Ranking the 10 Best Brawlers in Boxing History

Briggs Seekins@BriggsfighttalkFeatured ColumnistNovember 13, 2013

Ranking the 10 Best Brawlers in Boxing History

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    This was a fun list to research and think about, but narrowing down my criteria for inclusion was a challenge. Any pure brawler is going to have a ceiling as a professional boxer, no matter how durable his chin or powerful his punch.

    But it's also hard to be a great boxing champion without the ability to dig in and brawl when necessary.

    Sugar Ray Leonard had to brawl his way to victory in his first fight with Thomas Hearns. Muhammad Ali never would have won two of three fights against Joe Frazier if he hadn't had the brawling ability to fight his way out of trouble when Smoking Joe crashed inside on him and started throwing heat in the pocket.

    Few, if any, of the fighters on this list could be classified as pure brawlers. Everybody listed here is an all-time great, and a good number of them show up on various all-time, pound-for-pound top-10 lists.

    A fighter can't achieve that status without well-rounded skills. Still, the ability of these fighters to outbrawl opponents was the extra element of their game that made them elite.   

10. Gene Fullmer

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    A rugged native of Utah, Gene Fullmer held the world middleweight title during the 1950s, which was probably the toughest decade in the history of the division.

    His record against the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson was 2-1-1. Robinson was past his prime for all of those fights and especially the last two, but he was still an elite fighter when Fullmer beat him. 

    Fullmer lived up to his nickname of "The Cyclone," attacking with flurrying punches, elbows and headbutts. He twice beat fellow-brawler Carmen Basilio, and The Ring selected their first bout as 1959's Fight of the Year. 

    Fullmer's 1960 draw with Joey Giardello is often described as the dirtiest fight of all time.  

9. Julio Cesar Chavez

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    Known to his millions of adoring fans as "J.C. Superstar," Julio Cesar Chavez is the greatest fighter to come out of Mexico and the most dominant professional fighter of the 1980s.

    The six-time, three-division world champion ran his record to an astonishing 87-0 before drawing with Pernell Whitaker in September 1993. He was 89-0-1 before suffering his first loss to Frankie Randall in January 1994. 

    Chavez was a relentless stalker with a ferocious body attack. His ability to cut off a ring and land accurate, bruising punches in an exchange were indicative of an exceptional offensive skill set.

    But his ability to outfight opponents ultimately made him so special. He had a granite chin and frequently beat better technical boxers because one punch from him did more damage than two or three of theirs.

8. Marvin Hagler

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    Marvin Hagler is a pound-for-pound great and arguably the best middleweight of all time. He had exceptional boxing skills. He was very much a complete fighter. 

    But he could also hang with anybody as a brawler, which he proved in April 1985 in his legendary war with fellow superstar Thomas Hearns. 

    The fight was a furious, three-round shootout that many boxing fans regard as the most exciting bout ever. Hearns was among the most devastating pound-for-pound punchers in history, and he came into this encounter after recently destroying Roberto Duran by Round 2 KO—an unprecedented achievement. 

    Hearns rocked Hagler badly in the first round and inflicted a gruesome cut to the bridge of his nose. But Hagler was relentless, wading forward behind a wild, two-fisted attack.

    Hagler finally dropped his man in Round 3. Hearns astonishingly beat the count, but he was clearly out on his feet and defenseless as referee Richard Steele waved off the action. 

7. Joe Frazier

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    Joe Frazier was a fluid, combination puncher with a tricky, bob-and-weave style of fighting that transcended mere brawling. He handed Muhammad Ali his first professional loss in 1971 and fought Ali on brutally competitive terms in the two fights that Ali won. 

    It took a lot more than brawling ability for Frazier to become Ali's greatest nemesis. But Frazier's capacity to absorb punishment while coming forward relentlessly was crucial to his success. Against Ali, his brawling leveled the playing field. 

    A compact heavyweight, Frazier would crash through a jab and into range with his arms crossed in front of his body like a blocking back in football. Every punch Smoking Joe threw had murderous intent, even when he worked a speed bag in the gym.  

6. Henry Armstrong

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    For a brief period in 1938, Henry Armstrong simultaneously held the world titles at featherweight, lightweight and welterweight. This was during an era with only eight weight classes and only one world champion in each class.

    To put that accomplishment into perspective with contemporary boxing, in today's game between 15 and 20 fighters claim world championship status for that same span of weight classes at any given time.

    In 1940, Armstrong drew against middleweight champion Ceferino Garcia. A win would have made him the world champion in half of boxing's weight classes during a two-year period.

    So he rates as among the greatest pound-for-pound boxers of all time, no matter what standard is used for evaluation. For many historians, he is No. 2 behind only Sugar Ray Robinson.

    Armstrong excelled at changing levels and had an uncanny ability to slip in and out of range and alter his angles. But brawling played a big role in his success.

    He had the twin nicknames of "Hurricane" and "Homicide" Hank, and both were well-earned. He attacked in a fury, often denying his opponents any space to throw a punch. Between April 1937 and March 1938, he knocked out an astonishing 27 straight opponents—more than two per month.  

5. Harry Greb

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    Harry Greb is arguably the greatest middleweight in history and certainly the most dominant in the era prior to World War II. 

    There's a strong argument for him to be in the pound-for-pound top five as well. He is the only man to ever defeat legendary heavyweight champion Gene Tunney, and Greb provided Jack Dempsey with some of the most ferocious sparring rounds of his career. 

    He is a bit of a mythical character due to a tragic lack of available footage of him in the ring. But contemporary newspaper reports describe a skilled and ferocious brawler. 

    Nicknamed "The Pittsburgh Windmill," he was an all-action fighter, attacking behind sweeping overhand rights and violent lead hooks and uppercuts. HarryGreb.Com provides a treasure trove of documentation on this legend.   

4. George Foreman

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    Technically, I would categorize George Foreman as a puncher rather than a brawler. He excelled at cutting off a ring and trapping opponents. 

    But Big George could also outbrawl just about any other heavyweight in history. He could take a monster punch and come back with an even harder one of his own. 

    He recorded devastating, early stoppages of Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, two of the top five heavyweights of the 1970s, which was the most talent-saturated decade in the history of the division. But the fight that demonstrated his brawling ability was his Round 5 KO of Ron Lyle in 1976. 

    Lyle was one of the last fighters I cut from this list to narrow it to 10. His battle with Foreman was perhaps the greatest slugfest in heavyweight history. 

    Lyle came out firing bombs in the first round and hurt Foreman badly. Big George returned the favor in Round 2.

    In Round, 4 Lyle knocked down Foreman, who got up and knocked down Lyle. Then Lyle floored Foreman again before the end of the round. 

    He hurt Foreman badly in the fifth round, but Big George weathered it and finally knocked Lyle out cold in the last minute of the round. 

3. Jack Dempsey

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    Jack Dempsey started his career as a kind of hobo toughman, hopping freight trains and picking up fights wherever he could find them. Nicknamed "The Manassa Mauler," Dempsey had the neck of a bull and the chin of a granite statue. Both fists were like exploding hand grenades. 

    He gave up nearly 60 pounds when he challenged the gigantic Jess Willard for the heavyweight championship in 1919. The result was a one-sided massacre, which Dempsey won by Round 3 KO.

    Dempsey's 1923 defense against Luis Firpo would rate alongside the previously discussed George Foreman vs. Ron Lyle fight as the most exciting heavyweight tilt ever. Dempsey dropped Firpo seven times in Round 1 and twice more in the second, before finally putting him down for good.

    At the same time, Dempsey was knocked down twice, including completely out of the ring.  

2. Evander Holyfield

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    Evander Holyfield won a bronze medal in the 1984 Olympics at light heavyweight. He turned professional shortly after the games, and by 1988 he was the undisputed cruiserweight champion of the world.

    He then jumped to heavyweight and spent the decade beating up much larger men, during a decade that would rate as among the most competitive in the history of the division. And heavyweights in the 1990s weren't just good—they were often huge. 

    Holyfield got in his larger opponents' faces and fought them inside with the tenacity of a pit bull, using tactics that skirted the rule book. He was notorious for using his head as a weapon and tended to be casual about keeping his body shots above the belt line.   

1. Roberto Duran

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    Roberto Duran is arguably the greatest lightweight in history, and his boxing skills take a backseat to very few fighters. Under the guidance of legendary trainers Ray Arcel and Freddie Brown, he developed tricky defensive abilities.  

    But no matter how refined he became, the former Panamanian street kid never stopped attacking like a wild barbarian. And his ability to outbrawl nearly anyone was the extra ingredient that made him one of the elite fighters of all time. 

    The man known as "Hands of Stone" carried his power and chin up through the weight classes. After vacating his lightweight titles, he moved up to welterweight and beat a bigger, younger, faster and more skilled fighter in Sugar Ray Leonard. He did it by drawing Leonard into a macho brawl. 

    At junior middleweight, Duran won the WBA belt by Round 8 TKO over Davey Moore. At middleweight Duran extended the seemingly invincible Marvin Hagler nearly to his limit, before losing a close, 15-round decision.

    He eventually captured the WBC version of the middleweight title from Iran Barkley in 1989. Duran was 37 by then, and he engaged Barkley in a phone-booth style brawl that won Fight of the Year honors. 

    He failed in several attempts to win a world title at super middleweight, although he did win the minor NBA belt. A born fighter, he lost his last professional bout in 2001 against Hector Camacho, a month after turning 50. Duran had professional fights in five separate decades.