Ranking the 10 Best Defensive Fighters in Boxing Today
We live in a boxing era when defensive skill has become an extremely underrated attribute. To a large degree, it's a product of the larger culture. This is a thrill-a-minute media world we are living in and the subtleties of impeccable defense just don't stir the contemporary imagination the same way a stand-and-bang war does.
To a degree this is understandable. Slugfests where both men dig deep and let their hands go have always been more exciting and dramatic than any other contest in sports.
But boxing fans in previous generations seemed to have more capacity for appreciating the defensive wizards, too. Fighters like Willie Pep in the 1940s and 50s and Pernell Whitaker in the 1980s became pound-for-pound stars based on their defensive acumen.
Protect yourself at all times is the most important rule of the boxing ring. So fighters who manage to minimize the punishment they take should be praised and celebrated, not criticized for being "boring."
Boxing is a sport built around two men punching each other. That's inherently exciting. It's the sweet science, yes, but the "sweet science of bruising."
It doesn't become boring just because one or both men are skilled at avoiding punches. That should merely crank up the tension.
The big-time KO artists will always be the sport's biggest stars, and that is understandable. The knockout is sudden excitement and primal in its appeal.
But to really appreciate the sport and enjoy it to the fullest extent possible, a fan absolutely has to learn enough to appreciate great defensive boxing.
Erislandy Lara is the first of three former Cuban amateurs who will appear on this list. There were two or three other Cubans who I considered.
Anybody who understands statistics will realize that it's mathematically impossible for this to be a coincidence.
The Cuban amateur program is the greatest amateur program on the planet. The tiny island nation devotes substantial resources to it.
And to win in the amateur game, especially in recent decades, has required excellent defense.
Lara was a 2005 amateur world champion. In 2011 he lost a majority decision to Paul Williams that was the worst decision of the year, and possibly the worst decision of the past five years.
Williams was a very big junior middleweight with an awkward style who threw a lot of punches. Lara was able to effectively control the terrain of the ring and eliminate Williams' ability to get in range to score.
Lara roughed Williams up and even though only one of the judges even saw the fight as even, I have seen hundreds of fan comments supporting Lara in the years since and don't recall a single one claiming that Williams deserved the win.
I'll be the first one to admit that Miguel Vazquez has been in some terrible fights. His unanimous-decision victory over Mercito Gesta on the Manny Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez IV under card was painful to watch.
But the credit for that should go to Gesta, who was revealed as not "the next Manny Pacquiao," but rather an athletic puncher without the offensive skills to do anything more against Vazquez's trickster style than stand in the center of the ring and wave his arms in frustration.
Nicknamed the "Puppet," Vazquez is an expert at fighting as he backs up. He invites an opponent to lunge after him, while smoothly circling to the side and scoring with counters.
Vazquez is the IBF lightweight champion. The only three losses of his career came against light middleweight Saul Alvarez (twice) and welterweight Timothy Bradley.
Richar Abril is another product of the Cuban amateur system. His defensive ability is predicated on his excellent footwork and ability to control distance and angles.
He excels at moving away from a dangerous punch, but he's even better at denying an opponent the opportunity to even get in position to deliver a dangerous punch.
He forced his way onto the world-title scene when he filled in as a last-minute replacement against Brandon Rios in April 2012. Rios escaped with the split-decision victory, but Adalaide Byrd, who scored 117-111 for Abril, was the only one to see that fight accurately.
I consider it the worst decision of 2012, even above Timothy Bradley beating Manny Pacquiao. It was impressive enough to earn Abril a shot at the vacant WBA title against previously unbeaten Sharif Bogere last March.
Once again Abril was able to make an aggressive fighter largely ineffective, and this time he was rewarded with a unanimous decision and the belt.
In April of 2004 Wladimir Klitschko was stopped by Lamon Brewster, the third KO loss of his career and his second in 13 months. The feeling, among a lot of fans, was that he had been exposed.
Instead, he has come back to reign for most of the time since then as the heavyweight champion of the world.
The fact that he has been able forge such a championship tenure with his suspect chin is only made possible by his masterful defense.
Klitschko has a big punch, so his defense blends into his offense. He's a stick-and-move fighter, but his stick is a battering-ram jab, and when he moves, he's looking to move into position to unload the big, hammering right hand.
Juan Manuel Marquez
Juan Manuel Marquez is a complete fighter, and capable of sustained offensive flurries that leave opponents scrambled or even completely out of the fight. But he is primarily a very aggressive counter-puncher, and fighting effectively with that style is predicated upon tremendous defensive skill.
Manny Pacquiao is the greatest offensive fighter of this century, but Marquez has consistently had his number, at least for sizable chunks of all their fights.
Marquez is the kind of defensive fighter that fans still appreciate. He doesn't use his defensive skills to take away his opponents' offense. He uses them to punish his opponents for attempting their offense.
Last March, Bernard Hopkins broke his own record by beating Tavoris Cloud and capturing the IBF Light Heavyweight Championship at age 48. In October, he'll defend his new title against Karo Murat.
Hopkins' ability to continue performing at the world-class level as a professional athlete as he approaches 50 is a remarkable testament to his self-discipline in the matters of diet and fitness. He has preserved his body like the valuable piece of machinery that it is.
But Hopkins could work out like maniac and skip dessert for decades at a time, and it still wouldn't count for squat in prizefighting if he wasn't a defensive wizard as well. A normal professional boxer takes so much physical punishment that more often than not, he's severely diminished by the time he's in his early 30s.
Hopkins' career included a record-breaking run as the middleweight champion of the world. In his prime he beat multiple Hall of Famers.
In this last chapter of his remarkable career, he has made a specialty out of fighting younger fighters with exciting punching power but extremely vulnerable boxing skills.
Like any classic defensive wizard, Anselmo Moreno excels at fighting off from his back foot. In December 2011, he earned a decision against the dangerous Vic Darchinyan, who actually wasn't that dangerous against Moreno.
In my opinion, one of the boxing highlights of 2012 was Moreno's showdown with Abner Mares in November. It was a win that gave Mares a major boost in his climb up the pound-for-pound rankings.
I thought the fight was much closer than the official score cards. I scored it six rounds each, with Mares winning based on the knockdown and the point deduction.
Like other boxers on this list, Ward is a complete fighter. He can go on offense and end a fight early, when the situation lines up right for him.
But he is primarily a chess player, intent on winning. The former Olympic gold medalist started boxing as a grade school kid and has never lost as an amateur or professional.
And at both levels, he beat the best boxers his weight in the world, and beat them convincingly.
He didn't do it by blowing through opponents. He did it by boxing circles around them.
And his entire style is built upon never allowing his opponents to get into a position to hurt him or score on him in any meaningful way.
Guillermo Rigondeaux is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and possibly the greatest amateur boxer of all time. And in the amateur boxing game, especially during Rigondeaux's era, the single most important quality for a fighter was defense.
Rigondeaux is a master at controlling distance and exploits his southpaw stance to create awkward angles. He excels at taking away his opponent's offense by denying them the ability to get into position to deliver it.
Last April he faced Nonito Donaire, perhaps the best offensive fighter in the sport, and completely neutered him.
Floyd Mayweather is the best active defensive boxer right now and has to be admitted into any serious argument over the greatest defensive boxer of all time. There's nothing Mayweather doesn't do well, defensively.
Mayweather excels at controlling distance and angles and denying his opponents positions to attack from. He is also very dangerous when it comes to evading their attacks and punishing them with counters.
At times Mayweather will sit in the pocket or even allow an opponent to trap him on the ropes and unload. He routinely slips, blocks and otherwise evades multiple-punch volleys from his world-class opponents.
Mayweather's career has been a testament to the old sporting adage that "defense wins championships."
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