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What Happens When Middleweight Kings Go Slumming

For those inclined to believe that a good big man will beat a good little man every time, the announcement that the middleweight champion is facing a welter or junior middleweight champ moving up is never good news. It means to him that the middleweight is slumming a bit, taking on a man whom he knows he will beat. Alas, many fans feel this way and groan instantly at the news. Unkind words will follow for the middleweight, who, the thinking goes, is most assuredly sinking to new, modern lows to which the middleweight kings of the past would never have stooped.

History is a great educator, of course, and reminds us that a great many of our middleweight heroes happily faced smaller guys, and several times came away from such pairings without the belt they had when they entered the ring. Indeed, it should be a comfort to us all that the outcomes were determined not by who was the bigger man but by who was the better one that night.

No less a member of the pantheon than the great middleweight Carlos Monzon deigned to face the best welterweight of the day when he met reigning 147-pound champion Jose Napoles in 1974 in Paris. Monzon already was a legend: he'd not lost a fight in 10 years, had won the title four years earlier by beating the excellent Nino Benvenuti, and had defended it eight times against the likes of Benvenuti, Emile Griffith and Bennie Briscoe.

Napoles was only slightly less credentialed, having won the title five years earlier; he'd made nine defenses by the time he challenged Monzon. The only misstep had come when Billy Backus upset him in '70 and the setback was temporary; Napoles regained the title six months later when he stopped Backus in four. Even with that, Napoles, a wonderful boxer-puncher, was one of the most dominant fighters in the business and was seen by many as the best welterweight since Sugar Ray Robinson.

Napoles was no match for Monzon. The Argentine kept the smaller man at the end of long, hard jabs over the first four rounds and in the fifth and sixth, opened up with both hands. He pounded Napoles to such an extent that Napoles chose the safety of his stool over a continued battering and remained in his corner at the start of the seventh round. Monzon said afterward, "The fight was too easy. I was hoping to have a good match."

It certainly hadn't been that easy for middleweight champion Dick Tiger when he faced long-time welterweight champion Griffith in '66. Griffith had just defended the title against Manuel Gonzalez in New York when his manager and trainer, Gil Clancy, decided there was no more money to be made at welterweight and Griffith would move up to face Tiger. Tiger had won the world title in '63 with a seventh-round stoppage of Gene Fullmer, lost it to Joey Giardello then regained it against him in the rematch.

"When he told me I was going to fight Dick Tiger, I told him he was crazy," Griffith later told author Peter Heller. "He said to let me think he was crazy but he was the manager. He showed me he wasn't crazy." Griffith didn't add bulk when he moved up, as many fighters do today; he went into the ring spotting Tiger 9 ½ pounds and chose to box and move, a departure from his typical style, which was more aggressive.

Griffith's strategy unsettled Tiger, a counter puncher by nature. Forced into being aggressive, he had trouble landing. And at the end of a match whose only eventful moment came in the ninth when Griffith scored a knockdown with a short right hand -- the only knockdown at that point in Tiger's 72-bout career -- Griffith won a unanimous decision and the middleweight title.

"When he told me I was going to fight Dick Tiger, I told him he was crazy," Griffith later told author Peter Heller. "He said to let me think he was crazy but he was the manager. He showed me he wasn't crazy."

Many thought Tiger had been robbed; 17 of 22 ringside sportswriters believed he'd done enough to win, but Griffith went home with the belt, becoming the fourth former welterweight champion in history to win the middleweight title.

Who was the first to do it? None other than "The Toy Bulldog," Mickey Walker. Walker, one of the era's most popular sporting stars, had won the welterweight title with a 15-round decision over Jack Britton in New York. After defenses against Pete Latzo, Jimmy Jones, Lew Tendler, and Bobby Barrett, Walker unsuccessfully challenged Mike McTigue for the light heavyweight title. Losses to Harry Greb (for the middleweight title) and Latzo (for Walker's welterweight belt) followed before Walker got another shot at the middleweight crown, which by this time was held by Tiger Flowers.

Tigers was a quiet, unassuming southpaw from Camille, Georgia. "The Georgia Deacon" had beaten Greb for the middleweight crown in February '26 to become the first black middleweight champion. He outpointed him again six months later. He and Walker met on December 3 in front of 11,000 fans at the Coliseum in Chicago and it started out well for Walker, who scored a knockdown in the first round. Flowers recovered, though, and seemed to get the best of it until the ninth when Walker floored him again. The referee, Benny Yanger, had the only vote and called Walker the winner at the end.

The decision raised a stink and was investigated by the Illinois Boxing Commission. Walker couldn't see what all the fuss was about. "The fight was a real exciting fight. It was a good fight. Flowers was a good fighter. It went the limit and my hand was raised after the fight," he said in an interview in 1970. A rematch appeared likely, but Flowers died during minor surgery the following November.

A quarter century passed before another former welterweight champion won the middleweight crown and who did it? Who else but Robinson, who remains, today, 41 years after his last fight, the standard against which all other great prizefighters are measured. Most of Robinson's most memorable struggles -- against Jake LaMotta, Fullmer, Carmen Basilio, Rocky Graziano, and others -- came at middleweight, but before he ever weighed 160 pounds he was the best welterweight ever. He was virtually untouchable at 147, winning his first 40 fights, dropping a 10-rounder to LaMotta, then going on another monstrous unbeaten streak that encompassed some 80 fights over the next six years.

Along the way Robinson captured the welterweight title against Tommy Bell and defended it five times, most notably against fellow future Hall of Famer Kid Gavilan. By '50 he was a middleweight and in '51 he got a shot at the title against LaMotta, who he'd outpointed in four of their prior five meetings. On Valentine's Day, LaMotta got off to a strong start and bulled Robinson around the ring. After eight rounds he led on two of the judges' scorecards. But making the middleweight limit had drained him. Robinson took over in the ninth on the way to scoring a dramatic 13-round stoppage.

"The fight was a real exciting fight. It was a good fight. Flowers was a good fighter. It went the limit and my hand was raised after the fight," he said in an interview in 1970. A rematch appeared likely, but Flowers died during minor urgery the following November.

"If the referee would have held up another 30 seconds Robinson would have collapsed from hitting me," LaMotta said years later. "I was helpless against the ropes and I wouldn't go down and he just kept pounding and pounding away but he had no power on his punches because he was losing the fight." Whether he was losing the fight or not, Robinson had LaMotta's middleweight title at the end and couldn't have known then that he would soon hand it right over to another former welterweight champion.

Carmen Basilio was a tough, tireless onion farmer from upstate New York who couldn't punch to save his life. But there wasn't a fighter in the world who wrung more out of his relatively meager talents or who was more tenacious or ferocious in the ring. Besides that, he hated Robinson. Basilio had won the welterweight title from Tony DeMarco, defended it against him, then took two out of three against Johnny Saxton before moving up to challenge Robinson in '57.

Basilio and Robinson took one another's measure Yankee Stadium and after 15 give-and-take rounds Basilio was awarded a close split decision many thought Robinson deserved. Basilio disagreed. Of course I won," he said. "I forced the fight, didn't I? I got in the most punches, didn't I? Then I won." Robinson got his revenge six months later when he regained the middleweight title in the rematch.

Almost 30 years later, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, recognized today as one of the great 160-pounders, kept taking on smaller guys until one finally beat him. The first was the great Roberto Duran, who'd forged his legend as a lightweight. After relinquishing the lightweight belt in '78, Duran won titles at welterweight and junior middleweight. He was seen as one of the most charismatic and skilled fighters of his era, but was a 4-1 underdog to Hagler when they met in Las Vegas in front of 14,600 fans in November '83.

Duran almost paid out big. Surprising Hagler by counter punching rather than rushing in, Duran led on the judges' scorecards after 13 rounds. Hagler dug deep over the last two rounds and pulled out a unanimous decision by scores of 144-142, 146-145 and 144-143.

Hagler wasn't done slumming yet. Two years later he fought Thomas Hearns, also a former welterweight and junior middleweight champion. In one of the great slugfests of the era, Hagler stopped Hearns in the third round. You can put an asterisk next to this one if you want to; though Hearns was moving up to face Hagler, he eventually won a light heavyweight title and even fought at cruiserweight (and later won a piece of the middleweight title too) which suggests he was in essence a bigger man than Hagler all along.

Hagler wasn't done yet. In March '86, past his prime and slowing noticeably, he took on undefeated, murderous-punching junior middleweight John "The Beast" Mugabi and stopped him in the 11th round of a very hard fight. In fact, it was the difficulty Hagler had that convinced Sugar Ray Leonard, former welterweight and junior middleweight champion, to come out of retirement and challenge Hagler for the middleweight crown in their epic April '87 superfight.

Leonard was the one guy Hagler, who had made 12 title defenses and hadn't lost in 11 years, shouldn't have fought. He'd have been better off with a bigger, slower middleweight. As it was he kept it close enough so that 20 years later we still debate who should have gotten the decision. It doesn't matter. Leonard's win demonstrated that victory for a middleweight champion is no foregone conclusion when he's facing a faster, smaller guy moving up. Those slums can be dangerous.

"If the referee would have held up another 30 seconds Robinson would have collapsed from hitting me," LaMotta said years later. "I was helpless against the ropes and I wouldn't go down and he just kept pounding and pounding away but he had no power on his punches because he was losing the fight."

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