Ranking the 10 Best Counter Punchers in Boxing History
As a boxing fan, I consider the counter punch the most aesthetically satisfying act in sports. It relies on the opponent's own aggression to draw him into a perfectly set trap.
It's the heart of the sweet science. To be a great counter puncher requires exquisite reflexes and meticulously drilled timing. Feline agility doesn't hurt.
A high percentage of the best pound-for-pound stars in boxing history have been excellent counter punchers. Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson made opponents pay for trying to hit them.
The ageless Archie Moore earned his nickname, "The Old Mongoose" for the way he drew aggressive, would-be cobras to their own doom.
There have been so many great counter punchers in the history of boxing, that even a long list of honorable mentions would be incomplete.
10. Gene Tunney
Gene Tunney is one of the most overlooked and underrated champions in boxing history. "The Fighting Marine" was one of the great ring technicians of all time. He combined a terrific jab and lateral movement with tremendous counter punching.
Tunney lost just once in his career, to the legendary Harry Greb, and he won two rematches and drew with Greb in another.
Tunney's devalued status is a natural consequence of being overshadowed by the man he beat twice, Jack Dempsey. Dempsey was everything fans could want in a heavyweight champion. He was a relentless offensive destroyer with larger-than-life charisma.
But his aggressive style was made-to-order for a cool and rugged counter puncher like Tunney who also had the jab necessary to establish range. In their first meeting in 1926, Tunney beat Dempsey by unanimous decision to capture the title.
Their rematch was controversial, and came to be known as the "Long Count Fight." Tunney was again far ahead on the cards when Dempsey dropped him with a ferocious flurry in Round 7. Forgetting the new rule requiring fighters to withdraw to a neutral corner when an opponent was down, Dempsey at first continued to loom over Tunney, as was his custom when an opponent was down.
By the time the ref was able to send Dempsey back to his corner and resume the count, Tunney had gained an extra four to five seconds to recuperate, before rising at the count of nine. Still, in the grainy footage of the fight I've often seen, Tunney does look as if he could have risen earlier, if the ref's count had required it.
Tunney survived the round and dropped Dempsey hard in the eighth with a beautiful short-right counter. He went on to win another unanimous decision to retain his title.
9. Juan Manuel Marquez
Juan Manuel Marquez is arguably the greatest Mexican boxer of all time and one of the legends of his generation. His four-fight series with Manny Pacquiao has been the most important boxing rivalry of this century and there is a good chance a fifth chapter will be added later this year.
Marquez's ability to become the explosive Pacquiao's toughest opponent has everything to do with his outstanding counter punching. In their 42 rounds together, Marquez has at times shown a masterful ability to disrupt Pacquiao's flurries and exploit his aggression.
In their last meeting, in December of 2012, Marquez caught Pacquiao with one of the great counter punches of all time, putting the Filipino great to sleep with a short right hand.
8. Willie Pep
Willie Pep was a ring magician and a half century after he retired, his name still comes up quickly during any well-informed conversation about the greatest defensive boxers of all time. He is universally regarded as one of the top two or three featherweights of all time.
Defense was Pep's forte. Few fighters in the sport's history have been better at making an opponent miss.
There is a famous story about Pep winning a round once without throwing a single punch. The story is reported by Burt Sugar as factual in his Ultimate Book of Boxing Lists.
But most of the time, Pep used his tremendous movement to continually re-set and then sting his opponents with counters. He was one of the great ring generals, extremely adept at grabbing the ideal terrain for a counter attack.
7. Floyd Mayweather
One of the primary reasons Marcos Maidana was able to make his fight earlier this month with Floyd Mayweather close enough to argue over is that the wild Argentinian managed to disrupt Mayweather's ability to counter punch during much of the fight. Maidana used a good jab and erratic angles to largely remove Mayweather's greatest weapon.
It puts him in rare company, because the vast majority of the time over his career, opponents have found it impossible to avoid Mayweather's clever, jolting counters. In recent years, Mayweather has used his countering ability to slow down talented pressure fighters like Miguel Cotto, Saul Alvarez and Robert Guerrero.
Fighting at lower weights as a young man, Mayweather's counter punching allowed him to devastate fierce, come-forward fighters like Diego Corrales and Arturo Gatti.
6. James Toney
One of the most colorful, outspoken fighters of his generation, Toney has been a murderous counter puncher, from middleweight all the way up to heavyweight. His ability to roll or slip away from punches while remaining perfectly positioned for dangerous return shots kept him a feared fighter, even as his waistline expanded.
If Toney had remained at 168 pounds, there's a strong chance he would have earned status as the best super middleweight of all time. I think an argument can be made for him as a top-five cruiserweight, despite 200 pounds being well above his ideal size.
Even as a fat, under-sized heavy, Toney's exquisite counter punching made him one of the division's most dangerous wild cards.
5. Joe Gans
Nicknamed "The Old Master" by his peers, Joe Gans was the first African-American world champion, holding the lightweight belt for most of the first decade of the 20th century. He is almost certainly one of the top three lightweights of all time and reasonable arguments can be made for him ranking in the top five to 10 as an all-time, pound-for-pound fighter.
In the era Gans fought, boxing was much more of a barnstorming adventure, and Gans would often fight multiple times a week, against opponents all the way up to heavyweight. Minimizing the damage sustained while maximizing the damage inflicted was essential for an elite fighter of this time.
Gans was very much a pioneer of counter punching and was an early master of what has developed into the "American style" of using slips, parries and shoulder rolls to avoid punches while staying in range to strike back.
4. Benny Leonard
Benny Leonard was born Benjamin Leiner on New York's Lower East Side before the turn of the 20th Century. A self-described "Mama's Boy," he took up the ring name "Leonard' when he started fighting at 15, in order to keep his new career hidden from his parents.
He would go onto become one of the all-time great lightweights and pound-for-pound stars. Nicknamed "The Ghetto Wizard," Leonard was one of the top technicians to ever step in the ring. He was a smooth, poised fighter who countered with powerful punches.
Leonard retired in 1925 as the dominant lightweight champion. However, like many Americans, he was badly hurt financially by the 1929 crash and attempted a comeback in 1931, winning 20 straight fights before being knocked out in his last bout.
3. Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali was a decent-sized heavyweight for his era, but he moved with the speed of a middleweight. He had great lateral movement and a blazing, stiff jab, but his otherworldly agility and speed allowed him to fight in an unorthodox manner which gave his counter punching an element of true surprise.
Ali would harry and frustrate opponents and draw them aggressively forward, only to lean out of the way and make them pay dearly for lunging.
Later in his career, when he had slowed down a step or two, Ali adopted his "rope-a-dope" style and took his countering abilities to the next level. Drawing his opponents forward to attack him along the ropes or in a corner, he would roll, bob and block barrages while waiting for the space to open for his counter attacks.
2. Sugar Ray Robinson
Sugar Ray Robinson was famous for telling people, "Rhythm is everything in boxing." His night club in Harlem was among the most important jazz venues of the era. And in the ring, Robinson improvised with the same artistry as Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillepsie on the bandstand.
Robinson is universally regarded as the greatest pound-for-pound boxer of all time, and with justification. He could do just about anything in the boxing ring. His ability to slip, evade and pivot combined with his two-fisted punching power to make him a brutally effective counter puncher.
Robinson could certainly walk an opponent down and chop them in half. But he was every bit as dangerous when he laid back and drew his opponent forward.
1. Archie Moore
In a career that stretched from 1935 until 1963, Archie Moore fought the best in the world from middleweight all the way to heavyweight. He is arguably the greatest light heavyweight of all time. For what it's worth, Boxrec ranks him first all time in their pound-for-pound rankings.
Moore's nickname, "The Old Mongoose," perfectly summed up his dangerous ability as a counter puncher. Moore used a shoulder roll and a cross-arm guard to make himself nearly impregnable defensively. And just as the mongoose draws the cobra forward, to its own doom, Moore would lead his opponents into perfect position for his dangerous power shots.
In his career, Moore knocked out 131 opponents, the largest known total for any professional boxer.