The Pugil List: Top 10 boxers who retired as champions
A special kind of person can honestly look at himself, then subjugate his ego and legacy to Father Time or long-term health. The slew of recent retirement announcements by future Hall-of-Famers Wladimir Klitschko and Juan Manuel Marquez, as well as former champions Takashi Uchiyama, Tim Bradley, Roberto Guerrero and Takashi Miura served as impetus for this feature on boxers who retired on top with a world title in hand. Yes, it is possible for a great fighter to retire while on top of his game. Or, like Wladimir Klitschko and Marvelous Marvin Hagler, after suffering wrenching defeats but with maybe one more credible title challenge left in them. Leaving while on top has been done, with most pointing to world heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano as the ultimate measuring stick within this elite category.
There have been other, less celebrated cases of world title abdications throughout the last century-and-a-half of pugilism. Men who had powerful egos, which, in turn, fueled their greatness. I like to believe their egos were so extravagant, they simply did not care what others thought of them or their decision to retire. Men advancing in age but secure with their celebrity and accomplishments…Do you hear this, Gennady Golovkin, Andre Ward and Guillermo Rigondeaux? The same pride and drive that makes these men great is also what blinds them to ignoble failure lurking in the shadows at the tail end of a career. And no, I have not included Floyd Mayweather Jr., since it is obvious there is still a possibility of his being enticed back into a real boxing match beyond the whole Conor McGregor farce.
This list of prizefighters was limited to the Marquess of Queensberry era and does not consider bareknuckle boxers, who retired champions, such as Jem Belcher, Henry “Hen” Pearce, Tom Sayers or Jem Mace. It also does not rate boxers who retired on top but had that one disastrous comeback fight like Jim Jeffries or Jose Becerra, nor a Jimmy McLarnin, who defeated Hall-of-Famers in his last two fights but retired without a belt. Also, boxers who passed away while champions, like Stanley Ketchel, Les Darcy, Masao Ohba, Salvador Sanchez and Edwin Valero did not fall within my selection criteria, since – and I do not want this to sound callous – they really had no choice in not returning to the ring. The following is a chronological list of retirements (I believe I have unearthed all but if you spot a fighter whom I have omitted please send me an email) of boxers who held a world title at the time of their departure from Bash Boulevard.
1899 – Jimmy Barry
1928 – Gene Tunney
1949 – Rinty Monaghan
1955 – Rocky Marciano
1962 – Duilio Loi
1963 – Paul Pender
1967 – Horacio Accavallo
1974 – Ernesto Marcel
1977 – Carlos Monzon
1986 – Ji-Won Kim
1987 – Terry Marsh
1991 – Khaosai Galaxy
1993 – Myung Woo Yuh
1994 – Pichit Sithbanprachan
1994 – Anaclet Wamba
1997 – Mihai Leu (Michael Loewe)
1997 – Steve Collins
1999 – Michael Carbajal
2001 – Ricardo Lopez
2003 – Lennox Lewis
2004 – Sven Ottke
2005 – Johnny Nelson
2006 – Masamori Tokuyama
2008 – Joe Calzaghe
2012 – Dmitry Pirog
2012 – Vitali Klitschko
2014 – Carl Froch
2015 – Floyd Mayweather Jr. (kind of)
2017 – Tyson Fury (also an up-in-the-air?)
From that list of 29 champions, excluding the last two, I cut the field to come up with the 10 best (considering the time of retirement, past achievements and future earning ability) boxers to retire with their titles and dignity intact.
10. Michael Carbajal (WBO junior flyweight title) – Still one of the three greatest junior flyweights to lace up the gloves, Carbajal exuded an aura of skillful menace when he entered the ring. A deserving Hall-of-Famer from a weight class that is sorely undervalued by voters in Canastota. It looked like it was going to be anything but a glorious ending for Carbajal, as a then-19-year-old future champion Jorge Arce was pounding Carbajal along the ropes. Arce was dominating and on the verge of scoring a stoppage, when Carbajal, with one eye nearly swollen shut and the other badly cut, unleashed a right hand that dropped Arce to the canvas. Carbajal’s unsurpassed finishing skills kicked in and the former Olympic silver medalist rallied to stop his younger foe. Sure, some say Carbajal should have retired after two losses in 1997, to Mauricio Pastrana and Jake Matlala, but Carbajal could also have kept on fighting after his dramatic win over Arce. He was certainly marketable and, at 32, Carbajal still had some fight left in him.
9. Ernesto Marcel (WBA featherweight title) – A versatile puncher, Marcel could wear down strong opponents with precise blows or overpower weaker foes with sheer aggression. Marcel was above average, defensively, blocking many punches with his strong upper body rather than slipping them. Any questions about his abilities, at the time of his retirement, are made moot by the fact that Marcel defeated Alexis Arguello in his final title defense. Of Marcel’s four losses, two came in the first three years of his career and were avenged via knockout. The one fighter he did not defeat in a rematch was the only man able to knock Marcel out, his legendary countryman Roberto Duran. Came up in an era when many of the fights contenders contested were as difficult as future title defenses, that pre-title bouts with Roberto Duran, Bernardo Caraballo and Alfredo Marcano confirm. Marcel’s first title challenge ended in a 15-round draw, in Kuniaki Shibata’s hometown, but, 10 months later, Marcel defeated Antonio Gomez on the road to win the title. Marcel’s final title defense against legendary Alexis Arguello was a grueling and close contest but also a masterful display of experience over youth.
8. Duilio Loi (WBA junior welterweight title) – An oft-forgotten boxing master. The Italian star only scored 26 stoppages in 126 fights but amazingly only lost three times in a career that spanned 14 years. A slick southpaw speedster, Loi was able to win on points because his punches were so precise and visible to judges, even if they had little force behind them. At the time of his retirement, Loi held the European welterweight and WBA junior welterweight titles. Was an advanced 33 years old at retirement but could still rely on his extraordinary defensive skills to keep him out of harm’s way. Fought eight times in his last year of action and beat world champion Eddie Perkins in his last fight in order to retire with the crown. From his second year as a pro on, it seemed Loi was always in a title fight of some sort or another, competing for Italian, European or World versions of the title.
7. Khaosai Galaxy (WBA junior bantamweight title) – His nickname of “The Thai Tyson” fit Galaxy to a tee. Should be rated as one of the most powerful punching, pound-for-pound southpaws to ever lace up the gloves. So great that not even the voters of the International Boxing Hall of Fame (in the early years of the Organization this was a problem, which has diminished considerably) could overlook the Asian superstar, despite Galaxy never boxing in America and never fighting above junior bantamweight. Perhaps the greatest 115-pounder of all time, impressively knocking out 17 of 20 title challengers, and only had one early career loss in 48 fights. Galaxy was 32 when he retired and was not showing signs (other than a flash knockdown in his final fight) of slowing down. Defeated future flyweight champion David Griman and perennial contender Armando Castro in his final two bouts. For those who say the names he beat are unrecognizable, I would counter that the talent level of fighters at 115 pounds generally exceeds that of challengers above 160 pounds.
6. Myung Woo Yuh (WBA junior flyweight title) – Most consider Yuh the greatest Korean boxer ever and one of the five greatest junior flyweights of all time, as well. If Yuh had fought in America, or if his name were McSomething, he would certainly have been enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame much sooner before the criticism left the IBHOF little choice. Yuh’s final record read 38-1 (14), and his lone loss was by split decision in his opponent’s hometown. It is a loss which Yuh avenged, again in Japan, to regain his title and then defend it in his farewell bout. Won the WBA junior flyweight title in his 19th fight (one of the last 15-round bouts) and proceeded to make 19 defenses of the title. Not your typical pressure fighter, even though Yuh consistently came forward, in that he could stop on a dime, launch a jab followed with a hook, then resume his advance. Yuh could do it all and stepped it up against the best opposition as the stoppage of 12 of 18 challengers proves. Retired at 29 but had certainly grown tired of the strains as Yuh’s average of fighting only twice a year from 1989 to 1993 showed.
5. Ricardo Lopez (IBF junior flyweight title) – With apologies to Sugar Ray Robinson, this Mexican prodigy just might be the best pure textbook boxer of all time. If you were training a boxer to look like he leaped out of the screen of an instructional video, Lopez is the man he should be based upon. Where does one begin? Unbeaten over 16 years, 52 fights, 23 title defenses, held WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO titles, a two division champion and only one title challenger even got the benefit of a split decision – and shouldn’t have. Lopez’s lone blemish was a cut-induced draw to the talented Rosendo Alvarez and Lopez was so upset over the draw that he refused to fight anyone else before a rematch was made. Then, Lopez defeated Alvarez, even though Alvarez came in five pounds over the contracted weight. Lopez was 35 when he retired but obviously still capable of beating anyone Don King could coax into the ring with him. A truly underappreciated legend, who not even King could talk out of retirement.
4. Gene Tunney (world heavyweight championship) – What does Tunney have to do to get some respect? Twice defeated legendary Jack Dempsey and Hall-of-Famers Harry Greb, Battling Levinsky, Tommy Loughran, Tommy Gibbons and Georges Carpentier. The problem may be that Tunney broke stereotypes with his obvious intelligence, scientific boxing and need to maintain a private life. Tunney, like Larry Holmes decades later, suffered by comparison to the legend he dethroned. In fans’ estimation, Tunney would never measure up to Jack Dempsey’s aura. If Tunney fought in the 1990s or 2000s, he would be a Lennox Lewis or Wladimir Klitschko-type without the size. Tunney lost once, to fellow Hall-of-Famer Harry Greb and avenged that loss three times over. Retired at 31, even though he was superior to most every challenger and could have held onto the title with easy defenses across America. Probably felt he could never match up to the legendary reputation of Jack Dempsey and Tunney did not feel a need to chase adoration of the fans and press, who slighted him in equal measure.
3. Lennox Lewis (undisputed heavyweight championship) – There is a good possibility that Lewis, whose adaptiveness in the ring made for cerebral displays of pugilism instead of highlight reel knockouts, will always be underrated in a historical context. This, despite Lewis going out of his way to take on and defeat every available challenger. Only circumstances and Riddick Bowe’s management prevented that potential super-fight. I used to believe Bowe would beat Lewis in their perspective primes. However, I reanalyzed and found that Lewis often fought to the level of his opposition and frankly only lost when he was overconfident and underestimated his opponent. Lewis had enough peace of mind in his career achievements, and his skills, to leave while a tough challenger, namely Wladimir Klitschko, was on the rise. That is a sign of a confident man and I give credit to Lewis for it. If it is time to let go, then you must go…circumstances be damned.
2. Carlos Monzon (undisputed middleweight championship) – I admit my biases and have no problem revealing Monzon as one of my favorites. Generally, I am a fan of less spectacular boxers like Manuel Medina, Livingstone Bramble, Jorge Paez, Steve Collins, Ike Quartey, Marco Huck and Genaro Hernandez. Monzon and Kostya Tszyu are my two notable exceptions. Having said that, I do not think Monzon can be overrated. At the time of his retirement, Monzon was undefeated over 13 years and 71 fights. He just defeated the only man, Rodrigo Valdez, who fans gave a chance to beat him. Monzon did some of this at less than 100%, with a bullet logged in his right shoulder (his wife shot him twice in a 1973 domestic dispute) that affected his vaunted straight right hand. At the time of Monzon’s retirement, there was little else to achieve, as every challenger of worth had already been dispatched. Monzon did not want to move up in weight to fight fellow Argentine and friend Victor Galindez either, so Monzon was wise to retire at 35. It was one of the few intelligent out-of-the-ring decisions Monzon ever made.
1. Rocky Marciano (world heavyweight championship) – A obvious choice for No. 1, and still the standard by which boxing retirements are judged. Receives extra credit for retiring on top of the fistic gold mine called the world heavyweight championship, overcoming a well-chronicled fixation with his monetary stability. Marciano was a young 32, having entered boxing at the relatively late age of 24 and had knocked out his last three challengers. Pessimists point out that Marciano did not beat any monsters and was lucky to come along when the best heavyweights were past their primes, like Joe Walcott and Ezzard Charles, while young guns like Floyd Patterson, Cleveland Williams, Sonny Liston, and Ingemar Johansson were too inexperienced. Never hold the era against a fighter; as long as no one was avoided (maybe a case can be made for Nino Valdes), the boxer should be credited with beating the best available opposition. Besides, Marciano did what he was supposed to when faced with inferior opposition. Rocky knocked out six of seven title fight opponents. Marciano was the most popular champion on this list and would have been forgiven by fans of the period, if he revived the “Bum of the Month Club.” Instead Marciano retired with dignity, something to which all boxers should aspire.