The Top 10 British Light Heavyweights of All Time

James GarnerContributor IApril 15, 2014

The Top 10 British Light Heavyweights of All Time

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    "You weighed 168 pounds, you were beautiful—you could have been another Billy Conn," words from On the Waterfront and one of cinema's most indelible scenes.

    Since Conn resigned the The Ring magazine light-heavyweight title in 1941, two British fighters have held that crown, with a third having a good claim to being the best in the world at the weight.

    After the US, easily the dominant nation in light-heavyweight history, only Canada matches the British record of two champions thanks to the recent successes of Jean Pascal and the reigning king Adonis Stevenson.

    Prior to the first The Ring champion, Maxie Rosenbloom in 1930, one Brit held global supremacy—Bob Fitzsimmons, whose reign lasted from 1903 to 1905.

    Looking back at the holders of the British light-heavyweight championship, you find two fighters who were world champions at lower weights—the welterweight Ted "Kid" Lewis and the middleweight Randolph Turpin.

    Neither Lewis nor Turpin really pursued international honours at light-heavyweight and therefore they aren't considered here.

    The same goes for Fitzsimmons who, along with British light-heavyweight champions Jack Petersen and Don Cockell, is instead featured on our list of the top British heavyweights.

    With those stipulations in place, here are the top 10 British light-heavyweights of all time.

    All boxers' records and statistics from BoxRec.

10. Chris Finnegan

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    Record: 29 wins, 7 defeats, 1 draw

    Years Active: 1968-1975

    Most Prestigious Title: European

    Best Win: Conny Velensek in 1972

    Highest The Ring Magazine Ranking: No. 4 Contender, end of 1971

    As noted in his Independent obituary, Chris Finnegan was the last British Olympic boxing champion of the 20th century—he won middleweight gold in 1968.

    Finnegan entered the paid ranks the same year and, with less than two years of pro experience, he unsuccessfully challenged for the European middleweight title in Denmark against local hero Tom Bogs.

    That was the last time Finnegan boxed as a middleweight, and it wasn't long before he won the British light-heavyweight title from Eddie Avoth in 1971.

    After a 1971 draw with Conny Velensek in Germany, Finnegan got the decision after 15 rounds in a return the next year in Nottingham, England, which secured him the European championship.

    Perhaps Finnegan's finest-ever performance came in defeat when he was stopped in Round 14 against the magisterial world champion Bob Foster at the back end of 1972.

    Foster had held the title since 1968 and very few challengers were able to push him the distance, but before Finnegan failed to beat the count late on, he had made it competitive enough that the contest was The Ring magazine's fight of the year for 1972.

    Finnegan then lost his British title to rising star John Conteh but he reclaimed it in his final fight against Johnny Frankham before a detached retina forced him to retire at the relatively young age of 31.

9. Chic Calderwood

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    Record: 44 wins, 9 defeats, 1 draw

    Years Active: 1957-1966

    Most Prestigious Title: British and Commonwealth

    Best Win: Willie Pastrano in 1960

    Highest The Ring Magazine Ranking: No. 2 Contender, end of 1960

    Chic Calderwood died in a car crash aged 29 just one month after contesting the world light-heavyweight title in 1966.

    As noted by the Scots Boxing Hall of Fame, he was Scotland's first and to date only holder of the British title, eclipsing the achievement of his one-time trainer Bert Gilroy.

    A heavy-handed entertainer, Calderwood was a very popular fighter north of the border, packing them in at Kelvin Hall, Paisley Ice Rink and Firhill Park.

    Calderwood notably went undefeated in his first four years as a pro, amassing a slate of 29-0 by the end of 1960 in an era when unblemished early records were much rarer than today.

    That early promise propelled the Scot toward the top of the The Ring rankings but after his first defeat in 1961, Chic struggled to put together a good run of victories together again.

    Despite that, he was eventually given a shot at world champion Jose Torres, who blew him out in two rounds in the heat of Puerto Rico.

    Calderwood beats out Finnegan because he can boast a truly world-class win over Willie Pastrano. Three years after losing to Calderwood in Glasgow, the American became world champion before he too fell to defeat at the hands of Torres.

8. Nathan Cleverly

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    Record: 26 wins, 1 defeat

    Years Active: 2005-

    Most Prestigious Title: WBO

    Best Win: Karo Murat in 2010

    Highest The Ring Magazine Ranking: No. 3 contender, end of 2013

    The only active fighter in the countdown—Nathan Cleverly hasn't fought since August when he suffered his first loss, surrendering the WBO light-heavyweight title to the fearsome puncher Sergey 'Krusher' Kovalev.

    Cleverly returns to the ring in May and, as reported by the BBC, he will do so at cruiserweight. Given the weight gain necessary for that jump, it would be very difficult for the Welshman to return to light-heavy, and we may have seen the last of him at the lower weight.

    Cleverly's legacy as a light-heavyweight will live and die with the progression of Kovalev's career. Right now, the Russian is probably considered the best at the weight and favoured to beat Canadian rival Adonis Stevenson.

    Therefore the Brit's loss to Kovalev is seen as no disgrace, and he can still be well regarded. However, if Krusher was to be be seen off by Stevenson or Bernard Hopkins, Cleverly's stock would drop in unison.

    Because's Cleverly's "world title" was probably the weakest of the four available, it is unfair to rank him ahead of historical fighters on that basic alone—they fought when there was only one world title available.

    Although he didn't face enough tough tests to truly establish himself at light-heavy, wins over Karo Murat and Tony Bellew proved "Clev" was above European level and Chris Finnegan.

    Both Cleverly and Calderwood beat two top-15 guys and there is not much between them. With the jury still out, Cleverly can have the benefit of the doubt for now.

7. Jock McAvoy

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    Record: 132 wins, 14 defeats, 1 draw

    Years Active: 1927-1942, 1945

    Most Prestigious Title: British and Commonwealth

    Best Win: Al McCoy in 1935

    Highest The Ring Magazine Ranking: No. 2 Contender, end of 1935

    You would guess that Jock McAvoy was the second Scot on the list but it's not the case. According to legend, as recorded by the Burnley Express, McAvoy, real name Joseph Bamford, chose to box under a fake name to stop his mother learning of his ring career.

    His chosen name, Jack McCoy, was mangled by a ring announcer and he became Jock McAvoy. It is not recorded as to how far into his 147-fight British middleweight and light-heavyweight championship winning career he managed to keep his mother in the dark.

    McAvoy was an incredibly tough competitor who only failed to hear the final bell once very early in his career and once very late when he had to retire with a back injury against Freddie Mills.

    He fought his great domestic rival Len Harvey four times over 60 rounds in total—they won one fight each at middleweight but with McAvoy's career winding down, Harvey took both their light-heavyweght scraps.

    McAvoy's greatest successes came when he traveled in America near the end of 1935. In his first of three fights at Madison Square Garden he outpointed top contender Al McCoy.

    Then he sensationally knocked-out Babe Risko in one round—Risko held a disputed version of the middleweight title but this was a non-title bout.

    That propelled McAvoy into a world light-heavyweight title fight against John Henry Lewis. He dropped a 15-round decision but put up a good showing against the highly respected champion.

    McAvoy comes out ahead of Calderwood and Cleverly because he managed to go on the road and win fights in the U.S., even prompting one breathless headline after the Risko bout to read—"Another Hurricane Hits Our Shores."

6. Len Harvey

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    Record: 116 wins, 14 defeats, 10 draws

    Years Active: 1920-1942

    Most Prestigious Title: British and Commonwealth

    Best Win: Jock McAvoy in 1938

    Highest The Ring Magazine Ranking: No. 3 contender, end of 1939

    As recorded by the Islington Gazette, Len Harvey won British titles in the middleweight, light-heavyweight and heavyweight divisions—a feat that would be almost unthinkable in today's era of supersized heavyweights and one that is all his own.

    Harvey recorded official bouts from the frankly shocking age of 13, having been born in 1907. By the age of 16 he had fought the then 20-round distance, and he fought to a draw in a British welterweight title bout aged 18 in 1926, one title he would not collect.

    In 1931, after a good run as British middleweight champion, Harvey went to America but lost his three bouts there by disputed decisions.

    The best name on his record is the future middleweight champion Marcel Thil, whom he beat as a young man in 1927. However, in a rematch for the title, Thil won by decision in 1932.

    Harvey enjoyed a renaissance at light-heavyweight and, like McAvoy, he went 15 rounds with John Henry Lewis in an unsuccessful challenge for the world light-heavyweight title.

    Although Harvey never quite did the business internationally, his two wins over McAvoy at the weight help him to this position in the rankings.

5. Clinton Woods

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    Record: 42 wins, 5 defeats, 1 draw

    Years Active: 1994-2009

    Most Prestigious Title: IBF

    Best Win: Glen Johnson in 2006

    Highest The Ring Magazine Ranking: No. 2 contender, end of 2007

    Clinton Woods is one of the archetypal overachievers in the sport who turned pro without fanfare or the support of a major promoter. In his own words, for much of his early career he was "just playing at boxing."

    Woods put himself on the map when he beat the longtime British and European light-heavyweight champion Crawford Ashley in 1999. After a tough defence against Ole Klemetsen, the Sheffield man got his first world-title shot.

    His opponent was the still peerless Roy Jones Jr., who stopped Woods in six before heading to heavyweight to take a belt off John Ruiz.

    In the fracturing of the divisional titles that came next, Woods fought to a draw for the vacant IBF title against Jamaican Glen Johnson. Johnson won a rematch three months later before going on to beat Jones and Antonio Tarver.

    Woods then got another shot at the vacant belt against unbeaten American puncher Rico Hoye. He scored a credible win there before beating Julio Cesar Gonzalez, the first man to best Dariusz Michalczewski.

    But it would take a third fight with Johnson to seal Woods' reputation as a credible world champion. After 36 hard rounds together, Woods took their final match by split decision, evening out the series.

    That was his last significant win, but he was competitive with Tarver and Tavoris Cloud late in his career, going the distance with both.

    With three top-level wins and a portion of the world title, Woods comes out ahead of the British champions of the 1930s.

4. Dennis Andries

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    Record: 49 wins, 14 defeats, 2 draws

    Years Active: 1978-1996

    Most Prestigious Title: WBC

    Best Win: Jeff Harding in 1990

    Highest The Ring Magazine Ranking: No. 3 Contender (Title Vacant), end of 1986

    Dennis Andries was a champion who flew under the radar—as Frank Warren recently recorded, he "used to ride the London underground anonymously, with his championship belt concealed in a brown paper bag."

    Andries, born in Guyana, moved to East London as a boy, hence his nickname—the Hackney Rock. His early career was unpromising, losing two of his first 10 fights and then his first two challenges for the British light-heavyweight title.

    Finally, in 1984, Andries beat Tom Collins for that belt before a draw with Dutchman Alex Blanchard for the European title put him in the global picture.

    The Brit beat the American champion JB Williamson for the WBC title at London's Picketts Lock Stadium in 1986, but he made only one defence at home before travelling to Detroit to defend against the weight-hopping living legend Thomas Hearns.

    Hearns stopped Andries in 10, who, as recorded in a profile in The Independent, made the decision that, if you can't beat them, join them—he stayed in Detroit to train at the Kronk gym under Manny Steward.

    He reclaimed the vacant WBC belt in 1989 before losing it to Australian icon Jeff Harding. Andries then recorded a rare feat for a British fighter, winning the title back overseas in a Melbourne rematch.

    With that achievement and six world-title wins to Clinton Woods' five, Andries pips the Sheffield man at the post.

3. Joe Calzaghe

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    Record: 46 wins out of 46

    Years Active: 1993-2008

    Most Prestigious Title: The Ring Magazine

    Best Win: Bernard Hopkins in 2008

    Highest The Ring Magazine Ranking: Champion, 2008-9

    Joe Calzaghe is undoubtedly Britain's greatest ever super-middleweight and only Andre Ward can seriously challenge him for supremacy at that weight.

    Given the relatively short history of that division, Calzaghe would have boxed as a light-heavyweight in an earlier era but, as it was, he only fought two meaningful fights at the weight at the very end of his career.

    The first of those was over Bernard Hopkins, who had beaten Antonio Tarver for divisional supremacy. As ever, Hopkins played the spoiler, making it a close, messy affair, but Calzaghe came away with the win via split decision, despite having been dropped in the opening round.

    Having fought Hopkins in Las Vegas, Calzaghe then completed his American dream by beating Roy Jones Jr at Madison Square Garden before retiring.

    As time passes, the Jones win looks less impressive but the Hopkins victory increases in magnitude with the Philadelphia fighter's remarkable longevity. Forty-three and seemingly near retirement when Calzaghe beat him, Hopkins continues to hold a portion of the light-heavyweight title aged 49.

    Although Calzaghe might have been the best British fighter to compete at light-heavy, he didn't do enough at the weight to oust the top two.

    If he had stuck around to challenge the then unbeaten Chad Dawson (the next man to beat Hopkins), he might have ranked higher on this list, but he can console himself with his super-middleweight dominance that may never be bettered.

2. Freddie Mills

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    Record: 77 wins, 18 defeats, 6 draws

    Years Active: 1936-1950

    Most Prestigious Title: World Champion

    Best Win: Gus Lesnevich in 1948

    Highest The Ring Magazine Ranking: Champion, 1948-1950

    Freddie Mills was one of the most popular British fighters of all time, drawing big crowds at venues including White Hart Lane, White City Stadium and Earls Court.

    Mills came at a rich time for the British scene, and he learned his craft against top-level domestic opposition. After two wins over Jock McAvoy, he beat Len Harvey for the British title in 1942.

    He also managed to stop the tough Scottish fighter Bert Gilroy in 1944, clearly establishing himself as the best British boxer of his era at the weight.

    In 1946, he failed in his first attempt at the world light-heavyweight title, stopped in the 10th round by American Gus Lesnevich. He did, however, put in a good enough performance to make a rematch a viable fight down the line.

    Even so, Mills lost three more times over the next year in a failed run at heavyweight, and his career looked to be fizzling out after huge early promise.

    Then Mills returned to light-heavy and regrouped, winning the vacant European title before knocking out the Spanish champion Paco Bueno in two rounds.

    This set up the return with Lesnevich in 1948 and Mills put the champion down twice in the 10th before securing the title on a points verdict.

    Mills lost his first title defence against Joey Maxim and then retired, but his supremacy over Britain's best ever domestic scene coupled with his world-title success have him right up there.

1. John Conteh

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    Record: 34 wins, 4 defeats, 1 draw

    Years Active: 1971-1980

    Most Prestigious Title: WBC

    Best Win: Jorge Victor Ahumada in 1974

    Highest The Ring Magazine Ranking: No. 1 (Title Vacant), end of 1974

    John Conteh hit his prime with the splintering of the world title. After Bob Foster retired in 1974 following a six-year title reign, there would be competing WBA and WBC title-holders for five years in which the The Ring magazine title remained vacant.

    In the last fight of Foster's reign he drew with the Argentinian Jorge Victor Ahumada and logically enough, the WBC gave Ahumada a chance at the vacant belt against Conteh in 1974.

    Conteh had established himself as the best in Europe with wins over Chris Finnegan, the German champion Rudiger Schmidtke and Denmark's Tom Bogs.

    The WBC title was contested at Empire Pool in Wembley and Conteh rose to the occasion to see off Ahumada over 15 rounds.

    Meanwhile the WBA anointed Victor Galindez its champion after he beat the inferior challenger Len Hutchins, a fighter Conteh would later stop in three.

    Thus a cold war held sway over the division because Conteh and Galindez would never meet, with both men eventually being deposed in 1978—Conteh losing a split decision in the hostile territory of Serbia against Mate Parlov.

    There is not much to choose between Calzaghe, Mills and Conteh, the three post-war Brits with solid claims to have once been the best light-heavyweight on the planet.

    Conteh wins out because of his longevity, four years at the top, even if he never quite claimed the undisputed crown due to the machinations of the WBA.