The Pugil List: Top 10 light heavyweights

Photo by:  HBO

Photo courtesy of HBO


Three of the four major light heavyweight title belts are up for grabs on Saturday night’s HBO’s telecast (10 p.m. ET/PT); depressingly, the two titleholders (I am not liberal with the word “champion”) who share the belts will not be fighting one another. Instead, Kovalev faces, Nadjib Mohammedi, an underwhelming foe puzzlingly elevated to the mandatory position on factors besides beating fellow prospects or contenders. Truthfully, it is an unnecessary match few outside of the participant’s family circle and management look forward to. Instead of extolling nonexistent virtues on a superfluous fight, I am using the occasion to look back on a 175-pound weight class full of great fighters who did face each other.


There is too much to be played out in Kovalev’s career to give thought of him cracking the all-time top 10 but he has a chance, given his current trajectory and possible match-ups in the future. The history of the light heavyweight division spans 112 years and, with the exception of a period between 1905 and 1914, it has been considered a premier weight class. There is much to evaluate and choose from in terms of styles, talent and names. So much so that I excluded personal favorites like Victor Galindez, Henry Maske and Matthew Saad Muhammad. They rate beside other greats like Bernard Hopkins, Roy Jones Jr., Harold Johnson, Battling Levinsky and John Henry Lewis as Hall-of-Famers I could not find room for. The top 10 is completely American as well, with Sam Langford, Jose Torres, Henry Maske, Jack Delaney, Georges Carpentier, Bob Fitzsimmons, Len Harvey and John Conteh missing the cut.


Consider all those omissions for a moment; it gives you an idea of the depth of talent this weight class encompasses. For added insight and historical context, I included some other all-time top 10 ratings (at the end of the feature) to give a comprehensive overview of opinions. The lists are an evolution of thinking when it comes to the wide variety of possible choices and rankings, dating back to 1975, to provide four decades of analysis. If you are up for a challenge, take all the names on these lists and perform some mental acrobatics to produce a top 10 of your own before passing judgment on mine. It is easier to pick apart a ranking then to create one that stands up under scrutiny.





10. Jack Dillon, 94-8-15, (66): Aptly nicknamed “The Giant Killer” for an uncanny ability to defeat heavyweights of his era. Born Ernest Price, he fashioned himself into a Hall of Fame-caliber boxer by fighting as often possible, scouting as much for a promoter to set up a ring as opponents. Dillon became such a gate attraction that he is largely credited with popularizing the weight class. Logged 245 recorded bouts, in which he was only stopped twice, beating notables George Chip, Mike “Twin” Sullivan, Battling Levinsky, Frank Klaus, Fireman Jim Flynn, Gunboat Smith and Billy Miske. Turned pro at welterweight but grew into a physically strong light heavyweight whose combination of stamina and brawling tactics wore foes down. Particularly adept at working over opponents on the inside during clinches and often wrenched or threw opponents to the ground with a twist of his upper torso. Not a pure brawler, Dillon effectively feinted heavier opponents into mistakes, provoking legendary THE RING magazine editor Nat Fleischer to anoint him the second best light heavy he ever saw. Dillon claimed the light heavyweight title by defeating Hugo Kelly when Philadelphia Jack O’Brien vacated by moving to heavyweight and officially won the title with a victory over fellow Hall-of-Famer Battling Levinsky.


9. Gene Tunney, 65-1-1 (48): For most, Tunney is top five but I don’t think he did enough at light heavyweight and I feel many project his achievements at heavyweight onto their evaluations at 175 pounds. Tunney never won a world title at the weight but did hold the American light heavyweight title when it still meant something. A scientific boxer of the highest caliber, he mixed equal parts offense and defense to make himself nearly unbeatable during his prime. If Tunney had wanted to, he could have stayed at light heavyweight longer but also suffered a loss to a natural middleweight (Harry Greb) while there. Instead, Tunney searched for bigger game… namely Jack Dempsey, which he did with success, adding Dempsey to a list of victims that includes Georges Carpentier, Battling Levinsky, Tommy Loughran and Tommy Gibbons. What set Tunney apart from contemporaries is the preparation and intensity with which he studied opponents. Others just laced them up and went at it but Tunney was more purposeful. Tunney was meticulous, using his jab more intelligently than any fighter of the era above 160 pounds. Smart enough to quit the ring while still the world heavyweight champion as well, creating a legacy few have matched, Tunney was ahead of his time in many ways but sadly still lives in the shadow of contemporary Jack Dempsey, whom he bested twice.


8. Billy Conn, 64-1-1 (15): A brilliant boxer, surviving a slew of great challenges, mixing smart punching and defensive prowess. The problem with Conn is that some of his best work was against heavyweights. The division was weak as well, with good fighters either retiring or not yet in their primes. Still, when Conn fought heavier men like Joe Louis, Henry Cooper, Lee Savold and Al McCoy, he did so weighing close to 175 pounds. Seven of Conn’s 12 losses came in his first 18 bouts, fighting to earn quick cash with no intentions of carving out a Hall of Fame career. In his second year, Conn turned things around, making headlines, defeating former middleweight king Fritzie Zivic. Following the Zivic bout with a win over Eddie Risko, Conn was confident that he could do more than just earn money. Conn defeated top-drawer names like Fred Apostoli, Teddy Yarosz, Gus Lesnevich, Melio Bettina, Young Corbett III and Solly Krieger. Conn had a brilliant end to the decade of the 30s, beating top-10 heavies Lee Savold (rated No.10), Gunner Barlund (No. 10 at heavyweight) and Bob Pastor (No. 2 heavyweight). Of course, Conn famously gave Joe Louis fits for 13 rounds. Conn may still be best remembered for that first challenge of Louis, well on his way to winning a decision until Louis KO’d him when he got overzealous. One of the few boxers who gained acclaim in defeat, imagine where we would rate Conn had he won.


7. Jimmy Bivins, 86-25-1 (31): Between 1942 and 1946, Bivins may have been the best boxer, pound-for-pound; unfortunately those years coincided with World War II. Bivins defeated five light heavyweight champions, including a prime Archie Moore and future heavyweight champ Ezzard Charles. His opposition reads like a Hall of Fame roster and Bivins faced them in a relatively short time. Like others, he moved between light heavyweight and heavyweight with equal success, beating the best of his era. A smooth stylist with the ability to slip punches and counter opponents sublimely, the only thing Bivins lacked was one-punch power. Bivins worked behind a precise and quick jab that also enhanced his defense. Before his 20th bout, Bivins beat Hall-of-Famer Charley Burley and future light heavyweight champ Anton Christoforidis. During the war years, Bivins bested Teddy Yarosz, Billy Soose, Gus Lesnevich and Joey Maxim, all of whom were champions or would become champions. Heavyweight contenders Bob Pastor and Lee Savold were also beaten. Luck was not on the side of Bivins, as the boxing world froze most titles during World War II. Following the war, Bivins rolled on, knocking out Archie Moore for his last great win. After that, Bivins began to lose more often while still fighting the best. In all, Bivins defeated four of the seven Hall-of-Famers he fought and eight of 11 world champions willing to get in the ring with him.


6. Tommy Loughran, 90-25-10 (14): Writers eloquently penned tomes on the skills of Loughran, which he needed, since power was as foreign to him as modesty to Floyd Mayweather Jr. The truth behind that lack of power was a chronically-injured right hand, essentially making Loughran a one-handed fighter his entire career. It ensured Loughran had the most accurate left hand of his era and they did not come tougher as his ascension to main sparring partner for Jack Dempsey proves. At light heavyweight, he defeated Georges Carpentier, Mickey Walker, King Levinsky, Mike McTigue, Jimmy Slattery, Leo Lomski and Pete Latzo. Won THE RING Magazine “Fighter of the Year” award in 1929 and 1931. In 1931 alone, Loughran defeated Max Baer, Ernie Schaaf, Johnny Risko, Tuffy Griffiths and Paolino Uzcudun, the equivalent of a light heavyweight today beating the three top title challengers for the heavyweight crown. So, Loughran continued to beat the best heavyweights of the era like Jack Sharkey, King Levinsky, Steve Hamas and Ray Impellitiere while defending his light heavyweight title five times. Unfortunately this natural light heavyweight ran into a behemoth like Primo Carnera, when he got the heavyweight title shot, and the Carnera’s mass was too much to overcome losing a decision. Looking back, objectively, by the time Loughran fought Carnera, he was near the end and gave too much blood just to get a title shot.


5. Maxie Rosenbloom, 207-39-26 (19): The word that jumps to mind with Rosenbloom is “multifaceted.” A consummate pro, Rosenbloom used every tool in his arsenal to overcome one major flaw: He had the weakest punch of any man on this list, truly earning the nickname “Slapsie.” Rosenbloom had a meager 6% kayo ratio but he had the stamina of a marathon runner, using his legs as well in the 15th round as the first. Could win with volume punching or accuracy and getting close enough to hit Rosenbloom was a chore. Even when foes hit him, there was no denting Rosenbloom’s chin, only suffering two stoppage defeats (one a low blow) in 298 bouts. A virtuous person, Rosenbloom crossed the color line to test himself against the best African-American boxers. Not appreciated is his physical strength; while Rosenbloom did not punch hard, he used his long frame well, shouldering or pushing opponents off. Competed in a great era, besting James Braddock, Tiger Flowers, Mickey Walker, John Henry Lewis, Jimmy Slattery, Ted “Kid” Lewis, King Levinsky, Pete Latzo and Lou Nova. Doing so with little training, Rosenbloom was naturally fit and preferred late nights (but never consumed alcohol) at clubs to hard days in the gym. Instead of training, Rosenbloom scheduled fights, an excellent idea, given he was never paid for training.


4. Bob Foster, 56-8-1 (46): Bob Foster didn’t have fists…he had wrecking balls attached to the end of his wrists. Spanning the history of the light heavyweight division, there were few more intimidating sights than the long and lean figure of Bob Foster stepping out of a corner and into your face with precision punches. Foster displayed mental toughness, traveling to England and South Africa, against Chris Finnegan and Pierre Fourie, subduing two of his more accomplished challengers on their turf. Foster was not the one-dimensional slugger many see him as. A well-schooled amateur, Foster almost went undefeated in 100-plus fights in New Mexico and for the Air Force, capped with a Pan Am Games gold medal. Missed out on the Olympics by rejecting the coaches’ demands that he box at middleweight instead of Foster’s natural class of light heavyweight. Foster was definitely his own man in that regard, refusing to bow to demands he thought beneath him or unreasonable. He did fight in a subpar era but won the title by nearly sending Dick Tiger’s head into the 10th row with a right hand. Made a division record 14 title defenses and the losses on Foster’s record came almost solely against heavyweights. Beat solid challengers Chris Finnegan, Vincente Rondon and Jorge Ahumada. Sure, not a murderer’s row of opponents but the way Foster defeated foes leaves the distinct impression that he would have handled Hall of Fame competition just as well.


3. Michael Spinks, 31-1 (21): Where Bob Foster lacked great opposition to push back down the mountain, Spinks suffered an abundance of quality challengers. It can be argued that Spinks was the legitimate champion in the light heavyweight division’s greatest era, second or third at worst. Spinks was very versatile, blasting out weaker opponents and boxing circles around stronger challengers. Most dangerous working from the outside in, where Spinks looked for openings to exploit with either hand. Of course, everyone remembers Spinks’ emasculation at the hands of Mike Tyson. It ended Spinks’ successful foray into the heavyweight division but that is a disservice to a great ring resume at light heavyweight. Before rising to championship heights in the pros, Spinks won the National Golden Gloves and an Olympic Gold medal. Not only did Spinks beat challengers, he dominated great names like Marvin Johnson, Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad and Yaqui Lopez. One of the first men to unify the IBF, WBA, and WBC titles. Overall, rates above Bob Foster by the slightest of margins because of his versatility, even though I may pick Foster in a head-to-head fight.


2. Archie Moore, 185-23-10, (131): Boxing’s knockout king, Moore was such a great a boxer that many do not associate the KO record with him. One of Moore’s nicknames was “ageless” and it is tough to pinpoint where age caught up to Moore, since he bested foes on guile. Really should rate 1A but Moore is locked into second place because he lost to the man in the top spot in head-to-head competition. Want a great statistic? After Moore became the then oldest man (at age 36) to win a world title, he retained the title for nine years. In the ring, there was no skill Moore did not master, adding to this extensive resume of abilities with each fight. Great jab, great hook, fantastic smarts and, just as importantly, a great man who always had encouraging words for defeated challengers. Beat everyone of worth in his era, which spanned an incredible four decades, and did not limit himself to light heavyweights. Many remember his losses at heavyweight to Rocky Marciano and Floyd Patterson but Moore defeated a slew of heavyweight contenders to get those title shots.1


1. Ezzard Charles, 96-25-1 (52): After glowing reviews of Moore and Spinks, it is hard to imagine there was anyone better…but there was. His name is Ezzard Charles and he was aptly nicknamed the “Cincinnati Cobra.” It is a sign of the prestige the heavyweight title carries that Charles is remembered as an average heavyweight champion and not the man who beat legendary Archie Moore three times in three years. Those wins over Moore count for a lot and I rate Charles over Moore based on those head-to-head battles. Charles also defeated Jimmy Bivins three times, after losing in their first encounter, and beat Joey Maxim four times. The scary aspect of Charles is that we never saw the best of him! Charles lost two prime years, from age 23 to 25, enlisted in the Army during World War II, otherwise he would have racked up enough pre-heavyweight wins to make his spot as the greatest light heavyweight unquestionable. Many feel Charles actually limited himself and that he lost much of his taste for the game after opponent Sam Baroudi died following a kayo loss. Another factor to consider is that in none of his heavyweight title fights did Charles break the 200-pound limit. A reason Charles is not thought of in more glowing terms is that he followed in the steps and shadow of the legendary Joe Louis. Hopefully with the passage of time this prejudice disappears.



THE RING magazine staff (1975)


1. Philadelphia Jack O’Brien
2. Archie Moore
3. Jack Dillon
4. Bob Foster
5. Sam Langford
6. Tommy Loughran
7. Paul Berlenbach
8. Billy Conn
9. Kid McCoy
10. Jack Delaney



THE RING magazine staff (1987)


1. Archie Moore
2. Michael Spinks
3. Billy Conn
4. Bob Foster
5. Tommy Loughran
6. Harold Johnson
7. Georges Carpentier
8. Dick Tiger
9. Philadelphia Jack O’Brien
10 .Dwight Qawi



THE RING magazine staff (1994, in “all-time greats by division” feature)


1. Ezzard Charles
2. Archie Moore
3. Bob Foster
4. Gene Tunney
5. Tommy Loughran



THE RING magazine editors (2002)


1. Ezzard Charles
2. Archie Moore
3. Michael Spinks
4. Tommy Loughran
5. Bob Foster
6. Jimmy Bivins
7. Harold Johnson
8. Maxie Rosenbloom
9. Billy Conn
10. Matthew Saad Muhammad



Associated Press “End of the century” poll (1999)


1. Archie Moore
2. Billy Conn
3. Ezzard Charles
4. Roy Jones Jr.
5. Bob Foster
5. Jimmy Bivins (tie)
7. Harold Johnson
8. Philadelphia Jack O’Brien
8. Tiger Jack Fox (tie)
10. Maxie Rosenbloom



International Boxing Research Organization (2005)


1. Archie Moore
2. Ezzard Charles
3. Sam Langford
4. Gene Tunney
5. Bob Foster
6. Tommy Loughran
7. Michael Spinks
8. Bob Fitzsimmons
9. Billy Conn
10. Roy Jones Jr.



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