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Last Of The Greats
Inside The Ropes: Ranking the 145 Most Effective Boxers from 1892 to 1999
© 2011 James LaFond

Chapter 3: The Last of the Greats

Part One: Corbett, Jeffries, Saad, Jackson, Fazier & Spinks

The Score Card

Each fighter is placed according to his career effectiveness. As discussed earlier, this does favor more prolific old-time fighters. He will also be rated according to his average bout effectiveness, which will certainly favor modern fighters who fight less often against more carefully chosen opposition for titles that did not once exist. The next step is to average their overall place standings to determine where they would place out of 145 greats if career effectiveness [favoring the old-timers] is counted as equal to bout effectiveness [favoring heavyweights and modern fighters]. Each fighter will be ranked in three different ways, with the first determining his place in this list.

Since we are rating these fighters according to three methods why have I chosen the aggregate method that will favor the busier fighter? The simple answer is because it has not been done before. Sportswriters prefer the famous high-status fighters with a lot of social support. The deeper answer is this, the fighters with the highest bout scores are more rightfully considered as managerial achievements as opposed to combat achievements. If you are just looking at bout scores then the highly publicized fighter whose management team has deep political connections and faces handpicked opposition will score the highest. The guy that just goes out there and fights anybody, anywhere, at any weight, at any time is taking risks that the more carefully managed fighter never faces. Remember that the bout effectiveness score is often an indication of how tough the opposition was not.

One might rightfully ask the question, "Shouldn't the greatest fighter be the one that stood out above his field as opposed to the guy that just did it over and over again?" This is a very valid point. The answer I have chosen comes down to the "field" he competed in. Heavyweight champions in every era score well on bout effectiveness because they often—the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and 90s were exceptions—avoid other top contenders. Until recently the smaller men always sought out other top contenders. Both of these activities reflect the economics of boxing. The heavyweight champion has typically been able to cash in on his title outside of the ring so long as he held the title, and was hence usually loath to risk it. Smaller guys on the other hand have historically only made money in the ring, and only when fighting other top fighters. Hence it has been unusual for heavyweights and modern lighter weight champions to face the best fighters of their time.


Here is a list of heavyweight champions from 1890 to present who have not fought the most dangerous heavyweights of their day:

  1. John L. Sullivan refused to fight Peter Jackson
  2. James J. Corbett was so busy avoiding heavyweights [all of them] that he lost his title to a middleweight!
  3. Tommy Burns avoided fighting all the top Black heavies and literally fled around the world to escape Jack Johnson, who finally mugged him in Australia!
  4. Jack Johnson refused to fight other Blacks once he won the title, and those guys were the best fighters out there at the time.
  5. Jack Dempsey refused to fight Jack Johnson, Harry Wills and even half-blind Sam Langford who was still begging for a title shot after 20 years in the ring.
  6. Michael Spinks managed to move up from light heavy and lift the title from a faded Larry Holmes then avoided all top-ten opposition, defended against an unrated Cooney a year later, and avoided fighting Tyson as long as possible. When that fight came off Spinks had no fight in him and just cashed out. In fact, Michael Spinks, great light heavy that he was, behaved remarkably like one of the protected old-time White heavyweight champions once he took the title from Holmes. He was an intelligent guy and knew that though he might be able to pick apart an aging Holmes, he had little chance of campaigning among top ten heavies like Holyfield would later do. This is smart management not dominance.
  7. Lennox Lewis retired rather than fight the better of the two Klitchko brothers.
  8. Neither of the Klitchko brothers will ever fight the best of their time because they will not fight each other.

I would like to point out that Lewis and the Klitchkos were and are dominant heavyweights, unlike the other men in this list. [No, Dempsey was not a dominant heavyweight—Harry Wills was, but he was the wrong color.] However, even these super-heavyweights of the postmodern boxing ring have declined to face the stiffest test available.

You really can't blame them. Lennox was already rich and the Klitchkos get a pass for family values. Still, the greatest possible postmodern heavyweight bouts never happened because boxing is no longer a sport but a business.

Finally, one last note on busy fighters; a busy fighter faces more styles in the ring than a fighter facing handpicked opponents for five years. Who is really the better fighter? Is it the guy who fights opponents from a hundred gyms and loses a few bouts? Or is it the guy who fights opponents from only thirty gyms and never loses? The way this list of great boxers is being assembled and examined is intended to permit you, the reader, to make that decision.

Throughout the history of boxing the hard-fighting fighters have been slighted by sportswriters in favor of the celebrity fighters. John L' Sullivan was considered by the press to be unbeatable and boxing historians continue to laud his dominance, yet he refused to fight the best fighters. Boxing politics have changed little. Floyd Mayweather, considered the best boxer of our time, has turned down tens of millions of dollars not to fight the only boxer that appears to have a chance of beating him.

To publicly avoid the greatest test the sport offers is not the mark of a great fighter.

When one considers fighting men courage must count for something. However, we cannot blame the protected fighters for their status. Their actions merely reflect our expectations. The modern American notion that only an undefeated boxer can be great has done nothing but stifle greatness. In now other sport is an athlete or a team that has suffered only a single defeat considered subpar. I believe that there will never again be a great boxer, because the modern American boxing fan would rather have an unbeaten champion who never takes risks, than one who has tasted defeat but still comes back to reclaim the top spot in his sport. It is this dynamic that has taken drama out of boxing and made MMA the modern home for prizefighting. You boxing guys will scoff at this. After this knee-jerk reaction do yourself a favor and watch Couture verses Nogeura, and you will appreciate what old-time boxing fans did, that great fighters will fight anyone if given the chance, and hence do not remain undefeated.

Which method is more accurate? Let's look at a comparison on this list that was recently [relatively] made in the ring.

Michael Spinks placed lower than Mike Tyson. Spinks has one of the highest bout effectiveness scores while Tyson scores average. The fact is they both met in their prime and Tyson crushed Spinks in one of the most one-sided victories in boxing history.

So, to the question of 'who would beat who' is the career score a better answer then the bout score? Does a clean score card with high bout numbers and low career numbers mean that the fighter faced fewer challenges, and would likely crumble Spinks-like against another great fighter? Let's look at some other actual heavyweight match-ups. Other examples from the early heavyweight days come to mind.

Corbett had a higher bout score then Fitzsimmons but a lower career score. When they fought Fitzsimmons knocked Corbett out.

Jack Johnson had a higher career score than Jeffries but a lower bout score. When they met, Johnson actually toyed with, tortured, and disposed of [albeit an old] Jeffries.

Corbett and Jeffries fought two hard fights that went to Jeffries. Their career scores could not be closer but Corbett's bout score was a little better.

The most interesting case is Dempsey verses Tunney; their fights were very close favoring Tunney who scores just a few points ahead on bout and career.

Based on such evidence it appears that the bout score better represents a fighter's level of separation from the field in which he competed in his prime, then his actual superiority to another great. This separation may be due to talent as with Ali, matchmaking as with the early White heavyweights, or just by avoiding dangerous young opponents toward the end of his career by retiring. What if Marciano would have stayed around to fight just one more year against Paterson or Liston? Liston did beat a top 10 heavyweight in April 1955 five months before Rocky's last title defense, and Patterson won the box-off for his vacated title in 1956. The career score is more of an indication of how well a fighter performs under a higher level of pressure against fighters closer to his ability level. (see below)

Blank Score Card

Ring Name:
Lived from:______to_____
Active from:_____to_____
Fought at: lowest weight to highest weight with best weight in [brackets]
TB = total bouts
WD = win by decision
KO = win by knockout
WF = win by foul
D = draw
KO'd = knockout losses
L = loss by decision
LF = loss by foul
ND = no decision
NC = no contest
Career effectiveness: 102 thru 1,285
Career rank: 145 thru 1
Bout effectiveness: 2.9 thru 6.0
Bout rank: 145 thru 1
Overall rank: 145 thru 1
Scouting report: A description of the fighter's style, strengths, weaknesses and methods.
Biography: A capsule review of the fighter's career.
Boxing impact: How did this man's career affect the evolution or conduct of boxing?
Social impact: What does this fighter's career teach us about his time, and, was he one of the few who actually affected the greater society?
Further reading: A title suggestion.

Preface, C1, C2
modern combat
Shorin-Ryu Karate with Sensei Steve Jansen
riding the nightmare
broken dance
pillagers of time
taboo you
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