Commentary

The most memorable welterweight fights

From Sugar Ray Robinson to Sugar Ray Leonard, the welterweight division has been home to some of the most exciting fighters -- and fights -- that boxing has ever witnessed.

Originally Published: November 8, 2007
By Graham Houston | Special to ESPN.com

Leonard-HearnsFocus on Sport/ Getty ImagesPuncher-turned-boxer Thomas Hearns, right, gave Ray Leonard all he could handle for 14 rounds.
The welterweight class, with its blend of speed and power, has long been one of the fans' favorites. Speed and power will be on display this Saturday when Miguel Cotto defends his welterweight belt against former champ Sugar Shane Mosley.

In a weight category rich in tradition, here is a look at five fights, in chronological order, that capture the essence of the 147-pound division.

Nov. 1, 1922: Mickey Walker W15 Jack Britton, Madison Square Garden

Mickey Walker
Getty ImagesMickey Walked, nicknamed the "Toy Bulldog," was a destructive, all-action welterweight who scored over 50 knockouts during the 1920s.
Britton, one of the old-time masters, was 37 years old when he defended his title against 22-year-old "Toy Bulldog" Mickey Walker. The challenger proved to be too young and too strong but the aging champion gave a moving display of gallantry.

Walker, fiercely aggressive from the start, knocked down Britton three times. The champion was saved by the bell in the 10th round, while on one knee and seemingly dazed and the referee's count at seven.

Britton must have realized very early that he could not win but he was determined not to surrender. The New York Times reported: "Britton went down with colors flying. He fought desperately to the last ditch." After Walker had been announced as the winner, fight MC Joe Humphreys called for "three cheers for the greatest champion who ever lost a title."

May 31, 1938: Henry Armstrong W15 Barney Ross, Madison Square Garden Bowl, Long Island, NY

This was another fight in which a veteran champion went out with a demonstration of courage that earned great admiration. Although the bigger man, Ross simply couldn't hold off the swarming, relentless, perpetual motion of Henry Armstrong, but like Jack Britton years earlier, he at least had the satisfaction of going the distance.

Armstrong, the featherweight champion who weighed only 133-and-a-half pounds (to the champion's 142), dominated the fight. James P. Dawson reported in The New York Times: "Like a human tornado, Armstrong cut down Ross. There was no resisting force. Henry just pounded the gallant Ross tirelessly, pitilessly through every one of the 15 rounds."

Ross, right eye closed, mouth bloody, announced his retirement after the fight. His co-managers, Sam Pian and Art Winch, said that they had wanted to stop the fight after the 13th round but Ross wanted to continue to the bitter end. "He is mighty game," Armstrong was quoted as saying.

Dec. 20, 1946: Ray Robinson W15 Tommy Bell, Madison Square Garden

There are boxing historians who consider Robinson as greater at welterweight than when he was a five-time middleweight champion. The original Sugar Ray was avoided by the welterweight champions of the time but finally got his chance, capturing the vacant title with a unanimous decision over Tommy Bell, a fine boxer from Youngstown, Ohio.
Sugar Ray Robinson
Al Fenn/Pix Inc./Time Life Pictures/Getty ImagesRay Robinson, right, engaged in several of the most memorable bouts in welterweight history.

The previous year Bell had given away 13 pounds to middleweight Jake LaMotta yet went the distance. Historians tend to forget that Robinson was perilously close to losing this fight. Bell knocked him down with a left hook in the second round, and Robinson had to survive a furious follow-up attack.

It seemed that Robinson was hurt in the fourth and fifth rounds, but his great boxing skill, heart and will got him through the stormy passages. He came on to dominate the fight, knocking down Bell in the 11th round.

Robinson went on to make five successful title defenses -- but Bell gave him his toughest title fight at 147 pounds.

Nov. 30, 1955: Carmen Basilio TKO12 Tony DeMarco, Boston Garden

Some say that rematches are never as good as the original, but the return fight between Carmen Basilio and Tony DeMarco was a notable exception.

Five months earlier Basilio had stopped DeMarco in 12 torrid rounds on home ground at Syracuse, NY, to win the title. The rematch in DeMarco's home town was, if anything, even more dramatic than the first meeting.

DeMarco, who had born and raised just a few blocks from the arena, made a tremendous start, winning the early rounds. The two men smashed away at each other, every punch intended to hurt, in what Joseph P. Nichols of The New York Times described as "a cruel, savage exhibition that was a throwback to the era of barge fighting."

Basilio was wobbly, seemingly on the verge of being stopped, in the seventh round but he stayed up and gradually fought his way into command of the fight as DeMarco seemed to have punched himself out. A weary DeMarco was dropped twice and rescued by referee Mel Manning at 1:54 of the 12th.

Sept. 18, 1981: Ray Leonard TKO14 Thomas Hearns, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas

Two champions met in this even-money fight that was one of the most anticipated in welterweight history. It was a fight that saw a classic role reversal. Sugar Lay Leonard, supposedly the boxer, became the puncher, while Detroit Hit Man Thomas Hearns piled up points with a jab-and-move style.

There was some controversy because many at ringside thought Leonard's heavier punching had him in front after 13 rounds while the three judges had Hearns winning -- as did closed-circuit TV analyst Ferdie Pacheco.

Leonard certainly looked the worse for wear, a swelling threatening to push his left eye shut from underneath. Leonard's cornerman Angelo Dundee seemed to agree with the judges, making his famous between-rounds remark of: "You're blowing it, son -- you're blowing it."

Leonard's body punching had taken a toll on Hearns, however. Leonard's bombardment in rounds six and seven was especially memorable: Watching the fight on closed circuit, it seemed to me that at times Sugar Ray's hooks underneath were almost breaking his taller opponent in half.

It says a lot for Hearns that he was able to pull himself together and come back to win rounds, but by the 13th he was fading and Leonard punched him halfway through the ropes to bring an eight count from referee Davey Pearl. Leonard knew he had Hearns now, and he came on with a two-handed attack in the 14th -- "like a sandstorm blowing wild" as a contemporary report put it. Hearns was listing on the ropes, defenseless under fire, when referee Pearl waved the finish at 1:45 of the 14th.

Leonard had staged one of the most stirring rallies in 147-pound championship history, but in the current era of 12-rounders he would have lost by decision -- he needed what many veteran observers will always consider the true championships rounds, the 13th, 14th and 15th.

Graham Houston is the American Editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for FightWriter.com.

Graham Houston is the American editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for FightWriter.com.

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