Defense wins championships.
We know this because we’ve certainly seen it in leagues like the NFL, NBA and in Major League Baseball. You have to be able to stop the opposition consistently to win.
In boxing you generally stop someone by, well, stopping them.
But beyond the obvious hitting part of the equation, it is possible to stop someone with defense in the sweet science. Not in the literal sense, but you can present them with the ultimate in frustration, and stop them from even attempting to do what they thought they could do to you.
If you’re really, really good at this- you can stand right in front of them and it won’t matter.
They can’t hit you, and they know it, and they’ll lose all because of it. Truly great defensive fighters in boxing are somewhat rare, so you understand someone is special in that department when you see it. I don’t claim I’ve seen it all, but I’ve seen enough to know that these guys can be downright untouchable.
10. Bernard Hopkins
Not only is Hopkins the most complete middleweight champion of all-time, he is also the best defensive middleweight ever. Hopkins is to this day a master craftsman, who does all of the little things to either take you off of your game- or never allow you to get on it. He’ll win ugly, with one arm, he’ll trick you, he’ll mug you.. And he’s never allow anyone to beat him up. Ever.
9. Muhammad Ali
Ali didn’t do anything the textbook way, at all, and we love him for that. Some would say he doesn’t belong on this list. He does. He faced a motley crew of bangers, and boasts a resume that contains the highest degree of difficulty and “strength of schedule” if you will. Ali tied you up, held your neck down, talked to you, side-stepped you, and gracefully slipped or pulled back from some of the most dangerous punches in the history of the game. No heavyweight ever moved like Ali, and I don’t think one ever will. He was uncommonly brave and had a granite chin. But all too often, “The Butterfly” would leave punches withering in the wind.
8. Jack Johnson
Johnson was the very best defensive fighter of his time- and was actually way ahead of his time. He fought what’s now regarded as “Tall”. He was the first fighter to really show us ring generalship, and he almost never allowed you to invade his space. The late Emanuel Steward was a big fan of Johnson. He instilled in modern heavyweights Lennox Lewis and his successor Wladimir Klitschko, the defensive ways of Johnson.
7. James Toney
If you study the style of Mayweather, James Toney’s fingerprints are all over it. Toney was such a naturally gifted defensive fighter, who calmly picked you apart despite his irascible nature. You cannot be a boxing fan and not admire the way Toney went about his business. He had every subtle move in the book to prevent you from hitting him cleanly.
6. Wilfred Benitez
The New York born Puerto Rican legend is the smoothest defensive practitioner in the history of the game. During his classic fight with Thomas Hearns, he sustained an ankle injury that limited his movement and often left him in a corner. So. Hearns won a UD, but he still couldn’t touch him with any of the jheri curl juice flying from his head.
5. Sugar Ray Robinson
You know you’re a hell of a fighter when you’re one of the best offensive and defensive fighters ever. His longevity and ridiculous winning ways in the 40’s alone get him here. You can’t win almost 100 fights in a row without being sublime defensively. Pound for Pound #1 Robinson, had a combination of physical talent and offense that often overshadowed his defensive prowess. Ali idolized Robinson, and took his slip ‘n move game with him during his run to iconic status.
4. Pernell Whitaker
“Sweet Pea” was an aggressive-boxing chess player, who mastered the art of avoidance. He literally got so good defensively while fighting you in a phonebooth, that you couldn’t hit him with a bag of rice while spitting your mouthpiece out at him. He frustrated the hell out of everybody, and his fights became 12 round exhibitions of brilliance defensively. No one had ever shut down Julio Cesar Chavez before, and he did it easily.
3. Willie Pep
He famously won a round while never throwing punch. To watch Willie Pep in action, is to watch a better version of Paulie Malignaggi right now. He had perhaps the best ring generalship of all-time, and its the way he made great fighters miss that was so special. He was the pitching equivalent of Greg Maddox in his prime, carving you up while not giving up anything big at all. He’d be #1 were it not for this guy…
2. Nicolino Locche
Locche was amazing, and could very well be #1 on this list. He was a balding, barreal chested enigma, and he didn’t look much like an athlete at all. Which is why he was such a head-scratcher. The original purveyor of the “shoulder roll” defense, would make you swear you were watching Mad TV by some of the things he used to do in the ring- and between rounds. Locche actually would smoke a cigarette during the 60 second interval, and then go out and make a world class fighter look like a damn fool trying to hit him. He’d lower his guard, and then offer the most amazing upper body movement you’ve ever seen, directly in front of say- Antonio Cervantes, and make him miss a 4 or 5 punch combination. Seriously. In over 1200 rounds of combat, he was never seriously hit consistently or at all. I’m fairly convinced that Ali, Floyd Mayweather Sr., and James Toney included elements of his game into their defensive rolodexes. He was so good defensively, he actually won a title when the champion (Fuji) refused to continue fighting him, so frustrated over not being able to hit him. He was unbelievable.
1. Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Mayweather is the greatest defensive fighter I’ve ever seen in my life. He approaches not getting hit with the mental dexterity of a savant, and is head and shoulders beyond anyone on this list. It was shocking to see Shane Mosley actually hit him cleanly, let alone rock him badly. But all Mayweather did for the rest of the night was become Mariano Rivera, and close him out. Whatever your feelings on Floyd, he’s an unquestioned all-time great and one of the greatest fighters to have ever lived. His latest gem of avoidance over Canelo, was a testament to his slippery greatness, even if he made him damn near kill himself at 152lbs (Hey, he said “catchweights” don’t count, not me). He’s an extremely athletic blend of Roy Jones and James Toney, with an emphasis on defense first and foremost. But Mayweather’s one (and possibly historical) fatal flaw is his reluctance to test just how good he is against optimium competition, particularly against who I think is the best offensive fighter of all-time, Manny Pacquiao (as you’ll see against Rios). That’s the very reason why its such a fight made in fistic heaven. For Mayweather’s career to be complete – and for him to really justify occupying this position – he must face Manny Pacquiao.