The previous instalment in this series saw me hand-pick my Top 5 Heavyweights. Now it’s time to swap the giants of the sport for the mini maestros, and with a whole catalogue of legendary 126 pounders to choose from, this certainly proved to be one of the most difficult Top Five list to compile yet. With Kid Chocolate, Alexis Arguello, George Dixon and Vicente Saldívar failing to make the grade, who reigns supreme as the biggest of little men in my Top 5 Featherweights? Let’s find out.
5 – Salvador Sánchez
It was a toss-up for the fifth spot between the two greatest Mexican featherweights of all-time, Vicente Saldívar and Salvador Sánchez. I eventually opted for the latter, due to the significant amount he achieved before his untimely and tragic death.
He was on route to becoming the greatest fighter to represent his country and potentially the greatest nine stone pugilist in history. To some, that may be an outlandish claim, but Sánchez forged an incredible career all before turning twenty-four years old.
After joining the paid ranks at the age of sixteen, Sánchez amassed a record of 18-0 in the bantamweight division, before tasting defeat against the experienced Antonio Becerra for the Mexican title. This prompted the move up to featherweight, and Sánchez would never look back.
He arrived on the world stage in 1980, taking on long-time WBC and RING Magazine title holder, Danny Lopez. The American held the WBC crown for three years prior to their meeting, making nine successful defences, including a Fight of The Year with Mike Ayala that ended in a final round knockout victory.
To the shock of the boxing world, Sánchez outboxed, outfought and outwitted the champion, known as “Little Red”, from the offset. Lopez had no answer for Sánchez’ blistering hand speed, relentless work ethic and pinpoint accuracy, so the referee spared Lopez any further punishment by stopping the fight in the thirteenth round.
He would repeat the victory a year later before defending against fellow Mexican great Ruben Castillo, the unbeaten Patrick Ford and top contender Juan LaPorte.
The biggest challenge of his career came in the form of unbeaten bantamweight king and future Hall of Famer, Wilfredo Gómez.
Sánchez was expected to encounter all sorts of troubles in the fight, but he was simply far superior in every aspect. He was relentless from the offset and beat the Puerto Rican into submission inside eight rounds.
Two more defences would follow before Sánchez endured a fifteen round war with the upcoming superstar Azumah Nelson. The more experienced champion eventually wore his man down and took him out in the final round, which would prove to be his final outing.
With four knockouts over future hall of fame fighters, as well nine world title defences, all before his twenty-fourth birthday, Sánchez was quite simply one of the best little men in history.
If he hadn’t been taken from us prematurely, who knows just how much Sánchez may have achieved. The world was his oyster and I think he would have easily transitioned to the higher weights, claiming multiple world titles along the way.
To learn more about the story of Salvador Sánchez, click HERE.
4 – Abe Attell
“The Little Hebrew” was the king of the featherweight division from 1903 to 1912, at the time, setting the record for the longest world championship reign in the nine-stone weight category.
Coming from a Jewish family, living in an Irish neighbourhood in San Francisco, he was accustomed to the fighting lifestyle from an early age, often relying on his fists to deter attention from the local gangs.
At the tender age of eighteen, Attell would hold the world featherweight champion George Dixon to a draw on two separate occasions, before finally defeating him for the crown in 1903, aged just nineteen. The next year would see him triumph over twenty rounds against Johnny Reagan before Tony Sullivan snatched the title from him in 1905.
He would regain the crown with a decision over Jimmy Walsh the following year. Once he recaptured the belt, he would defend it eighteen times between 1906 and 1912, setting a division record that would stand for nearly seventy years. During this time, his brother Monte Attell held the bantamweight championship, making them the first set of brothers to hold two world titles simultaneously.
He wasn’t the most devastating of punchers but proved to be an awkward customer for any man in the division, as he was slippery, elusive and incredibly durable. Some of the notable names he defeated throughout his reign include Battling Nelson, Ad Wolgast and Johnny Kilbane – all incredible talents in their own right. Kilbane would be the man to end Attell’s championship pomp in 1912, earning the decision over twenty rounds.
The defending champion was accused of covering his gloves in chloroform to blind the challenger and ringside spectators recount that Attell used illegal tactics to gain an advantage throughout the fight. All attempts proved futile though, as his six-year reign was brought to an abrupt conclusion.
After some suspect results didn’t go in his favour, he eventually retired in 1917 and became a manager for upcoming fighters.
When you consider that both the aforementioned Dixon and Kilbane are regarded in the top ten to fifteen bracket of all-time featherweights, it makes it even more impressive that Attell defeated both at such a young age. The duration of his domination, combined with the level of opposition faced, ultimately makes him one of the best featherweights in history.
He was inducted in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
3 – Sandy Saddler
One of the most fearsome little men of all-time. Sandy Saddler was as rugged as they come, striking terror into the featherweight division with his devastating punching power and freakish size.
Saddler was willing to go to new lengths in order to achieve success, gaining a reputation as a somewhat dirty fighter. Whether it was using his thumbs, elbows or head, he was never averse to employing unsportsmanlike tactics to gain the upper hand.
The Boston fighter enjoyed two reigns as world champion at 126 pounds. He constructed a record of 85 wins, 6 losses and 2 draws between 1944 and 1948, before earning his first crack at the title against the masterful and dominant holder, Willie Pep.
Pep boasted a record of 134-1-1 and is recognised by many as the best combatant the featherweight division has witnessed. Saddler was ruthless on the night, dropping the champion four times on route to a fourth-round stoppage win, handing Pep only his second career defeat and the first knockout blemish on his record.
The pair met again in 1949 and Pep would produce a performance to remember, outthinking and frustrating Saddler on his way to a fifteen round decision.
“Joey” would exact revenge and regain the belt the following year, as spectators saw one of the dirtiest match-ups in the sport’s history unfold. The pair seemingly threw the rule-book out of the window and took turns to gouge, head-butt and illegally grapple each other. By the eighth round, the illegal tactics had taken their toll on Pep as he experienced a dislocated shoulder, forcing him to surrender.
They shared one final dance in September 1951, with Saddler concluding the series with a 3-1 advantage, stopping Pep in the tenth, convincingly this time around.
Saddler would proceed to face several other notable opponents after Pep, knocking out Joe Brown, Lauro Salas, Paddy DeMarco and Jimmy Carter, all of which would hold versions of the lightweight championship at different times. Not to forget his impressive knockout of the future super featherweight champion Gabriel “Flash” Elorde.
His career came to an abrupt close in 1956, after he sustained damage to his eyes in a car crash, forcing him to retire at the age of 30. In 2003, the Ring Magazine placed Saddler in the fifth spot on their list of 100 greatest punchers of all time. Although the Pep victories stand as his most celebrated ring achievements, his wins over future world champions and Hall of Famers earns him a well-deserved space on my list.
2 – Henry Armstrong
The greatest overall fighter on this list, sitting third in my all-time rankings behind Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali, Henry Armstrong built the foundations for his spectacular career down at featherweight. He would rack up over 80 victories in a seven-year period that saw him take down the best opposition the division had to offer, before venturing up to lightweight and welterweight, where he would claim further world honours and cement his status as a boxing legend.
After enduring a disappointing start to life as a professional, Armstrong would begin his ascent towards the world championship in 1937. A knockout over Rodolfo Casanova on New Year’s Day would spell the beginning of a 22 fight win streak, with all but one of those victories coming inside the scheduled distance.
This included a stoppage win over Frankie Klick and the knockout of Benny Bass, who were both former world champions at the weight, which attracted the attention of big-time promotors and elevated “Homicide Hank” to genuine world championship contention.
He was eventually rewarded with the opportunity to fight for the featherweight title against Peter Sarron later that same year. Armstrong left no room for doubt as to who was the main man in the division, by battering the champion into submission inside six rounds.
Every time Henry stepped inside the squared circle, his first and only tactic was attack, attack and attack some more! He had a limitless engine and looked to set a high intensity from the opening bell, aiming to tire his opponents and create openings to throw a torrent of hurtful blows. He had relative power in both hands and could take a fine shot himself.
He would make fourteen successful defences of his world strap, beating the likes of Chalky Wright and Baby Arizmendi. Although he didn’t hang around at 126lbs for long after winning the title, it was at featherweight that Armstrong developed into the spell-binding pugilist who later took over in the higher divisions, defeating Barney Ross for the welterweight crown and later Lou Ambers for the lightweight version.
If there was a tournament where all the fighters on this list were pitched against one another, I would firmly place my chips on Hank to win the whole thing. He was near impossible to defeat during his prime and that’s why he comfortably takes the runner-up spot.
To learn more about the story of Henry Armstrong, click HERE.
1 – Willie Pep
There should be no argument on who takes the crowning spot in my top five list. Willie Pep is universally recognised as the greatest featherweight of all-time. From 1940 to 1966, he compiled a breath-taking record of 229-11-1, with all those bouts coming at the weight of 126lbs.
The “Will O’The Wisp” defined perpetual motion in the ring and was simply more talented than everyone else. Although not blessed with devastating punch power, with just 65 knockouts in over two hundred bouts, it was defensive brilliance that made him nearly impossible to beat. Boxing folklore claims that Pep once won a round without delivering a single blow.
After accumulating an unbeaten record of 41-0 in just two years as a professional, he stepped up in class and defeated world title challenger Joey Archibald over ten rounds, which was followed by a victory over Abe Dinner for the New England-area featherweight belt.
In 1942, just after his 20th birthday, Pep became the world featherweight champion by outclassing Chalky Wright over 15 rounds, before squeezing two more fights into the final two months of the year, winning both inside the distance.
The American would extend his record to 62-0 the following year, before tasting defeat for the first time at the hands of the former lightweight champion, Sammy Angott. Despite being a 3-1 favourite with the bookies, Pep struggled to find his groove and the challenger consistently beat him to the punch. Although he grew in confidence as the fight progressed, he left things a little too late and was forced to hand his title over to Angott.
Just ten days later Pep would return to winning ways with a victory over Bobby McIntyre, before closing out 1943 with another five victories, including two over future world champion Sal Bartolo. Pep would regain the world crown in his second fight against Bartolo, initiating a six-year championship reign.
However, in 1947 Pep was involved in a plane crash that claimed the lives of three passengers, with eighteen others sustaining serious or life-changing injuries. As a result, Pep would experience two broken vertebrae in his back, a fractured left leg and severe damage to his chest, forcing him to wear a leg and body cast for five months. The doctors were convinced that he would have difficulties walking properly again – let alone fight.
Instead of succumbing to the pain, he defied the odds and returned to the ring, winning his following 26 fights. This would extend his second unbeaten streak to 73 wins. The man to end this historic run would become Pep’s all-time greatest rival, the aforementioned Sandy Saddler.
After being wiped out in the first encounter, Pep was insistent on a rematch and wanted to prove that he had the tools to deal with Saddler. In the return fixture, an ageing Pep put on one of the most memorable boxing masterclasses in history, outclassing and outsmarting Saddler for fifteen rounds to claim a unanimous decision and reclaim his crown. A post-prime Pep would defend the belt three more times, before losing it to Saddler again in 1953.
He continued his career right through until 1966, achieving mixed results against lesser opposition, along with some dodgy decisions that didn’t go in his favour. Nevertheless, Pep was arguably the most gifted defensive fighter in the history of the sport and his multiple unbeaten runs at featherweight were simply incredible.