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The 10 greatest lightweights of all time


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Tony Connolly, with his weekly column, this week asks Birmingham Mail boxing journalistic legend Mike Lockley to name the 10 greatest lightweights of all time



REFLECTION of perfection; in our quest for the greatest pound-for-pound fighters of all time, we have studied boxing’s juggernauts. From the likes of Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and the big men to Sugar Ray Leonard, Barney Ross and the the finest welterweights ever.

Now it’s time to cast our eye over the lighter divisions, the weight classes where South American and Oriental fighters can compete on an even playing field. Mike Lockley lists his top 10 all-time lightweight boxers.


10. Julio Cesar Chavez

One of the greatest Mexican boxers of all time, and that’s saying something!

OK, Chavez didn’t hang around too long at lightweight, but he was possibly at his mercurial best at nine-and-a-half stone.

Chavez was undefeated in 56 fights when he took the crown from Edwin Rosario in 1987, and defended three times.

He was first beaten in his 91st fight and holds the record for the largest crowd at a boxing match – 132,274 people crammed into Mexico’s Estadio Azteca to watch their hero beat Greg Haugen.



9. Freddie Welsh

Born in Pontypridd in 1886, Welsh was one of the few British fighters to conquer America.

He made his debut in Philadelphia in 1905 and beat Willie Ritche for the title nine years later.

Welsh, one of the few vegetarian world champs – a dietary decision deemed bizarre in the early 1900s – may have been dubbed a “snowflake puncher” by the American press, but he beat the very best in a 168-bout career. Legends who lost to Welsh included Benny Leonard, Ad Wolgast, Abe Attell and Jim Driscoll. He died in poverty in 1927, aged only 41.



8. Alexis Arguello

The Nicaraguan did do everything by the textbook. He took the title from Jim Watt in 1981 and defended the crown four times before growing out of the division.

A true master, Arguello combined silky skills with firepower, earning him the nickname “Explosive Thin Man”. That’s one hell of a mouthful to shout from ringside. He took his own life in 2009, at the age of 57.



7. Carlos Ortiz

A party animal, the Puerto Rican wasn’t exactly a Trojan in the gym, but raw talent saw him through.

He won the title from Joe Brown in 1962.

He made five successful defences before losing to Ismael Laguna, but gained revenge seven months later, going on to defend a further five times. Ortiz retired in 1972 after being stopped by Ken Buchanan with a 61-7-1 record.



6. Tony Canzoneri

Another Italian-American with strong Mafia links. In fact, his father was a full-blown New York Don – and Tony was rumoured to have continued the family tradition.

The fighter’s wife, Rita, once had to fight off the drunken, amorous advances of a punter while working at Bugsy Seigel’s club.

The clubber’s body was found the following day. Officially, he’d committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. But Canzoneri was a magnificent fighting machine. He fought 171 times from 1925 to 1939 and faced the real iron men of the division.

Canzoneri took the title with a one-round blast-out of Al Singer and twice defended against Britain’s Jack Kid Berg.

Other champions put to the sword include Kid Chocolate, Billy Petrolle and Lou Ambers. He died in 1959, aged 51.



5. Ike Williams

A complete fighting machine, Williams’ standing in the sport has been tainted by his links to the Mob – his manager was gangland figure Blinky Palermo.

In 1960 Williams, from Georgia, testified before a commission looking into Mafia links to the sport, and admitted being offered bribes. He also admitted throwing a fight and being fleeced by gangsters.

Williams certainly didn’t need help inside the ring. A thunderous puncher, he reigned from 1944 to 1951, beating such greats as Kid Gavilan, Beau Jack, Bob Montgomery, Juan Zurita and Sammy Angott. Ike bowed out with a record of 127 wins in 155 fights.



4. Pernell Whitaker

A modern fighter, with throwback defensive skills. Whitaker was, quite simply, a ring genius.

He defended the title eight times from 1989 to 1991, then went on to reign at light-welter, welter and light-middle.

But cocaine succeeded where “Sweet Pea’s” opponents failed. Drug addiction slowed him and ended his career.

The only opponent who really beat him was Class A drugs.

In his prime, Whitaker, who bowed out with 40 wins in 46 fights, could beat anyone.

He boasted: “I don’t care who I’m fighting. I don’t care if it’s God.

“If I don’t want God to hit me, he’s not going to hit me.”

Whitaker was, quite simply, a defensive master.



3. Joe Gans

During an era when impoverished America wanted an escape from their hand-to-mouth existence through the raw violence of boxing, Gans gave them pure skill.

A truly remarkable athlete, he held the title from 1902 to 1908 and those defences included a 42-round win over great Battling Nelson.

He lost the title to Nelson in 1908, but by that time Gans was riddled with TB: the “consumption” that would claim his life in 1910, at the age of just 35.

By then, Gans had fought 196 times, winning 158.

After each victorious fight, Gans would send a telegram to his large family, informing them: “I’m bringing home the bacon.”

It’s a statement that’s survived the sands of time.



2. Benny Leonard

With his brilliantined hair and cameo silent movie appearances, including a Laurel and Hardy knockabout, Leonard – one of the great Jewish fighters – was the poster boy of Roaring Twenties boxing.

Born Benjamin Leiner in a Manhattan Jewish ghetto, the fighter combined craft with a ruthless streak during his 219-fight career (183 of them wins).

And it was Benny, not Ali, who introduced gamesmanship into the sport, often taunting opponents by hissing: “Is that the best you’ve got?” He grabbed the title by stopping Welshman Freddie Welsh in nine rounds in 1917 and made seven defences over the next eight years.

But Leonard lost his ring earnings in the Wall Street crash and was forced to make an ill-fated comeback in 1931.

He died of a heart attack in 1947 while refereeing a boxing match. He was only 51 years old.

His legacy has been somewhat sullied by his alleged links to the Jewish mafia – but what a fighter!



1. Roberto Duran

No contest. Roberto Duran, the Panamanian bundle of fire and fury, is considered by many the greatest fighter the world has ever seen.

In a career spanning 103 fights, “Hands of Stone” also won the welter, light-middle and middleweight titles, but it was at lightweight where the lean Duran was at his peak, making 12 defences of the crown.

Duran was a product of the impoverished barrios that spat him out. As a child he almost drowned while swimming a river burdened with a swag of fruit he’d scrumped.

Left to fend for himself, Duran soon established himself as a young man best given a wide berth.

Yes, he really did knock out a horse for a wager.

Yes, he liked nothing better than punishing much bigger American GIs on the cobbles.

And yes, he did spark out the wife of a beaten fighter who dared to climb on the ring apron and berate the champ.

Roberto’s break came when a local took a prominent US promoter to watch the hardcase in action. After witnessing Duran bludgeon a much bigger Yank on the beach, the New Yorker quipped: “Where did you catch it, and what did you do with its tail?” In the ring, Duran was just as destructive. He took the lightweight title from our own Ken Buchanan in 1972, felling the Scot with a blow that was well below the picketline, and dominated the division for six years. Duran faced the very best and destroyed them. Fine fighters such as Esteban De Jesus, Ray Lampkin, Guts Ishimatsu and Vilomar Fernandez were all chewed up by the human meatgrinder.

Duran, whose eyes smouldered with bad intent, wasn’t much for PR. After Lampkin was taken to hospital following his 14-round mauling, Roberto told reporters: “If I was in shape, he’d be in the graveyard.”

Duran, now 64, went on to cement his greatness with outstanding performances at higher weights, including a famous victory over Sugar Ray Leonard and a heroic points loss to middleweight champ Marvin Hagler.

Quite simply, an irrepressible force of nature that the fight game will never see the likes of again.





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