Bernard Hopkins: One of the dominant middleweight champions of all time
Many of boxing's all time greatest pound-for-pound fighters spent significant time in their careers fighting in the middleweight division. Given the relatively high percentage of the male population that fits the middleweight frame (with strict training and dieting), it shouldn't be surprising that the talent pool at 160 pounds has been so deep over the years.
The heavyweight division will always be the larger than life glamor class (well, it would be if somebody would show heavyweight championship fights in the USA) and the smaller fighters often thrill us with blurring speed and relentless action. But boxing fans know that some of the most electrifying combinations of speed, athleticism and power happen in the middle.
Lists like these are intended to stimulate debate, so please use the comment section to let me know anybody you think I left out or anybody who should be ranked differently within.
I do not currently rank the WBA and Ring Magazine middleweight champion Sergio Martinez in the top 25 of all time.
Some may see this as an oversight. I actually think in two-to-three years it will very likely appear as one. Martinez's spectacular, highlight reel for the ages knock out of Paul Williams gives him a strong flavor of the month appeal.
But he did not fight top competition for much of his career. He has a loss to Paul Williams (though I think he won) and a draw with the less than all time great Kermit Cintron (which, again, he maybe should have won).
At a youthful 36 he is still very much a work in progress and should end up higher on a list like this eventually. Ring currently has him No. 3 on the active pound-for-pound list and that sounds about right to me. Come on, powers-that-be in boxing, let's get this guy a high profile fight!
I'll add one thing to argue on behalf of Sergio Martinez—he's the only active boxer who made the trip to Canastota to participate in the Parade of Champions at the recent Hall of Fame Induction Weekend festivities.
In the early 1990's Michael "Second to" Nunn was near the top of the boxing food chain, with Hollywood celebrities shelling out for front row seats to his fights. Today he's doing a 20+ year piece in Levenworth, Kansas for distributing cocaine.
Nunn was an Iowa State golden gloves champion and had a prolific amateur career, winning 168 bouts. He intended to tryout for the 1984 Olympic team at 160 pounds, but was convinced to move up in weight to make way for Frankie Tate. Nunn lost on close decisions to Virgil Hill in the trials at 168.
After turning professional, Nunn won over 30 fights in a row before meeting his former amateur nemesis, Tate, for the IBF middleweight title. Nunn won by ninth-round KO.
Nunn made several successful defenses of the crown, including a sensational first round knockout of Sumbu Kalambay, convincing decision wins over Iran Barkley and Marlon Starling and a 10th round KO over Donald Curry. He lost the title on what was then considered a big upset to James Toney.
Overall Michael Nunn's career record was a very impressive 58(37)-4-1.
If this was a top 25 list for 154 pound fighter, Mike "the Body Snatcher" McCallum would be near the very top of the list. As it was, he made a definite impact at middleweight in the years after Marvin Hagler retired and Sugar Ray Leanord hop-skip-and-jumped his way up to super middleweight.
One of the great body punchers of all time, McCallum was undefeated at junior middleweight, but lost his first bout at 160 pounds by decision to Sumbu Kalambay. He then won 10 straight fights at 160 pounds and the WBA version of the world championship before drawing with James Toney.
He lost a rematch to Toney. He also lost to Toney years later when the two met at cruiserweight.
McCallum fought with some success at light heavyweight, as well, holding a belt there before losing to Fabrice Tiozzo. He also lost at 175 to Roy Jones Jr. Overall, McCallum's career record was 49(36)-5-1.
Holman Williams was an old-school fighter known for his slickness and a willingness to fight anyone, anywhere. He is probably most well known with his rivalry with the rugged Charley Burley. The two met five times with Williams going 1-3-1 in their match ups.
Williams was a fairly light hitter, with only 36 of his 146 professional wins coming by knock out. He lost 30 fights, but most of the losses came late in a very active career. He also had 11 hard fought draws.
James Toney has closed out his career by fighting, and beating, many of the top heavyweights in the world. He even smack-talked his way into collecting a big paycheck from Dana White and the UFC. In a sense, James Toney is a throw-back to the oldtime traveling carnival, tougher-than-nails school that hardly even exists anymore, save for James Toney.
Make no mistake—Dana White gave Toney that opportunity to get choked out for one reason and one reason only: Because Dana White is a boxing guy and he knows that Tony is a legit all time great. I personally believe that if Tony had spent his entire career fighting at middleweight, he would have ended up even higher on this list.
Toney won the IBF middleweight championship when he knocked out Michael Nunn in round 11 with a vicious body punch after trailing Nunn for the entire fight. His reign at 160 featured a win over Reggie Johnson and a draw and a win over Mike McCallum.
After beating McCallum in their second fight, Toney jumped up to super middleweight and has been climbing ever since. Toney never lost at 160 pounds. Overall his career record is 73(44)-6-3. He has never been knocked out.
This Jack Dempsey is not to be confused with the famous heavyweight Jack Dempsey. The Nonpariel was a middleweight fighter who was active before the turn of the 20th century, often fighting and beating larger boxers, often contesting bouts under the brutual and grueling, pre-gloved and pre-Queensbury rules.
Incidentally, his nickname has nothing to do with the movie theater candy. Nonpariel is from the French, roughly meaning "without peer or equal." In otherwords, many fight observers of the day considered Dempsy without equal.
As an aside: Somebody apparently wants us to believe those vaguely chocolate discs sprinked with shallacked sugar crystals are a treat without equal.
Fighters like The Nonpariel are hard to rank on this list. No film exists and there's not even a really reliable record to measure them with against on Boxrec, like we have in the modern era. Still, he was the man (or one of them) when the men were especially manly.
In the cartoon sketch above (probably originally from The Police Gazette) Dempsey is actually the one getting socked, by Bob FItzsimmons, who appears later. He official career record was 49(23)-5-11.
Valdez was a native of Columbia and trained by Gil Clancy. During the 1970's he engaged in a rivalry with fellow South American Carlos Monzon that is considered among the best in the sport's history.
The two fought twice for the undisputed Middleweight Championship of the World, with Valdez dropping two very close decisions to the all-time great from Argentina.
Valdez won the vacant world title after Monzon retired, by beating Bennie Briscoe. His career record was 63(42)-8-2.
Charley Burley was one of the top pound for pound fighters of the 1940's and many boxing historians consider him the greatest to never win a title and also the most strenuously avoided fighter of all time.
During his career he beat three future world champions in three different weight classes but was never given his own shot at the belt. The boxers accused of ducking him comprise a veritable who's who of the era. Billy Conn, Jake Lamotta, Marcel Cerdan, even Sugar Ray Robinson all were rumored to have avoided the rugged Pittsburgh native.
Burley was so tough he once fought future heavyweight champion Ezzard Charles twice in five weeks time (dropping two 10-round decisions) with a bout against fellow Hall-of-Famer Holman Williams sandwiched in between.
Burley was one of the most dangerous counter-punchers of all time, with an uncanny ability to judge and control distance. No less a boxing luminary than Eddie Futch called him the finest all-around boxer he ever saw and bemoaned the fact that Burley never got the chance to win a title and receive the greater notoriety he deserved.
For his career Burley posted a record of 83(50)-12-2 and was never knocked out
A native of Utah, Gene Fullmer was Sugar Ray Robinson's last great rival. Fullmer originally captured the middleweight title by upsetting the all time pound-for-pound king. In their first rematch Robinson KO'd Fullmer with one of the great left hooks in the sport's history. Their third fight was a draw.
Fullmer later reclaimed the vacant middleweight belt by TKOing former champion Carmen Basilio in the 14th round of a bout that Ring Magazine named 1959's "Fight of the Year."
During his second title reign, one of Fullmer's most notabe encounters was a wild, brawing draw against Joey Giardello in Bozeman, Montana. The fight is considered one of the dirtiest in modern memory. Both combatants fouled repeatedly and the referee is said to have adopted a very hands-off approach by the middle rounds.
Fullmer dropped the title to Dick Tiger, then fought the Nigerian to a drawn in their return bout. Fullmer lost their rubber match when his manager asked for the fight to be stopped after the seventh round. It was Fullmer's last fight.
Rocky Graziano had a rough and violent childhood in New York's Little Italy. When still a toddler his club fighter father woud force him to entertain the washed up pugs who hung around the gym by engaging in brutal sparring matches with his brother, who was older by three years.
In his youth and early adulthood he spent time in reform schools and jails. From these beginnings he went on to become not just a world champion, but also a cross-over star who hosted television shows and co-starred with Frank Sinatra in films. His memoir, Someone Up There Likes Me, was made into a film starring Paul Newman. Graziano even dabbled in painting during his post-boxing years.
In the ring Graziano was most well known for his legendary rivalry with Tony Zale. In their first encounter Zale floored Graziano in the opening round. Graziano got up, took control of the fight and looked to have Zale on the brink of a TKO when Zale turned things around and knocked out Graziano.
In their return match Graziano was cut badly above the eye and was in danger of being stopped when he rallied to knock Zale out and win the Middleweight Championship of the World. In their third fight Zale once again won by knockout.
Nicknamed "Man of Steel," Tony Zale is most remembered for his storied rivalry with Rocky Graziano, mentioned in the previous slide.
Zale was a two-time Middleweight Champion of the World and held the belt for a substantial chunk of the 1940's. He dropped the title to Marcel Cerdan in 1948. His career record was 67(45)-18-2.
Joey Giardello was a hard knock fighter in the manner of the previously mentioned Charley Burley. He was too good for his own good and nobody was particularly interested in fighting him for a lot of years in his career.
Giardello was a classic case of an old-time pro who learned his craft on the job. He piled up a few losses throughout the years as he worked his way up in competition, but by the time he hit his stride at the world class level he was a polished slugger and represented problems for any 160 pound fighter in the world.
After going 1-1 against Dick Tiger, Giardello got his first shot at a title in 1960, when he brawled to a draw with Gene Fullmer in Bozeman, Montana. The two got into an altercation outside the ring after the fight and Giardello was reported to still feel bitterness over the event years later.
In 1963 Giardello upset the aging but still formidable Sugar Ray Robinson. He then finally captured the elusive world title by besting Dick Tiger in their third bout. Giardello would hold the belt over two years before losing it to Tiger in their fourth and final encounter.
Giardello had a very successful post boxing career in business. He was also widely recognized for his work to help developmentally disabled people. Giardello himself had a son with Down's Syndrome.
My favorite fact about Giardello is that he sued the producers of the movie "The Hurricane" for inaccurately portraying his unanimous decision victory over Rubin Carter as a crooked decision. The vast majority of boxing experts who have seen the fight agree that it was a close and well contested bout, but that Giardello was the clear-cut winner.
Marcel Cerdan is considered by most boxing experts to be the greatest boxer to ever come out of France. He was a dominant European champion at both welter and middleweight in an era when holding a Continental title was viewed as a significant stepping-stone to a shot at the World title.
Cerdan knocked out Tony Zale in 12 to win the world middleweight championship in September of 1948. He lost the title to Jake Lamotta when he separated his shoulder in the first round and was unable to continue past the 10th. He tragically died in a plane crash before the two could meet for a rematch.
Marcel Cerdan's professional record was an amazing 113-4. In addition to losing to Lamotta with a separated shoulder, he lost two bouts on questionable fouls. His only other loss, to Cyrille Delannoit, was quickly avenged.
The Bronx Bull was wildly popular for his rugged style of mixing it up. His six fight rivalry against Sugar Ray Robinson is among the most celebrated in the sport's history. Lamotta was the first man to beat the great champion.
Lamotta is considered to have one of the greatest chins in boxing history and he used his ability to take punishment as a part of his tactical arsenal—stalking an opponent and remaining in close range, willing to take a shot to land one. Lamotta is often thought of as a "power puncher," but in fact only 30 of his 83 professional victories came by way of knockout. He style was more relentless bullying than pure power.
In November of 1947 Lamotta was knocked out in four rounds by Billy Fox. The New York Athletic Commission immediately suspected a fix and withheld the purses for the fight. Lamotta later admitted to taking a dive, both in testimony to the FBI and in his own memoir. He took the dive to gain favor with the Mafia, which in that era was the only way to get a shot at the World title.
Lamotta got his shot and defeated Marcel Cerdan to capture the 160 pound strap in 1948.
Lamotta had a post-boxing career acting in movies and performing in night clubs. He was famously portrayed by Robert Deniro in Martin Scorsesee's Raging Bull, among the most critically acclaimed boxing movies ever made. The movie made the already very popular Lamotta one of the more well known boxing figures with the general public.
One of my own personal highlights from attending the recent Boxing Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony was seeing the 89 year old Jake Lamotta ride by in the parade.
Nino Benvenuti is regarded as the greatest fighter ever to come out of Italy. He had an extensive amateur career, going 120-1. He won the 1960 Olympic gold medal at welterweight and was awarded the Val Barker Trophy, given to the game's outstanding boxer.
Benvenuti won his first 55 professional fights before besting fellow Italian Sandro Mazzinghi for the World junior middleweight championship. He received his first professional loss, and dropped the 154 pound strap, when he traveled to South Korea to face Ki-Soo Kim. Benvenuti considered the loss an unjustified, "hometown" decision.
He moved up to middleweight, where he beat the legendary Emile Griffith for the world title. He lost the title to Griffith in a rematch, then won in back in their third fight. He dropped the world title to Carlos Monzon, in what was then viewed as a significant upset, but is now seen as the emergence of Monzon as a dominant force.
Stanley Ketchell is another one of the old-timers who is hard to rate.He had a professional record of 52-4-4-4 with 49 of his wins coming by way of knockout. In 1908 he easily dispatched Mike "Twin" Sullivan to receive general recognition as the world champion at middleweight, a title which did not officially exist yet.
Ketchell's bout with heavyweight champion Jack Johnson was legendary. Billed as a "David and Goliath" match up, Ketchell managed to floor the much larger Johnson before getting knocked out by a vicious uppercut.
In 1910, Ketchell was tragically murdered by a hired hand on his ranch. He was only 24. The late Nate Fleisher of Ring Magazine rated Ketchell the best middle weight of all time.
The first native of the U.S. Virgin Islands to win a world title, Emile Griffith is a true all time great. If this list was a list of welterweights, Griffith would rank even higher up.
Griffith won the welterweight title by knocking out Benny Paret in 1962. Paret won back the title on a very close split-decision.
Their third fight occurred on March 24, 1962. In round 12 of a brutal back and forth fight Griffith had Paret knocked unconscious, but Paret remained propped up on his feet, supported by the ropes, and Griffith continued to batter him while waiting for the referee to intervene. Paret never regained consciousness and died in the hospital.
Griffith is reported to have taken Paret's death very hard. Most boxing experts say he was never the same fighter. In his last 80 fights, he recorded only 12 knockouts.
He remained good enough to move up to middleweight and beat Dick Tiger for the world title. He lost, regained, and lost the title again during a legendary three fight series with Joey Giardello.
Griffith was another fighter who kept fighting way too long and his record suffered for it. Of his 24 professional losses, 12 occured in his last 24 fights.
He was a successful trainer, handling the Wilfred Benitez and Juan LaPorte. He also coached the Danish Olympic team in 1980.
Dick Tiger was a native of Nigeria who emigrated to Liverpool, England. He was awarded a CBE by Queen Elizabeth for his boxing success but later returned it in protest over English policy towards Nigeria.
Tiger beat Gene Fullmer to win the world middleweight title. He drew with Fullmer in a rematch, then knocked him out in their third meeting. He split a four fight series with Joey Giardello. He also had two wins over one-time light heavyweight champion Jose Torres.
Tiger was Ring Magazine fighter of the year in 1962 and 1965. He was also named to Ring's list of "80 best fighters of the last 80 years."
Mickey Walker was one of the greatest fighters during the rough and tumble 1920's. Nicknamed "The Toy Cannon," he fought and won many times against bigger men.
Walker started out at welterweight, winning the world title in that division in 1923. He lost a close 15 round decision to 160 pound champion Harry Greb in a champion versus champion match. He later moved up to middleweight full time and captured the title with a very controversial decision victory over Tiger Flowers.
Walker eventually moved all the way up to heavyweight. In his first bout with the big boys he fought former champion Jack Sharkey to a draw. He won a number of fights in the class but was knocked out when he tested himself against another former champion, Max Schmelling.
After retiring from the ring, Walker received some notoriety as a painter, having his work displayed in galleries in New York and London. His professional record was 109(58)-22-5-28.
"The Georgia Deacon" Tiger Flowers is another great champion from the 1920's. He beat Harry Greb by unanimous decision for the world middleweight title in 1926, in an era when it was often tough for a black fighter to get a fair decision, especially against a fighter as popular as Greb. Flowers bested Greb again in their rematch.
Flowers dropped the title to Mickey Walker in a very controversial decision. While waiting to schedule a rematch, Flowers died tragically from complications during eye surgery.
His career record was 136(56)-15-8-2.
We are now getting to the point on the list where the champions are not just champions, but are also eras. There was a Marvin Hagler era at middleweight. There was a Carlos Monzon era at middleweight. And there was a Bernard Hopkins era at middleweight. Hopkins holds the record for making 20 successful defenses of the middleweight crown.
Hopkins grew up on the streets and was sentenced to Federal Prison as an adult while still only 17. While in the joint he took up boxing. Never a highly regarded or protected prospect, Hopkins approached his new career after prison with a seriousness and devotion that few in the sport's history have matched.
Hopkins won the IBF belt in 1995 with a 7th round TKO of Segundo Mercado. He defended the IBF belt 12 times, beating such highly regarded opponents as Glen Johnson (then undefeated), Simon Brown and Antwun Echols.
In 2001 a "Middleweight Unification Tournament" was held. Hopkins won a unanimous decision against WBC champion Keith Holmes and then became the undisputed champion when he out-boxed Felix Trinidad in a fight that was stopped in round 12. At the time Hopkins had been viewed as big underdog against Trinidad.
While it had no direct bearing on his ranking at middleweight, Hopkins has had one of the most remarkable careers of any over 40 athlete, from any sport, ever. At 46 he recently became the light heavyweight champion of the world by beating Jean Pascal in Montreal.
A native of Cornwall, England, Bob Fitzsimmons' officially recognized debut as a professional fighter took place in Australia in 1883.
In 1891 he won the middleweight championship of the world from the legendary Jack "The Nonpariel" Dempsey. In a brutal fight Fitzsimmons reportedly knocked Dempsey down 13 times and begged him to quit. Eventually Fitzsimmons knocked Dempsey cold and carried him back to his stool.
Fitzsimmons defended his 160 pound title for several years before moving up to test bigger opponents. In 1897 he met the reigning heavyweight champion, Jim Corbett. Corbett out-boxed Fitzsimmons in the early rounds and was beating him badly, but the smaller man kept coming and eventually tired Corbett out and beat him by knockout.
Fitzsimmons is officially the smallest man to ever hold the heavyweight championship. He lost it to Jim Jeffries, a large heavyweight by the standards of the time.
Although he was active in the 1920s, and was viewed even then as a legend, virtually no film remains of Harry Greb, giving him an almost mythic quality. In written accounts of Greb, a distinctive tone of awe emerges.
Records from the era can be unreliable, but Greb is believed to have fought over 300 fights, against the very best in the world, regardless of weight. He was the only man to ever beat eventual heavyweight champion Gene Tunney. Greb fought 37 times in 1917 alone.
Grebs was a very old and worn 33 when he dropped the middleweight title to Tiger Flowers in 1926. Flowers brilliant defensive style was a perfect antidote for Grebs' swarming attack. Like Flowers, Grebs tragically died from complications related to a fairly routine surgery to repair his damaged nose.
Sugar Ray Robinson is almost everybody's pound-for-pound all time king. He had brilliant footwork, blinding speed and knockout power in both hands. Some would probably argue that he should rank #1 at middleweight.
If this was a welterweight list he would be the unchallenged number one. But at 160 he was a little bit closer to the rest of the field. He was still the dominant middleweight of his era. But he shared the era, especially as he neared the end of his career and fought well past his prime.
The undefeated welterweight champion, Robinson moved up to middleweight in 1950. Cutting to welterweight had become too taxing for his aging body and many lucrative matchups waited for him at 160 pounds. The 1950's were quite possibly the greatest single decade in the history of the weight class.
Robinson recorded victories over all the best 160 pound fighters of the era--fellow Hall-of-Famers like Jake Lamotta, Gene Fullmer, Bobo Olson, Rocky Graziano and Carmen Basilio. He was two rounds away from becoming the undisputed light heavyweight champion in 1952 when he collapsed from heat exhaustion after the 13th round against Joey Maxim.
Marvin Hagler was a number one contender for years before finally getting a shot at the world title, and often had to travel to fight in other boxers' hometowns. It was another case of a fighter being too dangerous for his own good. The frustration Hagler endured during these years fueled his hunger and determination.
Hagler finally got a shot at the title against Vito Antuofermo in 1979. The fight went the distance, but almost nobody watching doubted that Hagler had won. Referee Mills Lane is reported to have told Hagler to make sure he was facing the camera "when I hold your hand up after the decision is read." But the bout was ruled a draw, one of the most controversial decisions in history.
Antuofermo dropped the title to Alan Minter, who gave Hagler his next shot at the title. This time Hagler took no chances, TKOing Minter in three. It was the start of a dominant reign.
Highlights of Hagler's title run include a decision victory over the great Roberto Duran and a three-round shoot out KO of Thomas Hearns, in a fight many regard as the most exciting they ever watched. Hagler also stopped John "The Beast" Mugabi in the 11th round of a brutal fight.
However, it was during the Mugabi fight that Hagler first showed some signs of slower reflexes. The prospect of beating the great champion lured Sugar Ray Leonard out of retirement and the two legends met in 1987, with Leonard winning a hotly contested split decision.
Hagler is one of the few boxers ever to retire near the top of his game. After his loss to Leonard he retired and never attempted to come back. Instead he moved to Italy and has become an action-adventure star in Italian films.
Carlos Monzon held the middleweight title for seven years and defended it 14 times before retiring on top. He won the title by beating Nino Benvenuti and in his first defense became the first man to knockout Emile Griffith.
He later outpointed Griffith in a rematch. He lost only three fights, early in his career, and had 87 victories, with 59 coming by way of knockout. His most celebrated rivalry was with fellow South American Rodrigo Valdez, who he beat twice.
The native of Argentina was a mainstream superstar in South American during the 1970's, famous for beating up paparazi and, unfortunately, wives and girlfriends. In 1989 he was sentenced to 11 years in prison for murdering his live-in girlfriend, Alicia Muniz. He died in a car crash in 1995 while on a weekend furlough.