Boxing is one of the oldest sports in the world, with its origins being traced back to the 7th century Olympics in Greece. More recent accounts of boxing can be traced back to 1719 in England with the first bare knuckle champion James Figg. Even the modern era of boxing is ancient compared to many sports, having begun in the late 1880s with John L. Sullivan (the first heavyweight champion under the Marquess of Queensberry Rules, which required wearing gloves and fighting in a ring of a specific size). However many of boxing’s 17 weight classes have only been around for two or three decades.
One of the newer weight classes is the super middleweight division, which has only been officially recognized by the major sanctioning bodies since the mid-1980s. The super middleweight division has been used by many boxers as somewhat of a “pit stop”, and they have fought there only briefly before moving up to the light heavyweight division. In some cases smaller light heavyweights have moved down to the super middleweight division. Yet there have been many fighters who have made the super middleweight division their home, with some becoming legends in the division.
The fourth in TalkSports24x7 monthly series on the top 10 fighters in each of boxing’s 17 divisions will look at the super middleweights. Like the previous 10 ten list, the criteria being used to judge the greatest super middleweight champions will be provided. The top 10 greatest super middleweight champions of all time will first consider each champion’s dominance in his era. A champion’s dominance will further consider the time period in which they competed; as being a dominant champion in the modern era with 4 major titles (WBA, WBC, IBF, and WBO) looks different than dominance in the 1980s or 1990s when there were 3 major titles.
This author maintains that top 10 lists should never be a comparison of who would beat who, because head to head matchups between fighters of different eras is speculative. A champion’s level of competition (their willingness to take on the top contenders of their era) is the second criteria which will be considered in this list. Lastly historical merit will be the third criteria which will be used to judge the greatness of each fighter, meaning did they achieve a unique historical feat, or did they in some way transcend the sport. Following are the ten greatest fighters in the history of the super middleweight division:
10. Frankie Liles
Frankie Liles is one of the longest reigning super middleweight champions in the history of the division. Liles won the lineal and WBA super middleweight championship in 1994 against Steve Little, and he held the title for 5 years (defending it 7 times before losing by TKO against Byron Mitchell). During his title run, Frankie Liles defeated top fighters like Michael Nunn, Tim Littles (avenging his only career loss at the time), and Segundo Mercado. Liles also defeated the tough Merqui Sosa as a contender.
9. Mikkel Kessler
Mikkel Kessler is a 5-time super middleweight champion having held the WBA title three times and the WBC title twice between 2004 and 2013, but he only defended a total of 6 times. During his time as a super middleweight Kessler fought all the top names in the division, including Julio César Green, Anthony Mundine, Eric Lucas, Joe Calzaghe, Andre Ward, and Carl Froch. Kessler also participated in the Super Middleweight unification series, the Showtime Super Six, where he withdrew after the 2nd round following his defeat of Carl Froch in their first of two fights. Kessler remained one of the top super middleweights until he retired in 2015.
8. Carl Froch
Carl Froch is a 4-time super middleweight champion having held the WBC title twice, the IBF title, and the WBA title between 2008 and 2015. In total Froch had 7 successful title defenses, but he lost in the final of the Showtime Super Six to Andre Ward. Like his boxing rival Mikkel Kessler, Carl Froch took on the best of the super middleweight division. Top names Froch defeated included Robin Reid , Jean Pascal, Jermain Taylor, Andre Dirrell, Arthur Abraham, Glen Johnson, Lucian Bute, and George Groves. Froch also won his 2nd of two fights with Mikkel Kessler. A favorite of his native England, Froch was known as a hard-nosed pressure fighter, and he is widely considered as one of the toughest in the history of the division. Froch retired as a champion, having secured his place in history.
7. Nigel Benn
Nigel Benn held the WBC super middleweight title for 4 years after moving up from the middleweight division where he held the WBO middleweight title (in total Benn defended the title 9 times). Known for his rugged fighting style and powerful punch, Nigel Benn was one of the top fighters in perhaps the most competitive era in the super middleweight division. Benn’s most famous fight was against Gerald McClellan, the WBC middleweight champion, who moved up in weight to challenge for WBC super middleweight crown. The extremely powerful McClellan was considered the favorite, but Benn survived two knockdowns to TKO his opponent in the 10th round (McClellan lapsed into a coma following the knockout and suffered lasting injuries). Benn defended the title twice following the McClellan fight before losing the title to Thulani Malinga.
6. Chris Eubank
Chris Eubank like his chief rival Nigel Benn was also a multi division champion (having held the WBO middleweight and WBO super middleweight titles). As WBO super middleweight champion, Eubank held the title for 4 years and defended a total of 14 times. As a super middleweight, Chris Eubank took on the top names in the division including, Michael Watson, Thulani Malinga, Lindell Holmes, and Nigel Benn. Known for his eccentric larger than life personality, Chris Eubank was one of the biggest stars in the English boxing scene in the late 1980s and 1990s. After losing the WBO title to Steve Collins, Eubanks twice attempted to regain the title only to lose both times. Eubanks then moved up to the cruiserweight division where he twice challenged for the WBO cruiserweight title (again losing both times and retiring after failing in his second attempt).
5. James Toney
James Toney is one of the most talented fighters to ever box in the super middleweight division. A former IBF and lineal middleweight champion with 6 title defenses, Toney moved up to super middleweight and captured the IBF title with a TKO of Iran Barkley. Toney had a total of 10 fights at super middleweight, but he only defended the title 3 times before losing a decision to Roy Jones Jr. Following his loss to Jones, Toney moved up to the light heavyweight and then cruiserweight division where he won the IBF cruiserweight title. Toney finished his career as a heavyweight (briefly winning the WBA heavyweight title only to have it taken away after failing a drug test). James Toney’s overall success as a fighter added to his accomplishments as a super middleweight.
4. Roy Jones Jr.
Roy Jones Jr. was named the 5th greatest light heavyweight champion of all time in TalkSports24x7’s earlier list, and he ranks number 4 at super middleweight. Arguably the most talented fighter in the history of the division, Roy Jones Jr. was undefeated and seemingly unbeatable at super middleweight. Like his rival James Toney, Roy Jones Jr. was a former IBF middleweight champion before moving up to super middleweight and capturing the IBF title from Toney. Roy Jones only stayed in the super middleweight division for 2 years, and defended his title a total of 5 times before moving up to the light heavyweight division. Jones’ brief time at super middleweight and his failure to face some of the division’s biggest names like Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank prevent him from being ranked higher. Still Roy Jones Jr.’s short brilliance at super middleweight places him in the upper half of the list. His overall accomplishments as a fighter like unifying the light heavyweight division and winning the WBA heavyweight title also make his achievements at super middleweight stand out.
3. Sven Ottke
Sven Ottke is a 2-time super middleweight champion and one of the longest reigning fighters in the history of the division. Ottke held the IBF super middleweight title and later the WBA title a combined 6 years with 21 total defenses. Sven Ottke’s high number of defenses and his longevity as a champion was particularly impressive considering he had a low KO percentage (in 34 fights, Ottke only scored 6 knockouts). As with the other fighters in this list, Ottke also faced some of the best boxers of his generation. Ottke defeated Charles Brewer (twice), Thomas Tate (twice), Glen Johnson, Anthony Mundine, Byron Mitchell, and Robin Reid. Sven Ottke retired as champion and undefeated, putting his stamp on the division.
2. Andre Ward
Andre Ward is also among the most gifted fighters to box in the super middleweight division. A gold medalist in the 2004 Olympics at light heavyweight, Ward won the WBA, WBC, Ring Magazine, and Lineal super middle weight titles. Ward rose to the top of the super middleweight division by winner the Showtime Super Six unification tournament, shocking WBA super middleweight champion Mikkel Kessler in the opening round. In total Andre Ward held the title for 4 years, but he only defended the championship 6 times. In his time at super middleweight, Andre Ward also took on some of the best in the division. In his career Ward defeated Edison Miranda, Shelby Pudwill, Allan Green, Sakio Bika, Arthur Abraham, and Carl Froch. Ward also knocked out the reigning light heavyweight champion, Chad Dawson, who moved down to challenge for his super middleweight title. Unfortunately injuries and promotional problems kept Ward inactive for long stretches of his title reign. It is this inactivity which kept Ward from being crowned the greatest super middle champion of all time. Ward did leave the super middleweight division undefeated and moved up to the light heavyweight division, where he defeated reigning champion Sergey Kovalev twice before retiring an undefeated champion. Wards accomplishments in two divisions places him above fellow undefeated champion Sven Ottke. In the super middleweight division’s 35 year history, Andre Ward is the second greatest fighter to box at 168 pounds.
1. Joe Calzaghe
Joe Calzaghe is the 3rd fighter on this list to retire as an undefeated champion, and is the most accomplished fighter in the history of the super middleweight division. Calzaghe is the longest reigning champion in the super middleweight division having held the title for 10 years, and he tied the record for the most successful title defenses at 21. Over his 10 year reign as champion, Calzaghe unified the WBO, IBF, WBC, WBA, Ring and lineal titles. Calzaghe also took on the best names in the super middleweight division including Chris Eubank, Robin Reid, Omar Sheika, Charles Brewer, Byron Mitchell, Jeff Lacy, Sakio Bika, and Mikkel Kessler. Often criticized for his reluctance to fight outside of England, Calzaghe solidified his claim as the best middleweight with a dominant performance over America’s Jeff Lacy (capturing the IBF title in the process). Calzaghe was known for his tremendous work rate, hand speed, and intelligence in the ring. After setting records as a super middleweight champion, Calzaghe moved up to the light heavyweight division and won a split decision over reigning champion Bernard Hopkins. “Super Joe” as he was known during his career, is the greatest fighter in the history of the super middleweight division.
As with our other top ten list, honorable mention will be given to those who nearly missed it. Steve Collins was a multi weight champion, holding both the WBO middleweight and super middleweight championship. As WBO super middleweight champion, Collins held the title for 2 years and defended it a total of 7 times before retiring as the champion. Top names Collins defeated at super middleweight including Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank. Collins brief period in the super middleweight division kept him from making the top ten.