After a little break, we return for another instalment of the Top 5 series. Last time out, I focused on the featherweights and I’m continuing with the lower weights, as I break down my Top 5 lightweight boxers of all-time. Let’s get cracking.
Honourable Mentions: Pernell Whitaker, Lou Ambers, Carlos Ortiz.
5 – Ike Williams
Despite being highly rated and greatly respected amongst the boxing fraternity, Ike Williams could have achieved more if his career hadn’t been ravaged with controversy. He was a physical freak down at lightweight and terrorised the division for the better part of a decade. Posing a lanky five-foot nine-inch frame, he combined lightning speed and pinpoint accuracy with ferocious power, along with a solid set of whiskers to match.
After turning pro in 1940 at just sixteen-years-old, it took Williams four years to establish himself as the best lightweight in the division. He endured a difficult start to the paid ranks, fighting regularly against tough opposition but began to garner attention after defeating Sammy Angott twice in 1944.
The following year, he was crowned the NBA lightweight champion after knocking out Juan Zurita inside two rounds. As a champion in those days, it was common to compete in non-title fights rather than defending your belt, which Williams did frequently.
In 1946, his career ground to a halt after deciding to part ways with manager Connie McCarthy. Subsequently blacklisted by other boxing managers, he was effectively prevented from fighting. A man of huge influence in the sport was, mafia enforcer Frankie Carbo, who offered to resolve the situation, securing the services of Williams before handing control of his career over to his unscrupulous associate Frank “Blinky” Palermo.
Williams’ career was back on track, for a while, and he seemed to be firing on all cylinders. After suffering defeats at the hands of the aforementioned Angott and career rival William Joyce, he enjoyed a six-fight winning streak, beating the likes of Charley Smith, Eddie Giosa and Enrique Bolanos.
In 1947, he knocked out his fellow Hall of Famer, Bob Montgomery, inside six rounds, avenging his earlier defeat and finally becoming the face of the division.
Five successful title defences followed, including victories over Johnny Bratton, Kid Gavilan and Beau Jack, before his four-year reign eventually came to an end in 1951. Struggling to safely make the lightweight limit, a weakened Williams would be stopped by Jimmy Carter.
After losing the lightweight championship, he continued to face the best in the world at the higher weights. Despite his denials, rumours of thrown fights continue to tarnish his legacy – but we should not forget what a fierce specimen Williams was at lightweight.
4 – Tony Canzoneri
During the late 1920s, Tony Canzoneri was not only the number one lightweight in the world but viewed by many as the supreme fighter in the sport. The great Canzy achieved more while a teenager than most fighters manage across a whole career, having contested for the world championship at four weights and winning in three.
Despite being a top twenty fighter of all-time, you could argue that he doesn’t deserve a place on my list because of inconsistency, having never achieved a sustained period of dominance. However, spectacular battles against illustrious competition ensured an impressive legacy.
He claimed his first world championship down at featherweight by outscoring the experienced Johnny Dundee. Making weight became an increasing struggle, so he moved up to lightweight and began staking his claim as the division’s prominent pugilist.
His first attempt at winning the lightweight strap proved unsuccessful, losing a decision to Sammy Mandell in 1929. The following year, he would capture the crown by knocking out Al Singer inside sixty-six seconds – the fastest championship knockout in the division’s history.
The first defence of his title against Jack “Kid” Berg would also be for the junior welterweight belt. Canzoneri would become the first man to hold two world titles simultaneously, knocking out Berg inside three rounds in April of 1931.
Despite losing and regaining his light welterweight championship multiple times, he managed to retain his lightweight belt through to 1933, beating the likes of highly-avoided Billy Petrolle and his brother Frankie.
However, all good things come to an end and Barney Ross was the man to ruin the reign of Canzoneri. The pair would meet in Ross’ home city of Chicago on the 23rd June 1933. The fight was closely contested throughout, with ringside observers split on who should have been crowned victorious. The younger and hungrier challenger was awarded the decision before repeating the win three months later on Canzoneri’s home turf – taking the champions lightweight and light welterweight titles in the process.
Two years after losing his championships, Canzoneri was given the chance to reclaim the lightweight strap that he lost to Ross – who had moved up to challenge Jimmy McLarnin for the welterweight belt. He would face fellow all-time lightweight great, Lou Ambers, for the vacant title on May 10th 1935. Despite being in the twilight of his stellar career, Canzoneri rolled back the years and put forward a sublime performance to outpoint Ambers over fifteen rounds.
He would successfully defend his belt once more, before losing to Ambers in a rematch. The pair would engage in a rubber match in 1937, which would prove to be Canzoneri’s final crack at a title. Ambers retained the championship with another fifteen round decision.
Throughout his multiple reigns as lightweight champion, Canzoneri defeated fellow special fighters such as Frankie Klick, Kid Chocolate, Baby Arizmendi, Al Roth and Eddie Zivic. He is undoubtedly one of the most talented and accomplished fighters to pass through the lightweight category, and his achievements at featherweight and at the higher weights further cement his legacy.
3 – Joe Gans
His nickname the “Old Master” sums Joe Gans up perfectly. Miles ahead of his contemporaries, his game possessed absolutely everything – speed, power, footwork, combination punching and killer instinct. Nat Fleischer, the founder of the prestigious RING Magazine, once said that Gans was the “closest thing to superman the lightweight division has ever seen.”
Due to his ethnic background, Gans was permitted by boxing promoters to throw fights against less-talented white fighters to flatter their records. He was also forced to jump up and down the weights, sometimes dangerously lower than his natural weight class.
After eleven years in the paid ranks, Gans finally became world lightweight champion by knocking out Frank Erne inside the opening round. The pair had met once before, two years prior in New York, where Gans was forced to quit due to an eye contusion.
This victory would cement Gans as the first African-American to win a world championship. He also became the first black fighter to hold a world title since the Canadian-born bantamweight George Dixon in 1892 and Barbados-born welterweight Joe Walcott in 1901.
He would hold the title from 1902 to 1908, defeating top contenders such as Steve Crosby, Gus Gardiner, Charley Sieger, Kid McPartland, Rufe Turner and Charles McFadden.
On September 3rd 1906, Gans defended his title against the durable Dane “Battling” Nelson, in what is now notoriously known as the “Longest Fight.” The champion found it desperately hard to boil down to the lightweight limit of 133lbs but despite his weight troubles, delivered a boxing clinic.
He was far too quick and accurate for his Danish opponent, as he gradually dismantled him round by round. In the thirty-third round, Gans landed a punch on the temple of the challenger which broke his hand. He bravely continued to fight and concealed the pain through to round forty-two, when the most gruelling brawl in history finally drew to a close. A low blow resulted in disqualification for Nelson, granting Gans a memorable victory. It is thought that the strenuous reduction in weight contributed to Gans contracting tuberculosis shortly after the fight.
The pair would meet again in a rematch less than two years later, with a weakened Gans being stopped inside seventeen rounds by the Great Dane. With his health rapidly deteriorating, Gans retired, eventually relocating to his hometown of Baltimore, where he succumbed to his illness and was laid to rest aged thirty-five.
2 – Benny Leonard
Missing out on the top spot by the narrowest of margins is arguably the finest cerebral boxer in the history of the sport, the masterful Benny Leonard.
The Ghetto Wizard joined the pro ranks at fifteen and became world lightweight champion by the age of twenty-one. Despite the immense depth of talent at the weight at that time, Leonard managed to monopolise the title for seven years.
Boxing is a battle of brains and brawn, and Leonard was simply smarter than every other fighter at the time – regardless of weight. He had a ramrod jab, which he would often disguise with a feint or quick shift of movement, followed by a smooth right-cross. He liked to set an intense tempo and was effortlessly fluid with his feet.
After an uninspiring start to his professional career, he seemed to turn a corner in 1914 when he met new manager Billy Gibson. The athletic club owner recruited capable trainer George Engel, who taught his new student the intricacies of defence and simple but effective offence.
Under the tutelage and management of his new team, Leonard was a rejuvenated fighter and began his ascent towards the championship with a non-title encounter against world lightweight champion, Englishman Freddy Walsh in 1916. Despite the fight being ruled a no-decision, writers at ringside felt Leonard had dominated the experienced champion. Their non-title rematch a few months later would result in another no-decision, with Walsh getting the better of the challenger in their second meeting.
With each fight, Leonard was steadily improving and staking his claim as the best fighter in the division. Between March and May of 1917, he enjoyed five consecutive knockout victories and was rewarded with a third fight against Welsh, for the lightweight championship of the world.
The champion was completely overwhelmed from the outset and was forced to climb off the canvas three times during the ninth round. After Welsh refused to concede to the brilliance of Leonard, the referee had to intervene and called an end to proceedings.
From that point onwards, Leonard would hold the lightweight title for seven years – the longest championship reign throughout the division’s history, fighting eighty-three times, eight of those being defences of his crown.
During that time, he defeated fellow greats such as Johnny Dundee, Johnny Kilbane, Willie Ritchie, Rocky Kansas, along with top contenders like Ritchie Mitchell, Patsy Cline, Joe Welling and Charley White.
Not to forget Lew Tendler from Philadelphia – one of the finest fighters to never win a world championship. The pair met for the first time on the 27th July 1922 in front of 60,000 spectators at Boyle’s Thirty Acres in Jersey City. Under the rules of the New Jersey Commission, the fight was awarded to Leonard because he managed to last the twelve-round distance without being knocked out. This caused quite the stir amongst the boxing fraternity, so a rematch was set for the following year.
The second fight was held at the famous New York City’s Yankee Stadium, where the crowd were treated to a high-level, thrilling affair. Leonard had learned from the mistakes he committed in the first contest and boxed brilliantly to earn a decisive decision over fifteen rounds.
At the height of his fame and wealth, Leonard recognised that his masterful boxing abilities were beginning to decline, so subsequently relinquished his position as the king of the lightweight division in 1924.
Later forced out of retirement due to the Great Depression, he campaigned at welterweight, overweight and past his prime. Regardless, it would take a sublime fighter to top Leonard on this list, so let’s see who reigns as top dog.
1 – Roberto Durán
The most unstoppable force the lightweight division has ever seen, Roberto Durán was renowned for destructive power and measured ferocity but his boxing ability is criminally underrated. There’s an argument that he might just be the greatest close range fighter in the history of the sport. For me, he is, without doubt, the number one in-fighting lightweight of all-time.
Durán began his career at lightweight and went unbeaten in his first thirty-one fights, scoring knockout victories over future featherweight champion Ernesto Marcel and former super featherweight champion Hiroshi Kobayashi. His ascent towards the world championship culminated in a shot against Scotland’s WBA champion Ken Buchanan on June 1972.
Despite entering the contest as a 2-1 underdog, Durán started the fight brightly by dropping the champion in the opening fifteen seconds of round one. The battering continued through to the end of the thirteenth round, where the fight ended controversially after Durán continued to unload after the bell and caught the champion with a low blow. Whilst the Scot was laid out in agony, Durán was announced as the new champion of the world.
His title-winning performance was followed up with several non-title matches, where he would suffer his first career defeat to Esteban De Jesús over ten rounds. He soon got back to winning ways, with successful defences of his WBA crown against Jimmy Robertson, Hector Thompson and future titleholder Guts Ishimatsu.
In 1974, Durán would avenge his only career defeat to-date with a crushing eleventh round knockout of the aforementioned De Jesús, before putting another twenty wins together.
His lightweight pomp would conclude in a decider against De Jesús in 1978, with the Puerto Rican’s WBC title on the line in a unification bout. Durán would prove his superiority once again by knocking out De Jesús in the twelfth round. He would relinquish the undisputed lightweight championship the following year.
Durán would climb a further three weight divisions, picking up belts at welterweight, light middleweight and middleweight – whilst facing fellow Hall-of-Famers such as Sugar Ray Leonard, Wilfred Benitez, Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler and Iran Barkley. You won’t find many Top 10 All-time lists without this man placed somewhere. Some may argue that Leonard deserves the number one spot, but I’ve never seen such a menacing figure down at lightweight like the great Roberto Durán.