There are rankings by weight class. There are pound-for-pound rankings. And there are rankings that line up the best fighters in the world from one era to the next. All are worthy endeavors, but, in a quest to add something new and challenging to the conversation, we decided to bring another set of boundaries into play: the alphabet.
Using a fighter’s surname as a guide—not necessarily the birth surname, but the one he ultimately became best known with—we set about to determine history’s best at each letter.
Some were easier than others. Some were considerably more difficult. But by the time we got through 26, a list of names had been created that we were pretty confident about.
Click through to see who’s where…and grab a notepad to concoct a version of your own.
Record: 56-5 (37 KO)
Summary: Forever changed the game at heavyweight from one of ponderous slugging to one of skills and movement. Befuddled Sonny Liston to win his first title in 1964 and regained the throne in 1974 from George Foreman and in 1978 from Leon Spinks. Was calling himself “The Greatest” long before anyone else did, but by the time his career finally ended many agreed with the tag.
Record: 56-16-7 (27 KO)
Titles: Welterweight, Middleweight
Summary: Fan favorite from Central New York who’s best known for splitting a pair of 15-round middleweight slugfests with Sugar Ray Robinson, winning the first and losing the second six months later. Fought Robinson after two reigns as champion at welterweight and was ultimately beaten in three more middleweight title bids before retiring in 1961.
Record: 107-6-2 (86 KO)
Titles: Super Featherweight, Lightweight, Super Lightweight
Summary: Turned pro in 1980 at age 17 and went nearly 14 years before tasting defeat, racking up titles at 130, 135 and 140 pounds along the way. Made his reputation as a murderous body puncher who could endure adversity before his determination paid dividends in the late going. A TKO defeat of Meldrick Taylor in 1990 remains one of the sport’s most controversial stoppages.
Record: 103-16 (70 KO)
Titles: Lightweight, Welterweight, Super Welterweight, Middleweight
Summary: Terrorized the lightweight division throughout the 1970s before climbing to welterweight and handing Ray Leonard his first pro loss in 1980. Rebounded from a string of poor performances to stop Davey Moore for a 154-pound belt in 1983 and ultimately met Marvin Hagler (L UD 15) and Thomas Hearns (L TKO 2) before picking up a middleweight belt from Iran Barkley in 1989.
Record: 89-27-2 (33 KO)
Titles: Super Featherweight
Summary: Won and held the 130-pound championship for seven years, becoming the division’s first highly regarded champion. Fell short in a pair of tries for the lightweight championship against Carlos Ortiz, but maintained a strong following in the Philippines and is among the country’s most beloved all-time athletes.
Record: 76-5 (68 KO)
Summary: Was a sullen, ferocious champion in the 1970s and remarkably returned in the 1990s as a happy-go-lucky advocate for the 40-plus crowd, regaining a title belt with an improbable KO of then-champion Michael Moorer at age 45 in 1994. Fought just four more times and never scored another knockout before finally retiring after a loss in 1997.
Record: 261-20-17 (48 KO)
Titles: Middleweight, Light Heavyweight
Summary: Was nicknamed “The Pittsburgh Windmill” and fought in an appropriate style, often simply overwhelming opponents with an incomparable work rate. Held championships at both middleweight and light heavyweight, though he often weighed far less than opponents and also challenged foes at heavyweight. Scored the lone pro win over Gene Tunney.
Record: 62-3-2 (52 KO)
Summary: Initially unappreciated and avoided at middleweight, Hagler fought his way to the big stage and ultimately captured the title with a savage defeat of Alan Minter in 1980. He dominated the division for the next seven years, including defeats of Roberto Duran (UD 15) and Thomas Hearns (TKO 3) before losing a razor-thin verdict to Ray Leonard in 1987 and never fighting again.
Record: 31-14-6 (17 KO)
Summary: A native of Japan who turned pro in 1966 at age 17. Lost three of his first seven fights and four of his first 14 but eventually climbed the ladder at lightweight and failed in a match against Roberto Duran (L TKO 10) in 1973 before winning a belt a year later. Defended five times until a loss to Esteban De Jesus in 1976, then lost his final two bouts in 1977 and 1978, respectively.
Record: 56-8 (40 KO)
Titles: Middleweight, Super Middleweight, Light Heavyweight, Heavyweight
Summary: Has gone on far too long into his 40s but, in his prime, was among the most athletic boxers of any generation. Carried foot speed and punching power through several divisions and became the first ex-middleweight champ since Bob Fitzsimmons to win a heavyweight title upon beating John Ruiz in 2003. Is a pedestrian 8-7 since that night, which was his last truly great performance.
Record: 53-5-5 (48 KO)
Summary: Among the greatest middleweights of any era, Ketchel was a murderous puncher who also tested his mettle against the best in other divisions. His 1909 match with heavyweight champion Jack Johnson is the stuff of legend, ending when, after suffering a knockdown to the lighter man in the 12th round, Johnson immediately rose and knocked Ketchel cold with a combination.
Record: 185-22-8 (70 KO)
Summary: Nearly a seven-year champion at lightweight, Leonard is considered by many to be among the greatest pure boxers of all time. He won 185 fights in his career but scored knockouts in significantly less than half of the victories. Ironically, a challenge for the welterweight championship was foiled when he was disqualified for hitting an opponent while he was down.
Record: 44-0 (26 KO)
Titles: Super Featherweight, Lightweight, Super Lightweight, Welterweight, Super Welterweight
Summary: The premier pound-for-pound fighter in the world today, Mayweather has begun working his way on to all-time lists thanks to his defensive prowess and one-sided victories over a series of elite competition. Signed a multimillion dollar contract with Showtime earlier this year and will fight for the second time with the network when he meets unbeaten Canelo Alvarez in September.
Record: 81-7 (54 KO)
Summary: Fought 20 bouts in his native Cuba before fleeing to Mexico when Fidel Castro assumed control in 1961 and banned pro boxing. Won the welterweight title for the first time in 1969 and regained it in 1971 following a loss on cuts to Billy Backus. A middleweight title try ended in a TKO loss to Carlos Monzon in 1974, and Napoles retired after losing the welterweight belt a year later.
Record: 89-13-3 (79 KO)
Titles: Bantamweight, Featherweight
Summary: Turned pro on his 18th birthday in 1965 and was a stoppage winner in his initial 24 fights before going 10 rounds for the first time in 1967. Defeated Lionel Rose for the bantamweight title in 1969 and then defended, lost and regained his crown in a three-fight series with countryman Chucho Castillo over 12 months in 1970-71. Added featherweight titles in 1974 and 1975.
Record: 39-1 (35 KO)
Titles: Super Lightweight
Summary: One of the most dynamic fighters in recent history, and also one of the most disappointing. Pryor was unable to get fights at his natural weight—135 pounds—so he went up to 140 and won big. Never managed to land a bout with superstar Ray Leonard, but he did have two bouts with Alexis Arguello and won both by stoppage. Lost some of his prime years due to chronic issues with drugs.
Record: 41-11-1 (25 KO)
Titles: Light Heavyweight, Cruiserweight
Summary: Emerged from a New Jersey prison to make a name for himself as the “Camden Buzzsaw.” Defeated popular champion Matthew Saad Muhammad to win a light heavyweight title and beat him in a rematch before losing a unification bout with Michael Spinks. Rose to a fledgling cruiserweight division to win a title two years later and defended once before losing a pair of fights to Evander Holyfield.
Record: 173-19-6 (108 KO)
Titles: Welterweight, Middleweight
Summary: The pick of many as the best fighter who ever lived. Mixed athleticism and violence as well as it’s ever been done with sublime boxing skills and one-punch knockout power. Won the welterweight title in his 76th pro fight and ultimately relinquished it before capturing the middleweight championship on five separate occasions.
Record: 44-1-1 (32 KO)
Summary: A Mexican legend whose career was cut short by a fatal car crash at age 23. Won the featherweight title from Hall of Famer Danny Lopez in 1980 and defended it against him four months later. Beat rising 122-pound champion Wilfredo Gomez in a 1981 superfight and stopped future champ Azumah Nelson in his final fight in 1982, just three weeks before his death.
Record: 80-1-4 (48 KO)
Titles: Light Heavyweight, Heavyweight
Summary: Though he’s probably best known for two wins over heavyweight Jack Dempsey—including the “Long Count” in Chicago in 1927—the stylish Tunney actually spent most of his career as a light heavyweight and had five fights with Harry Greb. He beat Greb three times, drew with him in one and lost the other fight, his lone defeat as a professional.
Record: 50-17-3 (34 KO)
Summary: He had only one career shot at the world heavyweight championship—a unanimous 15-round loss to Primo Carnera in 1933—but the “Basque Woodchopper” was an early version of a gatekeeper in the division. He lost twice and drew with Max Schmeling, lost another bout with Carnera and was stopped by Joe Louis, in addition to defeating future champ Max Baer by 20-round decision.
Record: 90-8-4 (22 KO)
Summary: The first Filipino boxing champion, Villa assumed ownership of the flyweight title in 1923 with a seventh-round KO of Jimmy Wilde at the Polo Grounds in New York. He went 23-1-1 in his next 25 fights before a non-title decision loss to Jimmy McLarnin on July 4, 1925. Villa fought shortly after having a tooth extracted and died 10 days later after developing an infection.
Record: 40-4-1 (17 KO)
Titles: Lightweight, Super Lightweight, Welterweight
Summary: Turned pro after winning Olympic gold in Los Angeles in 1984 and won his first 15 fights before a disputed title loss to Jose Luis Ramirez in 1988. Picked up a championship a year later and beat Ramirez in a rematch before rising to win belts at 140 and 147 pounds. Known primarily for defensive wizardry and was 40-1 before losing three times and failing a drug test (to void a win) in his last four fights.
Record: 10-0 (3 KO)
Summary: OK, let’s face it. There simply aren’t a lot of people—let alone fighters—with a surname that begins with the alphabet’s third-from-last letter. So we’ll concede that a 20-year-old bantamweight from Dallas who’s been a pro for less than three years could be construed as a stretch. That said, if his first few fights are indicative, he’ll quickly separate himself from a pedestrian X pack.
Record: 107-18-3 (17 KO)
Summary: Not the most celebrated fighter among the middleweights—or among the Pittsburgh natives—but among the most prolific winners in either gathering. Won the 160-pound title from Vince Dundee in 1933 and reigned for two years. Had a three-fight series with fellow Pittsburgher Billy Conn, winning once, and also fought Archie Moore, Jimmy Bivins and Ezzard Charles, among others.
Record: 66-4 (63 KO)
Summary: Among the best punchers in boxing history, with all but three of his 66 victories coming inside the distance—including all 10 of his wins in bantamweight title fights. Won his title in 1976 and defended nine times through 1979. Failed in three bids to win a title at 122 pounds, including the final two fights of an otherwise successful comeback after a seven-year hiatus from 1979 to 1986.