Juan Manuel Marquez and the 25 Most Underrated Boxers of All Time
I'll start off with a confession: This has been one of the tougher historical lists I've compiled.
The challenges were similar to those I faced in a recent column about the 20 most popular fighters of all time. Basically, I'm trying to formulate an informed judgement about the collective opinions, informed or not, of everybody else.
Even defining "underrated" has not been easy. I have included a bunch of old-timers in the early part of my list who are generally regarded as all-time greats by knowledgeable fans and writers, but who I still feel end up being underrated by almost everybody, including myself. That's simply because there isn't enough available footage (if any) to compare them even to newsreel-era fighters like Sugar Ray Robinson, Jake LaMotta or Henry Armstrong.
A lot of the names on this list are here because they have been overshadowed by their admittedly greater rivals, contemporaries, predecessors or immediate heirs.
There have been a lot of great fighters over the years, and during any given era, only a fairly small number usually manages to capture the public imagination and truly garner significant mainstream attention.
The more time I spent on Boxrec.com, the more I kept finding additional candidates, fighters who often had victories over uncontested all-time greats, who had dazzling records and were world champions (or very close to it) during the era when being a world champion meant actually being THE world champion.
Eventually, I narrowed it down to a list taken from across the gloved era, from the turn of the last century to the present day.
Bob Fitzsimmons has an official Boxrec record of 65(59)-8(7)-4, but with a professional career that began during the 1880s, there's no way to really know for sure how many bouts he fought and where.
What is a matter of historical record is that he was the first man to hold world titles in three weight classes—middle, light heavyweight and heavyweight. Prior to Roy Jones beating John Ruiz for the WBA strap in March of 2003, Fitzsimmons was the only middleweight champion ever to go all the way up and take the world title from the big boys.
I rarely see his name high up on pound-for-pound lists. I'm not sure how high I rank him myself—it's just too hard to know what to do with a fighter who fought in a radically different era and often under an older set of rules.
But there is no doubt that during the height of his career, he routinely beat the biggest and best opponents in the world.
The official record for George Dixon is 65(37)-29(6)-52, but fighters from Dixon's era are still part folk hero, and most likely, Dixon earned at least part of their living doing tours and performing exhibition matches.
I have seen written estimates of up to 800 total bouts for Dixon.
Dixon was highly regarded by writers and fans of his era. Ring founder Nat Fleisher ranked him as the No. 1 bantamweight of all-time. This excellent biography on Cox's Corner gives a bunch of cited quotations that make Dixon sound like a potential top five or 10 of all time.
Joe Gans' record was 145(100)-10(5)-16, and many of his fights went over 20 rounds. On September 3, 1906 he beat Battling Nelson via DQ after 42 rounds.
Gans was the world lightweight champion for much of the first decade of the 20th century. He once fought the very tough Dave Holly in Philadelphia, then took an overnight train to Boston and battled fellow immortal Sam Langford the next day.
Contemporary descriptions make Gans sound like another fighter who has to get serious consideration for the top five of all time. He fought the last two years of his career after being diagnosed with tuberculosis.
Boxrec has Harry Greb's Newspaper Decisions record listed as 157-12-14. It is believed by most boxing historians that he may have had around 300 fights total.
Like Joe Gans from the previous slide, Greb gets his share of "top five all-time" run from boxing writers who give a high evaluation to his era. But there is virtually no existing footage of him and he often gets overlooked in conversations that attempt to compare fighters across eras.
He is unquestionably on the short list with Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Robinson and Carlos Monzon for the greatest middleweight ever (his rival and near contemporary Tiger Flowers should get consideration here, too).
His pound-for-pound credibility is beyond reproach. He handed future heavyweight champion Gene Tunney the only loss of his career.
Tiger Flowers, 103(56)-15(10)-7, was the first African-American middleweight champion, earning the crown by defeating Harry Greb. He's another fighter that I believe gets overlooked due to the passage of time.
This well-thought-out list on Boxingscene.com has him No. 10, with a good discussion of why he is not higher, citing his 10 losses via stoppage.
Still, he also seems to have lost some fights by questionable decision—a common problem faced by black fighters of his era. I had him No. 7 on a list I did about a year ago, and think that could have been too low, particularly since I had Bernard Hopkins right above him.
Ultimately, like many of the old time fighters, I feel that writers and fans alike ultimately underrate him at least a little bit.
To the serious boxing fancy, Sam Langford, 179(129)-31(9)-40, is probably not underrated. He appears high on pound-for-pound lists written by knowledgeable historians and even though he started his career at welterweight, he ranks high on a lot of all-time heavyweight lists.
In the 1968 Ring Record Book, Charlie Rose ranked him the top heavyweight of all time.
But due to the racism of his time, Langford never got the chance to fight for a world title. For this reason alone, the passage of time has ensured that he has something less than the kind of status he truly deserves, because he shows up on no lists of champions.
This causes him to be vastly underrated among more casual and/or younger fans. Because they were world heavyweight champions, I knew names like Max Baer and Jack Sharkey when I was a little. Long before the Internet, their names were there to be read in countless books and sports almanacs.
It was not until much later that I discovered Langford, even though he was the far greater fighter. That makes him underrated, in my opinion.
Sam McVea, 62(48)-12(5)-8, was a contemporary of Sam Langford, likewise shut out of many opportunities because of his race. The two Sams fought each other nearly two dozen times, often for what was billed as "The Colored Championship."
Langford had the better record, but McVea won his share and many of their bouts were draws. This would absolutely suggest that McVea deserves fairly high all-time ranking, but he remains an obscure figure.
Harry Wills, 67(54)-9(5)-3, is another fighter who never got a chance to achieve the status he really deserved due to the racism of his era.
Wills was the recognized number one contender to Jack Dempsey during much of the great champion's reign, but in a country still trembling from the career of Jack Johnson, a "mixed-race" bout between the two ultimately proved impossible to set up.
Ken Overlin, 135(23)-19(2)-9, is largely forgotten now, after a career which included capturing the middleweight crown from Ceferino Garcia in 1940.
Overlin's all-time standing is probably hurt in part by his low KO total and probably in part due to the fact that his career almost entirely corresponded with first the Depression and then World War Two. In that era, prize fighting and all other sports took an understandable hit in the amount of attention they could garner.
Unlike a lot of fighters from the old days, Overlin was still mostly winning at the end of his career, even taking a decision from an up-and-coming Ezzard Charles.
Holman Williams, 145(36)-30(3)-11, is another all-time great who never got his shot at the title. Williams was a defensive wizard who was largely avoided by the top welterweights and middleweight of his era.
He fought fellow underrated contemporary Charley Burley seven times, winning three of them. He beat the legendary Archie Moore.
Like his great rival, Holman Williams, Charley Burley, 83(50)-12-2, never had the opportunity to fight for a world title.
This Cyber Boxing Zone biography quotes such authoritative experts as Eddie Futch, Ray Arcel and Archie Moore as having called Burley the best fighter ever.
In my opinion, he just might be the most underrated boxer of them all, and quite likely the most talented boxer to never win a world title.
Jimmy Bivins, 86(31)-25(5)-1, was one of the top light heavyweight and heavyweight contenders during the late 1940s and early 1950s, during the post-war era, when boxing was undergoing a huge resurgence in popularity.
Although he never managed to win a belt, Bivins did record victories over a laundry list of former and future word champions, such as Archie Moore, Ezzard Charles and Joey Maxim. He went the distance with Joe Louis and lost to Jersey Joe Walcott via split decision.
You could argue that most of Bivins' contemporaries who rank ahead of him deserve it. But I consider him a classic example of a guy who was much better than anybody can really appreciate from across the decades.
The Cincinnati Cobra, Ezzard Charles, 93(52)-25(7)-1, started his career as a middleweight, eventually became perhaps the best light heavyweight ever and then moved up to heavyweight to reign as the world champion in the years between Joe Louis' first retirement and the emergence of Rocky Marciano.
I've got him as a top 20 heavyweight and top five light heavy. If cruiserweight had existed, Charles might have been the best ever in that division.
All of this adds up to a pretty solid pound-for-pound ranking in my book, but I rarely see or hear Charles mentioned in those kind of debates.
Bill Graham, 102(27)-15-9, was a durable defensive technician, notable among other things for having never been knocked down during his entire career.
During the early 1950s, he engaged in highly competitive rivalries and recorded victories over celebrated middleweight champions Kid Gavilan, Carmen Basilio and Joey Giardello.
I went back and forth over whether or not to include Eder Jofre on this list. The two-division world champion compiled a glittering 72(50)-2-4 record, yet does not appear very high on most all-time rankings.
At the same time, his quality of competition can be legitimately criticized. He lost twice to Fighting Harada, the biggest name on his resume.
What can't be denied is that he had a highly successful, exciting style. What finally had me including him was the fact that the most recent issue of The RIng has an "Eder Jofre Best Fighter You've Never Heard Of" Award.
If a fighter is most well known for not being very well known, you have to think he is at least a little bit underrated.
Luis Rodriguez, 107(49)-13(3), went 1-2 against Emile Griffith, one of the elite welter and middleweights of the past fifty years. Both losses were split decisions.
The most recent issue of The Ring quotes Rodriguez's trainer, the late Angelo Dundee, as saying, "Rodriguez, in my opinion, is one of the most-underrated boxers ever." He further rates Rodriguez as the boxing equal of Ray Leonard, with quicker hands.
Dundee was the kind of trainer who loved his fighters like his children, so he may have overstated a tiny bit. But I had already thought of Rodriguez early in my brainstorming for this list; he was one of the first names a buddy of mine mentioned when I asked him for his input.
In fact, I get the impression that Rodriguez is another fighter who is at least partly "known" for being underrated.
Reading it in the words of the legendary trainer added some nice last-minute evidence.
Carlos Palomino, 31(19)-4-3, is a classic case of a very good fighter overshadowed by greater contemporaries. But he held the welterweight title for three years and seven defenses, before dropping a split decision to Wilfredo Benitez.
After losing to Benitez, Palomino lost a one-sided unanimous decision to Roberto Duran. He retired for 18 years before launching a comeback in 1997, during which he compiled a 4-1 record.
If Carlos Palomino was a very good fighter overshadowed by his great contemporaries, Wilfredo Benitez, 53(31)- 8(4)-1, is a great fighter overshadowed by his (perhaps) slightly greater contemporaries.
To my mind, Benitez should be rightfully viewed as "the fifth king," joining the four named by George Kimball in the title of his classic book about Hearns, Leonard, Hagler and Duran and The Last Great Era of Boxing.
I mean, I can see why he limited it to the four, but Benitez was involved in extremely important, closely-fought battles with three of those men.
He lost by TKO to Sugar Ray Leonard in a 15th-round stoppage that has been criticized often over the years. He was badly cut, but still seemed more than capable of defending himself through the last seconds of the fight.
It should be noted that he was alert enough to be among the very first people to congratulate Leonard after the stoppage. But he was also clearly behind on points.
Benitez beat Duran at the start of 1982 and lost a majority decision at the end of the year to Thomas Hearns. After that, his career went down hill quickly.
He was a defensive wizard and a boxing prodigy with a track record for hanging tough in the deep waters. On his best night, he is a major problem for any fighter at 147 pounds.
I always feel like he gets at least somewhat overlooked and underrated when it comes to ranking all-time welterweights.
Esteban De Jesus
When boxing critics list Roberto Duran as the greatest lightweight in history, part of their judgement is based upon the work he did against Esteban De Jesus, 58(33)-5(3).
De Jesus gave Duran the first loss of his career. He knocked Duran down in the rematch before falling to "Hands of Stone" by TKO in 11. Duran KO'd De Jesus in the rubber match.
Ricardo Lopez, 51(38)-0-1, retired undefeated, having won 26 straight world title fights. He was a complete and well-rounded fighter who did everything he could to stake his claim on greatness, but since he did it at 105 pounds, he never gets the same consideration that fighters two or three weight classes up would receive.
He's in the Hall of Fame and is remembered as an all-time great, but his size causes him to be underrated to some degree.
Ken Norton,42(33)-7(4)-1, did not start boxing at all until he was a Marine in his early 20's. He was such a great athlete that the State of Illinois instituted a "Ken Norton Rule" during his high school career to limit the number of events a competitor could enter in a track and field meet, to prevent athletes like Norton from winning entire meets on their own.
Norton had flaws as a fighter, though I would contend that some of the criticism of his chin is overstated. His four KO losses were against George Foreman, Earnie Shavers, Gerry Cooney (in his final fight)—three very big punchers. His fourth was against Jose Luis Garcia, still fairly early in his development.
Norton gave Muhammad Ali as much trouble as anybody except Joe Frazier. He beat him once by split decision, lost to him by split decision and then lost their final fight by a razor-thin, hotly-contested unanimous decision.
Mike McCallum, 49(36)-5-1, is another great fighter overshadowed by the quartet of Leonard, Hagler, Hearns and Duran. But in my opinion, "The Body Snatcher" would have been a very difficult out at 154 pounds for any fighter in history.
McCallum never lost until he moved up to middleweight and challenged Sumbu Kalambay for the WBA belt. He was never the same dominant force after moving up, but remained one of the elite fighters at that weight into the early 1990s.
The fact that the first clip I could find on YouTube for Buddy McGirt was labeled "Forgotten Warriors" says it all for why I picked him for this list.
McGirt, 73(48)-6(2)-1, was a two-division world champion and one of the most skilled and exciting fighters of the late 1980s and early '90s. At his very best, he only lost to Meldrick Taylor and Pernell Whitaker—two of the most elite fighters of the era.
McGirt works as a very successful trainer today.
I have only included the older Klitschko brother on this list. I think you could make an argument for younger brother Wladimir, too, but some of the criticism of Wladimir is justified—he's been KO'd by substandard opponents and his safety-first approach to boxing at times lulls American audiences to sleep.
The fact that Wladi picked a 40-year-old cruiserweight for his last opponent has left me feeling less than generous towards him, as well.
To me, older brother Vitali, 44(40)-2(2), is the better of the two, and he's far more underrated.
Vitali is the more aggressive and rugged, fighter. His only two losses are on cuts (for which Lennox Lewis deserves credit) and due to a shoulder injury. Meanwhile, it's been years since Vitali even lost a round.
He has one of the best KO percentages in the history of the heavyweight division. If he was American, he'd be written about as one of the greatest of all time.
Juan Manuel Marquez
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Juan Manuel Marquez, 53(39)-6-1, is one of the greatest fighters of the present and recent past. He has been consistently underrated throughout his career.
He didn't get his first title shot for six years. After he lost his first attempt against Freddie Norwood, it was four more years before he got another chance.
That's two title shots in 10 years for an all-time great, first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Let's compare that to a fighter like, say, Michael Katsidis, a title challenger who Marquez dispatched in nine back in November of 2010. Katsidis went directly from that fight to a title fight against Robert Guerrero. He lost that fight, beat a single journeyman and immediately challenged Rickie Burns for a strap.
Now I've got nothing against an exciting fighter like Katsidis. Incidentally, I'd tune in to watch him take on Hank Lundy for yet another vacant belt. But compare that red carpet treatment he's getting at every turn to the grind the immortal Marquez endured, and tell me "Dinamita" wasn't underrated for a long time.
And it's never really changed. Going into his showdown last November with Manny Pacquiao, very few writers were giving him a chance, despite his legendary track record against Pac.
I don't want to say that I'm the only scribe north of the border who was giving him a shot going into that fight, but what I wrote about it is a matter of record, and it was counter enough to conventional wisdom at the time so that I actually felt a little bit nervous on fight night.
The Ring published a list of the greatest Mexican champions in their last issue before the fight where they actually had Marquez at No. 10, behind Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales. I'm not usually one to question the Bible, but I will call buffalo scat on that one.