Can Ward or Kovalev Equal Light Heavyweight Greats of the Past?

Light heavyweights seldom receive the spotlight. Instead, they are the undesignated lone wolves of professional boxing.

But the 175-pound weight division has contributed some of the best skilled prizefighters the world has ever seen for more than 100 years.

Many who dwell in the light heavyweight class are not quite big enough for the heavyweights and too big for the middleweights and lower. But throughout history they’ve stamped their greatness on the sport.

When Andre Ward defends the light heavyweight titles against Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev on Saturday, June 17, at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, their fight continues the tradition of that division’s unsung greatness. HBO pay-per-view will televise.

Light heavyweights have spawned many of the most polished prizefighters beginning with Bob Fitzsimmons, who though capturing the heavyweight world championship by knockout over “Gentleman” James Corbett never fought heavier than 175 pounds.

Fitzsimmons was a wiry, anorexic looking figure with the ability to position himself with skill to unleash one of his patented body blows against much bigger opposition. He was very successful until running into the much heavier heavyweight of the time Jim Jeffries in 1899.

In the 1920s some of the best light heavyweights ever seen gathered and fought each other in memorable match ups. Among those who shined were Georges Carpentier, a popular French boxing gent who started fighting professionally at age 14. Battling Siki, also from France but originally from Senegal, was another whose talent was also obvious. Sadly, Siki was murdered in New York City at the age of 28 and found on the street with gunshots to the back. Another great from that era was Harry Greb who also fought at middleweight. Greb was a freewheeling nonstop puncher who is considered one of the greatest fighters of all time. And finally, there was Gene Tunney who dominated the light heavyweights then moved on to the heavyweights.

Post World War II

More light heavyweight greats emerged in the 1940s as skillful boxers such as Billy Conn who fought Joe Louis twice — once before the war and once after — in historical losing performances. He was followed by a couple of boxing geniuses in Ezzard Charles and Archie Moore. Of course Charles and Moore would go on to fight as heavyweights with Charles becoming a heavyweight champion in 1949. He would reign until running into Jersey Joe Walcott in 1951. But basically, Charles was a light heavyweight with superior boxing skills that allowed him to fight anyone at any size.

In the 1980s there was one standout light heavy in Michael Spinks and his “Spinks Jinx.” The tall St. Louis prizefighter became the first light heavyweight champion since Ezzard Charles to become a heavyweight champion when he dethroned the long-reigning Larry Holmes in 1985. Spinks would defend the title three times before running into Mike Tyson in 1988. He retired after that knockout loss.

The late 1990s would usher in more light heavyweights with amazing boxing talent including James “Lights Out” Toney, Roy Jones Jr., and later Antonio Tarver. Both Jones and Toney would win world titles as heavyweights though vastly under-sized in this era of gigantic heavies.

“Size Don’t Matter”

Toney in particular proved that size doesn’t matter if you have skills. Jones’ almost inhuman speed enabled him to defeat the much slower heavyweights and all light heavyweights, although once he slowed down he proved much more beatable. But Toney, despite age and slowing, was still a force and was avoided at all cost by the heavyweights.

The late Dan Goossen was the only boxing promoter who saw the excessive skills Toney brought forth. At the time Toney was trained by Freddie Roach and would often spar with much bigger heavyweights and dominate. Goossen signed the former middleweight world champion and matched him at cruiserweight against IBF champion Vassiliy Jirov who was undefeated. It was one of the most vivid displays of pure boxing craft and Toney emerged the winner after 12 rugged rounds.

A week later Goossen asked a couple of writers “what would you think of Toney fighting Evander Holyfield.?”

Holyfield was a four-time heavyweight world champion who had defeated Buster Douglas, Riddick Bowe, Mike Tyson and John Ruiz to win the world title on four different occasions. Very few outside of a few boxing writers and Goossen gave Toney a chance against Holyfield.

“I’m going to knock him out,” said Toney calmly. “Size don’t matter.”

When Toney met Holyfield in 2003 in Las Vegas the Michigan native slowly and methodically broke down the former heavyweight champions defense and battered the body and head with impunity. Holyfield’s corner stopped the bashing in the ninth round to give Toney the win by technical knockout. It was an eye-opening moment.

Toney would go on to defeat John Ruiz in 2005 and grab his world title in the same fashion but he was stripped when illegal drugs were found during testing. He had suffered a chest muscle injury and had been prescribed steroids by doctors. Though he had been cleared by doctors, traces were still in his blood system and thus he was forced to give up the heavyweight title. Still, it was his skills that defeated Ruiz that night, nothing else.

In 2006, Toney would fight Hasim Rahman to a draw in another heavyweight world title bid. After that, the word was out and all heavyweight titlists avoided Toney and his ability to slip and counter, confuse and bewilder and just plain dominate opponents. All heavyweight world titlists would avoid the former light heavyweight despite most towering over him by more than six inches.

Skilled light heavyweights are dangerous.

So when Ward faces Kovalev in Las Vegas on Saturday, who will emerge the winner? Most of all, will either light heavyweight showcase the craft displayed by former light heavyweight greats of the past? Will either gain the same recognition as those light heavyweights of yesteryear?

Only time will tell.

Photo montage courtesy of Johan Barboza

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Light heavyweights


-Radam G :

A definitely YES to that headline. Holla!