The Top Ten Boxers of The Modern Era
My list of the best pugilists from 1990 to 2011.
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If a boxer was in his prime from 1990 to 2011, they qualified as a candidate for my list of the best exponents of the sweet science. For most fighters their prime years fall between age 25 and 32. This can vary though, depending on the damage that they take over the course of their careers, their lifestyle, and genetics. But, for the sake of making this list focus on the achievements within the said time frame, I decided to cap the entry age at around 26/27 years-old at 1990 (with one exception).
A boxer’s skill is not necessarily measured by his overall career record, it is something that is less tangible than that, a combination of his physical attributes, technique, mental fortitude, and heart. Sometimes a competitive loss can show you more about how good a fighter really is than a knockout victory. With that in mind, here is my list of the best of the best of the modern era.
Juan Manuel Marquez (53-5-1)
Technically-astute, balanced fighters are actually not that common in lists like these. Fighters who make it to the top are often gifted athletes, speedy explosive types or powerful knockout artists. Juan Manual Marquez is neither of these. He is a clever, disciplined fighter that is very tactical yet maintains the classic Mexican fighter’s aggression (though his is rather more measured than most of his compatriots). Even when he seems to be ‘brawling’ with big punchers like Pacquiao or Juan Diaz, it’s never a reckless attack. Marquez throws beautiful combinations, can counterpunch and has a good mix of speed, power and agility. The highlights of his career are his fights with Manny Pacquiao, both of which were extremely close affairs, and his bruising battle with the Mexican legend Marco Antonio Barrera.
Lennox Lewis (41-2-1)
For a guy with such a ridiculous reach Lennox Lewis had a weak jab. I’m not sure whether this raises or lowers one’s estimation of his boxing skill, but the bottom line about his career is that it was a dominant one. He did not shirk away from any heavyweight challenge. Furthermore, he avenged both of his losses in resounding fashion. He had quick hands, good balance and athletic coordination, especially for a big man. His list of heavyweight conquests is star-studded: Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, John Ruiz, Hasim Rahman, Vitali Klitschko, are among the most notable.
Evander Holyfield (44-10-2-1 no contest)
The highlight of Holyfield’s career is not his notorious double with Tyson, nor is it his assassinations of rusting legends Foreman and Holmes, rather, the greatness of this prize fighter’s (and the term is here used without caution) legacy is all on display in his brilliant, emphatic trilogy with Riddick Bowe. Not that he would complain, but, in these three fights you had a big cruiserweight in Holyfield going up against an athletic, 250-pound heavyweight, Riddick Bowe. It was a serious size mismatch.
He fought everyone, from giants like Lennox Lewis to ferocious, explosive maulers like Mike Tyson. Holyfield had great balance and a well-rounded skill set. He could box or brawl, depending on the situation and had a real chin and heart -Holyfield endured some serious punishment, often from much bigger guys, in the ring. He still fights today, but with only a fraction of the aptitude that he had in his prime.
Erik Morales (52-7)
Great fights put fighters on lists like these. Most legendary boxers can lay claim to only one truly inspired trilogy that captures the imagination of fans. Morales can not only boast two of them, but they could possibly be two of the best boxing trilogies we’ve seen. He outfoxed Manny Pacquiao in their first fight and fought a close rematch, but succumbed to the improved version of the Filipino southpaw in their finale. His trilogy with Barrera was an epic war. As far as trilogies go, perhaps only the Gatti-Ward fights can top it. Morales has competed evenly with the best of the best in a generation of super athletes. A boxer-puncher with elusive power, Erik Morales is a true great.
Marco Antonio Barrera (67-7 and 1 No Contest)
Aggressive, talented, powerful; Barrera is an old-school, blood-and-guts warrior. He is the embodiment of the Mexican fighter. At times in his long career, his aggression has worked against him. He didn’t always pace himself and use his deceptively high-level pugilism to best effect. He’s not a patient fighter, nor is he able to allow himself to back down from brawls; he just doesn’t have it in him to fight economically or with a defensive mindset. Still, this ‘flaw’ has made him a very exciting fighter.
His trilogy with Erik Morales was a pugilistic war that was so volatile it leaked out into press conferences- Barrera’s fiery temperament always the instigator. Even in his seven defeats, Barrera looked like a true champion. He forced the best out of Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez in their bloody fights. The ‘Baby-Faced Assassin’ is easily one of the best Mexican boxers of all time.
Bernard Hopkins (52-6-2 and 1 No Contest)
He was 26 years old in 1990; he only just made the cut for this list. Since then Hopkins has dominated the middleweight (and all of its various) division(s). He is currently the WBC light heavyweight champion, four years away from his fiftieth birthday. That alone is an incredible achievement. A 46 year-old, elite technician in the ring, Hopkins is able to maintain his edge over much younger, more athletic fighters with his considerable experience and indomitable will.
His fights with Roy Jones, Kelly Pavlik, Oscar De La Hoya and Joe Calzaghe are great testaments to his skill and ring savvy. Casual fans of boxing often don’t give guys like Hopkins much credit, due to his defensive mindset and veteran tactics, but he has been the prevailing force in a couple of divisions for the better part of two decades.
Manny Pacquiao (53-3-2)
When you have really fast hands, you’re always going to give your opponent trouble, more so than any other natural attribute like height, reach or punching power. Pacquiao has always had great speed. Later in his career, after working intensively with his experienced trainer Freddie Roach, he developed good technical skills to compliment his natural athleticism. Make no mistake though; Manny Pacquiao is not a technical boxer in the fashion of a Marquez or Hopkins- not by any stretch. He is an aggressive puncher, loaded with indefatigable speed and power. He’s quite tough too; his wars with the three top Mexican fighters of this era, Marquez, Morales and Barrera, showed that he has heart and a solid chin.
Like many aggressive fighters, Manny’s weakness is that he is there to be hit, especially by orthodox counterpunches. Still, he’s moved up from flyweight to capture titles in eight different weight classes over his career, taking shots but always managing to give quite a few more in return. Usually, that kind of punch ratio wins you big shiny belts.
Floyd Mayweather Junior (42-0)
Even his fiercest detractors reluctantly concede that he is the best defensive fighter in the world. I would submit a little more. Mayweather is a pure boxing genius; in the same ilk of Pernell Whitaker and Willie Pep. In his mega fights of recent years he has showcased a unique talent to avoid a preposterous amount of shots from great fighters like Juan Manuel Marquez, Shane Mosley (in which he went the fourth round without being hit by any power punches), and Oscar De La Hoya.
Floyd Mayweather’s big step to the spotlight of centre stage in the sport was his master class performance against the late Diego Corrales, in 2001. He was a quick, hard-hitting, champion boxer, and Mayweather absolutely thrashed him. Since then, ‘Money’ has been chopping through opposition all the way up to super welterweight, claiming seven world titles in five different weight classes. There are a couple more fights for him to win, above all one against the fourth-placed southpaw on this list, before he can be categorically validate his claim to be the best fighter of our time.
Pernell Whitaker (40-4-1)
Not since Willie Pep did the boxing world see a defensive maestro like Pernell ‘Sweat Pea’ Whitaker. The speedy southpaw slickster has been world champion in four different weight classes, defeating some seriously tough opponents in Azuma Nelson and Jose Luis Ramirez. His draw with the legend Julio Cesar Chavez is famous, mostly because of the controversy surrounding the outcome. It’s arguable that a different interpretation of boxing scoring would have seen Pernell beating Chavez by some margin.
The man’s reflexes, timing, defensive skill and agility made him almost impossible to hit at times. He could crouch down in the corner of a ring, hands at his sides, evading punches from champion-level fighters, making them look average, slow. Even De la Hoya, facing an aged version of Whitaker, struggled to land significant shots when they fought. Pernell Whitaker had some unlucky results in his career, notably against De La Hoya and Chavez, despite that he will always be known as a master boxer who had fantastic natural gifts and a nimble, dextrous style of fighting.
Roy Jones Junior (54-8)
Boxing is a speed sport. If there is any raw attribute that you want as a boxer, its explosive speed. Roy Jones had a blend of speed and power that was simply unparalleled in any division. This talent allowed him to overwhelm opponents with barrages of punches thrown from outrageous angles whilst avoiding around seventy percent of his opponents’ shots (up until the Tarver demise that is). Not for a century has someone matched his feat of winning titles from middleweight all the way up to heavyweight.
The disqualification against Montell Griffin aside, Roy Jones went from 1990 to 2003 undefeated, having absolutely dominated almost fifty opponents, he eventually came to his big career misfortune, one that he never really recovered from. After moving up to heavyweight, defeating the significantly bigger John Ruiz, he decided to come back down in weight to fight Antonio Tarver. Losing all of that weight in a couple of months seemed to take its toll. Still, he overcame the trouble, and bravely battled through to a tough victory against the then WBC Light Heavyweight champion. If the sweet science is all about punching while not getting punched back, then Jones, at his best, was the most supreme scientist of the sweet craft in the modern era.
Notable Exceptions (and the reason for their exclusion):
Mike Tyson (he only had five years of being a great fighter); Joe Calzaghe (a good fighter, but overrated, he was exported too late in his career); Oscar De La Hoya (he was an important life support system for boxing, but besides Vargas and Mayorga, who did he really beat?); Winky Wright (he hasn’t quite done enough against the top fighters, but he’s in the top 20); Shane Mosley (definitely makes top 20 but he’s been severely outboxed by certain fighters like Mayweather, Cotto, Forest, and Wright); Migueal Cotto (Manny Pacquiao); The Klitschko’s (I’m a fan, but they’ve only come to dominate their division fairly recently); and James Toney (He’d make the top twenty but he simply wasn’t good enough to be among the ten best).