Ranking the Best Cuban Fighters in Boxing History

Briggs Seekins@BriggsfighttalkFeatured ColumnistJune 27, 2014

Ranking the Best Cuban Fighters in Boxing History

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    Cuba has one of the richest boxing histories on the planet. Fighters such as Kid Gavilan and Jose Napoles were major stars of their era.

    Yet, compiling a ranking for Cuban fighters is more complicated than for most other countries. Since Fidel Castro's Communist government took power in the early 1960s, it's been impossible for boxers from the nation to compete as professionals without fleeing into exile.

    That makes it tough to define the standing of a fighter such as heavyweight Olympic star Teofilo Stevenson. Stevenson is the biggest sports hero in the nation's history, with a status in Cuba something like Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan combined.

    Yet, he never fought a single bout as a professional.

    But complicated or not, the Cuban's boxing past is glorious. When Yuriorkis Gamboa challenges Terence Crawford in Nebraska this weekend, he will carry a proud banner into the ring.

10. Guillermo Rigondeaux

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    Guillermo Rigondeaux is a potentially controversial inclusion here. He has just 13 professional fights on his resume.

    Yet, given the circumstances of Cuban history, Rigo's amateur career has to be factored in as well. He is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, and his name appears in most discussions about the greatest amateur boxers of all time.

    As a professional, his rapid advance has been nearly unprecedented. In just his 12th professional fight, he handed Nonito Donaire, one of the great professionals of this generation, a boxing lesson.

    On the eyeball test, as well, it's clear that Rigondeaux is a rare talent.

9. Teofilo Stevenson

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    Although Teofilo Stevenson never fought as a professional, his tremendous amateur record deserves mentioning. It would be misleading to write about Cuban boxing without mentioning him.

    Stevenson dominated heavyweight amateur boxing in unprecedented fashion from the early 1970s to the early 1980s, winning Olympic gold in 1972, 1976 and 1980.

    This was an era when amateur boxing was far more competitive, as the many great Soviet Bloc fighters from Eastern Europe and Central Asia also rejected the professional game and U.S. fighters considered Olympic glory an ideal segue into a professional career.

    Stevenson was offered huge paydays to defect and challenge Ali and the other professional stars of the late 1970s. However, he was a believer in the revolution and rejected the contracts, asking rhetorically at one point: "What's a million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?" 

8. Kid Tunero

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    Middleweight Kid Tunero never fought for a world title, but he was a top fighter in the division during the incredibly competitive 1930s and 1940s, when fighters without the right connections often went begging for opportunities, regardless of talent.

    Tunero had a great rivalry with Holman Williams, another legend of the era who never got his rightful shot. Tunero beat the technical wizard once. He also recorded a win over light heavyweight and heavyweight champion Ezzard Charles.

    Tunero retired to Spain and later trained exiled fighters such as Jose Legra. For his career, Tunero was 96-32-16 with 34 KOs.

7. Benny "Kid" Paret

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    Benny Paret was the victim of one of boxing's most famous tragedies, dying in the ring against Emile Griffith while defending his welterweight title in March 1962. He was just 25.

    Like so many boxing tragedies, Paret's own toughness and tenacity contributed to his downfall. In April 1961 he dropped the welterweight title to Griffith by Round 13 KO, suffering terrible punishment in the process. In September he won the belt back by split decision in a bruising rematch.

    Then, just two months later, Paret climbed up to middleweight to face world champion Gene Fullmer. He was knocked out by the bigger man in devastating fashion in Round 10, already down on the judges' cards.

    Still, just three months later, Paret defended his welterweight crown in a third fight with Griffith. He was nearly knocked out but saved by the bell in Round 6. There was serious animosity between Paret and Griffith, and the entire fight was a give-and-take war.

    In Round 12 Griffith trapped Paret in the corner and unloaded on him with one of the most brutal finishes in the sport's history, landing 29 unanswered punches and 18 in six seconds. The referee was woefully slow to step in and protect Paret.

    Paret fell into a coma at the conclusion of the fight and never woke up.

6. Jose Legra

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    A two-time featherweight champion with outstanding speed, Jose Legra was known as "The Pocket Cassius Clay." An early exile from Fidel Castro's revolution, Legra fought out of Spain and built his reputation on the European circuit.

    Legra had wins over such notables as Ernesto Miranda, Clemente Sanchez and Howard Winstone. He lost decisions to Vicente Saldivar and Eder Jofre and was stopped in his final fight by a young Alexis Arguello.

    For his career, Legra was 133-11-4 with 50 KOs.

5. Sugar Ramos

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    At the start of his professional career in 1960, Sugar Ramos fled to Mexico in the wake of Fidel Castro's revolution. The hard-punching featherweight became a national hero in his adopted country.

    In March 1963 Ramos captured the featherweight world title when he knocked out Davey Moore in Dodger Stadium. In a tragic moment, Moore's head bounced off the bottom ring rope, and he died from whiplash to the brainstem.

    Ramos dropped the belt in September 1964 to Vicente Saldivar and never got a chance to fight for the featherweight title again. He did challenge Carlos Ortiz for the lightweight crown twice, losing by controversial stoppage in the first bout and by stoppage again in the rematch.

    For his career, Ramos was 55-7-4 with 40 KOs.

4. Kid Chocolate

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    Born Eligio Sardinas Montalvo, Kid Chocolate is credited as Cuba's first boxing world champion, having won the junior lightweight title in 1931. However, this was decades before the half weight classes were truly established institutionally.

    Still, Kid Chocolate was a legendary fighter of the 1930s. He taught himself to box by watching films and had already sparred with greats Benny Leonard and Jack Johnson before he even started his amateur career.

    Probably no fighter has had his ring name stolen more often than the original Kid Chocolate, a tradition that continues today with WBO middleweight champion Peter "Kid Chocolate" Quillin.

    Kid Chocolate's career record was 135-10-6 with 51 KOs.

3. Luis Manuel Rodriguez

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    Luis Manuel Rodriguez held the welterweight world title for a very brief time in the early 1960s and has been largely obscured by the man he won it from and lost it to, Emile Griffith, who beat him in three of four meetings. But Griffith was among the great pound-for-pound stars of the decade, an elite champion at both welterweight and middleweight. And he surely regarded Rodriguez as one of his toughest opponents.

    Rodriguez also challenged for the middleweight title in 1969 against Nino Benvenuti in Italy. In a fight that Rodriguez was winning, he got caught by a big shot and was knocked out in Round 11.

    Among the great welterweight and middleweight stars Rodriguez beat were Rubin Carter, Bennie Briscoe and George Benton. His career record was 107-13 with 49 KOs.

2. Kid Gavilan

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    Known as The Cuban Hawk, Kid Gavilan was among the great welterweight stars of the late 1940s and early 1950s, an era filled with tremendous talent at 147 pounds.

    Gavilan lost twice to Sugar Ray Robinson by decision, but when Robinson dropped his welterweight belt to move up to middleweight in 1951, Gavilan captured the vacant title by beating John Bratton. He successfully defended it against Hall of Famers Carmen Basilio and Carl "Bobo" Olsen.

    Gavilan lost the belt in October 1954 to Johnny Saxton in one of the most controversial decisions of a controversial era. Saxton was known to be a mob-backed fighter. The Calgary Herald's Murray Rose reported at the time that 20 of 22 ringside writers scored the fight for Gavilan, but the judges gave the decision and the belt to Saxton (h/t BoxRec).

    Gavilan's career record was 108-20-5 with 28 KOs.

1. Jose Napoles

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    Jose Napoles turned professional in Cuba in 1958 but fled to Mexico following the Communist revolution of 1960. The slick Napoloes, nicknamed "Butter," would go on to become a major star in his adopted country.

    Napoles was a star throughout the 1960s, but his big breakthrough year was 1969. In April of that year, he captured the welterweight title by stopping Curtis Cokes. Two months later he stopped Cokes again in a rematch. He finished the year by defeating former champion Emile Griffith, earning The Ring's award for 1969's Fighter of the Year.

    Napoles would reign as undisputed welterweight champ for most of the next six years. In December 1970 he lost the belt in Syracuse, New York, when he was stopped in four rounds on cuts by Carmen Basilio's nephew, Billy Backus, but he took back the belt six months later in a rematch by Round 8 stoppage.

    Napoles' only other loss during the time he reigned as champion came when he moved up to middleweight for one fight to challenge the ferocious Carlos Monzon.

    During Napoles' great run, he was a major attraction at the Forum boxing mecca in Inglewood, California. For his career, he was 81-7 with 54 KOs.