The Pugil List: Ten greatest super middleweights
Two current events gave me pause to reflect on the history of the super middleweight division. First, after a lengthy absence, the return of Andre Ward, the best super middleweight of this era, which he proved by winning Showtime’s groundbreaking “Super Six” tourney. The second is Joe Calzaghe, arguably the best super middleweight ever, lamenting to Sky Sports last week, “If there was one fight I wish I had fought, it would be Carl Froch.” Of course, Froch is today’s most exciting super middleweight and has had a running verbal battle with Calzaghe for years. Calzaghe explained, “At the time, I had bigger and better things, fighting Mikkel Kessler for the undisputed championship of the world, and then I stepped up to light heavyweight to win a RING magazine belt in America against the then pound-for-pound best Bernard Hopkins. It would have been a great fight, a big-money fight, and I would have demolished him.” Naturally, Froch accused Calzaghe of “ducking” him and maintains he would have beaten Calzaghe.
It is amazing how dominant non-American boxers have been in this division (even today, eight of the 10 boxers rated by THE RING magazine were born outside America); the only explanation is that the median weight for Europeans is 168 pounds. For more strangeness, you only have to look to the second champion at 168 pounds, Chong-Pal Park, who hailed from Korea. It is an anomaly to find elite boxers from Asia above lightweight but one of the best 168-pounders ever was Korean. Want more international flavor? The first super middleweight champion, Murray Sutherland, is Scottish and eight American challengers were dispatched with before Thomas Hearns won a vacant WBO version of the title in 1988.
The super middleweight division was established in 1984 by the IBF (ironically the American-based sanctioning body) as way for them to make more money. However, to be fair, it is the one weight class, other than the original eight, for which a valid argument can be made for its existence. The divide between 160 and 175 was very large, unlike other junior divisions, in which only three or four pounds separate them. This assured the division would not become a resting place for obese middleweights or bulimic light heavies. Finding footage to reinforce opinions is easy, which is not the case in other divisions like middleweight, in which there is no film of an all-time great like Harry Greb.
In compiling this list, I did not consider active boxers, since it is improper to judge an incomplete career, given the rapid declines and sudden reversals in fortune for which boxing is infamous. This eliminates Andre Ward, (who ran rampant through the division and will make the list on his current career trajectory) as well as Carl Froch (who still has one or two possible showdowns, given his name recognition and fans’ hunger to see him). Fortunately, the division is young enough for many of us to have seen all the greats who competed in it. So, without further ado, here are the 10 best super middleweights of all time…or at least since 1984 anyway.
10. Frankie Liles, 32-3 (19) – Did not exactly burst onto the scene by defeating Steve Little, one of the weakest world champions ever, over 12 rounds in Argentina, of all places. Liles beats out prodigious waste of talent Michael Nunn by defeating Nunn head to head; Liles was a quality boxer, twice winning national amateur titles (285-14 record) and only a talent like Roy Jones Jr. kept Liles from taking a spot on the Olympic team. Liles displayed mental toughness, knocking out Tim Littles in his fourth title defense, avenging a previous loss by unanimous decision. Give Liles extra credit for being a true world traveler, defending his title in Ecuador, Germany, England, Argentina and Puerto Rico. In all, Liles successfully defended his WBA title seven times with the best name on that resume being Nunn, followed by Segundo Mercado and Andrej Shkalikov. Was far ahead on the scorecards when Byron Mitchell landed a punch out of nowhere, sending Liles to the canvas and winning via three-knockdown rule. Liles, still a slick punching southpaw, never recovered, only fighting once more, losing to an average Demetrius Jenkins.
9. Mikkel Kessler, 46-3 (35) – Dangerous Dane possessed all the fundamentals and only lost to elite boxers in their primes who were also fighting in their hometowns. Like Frankie Liles, receives plaudits for a willingness to travel anywhere for a fight, making the first defense of his title in Australia against tough Anthony Mundine. Knocked out respectable Manny Siaca to win the title, making six defenses (over three reigns) and knocking out four of those challengers. Unified the WBC and WBA title with stoppage of Markus Beyer and bested Carl Froch in a battle of wills. Only Hall-of-Famer Joe Calzaghe was able to stop a pre-prime Kessler from adding the WBO title. In other unification bouts, was handicapped by cuts against Andre Ward and Froch (in a rematch) but never slowed ,showing fighting spirit throughout. A consistently exciting fighter, Kessler’s fights against Calzaghe and Froch not only rate as two of the most important but also stirring fights in division history.
8. Chong-Pal Park, 46-5-1 (39) – One of two Korean world super middleweight champions (the other was In Chul Baek whom Park lost to in his final fight) and the first dominant champion the division produced. A good boxer/puncher who mixed it up when he needed to but preferred to work from the outside in employing thuddingly accurate punches at range. Made eight defenses of the IBF title but vacated it in order to fight for and win the WBA belt. Park defended the WBA strap once before hard-hitting Venezuelan Fulgencio Obelmejias took his title via decision in their rematch. One of the rare Koreans who ventured to America and escaped with a win, defeating Vinnie Curto in Los Angeles. Bested all-around boxer and former champion Lindell Holmes in a tough 15-round affair, as well as natural light heavyweight Murray Sutherland to kick off his first title reign. Retired at age 28, after two consecutive losses, knowing he had given everything in the ring.
7. James Toney, 76-9-3 (46) – The second of four weight classes Toney ate his way out of on his way to the heavyweight division. Won the IBF version by impressively knocking out Iran Barkley but he lacked staying power, only making three successful defenses. I commend Toney for keeping busy, contesting seven non-title bouts at super middleweight and light heavyweight, defeating solid foes Glenn Thomas and Anthony Hembrick. Best win at the weight came via an eye-opening knockout of former light heavyweight champion Prince Charles Williams, stealing the show from Oscar De La Hoya that night in the process. Toney’s noncompetitive loss against Roy Jones came at super middleweight however, which devalues Toney’s legacy in the division. Overall, a good championship reign in which Toney outboxed Tony Thornton and handed Tim Littles his first pro defeat.
6. Nigel Benn, 42-5-1 (35) – There was no more exciting European fighter (and perhaps the world) from the late-1980s to the mid-1990s than the fearsome Benn, truly earning the “Dark Destroyer” nickname. Benn’s first 23 fights ended in a kayo (one way or the other) and, despite an all-in style, made nine successful defenses of the WBC title, including a legendary brawl with Gerald McClellan. In the McClellan battle, Benn showed valor beyond the call of duty, climbing back into the very ring of which he had been knocked out. A lack of credible challengers other than Chris Eubank hurts Benn’s standing but he makes up for it in terms of fan appeal. Also, has a good body of work at middleweight, including a first round kayo of the usually durable Iran Barkley. Fans on both sides of the Atlantic were clamoring for Benn to fight Roy Jones Jr. but the fight never materialized…though there is no doubt it was not because an unwillingness by Benn, who feared no opponent.
5. Chris Eubank, 45-5-2 (23) – Cocky Englishman’s nickname was “Simply the Best” and Eubank was not that far away from being the best ever at super middle. I maintain that during Roy Jones’ prime, Eubank was the only fighter who had the style to challenge him, given Eubank’s ring patience and a mindset equal to Jones. “Quirky” is the best word to describe Eubank’s behavior in and out of the ring. Sadly, a cocksure Eubank lost much of his aggression and killer instinct after a showdown with Michael Watson, who nearly died of brain injuries suffered during their bout. Eubank often talked of a love/hate affair with boxing and it seems he never fully committed himself to the sport mentally. Even so, Eubank reeled off 14 successful defenses of the WBO title and many believe he should have won the WBC version but settled for a draw against rival Nigel Benn. A hot-and-cold fighter who fought up or down to the level of his opposition, which usually made for interesting viewing.
4. Roy Jones Jr., 61-8 (44) – If this list were based on talent and athletic ability alone, Jones would rate at the top but other considerations must be made. This was the division in which Roy Jones should have cemented a legacy as one of the greatest boxers of all time. However, a refusal to travel overseas and fight Eubank, Benn or Steve Collins hurt his reputation. There were no excuses since economics dictated that Europe is where the money resided and none of the potential opponents were under the control of then-power-broker Don King. The “Reluctant Roy” tag was first generated at 168 pounds. On the plus side, Roy dominated James Toney at super middle – in his debut no less – and Jones made five defenses of the title. Another positive is that all his title defenses came via knockout, to include Vinny Pazienza, tough-as-nails Merqui Sosa and underrated Eric Lucas. Jones probably could have stayed at super middle longer but, after two years, he ran out of North American opponents.
3. Sven Ottke, 34-0 (6) – It is hard to argue against perfection, as anyone who ever debated a Rocky Marciano or Floyd Mayweather Jr. fan will attest too. Yes, Ottke had less power than a 20-year-old minivan (only six career kayos) but he was one hell of a smart boxer who may have been the best judge of distance and timing a punch from 1998 to 2004. Those who saw him live were impressed by instincts and footwork which allowed Ottke to beat opponents to the point of engagement and land first. The one time Ottke really needed to show stopping power, hopelessly behind on points against Anthony Mundine, he unleashed a right hand that knocked Mundine unconscious. Shares a division record 21 title defenses with Joe Calzaghe, which is not likely to be challenged for some time, annexing the WBA title and defending it four times. Sure, there were controversial decisions that went in his favor (heck, his title-winning effort against Charles Brewer was close) but name a popular champion who reigned for six years that did not have close decisions go his way.
2. Steve Collins, 36-3 (21) – Talk about overlooked – and not just by a Roy Jones who ignored Collins’ consistent challenges. Early on, the Irishman hurt himself cutting pounds to make middleweight, losing two title shots at 160 pounds. Found himself at 168, and gets massive credit for twice besting Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn in title fights. Granted, both men were nearing the ends of their careers but so was Collins. One of the few in boxing history who retired as a champion, undefeated in his last 15 fights, of which seven were title defenses. In fact, Collins never lost at super middleweight. The only man to ever outclass Collins was a prime Mike McCallum, the other two decision losses were of the majority version on foreign shores. Collins didn’t dazzle in any one skill department but always gave 100 percent, forcing opponents into brawls by cutting the ring off to stay on top of them, forcing exchanges. The epitome of a hardheaded Irishman, Collins’ first fight with Eubank is a classic and he was generally in fun tilts.
1. Joe Calzaghe, 46-0 (32) – The rare athlete who retired at the top of his game as the recognized world champion and the Welshman never tasted defeat as a professional. Early on, Calzaghe’s career seemed cursed by injury and poor timing that caused big fights to fall out. Proved his worth late though, besting future Hall-of-Famers Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones Jr. in America, in a win for the RING light heavyweight championship and one defense, respectively. A superb boxer whose only rival in that regard was German Sven Ottke. Most believe Calzaghe’s edge in power would have been the deciding factor in a mythical Calzaghe-Ottke match-up. Too bad Calzaghe never faced Steve Collins, whose vacated title he won; it remains the only scalp to elude the Welshman. Another case of early missed opportunity, I suppose, since Calzaghe did his best to get credible opposition in the ring otherwise. Proved he was the best of his era – and as it turned out, ever – by defeating the divergent styles of Jeff Lacy, Bernard Hopkins, Roy Jones, Mikkel Kessler and Chris Eubank. Along with Ottke, is one of the few boxers to retire as an undefeated champion. It took the Hopkins and Jones wins for America to recognize Calzaghe for what he was: The best ever at super middleweight!