A few weeks ago I took my first trip to New York. The entire trip was a drunken haze, Hunter S. Thompson style. Most of the trip consisted of bar hopping and then after the bars let out at 4am my group would wander around the local diners to see if they sold beer. Even in my incapacitation I was able to do the town properly. I rode the subway, ate some pizza, spotted a bed bug, ate a Time Square hot dog, urinated on a skyscraper because nobody will let you use their restroom, and caught a glimpse of a famous musician outside of Radio City Music Hall. You know, all of the standard stuff you do when you visit New York.
Cool little city, that NYC. I must say, even with my west coast bias I was impressed. It was just as vintage and diverse as San Francisco only on a much grander scale. As a tribute to my recent trip to New York City I give you my list of the top ten all time boxers from the state of New York. New York City is the most populous city in the United States, and New York state was the most populous state for most of boxing’s rich history so you can be sure that this list contains some of the best boxers in the history of the sport.
10. Rocky Graziano
A true New Yorker, Graziano was born, raised, and died in New York City. Guys like Rocky Graziano are what make boxing great, and what brings fans to the sport. Sure, Rocky may not have been the best fighter of all time, or his era, or his weight class, but, he was the most fun to watch. He had the knockout punch that could bail him out of any fight no matter how bad he was losing. Every time Graziano fought, the arenas were sold out and everyone in attendance was on their feet. The closest modern boxer who reminds me of Graziano is Arturo Gatti. Rocky was no slouch, able to win the Middleweight Championship when he knocked out Tony Zale in the second fight of their legendary trilogy.
9. Mike Tyson
Born and raised in Brooklyn until legendary trainer Cus D’Amato took young Tyson under his wing and allowed him to move in with him in the Catskills. D’Amato polished the raw talent from the impoverished youth and turned him into a wrecking ball. Tyson was exactly what boxers fans wanted to see in the 1980’s from a heavyweight. Iron Mike’s combination of speed, power, and aggression made him one most exciting heavyweight fighters of all time. His exciting style, the marketing by his handlers, and the timing allowed Tyson to become of the most popular boxers ever. Mike became the undisputed champion in the late 1980’s, then became unified champion again in the mid 1990’s, all the while lighting up the world news headlines like an athlete who was bigger than his sport.
8. Lou Ambers
From the small town of Herkimer came a ferocious little fighter by the name of Lou Ambers. He came along during a golden age of lightweights and fought just about all of them. That included battles against legends like Tony Canzoneri, Henry Armstrong, Pedro Montanez, Jimmy McLarnin, and Lew Jenkins. Ambers was not a very hard hitter, having only scored 28 knockouts in over 100 fights. Knockout punching was not his game. Instead, Lou was crafty, slippery, tough to hit, but strong enough to make you pay when you missed. In short, he was the kind of master boxer that only comes along about once a generation. Ambers was the Lightweight Champion off and on from 1936 to 1940 and recorded some epic wins during that time. His greatest achievement and most famous fight was most certainly when he defeated a prime Henry Armstrong in 1939 to win back the belt that Armstrong took from him.
7. Carmen Basilio
Hailing from Canastota, New York, Basilio was known as the Upstate Onion Farmer. He was one of the old school kind of boxers that they just don’t make any more. Carmen was tough as nails but also remarkably skilled. Carmen entered a welterweight division that had just recently been vacated by Sugar Ray Robinson. Following up after Robinson was a tough act to follow since those were awfully big shoes to fill, but Basilio did a stand up job. He took his lumps early on in his career, including a a split decision loss to Kid Gavilan in a title fight, but then went on a tear. Basilio won the Welterweight Championship from Tony DeMarco in 1955 and then won two out of three thrilling affairs with Johnny Saxton. His dominance at welterweight led him to his inevitable showdown with Sugar Ray Robinson. Basilio bested Robinson by split decision in 1957’s fight of the year, thereby stamping his ticket into the hall of fame.
6. Emile Griffith
Griffith was born in the Virgin Islands but was raised, and resided in, New York City. Griffith’s nature talent was startling apparent when he first walked into the gym to try boxing. Emile had the body, speed, and stamina that most aspiring boxers can only dream of. He was brought up quickly and, not surprisingly due to his natural talent, found immediate success, defeating Benny Paret by 13th round KO in just his 25th pro fight. Griffith was a crowd-pleasing fan favorite due to his aggressive fighting style. Griffith fought a trilogy with Paret that ended in Paret’s tragic death after the third fight. Griffith claimed that after the tragedy with Paret he held back his punches in fear of injuring another opponent. His knockout percentage dropped, but he was still able to win many key fights. Emile’s impressive career included championship stints at both welterweight and middleweight.
5. Jake LaMotta
The subject of the Robert De Niro movie Raging Bull, Jake was known as the Bronx Bull during his fighting days. Don’t be fooled by the nickname. LaMotta was not just some free swinging, charging tough guy. He was an ultra skilled technician who preferred to fight on the inside. He was a good puncher but not the best, a good defender but not a wizard, had fast hands but some could beat him to the punch. What separated LaMotta from the pack when his boxing skills were matched was his amazing chin. He is widely regarded as having the best chin of all time. The only other fighting in all of boxing history who could take a punch as well as LaMotta was maybe Marvin Hagler, the Middleweight Champion from the 1980s. The set of whiskers came in handy during his many wars with top notch fighters, including six brutal encounters with Sugar Ray Robinson. Jake was the kind of boxer who was so menacing that nobody wanted a piece of him. He was denied a title shot for many years and even resorted to allegedly throwing a fight in order to play politics with the powers that be and receive a title shot. The title shot finally came and LaMotta converted with a 10th round TKO over Marcel Cerdan. Despite a short tenure as champ, Jake had done enough previous to becoming champion (mainly due to his quality of opposition) that he is now widely recognized as one of the top 5 middleweight champions of all time.
4. Jack Britton
Britton, from Clinton, New York, was one of the pioneers of the modern fight game and one of the first truly great, elite pound for pound fighters. Jack, nicknamed the “Boxing Marvel”, never expected to become such a revered boxer and perhaps his modest mentality is what caused him to be so great. Britton never stopped being a student of the game. He was constantly learning and inventing news ways to perfect the art of pugilism in order to fool his opponents. Never believing that he was the most gifted athlete in the ring allowed him to have the motivation study his craft to the next level. All of his hard work paid off, making him a tough out each and every time he stepped into the ring. After he was knocked out in his third pro fight, he was never stopped again in 350 contests! The more Britton fought the same opponent, the more he figured them out and improved on his performance. That was true with his main rival, Ted “Kid” Lewis. The two fought 20 times, proving to be each other’s equal, but Jack won the last three bouts handily. Britton had a long distinguished career including three different stints as the Welterweight Champion.
3. Tony Canzoneri
Canzoneri was born in Louisiana but moved to New York shortly after and spent the rest of his life residing in Staten Island. He rarely fought outside of New York City. He fought an obscene amount of champions, all time greats, and hall of fame caliber boxers during his career, never shying away from a tough match up. He scored a stunning upset with his first round KO over Al Singer in 1930 to win the Lightweight Championship. Tony held the Lightweight and Jr. Welterweight Championships simultaneously, one of only three boxers to ever hold belts in two different weight classes at the same time, holding them both after a brilliant win over Jack “Kid” Berg in 1931. Overall, Canzoneri won five world titles in three different weight classes. He would go on to record wins over the likes of Lou Ambers, Kid Chocolate, and Jimmy McLarnin among others. His two legendary battles against rival Barney Ross are perhaps his two most famous fights. Canzoneri is clearly an all time great due to his resume, but what made him such a popular and special fighter was his crowd-pleasing aggressive style that favored power punching over defense.
2. Benny Leonard
Regarded by many as the greatest Lightweight Champion of all time, Benny Leonard of New York City was exquisitely skilled boxer-puncher. His combination of boxing skills, quick reflexes, and a penchant for talking to his opponents during bouts made him like the Muhammad Ali of the 135 pound weight class. He won his belt in 1917 with a crushing defeat of well regarded champ Freddie Welsh. He held that title with class and style until his initial retirement in 1924, hardly even losing a round during that time. Leonard’s success brought him unprecedented popularity for a lightweight in that era. He broke attendance records at arenas and gross revenue records. Legend has it that the term “pound for pound” was invented as a way to describe the brilliance of Benny Leonard. He left a legacy as a two-fisted puncher, the cleverest boxer of all time, among the top 5 pound for pound boxers ever.
1. Sugar Ray Robinson
Sugar Ray is almost unanimously considered to be the greatest pound for pound boxer of all time. From the mean streets of Harlem, Robinson had a record of 128-1-2 at one point in his career. That included a stretch as the Welterweight Champion where he was as close to untouchable as a prizefighter has ever been. After that he moved up into the toughest era of middleweights of all time and came out the victor against greats like Rocky Graziano, Randy Turpin, Jake LaMotta, Bobo Olson, Gene Fullmer, and Carmen Basilio. The amazing truth about Robinson’s conquests in the middleweight division was that he was able to defeat all of these great opponents despite being undersized and past his prime. Sugar Ray was the complete package. In almost every category of boxing attributes, Robinson was amongst the best of all time, and that includes hand speed, punching power, boxing ability, chin, jab, foot work, counter punching skills, and much more. Sugar Ray could do anything in the ring he wanted and do it as good or better than anyone else in the history of boxing. Robinson was truly the greatest and a one of a kind.
Honorable Mention: Floyd Patterson, Jose Torres, Carlos Ortiz, Riddick Bowe, Maxie Rosenbloom, Tiger Flowers, Johnny Dundee, Jimmy Carter.
Thanks for visiting RSR and checking out the column. I’ll be back next week with another top 10 list for your reading pleasure.