In boxing, there are good guys and bad guys. Not in a personal sense, but in the roles people seem to gravitate toward in their public personas.
The man who arguably inspired and electrified more people than any other fighter, the great Muhammad Ali, was not exactly the most sporting gentleman when it came to his pre-fight and in-ring antics. It's not an indictment of Ali the person.
It's just an acknowledgement of the character he created to promote his fights and rattle his opponents. Thus you shouldn't expect to find the greatest smack talker of all time on this list.
This is about the fighters who never seem to take things personally, guys who do or did their job without the theatrics and bombast outside of the ring as some of their peers. Classy is one word you could use, but that's absolutely not to suggest that some of the people I haven't included, Ali first and foremost, aren't that way in real life. It's simply that their boxing "personas" were not.
Humility is a big part of my criteria, at least my perception of how "humble" someone may or may not be. Unfortunately that eliminates a lot of my favorite fighters, and a lot of the best fighters of all time, whose unwavering confidence in themselves often seemed like ego-maniacal arrogance: Duran, Mayweather, Ali, Tyson, among others. Even the great Sugar Ray Robinson was known to have an astronomically high view of himself (and rightly so!).
The list is divided into five old-time legends and five active fighters. Let's kick things off with the old boys.
Floyd Patterson is known for, among other things, being the first man to lose and reclaim the heavyweight championship of the world.
He was beaten badly and stopped in the third round by Swedish great Ingemar Johansson, losing the crown in 1959. In the immediate rematch, Patterson catches Johansson with a leaping left hand right on the button and the result turned into one of the greatest knockouts of all time. Johansson's leg was eerily twitching as he lay unconscious.
Patterson had just made history, the only heavyweight champ to ever lose and regain the title, yet his only visible concern was Johansson's health once he realized how badly he might have hurt Johansson. Johansson turned out to be fine physically but he was never the same as a fighter.
He was knocked out again in a third fight with Patterson and that was the last he was seen on the world stage.
Patterson is remembered for for being a great boxer and also a model of sporting behavior and gentlemanly conduct. He came from abject poverty and worked his way to the heavyweight championship and the fame and fortune that came with it.
He never forgot his roots and embodied the humble, genuine nice guy fighter. Patterson and Johansson ended up becoming great friends and kept in touch for life. This was the antagonist of his most bitter and violent rivalry as a fighter. No grudges there.
Emile Griffith was an incredible athletic and physical specimen in his prime. He never wanted to be a fighter, but he turned out to be great at it. Griffith will sadly go down in history not just as a great middleweight champion in the post-Sugar Ray Robinson era, but as a participant in one of the most horrific scenes that has ever occurred on television in a boxing ring, the death of Benny Paret.
Things happen so fast in the ring, it's impossible to assign blame in a situation that required decisive split-second thinking that obviously didn't happen until it was too late. But you can't blame Griffith. He did exactly what a fighter is supposed to do and he's born the cross of that guilt for decades.
There's a scene from the documentary Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story in the video above. Try to find this movie. It's one of the most powerful documentaries I've ever seen.
Jersey Joe Walcott was one of the best fighters of the 1940s and 1950s, a great boxer and heavyweight champion known for his one-punch and shuffle style. He fought great fights against Ezzard Charles, Joe Louis, and Rocky Marciano.
Walcott was a hard-working fighter with an interesting style that often befuddled foes.
He came from humble beginnings, like many in the fight game, but always took his success in stride and played the likeable underdog throughout his career.
Joe Frazier is one of the greatest heavyweights of all time. Unfortunately for him, he fought in the era of arguably "the greatest" heavyweight of all-time, Muhammad Ali.
And in the final tally, he lost two of their three fights. He also was wiped out by George Foreman who Ali went on to knockout in the "Rumble in the Jungle". Frazier's consolation prize is that in his first fight with Ali, the "Fight of the Century" at Madison Square Garden, he got the victory with a signature knockdown in the 14th round to seal the deal on the cards.
While Ali moved on to deity status, Smokin Joe now lives in an apartment in Philly.
Frazier was not the sensational talker that Ali was. He was humble, soft-spoken, and blue-collar all the way. As the heavyweight champion during Ali's three-year suspension, he advocated for Ali to be allowed to return and helped pave the way for his future arch-enemy to come back.
Ali ridiculed and debased his old friend, turning particularly venomous in the lead-up to the Thrilla in Manilla, the conclusion to the greatest trilogy of all time. Not once did Frazier do the same, at least not resort to the personal insults and mockery that he was treated to.
Frazier exuded dignity and peace in the face of an unrelenting, vicious attack from Ali.
Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, was one of the greatest heavyweight champions that ever lived.
In his prime, he was virtually unbeatable, suffering a lone defeat to hard-hitting Max Schmelling which he avenged in a brutal first-round knockout in one of the most famous events of all time. Louis, for all of his incredible talent and stellar accomplishment, never acted as though he was better than anyone else.
He never boasted. He earned widespread acclaim for enlisting to fight in World War II and donated his entire purse from his last fight to the war effort. Louis was ridiculously humble for a man who achieved the highest levels of fame and glory in sports.
He truly embodied the phrase "letting his fists do the talking". One of the greatest true "gentlemen" in every sense of the word to compete in this sport, or any sport.
Miguel Cotto is a fighter you can't help but root for.
He does nothing disrespectful or disdainful unless harshly provoked. He fights with courage and heart, visible in his many wounds throughout the years. He speaks with a quiet confidence, not the slightest hint of machismo or arrogance.
He conducts himself like a sportsman, never taking things personally. Cotto has been a class act in and out of the ring.
Sergio Martinez took some heat from a few rabid fans when he called out Manny Pacquiao after his last fight. A Pacquiao or Mayweather fight is the most lucrative fight in the world. Can you blame him for throwing his hat into the ring?
Other than that, Martinez conducts himself in a very professional and sportsmanlike manner. There was genuine concern and emotion in the touching interaction with Paul Williams after savagely knocking his lights out last November.
Martinez is exactly as confident as he should be, but I've never detected arrogance or over-confidence from him. He gives respect to his opponents and most importantly, he acted honorably when things weren't going as great for him: the bogus draw against Cintron and the narrow defeat to Williams.
Martinez took the blows in stride and came back to ascend to the top of the sport, not with his mouth, but with his hard work in the ring.
Carl Froch is not short on confidence.
He has a high belief in himself and he's not shy about it. I put him on this list because he truly respects the sport and the craft. His blunt honesty might ruffle some feathers sometimes, but he genuinely knows the game and conducts himself with class when it matters most.
If anyone caught the scene where Froch consoles Arthur Abraham in the locker room after their fight, softly asking him if he was all right, you would know exactly what I'm talking about. Froch's upcoming opponent is another great sportsman, Andre Ward.
They had a five minute face-off in the ring after Froch beat Glen Johnson, and neither one had a single negative thing to say about each other.
Nonito Donaire is one of boxing's brightest young stars.
His second round knockout of Fernando Montiel in February was positively spine-tingling. Donaire has a certain boyish charm, very friendly, always seems happy to be there, not the frequently seen, entitled I-knew-I-was-gonna-win-all-along attitude in post-fight interviews.
And what really endeared him to me was catching him ringside at the Nobuhiro Ishida/James Kirkland fight working as a photographer at ringside. It's not the typical "budding superstar" move.
Donaire's recent contractual issues aside, he has a winning personality and a spectacular game. If he stays humble as he moves up the ranks, he'll be a fan favorite for years to come.
While his arch-rival Floyd Mayweather plays the mercurial, brash villain role in promotions so effectively, Manny Pacquiao has adopted a soft-spoken, professional demeanor.
He insists that it's never personal, he just wants to do his job and please the fans. And he fights in a style that lends itself to crowd-pleasing affairs...when the competition is good enough to handle it. Recently, that has not been the case, with well past-their-primes Shane Mosley and Antonio Margarito Pac-Man's latest victims.
Pacquiao deflects the criticism so well because a) he is an action fighter and we give those guys a lot of leeway and b) he comes across like such a nice guy. Pacquiao has never shown a malicious side publicly. He likes to sing. He enjoys being around people. He likes to please the crowd. He really just comes off like a happy, nice guy who happens to be an amazing fighter.
This isn't about who's a better person, Manny Pacquiao or Floyd Mayweather. We don't know them personally, I don't anyway. But there's no denying that in the image they project to the public, Manny plays the nice guy while Floyd plays the villain.