The Lightweights 
  
Author:  Paul Hindley
 
There are eight traditional weight classes in boxing and whilst I make no claims to be right, if you ask me who I consider to be the best ever in each weight class I can provide an answer I am pretty satisfied with for every division. That is until it comes to the lightweights.  Not only can I not answer this, I frequently can’t even reduce it to a two horse race.  In the interests of trying to clear up the debate it might be worthwhile sorting out the possible candidates and their claims to top honours.
 
Whilst the division is one of the oldest in existence and had some terrific champions in its early days such as Frank Erne and George Kid Lavigne the first legendary champion and, in my opinion, the first with a shout at top honours was the Old Master Joe Gans.  As anybody familiar with the history of the sport will know securing a title shot as a black fighter in the early 20th century was a nigh on impossibility. Many a talented fighter, such as the peerless Peter Jackson and George Godfrey had seen their legitimate claims resolutely ignored. Sometimes it took a little chicanery or downright fiddling to get the shot your talent warranted. Gans first shot at champion Frank Erne ended when he was unable to continue after a blatant head-butt by champion Frank Erne. His second shot was not easily or quickly come by. Gans’ biographer Colleen Aycock and Mark Scott have persuasively argued that in order to secure his second shot Gans had to throw his earlier fight with Terry McGovern, an excellent fighter, but clearly inferior to Joe.  Whilst I can’t confirm the accuracies of this claim, when his shot came Gans did not waste it, disposing of the reigning champion Frank Erne in a round.
 
Gans fought regularly as champion, sometimes in defence of his title, other in exhibitions, beating some excellent fighters such as Jack Blackburn, Dave Holly and Jimmy Britt along the way. However within a few years it was becoming apparent just how good Joe was and he fought only twice in 1905. One man who was willing to fight him thought was Battling Nelson.  Despite being the champion Gans was subjected to conditions and stipulations designed to give him every possible disadvantage. As well as having to weigh in on the morning of the fight, as was tradition, Nelson’s team insisted on Gans making the limit at ringside before the commencement of the fight. Despite these and other stipulations being quite preposterous and without any precedent Gans needed the money and so had little choice but to comply. To compound matters the fight was also to the finish in the heat of Nevada against a fighter widely regarded as one of the dirtiest and most durable ever to climb between the ropes.
 
If ever there was a fight where a fighter marked himself as good rather than great this was to be it. Despite all the barriers put in his was, despite Nelson figuratively throwing the rule book out of the window and butting, gouging and wrestling his way through the fight Gans prevailed when in the 42nd round Nelson’s frequent and flagrant rule breaking got even too much for the white crowd and referee and he was disqualified. Gans fought on but after this herculean effort he was never the same fighter, even losing two subsequent decisions to Nelson. At the time he was almost certainly suffering from the tuberculosis which would eventually kill him.
 
Whilst his record is perhaps a little scanter than others we will consider Gans was a truly terrific fighter, like all black champions from that era, be it Walcott, Dixon or Johnson it was not enough to be good, one had to be too good to ignore and Gans certainly was.
 
The next fighter who can make an argument for the top spot is a big favourite of mine, Benny Leonard. Leonard fought in the 1910 and 20s and was one of the fighters, along with names such as Tunney and Welsh, who represented a leap forward from the stand up pugilism of guys like Fitzsimmons and Corbett. Leonard was a stylistic marvel, he is frequently and rightly considered to have one of the finest tactical minds the game has ever seen. The famous saying about Benny is he was so astute and defensively brilliant he could beat opponents without putting a hair on his perfectly coiffured head out of place. 
  
Leonard won the title in 1917 when he beat the Welsh legend Freddie Welsh. Whilst Freddie had been a brilliant champion by the later stages of his career he was only really willing to defend the title in no decision bouts whereby irrespective of the scoring, if the champion was still standing at the end of the fight he retained the title. As a man who possessed a decent chin and who could spoil as well as any in the game, this proved a productive and profitable means for Welsh to retain his title and income. Having lost one encounter to Welsh Leonard came back for a second crack and was not to be denied. He had worked out Freddie’s spoiling and holding and won by knock out. This was to be the only time Welsh was stopped in his entire career and perhaps offers a decent counter to the frequent criticism of Leonard that he lacked power. It seems when he needed it, he had it.
 
Leonard went on to hold the lightweight title for around seven years and in that time fought and beat some terrific fighters, such as Johnny Dundee, Rocky Kansas and the brilliant Lew Tendler, who surely ranks as one of the greatest fighters never to win a world title. Leonard retired as champion in 1924. He was wealthy, healthy and universally revered as probably the greatest fighter the ring had seen to that point. Unfortunately Benny lost his money in the Wall Street crash and was compelled to make a reluctant comeback. Whilst he reeled off a number of wins against second tier opposition he had clearly lost a step and when it came time to fight an opponent from game’s elite, the great Jimmy McLarnin, Benny was stopped in six rounds.  Whatever ignominy is attached to this comeback it should not detract from how truly great Leonard was in his pomp.  There are precious few fighters who can genuinely be considered to be able to do it all in the ring, Leonard is very much in that category.
 
The final fighter who has an argument to be considered the greatest the division has ever seen is the legendary Roberto Duran. What can be said about the man that has not already be said. Duran was a force of nature, growing up in abject poverty in Panama Duran fought every fight like his very life depended on it. Turning pro in 1969 Duran tore through the lightweight division, winning 27 fights in a row, which earned him a shot at arguably Scotland’s greatest ever fighter Ken Buchanan. As those of a certain age will tell you Ken was a brilliant fighter in his own right, excellent defensively, well-schooled and a genuinely hard, hard man. Despite all this it did him little good against a rampaging Duran. Whilst the ending to their fight was debateable with Duran landing one well south of the border, what was not up for debate was Duran’s overall superiority in the fight. Having won the fight Duran was nigh on unstoppable as champion reigning for over six years. During that time he managed 13 defences as well as countless voluntary non-title fights of which he lost only one, to the talented Esteban De Jesus, a loss Duran was to avenge twice. Such was Duran’s brilliance there was a point his record stood at a remarkable 73-1.
 
As mentioned Duran fought a lot of non-title bouts during his reign but he also fought some fighters of genuine ability during his lightweight reign, the aforementioned Buchanan and De Jesus were proper fighters, as were the likes of Viruet and Ishimatsu, Duran blew them all away. Despite living like Oliver Reed between fights, when it came time to go to work Duran always delivered.  He will surely be many people’s pick as the best lightweight ever.
 
Despite this I am not sure he is mine. Of the three discussed with some reluctance I would remove Gans from the consideration. Whilst he is undoubtedly brilliant and his win over Nelson is one I am in absolute awe of I just think there is not enough else on the ledger, particularly in comparison to Leonard or Duran, for him to earn the laurels.  That leaves it as a two horse race between the Ghetto Wizard and Hands of Stone. Suspect this will be a wildly unpopular opinion but I think I lean slightly towards Leonard.
 
Whilst I think Duran beat some decent opponents during his reign I think the likes of Dundee, Kansas and Tendler in particularly were a cut above those Duran can boast. I also think, and this might be an individual stylistic preference, Leonard is just the more rounded fighter.  Duran had one gear, and that was forward, whilst he was clearly more than a face first brawler he certainly was not the defensive wizard Leonard was. In a pound for pound sense I would almost certainly have Duran slightly above Benny, and his win over Ray Leonard is one of the sports finest ever. However this is a piece about who is the greatest lightweight and should be judged based on their record at that weight, which for me gives Benny the slight edge.