The Top 10 Junior Welterweights of All Time
By Marty Mulcahey
With two of the best junior welterweights fighting each other on Saturday, it is a good time to look back on the division’s history and select the 10 best 140-pounders of all time. Amir Khan and Danny Garcia have been fighting at junior welterweight for about three years with Khan more established, engaging in seven title fights while Garcia just won his world title four months ago. Given both men’s ages and aspirations, the junior welterweight class is a weigh station en route to welterweight. Strangely, this has been the case for the junior welterweight division itself, its history marked by periods of inactivity while ignored at other times by sanctioning bodies since its establishment in the 1920s. Nonetheless, of all the “junior” divisions, the 140-pound weight class can argue having the greatest collective of boxing legends to call its own.
There is still historical debate as to whether Myron “Pinky” Mitchell, James “Red” Herring or Mushy Callahan was the first junior welterweight champion. No matter with whom the lineage began, it officially died in 1935 when Barney Ross gave up the title and no promoter or organization bothered to fill the vacancy. The two major organizations of the era, the New York State Athletic Commission and the National Boxing Association, withdrew their recognition of the weight class in the late 1930s. In 1946, Tippy Larkin claimed the title and made one defense (both against Willie Joyce) before vacating the title that fell into disuse for 13 years thereafter, something the sanctioning fee-dependent WBC, WBA and IBF would never have allowed to happen if they were in existence then.
It was not until the popular Carlos Ortiz won the vacant title in 1959 that an unbroken line could be drawn between today’s champions and past titleholders. The WBA and WBC recognized the same champions until 1967 and in 1984, the IBF crowned its first champion with the WBO following suit in 1989. The weight class has been a recognized division in the Olympics since the 1952 Helsinki games. Some of the greatest names in boxing have spilled their blood in this weight class, making the choices plenty as well as difficult to break down given a history that spans so many eras. Below is my list of the best junior welterweights to ever lace up a pair of gloves, excluding any boxer still active such as Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao. Just missing the cut were Ricky Hatton and Eddie Perkins.
10. Wilfred Benitez – It takes a special boxer to gain widespread adulation for defensive wizardry and I shudder to think how good Benitez would have been if he trained diligently! So fluently beautiful was Wilfred’s ability that Willie Pep, Muhammad Ali and Pernell Whitaker are the few to compare in upper body movement and evasive abilities. A boxing prodigy, Benitez turned pro at 15, racking up 25 wins before a title fight with Antonio Cervantes at age 17. Benitez needed to be brilliant and earned a split decision on the strength of accurate counterpunching. A continuous party began thereafter and the wild nightlife affected the teenager in and out of the ring (for the Sugar Ray Leonard fight at 147, Benitez reportedly trained all of two weeks). The WBA stripped him for failing to rematch Cervantes, so Benitez moved up to welterweight and defeated Carlos Palomino in a back-and-forth affair. Benitez suffered his first loss when Sugar Ray Leonard stopped him late after competitive early rounds. One-and-a-half years later, Benitez won his third world title, stopping Maurice Hope, knocking out two of his teeth in a surprising show of power. An impressive win over Roberto Duran was Wilfred’s last hurrah before Tommy Hearns took his title by majority decision. At age 24, Benitez was a shell of himself, his decline as shockingly fast as his meteoric rise.
9. Jackie “Kid” Berg – The proverbial shooting star of the division; what Berg lacked in length of stay at 140 pounds, he made up for in quality. In the span of a year, Berg beat Tony Canzoneri, Mushy Callahan, Joe Glick, Billy Petrolle and handed Kid Chocolate his first loss. Berg was a phenomenon who suffered burnout before it became a popular affliction. Nicknamed “The Whitechapel Whirlwind” before the “Kid” nickname stuck, just as fitting since Berg turned pro at age 14 and, five months later, was fighting in 15-round events. Berg was no stylist and threw punches from all angles, his enormous reserves of energy a main asset in his becoming a champion. Learned his craft and every trick by taking on all comers in London between 1924 and 1927, then moved to New York where he became a hugely popular sensation. Perpetual punching became Berg’s trademark and he returned to England to win the junior welterweight title by knocking out Mushy Callahan. Proved his pedigree in wins over Billy Petrolle, Kid Chocolate (twice) and lightweight champion Tony Canzoneri. However, Canzoneri avenged the loss and ended Berg’s days at the world-class level, after which Berg boxed for another five years with success but no victories over great opposition. Berg fought sporadically until 1945, officially retiring at age 36 before moving on to a successful career as a movie stuntman.
8. Duilio Loi – An oft-forgotten master, the Italian idol only scored 26 kayos in 115 wins but lost a mere three times in an active 14-year time span. A compact, southpaw speedster, Loi won on points because his punches were so precise and visible to judges despite having little force behind them. Loi was a short (5’4½”) but muscular boxer with a versatile skill set, not afraid to brawl when necessary, relying on a great chin that never saw him touch the canvas in a career encapsulating 1,222 rounds. Writers of the day called him a more skilled version of Rocky Marciano, continuously bobbing and weaving his way inside, smothering an opponent’s offense with his own. Like Marciano, was one of the few boxers to retire as world champion, at age 33, when Loi was still able to rely on extraordinary reflexes to keep him out of harm’s way. Won two out of three fights with Hall-of-Famer Carlos Ortiz and split a three-fight series with HOF inductee Eddie Perkins at 1-1-1. In fact, all of his losses were avenged and Loi only lost once in his first 110 fights. Nino Benvenuti gets the acclaim but on merit and statistically, Duilio Loi can make a serious assertion to being the greatest Italian boxer ever.
7. Tony Canzoneri – At 22, Canzoneri was already a two-division champion, back when that meant something in an era of one “real” world champion. An excellent boxer with a solid if not spectacular defense, he knew the mechanics of his profession, never allowing himself to be outworked before or during a fight. Canzoneri’s first pro bout came at age 16 and two short years later (losing only one of his first 39 fights), he was fighting for his first world title at bantamweight. That fight ended in a draw with Bud Taylor; a rematch would see Taylor win or else Canzoneri would have been a four-division champion. Canzoneri moved up in weight and won the World Featherweight title from the very undervalued Benny Bass (Canzoneri already owned the NYSAC version. Bass held the NBA’s version) but problems making weight always kept the muscular Canzoneri on an athletic edge and ledge. Canzoneri’s most dramatic win came at lightweight, winning the title in record fashion, knocking out Al Singer in 66 seconds in 1930. With a win over Jack “Kid” Berg five months later, he added the junior welterweight crown to his trophy case as well. The 140-pound belt was considered a side attraction at the time, often staked in with the established and well-regarded lightweight title. Before the Singer win, came an inspiring battle with Berg, which Canzoneri lost in a thrilling fight that demanded a rematch. Canzoneri avenged his loss to Berg twice before losing both his crowns to legendary Barney Ross. During his Hall of Fame career, Canzoneri only suffered one knockout loss and nailed 44 kayos himself in a 137-win career.
6. Nicolino Locche – Hank Kaplan, one of boxing’s foremost historians, often extolled the virtues of this Argentine great. “Locche was the closest thing to Willie Pep. He was a defensive marvel. He was entertaining to watch and was a great performer.” The key word to be taken from that statement is “entertaining” and it is what separated Locche from other defensive specialists. Pernell Whitaker was equally brilliant with his feet and body movement but never reached the punch output of the confident Locche. It is one thing to make your opponent miss- which Locche did with ease- but the enjoyment is only magnified when a breathtaking four-punch combination is thrown in reply. Locche packed 136 fights into a 17-year career, ending with a record of 117 wins and only four losses, to go with 14 draws. Perhaps the only stat more startling than his wins is that only 14 victories came via knockout. Locche worked for every win, setting up his punches with malicious forethought, totally befuddling a young Antonio Cervantes. In Argentina, where Locche fought almost all of his bouts, adoring fans bestowed the nickname of “El Intocable” (“The Untouchable”) upon him. A fitting moniker since perplexed opponents seemed eternally off-balance from the angles Locche produced with a quick realignment of his feet. Legendary trainer Angelo Dundee described seeing a prime Locche, “I had the pleasure of watching him operate. He was slick, smart and played the ropes. He was like Willie Pep, meaning he could stay in one spot and you wouldn’t be able to hit him. He was a very smart fighter.”
5. Barney Ross – Placed higher on this list than contemporary Tony Canzoneri by defeating him twice, though both decisions were close, controversial and perhaps questionable. Logged nine defenses of the title and never lost his belt in the ring, giving up the title after defeating Jimmy McLarnin for the welterweight belt. A legend in every sense of the word, this three-division champion might have peaked at junior welterweight. Fought to the level of his opposition, excelling when pressed by rivals Tony Canzoneri, Jimmy McLarnin (won two of three) and the naturally larger Ceferino Garcia. Ross, McLarnin, and Canzoneri were the 1930s’ version of Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran and Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Trained to peak performance by the famed Ray Arcel, Ross won “Fighter of the Year” awards in 1934 and 1935 advancing behind trickier than acknowledged footwork. Stamina was the key to his success, as he outworked opponents behind a solid jab and punches that rained down from all angles. Ross lacked power and although an adept defensive fighter, he showed a great chin late in his career. As impressive a man as Ross was in the ring, outside the ring, he was even more courageous. Enlisted in the Marines at the age of 32 when World War II broke out and became a decorated hero, awarded the Silver Star for “gallantry and intrepidity in action” and received the Distinguished Service Cross from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. A hero in and out of the ring.
4. Kostya Tszyu – Perhaps possessed of the hardest straight right hand ever seen at 140 pounds, a clinical finisher who could box intelligently when necessary. One of the first Russian fighters to excel as a pro, Tszyu was a beast on the amateur level, destroying Vernon Forrest to win the World Amateur Boxing Championships and was the favorite for an Olympic gold medal before defecting. Infused stand-up Soviet amateur style with amazing power punching and his accuracy allowed Tszyu to make every punch count. Had an uncanny knack for stopping southpaw boxers and impeccable timing earned him 25 knockouts in 31 victories. Perhaps the physically strongest junior welterweight in the history of the division, Tszyu reached peak levels when his mental game matched those physical abilities. Tszyu deviated from astounding work habits early in his career, relying on physical gifts alone after winning the title. That led to a loss against Vince Phillips but Tszyu is one of the few modern champions who became better after a loss. Of the experience, Tszyu said, “I became a professional athlete after that fight. I had a different attitude.” It showed, as Tszyu mentally and physically broke down polar opposite boxers Zab Judah and Julio Cesar Chavez. Achieved a consistency that kept Tszyu at junior welterweight his entire career, something nearly unheard of for the last three generations of boxers. Won the title in his 14th pro fight, making 15 defenses of his title (mostly on the road) over two reigns spanning 10 years. Also became first boxer to unify the IBF, WBA and WBC titles at the weight. Tszyu is proof that mental focus, not just physical gifts, is the key to achieving and maintaining greatness in all aspects of life.
3. Antonio Cervantes – Of the boxers listed, fought at 140 pounds the longest (over 20 years) and Cervantes’ performances were as consistently great as his weight. Thirty years after his retirement, remains the best boxer Colombia ever produced and at 5’9”, was tall for the weight. Colombia’s first champion, he built his legacy and the country’s boxing reputation by taking his show on the road. Cervantes was a smooth boxer-puncher, giving beautiful exhibitions in Los Angeles, San Juan, Panama City, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Caracas, New York, Seoul, Cincinnati and Udon Thani, Thailand. Sadly, although he made 18 successful title defenses over two reigns, (13 on the road and 12 via stoppage), losses to Aaron Pryor and Wilfred Benitez are what Cervantes is remembered for. Had the Benitez bout been held in a neutral location, Cervantes might have gotten the nod given his superior aggression. Few remember he overcame a loss in his first title shot, when Argentine wizard Nicolino Locche worked his counterpunching magic on the championship-level novice. Cervantes did exact revenge, stopping the former champ over 10 rounds in their rematch. In his 11th title defense, Cervantes was nicked on the scorecards by young phenom Wilfred Benitez, who gave up the title rather than giving Cervantes a rematch. It took Hall-of-Famer Aaron Pryor to dislodge Cervantes in his second reign, after Cervantes had made six more title defenses, but not before Cervantes scored a knockdown of his overeager challenger. Cervantes had to be witnessed live to be fully appreciated; his greatness lay in the nuances of his offensive outbursts and tactical adaptations to any given situation.
2. Aaron Pryor – A fearsome puncher-boxer, Pryor’s relentlessness was the closest thing to Henry Armstrong boxing produced since that legend’s retirement in 1945. One word describes what watching Pryor was like and how he went about his work: “intense”! Sadly, Pryor self-destructed in his prime and never got to test his skills against fellow ‘80s superstars Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns (whom Pryor beat in the amateurs) and Roberto Duran. Like Duran, Pryor did not believe in holding back once the bell rang, allowing himself to be propelled by emotion and passion. This resulted in some early-round knockdowns (Antonio Cervantes and Akio Kameda, for instance) against him but Pryor always got up and gave better than he took in return. Pryor’s prime was not long because of his partying and cocaine habit but what a prime it was! In fact, no one beat Pryor during his prime as he cut a destructive hurricane-like path to the title. Never lost the belt in the ring either, holding it for five years. Pryor was in constant search of validation and was clearly avoided by the management of popular boxers until the equally-proud Alexis Arguello challenged him after moving up from lightweight. The resulting battle was a titanic back-and-forth struggle, ending in a 14th round kayo win for Pryor. That fight might have been the greatest of the entire ‘80s decade and in a rematch, Pryor won even more emphatically. Pryor’s prime was cut short by substance abuse but despite that, he made ten title defenses, scoring eight stoppages. Pryor made a remarkable personal comeback, overcoming his demons, and is now a minister working to help children in a Cincinnati boxing program.
1. Julio Cesar Chavez – For two decades, the most frightening image a boxer could see was “The Lion of Culiacan” sitting on the stool across from him with no hint of mercy or weakness escaping his stony features. Chavez never had that one great punch which frightened opponents; it was the numbing accuracy and consistency of his punches that did the damage. Chavez made body-punching fun again…for the fans, at least. You could see opponents drop their hands, almost inviting a shot to the head instead of another attack on the liver or ribs. The prime “El Gran Campeon” was probably seen at junior lightweight and lightweight but this version of Chavez still holds the division record for most successful consecutive title defenses at 12. Made 16 defenses in all with relative ease, handing six undefeated challengers their first losses. It was at 140 pounds where Chavez was considered number one in the mythical pound-for-pound rankings. Here, Chavez delivered his most awe-inspiring victory with the iconic stoppage of Meldrick Taylor, bludgeoning his way through Taylor’s blazing fists. By the time of his dubious draw with Pernell Whitaker, Chavez was past his prime, 87 hard fights behind him, and the same was evident in subsequent losses to Oscar De la Hoya. Did everything great, showing fantastic punching technique while crippling foes with an incessant body attack after cutting off the ring to prevent their escape. Legendary chin never let him down when foes were brave enough to punch with Chavez and he kept sharp by fighting often, registering 107 victories. When discussing Mexican boxing, past or present, every comparison begins and ends with Chavez. Simply put, Chavez was one of boxing’s ultimate predators.