Derek Bonnett concludes his two-part series on short but sweet boxers, with Andy Ruiz Jr and more in focus
The sport of boxing sprouts giants of myriad quality at a rate dictated by its own whim. Since the late 1990s, the heavyweight division has seen the arrival of copious physical giants such as Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko, Nikolay Valuev, David Price, Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury, to name a few. The heavyweights are getting so big that some are unofficially granted their own division of ‘Super heavyweight’. Current unified heavyweight champion Andy Ruiz Jr would have been considered something of a giant in the Golden Era but at 6ft 2in, he is one of the shorter top-level fighters in his division. It did not prevent him, however, from unseating 6ft 6in Anthony Joshua in June.
Boxing’s giants are not always tall however, and rise to the level of titans as crossover stars that figuratively carry the world of boxing on their back ala the mythical Atlas. Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Julio Cesar Chavez Sr, Floyd Mayweather Jr, Manny Pacquiao and now Canelo Alvarez did just that as faces of the sport with giant purses, and weights nowhere near the 200lb+ entry marker of today’s heavyweight division.
As discussed in Part I of this two-part series, Pacquiao, short in stature, division-hopped in search of greater challenges and larger trophies. However, the remaining five ‘Little Lion Men’ on the docket had less movement on the scales throughout their careers, perhaps moving up one division at most. Yet, all five defied the height norms of their weight class to become world champions and, some, even chopped down fighters with both literal and figurative giant status. Here are another five pugilists, all from the modern era, who knew it to be true that ‘Good things can come in small packages.’
Orlin Norris, “Night Train”
If Orlin Norris, 57-10-1 (30), was indeed a train, he was all engine and no cars. The 5ft 9in boxer stood as tall as recent lightweight title challenger Luke Campbell but began his career as a heavyweight, finding early success against men much taller than himself. Norris won the NABF heavyweight title by edging Larry Alexander who stood six inches taller. Norris kept his belt by dropping and outpointing former heavyweight title challenger Renaldo Snipes who was taller by five inches. Soon after, Norris added defenses against Jesse Ferguson and Greg Page who both stood at 6ft 2ins. Ferguson would later earn a title shot and Page was already a former belt-holder at heavyweight. In 1990, Norris edged Oliver McCall, also 6ft 2ins, way before he became heavyweight champion by stunning Lennox Lewis. Following a points defeat to the 6ft 5in former heavyweight titlist Tony Tucker, Norris moved down a division to cruiserweight, where he still had some height issues to negate. Right off the bat, Norris won a technical decision over Jesse Shelby, who stood six inches taller. Soon after he stopped Anthony Hembrick, who was five inches taller than him. A year later in 1993, Norris toppled Richard Mason who stands eight inches taller or as tall as Lennox Lewis. In winning a vacant cruiserweight title, Norris drilled Marcelo Figueroa, who had almost five inches on him. As a champion, Norris had trouble in spots, but found himself victorious over Arthurs Williams twice in spite of giving up five inches in height. Norris was dethroned by Nate Miller, another 6ft 2in opponent, but avenged the loss several years later. Norris failed against some larger giants in Henry Akinwande and Vitali Klitschko to name a couple, but his status as a giant-killer was already secured before those bouts.
Montell Griffin, “Ice”
Griffin was atypically short for a light-heavyweight unless we are still talking about Dwight Qawi. Both, at 5ft 7ins, stand a half-inch shorter than Leo Santa Cruz, the reigning featherweight champion. Griffin, 50-8-1 (30), was pretty much always going to be punching up in his career, but early on he showed he could ‘cut the distance’ vertically as well as horizontally. He handed Ka-Dy King his first defeat before either had 10 fights. King was seven inches taller. Multi-world title challenger David Vedder stood six inches over Griffin, but could not upset the applecart when they met. Although not huge in stature, James Toney even had three inches in height over Griffin, but found himself losing twice. Roy Jones Jr had four inches on Griffin and was highly puzzled by the shorter man the first time around before losing on a DQ. Griffin didn’t beat all his taller opponents as he lost badly in his rematch with Jones and his title fight with Dariusz Michalczewski. However, Griffin bounced back and beat Jose Luis Rivera and George Khalid Jones, both 6ft, and Derrick Harmon, who stood one inch taller than them.
Stevie Johnston, “Lil’ But Bad”
Not only did Johnston have to fight taller men most of the time, but he didn’t take on soft touches from the start either. At roughly 5ft 4ins, Johnston became a two-time lightweight titlist, but was an inch shorter than current bantamweight king Naoya Inoue. Regardless, Johnston won a majority decision over future welterweight champion James Page in just his fifth bout. Page had experienced twice as many fights and stood at a whopping 5ft 11ins. Just a few fights later, the three inches in height that Sharmba Mitchell had over Johnston didn’t matter any more than his huge edge in professional experience; Johnston stopped him in nine rounds. Johnston gave over five inches in height to dethrone Jean-Baptiste Mendy by split scores. Both Saul Duran and George Scott stood at 5ft 9ins, but made for successful title defenses. The 5ft 11in Cesar Bazan presented quite a riddle for Johnston and cost him his belt in their first encounter by split decision. However, Johnston was a shade better and won the rematch by another split verdict. Johnston, 42-6-1 (18), continued to beat taller fighters like Alejandro Gonzalez, who had about four inches on him, but he also met some giants he couldn’t topple such as the 5ft 9in Juan Lazcano. Johnston truly lived up to his name “Lil’ But Bad”.
Humberto Gonzalez, “Chiquita”
Mexico’s Humberto Gonzalez, 43-3 (30), certainly needed a ladder outside of the ring, but he never climbed one in terms of division-hopping. The 5ft 1in fireplug found his home in the light-flyweight division, outside of an errant pound or two over for a non-title affair, and built three championship reigns over his career. Although only one division apart, virtually all of the today’s top straw-weights stand an inch or three above Gonzalez. Throughout the 108-pound division’s history, its best combatants were also of greater stature. His contemporaries Jung Koo Chang and Myung Woo Yuh each had about three inches on Gonzalez. Hilario Zapata had an immense five-inch advantage. Jorge Arce, who came around just after Gonzalez retired, would have had about three-and-a-half inches on him. In winning his first world championship, Gonzalez negated a four-inch height deficit against Yul Woo Lee to win on points. Although he loved to bang and he could, Gonzalez was at his best using his technical gifts, which compensated for a lack of impressive physical dimensions. “Chiquita” defended his belt against fellow great Chang, dominating his taller foe over the distance. Francisco Tejedor was a monster of a light-flyweight at 5ft 6 1/2ins, but was chopped down in three rounds by the Mexican lumberjack. Jung Keun Lim, a non-title victim, was four inches taller than the Hall of Famer, but also was stopped inside the distance. A bigger man in Rolando Pascua ended Gonzalez’ first reign, but he won the belt back by besting Pascua’s conqueror. In this case though, Gonzalez had one inch on the 5ft Melchor Cob Castro. In his first defense of this reign, the 5ft 6in Domingo Sosa failed to unseat him over 12 rounds. Fellow Hall of Famer, Michael Carbajal stopped Gonzalez in their first of three meetings. He held a four-inch-plus height advantage in their slugfest, which saw Carbajal down twice before he put Gonzalez out. In the two return bouts, height didn’t matter as Gonzalez masterfully outboxed his peer. The two became giants in their own right as they opened the door to million-dollar paydays at their weight.
Jacob Matlala, “Baby Jake”
South Africa’s diminutive champion stood a mere 4ft 10 1/2ins. Many of the fighters he’s faced have incomplete tales of the tape, but it’s hard to imagine Matlala having an edge in height over many foes throughout his 53-13-2 (26) career. Matlala stopped Zolile Mbityi, who became a formidable contender, in six rounds back in 1991. Mbityi stood almost eight inches taller than Baby Jake! Pat Clinton was stopped in eight rounds by Matlala to earn his first world title at flyweight. Clinton stood about five inches taller at 5ft 3ins. Pretty Boy Lucas mixed it up with a number of world champions, but the 5ft 5in flyweight could barely win a round against Matlala. Matlala’s height actually allowed him to do as Orlin Norris did and move down in weight and capture a world title. This time, Matlala won a technical decision over Paul Weir and then stopped him in 10 rounds of their rematch in spite of Weir being four-and-a-half inches taller. Matlala’s greatest feat as a professional was stopping Michael Carbajal, a giant in stature and status. Carbajal dwarfed Matlala by seven inches. Carbajal was on the heels of a big stoppage over Scotty Olson and still had enough in the tank after Matlala to KO Jorge Arce.
In boxing, height can drastically impact the outcome of a contest. One’s height typically has a strong correlation to reach and the ability to control distance usually gives one the authority to control the terms of the fight. Having a height advantage over an opponent also provides a boxer with added leverage on his shots by being able to punch down. Reaching to punch often takes something off a blow and reduces its impact. However, as seen over these two installments, boxing has sprouted numerous giant-killers who have been able to transcend their physical dimensions to find ample success in the professional ranks of boxing.