Research for the Fifty Greatest Bantamweights of all time was more time consuming and expensive than even the Fifty Greatest Featherweights of all time.
Expensive because online resources don’t stock footage of the greatest fighters to have mixed it at 118lbs in the same way they do the other divisions, meaning I had to hunt down more footage; more time consuming because my personal knowledge of these men does not compare to that of the welterweights or middleweights and so there was much more homework.
But that was a gift. Organizing a top fifty at light-heavyweight was illuminating for me personally, but far from the journey the same exercise has been at bantamweight. I hope to share as much as is possible of the detail of that journey with you here.
In order that it is clear, however, I must first explain the criteria that guide it. This stuff is boring but necessary so please bear with me for just a moment while I lay it out.
This is a bantamweight list in the truest sense. The appraisals contained within this series of five articles are based upon the body of work performed within and around this division only. It is not possible to provide a specific weight range because the upper limit for the division was different in early eras to more modern times, but as a general rule the range under consideration was from the low end of the weight range to around two pounds over the upper weight limit.
Most important in conducting these appraisals were who a fighter beat and how he beat them. Secondary, what was a fighter’s status in his own era? Was he a lineal champion? A belt-holder? Or just a brilliant contender who amassed a wonderful body of work in his forlorn hunt for the title?
Lastly, skillset as it appears on film and head-to-head considerations, the most speculative of criteria, are taken into account.
With the boring stuff out of the way, and my promise to you that this will be the longest introduction of the series, we can begin.
This is how I have them:
#50 – Charley Phil Rosenberg (1921-1928)
Writing in the late sixties, legendary boxing figure Charley Rose rated Charley Phil Rosenberg among the ten greatest bantamweights in history; I must confess, I’ve no idea why.
Rosenberg, out of New York, was one of the key figures of the 1920s bantamweight division, but his career was relatively short (at only eight years) and his final paper record was hideous (33-18-9). This is a fighter who won 55% of his contests.
Handled by the great Ray Arcel, Rosenberg battled weight throughout his career, sometimes shedding huge amounts in order to make the agreed poundage, tortured into shape by the legendary disciplinarian. This may have led to certain inconsistencies; certainly his chin wasn’t the problem – Rosenberg was never stopped
His prime was genuinely impressive, and it is probably on this basis Rose rates him so highly. In his 1924 run to the title he went completely unbeaten and when he made weight for his 1925 title tilt at Eddie Martin for the bantamweight championship of the world, Martin’s fate was sealed.
Rosenberg managed a single successful defense of his title, stopping Eddie Shea in four rounds; sadly, the fight was forever tainted when both fighters were banned for life from fighting in New York due to suspicions that the fight was fixed. It should be stated, too, that ringside reporters were convinced by the finishing punch and that Rosenberg’s ban was later lifted.
After losing the title on the scales, Rosenberg gave up his battle with the weight and departed for featherweight.
Why the late Charley Rose saw fit to collapse all this into a top ten ranking will never now be known. Here, I will only state that I don’t agree and leave his checkered career to do the talking.
#49 – Jesus Pimentel (1960-1977)
Jesus Pimentel was one of the most devastating punchers ever to box at bantamweight, with sixty-nine of his seventy-seven wins coming by way of knockout.
Still, he did not recognize his astonishing power as a youngster, boxing a disastrous amateur career under the impression that he was a boxer rather than a puncher. When the penny dropped, Pimentel raked a hole through the massed ranks of the Mexican bantamweight division the likes of which has never been seen. When he came north, to America, the carnage did not stop.
Things got real for the Mexican puncher in 1963 when he faced contender Ray Asis in Los Angeles. Asis was on a fourteen fight unbeaten streak and had never been knocked out; Pimentel blasted him out in six. Asis went 2-1-11 in the remainder of his career.
After tearing his way through a swath of limited opposition he stepped up again in 1966 against outstanding Japanese bantamweight, Katsuo Saito. Saito had carried both Jose Mendel and Fighting Harada the distance the year before; Pimentel got him out of there in eight. His finest moment came the following year against the excellent Spanish bantamweight Mimoun Ben Ali. The story went that Ali could be out-pointed but not stopped, having seen out eighty five contests without ever hearing the count. Another granite chin succumbed to “Little Poison”, this time in nine.
However, it should be noted that when he then stopped Rollie Penaroya in 1968, he defeated a top-five ranked contender for the first and last time. Pimentel did damage, but his opposition was good, not great, and that summary provides him with the benefit of the doubt.
In the end, he must go down as one of history’s greatest “what if?” fighters. A proposed fight with Eder Jofre fell through during a contractual dispute (for which he was blamed, and which cost him a suspension); he was reportedly reluctant to go to Japan to meet Fighting Harada; his one chance at immortality against Ruben Olivares ended in a stoppage defeat; hurtful losses to Jose Medel and Yoshio Nakane were timed poorly in terms of the title picture and underlined his greatest limitation: if he couldn’t stop top fighters, he probably wasn’t going to beat them.
#48 – Bernardo Caraballo (1960-1977)
Bernardo Caraballo was the first Columbian to fight for a world title and a source of great pride to her people during the years of his career. Now he is forgotten, footage sparse and difficult to come by, his name as likely to draw a blank look in boxing circles as the glow of recognition it once warranted.
A national champion at flyweight, bantamweight and featherweight, it was at bantamweight that Caraballo made a dent at world level. He stormed the barricades in 1963 and 1964, grinding name after name into the dirt as he began his assault upon the championship held by the deadly Eder Jofre. First up was perennial contender Mimoun Ben Ali (himself a contender for this list) who he outpointed with a dazzling display of skill in Bogota in February.
A quick, elegant fighter, Caraballo rarely dispatched quality boxers with punches but in his mid-sixties prime he outpointed many very good ones. Next was former flyweight champion Pascual Perez who he decisioned in ten; following him were made men Manny Elias and Piero Rollo before his near-legendary confrontation with future flyweight champion Chartchai Chinoi. After this savage war, Caraballo looked at himself in the mirror, eyes blasted shut by counterpunches, and announced himself a true fighter.
But it wasn’t enough. “The Champion Without A Crown”, he would remain so, sandwiched as he was between the reigns of Eder Jofre, who turned him away in seven, and Fighting Harada, who out-pointed him in the summer of 1967 in what arguably remains Harada’s toughest title-defense.
No shame here; Caraballo was among the “best of the rest” in what was a wonderful bantamweight division.
#47 – Mario D’Agata (1950-1962)
Mario D’Agata, one of the greatest Italian fighters, was fast-handed, fleet-footed and married a carefully cultivated body-attack to the wheel that this offense turned upon, the jab. D’Agata had everything a fighter should want bar the knockout punch but it seems likely to me that his failure to leave Europe for America impedes his legacy to a small degree; there was a plethora of talent in Europe at the poundage, but he was capable of more.
Still, he achieved plenty, taking the title from French idol Robert Cohen in 1956 in Rome. D’Agata had travelled to Tunisia in 1954 for a first stab at Cohen and perhaps had been unlucky to come away with a loss, but before his own people he made amends in fine style, heaping the pressure upon the champion as they warred up and down the ropes.
D’Agata seemed always to be riding Cohen’s coattails, picking up the European title he had relinquished in 1955 only by beating the highly ranked Andre Valignat, so finally catching up to his nemesis with a world title on the line must have been great satisfaction.
A deaf-mute, D’Agata fought with a kind of precise abandon that always impresses me on the snatches of footage that are available. I often wonder what it must have been like to fight in such thunderous fashion in profound silence.
#46 – Veeraphol Sahaprom (1994-2010)
What to do with a problem like Veeraphol?
He is an incredible 16-2 in world title fights. He first fought for the title in 1995, winning a strap in just his fourth professional outing, although losing it in his very next contest. He last fought for an alphabet title in 2006.
And yet, here he is, in the forties. Why?
The key is in the words “alphabet title”. Yes, Sahaprom was successful in sixteen title fights, but only on four occasions was his opponent among the ten best fighters in the world according to Ring Magazine, and he never met with an opponent ranked inside the top three. Sahaprom himself was probably never the very best bantamweight during his own “reign”, Rafael Marquez his main barrier to the top spot.
My point here is that title defenses in and of themselves now represent no surety of a great legacy. The title picture certainly was confused in many earlier eras, but with the advent of paper titles the problem became compounded, and remains so. In short, Sahaprom does not receive championship defense level credit for meeting men like Julio Coronel (21-16-1) or Julio Cesar Avila (22-15-1). In fact, I would argue that between his two stoppages of Joichiro Tatsuyoshi in 1998 and 1999 and his loss to Hozumi Hasegawa in 2005, Sahaprom staged only four genuinely meaningful defenses (all against the same opponent). For the most part, he just milked the title as the WBC shamefully sanctioned contests with one under-qualified opponent after another.
Still, he does have great longevity as a relevant fighter, albeit with an asterisk attached, and he built a resume that while underwhelming is certainly no disgrace. His four fight series with Toshiaki Nishioka is absorbing if not thrilling, and Sahaprom came out on the right end of it; Adan Vargas and the aforementioned Tatsuyoshi were probably his other keynote wins from a career that has flattered to deceive but still warrants inclusion among the fifty most impressive in history.
#45 – Hozumi Hasegawa (1999-2016)
It is clear that Hozumi Hasegawa did the world a favor when his promotional team found the cash to draw Veeraphol Sahaprom out of his Thai base where he had staged his last defense against a fighter who had won just one of his previous four matches.
But Sahaprom was a good champion and proved it in this losing effort in Japan, staging a beautiful rally based upon a gorgeous adjustment mid-fight which saw him coming square and pushing out his right hand like a jab. That right was a near-disaster for Hasegawa, who had to rally dramatically late in the fight to stop the rot that had set in as Sahaprom threatened to dip and push that right hand to victory. Close but clear for the Japanese was the right result, hard earned.
Hasegawa did considerably better in their rematch one year later (2006), stopping the former beltholder in nine.
The Japanese media heralded Hasegawa as nothing less than the second coming of Eder Jofre and elements of the western press drank the Kool-Aid; I certainly saw the appeal. Hasegawa was a gunslinging power-boxer with size and speed. But he never had anything like Jofre’s technical certitude and he was eventually found out by Fernando Montiel who stopped him in four vicious rounds in 2010, sending Hasegawa scurrying for the divisions above.
Before that time Hasegawa built a respectable winning resume although his two victories over Sahaprom would remain the cornerstone.
#44 – Jorge Lujan (1973-1985)
Jorge Lujan’s final paper record of 27-9 is hardly an inspirational one. Losing in one out of every four contests in which you participate is hardly the stuff that greatness, however peripheral, is made of; but Lujan rode a hot streak between the very end of 1977 and the beginning of 1980 and it was a thing of great beauty.
Lujan came from almost nowhere, bouncing off a (questionable) points loss to super-bantamweight journeyman Jose Cervantes into an unearned title shot against prohibitive favorite Alfonso Zamora, himself coming off a brutal knockout loss to the deadly Carlos Zarate, crucially in a non-title fight.
That meant that when Lujan blasted out the exhausted champion in the tenth round of a sensational contest, he became the legitimate king of the 118lb division. It was arguably the greatest upset in bantamweight history.
His first defense came against the number four contender, Roberto Rubaldino, who had earned himself a shot against the champion on the undercard of Zamora-Lujan, expecting, certainly, to be met with the former; but Lujan proved just as deadly, turning Rubaldino away in eleven. The rematch, staged at the end of 1979, was even more thrilling and saw Lujan turn the trick again, this time in the fifteenth and final round.
Before that, he would post a win over Alberto Davila, the only man in five successful title defenses who would carry him the fifteen.
When history considers Lujan at all, it sees him as a bland champion, a fighter who had no exceptional attributes but no glaring weaknesses. In the former matter, history is mistaken. Lujan perhaps was not typically Panamanian in his style, but he was a world-class counterpuncher. He also had a granite chin and a body that seemed invulnerable to punishment; finally, his engine could hardly be more proven than it was in his fifteen round contest with Davila, who subjected him to a vicious body-attack throughout; Lujan bided his time, let him inside, fought with him, and then stepped on the gas in the final third of their fight to sweep four of the last five rounds to retain his championship.
He staged five defenses of that lineal championship. Sure, he suffered some hurtful defeats, and yes, he was eventually chased from the division by back-to-back losses to Julian Solis and Jeff Chandler, but in his prime, he was proven and brilliant.
#43 – Pete Sanstol (1926-1942)
Pete Sanstol, the greatest fighter ever to hail from Norway, spent 1931 waving around a strap he had won during the lineal reign of the immortal Panama Al Brown. On the face of it, this is rather silly, but it was done in part to tempt Brown into a meeting, a meeting that Sanstol felt he was destined to win. He was right and he was wrong. Their “unification” fight in August of that year was close enough that it could easily have been scored a draw. A split decision rendered in the true champion’s favor was a fair if not a certain result, and Sanstol treated it as such, speaking magnanimously of the champion but warning that “things would be different next time.” And they were – Sanstol had his revenge in 1935, by which time Brown’s title had passed from him.
Sanstol is most famous for his endless pursuit of Panama Al but certainly there is more to his career. Most of it, however, was spent in outclassing unranked opposition in France and Germany and then the US; he failed to match a man in The Ring top ten until 1930 by which point he was 63-1-4. In that year he went a total of 2-1-1 against quality opposition including a split trilogy against Joey Scalfaro. A huge crowd-pleaser, Sanstol was a near-hero in his adopted Montreal where he was matched with Archie Bell for a version of the title over ten rounds, an ideal distance for a fighter of his aggression and work rate. Two soft defenses followed against Art Giroux and Eugene Huat before Sanstol’s people finally convinced Brown to do the right thing and fight him.
Sanstol makes the list primarily based upon the rematch of that contest.
#42 – Happy Lora (1979-1993)
Miguel “Happy” Lora’s career spanned three decades and eight successful bantamweight world championship matches; unfortunately, he spent much of that time pandering to alphabet corporations which severely limited his level of competition. In all of his forty victories over 118lb opposition, he defeated only three The Ring ranked contenders, while losing to three more.
For all that, he was special. An inconsistent fighter, when he was at his best he was defensively brilliant and offensively sparkling, tricking leads from top fighters before countering even the best of them.
He first proved his great skill would translate at the highest level against the mighty Daniel Zaragoza in 1985. Zaragoza likely proved himself to the utmost at super-bantamweight but he remained a fearsome competitor at the lower weight and for all that this victory brought Lora only a strap and not the legitimate bantamweight throne, it remains a title-winning performance of the highest order.
His second title-fight was arguably just as impressive, as he and Wilfredo Vazquez swapped knockdowns. Lora’s technical defense was beautiful for all that it was unusual, a crackling, hyperactive mix of dips and small moves that left opponents off-balance and unsure. But the way he launched himself into punches meant he was there to be hit by an opponent with ice in his veins and he often boxed to the level at which he perceived his opponent to be, including in his 1986 meeting with Alberto Davila, a fight defined by missing rather than punching. The two staged a rematch in 1986 in which Lora, for spells, was at his glorious best, illustrating in blood one of the best left uppercuts in bantamweight history.
But Lora failed to win another meaningful fight. He staged alphabet defenses but shipped a knockout loss to Gaby Canizales and a wide defeat on the cards to Rafael Del Valle.
The man who heralded his final decline was named Raul Perez.
#41 – Raul Perez (1984-2000)
Raul Perez, out of Tijuana, Mexico, was a giant of a bantamweight standing five feet ten inches. He towered over the 5’4” Wilfredo Vazquez when the two met in August 1988. Vazquez was a fine fighter, but there was an air of inevitability to Raul’s points victory.
Only a few months later, Perez challenged Miguel Lora, likely the best bantamweight in the world at that time, for his alphabet strap. He turned in a masterful performance of stalking pressure, despite the fact that Lora’s famed defense all but robbed him of his jab. It was a clear victory.
Perez was then besieged by the greatest enemy of a fighting legacy, alphabet defenses, which kept him busy and paid until early 1990 when Gaby Canizales, the brother of the more deadly Orlando Canizales, came calling.
For all that he was the second best fighter in his own family, Gaby was a very real threat, and although Perez had already impressively derailed him down in Tijuana back in 1987 their second fight was no closer for all it made the distance.
After a ninth round stoppage of the undefeated Gerardo Martinez, Perez returned to alphabet nominated soft-touches while his huge frame struggled with the 118lb limit. Ready to move up a division, Perez took the ever-dangerous “one more fight” at the poundage and was chased from the division by veteran and supposed soft-touch Greg Richardson. He lost his title, and his good form did not follow him to 122lbs.
Perez, at his best, was a hideous fighter. Tall, with an enormous range, a ceaseless, steady pace and the engine and generalship to deploy it, he was also quick-handed and, at all ranges, an excellent technician.
Above him, somehow, are forty better fighters.
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