By Ingming Aberia
The opening decade of the 21st century is coming to a close and, regardless of the outcome of the remaining matches that are yet to play out in what has turned to be an exciting 2010 for professional boxing, it is time to bring back the glorious years of boxing entertainment. It is time to recall those who gave color, drama and life to the sport; those who created indelible impressions among the fans; and those who, year after year, have proven their reign atop the ring by taking on the toughest opposition. I mean let’s meet, once more, the fighters of the decade.
BoxRec Boxing Encyclopedia wrote that “Jack Dempsey changed the sport of boxing from a slow, defense-minded contest of single punches and frequent holding into an exciting, aggressive battle of furious combinations and blazing knockouts.” But his life outside the ring gave him a bad press. Widely regarded by many as “a thug wallowing in immorality and brutality,” fans loved to hate him. And yet when Gene Tunney dethroned him in 1926 after a 7-year reign, fans ironically began to admire him. Tunney was the epitome of an intelligent and scientific boxer, and they found him boring to watch. They missed Jack’s “ultra-masculine charisma and slugger’s brawn.” In Dempsey’s time, nobody packed the crowds in quite like he did.
Still, when the scribes minted the term “pound-for-pound” during this period, it was not because of Dempsey. It was because of Benny Leonard, who reigned as Lightweight Champion from May 1917 to January 1925. Boxing experts argued that Leonard at this time was the best, pound for pound. They also made mention of Harry Greb, a Middleweight Champion from 1923 to 1926. Greb has incredibly beaten heavier opponents in the light heavyweight and heavyweight divisions. He held the distinction of being the only fighter to ever beat Gene Tunney, the light heavyweight champion and conqueror of heavyweight king Jack Dempsey.
Henry Armstrong rocked the boxing world in 1937 and 1938, generating after-shocks that would continue to be felt until now. At a time when there were only 8 weight divisions, he won the featherweight, welterweight and lightweight titles in succession within a period of 10 months (from October 1937 to August 1938). Thus Armstrong would go down in boxing history as the only fighter ever to hold 3 world titles in 3 different divisions all at the same time.
Also at this time, Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis started a terrific run and would continue to dominate the opposition towards the latter part of the 40s. Earlier in the decade, Barney Ross stamped his class in the lightweight and welterweight divisions, besting Italian and fellow all-time great Tony Canzoneri, among others, twice.
World War 2 momentarily halted ring action except on very few occasions. Joe Louis kept his title despite being out of ring action due to his military service, and when he did return in 1946, he defended it 5 more times until Ezzard Charles defeated him in 1950.
At the lighter divisions, Featherweight Champion Willie Pep was making it hard for anyone not to notice him. He won 229 of his 241 fights, and showing, in the process, his opponents the finer points of defense in boxing.
Towards the late 1940’s, the welterweight division had ran out of warm bodies that were capable of putting up a decent competition against a rising star named Sugar Ray Robinson.
Sugar Ray Robinson remained lord of welterweights and was, by now, the newest darling of boxing. He reminded boxing historians of Benny Leonard, Henry Armstrong, Willie Pep and all the great boxers of the lighter weight divisions before him. The only difference with them, it seemed, was that he was better. When he annexed the middleweight crown early in the decade and outclassed the best middle-weights afterward, the term “pound-for-pound” champion that briefly emerged during Leonard’s era was back, and it was firmly associated with Robinson. Fans found him so good that beating him—which the likes of Carmen Basilio and Gene Fullmer did when Robinson was apparently past his prime—meant earning for themselves an exalted place in the all-time greats list.
Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali on the same night he wrested the heavyweight crown from Sonny Liston in 1964. Producing spectacular wins inside the ring and creating political drama outside of it made Ali the most recognized—and probably adored —athlete in this era.
The lighter weight divisions also produced an exciting crop of fighters in Bantamweight Champion Edre Jofre (Brazil), his conqueror Fighting Harada of Japan, Junior Lightweight King Gabriel “Flash” Elorde (Philippines), and Lightweight Champion Carlos Ortiz (Puerto Rico).
In no time was there such a bumper harvest, so to speak, of talent in the heavyweight division as in this period. Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman were not only former Olympic stars, all of them were also undefeated challengers when they all won the heavyweight championship. Frazier grabbed the title vacated by Ali (who preferred to be in jail rather than in military service during the American-Vietnam war in the 60s and 70s). Frazier yielded it to Foreman via a second round KO loss. Ali recaptured his title from Foreman after besting the latter in 8 rounds.
Elsewhere, Argentina’s Carlos Monzon rose to the Middleweight throne in 1970 and ran out of abled opponents in that division until he retired in 1977. Experts viewed him as the pound for pound champion in this era—that is, until Roberto Duran of Panama came along.
Like what Monzon did in the middleweight class, Duran thrashed all comers in the lightweight division. He eventually invaded the talent-laden welterweight and middleweight divisions. He won the welterweight championship from Sugar Ray Leonard in their first encounter (1980), only to relinquish it back to Leonard in their return bout. Leonard did not only bested Duran in their 3-bout match-up, he beat Hall of Famer Thomas Hearns and decisioned Middleweight all-time great Marvin Marvelous Hagler, among many other who’s who in boxing.
Mexico’s Julio Cesar Chavez, Pernell Whitaker, Oscar De La Hoya and Roy Jones Junior dominated their respective divisions during this period. Although Chavez, Whitaker and De La Hoya crossed paths at some points in their careers, one would be off his peak in relation to the other. The outcomes of their personal match-ups could therefore hardly be a measure of who was superior to whom. Jones? He rocked (for a time, that is).
Jones and De La Hoya eventually shared the limelight with relative newcomers Shane Mosley, Bernard Hopkins and Floyd Mayweather. All of them would be accorded with the pound for pound title at certain points in their careers, with Mayweather considered as the best until he retired in 2007. Meanwhile, Filipino Manny Pacquiao scaled the higher weight divisions in blitzkrieg fashion. Starting as a flyweight champion in 1998, he won the bantamweight crown in 2001, the featherweight mythical crown in 2003, the super featherweight belt in March 2008, the lightweight championship in July 2008, the light welterweight trophy in May 2009, and the welterweight 6 months later. In December 2008, he faced De La Hoya also at 147 pounds and mauled him in 7 rounds. Experts conceded that the kind of ascent he did had never been done by any fighter before.
Meantime, Mayweather decided to rejoin the fray, celebrating his return to ring action with a convincing decision win over Juan Manuel Marquez in September 2009. A month later, Pacquiao himself solidified his unique status among the world’s greatest boxers by becoming the only fighter to have won world titles in 7 weight divisions when he defeated Miguel Cotto for the latter’s welterweight crown. The result of both bouts had left the boxing world itching to see if Mayweather could reclaim his pound for pound title from Pacquiao through a ring battle. And while the boxing world awaited, Pacquiao was not done with his belt-grabbing binge. Only last November 13, he beat Antonio Margarito to collect the WBC junior middleweight title.
The author can be reached/contacted at http://aberia.ws
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Hermilando “Ingming” Duque Aberia is a sports fan and a literary enthusiast. He has written a book titled “Manny Pacquiao: Story Bigger Than Boxing.” He has a master’s degree in Development Management from the Asian Institute of Management and is a practitioner in social development work.