With its perfect cocktail of speed, skill and power, the 160lb middleweight division is viewed by many as boxing’s ultimate weight category and through history it has been occupied by several of the finest prizefighters who ever thumped noses.
In terms of pure numbers, Bernard Humphrey Hopkins of Philadelphia – who bows out at the sprightly age of 51 years, 11 months and two days in California on Saturday, live on BoxNation – is certainly the greatest ever to grace the division. But, stats apart, where does his standing truly lie among the plethora of 160lb legends?
It is incontestable that the ex-con initially known as ‘The Executioner’ and latterly as ‘The Alien’ reigned for longer than any other middleweight emperor (10 years, two months, 17 days) and retained the claim to his assorted thrones more times (20) than any of the divisions other fine champions. At 40 years and six months, BHop can also boast to being the division’s oldest ever belt holder.
Splintered titles, contrasting activity levels and ever evolving advances in nutrition and training techniques makes the task of comparing legends from across the eras an unforgiving, near impossible task. But dastardly Dev, Head of Digital, is insisting upon it so here’s my best go!
Across the decades, Britain has represented strongly at 11st 6lbs so it’s perhaps fitting that the division’s first obvious superstar was Cornish born Bob Fitzsimmons. ‘Ruby Bob’, a crippling puncher particularly to the solar plexus, ruled from 1891-95 before absconding to the more lucrative heavyweight (and later light-heavy) category. However, during his term in office Fitzsimmons retained just twice so can’t be considered a serious threat to Hopkins as the division’s ultimate kingpin.
Not so Stanley Ketchel, a hard living, hard punching roughhouse who terrorized the globe’s middleweights in the opening decade of the twentieth century. ‘The Michigan Assassin’ was just 20 when he first claimed the title in December 1907 by wiping out San Francisco’s Joe Thomas in the 32nd frame of a scheduled 45 rounder.
Ketchel, successfully retained five times within an eight month period and, still only 22, entered the annuls as the division’s first two time champion by crushing Illinois’ Billy Papke (ko12) who’d briefly relieved him of his crown 80 days earlier.
Thereafter, Ketchel carved his name in ring ‘lore by jumping to heavyweight and dumping heralded champ Jack Johnson – who outweighed him by 35lbs – before getting ironed out himself in round 12. Within a year he was murdered and martyred by a lover’s jilted boyfriend. Gone at 24, he could’ve amounted to anything.
By the 1920s, the unholy trinity of Harry Greb, Tiger Flowers and Mickey Walker had surfaced. The former, known as ‘The Pittsburgh Windmill’ was sometimes wild but always wildly exciting. He nailed the crown from Johnny Wilson in 1923 and successfully retained four times – including a win over Walker – before conceding a split to Flowers in 1926.
His conqueror, the division’s first African-American champ, was devoutly religious but had an ungodly ring manner and was not averse to thumbing and heeling. ‘The Georgia Deacon’ repeated his win over Greb but succumbed to ‘Toy Bulldog’ Walker via a decision so mystifying it was investigated by the state athletic commission – to no avail.
Walker, formerly a welter champ, held off four challengers before abandoning the title to chase heavyweights. All three were all but deified by contemporary historians but their title CVs lack the depth to threaten Hopkins.
The same could be said for Indiana body snatcher Tony Zale and colourful NYC bomber Rocky Graziano, two seriously hard practitioners who shared a disturbingly violent trilogy in the late 1940s. Alas, both lacked the longevity to merit serious consideration for the division’s all-time number one slot.
Shortly after, came concrete chinned Jake LaMotta, fabled in film as ‘The Raging Bull’. The New Yorker infamously chucked a fight to secure his long overdue crack at the title but, in June 1949, dethroned a very worthy French champion in Marcel Cerdan.
LaMotta survived two challenges – famously playing possum then dramatically exploding to knockout Laurent Dauthuille with just 13 seconds remaining when miles adrift on the cards – before being butchered, stopped, (but never dropped) in 13 by Sugar Ray Robinson in the 1951 St Valentine’s Day Massacre.
The supremely gifted Sugarman is commonly regarded as the finest glove man ever– there’s certainly a strong case he was the best welterweight – and he claimed the world middleweight title five times between 1951 and 1960, during a Golden Age for the division.
However, that meant that he was himself fleeced of the crown on four occasions, albeit to good men (Randy Turpin, Gene Fullmer, Carmen Basilio and Paul Pender), always on points. And, get this, Robinson triumphed in just eight of 15 fights for the middleweight championship whereas Hopkins was bettered in just three of 24!
In the 60s, the fabulous flamboyant Virgin Islander Emile Griffiths – another former welterweight king - reigned twice but his reigns proved frustratingly short. Like so many of the aforementioned, it’s conceivable that on his very best night, he might have scalped Hopkins but he simply lacks the body of work to be placed above him.
The same could be said for ring superstars such as Hearns, Duran, Leonard, McCallum and Jones Jr who passed along the 160lb highway during the 80s and 90s, briefly gobbling up a fragmented slice of the middleweight pie en route.
The first serious challenge to Hopkins’ hegemony comes from Carlos Monzon, the obscenely rugged Argentinean who ruled with iron fists for seven years and 14 defences during the 1970s. The pride of Santa Fe collected the undisputed crown by upsetting Italy’s Nino Benvenuti in Rome (rsc12) in Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year for 1970.
Eleven of his defences were executed on foreign terrain and nine challengers failed finish. The vanquished included Griffiths (twice), Bennie Briscoe, Jose Napoles and Rodrigo Valdez (twice). He abdicated (and retired) as undefeated champion in July 1977.
Brockton’s Marvellous Marvin Hagler compiled a similarly impressive championship portfolio throughout the 80s. People have hung for lesser crimes than that committed by two officials who adjudged his first title tilt with Vito Antufermo as a draw. Being left in limbo for a further ten months didn’t lighten his mood and he viciously mugged Crawley’s Alan Minter in three rounds before a toxic, bottle tossing audience at Wembley Arena in September 1980.
Over the ensuing six and a half years, the scowling southpaw executed a reign of terror, repelling 12 challengers with only Roberto Duran completing the course. Worthies such as Mustafa Hamsho (twice), Tommy Hearns and John ‘The Beast’ Mugabi were among the demolished dozen. MMH retired in disgust after conceding controversially to bitter nemesis Sugar Ray Leonard in 1987.
Post Hopkins, Kazakh kayo king Gennady Golovkin has been ripping up the division but remains a work in progress and is best evaluated after he exits. A 160lb belt holder since August 2010, ‘GGG’ has ruined 17 successive challengers without the judges being called but, through little fault of his own, has served as a slalom stick for every meaningful rival. Way too good for his own good.
Of the above mentioned, it would be difficult to locate a fighter who wasn’t more exciting than Hopkins and several were more blessed technically. But the Philadelphian mastered eight world champions – most notably stopping Tito Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya – and few arrived for battle better conditioned. None were wiser or tougher mentally.
His standout stats are further enhanced when one considers that he never boxed amateur, conceded his debut at light-heavy shortly after departing clink (four years for ‘strong arm’ robbery) and was well into his 26th year before he won his first fight. It’s doubtful his physiological make-up will ever be replicated.
Golovkin continues to rise but, presently, BHop need only genuflect before Monzon and Hagler (who both triumphed over superior competition) when it comes to debating the division’s greatest champion.