It’s a statement that is thrown around a bit too casually in my opinion. In the modern era of boxing where accomplishments are measured alongside a fighters pay per view sales or whether he managed to retire before losing, I take a look at what really makes a boxer the Greatest of all Time.
You will not find the answer within this article as this is only my two pennies worth but I will try and break it down so you can make up your own mind. Boxing is a fascinating sport and the only sport that is judged by the fans. Do you prefer an aggressive fighter like the legendary Roberto Duran or the smooth footwork of the great Muhammed Ali? That is a question only you can answer.
Here are some of the key ingredients that make a boxer the Greatest of all Time;
First and foremost they need to have the skill or the sweet science as is often coined in the world of boxing. The “Sweet Science of Bruising” was a phase that acknowledged boxers as both artistic and tough in the early 1800s by a British sportswriter Pierce Egan when he reported on bare-knuckle boxing. The phase made a return thanks to New Yorker AJ Libeling who wrote a collection of boxing articles titled The Sweet Science in homage to Pierce Egan which he published in 1956.
In the modern era I feel some fans get confused with what defines this phrase. “Hit but don’t get hit” seems to be the often misconception, a style that Floyd Mayweather Jr is compared with. Although I do not doubt that Floyd is one of the best defensive fighters in the modern era he is more of a hit and run fighter.
The best way to describe the sweet science would be a mix of Sugar Ray Leonard who was a world class outside boxer and Mike Tyson who was devastating on the inside. If you can find a fighter that can do both then you have found your man.
To have ability is one thing but do they have the heart and desire to go to the trenches when needed. Every fighter can have a game plan but as Joe Louis once said, “Everyone has a plan until they’ve been hit”. Inevitably at some point a fighters chin will be tested, some more than others depending on their style.
When I think of bravery in the ring three fights spring to mind almost instantly and that is the Micky Ward vs Arturo Gatti trilogy. These two fighters provided a brutal but wonderful example of what can be achieved with pure grit and determination.
Another guy that showed he had a cast iron chin and unrelenting willpower was the ‘The Bronx Bull’ Jake Lamotta when he refused to go down during a viscous beating at the hands of Sugar Ray Robinson in their sixth encounter billed the ‘St Valentine Massacre’ in 1951.
Entertainment can be measured in a number of ways within the squared circle. A good old fashioned slugfest is always remembered by a lot of the fight fans but boxing skills tend to get neglected within these types of fights. Look no further than the epic three rounds between Hagler and Hearns.
Knockout victories are great way for a boxer to end a fight and it always gets a lot of public attention. I think the fans do get carried away with a fighter’s knockout ratio in the current climate. Just because someone is flattening his opponents does not mean they’re the best in the business. You have got to be aware that it can be deceiving, especially when promoters are matching up fighters incorrectly. Deontay Wilder’s record is a prime example.
The boxer that does not engage in a toe to toe war nor has a devastating knockout ratio will always find it difficult to maintain a worldwide following beyond the true boxing fan. Back in the sixties when social media was non-existent and television coverage was scarce there was an Argentinian that had this exact problem. His name is Nicolino ‘El Intocable’ Locche.
The recent ‘blast from the past’ on the BillyCBoxing show was adored by his nation and packed out the Luna Park, Buenos Aires every time he fought but yet never got the exposer he deserved. There are several hidden gems in the boxing world so don’t look at just their Boxrec stats.
A boxer will always be judged at the end of their career on what they have achieved. With so many world titles today it is definitely easier to pick one up and fighters have more weight divisions to choose from. That being said the boxing IQ has improved, fighters are fitter and bigger than before and it’s a lot safer. Therefore we will never see the incredible records of years gone by like Willie Pep’s 229 wins, 65 KOs, 19 draws and 1 no contest. Instead most fighters will get to 30/40 fights in a 10/15 year career so it’s very difficult to match the old and new fighters.
One thing that really grinds me down is the no loses debate. I will not and do not accept that someone who retires undefeated is the best that ever lived and yes I am talking about that 49-0 rubbish. Willie Pep started his career with 62-0, Julio Cesar Chavez went 89-0 before he lost, although he did draw with Pernell Whitacker (A fight I think he lost) at 87-0 and Jimmy Wilde was 93-0 before he was finally beaten.
Fans need to stop believing the hype that the media feed us and start looking beyond the ‘0’. It’s the guys that are not afraid to lose and take on the best in their weight divisions that should collect all the accolades.
Part of a fighter’s achievement should be judged by what they do away from their home comforts. It is never easy to travel thousands of miles to take on an opponent in their own backyard. No matter what the sport it can be a major influence on the final outcome.
Take Sugar Ray Robinson for example, he fought in Europe on several occasions in search of better opponents just so he could challenge himself. For such a huge star do this in the fifties and sixties was quite remarkable especially as transport was not as accessible as today.
In the modern era World lightweight champion Jorge Linares continues to thrive overseas. Maybe residing in Tokyo, Japan has helped the Venezuelan adapt better to different climates or maybe it’s because he performs better when the pressure is on the home fighter?
Another current fighter that established himself overseas was super lightweight king Terrence Crawford when he defeated Scot Ricky Burns in Glasgow. Since then the American from Nebraska has continued to cement his status as one of the best pound for pound stars in the business.
Many sports stars can be robotic and pretty dam boring which will always impact ticket and pay per view sales so a bit of personality always helps to win over some fans. In athletics we have Bolt, in English football there was Gazza and in boxing we had Ali. There are certain athletes that have a certain charm about them that makes you want to see more. These guys set the blue print that others try to emulate but they have to remember there will never be another Bolt, Gazza or Ali.
Today we have a lot of trash talk in the build-up to fights which is completely different to when Ali mocked Sony Liston by saying, “He’s too ugly to be the world champ. The world champ should be pretty like me!” Instead we have distasteful insults or WWE like play fighting.
We need this type of character to add a bit of spice to the boxing scene but unfortunately we don’t have any at the moment.
Outside of the ring
The living legends are not always measured on what they do in their field but sometimes it’s the great stuff they do away from it. Manny Pacquiao is not only an eight-division world champion but he donates millions to charities, dedicates a lot of his time to the people of the Philippines and has recently stepped into politics. Although even he discredited himself with some silly statements.
Other fighters who have also taken the step into politics; most recently Vitali Klitschko and one of my favorite boxers of all time Alexis Arguello. The ‘El Caballero del Ring’ (The Gentleman of the Ring) faced hypocrisy and encountered power struggles outside the ring but yet still managed to keep his class and dignity. To be able to balance his tribulations away from boxing and continue to produce the goods in the ring is commendable to say the least.
There have been and still are many others that do fantastic work away from boxing. I admire the man who has never stopped using his celebrity status for the good and set an inspirational example. We need these strong characters to continue their good work so a positive light can be shed on this wonderful sport of boxing and keep the doubters at bay.
There are a lot of contenders for the title and I have mentioned just a few. Two fighters that would be close are Henry Armstrong and Harry Greb both feature in my top 5 pound for pound (p4p) fighters of all time. But p4p is all about what a boxer has done in the ring. In fact Sugar Ray Robinson is my number 1 p4p in the history of the sport after his performances in the welterweight and middleweight divisions. It was these precise performances that prompted sportswriters to create “Pound for Pound” rankings, where they compare fighters regardless of weight.
With all that being said there can really only be one man that takes the crown of the Greatest of all Time and that is Muhammed Ali. He had bags of ability, just watch the Cleveland Williams fight at the Astrodome in Houston if you doubt me. He showed an incredible amount of heart in the ‘Thriller in Manila’ and was unquestionably one of the most entertaining.
At age 18 he won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 summer Olympics in Rome. He remains the only three-time lineal heavyweight champion having won the title in 1964, 1974 & 1978 which is just one of his lists of achievements in the professional game. Considering his suspension from 1967-1970 while in the peak of his career, it’s scary to think what else he could have achieved.
He travelled to numerous countries around the world in a 21 year career, he fought in; England three times, Canada & Germany twice, Switzerland, Japan, Ireland, Indonesia, Zaire, Malaysia, Philippines, Puerto Rico & the Bahamas. Plus he fought in 12 different states.
I think he invented the word charisma and was an icon away from the ring. His refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War resulted in his arrest for draft evasion, which was later overturned in an appeals court. He didn’t participate in a single fight for nearly four years and lost a period of peak performance. Name me one boxer that would have the balls to do that?
‘The Greatest’ is my Greatest so let me leave you with my favourite quote:
“I’ve wrestled with alligators; I’ve tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning and throw thunder in jail. You know I’m bad. Just last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, and hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean, I make medicine sick”