Mike Moodian is a professor at Chapman University who has written articles for Boxing Digest on Tommy Harrison (a former heavyweight boxer depicted by Samuel L. Jackson in the 2007 movie Resurrecting the Champ), and on why former heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson should receive a posthumous pardon for violating the Mann Act. Here, he ranks the top three boxers in each weight class over the past 25 years. You can follow Mike on Twitter, and visit his excellent website here.
Professional boxing has had its fair share of memorable moments during the past 25 years, such as the Arturo Gatti-Micky Ward trilogy, and its share of low moments, such as the Evander Holyfield-Mike Tyson “bite fight.” Through it all, there have been some special fighters who have emerged in nearly every weight class. The idea for this blog post came about when Jeff and I discussed writing a piece on the top 25 boxers of all time, then I proposed ranking fighters by division after reading Jeff’s ranking of NFL running back trios from 1980 to 2015.
In creating these rankings, I looked at fighters’ accomplishments in each division from Jan. 1, 1990, until the present day. Therefore, greats such as Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns, Larry Holmes, and others—all of whom fought in the past 25 years—did not make the cut because their career-defining accomplishments took place primarily in the 1980s. In considering active champions in their prime, I held off on ranking fighters such as Gennady Golovkin, Sergey Kovalev, and Terence Crawford because, while some or all could be worthy of a list such as this one soon, they are new to the pound-for-pound lists and have a bit more to prove against top competition. Meanwhile, fighters in their prime such as Andre Ward have already established elite résumés against very good competition. Others, such as Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, are some of this era’s top pugilists for achieving excellence across multiple weight classes, yet they may not necessarily be ranked first in each weight class they competed in because of brief stays in those divisions. My primary criteria were what the fighters accomplished in the division in their prime and the quality of their competition. If you believe Floyd Mayweather, Jr. should be ranked first at welterweight and lightweight because he would have defeated a prime Felix Trinidad and Pernell Whitaker in those respective weight classes, you may be right, but Trinidad and Whitaker earned their spots because they established dominance against a higher number of elite fighters for a longer period of time.
Very special thanks to Jeff for allowing me to write this for his blog. Feel free to Tweet me with your thoughts and reactions. Here are the rankings:
1. Lennox Lewis
Lewis gets the nod because he was the best fighter of a relatively strong era, he avenged all blemishes on his record, and his best accomplishment was an impressive one: a TKO victory against a prime Vitali Klitschko in a war at Staples Center. Wladimir Klitschko is having one of the best runs in heavyweight history, but, through no fault of his own, it is against weak competition. There is only one “Real Deal” Holyfield.
3. David Haye
It was hard to rank fighters in a division whose post-Holyfield legacy has been defined by mediocrity. Nelson held an alphabet belt for more than six years, defending successfully his title 13 times against fighters such as Ezra Sellers and Alexander Petkovic. Gomez had a strong run as alphabet belt holder from 1998 to 2001. Haye, famous for blaming his 2011 heavyweight loss to Wladimir Klitschko on an injured toe, had a brief but explosive run against formidable competition such as Jean-Marc Mormeck and Enzo Maccarinelli.
2. Chad Dawson
Jones, of course, was pound-for-pound king at light heavyweight for years. I struggled trying to determine the second and third rankings among fighters such as Dawson, Michalczewski, Virgil Hill, and Antonio Tarver. Tarver ended Jones’ tenure as the world’s best fighter, but he was a combined 1-4 against Dawson, Bernard Hopkins, and Glen Johnson; while Dawson was 5-0, 1 NC, against Hopkins, Johnson, and Tarver, plus Dawson defeated a prime, undefeated Tomasz Adamek. Michalczewski had an excellent run fighting out of Germany, winning his first 48 bouts, but his résumé does not match the strength of Dawson’s.
1. Andre Ward
2. Joe Calzaghe
3. Carl Froch
Ward is a special fighter, beating greats such as Froch and Mikkel Kessler on his way to winning the Super Six World Boxing Classic. Calzaghe was one of the best of his era, retiring with a 46-0 record. However, I rank Calzaghe behind Ward because Ward has dominated slightly tougher competition at super middleweight. Carl Froch was one of his generation’s great warriors, backing down from no one and defeating everyone he faced except Ward (he avenged his loss against Mikkel Kessler).
3. Felix Sturm
What more can one write about Hopkins? He had one of the most impressive runs in boxing history and is the best middleweight since Marvin Hagler. Martinez defeated Kelly Pavlik, Paul Williams, and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. when all were considered top-level fighters, knocking Williams out with one punch in their rematch. Sturm received the number 3 ranking based on his longevity performing as a top middleweight, but he is only keeping Gennady Golovkin’s seat warm as long as Golovkin keeps winning impressively.
1. Terry Norris
2. Winky Wright
Norris was an absolute beast in his prime, dominating the division. Winky Wright was one of the division’s best for years, capping of his stay in the division with consecutive decision victories against Shane Mosley. Trinidad had a short stay at junior middleweight, but he made it count by going 3-0 (2 KOs) against Fernando Vargas, David Reid, and Mamadou Thiam. Their combined record was 67-1 when Trinidad faced them.
Trinidad was at his finest at welterweight, though it is a shame he was given a gift against Oscar De La Hoya in 1999. Whitaker and Mayweather, two of the best defensive fighters ever, were practically unbeatable while they were welterweights. Whitaker gets the higher ranking for beating better competition, such as Buddy McGirt. Plus, Whitaker was the first person to put a blemish on Julio Cesar Chavez Sr.’s 87-0 record when their 1993 bout was ruled a draw, a fight that everyone but the San Antonio judges that night felt Whitaker won convincingly. One could make a strong case for ranking De La Hoya on this list.
2. Kostya Tszyu
3. Miguel Cotto
The Mexican legend Chavez won belts at junior lightweight, lightweight, and junior welterweight. At junior welterweight, he defeated fighters such as Roger Mayweather, and he achieved his dramatic 12th-round TKO against Meldrick Taylor. Kostya Tszyu was ferocious, defeating practically everyone at 140. Cotto became one of his era’s top junior welterweights by beating quality fighters such as Paulie Malignaggi, Ricardo Torres, and Randall Bailey.
2. Shane Mosley
Whitaker was superb at lightweight—one of the best fighters in the division’s history. When Shane Mosley enters the Hall of Fame one day, boxing historians will describe his tenure at lightweight as when he was at his very best. Mayweather was also fantastic at this weight, winning two fights against the very good Jose Luis Castillo (one was a close decision) and defeating Phillip N’dou.
Mayweather cleaned up an exceptional division composed of Diego Corrales, Jesus Chavez, Carlos Hernandez, Angel Manfredy, and Genaro Hernandez. His destruction of the undefeated Corrales is one of the best accomplishments of his career. Nelson was incredible against the likes of Jeff Fenech and Gabriel Ruelas. At 130, Pacquiao went 4-1 (2 KOs) against future Hall of Famers Erik Morales, Juan Manuel Marquez, and Marco Antonio Barrera. A case could be made for either Mayweather, Nelson, or Pacquiao to be ranked first.
1. Naseem Hamed
Hamed was a special talent who dominated the division by beating fighters such as Kevin Kelley, Wilfredo Vazquez Sr., and Wayne McCullough. A young Pacquiao was explosive at this weight, defeating Barrera by TKO. Marquez also was great, beating some formidable fighters such as Orlando Salido and Robbie Peden.
1. Erik Morales
Morales and Barrera were at their best at junior featherweight. Morales has the top ranking because he defeated Barrera and Junior Jones. Vazquez ruled the division during the early to mid-1990s. It was tough to leave Nonito Donaire off this list because he blasted through top fighters before meeting his match in Guillermo Rigondeaux.
What a talent Canizales was. He won an alphabet bantamweight belt in 1988 and defended it successfully 13 times in the 1990s. Marquez was an animal at bantamweight, defeating everyone from Mark Johnson to Tim Austin. Sahaprom gets the nod over Tim Austin for number 3, but barely. Both beat several quality contenders during long title runs.
2. Johnny Tapia
Tokuyama had an impressive run from 2000 to 2006, beating many decent contenders such as Gerry Penalosa and Dmitry Kirillov. Tapia beat many top contenders and was undefeated for much of his career until moving up in weight. Moon defeated talented fighters such as Nana Yaw Konadu and Hilario Zapata, and Moon edged Vic Darchinyan and Fernando Montiel because of Moon’s longevity at an elite level.
1. Mark Johnson
Johnson was a special fighter, and he established his Hall of Fame chops at flyweight. Arbachakov had a strong run in the division, beating boxers such as Hugo Rafael Soto and Yoon-Un Jin. Current pound-for-pound leader Gonzalez is steamrolling through his opponents in this division, as he also did at junior flyweight, and will likely leapfrog Arbachakov very soon if he continues to compete at flyweight.
3. Jorge Arce
The 5’ 5½” Carbajal and 5’1” Gonzalez were two of the baddest men on the planet during their heyday, producing a memorable rivalry. Either are worthy of the top ranking. Arce was a firecracker during his prime at junior flyweight, beating good fighters such as Yo-Sam Choi, Melchor Cob Castro, and Juanito Rubillar.
Ricardo was one of his era’s best fighters, achieving a 51-0-1 record, the only blemish being a technical draw against Rosendo Alvarez. Calderon won and defended successfully an alphabet belt from 2003 to 2007 against good opponents. Alvarez was an excellent strawweight, whose defining career accomplishment was defeating an undefeated and very good Chana Porpaoin.