Prizefighters are thrust into prominence with such intemperate speed these days that they become main-eventers before the public really gets a chance to know who they are and to learn what they can do. As a service to the televiewer and the occasional attending fan SPORTS ILLUSTRATED therefore presents on the following pages an appraisal of the champions and top five contenders in the six heavier classes. Not included are the bantam and flyweight divisions, in which there is negligible action in the United States.
When one sets out to evaluate prizefighters, the two most important qualities to consider are skill and heart; condition is a property the spectator has a right to expect, and it is to the game's discredit that he doesn't always get it. Skill is relatively simple to appraise. A fellow boxes adeptly or clumsily, defends well or poorly, has a mighty punch or a powder puff—all this is rather obvious. But heart, or lack of it, is more difficult to discern. A fighter is said to lack heart if he has a tendency to lose the initiative when the going gets rough, to go purely defensive, to lose the desire to fight back when he is hurt or knocked down. When he has heart, adversity stings him to greater effort. Most of the champions listed here have first-rate fighting hearts. That, perhaps more than their craft, has made them champions. Lack of heart will prevent some of the contenders, whose skills are equally refined, from ever attaining a title.
On certain nights, especially when the course of a match is to their liking, these relatively fainthearted fighters perform brilliantly. But watch when they are crowded, severely tagged, or dazzled by a flighty boxer. See if they go into a shell, change their styles radically to an unnatural and somewhat passive counterpunching strategy—though a good counterpuncher does not necessarily lack heart. Notice whether they become flustered and swing desperately without thought to aim or pattern—these are all signs of faintness of heart. On the other hand, watch how a Carmen Basilio, for instance, reacts to pain or misfortune. His unruffled, resolute manner amply demonstrates the soundness of his heart. As is said of courageous Thoroughbreds, he is like hickory and does not bend.
Examining the names and accomplishments of the boxers discussed here, one could easily conclude that boxing—as an art or science—is in a grievous state. Rest easy, this has been the plaint from time to time throughout boxing history. It is true, nevertheless. What with the inroads of television and the concomitant closing of many small clubs, there are fewer boxers than ever and less talented ones because, for one, there are fewer opportunities to fight. Also, in the present economy, there are easier and better ways to make a living—if not to achieve the old glory—outside the prize ring. Although talent drops off sharply after the first few contenders in several of the divisions, the rankings do contain some remarkable fighters. There is Ray Robinson, beyond his peak, of course, but a fighter who would rank at the very top in any year; Carmen Basilio, a splendid fighting machine; Floyd Patterson, who has lately become one, and a host of young men not yet in the top six, who seem to have excellent futures if they are not rushed prematurely into television's maw.
The rating of professional prizefighters is an old, inexact and occasionally dishonest business, but it does serve to establish a necessary hierarchy in the game. Most important, it settles who the champions (and top contenders) are in the various weight classes. There have been times when several managers, with the connivance of promoters who liberally billed matches for one championship or another, simultaneously claimed the same title for their boys. The middleweight division, particularly, has a long, confused history of multiple claimants. In 1912, for instance, no less than seven middle-weights regarded themselves as champions. Throughout the 1930s, there were usually two middleweight title-holders, one recognized by the National Boxing Association and the other by the New York commission, and often neither of them was recognized internationally. There has been only one such case in the last few years, when the NBA recognized Raul Macias as the bantamweight champion, while Alphonse Halimi was the choice of everyone else. The two finally met and Halimi defeated Macias to become undisputed champion.
It was not until recently that the NBA decided to publish monthly rankings of the 10 top contenders in each class. However Nat Fleischer's The Ring magazine has for years published its own highly respected ratings, and its exhaustive compilation of boxing statistics has been of great help in composing this report. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED has used the NBA's rankings here only because they are quasi official.
W-win, L-loss, D-draw, NC-no contest, ND-no decision, TD-technical draw
A fine, young, thoughtful champion who has all the moves. He is at once a resourceful boxer and a punishing hitter, although his punch is not quite heavy enough on most occasions to take an opponent out with a single blow. Patterson has consummate hand speed and responds with flurries of combinations to the most meager opening. He has splendid stamina, speed afoot and heart. His two defects are, curiously, opposites: at times he is overeager and throws punches off balance, even in mid-air; at times he is overcautious and lets attack opportunities slip by. He is devoted to small animals and small children. Record: W 33, L 1.
1: EDDIE MACHEN
A sturdy, workmanlike, upright fighter, Machen has a good straight punch, particularly with the right hand, but is not too impressive as a hooker or infighter. He does not adapt easily, performing best from medium range, allowing for ample punching room. He is open to right hands and, if pursued, tends to lose poise. Although he has a powerful punch, the feeling is that Machen is a manufactured rather than a natural fighter. His opponents have been largely hand-picked to suit his style—either ponderous, deliberate types like Johnny Holman or harmless old men like Joey Maxim. He still needs instruction and experience. Record: W 23, L 0.