What's in a name? or, a brief history of the bantamweight division

Kyle McLachlan
04/10/2018 11:11am

Full Bantam top ten index

With the World Boxing Super Series bantamweight tournament about to begin, Boxing Monthly will be bringing you Kyle McLachlan's list of the top ten bantams of all time. The countdown kicks off tomorrow, after he has filled us in on a little historical context...

It’s easy now. The governing bodies all agree on which increments we recognise each step up the weight ladder. There hasn’t been a new division since 1987 (straw or minimumweight, depending on who you speak to…if you can find anyone who cares about boxers the size of schoolboys) and no alterations made to the poundage allowed since the cruisers got ten more pounds to buff themselves up to in 2003.

The bantamweight limit has long been established as being a hair below eight and a half stone - 118lbs to be precise - and has been so since before anyone reading this will have been born, although if there are any centenarians reading congratulations for being online at your age.

But just how did we get to this weight class?

Before we get to our top ten countdown, we must first establish just where we’re scouring for the best of the best. For example, are we counting Jimmy Barry, undoubtedly one of the greatest little men to don gloves before the turn of the 20th Century, and generally listed as a ‘bantamweight’? Barry never fought above 115lbs, and the bouts of his listed for some version of the world bantamweight title were made below the modern flyweight limit.

Then there's the tiny and brilliant all-time great Johnny Coulon, who is ranked number 7 in Nat Fleischer’s list of the top ten bantamweights of all time. Coulon rarely weighed in above the modern flyweight limit, but it’s the upper limit that’s important. It wouldn’t be wise to denigrate Coulon’s achievements (well into double figures for paperweight and bantamweight title defences) but should they be held up as proof of his greatness as a 118lbs champion? He would be better suited to a super flyweight list.

When Coulon eventually lost his world title to Jonathan ‘Kid Williams’ Gutenko (a fighter that you will learn more about if you continue reading this series) the title claim which he had carried from 112lbs through to 115lbs was first defended by Williams at 116lbs, and then at 118lbs, the divisional limit proposed and later established by the British as being bantamweight proper, and which - over a century after Williams first won his title - remains so.

So Kid Williams was the first true 118lbs ‘bantam’ king, right?

Unfortunately, the waters are muddier down south.

To go back to the aforementioned Fleischer’s rankings, ‘Terrible’ Terry McGovern sits atop the mountain for the featherweights. McGovern won the featherweight title in the first month of the 20th Century. He had staked a claim for it in the last month of the 19th, stopping the excellent Harry Forbes in two rounds.

Not only did both bouts see McGovern come out as victor, they were both contested at 118lbs. In today’s terms, that’s eight pounds and two full weight classes away from featherweight.

McGovern would take the featherweight title up in weight with him; a regular occurrence in the days before international governing bodies. He achieved many wondrous things in the sport (or savagely violent depending on how you look at them) and could feasibly be ranked amongst the great featherweights.

But including his achievements below the weight just because they were called ‘featherweights’ in his time? McGovern himself won the world bantamweight title, stipulated to be held at 115lbs. That’s close enough. Eight pounds is too far away from featherweight for a list of the best 126lbers, at least in my opinion. Especially as there are many instances of men around the modern limit being described as ‘bantams’ in their own time.

So with the World Boxing Super Series around the corner and with bantamweight being the hot topic with the rise of Naoya Inoue, Ryan Burnett claiming two legitimate world titles for the Northern Irish, and with Frank Warren making a cult hero out of world titlist Zolani Tete, let’s just focus on the weight.

What follows over the next few weeks is a list of the greatest 118lbers of all time, even though they’ve been known as bantamweights longer than they haven’t. For most of this time, anyone above flyweight got involved. For over three decades, it’s been those above super flyweight.

It’s that small gap of poundage between the modern super fly and bantamweight limit in which we will find ten fighters who proved themselves the best of the best, be them smaller than 115lbs taking on comparative goliaths, or those that barely squeezed their tiny frames into the limit.

The World Boxing Super Series is notable for many reasons, but for bantamweight aficionados it is vital as it will bring us the first unified 118lbs champion for some years.

Swathes of excellent bantams have missed out on greatness due to the lack of unifications in the lower weights for many years. In some divisions - the younger ones - a long reign facing mandatories and knock over jobs is enough to put you in the pantheon.

At 118lbs it is not.

Long established greats such as Orlando Canizales, Rafael Marquez, Veeraphol Sahaprom, Jeff Chandler and Lupe Pintor may seem conspicuous by their absence in this top ten. They would have cemented their claim towards the upper half of the top five had they faced off with the best of their contemporaries.

Unfair to the fighters?

That's one way to look at it. But wouldn't it have been unfair to those that did face the best to have them miss out on a spot in favour of someone who just faced a procession of fighters offered up by their respective governing bodies?

The old adage goes that you can only beat who’s in front of you. So let’s see who did the best job at doing just that.

Now that you know where I’m coming from in ascertaining who the best
bantamweights of all time were, we can begin.

The first man we will encounter found the best of the best a trying bunch.

It should be no surprise; any bantamweight in history would have...

Log on to Boxing Monthly's website tomorrow for Kyle McLachlan's choice of the number ten bantam of all time...