Daring to be great
Luke G. Williams
As Kell Brook prepares to challenge Gennady Golovkin at 160lbs, Boxing Monthly examines some of the past occasions when leading welterweights attempted to conquer the middleweight division …
In jumping from 147lbs to 160lbs to challenge unified middleweight champion Gennady ‘GGG’ Golovkin, Sheffield’s Kell ‘Special K’ Brook is – to use the parlance of the day – ‘daring to be great’.
However it’s worth remembering that in the ‘good old days’ of eight weight divisions, moving from welter to middleweight wasn’t seen as quite the gargantuan challenge that it is today. Indeed, until the 1960s the two divisions were located snugly next to each other, without the buffer of the light-middleweight division between them.
Before and since the introduction of light-middle it has been a fairly common occurrence for boxers who conquered the welterweights to later make an assault on the middleweight ranks.
Perhaps the most famous boxer to win genuine, lineal world titles at both welterweight and middleweight was, of course, the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson – still most people’s pick as the finest 'pound-for-pound' pugilist of all time.
While campaigning as a welterweight in the early 1940s, Sugar Ray showed an admirable willingness to tangle with men naturally bigger than himself. Indeed Robinson’s debut at middleweight came as early in his career as October 1942 - before he had even won the welterweight title - when he outpointed teak-tough Jake LaMotta in a non-title contest at Madison Square Garden.
Interestingly enough, Robinson made no effort to bulk up to anywhere near 160lbs for this contest, weighing in beneath the welterweight limit at 145lbs, while LaMotta tipped the scales at 157¾lbs.
“Robinson made his bow against middleweight competition … by taking target practice at Jake LaMotta and galloping off with a one-sided ten-round decision,” observed the Schenectady Gazette of this contest, describing Robinson’s victory as a “dazzling show of speed and slugging”.
When the duo met again in February 1943, LaMotta scaled just over 160lbs while Robinson was just shy of 145lbs. In a major shock, Robinson was almost knocked out in round eight and dropped a unanimous decision – his first reverse as a professional in what was, according to BoxRec, his 41st pro contest.
Robinson would finally annex the welterweight crown from Tommy Bell in 1946, after several years of being recognised as the ‘uncrowned champion’. He would also fight LaMotta a further four times, winning every time. However, it was only in their sixth and final meeting that a world title was at stake, with Robinson’s 13th-round TKO victory in February 1951 seeing Sugar Ray relieve LaMotta of the middleweight title he had seized from Marcel Cerdan. Even for this contest, which came over a year after Robinson’s final bout at welterweight, the ‘Harlem Sugar Dandy’ only weighed 155½ lbs.
Of course, in challenging Golovkin for a world title (albeit not the lineal title) in his very first contest at middleweight Brook is attempting something that even the great Robinson never did. However, Brook isn’t the first man to attempt such an outrageous feat in his middleweight debut – back in 1925, the great Mickey Walker, then the reigning world welterweight champion, accepted the daunting challenge of attempting to wrest the world middleweight title from Harry Greb.
The New Jersey born ‘Toy Bulldog’ was outweighed 159 to 152lbs by the reigning champion, and went on to drop a unanimous 15-round decision. Famed writer Damon Runyon, who was ringside, claimed that a decisive 14th round swung a close fight in Greb’s favour, although others who were in attendance scored the contest more widely in favour of the ‘Pittsburgh Windmill’.
What there was no disagreement about was that Greb-Walker was a fantastic contest - a “gruelling battle”, reported one news agency admiringly, remarking that both boxers had “stood toe to toe in every round”. Walker would eventually leave the welterweight division permanently and win the middleweight title at his second attempt, courtesy of a December 1926 points victory against Greb’s conqueror Tiger Flowers.
However, Walker was not the first boxer to succeed in winning world titles at both welter and middleweight – that honour falls to New York tough guy Tommy Ryan, a terrific puncher-boxer who lifted the welterweight title in 1893 with a points victory against ‘Mysterious’ Billy Smith in Minneapolis, and then became middleweight king five years later with an 18th-round KO of George Green in San Francisco.
More recently, another man to succeed in lifting the lineal title at both welter and middleweight was Emile Griffith. The Virgin Islander won, lost and regained the welter crown several times in the early 1960s, before facing off with Dick Tiger for the middleweight title in 1966.
At this point, Griffiths was still the reigning welterweight champion and he found himself outweighed by his Nigerian opponent by nine-and-a-half pounds. Undaunted, he wrested the title from Tiger via points, albeit a highly controversial decision which was booed by much of the Madison Square Garden crowd.
Shortly afterwards Griffiths was stripped of his welterweight title but he was, briefly, the king of both divisions – a remarkable achievement in the days, more or less, of only one world champion per division.
Two of Griffiths’ most famous foes, Benny ‘the Kid’ Paret and Jose Napoles, are further examples of reigning welterweight champions who attempted the tricky feat of winning the middleweight crown.
After beating Griffiths on points in September 1961 to win the welterweight title, Cuban Paret challenged Gene Fullmer in December the same year in a contest endorsed by the National Boxing Association (NBA) as being for the world title, although traditionalists did not recognise it as such. In a gruelling contest, Paret was knocked down three times in the tenth round and then counted out. A few months later Paret would lose his title and - tragically - his life in a welterweight rematch with Griffiths.
As for Napoles, he defeated Curtis Cokes to become World Welterweight Champion in 1969. After losing and then regaining the title from Billy Backus, the Mexican-based Cuban was on a run of 12 straight wins in his second reign as welter champ when he challenged middleweight supremo Carlos Monzon in 1974.
It proved a mismatch. The Argentine enjoyed a five-inch reach advantage and a near seven-pound weight advantage and made it tell, battering Napoles in the fifth and sixth rounds to such an extent that he failed to answer the bell for the seventh. Discouraged by his one-fight middleweight sojourn, Napoles never fought at the weight again. Instead, he returned to welterweight and remained world champion until a 1975 defeat against Britain’s John H. Stracey.
Another welterweight champion who failed in his bid at middleweight title glory was Gerardo Gonzalez - better known to boxing fans as Kid Gavilan. The 'Cuban Hawk' fought ferociously against Carl 'Bobo' Olson in their April 1954 showdown, securing a draw on one judge's card but losing a majority decision. "Gavilan repeatedly flashed vicious left hooks to the body and head which seemed to stun Olson," reported the Associated Press. "But Bobo seldom took a backward step and was willing to match punching power whenever the Kid elected."
However, arguably the unluckiest welterweight champion who failed to also conquer the middleweight division was the legendary Henry Armstrong. One of the greatest fighters of all time, ‘Homicide Hank’ amazingly had spells as world feather, light and welterweight champ, even briefly holding all three titles at the same time.
In March 1940 he attempted to add the world middleweight title to his glittering CV, challenging Filipino champ Ceferino Garcia less than two months after a successful defence of his welter crown against Pedro Montanez.
Armstrong had previously defeated Garcia in a welterweight bout, but could only draw in what proved to be his sole attempt to win the middleweight crown. Despite weighing only 142lbs to Garcia’s 153 ½ lbs many ringside observers felt that Armstrong should have gotten the nod at the end of the ten-round contest.
One of Armstrong’s successors as welterweight champ was Sugar Ray Leonard, who held the lineal title from 1979 until the first of several retirements from the ring in 1982. On his return in 1984 Sugar Ray defeated Kevin Howard in a light-middleweight contest before once again quitting boxing.
Nearly three years later, though, he was back, this time as a middleweight, with an audacious challenge to long-reigning champion Marvin Hagler, who had defended the title twelve times since being crowned champ in 1980.
The two men met on 6 April 1987 in an outdoor arena at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, with Hagler a mere half-a-pound heavier than his challenger. Over 12 fascinating rounds Leonard utilised his superior speed and boxing skills to snatch a bitterly debated split points verdict that is still argued about today.
Legendary sports scribe Hugh McIlvanney was among those convinced that Hagler had been robbed, maintaining: “However much the slick ploys [of Leonard] blurred the perceptions of those on the fevered sidelines, they never broke Hagler ... he had enough left to press on through his early frustrations, [and] throw the superior volume of hurtful punches. I'm convinced Hagler won the fight; a draw, and the retention of the title, was the very least he deserved.”
There was no debate about the result when former WBA and WBO welter champ, Miguel Cotto, bludgeoned the middleweight title from the grasp of Argentine Sergio Martinez in 2014 in the Puerto Rican’s debut in the 160lbs division. A shopworn Martinez was smashed to the canvas three times in the first round before quitting on his stool at the beginning of the tenth round.
Sadly, Cotto insisted on a 157lbs catchweight for his first defence against Australian Daniel Geale and, ever since, boxing has endured the ludicrous situation whereby the lineal middleweight championship has not been contested at the division’s traditional weight limit of 160lbs.
After beating Geale, Cotto lost to Canelo Alvarez in a 155lb contest, and the Mexican then defended the ‘title’ in a contest at the same weight against Britain’s Amir Khan.
There’s certainly a case to be made that Alvarez has no right to be regarded as champion of a division he has never actually fought in, particularly given his avoidance of 160lb WBC, IBF and WBA ‘super’ champ Golovkin.
The Kazakh phenomenon’s latest contest sees him face IBF welter champ Brook at the traditional and correct middleweight limit of 160lbs, providing us with a yet another fascinating chapter in the seemingly endless line of leading welterweights seeking middleweight glory.