From the sublime to the obscure, Part 3 of my rundown of the Fifty Greatest Featherweights of all time has as wide a variety of pugilists as any installment of any list I have published for this website. A North American puncher, an African legend, a Ukrainian tough, an Irish hero; if you want variety in approach rather than origin we have ugly stylists and obscure slicksters and lunatic pressure fighters.
These guys are from all over the place, and fight like it.
30 – Chalky Wright (163-45-19)
Chalky Wright took some serious bodies before Willie Pep got to him in 1944 and sent him running for lightweight.
He suffered a series of setbacks in 1934 and 1935 including a devastating fourth round knockout loss to Baby Arizmendi and seemed bound for journeyman hell. The good work he did in ’36 and ’37 above the featherweight limit was somewhat undone by another knockout loss in 1938, excusable in that it was suffered against a 130lb Henry Armstrong. A safe six-rounder was booked against fading contender Al Reid; Chalky found the devastating punch that would make him a champion and dispatched Reid in four. It put Chalky in a kind of race with himself. Reid’s punch was non-existent; he posted just two knockouts in fifty-seven wins. This meant he was able to chase hard, looking for the knockout blow without fear of suffering one of the stoppage losses that dots his career. He found, I think, the key to unlocking the style that would work so well for him: get him before he gets me.
So well learned was this lesson that Chalky, whose chin was far from concrete, would box the crucial eight years to follow without suffering a single stoppage loss.
Sal Bartolo, with who readers of Part 1 will be familiar, dropped an unpopular decision to Chalky in 1941 who shortly thereafter found himself in the ring with lineal featherweight champion Joey Archibald. He grabbed his chance with both hands, blasting the king out in eleven. By this time, he had been boxing as a professional for more than thirteen years.
Chalky held the title for eighteen months, his most impressive defense his first, against Harry Jeffra. Jeffra matched a silken jab to quick feet and presented a serious stylistic problem for Wright. For the first six rounds the new champion was trapped in a one-sided dance contest and Jeffra opened up a sizeable gap but Chalky by now knew what few pressure fighters have time to learn in the modern era – that if he maintained, his pressure would tell over the fifteen. Jeffra could run, but as one Joe Louis put it, he couldn’t hide. Zip on to the ninth and Jeffra was still running, but for his life, one eye swollen shut. He was rescued in the tenth.
What this meant was that Chalky had defeated the two men to hold the title immediately before him, an uncommon achievement and one that named him the best of the post-Armstrong, pre-Pep featherweights.
After his first loss to Pep, Chalky managed to wheel back the clock for an excellent victory over Phil Terranova which put him in the ring with the champion again. After Pep bettered him for a second and third time, one of featherweight’s best punchers departed for lightweight.
29 – Hogan Bassey (59-13-2)
These days, the lineal world championship is often left to quantify in a safe with a radioactive source, existing and not existing simultaneously, sport’s very own Schrodinger’s cat, ignored by the masses and the sport alike as a concept; not so in the mid-fifties. Then, a potential fight between a division’s two best was far less beset by promotional uncertainties, not least because there was only one way for a fighter in the lighter divisions to make money: be king.
So in the same year as the lethal Sandy Saddler announced his retirement the Cherif Hamia-Hogan Bassey fight was made to crown a new divisional number one and lineal featherweight champion. Already the Commonwealth champion, Bassey, who hailed from Nigeria, climbed off the canvas to stop Hamia in ten rounds before a partisan Parisian crowd. Hamia, who was riding a streak of 30-1-2, was clattered back by a scything 5’3” pocket-rocket, a horrible mix of technically sure punching and winging, whistling hooks.
Bassey was huge fun, aggressive and a decent puncher, armed with a fine chin and a better engine. He was not blessed with outstanding competition, the dual reigns of Saddler and Willie Pep having demoralized a thoroughly dominated division, but men like Luis Romero, Jean Sneyers, Miguel Berrios and Ricardo Moreno were capable opponents who were generally outclassed (though Sneyers did manage to win one of three contests).
Bassey managed just a single defense before running into a man he would fail to master on two separate occasions, but the work he did before he came to the title is as important a factor here as the fact that he held it.
28 – Benny Yanger (52-8-19; Newspaper Decisions 0-1-2)
If ever a fighter has flown beneath the radar it is Benny Yanger. Here is a man without a Cyber Boxing entry, without any recognition at all on any all-time great list I have ever seen, without, even, a Wikipedia page. This is despite the fact that he defeated no fewer than three men to have held the lineal featherweight championship of the world.
Between the slats that obscure history, though, there are glimpses. In 1972, while being interviewed about the much admired Ken Buchanan, Ray Arcel spoke briefly about a fighter named Yanger, a smooth-boxing Chicagoan who retired in 1910. Arcel was asked if Buchanan was “another Yanger.”
“No,” he replied firmly. “Yanger knew everything there was to know about boxing.”
Yanger was yet to finish his education when he met the future featherweight champion of the world Abe Attell in 1902 but it is unlikely he had many lessons left to learn when Attell’s condition forced police intervention in the nineteenth of twenty rounds. According to Ken Blady’s “The Jewish Boxer’s Hall of Fame”, Yanger “opened up a cut that didn’t stop bleeding until the end of the fight…both men emerged for the 19th covered in blood.”
The fight had been billed in some quarters as being fought for the featherweight championship but Yanger’s claim never stuck; by the time Attell came to the title just over a year later, “The Tipton Slasher’s” frame had filled out to such a degree that the then limit was not easy for him to meet. Attell, perhaps understandably, did not pursue a rematch. Yanger would never be champion.
The year before, Yanger’s education had received a further enhancement when he met the ancient George Dixon, one of the greatest boxers ever to have lived. Yanger gave him the same medicine everyone else was handing out to Dixon at that time, pounding out a fifteen round decision.
The final great featherweight Yanger bested was Young Corbett II, who he first met in April of 1900. Yanger put on a silken left-handed exhibition for the first seven rounds before finally turning to his right in the eighth, thrice dropping Corbett before he agreed to a ten count. In the rematch seven months later Corbett dominated and Yanger may have been lucky to escape with a draw.
All that said, why no place in the top twenty for Benny? After all, there are few fighters to have bested three lineal featherweight champions. But it must be considered that all three men were suffering from weak moments when Yanger got to them – Attell had not yet manifested as the great champion he would become; for Dixon that time had come and gone; Corbett would improve and indeed proved it in a rematch.
All wins, though, are worth something and these are worth more than most, so he’s firmly ensconced within the top thirty. It is advisable to avoid arguing with Ray Arcel, where possible.
27 – Azumah Nelson (39-6-2)
Azumah Nelson, out of Ghana, did much of his best work at 130lbs, remaining a featherweight for only twenty fights. It was time enough to make his mark.
This is due in part to the bravery of his management. Nelson was thrust into the lion’s den early and he emerged adorned with pelts and teeth. He fought for the commonwealth title in just his fifth fight, an assured performance followed by assured defenses before he tossed that belt aside to fight for the gold – against one of the greatest featherweights of all time, Salvador Sanchez. The fight is legendary and although he was eventually stopped in the fifteenth round, it was a losing effort which gilded the prospect and made him a contender. Unfortunately, he was then matched with another of one of the greatest fighters in history, Wilfredo Gomez. But any lessons Nelson had to learn were learned in the Sanchez bout.
Gomez’s best years were behind him but he knew every trick in the book. He was deadly. He circled, he won the battle of the jabs, and then in the second he uncorked his left hook to the body, in the middle rounds, a left-hook to the head. The fight looks close to me, but behind on all cards at the bell to begin round eleven, Nelson might have felt his back pressed to the same wall to which Sanchez had maneuvered him. He had hurt Gomez in the fourth and he knew he could do it again. When his chance came he forced upon Gomez the most torrid round of his career; it ended with a technically brilliant show of sustained pressure and violence worthy of the victory.
The Gomez people tried to claim that their man had made a mistake, dominating with boxing before succumbing to the temptation to shoot it out in the eleventh but this is not accurate. Gomez happily made war in other rounds, especially the rip-tide seventh. The truth is that Nelson had just a bit too much for him at the weight. He was good at everything, strong and a good mover with a good defense and a good punch that he held late due to good stamina. He had no weaknesses, least of all his chin, which held Gomez’s prestigious shots with ease.
This was his finest moment at featherweight, though many more special nights followed at super-feather.
26 – Louis Kaplan (108-23-13; Newspaper Decisions 13-0-3)
Louis Kaplan was never stopped at featherweight and he relinquished the kingship undefeated, the higher poundage calling him as the struggle to push his diminutive but sturdy frame into 126lbs became prohibitive.
Throughout his outstanding fifteen year career he fought like a man possessed, fighting to a breakneck schedule despite his lunatic style. Kaplan was as aggressive a featherweight as has been in the ring, direct, tireless and impervious to punishment, a necessary quality because Kaplan fought with an abandon that relegated defense to a secondary concern.
It didn’t stop him mowing down a clutch of rough-house featherweights and lightweights through 1923 and 1924, action which put him right at the front of the queue to contest the throne abdicated by Johnny Dundee. An exciting trilogy of fights with the highly ranked Bobby Garcia, of which he won two and drew the other, put him in the ring with Joe Lombardo. Lombardo was more prospect than predator but he was the man unlucky enough to find himself in the ring with a title-match rumored for the winner; Kaplan blasted him apart in four. Danny Kramer then stood between Kaplan and the title and when, in the second round, a clash of heads sent fan-favorite Kaplan stuttering to the canvas, Madison Square Garden held her breath. Kaplan got up and laid such a hideous beating upon his opponent that the same crowd was calling for a stoppage during the eighth. In the ninth, the corner threw in the towel.
Kaplan was too big to wield the title effectively. He fought an incredible draw with Babe Herman, breaking his hand in the eighth round and contesting seven rounds at championship level without throwing the punch. It was a disaster for a fighter with his vicious heart and that he escaped with a draw is admirable; he gave Herman a rematch once his hand had healed and took the decision.
After one more defense against old dance partner Garcia, Kaplan departed for pastures new. Through the years he had spent more time fighting at 130lbs than at 126 but when he visited the division the result was carnage. With modern weight-making science on his side he would have turned the division into slaughterhouse.
25 – Owen Moran (52-16-6; Newspaper Decisions 18-3-2)
Owen Moran is perhaps the most challenging fighter to appear on this list from the point of view of placement.
On the one hand the Englishman is unquestionably storied having fought a wonderful career steeped in blood, his own, and that of the made men he tumbled against within the ring. Quick, difficult, awkward, fearless, if he had carried a true punch I suspect that Moran would have climbed to the absolute heights of boxing’s rich history; that said, is there a reason for a puncher to develop an art this nuanced? As the man once said, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.
That aside, Moran lacks a signature win at featherweight. This is, in part, because the great achievements of his career were neatly trisected by bantamweight, featherweight and lightweight. The most astonishing run of his career, an unbeaten streak that stretched from September of 1904 until the end of 1909, straddled those three different divisions.
In that time, Moran did some impressive things but no incredible things. Most notably, he traded leather twice with the great world champion Abe Attell, both contests taking place in 1908. In their first meeting, Attell’s offense was sorely tested as he repeatedly failed to find “the vital spot” on a swarming, grabbing Moran who rushed behind his leads, cluttering the inside with a scrabbling attack.
Moran’s problem was that he couldn’t dominate the champion, instead swapping rounds with him in a fight that seems difficult to score. Referee Jim Jeffries saw it a draw, which was “received with approval except by violent partisans” according to The Salt Lake Tribune; the rematch, staged just three months later emerged in another draw despite Attell apparently winning more individual rounds, Moran’s aggressiveness the make-weight in keeping with the foibles of the era.
Both contests were rated disappointing affairs, not least due to Moran’s messy style, probably the correct strategic approach to these fights but not one that made it easy to crown him. Many of his other key wins from this time were achieved against lightweights like Matty Baldwin and Tommy Murphy; in pound-for-pound terms, then, Moran achieved much but at featherweight his resume is thin and his best results being draws (including one with Jim Driscoll), it is hard for me to see him any higher than the mid-twenties.
24 – Davey Moore (59-7-1)
As discussed above, Hogan Bassey’s title run ended when he met a better man who twice bested him; that man was Davey Moore (pictured with his left glove raised in his first meeting with Bassey).
Moore sneaked up on Bassey in the first fight, outclassed in the early rounds but landing a volley of left-hands in the sixth that turned the fight around. Badly cut and fighting in a fog of stinging jabs and hooks, Bassey was pulled by his corner after thirteen. Five months later Moore turned the trick again, this time after just ten, retiring Bassey in his corner for a second time. As the 1960s broke, the division had a new and worthy champion, “The Springfield Rifle.”
He kicked off the decade with some non-title affairs for walking around money which included a knockout of ranked man Sergio Caprari before taking on world number three Kazuo Takayama in Tokyo where he was made a clear winner behind a withering left jab to the body. Returning to Los Angeles for his next defense Moore pole-axed world number seven Danny Valdez with successive right hands in just a round. It was the first time Valdez had ever been stopped. Moore then went back out to Japan and repeated his domination of the game Takayama.
After one more defence against the under-qualified Olli Maki, Moore matched the superb Sugar Ramos. In lineal title fights, Moore was to go a wonderful 6-1. The “1” was to cost him; in his valiant defense of the title he lost his life inspiring a Bob Dylan song and many maudlin testimonies to his worthiness. He earned every one of them, not for the way he died but for the way he lived.
23 – Barry McGuigan (32-3)
Barry McGuigan was probably a couple of pounds north of natural at featherweight, most of his non-title contests creeping up towards 128lbs, but he had the discipline to make the 126lbs limit to fight for and defend the British title (2-0) and the European title (4-0) before making the move up in class to challenge for the legitimate world championship. The incumbent was Eusebio Pedroza, a god among feathers, a man who had amassed a record of 20-0 in alphabet title fights at the poundage. Pedroza travelled to London where McGuigan was already a hero to the British sporting public and to the fighting Irish both north and south of the border. Political trouble tore the Emerald Isle apart, but on fight night, a clear note of unity sounded among the discord. If ever a boxer carried the hopes and dreams of a nation to the ring with him on fight night it was McGuigan.
He did not let them down.
Pedroza’s plan was to get on his bike and jab but McGuigan brought pressure so fast and consistent that by the fourth, the champion is already being forced to stand and fight. Footwork, speed of thought and heart were the defining characteristics of McGuigan’s fight-plan, a fight which, by the beginning of the seventh, was on the edge of the knife. Pedroza opened brilliantly, dominating the action with a snaking jab, sound movement and a raking right to the body. But McGuigan was relentless and Pedroza was suddenly sleepwalking into his own corner, back to the ropes. McGuigan opened up his body and decked Pedroza with the best punch of his career.
The fight after that point was a series of thrilling rallies by the champion who was, nevertheless, unable to sustain three minutes of action. Always McGuigan was moving in on him, lashing rights to the body and, stunningly, holding his own in the battle of the jabs. The unanimous decision and the standing ovation he received in return was deserved.
Unbeaten American Bernard Taylor visited Belfast for McGuigan’s first defense and dominated early before the new champion’s brutal body-attack took its toll. Taylor failed to emerge for the ninth. His second defense was less impressive, an eventual stoppage of the inexperienced Danilo Cabrera before McGuigan lost his title to Steve Cruz out in the Las Vegas heat in 1986.
By then, he was already a legitimate British boxing legend; kick in pre-title wins over Juan Laporte and Jose Caba and you have a resume and skillset deserving of a top thirty placement.
22 – Battling Battalino (57-26-3)
Christopher Battaglia was born with a fine fighting name but apparently felt that it didn’t conjure up enough visions of mayhem for his purposes; and so he swapped it for the moniker Battling Battalino. He earned that name, engendering enough chaos and savagery within the squared circle to justify his destructive appellation.
The result of that chaos was one of the finest win resumes in the history of the division. Battalino built that resume from 1929, beginning with a ten round win over former bantamweight king Panama Al Brown. He continued to amass impressive victories for three bloody years, until disgrace and weight issues swept him from the division.
During his spell near the top he battered a total of four men who make this list and two who can be found in the top ten. First up was Kid Chocolate in December of 1930, who he managed to maul out of his stride in taking a fifteen round decision. Next was Fidel LaBarba in a fight in which he showed even greater control of a world class technician. A third followed when he met the southpaw wonder that was Freddie Miller; Miller’s brilliant left-hand was lost in a blur of Battling leather. Last was Earl Mastro, with whom he staged one of the great fights of the year 1931, the type of war he was born to win; he duly did so over ten vicious rounds.
Add made men like Bud Taylor and Andre Routis and it’s clear that Battalino has the makings of a top twenty resume: but he doesn’t quite make the top twenty. This is because of an inconsistency at the poundage that saw him drop many losses, although it should be noted that most of these were at a higher weight than we would consider here.
Worse, he surrendered his strap tamely in what may have been an attempted fix from 1932, coming in hugely overweight and failing to give of his best in a rematch with Miller.
He was never allowed to fight for a championship again; a sad ending to one of the great mercurial careers.
21 – Prince Naseem Hamed (36-1)
The most pertinent question relating to the ranking of Prince Naseem Hamed is probably his position relative to Marco Antonio Barrera. Given that Barrera so brutalized Hamed, how can his ranking here be justified? The answer is simultaneously one of career path and consistency. To put it simply, Hamed beat more ranked contenders than Barrera beat featherweights.
Furthermore, despite suffering a great deal of criticism for his selected opposition, it is also a fact that Hamed did his business almost exclusively in the top five. His demolitions of Steve Robinson, Manuel Medina, Tom Johnson, Wilfredo Vazquez, Paul Ingle, Vuyani Bungu, his legendary war with Kevin Kelley and his clear decision over Cesar Soto were all conducted against opponents ranked in the divisional top five. He tore through more ranked opposition than anyone listed in this installment and possibly more top five ranked opposition than any featherweight, ever.
The dramatic style in which he did so, all low hands, jutting jaw and sudden, lunging, confounding punches, was almost hypnotic. Hamed is featherweight’s resident mongoose, stinging and hypnotizing his opposition into a disorganized demoralized rabble before descending upon them with a coup de grace as colorful and outlandish as his ridiculous ring entrances.
It’s true that he fell short when faced with the very best the sport had to offer him, but this is also true of one or two of the men ranked above him. While he dominated the division’s lesser lights he did so with the type of crackling electricity that manifests itself in the sport once in a generation.
There is a concentration of “once in a generation” talents next week in Part 4.