Tracy G. Callis
International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO)
Ranking the All-Time Boxing Greats (from WAIL! - July, 1998)
Why do people rank the all-time boxing greats the way they do? The reasons for doing so are quite varied.
The age of the individual assigning the ranks often has a bearing on the position given to different men. If a person is a follower of boxing, he is aware of the fighters of his own time. His evaluation of their abilities is rather objective.
Most boxing publications do an adequate job of covering the activities taking place in the boxing world. However, the large bulk of this coverage is about contemporary pugilists with the result being that fans tend to exaggerate the skills of the fighters in their time in relation to those of other eras.
The effect of age continues through the years as well. In many instances, an individual continues to rate the good fighters of his generation over those to come (and those of the past). John Durant, author of The Heavyweight Champions, disclosed in private correspondence (1977) to this writer "When the sportswriters of today grow old, they will rate the fighters of their youth above all that will appear in the future."
Jimmy Cannon (1978 p 157) writes: "Memory deforms the past. The old champions are cherished by nostalgic men who were young when they were. The kids will be that way about Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) and Joe Frazier in a couple of years. The heavyweight title fight incites recollections that are often either slanderous or reverent with the flattery of lies. It is a personal matter, and a sports reporter's descriptions of athletes are influenced as much by feeling as by truth."
The knowledge and understanding of boxing an individual possesses is another factor in determining how he will rank the men. An experienced person in this field is aware of strengths and weaknesses in the various men and their styles, techniques, etc. This definitely affects the ranks assigned. A person who is not familiar with the "ins-and-outs" of the sport will likely assign ranks differently.
Preference for style can also figure in. Some people prefer the Slugger or Swarmer with his power and endurance. Others like the Classic Boxer with his speed and motion. Still, others reason that the Boxer-Puncher with his all-around ability is best. There are strong arguments for each style. There have been great fighters of each type.
Prevailing philosophies as to the relative merits of various eras in history also affect the rankings. In former years, fighters of the past were highly regarded and viewed as more rugged and durable, harder hitting, and better conditioned. They were considered superior.
In recent years, the modern boxers are considered superior with better motion, improved skills, and greater power. The persuasion of the individual towards these arguments definitely affects the rankings.
Further, the race of the individual making selections as well as that of the fighters considered might be a factor. Black fighters dominate boxing today. For example, in the Heavyweight Division, only six champions since 1937 have been white (if you include Francesco Damiani, Tommy Morrison, and Frans Botha). A white man has been champion for only about eight years of the last sixty-one. Therefore, many people concede that blacks are superior fighters.
Sociologists do not agree. They say it is a matter of conditioning, mental as well as physical. A rougher lifestyle makes better fighters. Since blacks generally come from the low socio-economic sphere, they are the "have-nots" of recent years.
However, this was not always the case. During the early years of this country, nearly everyone struggled to make it. In the period of fifty to one hundred years ago, the white society also did without and produced many exceptional fighters.
Weinberg and Arond (1952 p 460) point out that boxing has been dominated by different ethnic groups through the years and write: "The tradition of an ethnic group, as well as its temporary location at the bottom of the scale, may affect the proportion of its boys who become boxers"
Finally, the sex and personality of a person could be an influence in the choices made. Attraction to a certain pugilist or an affinity to one's nature and attitude could affect the ultimate selections.
It should be noted that the ever-increasing coverage of fights by radio and films since the twenties with the addition of television since the fifties has caused widespread popularity of the good fighters during those years.
For the most part, as the years pass the more recent names rise to the top in rankings and the older ones drop in esteem and rank. Very probably, the best fighters of any period in history could fight with each other on a highly competitive and "near-equal" basis.
Cannon, J. and Cannon, T. 1978. Nobody Asked Me, But ... (The World of Jimmy Cannon). New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston
Durant, J. 1976. The Heavyweight Champions. New York: Hastings House Publishers
Weinberg, S.K. and Arond, H. 1952. The Occupational Culture of the Boxer (contained in The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 57, pp 460-469 March 1952)
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Tracy Callis All-Time Rankings