The Pugil List: The 10 greatest flyweights of all time
Great things come in small packages; it is a sentiment that holds true in boxing, something HBO and other American networks have come to discover late, thanks to the success of the “SuperFly” card last September, in which Naoya Inoue, Srisaket Sor Rungvisai and Juan Francisco Estrada showed off their skills to an appreciative audience. So in another rare move, HBO will air one flyweight title fight tonight, that will hopefully shine a light on what American fans have been missing out on at this weight. Well-known American stalwart Brian Viloria (whose bout for the vacant WBA title will be broadcast on RingTV.com) and vastly underappreciated Filipino and IBF titlist Donnie Nietes are good representatives of the division. However, do they have the skill sets and resumes to match some of the legends in this historic weight class?
I will take away some of the drama and answer the last sentence straight away…No, they do not. There is no shame in that either, as some fistic legends have done their work at 112 pounds. Plus, Nietes only recently moved up to flyweight but may well have an argument for Hall of Fame induction at junior flyweight. But back to the matter at hand: Who were the 10 greatest flyweights? My list follows, stretching the entirety of the division’s 109-year existence.
Boxers from the current era have a hard time making this list, since fighters from this century are not staying in divisions for extended periods, racking up title defenses. They prefer to move up in weight for paydays and chase multiple titles, since the divisions are no longer separated by a lot of weight, given the introduction of “junior” catagories. They are skilled enough, though, and boxing is not a statistic heavy sport. Still, it is hard to deny the value of longevity and total bouts at a weight.
Of boxing’s eight traditional divisions, the flyweights were the last to be established in 1909. Some did not recognize it until Jimmy Wilde made the division popular in 1914, showing the strength a personality brings to boxing. By my count, there have been between 140 and 150 flyweight champions, depending on what sanctioning bodies you consider of merit (such as the NBA or NYSAC, back in the 1930s) and, in the last two decades, the turnover has been particularly high. Before I start my Top 10, I want to give an honorable mention to Masao Ohba, a champion on his way to inclusion but sadly died at age 23 in a car accident. Ohba is pretty much the Salvador Sanchez of Japanese boxing. Some prominent names that missed the cut are Omar Narvaez, Roman Gonzalez, Manny Pacquiao, Fighting Harada, Pone Kingpetch, Betulio Gonzalez, Hilario Zapata, Rinty Monaghan, Park Chan-Hee, Chartchai Chionoi, Salvadore Burruni, Santos Laciar, Peter Kane, Midget Wolgast, Mark Johnson and Jackie Paterson.
10. Pongsaklek Wonjongkam – Edges out Betulio Gonzalez and Omar Narvaez for the final spot. Though Betulio faced a better caliber of opposition than either, he also lost to it too frequently. This Thai legend finished with a 22-2-2 record in world title fights and did not always enjoy the benefit of home cooking, scoring significant victories in Japan. Wonjongkam retained the title for over six years (held the lineal and THE RING Magazine Championship); only Omar Narvarez and Jimmy Wilde held it longer and he still holds the record for most consecutive title defenses at 19. Registered 620 rounds in 97 pro appearances, yes, many against very weak opposition but we should not complain about that in an era in which boxers do not fight enough. After a couple of early career losses, Wonjongkam went undefeated for over a decade and, as a whole, produced Hall of Fame numbers, which the IBHOF is likely to ignore because he never fought in America. Unlike the majority of Thai fighters, Wonjongkam relied on boxing skills more than strength and aggression, even though he holds the quickest KO victory in flyweight history, when he destroyed Daisuke Naito in 34 seconds . The southpaw counterpuncher was rated a top flyweight by THE RING Magazine for over 500 weeks, to include a run of 10 years in which Wonjongkam did not suffer a defeat.
9. Fidel LaBarba – The converted southpaw was a smooth boxer, who used his feet better than anyone else in the era. LaBarba combined footwork with good upper body movement, becoming a great defensive boxer. He was seldom hurt and never knocked out. Not a heavy hitter, LaBarba counted on accuracy to become a champion. Came to the attention of the boxing world, winning the gold medal at the 1924 Olympics. Because of his status as a gold medalist, it did not take long for LaBarba to mix it up with the best. In only his second bout, LaBarba fought Hall-of-Famer Jimmy McClarnin but came away a disputed points loser. Shortly afterward, defeated seasoned pro Frankie Genaro for the American flyweight title, in only his 11th professional fight. Won the world title after the death of Pancho Villa, by defeating Scotland’s Elky Clark. LaBarba never defended that title, retiring in order to attend the prestigious Stanford University. Only a year after his announced retirement, LaBarba returned and, after four years of taking on the best (split two fights with Kid Chocolate), Fidel was given a title shot against Battling Battalino at bantamweight. Battalino’s brawling style proved to be too much for the smaller LaBarba but he did manage to survive the full 15 rounds. An eye injury sustained near the end of his career caused the removal of LaBarba’s left eye. In retirement, LaBarba returned to school and got a degree in journalism. Would be rated higher but some of his best work was done above flyweight.
8. Yuri Arbachakov – The first boxer from the former Soviet Union to hold a professional world title, who, along with Kostya Tszyu, shaped an early aura of invincibility for that type of emerging talent. This spot came down between Arbachakov and Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson but I believe Arbachakov was slightly more sophisticated and also beat a better caliber of foe during his reign. Arbachakov was the first Russian boxer to hold a world title in 60 years, when Benny Bass lost his title in 1931. A multifaceted boxer, who should be given credit for converting his Soviet amateur style (went 165-21) to an aggressive pro style, favoring a stiff jab, followed by the straight right. Arbachakov won the European and World Amateur Championships before the fall of the Soviet Union allowed him to turn pro. Wisely decided to live and compete in Japan where smaller fighters are appreciated. After only two years as a pro defeated, via a very impressive eighth round TKO, the solid Muangchai Kittikasem for the WBC title. His nine title defenses were all one-sided, with the exception of a close fight with Ysaias Zamudio. An injury sidelined Arbachakov for nearly a year-and-a-half, after which former victim Chatchai Dutch Boy Gym won a close 12-round decision over him. Arbachakov, tired of nagging hand injuries, retired after that fight and was never tempted back. Sadly a great match-up, one of the best possible in the 1990s, between Arbachakov and Mark Johnson never came off.
7. Horacio Accavallo – One of a few champions to retire with a world title. The Argentine was an infuriatingly persistent southpaw, who never allowed the distance between him and his opponent to reach more than a couple of inches, as he went to the body with short hooks. Not just a volume puncher, as only losing one decision over his 11-year and 83-bout career shows. That loss came against stylist Salvatore Burruni in the Italian’s hometown and was avenged six years later. Accavallo gained a title shot because Burruni gave up the WBA title, rather than face Accavallo a fourth time. Accavallo’s tight defense and granite chin enabled him to travel well and it says something about his class that, after his first victory in Italy, he was asked to make nine more appearances. It was not until his 72nd fight that Accavallo finally got a title shot. He was made to sweat the decision out but after the scores were read, Accavallo had won a split decision over Katsuyoshi Takayama. In that fight, Accavallo showed incredible heart, coming back from a merciless beating over the first three rounds. Defeated well-respected Hiroyuki Ebihara in his first title defense and followed it up with another decision win over similarly tough challenger Efren Torres. After a cut-induced non-title loss in Japan to undefeated Kiyoshi Tanabe and a very close decision victory over Ebihara in a rematch, Accavallo retired. At 34, some thought Accavallo still had some defenses left in him but he never made a comeback.
6. Pancho Villa – The first Filipino world champion, Villa’s victories propelled the tiny nation onto the fistic landscape, as Manny Pacquiao did decades later. Sadly we never got to see the best of Villa, since he died at age 24 of blood poisoning. Packed 100 fights into six years and excited fans with a take-no-prisoners style. Won two national titles, fighting larger men, before venturing to America. Success did not come immediately, when Villa was matched tough in close defeats to future champ Frankie Genaro and Abe Goldstein. Genaro just had Villa’s number and defeated him twice more (once for the American flyweight title). No one else emulated Genaro’s success and Villa tore through American flyweights along the East Coast. Gained international acclaim, defeating Jimmy Wilde, who was unable to keep the fight at a distance. Villa ripped into his body and an exhausted Wilde was stopped in the seventh. Villa held the title for three years but, in his last bout (a non-title affair), Hall-of-Famer Jimmy McLarnin won a 10-round decision. Villa was obviously affected by an infected tooth he had extracted the morning of the fight and he had three more teeth pulled two days later. He died of blood poisoning from those procedures, the same day his wife gave birth to Villa’s son.
5. Frankie Genaro – Voted one of the best fighters of the 1930s because of his fast feet and defensive mastery. He also fought during one of the most talent-laden eras for flyweights. As an amateur, Genaro won local, city, state and national titles en route to winning the 1920 Olympic flyweight gold medal. Genaro turned pro, boxing out of New York City and ran up a string of wins over top-notch fighters like Charley Rosenberg and Joe Colletti. His stock rose immensely when he defeated Pancho Villa for the American flyweight title. By 1925, after Villa won the world title, Genaro was considered the uncrowned champion but losses to Fidel LaBarba and Newsboy Brown damaged his title ambitions. The loss made Genaro reevaluate his life and he took time off to attend college. In 1928, Genaro returned and won the NBA title by outboxing Frenchy Belanger. A year later, he was coaxed to Europe and was upset in vicious fashion. In France, he was caught cold and knocked out by Emile Pladner in the first round. A rematch was given six weeks later and Genaro won via disqualification in the fifth round, after which he successfully toured Europe, defeating their top boxers. The years and bouts began to wear on Genaro and, at age 30, he lost his title to Young Perez.
4. Benny Lynch – It is said that the only opponent to truly ever best Lynch was “John Barleycorn.” Alcohol got the better of Lynch, just as he destroyed every world-class flyweight of his time. This phenom was lacking in nothing inside the ring and was hailed by peers and old-timers alike. The Scotsman had a solid punch and the ability to take a shot in return. His fantastic stamina allowed him to put forth a work rate few could match. Lynch’s championship reign is made even more improbable when you consider he was almost certainly battling alcoholism in its midst. Yet he excelled and only lost the title when he came in overweight for a defense against American Jackie Jurich. He went out and won that fight via 12th round KO anyhow. His downfall was incredibly swift and as unforeseen, as one of his right hands that followed a blinding a jab. Within four months of losing his title on the scale, Lynch would lose two fights and leave boxing. From there, he only ruled the back alleys and gutters of Glasgow. Ignorant people, who once cheered him, yelled “bum” and “drunk” when he was spotted on the streets. The drink led to a death via malnutrition at age 33.
3. Miguel Canto – It takes a special fighter to overcome two knockout losses in his first three fights and morph into one of the greatest defensive fighters ever. Canto also broke a stereotype that Mexico only produces crude brawlers willing to take three punches to deliver a lone hook, which is not to say Canto was a boring fighter. Indeed he was an exciting boxer, preconceived notions that defensive experts are boring be damned, in this case. Canto overwhelmed opponents through a mix of speed, high-volume punching, stamina and dogged determination. Most of all, he determined the pace and direction of opponents with a fantastically timed and accurate jab. The stylish Canto makes the cut for three different all-time Top 10 lists, as one of the greatest flyweights, Mexican and defensive geniuses to lace up the gloves. Take into account that he accomplished this even though he only stood at 5-foot-1 and scaled in under 112, in many bouts. Set a then-flyweight record of 14 consecutive title defenses, doing so on foreign turf in eight of those victories. Impressively only one of those wins was via a stoppage. While Canto reigned supreme as champion, the rival WBA sanctioning body went through four different titlists. Of his nine losses, six came in the first and last years of his career. In Canto’s prime, he never slipped up and only lost one fight via majority decision (twice avenged), from 1970 to 1979.
2. Jimmy Wilde – Never was a body so deceptive in hiding the power it held. Wilde looked so frail physicians had to be convinced he was fit enough to compete. Yet this skeleton of a man managed to score stoppages in 99 of 143 contests. Doctors actually studied Wilde, this time trying to find the source of his incredible power. When THE RING Magazine consulted experts worldwide, for its 100 greatest punchers of all-time, it came to the conclusion that Wilde was the third greatest, behind Sam Langford and Joe Louis. Like many great European fighters, the straight right hand was his most potent weapon. Most of the time, opponents’ confidence, at the sight of the small man, moved them into range, where Wilde’s perfectly-timed blows were launched like a snake striking a mouse. As his reputation grew, and foes were more cautious, Wilde coaxed them in with a wide stance and hands at his side. The longest run of fights without a KO Wilde endured was three and that was in an unbeaten run of 101 bouts. In his prime, Wilde suffered one defeat (several reports have him contracting a severe flu days before the bout) to undervalued Tancy Lee and he avenged the loss via KO one year later. Held the world flyweight title for seven years and defended it five times before World War I interrupted it. Historians Nate Fleischer, Herb Goldman, Charley Rose and a 1996 THE RING Magazine ratings panel adjudicated Wilde as the greatest flyweight.
1. Pascual Perez – The “Tupungato Tiger” was small, even by flyweight standards, but he was lightning-quick and traveled the world in search of victims. The little Argentine had no qualms taking title fights in Tokyo, Caracas, Manila, Bangkok, Los Angeles, Montevideo, Bogota and Guadalajara. Perez started his road warrior ways, winning a gold in the 1948 Olympics. He made up for a lack of height, standing only 4-foot-11, with tenacity and tactical aggression. Perez did better than just win most of his fights…He dominated, knocking out 62 percent of his opponents. Perhaps maturity is what made Perez such a good road warrior, as he didn’t turn pro until age 26. Seasoned before his time, Perez went undefeated in his first 50 fights and, two years after turning pro, had won a world title. Held the title for six years, making 14 defenses. Naturally he won the title on the road, beating Yoshio Shirai over 15 rounds in Tokyo. Unfortunately Americans did not get to see the best of Perez, as his only appearance (a title fight in Los Angeles) was an eighth round TKO loss to Pone Kingpetch, an exceedingly tall flyweight, who just had Perez’s number. Age did catch up to Perez, as he lost his title at 34. The term “pound-for-pound” was created to describe Sugar Ray Robinson but perhaps the term “inch-for-inch” should become part of today’s vernacular to pay tribute to the undersized skills of Perez.