Celebrating Independence With America’s Best Championship Fighters

It’s neither America’s Pastime nor its most popular sport.

Come to think of it, boxing these days remains several notches down the list here at home – outside of the fleeting moments when a truly transcendent fighter emerges or event occurs.

But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been things worth watching in the United States.

In fact, many of the sport’s all-time greats were born somewhere in the nifty 50.

So, given that my country is now a day beyond its 246th birthday, it seems as good a time as any to look back at the fighters of my own brief by comparison lifetime – from 1970 to 2020, let’s say – and rank the best of the best champions from the U.S. in that time frame.

And before you post your truculent comments, do me a favor and read that part again.

Champions born in the United States. 

Champions judged on their performances between 1970 and 2020.

That means no Ray Robinson. That means no Joe Louis. 

And that means the Muhammad Ali that fought Joe Frazier and George Foreman, and not the version that fought Sonny Liston and Zora Folley, is included.

With that being said… and in no particular order beyond alphabetical… here are the Tuesday team’s nominees as the 10 greatest U.S.-born champions of the 50-year “Golden Age” between 1970 and 2020.

Muhammad Ali

Titles: Heavyweight (1974-78, 1978)

Title-Fight Record: 12-3 (6)

Well, whaddya know? “The Greatest” even wins when it comes to the alphabet. Though no one confuses the lightning-fast Ali of the mid-60s with the slower, wiser Ali of the mid-70s, his accomplishments are no less noteworthy. Maybe not the very best heavy over those 50 years, but two wins over Frazier, the KO of Foreman and the would-be perfect finale in Spinks were unforgettable.

Marvin Hagler

Titles: Middleweight (1980-87)

Title-Fight Record: 13-1-1 (12)

Parents/grandparents of a certain vintage will talk about Hagler in the same way our parents and grandparents described grizzled fighters on black-and-white TV in the 1950. The “Marvelous” one fought every middleweight there was and then cemented his legacy with defeats of rising welterweights Duran and Hearns. Along those lines, the decision on the Leonard fight is debated to this day. 

Thomas Hearns

Titles: Welterweight (1980-81), Super Welterweight (1982-86), Light Heavyweight (1987, 1991-92), Middleweight (1987-88), Super Middleweight (1988-90)

Title-Fight Record: 14-4-1 (8)

Of the many guys who now claim three-belt status and beyond, the “Hitman” was among the originals. A fearsome welterweight until his showdown with Leonard, Hearns reinvented himself several times while capturing mainstream titles all the way through 175 pounds. That said, he’s remembered more for big-fight losses (Leonard, Hagler) than for impressive defeats of Benitez, Duran, Virgil Hill and others.

Larry Holmes

Titles: Heavyweight (1978-85)

Title-fight Record: 20-5 (14)

Ask the Tuesday team who was the best heavyweight in the U.S. (and the world) between 1970 and 2020 and the answer is clear – Holmes. He took command of the division with a stirring defeat of Norton and cleaned it out like Hagler until running into an awkward Michael Spinks at age 35. Title shots against Tyson, Holyfield and Oliver McCall would have ended differently with a prime “Easton Assassin.” 

Evander Holyfield

Titles: Cruiserweight (1986-88), Heavyweight (1990-92, 1993-94, 1996-99, 2000-01)

Title-Fight Record: 16-7-2 (10)

If you’re looking for guys who got more out of a body and out a career than anyone would have anticipated, look no farther than the one aptly named the “Real Deal.” Holyfield was celebrated coming out of the 1984 Olympics but didn’t look built for much past cruiserweight. Turns out he went to heavyweight and wound up in 19 title fights, winning a share of the crown on four separate occasions.

Roy Jones Jr.

Titles: Middleweight (1993-94), Super Middleweight (1994-96), Light Heavyweight (1997-2004), Heavyweight (2003)

Title-Fight Record: 22-3 (14)

If there was a more dynamic boxer during this time stretch than Jones, he was anonymous. The Floridian had legit power in both hands, more speed than anyone his size and the willingness to climb the ladder to cement his legacy. Reality changed once he ill-advisedly dropped from heavyweight back to 175 to fight Tarver in a rematch, so the modern generation may not appreciate him. It’s their loss.

Ray Leonard

Titles: Welterweight (1979-80, 1980-82), Super Welterweight (1981), Middleweight (1987), Light Heavyweight (1988), Super Middleweight (1988-89)

Title-Fight Record: 10-2-1 (8)

When it comes to celebrated U.S. Olympians, there may be none that exceed the 1976 incarnation of “Sugar Ray,” who was a truly great welterweight before an eye injury shelved him in 1982. His action came in fits and starts after that, but the aforementioned fight with Hagler was memorable no matter what the result and the rematch with Hearns in 1989 was a compelling final chapter for two legends. 

Floyd Mayweather Jr.

Titles: Super Featherweight (1998-2001), Lightweight (2002-03), Super Lightweight (2005), Welterweight (2006-07, 2011-15), Super Welterweight (2007, 2012-13)

Title-Fight Record: 26-0 (10)

Some love him. Some loathe him. Some begin typing belligerent comments the moment they see his name with anything other than the word “sucks” after it. But there’s little evidence to deny he was on the highest of high levels in his era. Fights against champions or worthy contenders across five weight classes yielded zero losses and only a handful of difficult moments. TBE? No. But an all-timer? Definitely. 

Aaron Pryor

Titles: Super Lightweight (1980-85)

Title-Fight Record: 11-0 (9)

If there’s a guy who’s worthy of Hall of Fame credentials but still feels as if he left a lot on the table across his career, it’s Pryor. The “Hawk” was as menacing a fighter as there was in the early 1980s while taking apart the 140-pound ranks, but he never landed the fight with Leonard that would have defined him. As it was, two defeats of Alexis Arguello stand as the exclamation point on an excellent run.

Pernell Whitaker

Titles: Lightweight (1989-91), Super Lightweight (1992), Welterweight (1993-97), Super Welterweight (1995)

Title-Fight Record: 19-3-1 (4)

Another fighter, like Willie Pep, who grizzled watchers will recall as the greatest defensive fighter of a generation. Just 5-foot-6 and with a non-threatening “Sweet Pea” nickname, Whitaker used his sublime skill set to bamboozle foes across four weight classes while scoring just four KOs in 19 title-fight wins. In truth, the title record ought to be 21-2 if not for a pair of atrocious decision (Ramirez I and Chavez).

* * * * * * * * * *

This week’s title-fight schedule:

WBC featherweight title – San Antonio, Texas

Mark Magsayo (champion/No. 1 IWBR) vs. Rey Vargas (No. 1 WBC/Unranked IWBR)

Magsayo (24-0, 16 KO): First title defense; Seventh fight in the United States (6-0, 3 KO)

Vargas (35-0, 22 KO): Seventh title fight (6-0); Held WBC title at 122 pounds (2017-19, five defenses)

Fitzbitz says: Magsayo is a surprise champ after handling Gary Russell and Vargas is unproven at 126 after years as an elite at 122. Bigger and younger breaks the tie here. Magsayo by decision (85/15)

Last week’s picks: 0-2 (LOSS: Cuarto, Briedis)

2022 picks record: 20-9 (70 percent)

Overall picks record: 1,229-401 (75.4 percent)

NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body’s full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA “world championships” are only included if no “super champion” exists in the weight class.

Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.