Comparing Great Fighters of the Past and Present.

By Jim Galiano –

A lot has been written about how the greats of today would fare against the greats of the past.  Although the sport has gone through many small changes over the years… it remains essentially the same.  Boxing is an individualistic sport. Fighters are products of their environment as much as anything else. They are also a product of their time period. If you transport a fighter from out of the past and place him in the present, the conditions that made him the fighter he was are immediately erased.

Jim Braddock is a good example of a man who was greatly influenced by the circumstances of the Great Depression. Negative circumstances drove him to heights he may have otherwise never attained.

Rocky Marciano is another example. His parents were Italian immigrants. As a young man he learned firsthand the value of discipline and hard work. Immigrants of the early 1900’s (Italian or otherwise) were hardworking people who had no illusions of striking it rich overnight in America. They had a different type of discipline that’s not commonly seen in our country today. The original Great Depression left an indelible mark upon those who lived through and were affected by it. Rocky and others fighters who lived, fought or grew up in that era became products of that era.

Had Rocky Marciano been born in the 1960’s and fought during the 1980’s era, it’s quite possible that he would have developed much differently than he did during the 1950’s.

Of course, this is all conjecture.

When it comes down to comparing the greats of today against the greats of the past, you would have to remove them from their respective eras and place them in an imaginary ring. From there, each would carry their real world experience into the fantasy world, where (all things being equal) the best man would win.

If we compare the football players of today against the football players of the past, the first immediate distinction that becomes evident between the two would be the size disparity. Today’s players are much larger, faster and overall – more athletic than players of the past. The same holds true for other sports.

In boxing, however, heavyweights aside… the weights remain virtually the same today as they did a hundred years ago. A welterweight, whether we’re talking about Oscar DeLaHoya, Ray Leonard, Ray Robinson or Barney Ross… still weigh about 147lbs.

Unlike most other sports, the tools or gear associated with boxing haven’t changed much over the years, either. The gloves and hand wraps used today aren’t that much different than the gloves and wraps used in the past. When I use the phrase “that much different” – I’m referring glaring differences evident with the equipment used in other sports. Golf clubs, baseballs, bats, tennis rackets, football equipment, etc., have all changed drastically over the years – keep pace with technology.


While considering fighters from the early 1900’s such as James Jeffries, Jack Johnson and Bob Fitzsimmons, it’s difficult to gauge their “talent” based upon the old, grainy films. Due to inconsistencies with film speeds and other factors, the fluidity of movement is choppy and cartoonish. The ability to gauge punching technique is lost. Slow motion replays are the closest one can get to assessing the style and technique of an individual fighter. And that would be as accurate as assessing a fighter from today based upon 30-seconds or less of recorded action from a single round.

Even so, there are many eyewitness accounts from fans, trainers, fighters and reporters over the years who saw the fighters in action. These accounts can be used to further assess a fighter’s ability and how they might fare against fighters from other eras. One such person was Nat Fleischer, the founder of Ring Magazine. According to Fleischer, Bob Fitzsimmons was probably the greatest pound-for-pound knockout puncher in the history of the sport. Fitzsimmons held the Heavyweight title while barely weighing over the middleweight limit of 160lbs. While Fitzsimmons was undoubtedly a great puncher and terrific infighter, it should also be noted that he had problems with boxers or “movers.”

He was clearly being outpointed in a one-sided contest against Jim Corbett before scoring he infamous – solar plexus knockout… and was defeated by Philadelphia Jack O’Brien’s similar style at Light Heavyweight. According to eyewitness accounts of the fight, O’Brien completely neutralized Fitzsimmon’s offense by alternating between moving and clinching until Fitzsimmon’s had punched himself out in an attempt to get to O”Brien.

If you match Fitzsimmon’s early 1900’s style with many of today’s “hit and run” styled boxers, it’s not very difficult to imagine him being outpointed over the 10-round distance. On the other hand, it’s difficult and takes a lot of stamina to keep on the move for 10, 12 or even 15 rounds. Modern fighters like Roy Jones Jr. combined speed, power and awkwardness very effectively during his prime years. Fighters from the early 1900’s did not have to deal with very many opponents who used hand and foot speed to pot shot their opponents from the outside.

The earlier fighters would almost certainly have an advantage, however, once the fight moved to the ropes or while fighting on the inside.

A good example of how these styles would mesh would be Roy Jones’ fight against James Toney. Toney was often considered to be a “throwback,” style-wise, to the fighters of old. In the Jones/Toney matchup, Roy’s “speed kills” style of hitting, moving and giving odd angles had Toney a full step behind all night long.

Another element to take into consideration is a fighter’s overall experience. In some cases, fighters from the early 20th century differ greatly in this area. Jim Corbett and Jim Jeffries had very short careers as compared to Jack Johnson. It would be easier to make a case for the abilities of Jack Johnson, Joe Gans or Abe Attell (based upon a body of actual historical evidence) than it  would for either Corbett or Jeffries.

Jim Corbett – 25 bouts

Jim Jeffries – 21 bouts

Jack Johnson – 104 bouts

Joe Gans  – 188 bouts

Abe Attell – 172 bouts

Had Corbett or Jeffries fought in the 2000’s, they probably would have been accused of being moved too quickly or having fought for a title before they had time to be properly developed as fighters..

Some believe the fighters from the early 1900’s did not throw combination punches as modern fighters do…  but rather – threw one punch at a time. While reading through early newspaper accounts, it’s true – you will not see the wording “combination punches, punching or combinations” anywhere in print. That doesn’t mean, however, that fighters from the early 1900’s only threw one punch at a time. The writers of the period used words and phrases such as – “fast, swift, quick, rights and lefts” when referring to punches delivered in bunches (or in combinations).

Some have asked if how the fighters of old would deal with the “athleticism” of the fighters of modern times. Perhaps a better question would be, how would the fighters of modern times adapt to the tricks and infighting skills of the fighters of old? What would happen when speed or movement wasn’t enough?

Fighters such as Jack Johnson, Joe Gans and Abe Attell weren’t the type of fighters against whom you could carelessly flick a jab and move around the ring with your hands down by the side as many of today’s fighters do. It was from this generation of fighters that the old boxing axiom was born – “Kill the body and the head will die.”

Muhammad Ali and Roy Jones are examples of two modern fighters who were able to break a lot of the basic rules of fighting due to their above average speed and agility. Once they lost their speed, however, much of their magic went with it. Ali was able to prolong his career due to his ability to take a punch and soak up damage. Jones wasn’t so lucky. He suffered several crushing defeats once his physical speed and agility began to wane.

Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Ray Leonard are great examples of fighters who possessed above average hand speed as well as accurate combination punching ability. All three men were excellent counterpunchers as well. Even so, each man faced opponents who styles forced them to stand their ground and slug it out. In such cases, it takes a lot more than just speed and athleticism to emerge victorious. It takes, heart, guts and the ability to come back from adversity.

Taking a closer look at the sport of boxing over the decades, it becomes obvious that certain fighters would excel – regardless of the decade in which they fought. A fighter like Marvin Hagler or Bernard Hopkins wouldn’t have held the record for number of title defenses at Middleweight had they fought in the 1930’s or 1940’s. If we look at the last 100 years of boxing on a chart, there are definite points in which the competition and depth of talent in certain divisions is noticeably lacking. During those times, many fighters fought opponents who outweighed them greatly – just to keep active and earn enough money to keep moving forward. In recent years, we again see fighters moving up in weight in search of opponents who will draw bigger paydays.

In a time when the sport seems lacking in terms of “super fights,” it’s not uncommon to see a fighter suddenly touted as “the next superstar” based upon one or two fights. It’s also not uncommon to see the same fighter suddenly exposed and brutally kayoed by someone we’ve never heard of before.  In a time when being undefeated counts for more than ever before in the eyes of the promoters, most fighters not only fight infrequently, they also avoid taking serious risks until the “money is right.” As a result, a fighter’s development takes longer. Many will never reach their full potential – having peaked experience-wise after their physical primes have passed.

Floyd Mayweather is a good example of a 21st century fighter. He’s currently 33 years of age and has fought 41 times. By contrast Ray Robinson had over 130 fights by the time he’d reached the same age. And he’d already fought and defeated many all-time greats between Welterweight and Middleweight during that time.

This isn’t a knock on Floyd Mayweather. He’s a product of our time.

There was a time in American history where two sports reigned supreme in the public’s consciousness – baseball and boxing. For many, boxing was the way out of the Irish, Italian, Jewish and Black Ghettos  and impoverished circumstances.

Today the options are many and varied. Boxing, as it stands today, is a direct reflection of this.

2 Responses to “Comparing Great Fighters of the Past and Present.”

  1. Can I post your post to my blog? I will add a backlink to your forum. That¡¯s one very cool post.

  2. Damian says:

    Hey, thanks for breaking down some of the common themes about the differences of boxing eras.

    I personally feel the heavyweights in 2010 are clearly inferior to the heavyweights of the 1970’s, and even up to the 1990’s.

%d bloggers like this: