Boxing traditionally has only eight weight classes. This is the fourth installment of my Original Eight Ratings. I have rated the Middleweights, the Welterweights, the Heavyweights. Now comes the Light Heavyweights. In the days of only eight weight classes, the light heavyweight division was often considered the most disrespected division in boxing. The heavyweights were the most popular and the middleweights often fell second in line. Historically, the light heavyweight division was created after the middleweight and heavyweight division. However the late 70’s and early 80’s gave us arguably the best light heavyweight era of all-time, and one of the best action eras of all-time in any division. The needless super middleweight class the alphabet organizations created did not even exist in this era.
Sadly, with the money-grabbing alphabets adding a 168-pound division in the late 1980’s, it eventually led to the watering-down of the light heavyweight division. Before that occurred however, in the late-80’s, the light heavyweight division had a shot at a revival with fighters like Virgil Hill, Prince Charles Williams and Michael Moorer at the top, and Bobby Czyz still around and competitive. Unfortunately, not enough fights between those fighters materialized as Moorer, Williams and Hill never fought each other. There was not much out of the super middleweight division until the Super Six Tournament, outside of Roy Jones and James Toney’s stopover. Joe Calzaghe’s truly significant victories, to his credit, came at light heavyweight.
The Super Six Tournament was a nice idea, and did lead to a brief, but sad period when that division had better talent than the light heavyweight division. But thankfully, order has been restored and we have entered a light heavyweight era that has the potential to be one of the very best, much like the late 70’s and early 80’s. No super middleweights are currently good enough to even crack this Original Eight Division’s Top Ten, the first time in the Original Eight Division’s I’ve rated so far where the alphabet division below the traditional division does not provide even a single Top Ten contender. While it by no means provides justification for a super middleweight division, HBO’s Jim Lampley did make a good point recently during an HBO broadcast where he noted today’s light heavyweights entered the ring in the neighborhood of 185 lbs. Of course this is because the weigh-ins are no longer the day of the fight. Why this matters to me is because it is the thought of neurologists that any human above about 185 pounds can theoretically hit hard enough to knockout any other human. That makes the light heavyweights of today like “little heavyweights”, capable of knocking anyone out or changing a fight with one shot. The only problem in the light heavyweight division is a legitimate argument about who should be the lineal champ, which I will try my best to explain.
The lineal champion is generally recognized as Adonis Stevenson. He is recognized by Transnational. However the Ring recently made a very reasonable adjustment to its championship policy where the champ must face a Top Five fighter in ANY division within a certain period of time or be stripped. Not too much to ask. Stevenson failed to meet the requirements and was stripped by the Ring.
Stevenson allegedly won the lineal title from Chad Dawson. The problem to me was, Dawson had just been knocked out easily by Andre Ward at a weight under 175 pounds. Sugar Ray Leonard had picked up the WBC Super Middleweight title and Light Heavyweight title the same way when he knocked out Donny LaLonde. Catch-weights have been accepted in recent years. Just because Dawson allegedly “didn’t put his title on the line” shouldn’t matter when the bout is scheduled for the 12-round championship distance. Title “not on the line” should be for over-the-weight bouts, such as if the fight between Dawson and Ward was a ten-rounder at a contract-weight of 180 pounds. The problem with recognizing Ward as lineal champ is that after beating Edwin Rodriguez, a solid, then-undefeated fighter on November 16, 2013, Ward did not fight for over eighteen months until taking on Paul Smith on June 20, 2016. While not announced, that was the equivalent to a retirement from which a linear title should’ve been vacated. In the meantime, the outstanding Sergey Kovalev was busy destroying everyone in his path to pick up every alphabet belt except for Stevenson’s. He was generally regarded as the best light heavy in the world, but not lineal champ, when Ward beat him by controversial decision. Therefore I think this is the one division with the biggest legitimate debate about who the true lineal champion is, and should be. I think it’s the best policy to take the politics and biases out of it and let it be decided in the ring. But Stevenson continues to avoid legitimate Top Ten opposition and a Kovalev-Ward rematch looms on the horizon. Should that winner really have to seek a fight with Stevenson or the guy that beats him to become champion? Or does common sense when evaluating the division indicate to us that Ward is the champion and his rematch with Kovalev should undoubtedly be for the lineal title? This question is a very difficult one for me, but my desire to take politics and biases out of who is the lineal champion is so strong, I will very reluctantly still recognize Adonis Stevenson as the lineal champ at this time. Let’s continue to observe this situation watching who Stevenson fights next and if Ward and Kovalev agree on a rematch.
Criteria: Fighters overall record, perceived talent level, quality of opposition, quality wins and level of performance in wins and losses, where the fighter is ranked in the Transnational Boxing Ranking Board’s Light Heavyweight and Super Middleweight Rankings and The Ring’s Light Heavyweight and Super Middleweight Rankings. Also, strongly considered would be who would beat who and who and by how much one fighter would be favored over the other by odds makers were the fight to be signed tomorrow. The traditional standard of one year of inactivity will drop a fighter from the rankings will be taken into consideration but the fighter is eligible to re-enter as soon as he fights again. Champions will primarily be the recognized lineal champions, with consideration also given to champions recognized by the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board and The Ring. This is how the traditional light heavyweight division looks today:
1. Andre Ward (U.S. 31-0 15KO)
2. Sergey Kovalev (Russia 30-1-1 26KO)
3. Artur Beterbiev (Russia. 11-0 11KO)
4. Joe Smith, Jr. (U.S. 23-1 19KO)
5. Sullivan Barrera (Cuba 18-1 13KO)
6. Oleksandr Gvozdk (Ukraine 12-0 10KO)
7. Eleider Alvarez (Colombia 21–0 11KO)
8. Nathan Cleverly (U.K. 30-3- 16KO)
9. Marcus Browne (U.S. 19-0- 14KO)
10. Andrzej Fonfara (Poland 29-4-17KO)
Ratings Notes: Adonis Stevenson is still a legitimate threat to knockout anyone with his cannon of a straight left hand but his lineal title claim is on the thinnest of ice because he won his recognition from a Chad Dawson who had already been stopped by Andre Ward and because it has been so long since he’s faced legitimate Top Ten opposition. Andre Ward had a strong argument he should have been recognized as the lineal light heavyweight champion when he easily stopped Chad Dawson, but he followed it with a lengthy layoff. He showed his usual skill and some heart in getting the decision over Kovalev, in a fight where he was dropped, but was very fortunate to get the nod. However his win over Barrera looks good right now. Sergey Kovalev has pretty much done it all at light heavyweight; he easily could’ve gotten the decision against Ward, his flaw seems to be is spurts of inactivity when facing boxers like Hopkins, Chilemba and Ward. Artur Beterbiev had some injury-induced inactivity, but does some things in the ring that remind me of Mike Tyson. They are both about the same height, were 205 in the amateurs, had strong amateur pedigrees, and obviously, they could punch. A fight against Barrera should tell us all we need to know. Joe Smith, Jr. has simply been performing on an outstanding level of late, annihilating a legit Top Ten guy in Fonfara and following it up with doing something to Hopkins that Kovalev could not do, and doing it when he was an underdog. Sullivan Barrera was badly out-boxed by Andre Ward but then showed just how good he is by getting off the deck to destroy the very dangerous Shabranskyy, who was a legit high Top Ten. If he fights Beterbiev, we should learn a lot.
Oleksandr Gvozdk should be getting even more play. He did to Chilemba what others like Kovalev and Alvarez could not, and brushed away Mohmmaedi the way you would expect a top caliber guy to. Eledier Alvarez hasn’t been overly impressive but has gotten the job done so far. Yes, he suddenly got Bute out of there but the fight was lackluster up to that point and Bute probably didn’t have much left. Nathan Cleverly wasn’t competitive against Kovalev but fought to an exciting close loss in a brawl with Fonfara and mercifully ended Juergen Braehmer’s European run. Marcus Browne got right back on track against Thomas Williams, Jr. after a tough fight with Kalajdzic in which he didn’t look good but I thought he won. Andrzej Fonfara was able to get back on the winning track with a come-from-behind KO over a faded but at least more motivated former lineal champ in Chad Dawson. He’s still shown enough in a tough division to be ahead of anyone who has been fighting at 168. He’s also beaten Chavez, Jr. and Cleverly and dropped Stevenson in going the distance.
Fighters not in the Top Ten but worthy of mention and watching include: Badou Jack is close to cracking the Top Ten but not quite. He fought well in his draw with DeGale, a fight I thought he won, and the fight was wildly entertaining, but neither guy looked talented enough to beat most of this very tough Top Ten. James DeGale has amateur pedigree, is a good fighter, and showed heart against Jack, but his performances are so uneven it already looks like he’s hit his high-water mark. He took a lot of shots from Jack. Vyachseslav Shabranskyy looked like a threat to anyone but his defensive lapses proved to be more of a permanent flaw than an aberration. David Benavidez appears to be tremendously talented, but at the risk of sounding like the observers of the sport today who over-emphasize weight, he looks too weak when he tries to get to 168 or under. I get it, like Murat Gassiev at cruiserweight, they figure the guy is young, let him get the kinks out before he takes on some tougher, heavier guys, but in Benavidez’s case it looks unhealthy to me. Despite his age, I say let him fight at a full 175 pounds and start making his move. Juergen Braehmer has had a long Top Ten-type run, but never stepped up his competition, is 38 years old and lost to Nate Cleverly who was already a loser to Kovalev and Fonfara. I don’t see how he beats anyone in the Top Ten. Radivoje Kalajdzic gave Marcus Browne hell in his close loss. He’s certainly a threat to crack this Top Ten. Thomas Williams, Jr. is coming off two knockout losses; one to Browne in which he did not look good. But his competition has been tough lately, and he has a spectacular KO over the always tough Edwin Rodriguez. I think the guy at least still deserves mention. Gilberto Ramirez is big and showed surprising versatility in an easy win over Arthur Abraham. He was already one of the best body punchers in boxing. Callum Smith, like Ramirez, has a lot of size and hits hard. I think he’ll eventually make some kind of mark here. Yunieski Gonzalez is a tough, aggressive, brawler who shouldn’t be counted out. He was robbed against Pascal and fought close with Shabranskyy.
Various fighters rankings in the Ring and Transnational Boxing Rankings Board’s Light Heavyweight and Super Middleweight rankings at the time of this compilation: (Note: Transnational recognizes the universally recognized lineal champion Adonis Stevenson as champion and Ring has the light heavyweight championship as “Vacant”) Stevenson (Ring Light Heavy-3, Transnational-Champion), Ward (R LH-1 TN LH-1), Kovalev (R LH-2, TN LH-2), Alvarez (R LH-4, TN LH-6), Smith, Jr. (R LH-6 TN LH-3), Beterbiev (R LH-5 TN LH-7), Cleverly (R LH-7 TN LH-4), Barrera (R LH-9 TN LH-4), Gvozdk (R LH-8 TN LH-9), Browne (R LH-10 TN LH-10), Fonfara (unranked by Ring and Transnational).
For Comparison look at the Ring Ratings for the end of the years 1980 and 1950:
Champion: Matthew Saad Muhammad
1. Eddie Mustafa Muhammad
2. Michael Spinks
3. James Scott
4. Jerry Martin
5. Marvin Johnson
6. Carlos DeLeon
7. Yaqui Lopez
8. Lotte Mwale
9. Marvin Camel
10. Mustafa Wassaja
Champion: Joey Maxim
1. Archie Moore
2. Harry (Kid) Matthews
3. Bob Murphy
4. Bob Satterfield
5. Nick Barone
6. Jimmy Slade
7. Charley (Doc) Williams
8. Dan Bucceroni
9. Conny Rux
10. Don Cockell
1980 was the midst of one of the greatest, if not the greatest light heavyweight era of all-time, with action and skilled warriors abound the champion. The fighters ranked 1-5 and perennial warrior and challenger Yaqui Lopez at No. 7. Mwale was regarded as having some talent as well. DeLeon and Camel migrated to the newly formed cruiserweight division, as they were not on the level of the others. Wassaja later had the misfortune of running into a prime Michael Spinks. Thankfully, the super middleweight division did not yet exist. Michael Spinks not only became one of the greatest light heavweights of all-time, he became a lineal heavweight champion; the first reigniting light heavyweight champion to do so. Eddie Mustafa Muhammad remains an underrated trainer to this day. James Scott unforgettably fought out of Rahway State Prison. The whole era exuded toughness. While not from Philly, Spinks and Mustafa Muhammad spent time in their careers fighting out of the City of Brotherly Love, an ironic moniker when you think of boxing in the city. The 1950 Rankings gave us Archie Moore, one of the greatest of all-time and Joey Maxim, who was good enough to turn away Sugar Ray Robinson’s challenge and reach the Top Five at heavy. But today’s era would surpass 1950 and may threaten to rank alongside the classic light heavyweight era that was still in full-force in 1980.