By Mark G. Butcher
In the sixth of an eight part series, Mark G. Butcher names the greatest fighter of all-time in each of boxing's original weight divisions. This instalment deals with the No.1 middleweight.
Where have all the middleweights gone? Once boxing's marquee division (outside the cheap thrills of the heavyweights), 160lbs has been the setting for some of the sport's most significant fights and fighters.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, a never-ending conveyorbelt of top fighters graced the division - Marvin Hagler, Roy Jones, Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran, Mike McCallum, James Toney, Gerald McClellan, Iran Barkley, Sumbu Kalambay, Felix Trinidad, Michael Nunn, Julian Jackson, Bernard Hopkins, Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank and Steve Collins to name just a few.
But nowadays the division has a distinctly shallow look and Hopkins stands alone. And yet this division, perhaps more than any other, has housed the greatest collection of fighters in the history of boxing. The middleweights have always served the perfect cocktail of power and skill, away from the lumbering predictability of the heavyweights and the non-punching skill merchants of the lighter weights.
The first great middleweight champion was the uncompromising Stanley Ketchel (Champion: 1908, 1908-1910). Ketchel was a mean-spirited banger from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who died before fulfilling his potential at just 24. The son of Polish immigrants was orphaned at 14 and led a hobo lifestyle in box cars, surviving the hard life through his greatest asset - his fists. He died, still champion, after being shot in the back by a jealous boyfriend.
Hard-drinking womaniser Harry Greb (Champion: 1923-1926) campaigned in over 300 contests and was as hard as they come. Greb was known as The Human Windmill for his propensity to throw elbows, rabbit punches and thumb opponents in the eye. The Pittsburgh-born fighter was the only man to defeat future heavyweight champion Gene Tunney in May 1922 and made six defenses of the world middleweight crown. He died from a routine eye operation shortly after failing to win back the title from Tiger Flowers.
Great fighters that Ketchel and Greb were, it is doubtful either would have been able to match the dazzling talents of Sugar Ray Robinson (Champion: 1951, 1951-52, 1955-57, 1957, 1958-59). Already the greatest welterweight on our all-time list, Robinson won the middleweight crown an incredible five times from the night he bludgeoned bitter rival Jake LaMotta to defeat in 13 rounds in February 1951.
Robinson lost and regained the title against awkward Randolph Turpin and retired two defences later before financial problems forced him back into the ring in 1955. Sugar Ray reclaimed his title by blowing out current incumbent Carl Bobo Olson in two rounds in December 1955 and lost and won it back on two further occasions against Gene Fullmer and Carmen Basilio before the well of his tremendous talent finally ran dry. Robinson lost the middleweight crown for good with a points loss to Paul Pender in January 1960.
Carlos Monzon's (1970-1977) reign as middleweight champion was never broken. The legendary Argentine was unbeaten for 13 years and his last 82 contests. He made 14 defenses, a record only recently beaten by Bernard Hopkins (Champion: 1994-2002). However, unlike Hopkins, Monzon reigned almost exclusively as undisputed champ.
Monzon was a tall, ironed-chinned fighter with good all-round skills and surprising power. He won the middleweight title in November 1970 with a 12th round knockout of Nino Benvenuti in Rome and defended against a series of quality contenders including Benvenuti (w ko 3), Emile Griffith (w rsf 14, w pts 15) Bennie Briscoe (w pts 15) and Jose Napoles (w ret 6).
His arch nemesis was Colombian Rodrigo Valdez with whom he engaged in two epic points encounters in the embers of his career. Monzon retired unvanquished in August 1977 and only the turmoil of existence eventually conquered the great Argentine. He was jailed for throwing his mistress off a balcony and later died in a car crash while out on parole.
The middleweight crown was like revolving door for the next few years before Marvin Hagler (1980-1987) continued in the spirit of Monzon. Hagler's opportunity arrived in his sixth year as a pro against Vito Antuofermo in November 1979. The fight was controversially scored a draw, but in his second shot in November 1980 Hagler blitzed and bloodied new champion Alan Minter in three one-sided rounds.
Hagler made 10 defences in the next four years with only the great Roberto Duran lasting the distance in November 1983. His 11th defence was so thrilling it would define his career; Hagler and Thomas Hearns engaged in three brutal rounds of unrelenting bombing and the champion overcame two deep gashes to finally short-circuit Hearns in the third round in April 1985.
Yet Hagler was nearing the end. However, it was still a great surprise when the comebacking Sugar Ray Leonard returned from temporary retirement to defeat a strangely lethargic Hagler on points in his 13th defense in April 1987. Disgusted with the decision, Hagler quit boxing immediately and, unlike so many fighters, he never came back.
Hagler, Robinson and Monzon are clearly the three greatest middleweights to my mind and separating one from the other two is no easy process. The salient point here is domination of the weight class and Robinson, undoubtedly the pound-for-pound No.1 fighter in the sport's history, fought at 160lbs when his great talents were waning and he was stepping in and out of retirement.
Monzon's level of domination was on a par with Hagler's. He did not score as many KOs in defences as the Marvellous One, but his opposition was stiffer and he retired undefeated champion - and so by a wafer-thin margin Monzon is the greatest middleweight of all-time.
GREATEST OF ALL-TIME (Results so far)
Flyweight: Jimmy Wilde (Wales)
Bantamweight: Manuel Ortiz (USA)
Featherweight: Salvador Sanchez (Mexico)
Lightweight: Roberto Duran (Panama)
Welterweight: Ray Robinson (USA)
Middleweight: Carlos Monzon (Argentina)
Next up: Light-heavyweight