Ranking the 10 Most Controversial Fighters in Boxing History

Briggs SeekinsFeatured ColumnistMay 9, 2014

Ranking the 10 Most Controversial Fighters in Boxing History

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    Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

    In a sport such as prizefighting, personalities sell tickets. So controversy, within reason, is a good thing.

    Floyd Mayweather generates nearly as much revenue from people who want to see him lose as he does from fans who love him.

    When Muhammad Ali faced Joe Frazier the first time, they billed it as "The Fight of the Century." The way that fight's narratives blended with the great political controversies of the day was a major driver for making it so huge.

    When controversy goes too far, it can risk turning off fans or even making the sport less legitimate. But it's a fine line promoters are generally willing to tread.

    Here we take a look at 10 of boxing's most controversial fighters.

10. Naseem Hamed

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    Like most controversial fighters, Naseem Hamed inspired wildly divergent opinions. To some, he is an all-time great. To others, an insufferable showboat and fraud, exposed by Marco Antonio Barrera.

    The truth falls somewhere in the middle. Hamed was an extremely agile and explosive puncher. He did things in the ring nobody had ever seen, and it made him one of the biggest boxing stars of the 1990s. 

    Hamed held versions of the featherweight title throughout the decade and fought and won more than a dozen world title fights. His Round 4 KO of Kevin Kelly is just one fight that demonstrated he was a legitimate world-class talent. 

    However, his loss to Barrera showed he was something less than truly elite. 

9. Primo Carnera

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    Primo Carnera was a giant by the standards of his era and considered a freak-show diversion during the early years of his career.

    Nicknamed "The Ambling Alp" due to both his size and his slow-moving style, he shocked the world in 1933 by knocking out Jack Sharkey to become the World Heavyweight Champion. 

    As Carnera's entry on Boxrec shows, there seems to have been little debate over whether or not Carnera was a "mob-controlled" fighter. The former circus strongman from Italy clearly advanced in the early days of his career through fixed fights.

    The legitimacy of Carnera's world-title win over Jack Sharkey remains debated to this day. In his book The Heavyweight Championship, Nat Fleischer notes only that Sharkey's corner complained of a loaded glove after their man was counted out in the sixth round, after being way ahead on the cards. 

    Fleischer is one of the most important boxing writers of the 20th century, but he'd also be very slow to call "fix" without overwhelming evidence. He does note in general that Carnera was a personality easily manipulated by unscrupulous handlers.

    Given the drubbings Carnera later received against Max Baer and Joe Louis, I definitely view his win over a champion like Sharkey as one of the bigger upsets in the division's history—at the very least. 

8. Abe Attell

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    Abe Attell is one of the greatest featherweight champions in the sport's history. There's no controversy about that. In their Ultimate Book of Boxing Lists, Bert Sugar rates Attell second all time and Teddy Atlas places him third. 

    Attell came up through the streets of San Francisco during its rough-and-tumble years in the early part of the 20th century, when the city was a hotbed for boxing. Attell was an undersized Jewish kid in an Irish neighborhood, but he developed into a skilled fighter who was competing as a professional by his teen years.

    Attell was a dominant champion, knocking out more than 50 opponents in his career. But along the way, he developed a relationship with notorious organized crime boss Arnold Rothstein, which led to him becoming a major figure in the 1919 Black Sox affair, the biggest sports scandal of the 20th century.

    Attell was indicted, along with the White Sox players accused of throwing the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Although Attell managed to get himself acquitted in court, nobody who has seriously investigated the event has any doubt about his involvement in organizing the players and serving as Rothstein's "bag man," bringing them payments.  

7. Jake LaMotta

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    Jake LaMotta was one of the most popular fighters of all time and one of the sport's true greats. He was pound-for-pound king Sugar Ray Robinson's toughest opponent during Robinson's prime. 

    He was one of the most hard-nosed, relentless fighters in the sport. Yet, near the height of his career, he became involved in one of the sport's most famous fight-fixing scandals after improbably dropping a Round 4 TKO to Billy Fox.

    The Boxrec entry on this fight gives a good summary of contemporary reporting. The week of the fight, rumors were already circulating that the fix was on. When the Bronx Bull showed none of his usual fire and lost by stoppage for the first time in his career, cries of "fix" were immediate.

    Years later LaMotta confessed throwing the fight to a Senate inquiry, saying he had done it in exchange for being granted a world-title shot at a later date. Throughout the 1950s, Mafia control of boxing was rampant.

    LaMotta's life was full of tumultuous episodes, which later provided the basis for the best boxing movie ever made, Raging Bull, starring Robert De Niro.  

6. Floyd Mayweather

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    So much of Floyd Mayweather's controversial persona is deliberate marketing. He's become a fabulously wealthy man while still young, in part because so many people around the world are willing to pay money for even the possibility of seeing him get beaten up.

    But the current pound-for-pound king's life has certainly been marked by legitimate controversy. As recently as 2012, he spent several months in prison for domestic assault. Last winter he was accused of ordering the kidnapping and vicious assaults of two former employees he suspected of stealing from him. That case remains unresolved.

    Ultimately, the controversy that truly influences Mayweather's legacy might be his inability to reach terms on a fight with his biggest would-be rival, Manny Pacquiao.

5. Ike Ibeabuchi

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    Only the fact that his career ended before he made it to the top prevented Ike Ibeabuchi from ranking higher on this list. As it is, his life degenerated into a frightening exercise in violent insanity well before his career came crashing to a halt. 

    There was a lot of money to be made off a fighter such as Ibeabuchi, and it's a sad testament to the realities of the sport that people were attempting to market him right to the bitter end.

    Ibeabuchi was one of the most exciting heavyweights of the past 30 years. His 12-round war with David Tua set the record for punches thrown in a heavyweight bout.

    Fan interest was so substantial following that win that people around him were willing to look the other way and humor him when he manifested clear signs of insanity. Even when he kidnapped a girlfriend's 15-year-old son and eluded police, promoters remained interested in getting him fights.

    It wasn't until he had assaulted a second woman in a Las Vegas hotel in 1999 that he was finally sent to prison, ending his career at a perfect 20-0 with 15 KOs.  

4. Ricardo Mayorga

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    Junior middleweight Ricardo Mayorga earned the nickname "The Craziest Man in Boxing" just as surely as other fighters earn championship belts.

    Known for belligerently and creatively insulting his opponents, as well as frequently chain-smoking his way through press conferences, he is a unique character in a sport where unique characters tend to be the norm.

    The video included here is one of my favorite Mayorga performances, from his press conference with Fernando Vargas. With a Plexiglas barrier separating them, Mayorga precedes to call Vargas "that fat girl I'm going to beat up" and promises to turn the entire country of Mexico against him.

    Mayorga's work for the media often seems like it might fit in better in professional wrestling. But I doubt he would have enjoyed pretend fights as much as he loved taking part in real ones.

3. Mike Tyson

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    Mike Tyson has given the appearance of mellowing in recent years. His one-man show has allowed him to present his complicated and tumultuous life in his own words.

    He's even launched his own promotional company. I attended his inaugural card last summer, and he seemed to thrive on being out among the fans. I think he shook hands with and took pictures with 75 percent of the people in attendance.

    But in an earlier era, Tyson was flat-out scary. He burst on the scene as a teenager, just a few years removed from juvenile detention. At the height of his fame in his early 20s, his career unraveled quickly.

    Shortly after losing to Buster Douglas in one of the sport's most famous upsets in 1990, he was arrested for rape and ended up serving three years in federal prison. Released in the mid-1990s, he managed to briefly hold a portion of the heavyweight title but was never again the same fighter he had been.

    "Highlights" of his post-prison career include biting Evander Holyfield's ear and the outburst featured in the not-safe-for-work video linked here.

2. Jack Johnson

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    A big part of Jack Johnson's controversy was the result of the racist era he fought in. At the turn of the last century, many white Americans weren't ready to see a black man hold the title of the toughest man in the world.

    And Johnson did everything he could to provoke their racist anxiety. He pummeled and taunted Tommy Burns during the fight that made him champion. He dated white women and even married one, at a time when such marriages were still illegal in a number of states.

    A legal witch hunt eventually drove Johnson into exile in France. Explosively fast and athletic for a man his size, Johnson was very much a fighter ahead of his time.

    As a public figure, he was even further ahead of his time, and sadly it cost him more than it would have in a more just world.

1. Muhammad Ali

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    Today Muhammad Ali is among the most beloved public figures in America. But during one of the most divided eras in U.S. history, Ali was an emblem of the social controversies pulling the nation apart.

    Nicknamed "The Louisville Lip," Ali was always an outspoken fighter, colorful and cocky. He drew fans in the same way Floyd Mayweather does today. Some fans came out to cheer for him, but a lot came out hoping to see him get knocked flat.

    When Ali joined the Nation of Islam during the Civil Rights era, it only added to his controversial persona.

    Then, at the height of his powers as a fighter, Ali risked everything to defy the United States government by refusing to be drafted into a war he morally opposed. He was stripped of his boxing titles and denied a license to fight.

    He was very nearly sent to prison, and eventually his case reached the Supreme Court. By taking a stand against the Vietnam War, Ali became a figure who transcended sports and impacted the entire culture.