After a brief pause, TalkSports24x7 resumes its coverage of the greatest fighters of all time in each of boxing’s 17 divisions. This month I am picking up where I last left off, with the greatest middleweight champions in boxing history. Currently the middleweight division is one of the most competitive in boxing. Champion Saul Canelo Alvarez holds 3 out of the 4 major titles and over the past two years has fought close battles with former unified champion Gennady Golovkin as well as Daniel Jacobs. The division also has strong challengers like interim WBC champion Jermall Charlo, WBO champion Demetrius Andrade, WBA regular champion Rob Brant, former WBO champion Peter Quillin, and many others.
Historically the middleweight division has been one of the most important in boxing. As one of boxing’s original 8 weight divisions, some of the greatest fighters in the history of the sport have fought as middleweights. In some cases these greats only had brief stays at middleweight before moving up to higher weight classes (some of these fighters also moved back down to the lower weight classes). These names include the likes of Ezzard Charles, Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns, and Roberto Duran. However there were other fighters who spent significant time at middleweight and had a lasting impact on the division, these special few will be the focus of this month’s countdown.
Like the previous top lists, the criteria being used to judge the greatest middleweight champions will be provided. The top 10 greatest 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 (WBA, WBC, and IBF), or the 1960s and 1970s when there were only two titles (WBA and WBC), which of course is different prior to the 1960s when there was only one title.
It is the belief of this author 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 middleweight division:
Stanley Ketchel was one of the first stars of the middleweight division. Ketchel won the middleweight title in 1908 against Mike Sullivan and defended the title 4 times before losing the title to Billy Papke. Ketchel won the middleweight title again in a rematch with Papke, becoming one of the first boxers to regain the championship after losing it. During his career Stanley Ketchel was known as a fearsome brawler with ferocious power. Ketchel challenged for the light heavyweight title and fought heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. Proving his power, Ketchel famously knocked down Johnson despite his size disadvantage (Johnson would get up from the knockdown and knockout Ketchel to end the fight). Unfortunately Ketchel’s boxing career ended prematurely as he was murdered 2 years after winning the middleweight title. Ketchel was only 24 years old at the time of his death.
9. Bob Fitzsimmons
Robert Fitzsimmons is one of the most storied fighters in boxing history, and also one of its earliest stars. Fitzsimmons is most famous for winning the heavyweight championship against Jim Corbett, but prior to that he won the middleweight title in 1891 against Jack Dempsey. Bob Fitzsimmons would hold onto the middleweight crown until he relinquished it. Fitzsimmons was one of the longest reigning middleweight champions, holding the title for nearly 4 years; however, he fought mainly exhibitions and non-title bouts.
8. Mike McCallum
One of the greatest fighters to come out of Jamaica, Mike McCallum was a champion in multiple weight classes (jr. middleweight, middleweight, and light heavyweight). Called the “bodysnatcher”, Mike McCallum was known as an intelligent boxer-puncher and possessed one of the greatest chins in boxing history. McCallum won the WBA middleweight title in 1989 against England’s Herol Graham. Like most fighters on this list, McCallum fought some of the top fighters in the division. Mike McCallum defeated future champion Steve Collins, Michael Watson, and Sumbu Kalambay in a rematch. In total, McCallum defended the title 4 times (he had 4 non-title bouts as well) before losing the title on a split decision to James Toney. Following his defeat McCallum would move up to the light heavyweight division and win the WBC title against Jeff Harding. Although McCallum’s reign as middleweight champion is shorter than many on the list, he remains one of the most skilled fighters in the division’s history.
7. Dick Tiger
Widely considered one of the greatest fighters to come out of Africa, Dick Tiger won the WBA middleweight title in 1962 when won a 15 round decision over long time champion Gene Fullmer. Tiger defended the title twice including two rematches with Fullmer where he also captured the WBC middleweight title, becoming one of the first unified champions. Dick Tiger would lose the title to Joey Giardello before regaining the crown in a rematch. After regaining the crown, Tiger would successfully defend it once more before losing to Emile Griffith. Following his loss to Griffith, Tiger would move up to the light heavyweight division, where he would capture the title against Jose Torres. Dick Tiger’s accomplishments in the ring were often praised by boxing writers. He was named fighter of the year several times in his career and Ring Magazine selected him as one of the greatest fighters of the 20th century.
6. James Toney
James Toney like many of the fighters on this list is known for having success in multiple weight classes; however, his greatest work as a fighter arguably came at middleweight. Toney won the IBF middleweight title against Michael Nunn in a bout he entered as a decided underdog. Toney was losing the fight before knocking out Nunn in the 11th round. James Toney would defend the title 6 times (he also had 2 non-title fights) before relinquishing the crown when he won the IBF super middleweight title with a TKO over Iran Barkley. As middleweight champion, Toney defeated some of the top middleweights in the division including future champion Reggie Johnson, Doug DeWitt, Glenn Wolfe, and #8 on our list Mike McCallum. He also gave top rated contender Merqui Sosa his first defeat. James Toney was also featured in the top ten list at super middleweight (number 5), and would capture the IBF cruiserweight title as well. As both a middleweight and super middleweight, James Toney is considered one of the most talented fighters to ever box in the division.
5. Roy Jones Jr.
Roy Jones Jr. once again appears on the top ten list in his third weight class (he was also on the light heavyweight and super middleweight list). Although Roy Jones Jr. debuted as a jr. middleweight, the majority of his early career was fought at middleweight. Roy Jones Jr. was one of the most highly touted contenders in middleweight history with wins over top fighters like Jorge Castro, Glenn Thomas, Percy Harris, and Glenn Wolfe. Roy Jones Jr. won the vacant IBF title with a decision over future champion Bernard Hopkins. Jones only defended the tile once against Thomas Tate, although he fought 3 non-title fights. Jones would move up to the super middleweight, light heavyweight, and heavyweight divisions capturing titles in each. While Roy Jones Jr. had a brief stint as middleweight champion, he is considered one of the most dominant champions the division has ever seen.
4. Sugar Ray Robinson
The inspiration behind the sport’s pound for pound title, Sugar Ray Robinson continues to be regarded by many boxing experts as the greatest fighter who ever lived. While the majority of Robinson’s greatest body of work occurred as a welterweight, Ray Robinson is also considered one of boxing’s greatest middleweight champions. Sugar Ray won the middleweight title a total of 5 times, which remains a record for the division. The first title was a 13th round TKO against the legendary Jake LaMotta in 1951. As a middleweight Robinson fought some of the best fighters of his era including Randy Turpin, Bobo Olson, Rocky Graziano, Ralph Jones, Rocky Castellani, Gene Fullmer, Carmen Basilio, and Paul Pender. Although he was not as dominant as middleweight as he was at welterweight, Sugar Ray nonetheless had multiple trilogies against his top rivals which are considered among the best in the history of the division. In these fights Sugar Ray would lose some fights (often the first) and win either the rematch or rubber bout. After a failed attempt to win the light heavyweight title against Joey Maxim, Robinson would return to the middleweight division where he would remain for the rest of his career.
Carlos Monzon is one of the longest reigning champions in the history of the middleweight at 7 years. Monzon set the record for title defenses at middleweight with 14 defenses (this record was later beaten by Bernard Hopkins). Considered a legend in his native Argentina, Monzon faced and defeated some of the best fighters in his era. Monzon defeated the legendary Nino Benvenuti in 1970 for the WBA and WBC middleweight title. He had defenses over some of the best middleweights of his day including Emile Griffith, Bennie Briscoe, Jose Napoles, and Rodrigo Valdez. Carlos Monzon also had several successful non-title bouts during his championship years. Widely considered a complete fighter (being able to box and punch), Monzon retired as champion. Monzon’s impact on the middleweight division was so great many experts consider him as either the greatest or second greatest fighter who fought in the weight class. This author acknowledges that Monzon can also be number one or two on this list as well, but argues that the two fighters in these slots have overall achievements which gives them slight advantages.
2. Bernard Hopkins
Bernard Hopkins is the longest reigning champion in middleweight history and set the record for successful title defenses at 20. After failing to win the IBF middleweight title in his first two attempts, Hopkins won the belt in his rematch against Segundo Mercado by a TKO in the 7th round. Bernard Hopkins defended the IBF title 13 times taking on some of the best fighters in the division including future champions John David Jackson, Glen Johnson, Simon Brown, Robert Allen, Syd Vanderpool, and Antwun Echols. Widely considered the best middleweight in the world as the IBF champion, Hopkins would enter a middleweight tournament where he would capture the WBC and WBA titles becoming undisputed middleweight champion. Hopkins captured the WBA title against Felix Trinidad, the former unified Jr. middleweight champion and one of the top pound for pound fighters in the sport. Bernard Hopkins would later add the WBO middleweight title against Oscar De La Hoya in 2004, becoming the first fighter to hold all 4 major titles at the same time. Hopkins would have his record 20th and final defense against Howard Eastman before losing his last two fights at middleweight in close decisions against Jermaine Taylor. Following his defeat to Taylor, Hopkins would move up to the light heavyweight division where he would become a 4 time champion, and the oldest fighter to win a world title at 46 years of age (Hopkins would beat his own record by winning another title at 48 years of old). Hopkins is also the oldest fighter to unify two titles at 49. The historic accomplishments of Hopkins in two divisions gives him a slight edge over Carlos Monzon to place him as second on the all-time list.
1. Marvin Hagler
Marvelous Marvin Hagler is the greatest middleweight champion in boxing history, and one of the greatest fighters to step in the ring. Marvin Hagler was known as a vicious puncher with one of the best chins in boxing history. A southpaw, Hagler had an aggressive come forward style which was difficult for opponents to overcome. Hagler has the fourth highest number of title defenses at 12 and he had one of the longest reigns at middleweight, holding the crown for just under 7 years. Hagler’s title reign is often looked at in context, as he is widely believed to have beaten most of his era’s top fighters while he was a contender. As a contender Hagler beat fighters like Bennie Briscoe, Sugar Ray Seales, Willie Monroe, Babby Watts, and Jummy Owens. Hagler fought a disputed draw against Vito Antuofermo for his first attempt at the middleweight title, before winning the crown against Alan Minter in England. As champion, Hagler continued to fight the top contenders at middleweight. Hagler’s best wins came against Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns, and John Mugabi. The fight against Thomas Hearns is considered to be one of the greatest in boxing history and the best first round in history. Hagler was also the first middleweight to capture the WBC, WBA, and IBF titles to be recognized as the undisputed champion. Hagler would lose the tile in a controversial decision against Sugar Ray Leonard and retire from the sport. Although Hagler failed to beat Carlos Monzon’s record for defenses (falling three defenses short), Hagler is nonetheless considered to be the standard for the division.
As with the previous top ten list there were fighters who fell just short that nonetheless deserve recognition. Tony Zale was a two time middleweight champion and considered one of the hardest punchers in the history of the division. Zale was also one of the longest reigning champions at just short of 7 years, although he was inactive for part of this time due to serving in World War II. Zale’s trilogy against Rocky Graziano is considered to be the best in middleweight history, Zale won two out of three.
Gene Fullmer also fell just short of making the top ten. Fullmer is a two-time middleweight champion first capturing the crown in a upset against Sugar Ray Robinson (he would lose the title by KO in a rematch). Fullmer regained the title against Carmen Basilio in 1959 and defended it 7 times before losing to Dick Tiger. Both Zale and Fullmer’s achievements rightly earn them recognition as one of the greatest middleweights, but both fall just outside the top ten.