I recently read an article on this site which rated the five greatest fighters of all time according to standards that differ somewhat from traditional ideas.
The biggest difference was that such things as popularity, social significance, and meaning to the sport counted as much if not more than skill, physical ability, and ring accomplishment.
I have already rated my top 10 pound for pound in another article, but I thought it would be fun to rate the five most important fighters of all time, so here are my picks:
5. Manny Pacquiao
In an era of over commercialization, fading spotlight, and encroachment from MMA, Manny Pacquiao gives us all hope. The most exciting fighter since Dempsey, Pac Man has captivated the entire sport.
You will be hard-pressed to find a fan who doesn’t like Pacquiao (aside from perhaps the Mexican fanbase who have had the displeasure of watching one national hero after another fall to the Filipino dynamo). Today, Manny Pacquiao is simply the reason to love boxing.
4. Sugar Ray Robinson
Pound for pound, Sugar was the greatest who ever lived. In boxing’s golden era he was one of the most visible and famous fighters.
His ring accomplishments are too great to number here. Suffice it to say that for 10 years he was a top draw in the sport and inspired a generation to put on the gloves (including a loudmouth kid from Louisville named Cassius Clay).
3. Muhammad Ali
Ali’s initial reign was a full 10 years after the end of boxing’s golden era, and at that time he was exactly what the sport needed.
After Marciano retired he was succeeded by three champions of lesser ability who did nothing to stimulate interest in the sport. In 1964, boxing’s prayers were answered when Cassius Clay forced Sonny Liston to quit on his stool and the most flamboyant, crazy, and entertaining championship in the sport was launched.
Ali was soundly hated by most of America in the 1960s before earning the love and respect he deserved in the 1970s. But love him or hate him, for 15 years no one packed them in and inspired new generations like Ali.
2. Joe Louis
Between 1928 and 1937 there were five heavyweight champions that have been best described as “Send in the Clowns.” By 1935, boxing was in dire straits. The depression had lessened gates and the lack of a great champion to lead the sport was telling.
In 1935, a young black man from Detroit burst onto the national scene by knocking out Primo Carnera, thus ushering in the golden age of boxing. Louis soon became the first black champion since Jack Johnson, and also became an ambassador of the culture, carrying himself with respect, courtesy, and, most of all, dignity.
Louis may have had to play an Uncle Tom to get his shot, but in so doing he not only broke the colored line, but shattered it. With Louis’ ascension, the term “great white hope” became nothing more than a monetary dream.
His contributions to America during WWII also make him a social force and cultural hero of almost unparalleled magnitude. Simply put, Joe Louis saved boxing and became the single most important black athlete in the 20th century. Without Louis there would never have been a Jackie Robinson or a Muhammad Ali.
1. Jack Dempsey
Within the context of his era, Dempsey was the most popular athlete in American history. He routinely captured four column headlines on the front page of newspapers across the country and packed hundreds of thousands into stadiums to see him.
Nothing short of a folk hero and cultural icon, Dempsey proved how big boxing could be. He also came along at a precarious time in boxing’s history. For the first two decades of the 20th century the legality of boxing was questionable at best and it was not uncommon to see boxers jailed for being part of the illicit activity.
Dempsey’s popularity, and earning potential, helped persuade the New York State Athletic commission to adopt the revised Marquees of Queensberry rules and make boxing legal once and for all. Dempsey and his national appeal saved the sport, and without him it may not exist today.
Well there they are, my five most important in the history of the sport. Agree or disagree all you want. After all, lists like these are meant to spark discussion.