It is neither America’s pastime nor its most popular sport.
Come to think of it, boxing these days remains several notches down the list here at home – aside from the fleeting moments when a truly transcendent fighter emerges or an event occurs.
But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been things to watch in the United States.
In fact, many big names in the sport were born somewhere in the 1950s.
So given that my country is now a day past its 246th birthday, it seems as good as any time to look back at the fighters of my own brief by life comparison – from 1970 to 2020, say – and rank the best of the best United States champions in that time frame.
And before you post your earthy comments, do me a favor and read this part again.
American born champions.
The champions judged on their performances between 1970 and 2020.
That means no Ray Robinson. That means no Joe Louis.
And that means the Muhammad Ali who fought Joe Frazier and George Foreman, not the version who fought Sonny Liston and Zora Folley, is included.
That being said…and in no particular order beyond alphabetical…here are Tuesday’s team nominees as the 10 greatest American-born champions of the 50-year-old “golden age” between 1970 and 2020.
Titles: Heavyweight (1974-78, 1978)
Title fight record: 12-3 (6)
Well, what do you know? “The Greatest” even wins when it comes to the alphabet. While no one confuses the lightning-fast Ali of the mid-60s with the slower, wiser Ali of the mid-70s, his accomplishments are no less remarkable. Maybe not the best heavy of these 50 years, but two wins over Frazier, the knockout of Foreman and the final that would be perfect in Spinks were unforgettable.
Titles: Middleweight (1980-87)
Title fight record: 13-1-1 (12)
Parents/grandparents of a certain vintage will talk about Hagler the same way our parents and grandparents described grizzled fighters on black and white television in the 1950s. The “Wonderful” fought all the weights means there was and then cemented his legacy with defeats from rising welterweights Duran and Hearns. In that sense, the decision on Leonard’s fight is being debated to this day.
Titles: Welterweight (1980-81), Super Welterweight (1982-86), Light Heavyweight (1987, 1991-92), Middleweight (1987-88), Super Middleweight (1988-90)
Title fight record: 14-4-1 (8)
Of the many guys now claiming three-belt status and beyond, the “Hitman” was among the originals. A fearsome welterweight until his showdown with Leonard, Hearns reinvented himself multiple times while capturing mainstream titles up to 175 pounds. That said, he is remembered more for his battle losses (Leonard, Hagler) than for his impressive defeats against Benitez, Duran, Virgil Hill and others.
Titles: Heavyweight (1978-85)
Title fight record: 20-5 (14)
Ask Team Tuesday who was the best heavyweight in the United States (and the world) between 1970 and 2020 and the answer is clear: Holmes. He took command of the division with a heartbreaking defeat of Norton and cleaned it up like Hagler until he met a clumsy Michael Spinks at 35.
Titles: Cruiserweight (1986-88), Heavyweight (1990-92, 1993-94, 1996-99, 2000-01)
Title fight record: 16-7-2 (10)
If you’re looking for guys who’ve pulled more from a body and a career than anyone expected, look no further than the aptly named “Real Deal.” Holyfield was celebrated coming out of the 1984 Olympics, but didn’t look built for a long time. Turns out he went to heavyweight and ended up in 19 title fights, winning a share of the crown four times.
Roy Jones Jr.
Titles: Middleweight (1993-94), Super Middleweight (1994-96), Light Heavyweight (1997-2004), Heavyweight (2003)
Title fight record: 22-3 (14)
If there was a more dynamic boxer during this period than Jones, he was unnamed. The Floridian had legitimate power in both hands, more speed than anyone his size and the will to climb the ranks to cement his legacy. The reality changed once he inadvertently moved from heavyweight to 175 to fight Tarver in a rematch, so the modern generation might not like him. It is their loss.
Titles: Welterweight (1979-80, 1980-82), Super Welterweight (1981), Middleweight (1987), Light Heavyweight (1988), Super Middleweight (1988-89)
Title fight record: 10-2-1 (8)
When it comes to famous American Olympians, there is perhaps none that tops the 1976 incarnation of ‘Sugar Ray’, who was a pretty good welterweight before an eye injury left him. sidelined in 1982. His action came in spurts after that, but the aforementioned fight with Hagler was memorable regardless of the outcome and the rematch with Hearns in 1989 was a compelling final chapter for two legends.
Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Titles: Super Featherweight (1998-2001), Lightweight (2002-03), Super Lightweight (2005), Welterweight (2006-07, 2011-15), Super Welterweight (2007, 2012-13)
Title fight record: 26-0 (10)
Some like it. Some hate it. Some people start typing belligerent comments as soon as they see his name followed by something other than the word “dumb”. But there is little evidence to deny that he was at the top level of his day. Fighting against champions or worthy contenders in five weight classes resulted in no losses and only a few tough times. TBE? No. But a timeless one? Absolutely.
Titles: Super Lightweight (1980-85)
Title fight record: 11-0 (9)
If there’s one guy who deserves to be inducted into the Hall of Fame but still feels like he left a lot on the table throughout his career, it’s Pryor. The “Hawk” was as menacing a fighter as there was in the early 1980s while tearing down the 140-pound ranks, but he never landed the fight with Leonard that would have defined him. As it stands, two defeats for Alexis Arguello are the exclamation point of an excellent run.
Titles: lightweight (1989-91), super lightweight (1992), welterweight (1993-97), super welterweight (1995)
Title fight record: 19-3-1 (4)
Another fighter, like Willie Pep, who grizzled watchers will remember as the greatest defensive fighter of a generation. Barely 5ft 6in and with a non-threatening nickname of “Sweet Pea”, Whitaker has used his sublime skills to bamboozle foes in four weight classes while scoring just four knockouts in 19 title wins. In fact, the title record should be 21-2 if not for an atrocious decision pairing (Ramirez I and Chavez).
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This week’s title fight schedule:
WBC featherweight title – San Antonio, Texas
Mark Magsayo (Champion/No. 1 IWBR) vs. Rey Vargas (No. 1 WBC/Unranked IWBR)
Magsayo (24-0, 16 KOs): First title defense; Seventh fight in the United States (6-0, 3 KOs)
Vargas (35-0, 22 KOs): Seventh title fight (6-0); Held WBC title at 122 pounds (2017-19, five defenses)
Fitzbitz says: Magsayo is a surprise champion after handling Gary Russell and Vargas unproven at 126 after years as an elite at 122. Bigger and Younger breaks the tie here. Magsayo by decision (85/15)
Last week’s pick: 0-2 (LOSS: Cuarto, Briedis)
Record picks in 2022: 20-9 (70%)
Overall caps record: 1,229-401 (75.4%)
REMARK: The fights previewed are only those involving the full title holder of a sanctioning body – no interim, diamond, money, etc. Fights for WBA “world championships” are only included if there is no “super champion” in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has been covering professional boxing since 1995 and has written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.