My Top Ten Pound-for-Pound Fighters (Since 1945)

By Ted Sares |

Sugar Ray Robinson: The AP named him both the greatest welterweight and middleweight boxer of the century.
Sugar Ray Robinson: The AP named him both the greatest welterweight and middleweight boxer of the century.

I analyzed their records, style, chin, KO percentages, skill-sets, entire body of work, quality of opposition, and especially the era in which they fought…

“I know a lot of guys are gonna complain about me having Gene Tunney on there, but how can you complain when a guy only lost one out of 77 fights, and you know Harry Greb belongs on there….well he beat Harry Greb three out of four—anyone who loses one out of 77 with those great fighters …man I gotta put ‘em.”—Teddy Atlas

I have never seen a list of great boxers that is the “correct” list; there is no such thing. Attempts can be made to close the gap by quantification, but in the end, the entirely subjective nature of any list comparing fighters across different weight categories and different eras is bound to be the subject of heated debate. Nonetheless, many have had a go at it.

The late Bert Sugar had it this way:

1. Sugar Ray Robinson
2. Henry Armstrong
3. Willie Pep
4. Joe Louis
5. Harry Greb
6. Benny Leonard
7. Muhammad Ali
8. Roberto Duran
9. Jack Dempsey
10. Jack Johnson

Respected historian/writer Tracy Callis compiled his best pound-for-pound as follows:

1. Bob Fitzsimmons
2. Sugar Ray Robinson
3. Nonpareil Jack Dempsey
4. Sam Langford
5. Charley Mitchell
6. Henry Armstrong
7. Stanley Ketchel
8. Jack Dempsey
9. Philadelphia Jack O’Brien
10. Harry Greb

Historian and writer Mike Casey of rates the top pound-for-pound fighters along these lines:

1. Ray Robinson
2. Henry Armstrong
3. Joe Gans
4. Bob Fitzsimmons
5. Sam Langford
6. Jimmy Wilde
7. Harry Greb
8. Benny Leonard
9. Jack Dempsey
10. Eder Jofre

Matt McGrain of wrote a well-researched top 100 list this past year and had his top ten as follows:

1. Sam Langford
2. Harry Greb
3. Sugar Ray Robinson
4. Henry Armstrong
5. Ezzard Charles
6. Bob Fitzsimmons
7. Muhammad Ali
8. Joe Gans
9. Joe Louis
10. Roberto Duran

In 2007, listed their 50 greatest boxers of all-time. The goal was not an ‘all-time, mythical pound-for-pound ranking’ but rather an assessment based on four criteria: in-ring performance, achievements, dominance, and mainstream appeal. The top ten were:

1. Sugar Ray Robinson
2. Muhammad Ali
3. Henry Armstrong
4. Joe Louis
5. Willie Pep
6. Roberto Duran
7. Benny Leonard
8. Jack Johnson
9. Jack Dempsey
10. Sam Langford

In 2002, Ring Magazine published the following top ten based on a ranking of the 80 best fighters of the previous 80 years:

1. Sugar Ray Robinson
2. Henry Armstrong
3. Muhammad Ali
4. Joe Louis
5. Roberto Duran
6. Willie Pep
7. Harry Greb
8. Benny Leonard
9. Sugar Ray Leonard
10. Pernell Whitaker

On November 27, 1998, all time pound-for-pound ratings were discussed on ESPN Friday Night Fights. Here was Max Kellerman’s list:

1. Sugar Ray Robinson
2. Henry Armstrong
3. Muhammad Ali
4. Harry Greb
5. Sam Langford
6. Pernell Whitaker
7. Roberto Duran
8. Willie Pep
9. Benny Leonard
10. Ezzard Charles

Teddy Atlas countered with his own list:

1. Sugar Ray Robinson
2. Henry Armstrong
3. Muhammad Ali
4. Benny Leonard
5. Sam Langford
6. Harry Greb
7. Micky Walker
8. Roberto Duran
9. Gene Tunney
10. Carlos Monzon

There are additional “Top Tens” too numerous to list, but at some point one has to say “enough,” which, of course, leads me to my own list of the ten best pound-for-pound fighters since 1945. Why since 1945? Because I actually witnessed each listed boxer fight at one time or another (except Jofre). Of course, I carefully analyzed their records, style, chin, KO percentages, skill-sets, entire body of work, quality of opposition, and especially the era in which they fought, as well as other important criteria.

1. Sugar Ray Robinson. His final record was a gaudy 175-19-6-2 with 109 KOs. In a career that spanned three decades, Sugar Ray embodied the essence of the Sweet Science. He was a world welterweight champion and held the middleweight title five times. He never lost to a welterweight. When he gave up the 147-pound title to challenge Jake LaMotta for the middleweight championship in 1951, his record was 121-1-2. The lone loss was to LaMotta and both draws were against middleweights. Incredibly, he was so great for so long that he won his first Fighter of the Year award in 1942 and his second award in 1951. Talk about bookends! In 201 fights over an amazing twenty-five-year career, Robinson failed to finish a fight only once when he was felled by heat prostration against Joey Maxim in a fight he was winning handily. In 1999, the Associated Press named him both the greatest welterweight and middleweight boxer of the century. The fact that he appears as Number One on seven of the nine lists cited in this article is compelling. The fact that I don’t have to say much more says it all.

Sugar Ray Robinson was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990 with the first class of boxing legends.

“You always say I’ll quit when I start to slide, and then one morning you wake up and realize you’ve done slid.”—Robinson.

2. Willie Pep had an astonishing record of 230-11-1 with 65 KOs and an incredible 1955 rounds boxed.  Nicknamed “Will o’ the Wisp” for his elusiveness, Pep is considered, along with Nicolino “El Intocable” Locche (117-4-14), one of boxing’s all-time great defensive artists. He held the featherweight title for six years and outfoxed all comers. Pep is best remembered for his physical and dirty series of fights against fellow Hall of Famer Sandy Saddler. He turned pro in 1940 and won his first sixty-three fights. In 1942, Pep won the NYSAC featherweight title by a decision over Chalky Wright. Pep’s first loss came the following year when he dropped a non-title fight to former lightweight champion Sammy Angott. His comeback after a being seriously injured in a plane crash was remarkable and virtually seamless.

Willie Pep passed away in a nursing home in 2006. “Iceman” John Scully and Marlon “Moochie” Starling were the only former professional fighters at his funeral. No promoters, managers, or commentators were present. How soon they forget.

“Sometimes there seemed to be music playing for him (Willie Pep) alone and he danced to his private orchestra and the ring became a ballroom.”—Jimmy Cannon

3. Joe Louis. “The Brown Bomber,” 69–3 with 55 KOs, is rated by many as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. He successfully defended his title 25 times. Joe used a lightening quick jab and was subtly lethal with one-punch KO power in either hand. He was very economical; he never wasted a punch, nor did he waste much foot movement, moving only as much as needed but always within deadly reach of his opponent.

He fought greats like Ezzard Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott, Max Schmeling, Max Baer, Buddy Baer, Billy Conn and many others. In 1950, hounded by the IRS, he returned to the ring, but after a series of wins, was knocked out in 1951 by a prime and rugged Rocky Marciano, after which he permanently retired.

When I was a kid, Joe Louis was everyone’s hero. And even as a young child, I was amazed at how much power he could generate with such a short punch and just how fast he threw that punch. Because of his short punches and combos, only aficionados and Louis victims really knew how fast his hands were. The thing is, he “invented” the one-two.

When he lost to Rocky Marciano, many wept, for Joe had transcended the sport and was viewed as America’s fighter. Fact is, Joe Louis was neither brown nor white; he simply was the most beloved champion in boxing history.

“I was privileged and will always be grateful to have had Joe Louis as my friend. The son of an Alabama sharecropper, Joe Louis fought his way to the top of professional boxing and into the hearts of millions of Americans. Out of the ring, he was a considerate and soft-spoken man; inside the ring, his courage, strength, and consummate skill wrote a unique and unforgettable chapter in sports history. But Joe Louis was more than a sports legend – his career was an indictment of racial bigotry and a source of pride and inspiration to millions of white and black people around the world.”—President Ronald Reagan (April 13, 1981)

4. Eder Jofre. His record was 72-2-4 with 50 KOs. He was the greatest fighter who fought under the radar. Jofre represented Brazil in the 1956 Olympics and then turned professional in 1957 at the age of 21. Jofre’s nickname was “the Golden Bantam,” and he was one of the few champions to have never suffered a knockout.

With one-punch knockout power in either hand, Eder also was a slickster with great technical skills and reflexes in the style of Sugar Ray Robinson. He had it all including an iron chin. He was a classic body puncher who would wear his opponents down before moving upstairs for the kill. He did his work in a bobbing and weaving manner. Perhaps Jofre’s most amazing quality was his ability to adapt his style. If necessary, this fistic artisan could engage in a brawl, but he could be a cutie as well—whatever the situation required.

In 1965, Jofre lost his world bantamweight titles to Fighting Harada in a highly controversial SD in Nagoya, Japan. Harada would beat him again by a razor-thin margin in Tokyo in 1966. Both fights were savage ones. He retired but made a successful comeback three years later.

By going undefeated in his first fifty fights, he managed to bookend his career in a uniquely positive way—fifty in front and twenty-five at the end. Even the great Sugar Ray Robinson, to whom Jofre is often compared, did not have such an auspicious start and superb ending.

Unfortunately, few videos of Jofre fights exist. His fights with Harada and a complete version of his first win over Jose Medel on August 18, 1960, in Los Angeles may be the only complete fights in existence. Thus, historic accounts and word-of-mouth are the only other means of learning about this fighter’s greatness. However, there is a documentary entitled O Grande Campeão with film highlights, though most of it involves fights near the end of Jofre’s career. It can be ordered through the Web.

Reflecting his low profile status, Jofre was inducted into the IBHOF in 1992. Masahiko “Fighting” Harada, the only boxer to beat Jofre, was inducted in 1995, and is arguably Japan’s greatest fighter ever. Both are in the WBHF as well.

“Herb Goldman ranked Jofre as the #1 All-Time Bantamweight; IBRO ranked him as the #1 All-Time Bantamweight; Dan Cuoco, Director of IBRO, ranked Jofre as the #2 All-Time Pound-For-Pound boxer in ring history, second only to “Sugar” Ray Robinson.”—Tracy Callis

5. Muhammad Ali, 56-5 with 37 KOs. He was the dominant fighter of the 1960s and 1970s. A fighter of exceptional speed and flair, he won the world heavyweight title on three separate occasions over a period of fifteen years, but his trilogy with Kenny Norton, two mediocre fights against Leon Spinks and controversial wins against Henry Cooper and Jimmy Young diminished, at least to some degree, his self-proclaimed nickname of “The Greatest.” On the other hand, his two hard-fought wins against Joe Frazier, his wins over Sonny Liston, and his upset of George Foreman truly cemented his reputation, as did his victories against Shavers, Lyle, Williams and Quarry. Ali’s fight against an old Zora Folley at Madison Square Garden in 1967 perhaps showcased him at his brilliant best.  And no heavyweight ever fought a higher level of opposition

Quite simply, Ali was the perfect person for his time.

“I love boxing and it did a lot for me. But sometimes it made me think how savage human beings could be to each other. That wasn’t the kind of boxer I wanted to be. My strategy was to be as scientific as I could when I fought. I didn’t want to be seriously hurt, and I didn’t want to do that to anybody else either.”—Ali.

6. Carlos “Escopeta” (Shotgun) Monzon finished with a record of 87-3-9 with 59 KOs. This powerful and rangy Argentinean killing machine first captured the World Middleweight Boxing Championship in a shocking upset over the highly favored Nino Benvenuti. Who can forget Monzon moving across the ring to deliver the perfect right to the jaw that was the coup de grace for Nino? Overnight, Monzon became the toast of the boxing world. Handsome and macho, he became a superstar and a favorite of the jet set. Some said he pushed his punches. If so, he pushed them to 87 wins. He also became only the second man to stop former three-time world champion Emile Griffith. Blessed with great stamina and a granite chin, he seemingly was an irresistible force and was unbeaten over the last eighty-one bouts of his career, a span of thirteen years!

“Carlos never did stop walking on the wild side and certainly never found the secret to controlling the raging temper that he mastered so well within the roped square.”—Mike Casey

7. Sandy Saddler. His final slate was 144-16-3 with 103 KOs. One of the greatest fighters ever, Joseph “Sandy” Saddler was a two-time featherweight champion of the world, and also held the junior lightweight title. Over his twelve-year career, 1944–1956, he scored an eye-popping 103 knockouts. He was stopped only once in his career, and that in his second fight. He is best known for his brutal and foul-filled series of fights with Willie Pep (230-11-1). Saddler first fought Pep in 1948. At the time, Pep was the reigning featherweight champion of the world, and had a record of 135-1. Saddler, who was one of the hardest pound-for-pound punchers of all time, captured the title by knocking Pep down four times on his way to a fourth-round knockout victory. Had his career not been cut short by a non-boxing accident, there is no telling how far he could have gone.

Willie Pep said: ”He beat me with a double arm lock.”

Sandy Saddler said: “I thought a punch to the kidney did it. If they say I twisted his arm, okay, I twisted it.”

8. Sugar Ray Leonard’s record was 35-3-1 with 25 KOs. Like Muhammad Ali, he was equipped with super speed, ability, and charisma. Leonard filled the boxing void left when Ali retired in 1981. With the American public in search of a new boxing superstar, Leonard came along at just the right moment. Like Ali, he eventually became another right person for the right time. An Olympic gold medal winner, he was named Fighter of the Decade for the 1980s. Ray won an unprecedented five world titles in five weight classes and competed in some of the era’s most memorable bouts. Sugar Ray also won the unofficial round robin of his era by beating Benitiz, Duran, Hearns and Hagler—enough of a platform for entry into any Boxing Hall of Fame. No one could exploit an opponent’s weaknesses better than Leonard and there have been few more ruthless closers in boxing history. Sugar Ray Leonard was the first boxer to earn over $100 million dollars in purse money. Unfortunately and, like so many, Ray stayed on two fights too many.

“A fighter never knows when it’s the last bell. He doesn’t want to face that.”—Leonard

9. Roberto “Manos de Piedra” Duran finished with a 103-16 with 70 KOs record. He was regarded by many as the greatest lightweight of all time and one of the top five pound-for-pound fighters ever. He held world titles at four different weights: lightweight (1972–79), welterweight (1980), junior middleweight (1983–84), and middleweight (1989). He was also the only boxer to have fought in five different decades. When he lost to Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980, his record was 71-1.

After hitting a bad patch in 1982, he mounted a comeback and beat fellow Hall of Famer Pipino Cuevas by stoppage. Against WBA junior middleweight hampion Davey Moore in June 1983, Roberto showed his savage side by perpetrating a brutal beatdown. The fight was finally stopped in the eighth round as Moore was taking an unnecessarily bloody beating. Duran had won his third world title. The crowd was up and roaring, “Doooooran, Doooooran.” He later beat Iran “The Blade” Barkley in a thriller to cop his final championship. Again, “Dooooooran,  Doooooran” rang out. Both were spine tingling affairs.  Even at the end of his long career, an argument can be made that he should have been given at least one decision against both Hector Camacho and Vinnie Pazienza.

10. As for Number 10, a number of possibilities emerge. Great fighters like Roy Jones Jr., Aaron Pryor, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Archie Moore, Salvador Sanchez, and Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. could fill the slot, but if forced to pick just one man who fought at the very highest level of competition, it would be difficult not to select the great “Cincinnati Cobra,” Ezzard Mack Charles.

10. Ezzard Charles (1940-1959)

“Someday, maybe, the public is going to abandon comparisons with Joe Louis and accept Ezzard Charles for what he was – the best fist-fighter of his particular time.”—Red Smith

Charles was a 1939 Chicago Golden Gloves Champion and National AAU titleholder (reportedly his amateur record was 42-0) who turned pro the following year and fought until 1959 finishing with a record of 90-25-1 (58 KOs). But it’s his level of opposition that stands out. In 1954, he fought Rocky Marciano twice—grueling fights that may have “damaged” him (referee Ruby Goldstein said he did not have to say “Break” at any time during the first bout). He iced both bomber Bob Satterfield and tough Coley Wallace, lost decisions to Harold Johnson (41-5) and Nino Valdes, and beat Billy Gilliam, Rex Layne, Tommy Harrison (of’ “Resurrecting the Champ” fame) and rugged Wes Bascom. The following year, he fought Charley Norkus and Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson (twice).

The Cobra did his best work prior to 1952 when he beat Joe Maxim five times
(they fought 62 rounds in all), Layne, Jersey Joe Walcott twice, mean and dirty Lee Oma, Nick “The Fighting Marine” Barone, Joe Louis , Freddie Beshore (in a classic), Gus Lesnevich, Archie Moore thrice (88-13-8 coming in), and the great Jimmy Bivins twice.

Charles won his first fourteen professional fights but then lost to Ken Overlin (120-19-6) in 1941. He later drew with Overlin who finished with a record of 133-19-9. After losing to the very capable Kid Tunero (75-23-12) in 1942, he beat legendary Charley Burley (52-6-1) in back-to-back fights. Among other subsequent victims was the enigmatic Lloyd Marshall (59-13-3) twice. Marshall was no slouch and defeated eight fighters who held world titles. While he lost to Charles twice, he did stop him in 1943 decking him eight—count ‘em—eight times. Charles also whipped Oakland Billy Smith twice, but lost to hard punching Elmer “Kid Violent” Ray in 1947 in a terrible decision. Ring Magazine said Charles “was the faster, the better boxer, and the sharper hitter.” (From The Ring, October 1947, page 42).

In 1948, The Cobra knocked out Sam Baroudi who died from injuries sustained in the bout held at the Chicago Stadium. Some later speculated that the emotionally devastated Charles had become overly cautious afterwards—even to the point of trying not to hurt his opponents. Where previously the slick Cobra was a ultra-dangerous fighting machine, he now appeared to some to have lost much of his venom and desire. Still, his post-Baroudi record does not necessarily bear this out, as he went on a long winning streak following the fateful Chicago fight. However, toward his career end, he lost seven of his last nine bouts, but still fought stiff opposition.

Like many greats who hang on too long, Charles faded into obscurity, especially after his last draining fight against Marciano. And from 1955 until his retirement in 1959, he fought twenty four times, winning only ten which, of course, diluted to some extent his legacy. However, nothing can ever dilute the following encapsulation reflecting, in part, the incredible level of his opposition:

Rocky Marciano (twice) IBHF/WBHF
Jersey Joe Walcott (four times) IBHF/WBHF
Archie Moore (thrice) IBHF/WBHF
Rex Layne (thrice)
Joe Maxim (five times) IBHF/WBHF
Jimmy Bivins (four times) IBHF/WBHF
Charley Burley (twice) IBHF/WBHF
Lloyd Marshall (thrice) WBHF
Gus Lesnevich WBHF
Ken Overlin (twice)
Elmer Ray (twice)
Harold Johnson IBHF/WBHF
Bob Satterfield

Names like Moore, Burley and Bivins are mentioned in conversations reserved only for the legendary, but when you add Marciano, Walcott, and Joe Louis, well, maybe “legendary” becomes “immortal.” Charles fought them all.

Ezzard Charles died in 1975 from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease at the young age of 53. In 1976. Cincinnati honored him by changing the name of Lincoln Park Drive to Ezzard Charles Drive. This was the street of his residence during the height of his career. Charles was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 1983 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.

Postscript: The above is a revised version of an article that appeared in the July 2013 edition of Boxing World Magazine, and is reproduced here with their grateful permission.

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