If there’s one thing boxing still has over all other sports, it’s nicknames. I mean, every time I see Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard referred to as “D12,” I can’t help but feel like I’m reading about a vitamin I took this morning.
Boxing nicknames are timeless in how they define fighter personalities, matchup promotions and era aesthetics.
Nicknames cover the stylistic gamut of clever alliteration, an homage to a fighter’s hometown, references to death and pain, titles of imaginary royalty and even animals.
It’s interesting to chart the evolution of nicknames and see, for instance, how “Gentleman Jim” Corbett fought “The Boston Strong Boy” John L. Sullivan in the 1890s. “Gentleman” and “Boy” aren’t words we conventionally associate with fighters, and sometimes it is the oddities or contradictions found in nicknames that make them so memorable.
Compiling this list was somewhat agonizing because you inevitably have to set aside some fantastic monikers.
Some are also controversial. While “The Boston Tar Baby” (Sam Langford) caries a cool sound and ring, it also has unfortunate racist connotations and recalls how Langford, despite being one of the historically best pound-for-pound fighters, was denied a title shot because of his race. I also steered clear of Joe Louis’ moniker, “The Brown Bomber,” because it has also sparked online debate.
On a far less controversial level, I tried to avoid monikers that have been adopted by several great fighters (i.e. “Sugar”).
In making final cuts, I tried to go for nicknames that are memorable in how they encapsulate the image of specific boxers and how closely they are associated with the fighter in question.
As someone who appreciates wit and puns, I inevitably had to select a few that made me laugh, and I always went with my gut in picking nicknames that appeal to me on a visceral level.
So, what’s in a name? Well, let’s find out—in no particular order.
Chuck Wepner (35-14-2, 17 KOs) was a rugged heavyweight who was stopped in the 15th round by Muhammad Ali in 1975. Credited as the inspiration for Rocky, Wepner is an almost mythological figure for the punishment he absorbed and the amount he bled.
Wepner claimed his place in boxing lore by knocking Ali down, but his nickname might be what first comes to mind for those who never saw him fight. “The Bayonne Bleeder” attests to Wepner’s thin skin, as well as his New Jersey residence, and it is this combination of gore and locality that make the name so memorable.
“Iron” Mike Tyson (50-6, 44 KOs) was one of the most feared heavyweight champions and a cultural sensation (I hesitate to say "icon"). His feats of becoming the youngest heavyweight champion and unified titlist, not to mention his unparalleled menacing aura, are well documented.
While “Iron” might seem basic and elemental, that is exactly the beauty of the nickname. For someone who defied so many norms and constantly left us in both fear and awe, a nickname as primal as “Iron” speaks to his chiseled physique and unforgettable power.
Heck, why don’t we just call Tyson’s first heavyweight title reign boxing’s Iron Age?
Before he was “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali (56-5, 37 KOs) was referred to by some as “The Louisville Lip,” which was an apt moniker for capturing the essence of his poetic trash talking.
Considering his nickname of “The Greatest” isn’t ironic, it has to be ranked as an all-time moniker. Ali transcended boxing in an era where the heavyweight champion of the world was the most important figure in sports. By becoming a cultural icon, he did one better.
We can debate whether Ali actually was “The Greatest,” but I defy anyone to suggest that another fighter could carry that bold moniker.
Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini (29-5, 23 KOs) was a WBA lightweight champion whose intense, whirlwind fighting style was aptly encapsulated in the forceful punctuation of his nickname.
Of course, Mancini is also known for his 14th-round TKO victory over Duk Koo Kim in a title defense where the South Korean challenger died four days after the fight due to brain injuries.
Ring tragedy aside, Mancini was a thrilling fighter whose nickname carries the punch of Batman comic book sound effects, and his place on this list is well earned.
James “Bonecrusher” Smith (44-17-1, 32 KOs) briefly held the WBA heavyweight title after he knocked out Tim Witherspoon in the first round in 1986. “Bonecrusher” subsequently lost a unification fight to an undefeated Mike Tyson but was able to go the distance.
“Bonecrusher” has what I call the wince factor. It’s one thing to break a bone, but to have it crushed is so appallingly gruesome and awesome that you can’t make a nickname list without including it.
“Bonecrusher” might not be the first nickname you’d think to give the first heavyweight champion with a college degree, but that’s exactly the kind of juxtaposition that makes this moniker so memorable.
Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker (40-4-1, 17 KOs) was a gold medalist at the 1984 Olympics and a four-division world champion. “Sweet Pea” was one of the greatest defensive fighters and slickest boxers of all time.
“Sweet Pea” should have become the first fighter to defeat legendary Mexican champion Julio Cesar Chavez, but he had to settle for a highly controversial draw in their 1993 welterweight title fight.
“Sweet Pea” had the uncanny ability to make evading punches entertaining, and his showmanship is befitting of this “cute” nickname.
Even better is that the nickname came from a reporter mishearing “Sweet Pete” and publishing “Sweet Pea,” which stuck. That seems apt considering how often Whitaker fooled his opponents in the ring.
“Marvelous” Marvin Hagler (62-3-2, 52 KOs) ruled the middleweight division in the 1980s. Hagler made 12 defenses of his unified titles and cleaned out the division, which is increasingly rare as more and more boxers fluctuate in weight.
A consummate professional, Hagler fought the best of his era, and his three-round war against Thomas Hearns is considered one of the greatest fights in boxing history.
The nickname “Marvelous” passes the iconic adjective test, and we can’t in good conscience mention Marvin Hagler without adding “Marvelous.” Why? Well, upset because announcers wouldn’t use the moniker, he literally changed his name to Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Now that’s commitment.
Thomas “Hitman” Hearns (61-5-1, 48 KOs) also went by the “Motor City Cobra.” Hearns was the first fighter to win world titles in four weight divisions, and he also added a fifth for good measure.
Hearns is remembered for classic battles with the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler, and he undoubtedly fought the best fighters of his generation.
Known for his explosive power, the moniker “Hitman” captures the force of his punch and connotes the profession that movies like The Godfather have made famous in mainstream culture. Plus, you can’t argue with someone who had two legitimate nicknames.
Roberto Duran (103-16, 70 KOs) used his “Hands of Stone” to become a four-division world champion and arguably the greatest lightweight of all time.
The Panamanian fought a who’s who of boxing legends, and he is known for epic battles against Sugar Ray Leonard—including the “No Mas” fight—Iran Barkley, Ken Buchanan, Davie Moore, Marvin Hagler, and so many others.
The moniker “Hands of Stone” is about as disturbingly evocative as you get when thinking of an analogy for punching power, and it makes me think of sculptures of Greek gods. If we can trust the folklore surrounding Duran, the nickname is certainly appropriate: when Duran was 14, he apparently knocked out a horse with one punch when someone bet him $50 and bottle of whiskey that he couldn’t.
Jake LaMotta (83-19-4, 30 KOs) was a former World Middleweight Champion and fought an epic six-fight series against fellow legend Sugar Ray Robinson (LaMotta won once).
Known for his relentlessness and courage, LaMotta’s sixth fight against Robinson is considered boxing’s version of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre for the brutal beating LaMotta took, but also for the tremendous resolve he showed in never going down before the fight was stopped.
LaMotta was indeed bullish, and both nicknames work on many levels. There are few animals more imposing, or relentless, than a bull, and LaMotta’s iconic career and moniker are only heightened through their associations to Martin Scorsese's 1980 film classic Raging Bull.
Mike “The Body Snatcher” McCallum (49-5-1, 36 KOs) was three-division world champion (junior middleweight, middleweight and light heavyweight) and fearsome body puncher.
The Jamaican-born boxer fought the likes of Donald Curry, James Toney and Roy Jones Jr. He impressively made multiple title defenses at each weight class where he held a world championship, and he was never knocked out as a professional.
“The Body Snatcher” aptly alludes to McCallum’s hellacious body punching, and the moniker makes me think of an unlicensed undertaker.
Vinny Pazienza (50-10, 30 KOs)—now Vinny Paz—was a lightweight and light middleweight world champion who fought the likes of Roberto Duran, Roy Jones Jr., Hector Camacho and Roger Mayweather.
One of the most remarkable aspects of "The Pazmanian Devil’s" career was his return to the ring after a car accident that kept him hospitalized for three months.
"The Pazmanian Devil” is an unforgettable nickname simply on the basis of its pun on one of the all-time great cartoon characters, and Vinny Paz undoubtedly lived up to the moniker with his brave fighting style.
Bernard Hopkins (52-6-2, 32 KOs), at 47, is still fighting and executing opponents he could have theoretically fathered.
A long-time unified middleweight champion who made 20 title defenses before moving up to light heavyweight where he also became the recognized champion, Hopkins has fought and beaten almost all the top fighters of his generation (and subsequent generations).
It’s fitting that a fighter with such subtle craft and throwback skills has “The Executioner” as a nickname. In medieval times, executioners wielded a perverse sort of power, and Hopkins lives up to the moniker with both his executioner masks and in-ring dominance.
Archie Moore (185-23-10, 131 KOs) was arguably the greatest light heavyweight of all time and ranks near the top of any sensible all-time pound-for-pound ranking list.
Moore holds the record for most career knockouts at 131, and he carried tremendous power well into his 40s. Moore fought so well for so long that, as a heavyweight, he was the only man to face both Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali.
The mongoose’s quick reflexes likely contributed to it becoming Moore’s nickname, but there’s simply a je ne sais quoi and comedic aspect to this moniker that works. Moore was indeed “The Old Mongoose,” and there are few who were any better.
Donovan “Razor” Ruddock (38-5-1, 29 KOs) overcame a respiratory illness to become one of the most feared and avoided heavyweight contenders in the '80s and '90s.
“Razor” was a Canadian and IBC heavyweight champion, and his 19 combined rounds against Mike Tyson are considered two of the most brutal and exciting heavyweight tilts of the 90s.
Ruddock earned the moniker “Razor” for his cutting jab, but he also employed a devastating left hook/uppercut he called “The Smash” (ask Michael Dokes about it).
At 48, Ruddock is apparently plotting a return to the ring. Let’s hope he razors off his gray hairs and doesn’t get hurt.
Alexis Argüello (77-8, 62 KOs) was a three-division world champion who has the distinction of never having lost one of his titles in the ring (he vacated his championships as he moved up in weight).
The Nicaraguan was a vicious and calculated puncher, and he is considered one of the best fighters of his generation. Argüello fought the likes of Ray Mancini and Alfredo Escalera, and he waged two classic battles with Aaron Pryor.
Argüello’s moniker of “The Explosive Thin Man” is wonderfully descriptive and, more importantly, it serves as an inspiration to scrawny and overlooked individuals everywhere.
Henry Armstrong (150-21-10, 101 KOs) is considered one of the greatest fighters of all time. “Homicide Hank” has the enviable distinction of being a simultaneous three-weight world champion at a time when boxing only had eight weight classes.
“Homicide Hank” was the template later multi-division titleholders like Oscar De La Hoya and Manny Pacquiao would follow, and Pacquiao’s recent run of jumping back and forth between weight classes for title fights owes a tremendous debt to Armstrong.
As a moniker, “Homicide Hank” uses alliteration to heighten its ominous reference, and it’s certainly a deservedly wicked nickname for an all-time great.
Laila Ali (24-0, 21 KOs) won titles at super middleweight and light heavyweight, and she retired as an undefeated champion.
Muhammad Ali’s daughter defeated the likes of Valerie Mahfood (twice) and Christy Martin to become one of the most recognizable female boxers on the planet.
Ali’s moniker works on several levels. It asserts her identity as a female fighter, and interpreting the nickname as “she is stinging” alludes to her offensive prowess and power. "She Bee Stingin’" also acts as a tasteful homage to arguably her father’s most famous line of trash-talking verse: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
Jack Dempsey (61-6-9, 50 KOs) held the World Heavyweight Title when such a championship actually meant something. Dempsey was an American icon, and he is considered to be one of the hardest hitters in boxing history.
Dempsey held the World Heavyweight Title from 1919-1926 and defeated the likes of Jess Willard, Georges Carpentier and Tommy Gibbons before succumbing twice to Gene Tunney (with a win against Jack Sharkey sandwiched in between).
“The Manassa Mauler” is certainly an apt alliterative moniker for a fighter whose relentless aggression and power disposed of so many foes in spectacular fashion. Dempsey help turn boxing into large-stadium spectacles, and his participation in so many famous bouts—including the infamous “long count”—helped him earn a place on this list.
Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (27-12-1, 19 KOs) was a rugged middleweight contender who is perhaps best known for being wrongfully imprisoned for a triple homicide in Paterson, New Jersey.
The Ring ranked Carter in the middleweight top 10, and his finest moment inside the ring was arguably his one-round destruction of former champion Emile Griffith. “Hurricane” fought a slew of other contenders and champions, and his style was fan-friendly and earned him respect.
“Hurricane” is an iconic moniker, and you can’t mention Carter without his fabled nickname. Plus, who can argue with a nickname that’s also the title of a Bob Dylan song? (Dylan co-wrote the song in 1975 to protest Carter’s imprisonment.)
"Smokin’" Joe Frazier (32-4-1, 27 KOs) was a heavyweight champion during the division’s golden age. He was the first man to defeat Muhammad Ali, and his subsequent trilogy with “The Greatest” is arguably the most famous rivalry in all of sports.
Frazier possessed one of the all-time great left hooks, and his power and compact fighting style allowed him to beat significantly larger men. When Frazier passed away in 2011, the boxing world lost one of its most revered figures.
"Smokin’" is the perfect way to describe Frazier’s aggressive fighting style and ability to blitz his opponents, and the moniker was so recognizable that we simply referred to the man who fought in “The Fight of the Century” as “Smokin’ Joe.”
Primo Carnera (88-14, 72, KOs) was a gargantuan heavyweight before such a specimen was supposed to have existed. At a shade over 6’5" and fighting as heavy as 275 pounds, The Ambling Alp would fit right in with today’s imposing heavyweights.
Some considered Carnera a sideshow, and there is speculation that the mafia directed his career. Still, "The Ambling Alp" held the World Heavyweight Title and fought the likes of Jack Sharkey and Max Baer.
Carnera’s moniker combines alliteration with a reference to one of the world’s great mountain ranges, and while some might consider the nickname pejorative, I like to the think of “The Ambling Alp” as a nod to Carnera’s imposing stature and immovable strength.
Marco Antonio Barrera (67-7, 44 KOs) is a Mexican legend and three-division world champion. His battles against Erik Morales, Manny Pacquiao and cathartic victory against “Prince” Naseem Hamed—amongst others—are boxing classics.
A ruthless, no-nonsense operator, "The Baby-Faced Assassin" was known for his precise combinations and vicious, digging left hook to the body. His heart and willingness to clamp down and fight produced thrilling brawls with underlying skill.
Though he might look like an amiable fellow with full cheeks and a boyish grin, Barrera was an absolute monster in the ring. “The Baby-Faced Assassin” is the perfect example of a nickname that works through contradiction.
Arnold Raymond Cream, better known as Jersey Joe Walcott (51-18-2, 32 KOs), had a moniker so good that it supplanted his legal name.
Before George Foreman, Walcott had been the oldest man to win the heavyweight title when he did so at the age of 37 years, 168 days. Walcott tangled with the best of his era, and his notable opponents include Rocky Marciano, Ezzard Charles, Joe Louis and Joey Maxim.
The best thing about the moniker “Jersey Joe Walcott” is that it stands for every New Jersey “Joe.” Through his nickname, Jersey Joe became an emblem for his entire state. Not too shabby.
Aaron “The Hawk” Pryor (39-1, 35 KOs) was a longtime junior welterweight champion and arguably the greatest ever at that weight.
If you watch clips of Pryor, what stands out—other than his aggression and merciless offensive assaults—are the ways he rallied from knockdowns and taunted his opponents. “The Hawk” was ruthless, and his two battles against Alexis Argüello are boxing classics.
“The Hawk” makes the cut as a moniker because it aptly describes Pryor’s heat-seeking style. Opponents literally became prey, and “The Hawk” was almost always able to swoop in for the kill.