In-Jin Chi was fun but it would be another three years before Chi was ranked at the lofty heights of #2. Erik’s key fights at the featherweight limit were against Barrera, a loss, Guty Espadas Jnr., a desperately close fight that he won without enhancing his reputation and, his best performance at the weight, a victory over the smaller Paulie Ayala.
Barrera, on the other hand, did the business at 126lbs and perhaps the most noteworthy example is his deconstruction of the mercurial Prince Naseem Hamed.
Barrera had drifted up to featherweight on a few occasions before his 2001 meeting with Hamed, but nothing meaningful occurred. Hamed was his baptism at the poundage and it was expected to be one of fire, one that made him a 3-1 underdog; not a bit of it. Barrera crushed Hamed. His plan, to circle away from that left hand, to remain compact and disciplined in defense, to produce a natural egress of punching opportunities, worked beautifully and it is hard to think of a fighter more perfectly suited to execute it than Barrera. Where Hamed is unbalanced, Barrera is poised; where Hamed is unorthodox, Barrera is technically sound with the heart, the drive and the speed to deliver. When, in the twelfth, he drove Hamed’s head into the turnbuckle and, allegedly, asked him the rhetorical question, “who’s your daddy now?!” it was a final absolution of Barrera’s dominance over him.
The following year Barrera rematched Morales, to whom he had lost at 122lbs. He obtained his revenge although the fight was so close as to be reasonably called either way; but the unanimous decision went the way of Barrera rendering them different classes at featherweight in a historical sense.
On such turns of the coin are legacies made.
More coin tosses next week.
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