Ranking the 10 Strangest Boxers in History
I’ll admit to being intrigued by the theme to this slideshow because it may not seem clear at first what it would even constitute.
Is it even possible to make such a distinction between boxers?
But after days of meditating and hours upon hours of what I like to imagine was research—I still have no clue.
Is it the way they act outside of the ring? The way they fight inside of it? Maybe it’s (bless their heart) just how they look? Or how they talk?
What the esteemed Bert Sugar would call a “Rashomon-like” word—strangeness—here is nothing more than an empty glass that I can fill with whatever definition I deem worthy.
And aren’t the pieces as subjective as this really the most fun of all?
1 unusual or surprising in a way that is unsettling or hard to understand
Here’s the definition I’ll base this slideshow off of, right off of the dictionary app installed into my laptop.
So please, take a seat—make yourself comfortable. We’re about to take a trip, rather an almost twisted carnival ride down the unusual.
This is the very back corner of boxing history, the little snippets that time forgot—the men who assemble to make up boxing’s most bizarre, most unbelievable and most extraordinary testimony.
They’ll make you laugh; they’ll make you cry. These are the 10 strangest boxers in history—providing us reason to believe truth really is stranger than fiction.
"Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn't." - Mark Twain
10. Mysterious Billy Smith
They did call him "Mysterious" after all.
Mysterious Billy Smith was a Canadian boxer who fought over 80 times. He won the welterweight championship of the world in 1898 and defeated some good fighters throughout his career, including George "Kid" Lavigne, Young Peter Jackson and Hall of Famer Barbados Joe Walcott.
But Smith isn’t remembered for necessarily his wins inside of the ring, but rather for how he fought.
He has been dubbed “The Dirtiest Fighter of All Time” as he would do anything the referee was prepared to let him get away with.
From elbows to eye-gouging, with a few wrestling tactics sprinkled in here and there, Smith was disqualified 10 times, according to Herbert G. Goldman’s Boxing: A Worldwide Record of Bouts and Boxers (pg. 1487). Contrary to popular belief, Smith has not been disqualified more than any other fighter.
That honor (or dishonor) goes to Arnold Sheppard who was met with a DQ loss 18 times. Maybe Smith wasn’t as mean as we thought!
Only the most resilient men fought Smith. He was the gatekeeper between obscurity and glory for the welterweight and middleweight divisions during the early 1900’s.
And he will be making a few more appearances throughout this list. Proving just maybe, the era Smith fought in was the strangest of them all.
9. Jacob Matlala
Jacob “Baby Jake” Matlala was a South African boxer, born and raised in the Gauteng province. He’s a veteran of 68 fights and holds the distinction of being the shortest champion in boxing history.
Matlala stood 4’10” but still managed to make a name for himself at 108 pounds as he was a top-10 light flyweight for the second half of the 90’s.
Not bad for a man who was towered over by his opponents, even in one of the sport’s smallest weight classes.
That's pretty strange.
8. Nikolay Valuev
Donald Miralle/Getty Images
From the shortest man to the tallest man on this list—they call Nikolay Valuev the “Russian Giant.” But that just doesn’t suffice. He’s more like the “Russian Experiment… Gone Terribly, Terribly Wrong.”
His hobbies include, but are not limited to: coloring, playing hopscotch, fishing and hunting deer, ducks and wild boar—with his bare hands!
Okay, none of that’s true—well, the hunting and fishing part is. He just doesn’t do it with his bare hands. But you’d believe me if I told you he did.
Anyway, Valuev is big. Like really, really big. He stands at a staggering 7’ and some sources list him as even taller than that. He made his professional debut way back in 1993 and weighed in at 312 pounds—and has never weighed any less than that for the rest of his career.
In late-2005 Valuev defeated John Ruiz by a controversial majority decision to win the WBA Heavyweight Championship, becoming the tallest and heaviest champion in boxing history.
Good for him.
7. Len Wickwar
Pugilism, or prizefighting, has been around for centuries. If you’re reading this article you’re probably more accustomed than most to seeing two homicidal combatants punch each other until one goes down.
But what if “boxing” didn’t exist?
What if there was no sport, there were no governing bodies—how would you perceive these men? You’d sneer at such barbarism.
You’d find the concept of getting punched in the face for a living outright bizarre.
You’d think these men were criminally insane. And that’s just why Len Wickwar makes this list.
Because in a sport built on crazy men, Wickwar is by far the craziest. From 1928 to 1947, Wickwar fought no less than 468 times. Let that number sink in.
That’s over 400 fights, almost 4,000 rounds—at least one million traded punches.
What would possess a man to put his body through so much punishment? Who knows?
And that’s the beauty of it.
6. Nel Tarleton
What if I told you Nel Tarleton was a great fighter?
What if I told you Tarleton fought for the world featherweight title twice, losing two close 15-round bouts with Hall of Famer Freddie Miller? What if I told you Tarleton fought 148 times and was never knocked out?
Now, what if I told you he did all of this—with but one functioning lung?
That’s exactly what he did.
Tarleton was a long and skinny fighter. He contracted tuberculosis when he was two-years-old and never weighed more than 140 pounds in his life. He was weak and often roughed up as a child, until a bully, of all people, invited him down to the Everton Red Triangle Boxing club.
He immediately fell in love with the sport.
Over the course of his 19-year career, he won the featherweight titles of Britain, and was one of the very best featherweights of the 1930’s.
The Liverpool native stepped into the ring with Hall of Famers Panama Al Brown (fighting him to a draw) and the aforementioned Freddie Miller twice.
Tarleton utilized his gangly body to outbox a considerable number of excellent fighters. Notably Johnny King (two times), Al Phillips, Tom Smith, Johnny Cusick, Jim “Spider” Kelly, Jimmy Walsh, Dave Crowley, Auguste Gyde, Douglas Parker (three times), Benny Sharkey, Al Foreman, Archie Bell, Jack Kirby, Alf Kid Pattenden and long-forgotten all-time greats Seaman Tommy Watson and Johnny Cuthbert.
To do all this with one lung is absolutely astonishing.
5. Gypsy Joe Harris
Gypsy Joe Harris was one of boxing’s most colorful characters and maybe the sport’s most awkward practitioner.
But to call him just awkward is a huge understatement. He was innovative, peculiar and extremely talented. So talented and intuitive, in fact, that Harris fought his entire career with one eye and suffered just one loss, that being to the legendary Emile Griffith.
And his partial blindness is just what inspired his awkward style as he, no matter the angle, needed to keep his left eye (his good eye) on his opponent. Handicapped but not beaten, Harris utilized quick feet, rapid reflexes and very unorthodox defensive tactics to reach the pinnacle of the sport.
Harris never fought the same fight twice. Opponents and fans never knew what he might do next. No game plan was his game plan.
And the accumulation of his “style” and flair reached its finest hour on March 31, 1967.
Harris squared off with welterweight champion Curtis Cokes at Madison Square Garden. It was a non-title fight, which would prove most unfortunate for Harris as he completely befuddled the champion, winning a unanimous decision victory over 10 rounds.
The reports of the fight called Harris many things: an oddball, brawny and unorthodox and even a clown. But they also praised him for his quickness and masterful performance against the best welterweight in the world.
Harris’ whirling and wheeling tactics led the defeated Cokes to say, “[Harris] don’t have a style, he just stands there and acts the monkey.”
Always a step ahead of his opponents, he was good enough to reel off 24 consecutive wins to begin his career.
But that’s where the good times for Harris stopped.
After a pre-fight physical in October of 1968, Harris’ license was revoked because of the discovery of his eye impairment. And with that, he was forced out of the sport he loved and every hope he ever had of being a world champion was snatched away.
Harris would spend the remainder of his life lost in drugs and alcohol, resulting in heart failure at the age of 44.
4. Eugene Criqui
Many a man throughout history has been celebrated for his unimaginable ability to take a punch.
From the bums like Joe Grim, a middleweight from the turn of the 20th century who could take copious amounts of punishment without going to sleep—best exhibited by the six-round drumming he took from the colossal Jack Johnson (a fight in which Grim was knocked down over 12 times) but never went out—to boxing’s most polarizing figures like Marvin Hagler, these men were born with a knack to take a punch, possessing what has been dubbed a “granite chin.”
But there’s only one iron chin in history. Eugene Criqui, the fabulous featherweight from France, had it.
Interrupting his boxing career in 1915, Criqui was called to serve in the French military in World War I and while on guard duty a portion of his jaw was shattered by a German sniper’s bullet.
Luckily, surgeons were able to reconstruct his jaw using wire and silver plates. He couldn’t even speak for several months.
When Crique returned to boxing in 1917, he had already accumulated a 42-9-13 record fighting through France’s flyweight division. At this point, he had recorded just 12 knockouts to his name. But now returning to the ring as a featherweight and standing just 5’5”, he would win 55 (44 by KO) of his next 58 fights.
This spectacular streak included winning the French, the European and world featherweight titles while putting together one of the most underrated collections of knockouts ever, lighting up noteworthy featherweights Jackie Green, Joe Fox, Bert Spargo, Sid Godfrey, Dencio Cabanela, Charles Ledoux, Ben Callicott (two times), Arthur Wyans and Hall of Famer Johnny Kilbane.
Crique would retire in 1926 with an incredible record of 99-17-14. He overcame a horrendous injury and managed to become the very best featherweight in the world.
He is, as the French called him: “Gegene, Roi du KO.”
Eugene, the KO King.
3. Emanuel Augustus: The Drunken Master
What can you really say about Emanuel Augustus? He was a journeyman extraordinaire.
His record is deceiving. His talent is hard to gauge. And at times, for just a few seconds—the reflexes and instinctive moves he makes seem otherworldly.
If you’ve never seen him fight, please, please stop reading and watch the YouTube video attached. His “style” really goes where words cannot.
For years, Augustus was a staple on ESPN2’s boxing broadcasts. He fought anybody and everybody who would have him, short-notice or not.
He stepped—or rather, danced his way into the ring with the likes of Ivan Robinson and Floyd Mayweather Jr. Mayweather has often stated that Augustus was one of if not the toughest fights of his career.
And he was tough. But no matter his spectacular shifts and shimmy’s—Augustus was never going to be a great fighter. But he was robbed out of plenty of wins he probably deserved.
Most notable of which would be his losses to Courtney Burton and Mickey “Irish” Ward.
2. Norman Selby: The Real Kid McCoy
Norman Selby, better known as “Kid McCoy” was controversial in and out of the ring. And frankly, I doubt he would’ve had it any other way.
From his invention of the “corkscrew punch” (a punch that added a twist to the moment of impact which made for an excellent way to slice and open up opponents’ faces) to his 10 marriages to eight different woman, conviction of manslaughter and eventual suicide—Kid McCoy believed if you weren’t living a life full of scams, swindles, crime and bamboozles—you weren’t really living.
His tricks and ploys inside the ring are notorious.
Amongst them was applying powder to his face in an effort to deceive his opponent to believing he had come down with an illness, throwing tacks on the floor against a barefooted fighter, taking part in a fixed fight or two (as he supposedly did against James Corbett in 1898) and even stopping in the middle of a fight to convince his opponent to check out the pretty lady in the front row. And when this worked, the distracted opposition was met with a McCoy right-hand.
But sifting through the mess, through the cheats and hoodwinks—McCoy was one hell of a fighter.
From welterweight to heavyweight, he defeated a slew of legendary opponents.
McCoy’s first shot at glory came in 1896 against one of the greatest fighters of all time, Tommy Ryan.
Ryan’s career and level of consistency is often grossly overlooked. This is a man that lost just twice in his first 105 fights. One of those losses came by disqualification against one George Green; a fight that Ryan would avenge three months later by way of seventh round knockout.
His only real loss during this amazing stretch was to McCoy, which was also the only knockout defeat of Ryan’s entire career.
McCoy also defeated Mysterious Billy Smith, Tommy West, Jack Bonner (two times), Jim Daly, Dick Moore, George LaBlanche, Dan Creedon (two times), Gus Ruhlin, Jack Twin Sullivan, Joe Choynski and Peter Maher twice.
He had his last fight in 1916, capping off a truly phenomenal career. But you’d be even crazier than he was if you didn’t expect McCoy to outdo it with his post-fighting life.
McCoy lived the high life for while.
He moved to California, appeared in some films and even became friends with Charlie Chaplin. But his success in the movie industry didn’t last long. He was poor and addicted to alcohol by the early 20’s.
Then he met Teresa Mors.
Mors was a wealthy woman (and a married one, as well), because a single modest lady just isn’t McCoy’s cup of tea.
The two became romantically involved and Mors even divorced her husband. But in 1924, Mors was shot dead in the apartment she and McCoy had come to share.
McCoy was charged with her murder but swore she committed suicide. The murder charges were eventually acquitted and McCoy was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 24 years in prison.
He served seven before being released on parole. And eight years later, McCoy would take his own life.
At the Hotel Tuller in Detroit, in a selection of hauntingly moving and tragically beautiful words—in the, we’re all living the same miserable life, kind of way—McCoy left the world his final words:
“To all my dear friends… best of luck… I’m sorry I could not endure this world’s madness.”
Signed, Norman Selby.
1. The Barbados Demon: Joe Walcott
The original Joe Walcott (not “Jersey Joe”) terrorized his opponents every bit the way his nickname would suggest. They called him the “Barbados Demon” and this was not without reason.
He was a pocket monster with incredible power in his hands.
Over his 166-fight career, Walcott stepped into the ring with the fearsome Sam Langford, Hall of Fame heavyweight and light heavyweights Philadelphia Jack O’Brien and Joe Choynski, world light heavyweight champion George Gardner and colored heavyweight champion Frank Childs.
And Walcott only stood a meager 5'1" and one-half inches.
He was strange and hard to comprehend any way you cook it; the way he looked, the way he fought and just how great he ended up being.
Being so short and yet able to weigh in as a welterweight, Walcott’s physique was made up of unbelievable muscularity. According to the National Police Gazette Oct 27, 1894 (via research done by Monte D. Cox) Walcott’s neck was an abnormal “18 inches and his chest expanded [to] 41 inches.”
Nate Fleischer said it best, calling Walcott “a sawed off Hercules.” The “Barbados Demon” seemed to be chiseled out of cold rock and looked absolutely terrifying.
Now imagine such a man in the ring, fighting against towering heavyweights.
Walcott was a swarmer through and through, he was said to take leaping hooks at his opponents—springing into the air just to reach them.
But where the line between fiction and reality, genius and insanity really gets drawn is how inconceivable the success was that Walcott found in the ring.
So utterly strange (and as the definition stated: hard to understand) is Walcott, at under 5’2” (just two inches taller than Jacob Matlala) with a reach of just 65” (three inches shorter than the featherweight Eugene Criqui) he managed to defeat Tommy West, Dan Creedon, the dirty welterweight champion Mysterious Billy Smith (three times), Jack Bonner (in which he was outweighed by 17 pounds), Joe Grim, Young Peter Jackson, Rube Ferns, knocked out Joe Choynski, held his own and earned draws with world beaters Sam Langford and Joe Gans and held the welterweight championship for three years.
He compiled an astonishing record that features 104 wins to 32 losses; 15 of those losses coming after Walcott’s freak gun injury that left his right hand severely disfigured.
He would never be the same fighter, again.
But in his prime, Walcott was a demon, a violent presence trapped in a child’s body; full of rage and hate for humanity, he took his aggression out on the men unfortunate enough to step into the ring with him.
His violence and greatness knew no bounds—never intimidated, Walcott even issued a challenge to none other than James Jeffries, the heavyweight champion of the world.
And that, my friends, is as strange as it gets.