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The Five Best Super Middleweights Ever

Newcomers to the sport wouldn't know unless you told them that the super middleweight division is a fairly recent invention. Its first champion wasn't crowned until March 28, 1984, when Murray Sutherland decisioned Ernie Singletary over 15 rounds in Atlantic City, New Jersey to win the IBF title. With only 23 years of history behind it, there haven't been many great, dominant fighters. You won't find any Sugar Ray Robinsons or Jack Dempseys or Henry Armstrongs in the division's past.

Also, historically, American fighters have seen super middleweight as a division to stop at briefly after fighting at middleweight, and before moving on to light heavy. Few worthwhile American fighters have made 168 their long-term home. European fighters, on the other hand, particularly in England, have never had such qualms about 168 and enjoyed long stays at or near the top of the weight class.

None of this is to say there haven't been some very good fighters at 168. There absolutely have been, and there are right now. What follows is a look at the five best fighters in the division's comparatively brief history. Note that this ranking is based almost entirely on the business that got done at super middleweight. Work done in other divisions doesn't count.

Nigel Benn WBC Champion 1992-'96

Benn's four-year reign as the WBC champion and nine defenses against reasonably good challengers make a strong case for his placement at the top of the list of great super middleweights. He didn't have Joe Calzaghe's winning streak or Sven Ottke's skills. He didn't have Roy Jones' effortless genius or the working class charisma of Steve Collins. What did he have? A hell of a punch, real self-belief and a willingness to put himself in there with good fighters.

Benn's courage was never more evident than in his wild, brutal and ultimately tragic brawl with American Gerald McClellan, when he was knocked out of the ring in the first round, floored in the eighth, and stormed back to stop the murderous-punching McClellan in the 10th. But Benn's willingness to face good, tough fighters had been established already, when he fought Chris Eubank twice and Iran Barkley and Doug DeWitt (the latter two at middleweight). Even when he was on the way out he twice fought Collins. That he lost both doesn't help him, but that he faced him when even he had to know he was past his prime clearly helps.

Benn was far from perfect; the best he could manage against Eubank was a draw, and he could be outhusled and outboxed. He also fought his share of no-hopers, such as Vincenzo Nardiello and Nicky Perez, Henry Wharton and Lou Gent. But unlike others of his era, he didn't flinch at a real challenge. That goes a long way.

Chris Eubank 1985-'98

If eccentricity counted for anything, Eubank would be at the top of this collection. He was as strange in the ring as he was good, and that's saying something. For all his oddities, Eubank could fight. It's unfortunate that for almost his entire career he, like Joe Calzaghe, defended the belt of a particularly worthless sanctioning body, but he did it with vigor and against decent fighters. For example, Eubank twice fought Benn, stopping him in 1990 (when both were middleweights) and drawing with him in the rematch (at super middleweight) in 1993 in front of 42,000 fans at Old Trafford Stadium in Manchester.

It wasn't only Benn that Eubank took on. He twice beat Michael Watson (the second fight ended tragically when Watson suffered life-altering injuries), and also beat Thulani Malinga, Tony Thornton, Lindell Holmes, and was the first man to be Graciano Rocchigiani. It doesn't help Eubank that he never fought in America and fought few American fighters. Ultimately, that's what lands him under Benn, who tested himself outside Europe much more frequently. Still, consider this: all five of Eubank's career losses came in the last three years before he retired; two to Steve Collins, one to Calzaghe, and two to Carl Thompson in an ill-advised move to cruiserweight. That's impressive stuff.

"He didn't have Joe Calzaghe's winning streak or Sven Ottke's skills. He didn't have Roy Jones' effortless genius or the working class charisma of Steve Collins. What did he have? A hell of a punch, real self-belief and a willingness to put himself in there with good fighters."

Roy Jones IBF Champion 1994-'96

Jones got his most enduring work done at light heavyweight, and his relatively brief stint as a 168-pounder will likely be overlooked to some degree when historians debate his impact and merit. Still, his legacy at super middleweight presents an interesting dichotomy: it was when he ran through many of his least deserving challengers - Antoine Byrd, Vinny Pazienza, Tony Thornton, for example - but also when he was at his most sublime.

You might see those two as intertwined: Of course he looked brilliant; he was fighting stiffs. That's a logical conclusion, but a wrong one. He beat several good fighters at the weight, among them James Toney, who was regarded as probably the best fighter in the world, and Eric Lucas, who was viewed rather as a joke at the time, but later established himself as a pretty respectable titlist. And Merqui Sosa was a crude but tough contender.

Jones at 168 was little like the pacifist he was to become at light heavyweight. At super middleweight he stood in the pocket and blazed away and it shows in his record; six of his seven wins were by knockout, four before the fourth round. It hurts him that he never fought the other very good super middleweights of the time, such as Benn and Eubank. But if you saw him at 168 you know why he's here: he did things in there we never saw other fighters do. He was breathtaking, and if he'd decided to stay at 168 instead of moving up, he'd be at the top of this list and it wouldn't be close.

Joe Calzaghe World Champion 2006-Present

For 10 years Calzaghe has held a title that informed observers do not recognize as legitimate. The resulting confusion around his championship status is due more to the sport's deplorable mishmash of sanctioning body chaos than it is to any serious lack of accomplishment on his part. In fact, his brilliant win over Jeff Lacy in March 2006 earned him the legitimate world title as recognized by The Ring magazine and at this writing he is viewed almost universally as the best in the division.

Regardless of the error in judgment he made 10 years ago when he hitched his horse to a cart unworthy of his talent, Calzaghe is 42-0 (31) going into his bout with Peter Manfredo, a fact which cannot be ignored. One can argue that until he beat Lacy in a career-defining win, Calzaghe had feasted primarily on slightly worn Americans such as Charles Brewer, Omar Sheika and Byron Mitchell, and second-raters such as David Starie, Mario Veit and Kabary Salem.

Calzaghe gets credit for wins over Robin Reid, Richie Woodhall, a used up Eubank and others, but may be forever undermined by the fact he faced none of the stars of the era that were around his weight: Jones, Bernard Hopkins, Antonio Tarver, division rival Ottke, or even Glen Johnson or Tony Mundine. The most unfortunate part is his win over Lacy proved he belonged among them all along. The good news is he's not done yet.

Sven Ottke IBF Champion 1998-2004, WBA Champion 2003-'04

It is one of the sadder occurrences for fans of the super middleweight division that Ottke never got together with Calzaghe so it could have been decided who was the best in the division when both were active. It's unpopular to say outside Germany, but you can make a case that it was Ottke. Consider that he won the IBF title against Charles Brewer and defended it 21 times. He added the WBA title in a decision over Byron Mitchell. Calzaghe also beat both Brewer and Mitchell, in truth more convincingly than did Ottke and they both beat Robin Reid and David Starie.

The difference? Ottke also scored wins over Tony Mundine, Silvio Branco and Glen Johnson, three reasonably qualified, accomplished fighters Calzaghe never faced. Indeed, Mundine has since been mostly successful and recently won the WBA title, and Johnson distinguished himself in a series of fights with Clinton Woods and in wins over Roy Jones and Antonio Tarver, the latter for the IBF title (he lost a decision to Tarver in their rematch). Calzaghe's win over Jeff Lacy evens things up again.

On the other hand, Ottke loses credit for never fighting outside Germany (save for one early-career appearance in Vienna). That reveals a lack of confidence that undermines a fighter's credibility, even one as accomplished as Ottke, who retired in 2004 after winning all 34 of his professional fights. Along the same lines, it also must be said that a number of his important wins, particularly over Mitchell and the two over Brewer were hotly disputed and may not have gone the same way had they not taken place in Germany. Still, it's hard to argue with his numbers.

Honorable Mention:

James Toney IBF Champion 1993-'94

Toney's stay at 168 was brief but eventful. He massacred Iran Barkley for the title and defended it against Tony Thornton, Tim Littles, and "Prince" Charles Williams before losing to Jones and moving up to light heavyweight.

Steve Collins 1986-'97

You could make the argument that Collins' great skill was being in the right place at the right time, but you can't ignore his combined four wins over two of the division's stars in Benn and Eubank.

Mikkel Kessler WBA Champion 2004-Present WBC Champion 2006-Present

It's still early, but with 39 wins, no losses and victories over Librado Andrade, Markus Beyer, Eric Lucas and Tony Mundine, Kessler is establishing himself as a dominant super middleweight.

He was breathtaking, and if he'd decided to stay at 168 instead of moving up, he'd be at the top of this list and it wouldn't be close.

Posted 12:00 AM | Apr 3, 2007

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