The 50 Greatest Featherweights of all Time Part Four: 20-11

GREATEST FEATHERWEIGHTS, PART IV — Monsters abound in this, the penultimate installment of The Fifty Greatest Featherweights of all time.

That said, the demarcation line between these fighters who make up the second clutch, and the legends of fistic dominance who pack the top ten is reasonably clear.  Cases can be made for the #10 slot for the fighters in the final five entries here, but those cases are slim, and the #9 slot is beyond all of them by my criteria. This was refreshing. Organizing the featherweights has been a task indeed.

Not that I am complaining; exploring this litany of brilliance has been nothing but a pleasure. I hope the reader shares in it.

20 – Johnny Dundee (83-32-20; Newspaper Decisions 117-41-26)

Johnny Dundee’s career is an absurd mash of weights, wins, losses, draws, controversy and championship honors. He won, lost and drew title fights at both featherweight and super-featherweight, fighting for the former of these for the first time way back in 1913. His opponent was the great Johnny Kilbane, and Dundee put in a defensive performance of the very highest class “drawing back at the right moment, he converted probably a half hundred right crosses into misses and half that number into glancing blows” according to one ringsider. The fight was rendered a draw, Dundee showing clever but perhaps not doing quite enough on offense to gain the decision.

Dundee was then but twenty years old, a three year pro. There was a sense that this near-miss heralded a mere postponement to his lifting the title. This was true, but Dundee would have to wait an entire decade to get his hands on the gold, by which time impressions of him had rather cooled. Dundee picked up a strap against Danny Frush in 1922 and the legitimate world championship in 1923 against the underrated Eugene Criqui. He certainly could not be accused of being excessively defensive that night, battering Criqui repeatedly to the canvas on his way to featherweight championship honors.

Dundee boxed on for another decade, the remainder of his career the same mix of success and failure that comprised the first decade. This, combined with the fact that he staged zero featherweight championship defenses, and had a propensity to stray to 130lbs, rather limits his standing here, although his longevity and skill are impressive.

He can routinely be found considerably higher up such lists and I have even seen him in some top tens. Aside from saying that I find this utterly baffling and that his resume at the poundage does nothing at all to justify such a lofty ranking, I have little to add.

19 – Danny Lopez (42-6)

It is hard to believe now, but in 1974/75, Danny “Little Red” Lopez was consistently out-punched by his opposition; in stepping up in class his apparent limitations in technical acumen had been revealed by Bobby Chacon, who dropped him and stopped him in nine, then by the limited Shig Fukuyama, who cut him above the eye, an apparent corner-accident rendering Lopez blind and prompting a quit job after eight and finally by the veteran Octavio Gomez, a fine fighter, but one who had managed to win just four of his last nine. He outworked, out-landed and out-hit the apparently frozen Lopez for a ten round decision.

Probably the last thing this failing featherweight prospect needed in his next fight was all time great bantamweight Chucho Castillo, but that is what he got. In truth, Castillo was but a shadow of the fighter that had once stricken fear into the hearts of promising youngsters everywhere, but still, this may have been the most important fight of Danny’s career. He obliterated Castillo in two rounds, the real test following against Ruben Olivares. Lopez was a hideous, vaporizing puncher, and Olivares was where he had drawn much of his inspiration to become one. “I wanted to be like him,” he said of the great Mexican. “But this was business.”

Olivares, then ranked the #6 featherweight in the world seemed on the verge of putting Danny’s plans to sleep, decking him early, cutting him, and landing some serious right hand punches, but Lopez outlasted then outfought the former bantamweight king, stopping him in seven. Really, he never looked back. He avenged himself on Gomez before taking on and stopping top contender Art Hafey. Hafey was tough but succumbed in seven, although Lopez had to climb from the canvas once again to stop him. This was Lopez distilled, taking punches to give them but his essence was uncovered now; he had bloomed and would remain a fan favorite throughout his stormy career, making war in a battle of wills that he would more often than not win.

When he lifted a strap against David Kotey three months later it seemed featherweight had a champion of which it could be proud, but it must be remembered that Alexis Arguello ruled the division as the legitimate champion at this time. Lopez had the longevity, however, to hang on at the top of the division for a number of years and is generally recognized as the lineal champion from 1979 after Arguello’s departure and he held that title until he ran into the great Salvador Sanchez in 1980, a fight he was never going to win. Juan Domingo Malvarez, Roberto Castanon and Mike Ayala all succumbed to his brutal machinations before that time, his blend of savagery and class helping to build a superb resume.

18 – Sugar Ramos (55-7-4)

Sugar Ramos and Danny Lopez are all but interchangeable for me; the tie-breaker that edges Ramos in front is his defeat of not one but three fighters who could be named the best or second best in the world at the time of his meeting them.

The first of these was Rafui King, the Nigerian who blasted his way to number one contendership with a series of beautiful knockouts scored throughout Europe in the early 1960s. Ramos travelled to Paris in 1962 aged just twenty and out-pointed perhaps the most feared featherweight in the world at the time over ten rounds. He had already established himself as a serious man with his defeat of Felix Cervantes the year before, and despite his youth had already gathered serious experience having turned professional at fifteen years old. Since, he had lost just a single contest, by disqualification.

So it was perhaps not surprise when almost a year to the day after his defeat of King (and after defeating ranked men Danny Valdez and Jose Luis Cruz), the young Ramos found himself in the ring with champion Davey Moore. The two fought left-handed early and when Ramos edged ahead in that contest, Moore introduced his right; Ramos countered with the left and then, as the fight progressed, slowly brought in his own straight right – then the right uppercut. Moore was brave, always in the fight, but my feeling is that Ramos held too many dimensions for him. When those dimensions came together in the tenth, the challenger was able to reign down leather on the champion almost at will; an untidy knockdown scored against Moore saw him clatter his head into the bottom rope, suffering the injury that would cost Moore his life. Ramos had all he ever wanted, but he had taken a life in getting it.

Perhaps it was no coincidence then that he elected to return home to Mexico for his first defense, scoring a fifteen round decision over old foe Rafiu King, and after a winning visit to lightweight made his second defense against #1 contender Mitsunori Seki in Tokyo, scoring a seventh round stoppage. One more defense followed, against Floyd Robertson, before he ran into a great, Vicente Saldivar. Ramos was very good, but perhaps not a great fighter – he was outclassed by Saldivar and made his next vacation to lightweight permanent.

King, Moore and Seki are the names that underpin an excellent collection of victories which sneak Ramos into the top twenty. Compare, if you will, his record of achievement to that of Johnny Dundee, and consider who did more at the poundage.

17 – Jim Driscoll (53-4-6; Newspaper Decisions 7-1)

The story goes that Jim Driscoll was mourned by some hundred thousand wet-eyed Welsh upon his death in January of 1925; one of his nation’s favorite sons, he was both the master of and mastered by their hearts.

Driscoll served his fighting apprenticeship earnestly, winning the British and Commonwealth titles at a canter in a time when both mean more than they do now; even before that he three times bested a worn George Dixon who travelled to Britain in his mid-thirties to continue to hunt retirement funds hawking out his carcass to any prospect that needed the boost. Driscoll did what he had too, shrugged off British rival Harry Mansfield at the third attempt and then departed for America where the real champion waited. The year was 1909 and the champion was another legend, this one in his prime: Abe Attell.

Attell is the villain of this story and when he met the brilliant Driscoll it was not for the title but in a No Decision affair. It was known that the title did not pass between fighters under such circumstances.

The part of this legend that is true: Driscoll provided for Attell a boxing lesson. The Associated Press reported that Jim “Outpoints, outgenerals and outslugs featherweight champ and leaves no doubt as to his superiority.”

Also true is that Attell never rematched Driscoll with the title on the line. What is a little overstated is Attell’s subsequent avoidance of the great Welshman. Driscoll needed to remain in the USA and press his claim; instead, he took the next boat home to box in a benefit show for orphans.

Is it better to have one hundred thousand mourners at your funeral, or to have a crack at the title? I suggest Driscoll’s answer is clear.

As to his overall legacy, it is important that we remain clear-eyed. When he returned to America, Driscoll ran into Pal Moore, who got the better of him and his chance was gone. He returned again to Wales and never saw American shores again.

Probably Driscoll’s second, third and fourth best wins are all up at lightweight. His featherweight resume is not a great one – and he was never a champion. Still, you sense this was a life as well lived as anyone in the top fifty.

He was never the champion (although he was recognized in the UK, it didn’t hold) and his resume is not as special as many in the top twenty. More, he flitted between featherweight and lightweight happily, resulting in a career that impresses in the pound-for-pound sense more than divisionally.

16 – Young Griffo (68-11-38; Newspaper Decisions 50-1-30)

From a 2013 article I wrote for a different website:

“Say hello to the list-maker’s nightmare, the inscrutable, the irascible, the mercurial Young Griffo.”

I have uncovered no reason to change my opinion in the intervening years.

The thinking behind his relatively high ranking here (admittedly lower than Nat Fleischer and Herb Goldman had him, but a lot has happened since then) is his emergence from the division undefeated. That is an outstanding achievement.

It’s also not quite true. Griffo has two losses recorded by Boxrec from his featherweight days, but these need to be understood in context. In 1888 Griffo met the otherwise unexceptional Bill Oates in what probably amounted to little more than an exhibition, and agreed to stop him in eight rounds or post the loss; he dominated the fight, but couldn’t get the knockout, and so, under the rules of the day, he lost that fight. In 1892, under identical circumstances, he posted a loss to Mick Ryan. The hundred fights in between?  He never felt the pinprick of defeat.

This, too, needs to be properly understood. He fought a lot of four-rounders against overmatched opposition. He fought in some no-decision bouts where no newspaper decision was recorded. He also struggled in some of his biggest fights during this time.  In his July 1891 contest with the man generally recognized as the first featherweight champion, “Torpedo” Billy Murphy, he was locked in a mortal combat that seemed poised to fall either way until Murphy tagged Griffo with a body shot dropping him; in the fog of combat he followed his felled opponent to the canvas throwing punches and suffered a disqualification loss. In December of 1889 Griffo met the excellent Young Pluto in a fight which was to be named a draw if no knockout occurred after seventy rounds; Griffo dominated but was unable to put away his rugged opponent and so a draw is what it was.

This underlined Griffo’s problem, a dearth of power. He was a brilliant defensive fighter, likely every bit as much a genius as Pernell Whitaker or Floyd Mayweather, but he failed to put away fighters of a certain durability, meaning he relied upon judges and newspapers for much of his glory. This is why his ledger contains sixty-eight draws; the era just wasn’t given to handing decision victories to non-punchers.

I have tried in this series of articles to obtain as much objectivity as can be mustered.  Griffo tests this position to the extreme, because his ranking is based heavily upon how one weighs his going undefeated against the level of opposition he met, fighters about which it is not possible to know great detail. Also crucial is the reportage of the era, which named him as wonderful a fighter as had yet boxed. My feelings on these matters are that Griffo’s dominance, achieved despite a dismissive attitude to training and abstention, is impressive but not overwhelmingly so; that the reportage is impressive, but given that it was made at the dawn of boxing’s history, not overwhelmingly so. So #16 is where he has washed up. I can see arguments for ranking him anywhere from #11 to #22 that would not require detailed explanations.  Sixteen is where he washes up.

15 – Kid Chocolate (136-10-6)

The IBRO are certainly not alone in ranking Kid Chocolate one of the ten greatest featherweights of all time. Here, he scrapes into the top fifteen.

Why?

Kid Chocolate was, in many ways, a reincarnation of Jim Driscoll. Quick, clever and technically brilliant he has the appearance on film of one of the era’s great technicians and is among the cornerstones of any counter-argument to the strange notion that the fighters of the twenties and thirties were “primitive.”

But much of his best work was done above featherweight. This is fact.

In 1930 he was provided with a shot at a featherweight belt despite having posted losses to Fidel LaBarba and Jack Berg that same year; he was turned away in a vicious encounter by the perpetual warmonger that was Battling Battalino.

This called for a change of strategy, specifically a move to the super-featherweight division, for which there was little enthusiasm; in fact, the Kid would become the division’s last champion for thirty years. It held his attention past his legendary 1931 contest with Tony Canzoneri up at lightweight. The fractious title picture upon Battling Battlino vacating the 126lb title drew him back to featherweight, and this is when the Kid did his best work in the division.

Lew Feldman was the able, if not extraordinary belt-holder he met in 1932. “After the first five rounds,” wrote The Brooklyn Eagle, “it was a strictly no contest.” Referee Patsy Haley stopped the massacre after twelve.

It is important to be cognitive of what else the Eagle had to say about the fight:

“The [NYSAC] has created, out of its own fertile imagination, a new world featherweight champion.”

The Kid was never universally recognized as lineal, but rather a belt-holder. For his first “defense” though, he fought a wonderful fight with Fidel LaBarba, emerging with a split-hair majority decision.  He followed this up with a fine performance against number one contender Tommy Watson.

Most of the rest of his career was spent boxing at around 130lbs.

All in all it is not enough to see him ranked among the best, but Kid Chocolate certainly was one of the best. This is likely the criteria that sees him generally ranked higher than he is here; like Driscoll, also occasionally seen gracing the top ten, he didn’t do enough to achieve the absolute heights by my criteria; a great fighter, certainly, but a truly great featherweight?

It’s a borderline case.

14 – Tony Canzoneri (137-24-10; Newspaper Decisions 4-0)

Tony Canzoneri, the whirling dervish, the vanishing vapor, as perplexing and confounding a fighter as ever took to the ring, ranks great or near great in every division he ever boxed in. He was a monster who stands here alongside any of the other monsters from this installment that you care to mention.

Canzoneri gathered together the title pieces left shattered by the departure from the division of Louis Kaplan and is generally recognized as lineal from 1928 when he defeated both Johnny Dundee and Benny Bass. These were Canzoneri’s best wins at the weight but unfortunately also the year he was ejected from consideration for the top ten, defeated, as he was, by old foe Andre Routis. The two staged a towering contest punctuated by savage exchanges in which Canzoneri was surprisingly edged out. Overall, he dominated the series with Routis, but this was their key fight and in dropping a split decision Canzoneri suffered an undermining of his featherweight legacy.

Nevertheless, he built a splendid resume at the poundage, twice defeating Ignacio Fernandez, former bantamweight champion Bud Taylor, Al Singer and Joey Sangor, all ranked men when he tortured them with his wonderful blend of unorthodox boxing and savage fighting.

13 – Henry Armstrong (151-21-9)

Ah, the terror that was Henry Armstrong.

Unparalleled in his chosen style; as lethal, as terrifying, as devastating as any man who has ever set foot upon a taught and blood-sodden canvas – one of the few men who could legitimately claim to be as good as anyone who came before or after.

At featherweight, Armstrong’s position is less assured. It has been repeated ad nauseam throughout this series but bears repeating here in support of Armstrong’s position: we are interested here only in a fighter’s exploits at a given poundage and slightly above. Armstrong was so fearless, so brilliant, that he happily tossed in 126lbs and disappeared north to every division that could reasonably hold him.

In fact, before he even made a mark at featherweight he had begun his exploration of lightweight, his assault in earnest at 126lbs not beginning until 1935, four years after he turned professional, with a defeat of the shadow of the once great flyweight Midget Wolgast. Wolgast was toying with obesity at featherweight but he had still done enough damage to earn himself a top five ranking and a reputation as a spoiler deluxe, a nightmare for a prospect, however talented. In the second, Armstrong dribbled the champion down the ropes and never really looked back, crashing his way to a ten round decision. More top five stalwarts followed, including Baby Arizmendi in their 1936 encounter, their only meeting at featherweight and a fight he won so clearly that some sources see him victorious in every round. Title claimant Mike Belloise was next, battered into a retreat and a ten round loss, Armstrong refused recognition by the alphabet organization in question due to their championship limit being fifteen rounds; Armstrong knocked him out in four in a rematch, perhaps to punish him for the inconvenience, before being recognized as lineal the following year after handing out similar treatment to Pete Sarron.

And then it was off to lightweight and welterweight for this deadly featherweight.  Despite additional victories over toughs like Juan Zurita and Rodolfo Casanova (both vicious knockouts), Armstrong arguably doesn’t have the resume for this spot. But Armstrong is a head-to-head storm with the most advanced skillset of any swarmer in history; his standing is greatly enhanced by these secondary factors.

12 – Terry McGovern (59-5-3; Newspaper Decisions 6-1-5)

There was a spell in early 1900s where Terry McGovern was peerless. Smashing out the bantam, feather, and lightweight champions in quick succession he was in a pound-for-pound class of his own. He settled at featherweight for a short spell of domination although it also encompassed his unfortunate struggles with mental illness. McGovern, then, dropped off while still at the poundage, but he spent a portion of his very best in the neighborhood. That’s enough to have him probing the top ten.

Those who have read this entire series will have no doubt been saddened by the final parade of the faded George Dixon, a man who was of near unparalleled greatness in his prime who became nothing more than a blade for top prospects to sharpen their tools on. In McGovern, we meet the man who heralded his demise. McGovern crushed people in the ring. Pedlar Palmer, the bantamweight champion, who he destroyed in a round, and Frank Erne, the lightweight champion, who he butchered in three, were just two of the men who encountered him and were never the same again. Dixon was no different.

The two superstars met in 1900 with Dixon’s lineal title on the line. A “ring general without parallel” and “the greatest fighter ever at the weight” according to one newspaper, Dixon suffered the ignominy of being hunted from the very first by a fighter just as great. A beautiful savagery of ebb and flow resulted, but McGovern was almost uncontainable at the turn of the century; Dixon’s control slipped and by the seventh he was giving ground; in the eighth he was yo-yoed to the canvas like so many journeymen. Featherweight belonged to McGovern.

His ownership was short-lived but savage, in keeping with his idiom, but McGovern packed a lot into his reign, including five title defenses. These included a 1901 war against the brutal and unbeaten Aurelio Herrera, a meeting between perhaps the two most devastating punchers in the history of the division. McGovern did the devastating in five.

11 – Young Corbett II (59-13-12; Newspaper Decisions 9-9-7)

The man Terry McGovern could never beat – and the reason he does not crack the top ten – is Young Corbett II.

They met twice for the title, first in 1901. The champion was seen, at that time, as near invincible but no less a personage than George Dixon was unsure. The faded master had been defeated by McGovern in 1900, but had also lost to Corbett the year after. That fight had been compounded savagery, both men emerging bloody and exhausted, Corbett the winner. Dixon was not convinced that McGovern had the beating of Corbett, though he stopped short of picking the Coloradan challenger.

Those interested in such things may have run across the often spun legend that Corbett stopped outside the champion’s changing room door to roar insults and that this somehow coerced McGovern into fighting toe-to-toe. This is nonsense. McGovern’s only wish was to fight toe-to-toe and burn his opponent alongside him in that furnace. Rather, Corbett’s insults showed McGovern that he was not intimidated. Many were.

Corbett’s steady nerve and McGovern’s viciousness produced a bitter and violent confrontation that lasted just two rounds. The second was legendary, ebbing and flowing moment by moment. Corbett ended the affair with a right uppercut to the jaw that left McGovern, never beaten until that point except by disqualification, senseless for fifteen seconds. The world had a new champion.

The two fought a rematch in 1903. McGovern was still two years from commitment to Stamford Hill Sanatorium but an addiction to the racetrack and what the newspapers gently referred to as “domestic troubles” beset him. Nevertheless, such was McGovern’s reputation that he remained the betting favorite. In a “rough and desperate fight” he was beaten once more and once more the finishing punch was a Corbett right uppercut, this time in the eleventh. In a hellish finish, McGovern was pinned in “the northwest corner, with his hands down, eyes staring, apparently sightless.” McGovern contended the count; there seems little doubt he was the beaten man.

I love Terry McGovern and have racked my brain trying to think of a reason for ranking him above Corbett. I can’t. They boxed a similar number of title defenses against a similar level of opposition, they both beat Dixon, they both beat Oscar Gardner. The differences, such as they are, stand in Corbett’s favor. He left the division the undefeated champion whereas McGovern was beaten, and the man who beat him was Corbett. Minor reasons for favoring McGovern exist, but feel spurious; that McGovern might have beaten Corbett the year before they actually met, that Corbett lost more. But subjective opinions about what have might have happened in a fantasy should not be allowed to subsume reality; and Corbett’s losses, for the most part, came above the poundage and at the end of his career (he won just seven of his last twenty contests).

No, it’s Corbett over McGovern I’m afraid and arguments to the contrary are scant.

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COMMENTS

-Kid Blast :

I salute Matt. This is something I sure could do. Just too much research required but he did it. Amazing.