SecondsOut.com Assistant Editor Clive Bernath delves into boxing history, ahead of next month’s undisputed middleweight showdown between Felix Trinidad and Bernard Hopkins, in the quest to find the greatest 160lbs fighter of all-time.
By Clive Bernath: The first undisputed middleweight title fight for more than 14 years, pitting IBF and WBC king Bernard Hopkins against WBA champ Felix Trinidad, is now less than a month away. Throughout boxing history, there have been many fine men who have ruled the 160lbs division, ranging from Stanley Ketchel in 1910 until the present day pound-for-pound king Trinidad. But who is the greatest of them all?
Of the current crop, Trinidad and even Roy Jones (who won the middleweight crown by outpointing Hopkins in 1993) cannot possibly be candidates as they are still active and, in any case, have only experienced the division very briefly.
The shortlist I have in mind includes Stanley Ketchel, Harry Greb, Jake LaMotta, ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson, Carlos Monzon and my own personal favourite Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
Ketchel was a fierce and aggressive slugger who knew no fear. The natural-born fighter claimed the world middleweight crown at just 22 years old with a 20th round knockout of Jack Sullivan in 1908. There were many claimants to the 160lbs crown around that time, Billy Papke and Hugo Kelly were two of them. ‘The Michigan Mauler’ - as he was known - never ducked a challenge and soundly beat the pair of them, Papke on points and Kelly by knockout in the third round.
Papke won their rematch when he sucker-punched the unsuspecting Ketchel as he went to shake hands in September 1908. Ketchel never recovered and was floored three more times before being stopped in the 12th round. The rivals met twice more the following year of which Ketchel won both contests.
Sadly, the Grand Rapids born fighter lived his life outside the ropes much the same as he did inside, both fearlessly and recklessly. Just two years after being crowned middleweight champ he was cold-bloodedly shot dead at the age of 24, two or three years before he were to reach his prime. Who knows how he would have fared in the future had he not been struck down in such horrific circumstances.
Harry Greb, like Ketchel, was a tough no-nonsense fighter, but was also one of the dirtiest boxers to ever lace a pair of gloves. Greb, the only man to beat legendary heavyweight champion Gene Tunney, used just about everything at his disposal, including elbows, rabbit punches and thumbs in the eye to gain an advantage. Though Greb broke every rule in the book, he could actually fight a bit as well. He won the middleweight crown with a 15 round points decision against Johnny Wilson in New York on August 23, 1923.
He made six successful defences, the most notable being against ‘The Toy Bulldog’ Mickey Walker in New York in 1925. ‘The Human Windmill’ grinded out a 15 round verdict on the night, but legend has it that the fight continued outside a nearby nightclub later that night. Amazingly, Greb fought the later part of his career with only one good eye, having been blinded by an opponent. He lost his title to Tiger Flowers in 1926 and died at the age of 32 on the operating table, following eye surgery three months after losing a rematch to Flowers.
Jake LaMotta was a tough, cagey fighter whose career was immortalised in the 1980 Academy Award winning movie Raging Bull. LaMotta turned professional at 18 and six incredible meetings with the all-time great ‘Sugar Ray Robinson between 1942 and 1951 have helped cement his greatness in the middleweight division. The Bronx, New York born fighter was the first man to beat ‘Sugar’ on points over 10 round in 1943.
Though the win over Robinson should have been enough to secure a world title shot, it was not forthcoming. But LaMotta continued to score impressive wins and, in 1949, finally got his chance against champion Marcel Cerdan in Detroit in 1949, winning on a 10th round retirement. LaMotta successfully defended the crown on a number of occasions, but lost to the imposing figure of Robinson in their final meeting in 1951. LaMotta continued to fight on for a further three years, before retiring with limited success.
The fighter generally recognised as the greatest ever pound-for-pound boxer, and with good reason, is ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson, born Walker Smith on May 3, 1921. Robinson’s flashy footwork and fast hands set him apart from all his foes and never was the original ‘Sugar’ moniker ever more deserved than at the front of Robinson’s name. He was already an undefeated world welterweight champ when he won the middleweight crown from fierce rival LaMotta in 1951.
The all-singing, tap-dancing champ was deemed unbeatable at the time and defended all over Europe, conquering all-comers until unsung Briton Randy Turpin shocked the world and handed ‘Sugar’ only his second defeat in 132 fights. Turpin’s reign was short-lived, however. Three months later, Robinson won back his crown from the celebrated British fighter with a 10th stoppage in New York.
Following two more wins, Robinson moved up to challenge Joey Maxim for the light-heavyweight crown in 1953, but heat exhaustion took its toll and he was stopped in the 14th round. Robinson briefly retired after the Maxim defeat, but he was forced back two years later and won the middleweight crown for the third time when he stopped champion Bobo Olson in the third round. In all, he won and lost the middleweight crown a total of five times - a feat that is never likely to be repeated.
Argentine legend Carlos Monzon was probably the finest fighter ever to emerge for South America. He was undefeated for 13 years and 82 contests, including 14 title defences, which Bernard Hopkins can equal if he beats Trinidad next month. One of Monzon’s greatest strengths was his iron jaw, only equalled in middleweight history by fellow great Marvin Hagler. Monzon’s true fighting quality was witnessed outside of South America first in 1970 when he knocked out Italian Nino Benvenuti in Rome to capture the world title.
Monzon defeated Benvenuti inside three rounds in a return and also crushed a faded Emile Griffith twice during his title reign as well as the dangerous Bennie Briscoe. But his hardest fights came against Colombian tough guy Rodrigo Valdez, whom he outpointed twice over 15 rounds. Monzon retired as undefeated champion in 1977.
But my personal choice is Marvellous Marvin Hagler, who was the last man to hold the undisputed middleweight crown. Hagler, who was born in Newark in 1952, was the perfect example of an old school fighter. The shaven-headed ring monster was never given a single favor during his early career and none was expected as he showed up anywhere and everywhere in order to achieve his goal of world middleweight supremacy.
He finally won the title in his 54th fight against Britain’s Alan Minter in 1980. Needless to say, the ‘Marvelous’ one never ducked anyone as he tidied up the division. When you analyse his victims, it is soon apparent that he was indeed a very special fighter. Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns were just two multi-title champions that Hagler destroyed.
He was also one of the most disciplined men ever to climb through the rope and never deviated from the lucrative 160lbs division. Hagler reigned for seven years as undisputed champ and only lost the title when he was controversially outpointed by the comebacking ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard in 1987, a fight Hagler looked like he had done enough to win. The 33-year-old, disgusted with the decision, swore he would never fight again and - unfortunately for those purists among us - he kept his word.
There are other champions worthy of being mentioned in the above list such as Tony Zale, Rocky Graziano and Rodrigo Valdez, but they dropped a little short in my opinion.
Who do you think was the greatest middleweight of all-time? It could be Robinson, Hagler, Greb, Monzon, Ketchel or do you think Trinidad, Hopkins or Jones deserve a mention? Let us know what you think and we will put the best replies on the site.
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