Top 12 All-Time “Dirtiest” Champs

A comprehensive roster of boxers who dabbled in the darker arts of ring-craft would rival a catalogue of the soldiers who ringed the walls of Troy, or a list of the strippers financially aided by The Money Team; in other words, far too long to put together. But legit champions who made breaking the rules an integral part of their pugilistic success? That we can manage. Admittedly, a discussion of just plain, old dirty fighters is always a treat as it involves characters like “Two-Ton” Tony Galento and getting to see Andrew Golota hammer Riddick Bowe in the walnuts over and over again. Fun stuff.

Galento (left) with Lou Nova: “Two Ton” was renowned for his dirty tactics.

Now, fouling has always been part of boxing, though permissiveness has waxed and waned. There are some who believe we have entered a new era of no-holds-barred filth (perhaps inspired by the carnage in MMA?) and there exists some evidence to bolster this claim. Witness Abner Mares whacking away at Joseph Agbeko’s nether regions round after round in 2011 while the referee looked on admiringly. Or Andre Ward‘s strategic and largely ignored use of his cranium, or his withering assault on Sergey Kovalev’s gonads in their 2017 rematch. Or last year, Yenifel Vicente smashing Jessie Magdaleno south of the border around eighty times before he was finally disqualified.

Magdaleno (right) won but his crown jewels took a pounding.

But the golden age of underhanded tactics is, without question, decades behind us, as our list of blackguard champions makes clear. For the most part, the finest practitioners of the sneaky thumb-in-the-eye or the quick elbow-to-the-adam’s apple belong to another era, before television, before instant replay, and before corporate sponsors decided they were not keen to associate with a sport where athletes kneed, bit and choked one another. Though, as you’ll see, this doesn’t mean titlists who routinely resort to unfair tactics do not still walk among us.

In fact, few great champions did not incorporate some facet of dirty play into their game. Henry Armstrong made excellent use of his shoulders and head to maneuver an adversary, while Muhammad Ali liked to clutch the back of the neck, the resulting pushing and pulling working to tire out the opponent. Jack Dempsey enjoyed mauling his quarry, mixing forearm shivers and the occasional low blow into his attack, while George Foreman violently shoved his opponents, the better to gain punching room.

Duran overwhelms Davey Moore: Rough? Or “dirty”?

But for this list, we overlook the champions who fouled irregularly or primarily in the heat of battle. Or were more “rough” than “dirty.” Or were lousy at it. Marco Antonio Barrera, Wilfredo Gomez, Roberto Duran, Sonny Liston, Terry Norris, Rocky Marciano, Ricky Hatton, Mike Tyson — a case can be made for these and many others, but for a definitive list of “dirty” champions, we focused on the ones who, with cold calculation, made it an important part of their ring success. To be truly “dirty,” is to be practiced and deliberate. And, for the most part, to get away with it.

12. Floyd Mayweather Jr.: The inclusion of the erstwhile “Pretty Boy” on this list may surprise some, but the fact is Floyd owes much of his success to his excellent in-fighting technique, which involves the illegal use of his elbows and forearms. In fact, his skills in this particular department were so adept that he rarely received warnings and was never even subject to a point deduction. And yet many opponents made reference to this aspect of Floyd’s game and some openly called him a “dirty” fighter. Skeptical? Check out this Lee Wylie video and judge for yourself.

Forearm to the face: a Mayweather specialty.
Forearm to the face: a Mayweather specialty.

11. Joel Casamayor: Let’s have Mr. Toothbrush speak for himself: “Boxing is dirty. Period. The day I’m not ready to be a dirty fighter is the day I don’t fight because it will mean I have no heart for it anymore.” As quoted by Michael Katz in 2006. A rabbit punch specialist, Casamayor was also adept at low blows and head butts and once kneed Diego Corrales in the groin and got away with it.

Casamayor (right) battling Corrales.

10. Evander HolyfieldGene Fullmer: These champions are paired together because both deserve to be on the list for the same reason: their unique talent for utilizing their cranium as a third fist. Both Fullmer and Holyfield were rough-and-ready warriors who preferred slugging it out and getting as physical as possible. This meant their heads regularly collided with their opponents’ skulls or faces but in such a way that the contact, if it were noticed, looked accidental. Call us jaded, but we just don’t believe this was always the case.

rahman-head
Hasim Rahman in 2002: Not the only injury courtesy of Holyfield’s cement noggin.

9. Ad Wolgast: No list of dirty fighters, let alone champions, is complete without “The Michigan Wildcat,” who was famed for his inability to resist burying his fists in his opponents’ nether regions. An adversary’s groin may as well have had a target painted on it, such was Wolgast’s enthusiasm for going to town on the old wedding tackle. Disqualified at least four times, including a defeat to Willie Ritchie in 1912 which cost him his world lightweight title, Wolgast was known far and wide as one of the sport’s dirtiest practitioners.

Ad Wolgast
Ad Wolgast

8. Bernard Hopkins: First he was “The Executioner,” and later he became “The Alien.” In fact, he could have been called “The-Low-Blow-Headbutt-Hold-and-Hit-Playacting-Jedi-Master” and that would have been as apt, as Hopkins was a latter-day wizard at mixing foul and borderline-foul practices into his technique. He openly discussed the importance of manipulating referees and how by employing dirty tactics and getting away with it, he gained a psychological advantage. Few of his opponents did not complain about Bernard’s penchant for employing the darker arts of ring-craft and there’s no doubt it played a significant role in some of his most notable performances, but he rarely suffered a point deduction and was never disqualified.

Hopkins (right) schools another young upstart.
Jedi master Hopkins (right) doesn’t mind working on the dark side.

7. Eusebio Pedroza: An aspiring dirty fighter can learn so much by studying Pedroza’s 1982 title defense against Juan LaPorte. In terms of flagrant and frequent fouling, it’s a master class. Kidney punches, hitting on the break, low blows, elbows, holding and hitting, punching after the bell — Pedroza could do it all. And often did. But despite receiving numerous warnings and point deductions, he still managed to rack up nineteen straight title defenses of his world featherweight title.

Pedroza (left) did a number on LaPorte. And others.

6. Sandy Saddler: There are generally two kinds of dirty fighters: those who cop to the charge (ie. Zivic) and those who are indignant in the face of the accusation. Count Saddler among the latter. For him, being called “dirty” was unfair and insulting and he refused to accept it. Which is comical given what everyone saw him do in various fights. But this had much to do with Saddler’s particular approach to indulging in dirty pool which essentially boiled down to: “He started it!”

Saddler: don't let the smile fool you.
Saddler: don’t let the smile fool you.

Saddler could and did compete within the statutes of the ring, but the second an opponent did anything, real or imagined, which he regarded as not kosher, the entire rule book went out the window. This happened on a regular basis and thus Saddler became a certified expert at butting, heeling, elbowing, gouging, lacing the eyes, or simply grabbing an opponent in a headlock and throwing the poor guy to the floor. His clashes with Willie Pep — who was regarded as a tricky, but not dirty, pugilist — are among the filthiest title bouts in boxing history.

5. Battling Nelson: Like so many rough-and-tumble brawlers of his era including his old nemesis Wolgast, Nelson paid little attention to the rules once the bell rang. Reckless and vicious, he rushed forward, ripping into his opponents, smashing away with everything he had and using whatever tactics might help get the job done. Elbows to the face and hard punches to the old meat and two veg were standard practice for Nelson. Indeed his most famous fight, a showdown with the great Joe Gans, ended when Nelson, knowing he was about to lose, intentionally drilled poor Joe right in the crown jewels and “The Durable Dane” was promptly disqualified.

Nelson takes a legal blow from Wolgast in their famous 40 round war.

4. Harry Greb: There can be no doubt that “The Smoke City Wildcat” will forever be regarded as one of the greatest pugilists who ever lived, and, while some disagree and call it a “bad rap,” it is likely he will also always rank high on any list of “dirty” fighters. Greb’s style was to swarm and overwhelm his opponent and in the midst of a fusillade of legal blows there were often more than a few illegal ones. Few expected Greb to fight clean, so referees usually just shrugged their shoulders and watched the carnage unfold. In fact, when Harry wasn’t ignoring the referee, he was known to intimidate officials, yelling at them when they tried to intervene or break a clinch. Greb loved clinches; within their close confines he did some of his deadliest work, while each time an opponent found himself in a desperate embrace with “The Pittsburgh Windmill” it must have felt like creeping death. Elbows, thumbs, headbutts, laces — all part of the arsenal employed by perhaps the greatest middleweight in boxing history.

The great Harry Greb. Painting by Damien Burton.

3. Antonio Margarito: There is no more heinous crime in boxing than loading the gloves or handwraps. In doing so, a boxer effectively removes himself from the realm of sport and enters the domain of criminality. Boxing is already dangerous enough; inserting plaster into gloves or wraps takes it to another level. Such an act should disqualify a boxer from ever competing again.

Welterweight champion Antonio Margarito holds a unique place in boxing history. He is the only world titlist to ever be caught loading his fists, attempting to carry lethal weapons into the ring with him. Theoretically, it’s possible he was not aware his trainer, Javier Capetillo, had inserted a tampered knuckle pad into his wraps before his fight with Shane Mosley, but we don’t buy it. And theoretically it’s possible that this never took place before, that one could have found only tape, gauze and fists inside his boxing gloves in all of his previous matches. But it’s difficult for us to check our brains at the door and give Margarito the benefit of the doubt.

Margarito was never the same after being caught with illegal wraps before the Mosley fight.
Margarito was never the same after being caught with illegal wraps before the Mosley fight.

Especially when he almost removed Sebastian Lujan’s left ear from his head back in 2008. Especially when his cornermen can be heard telling him after round six of his first fight with Miguel Cotto: “Your punches should be hard by now!” Especially after no one could adequately explain the visible damage to the surface of Margarito’s hand wraps following that fight, damage consistent with something inside of them being rock-hard. Add in the fact that following his being caught, Margarito’s vaunted punching power evaporated and he never came close to seriously hurting, let alone disfiguring, an opponent ever again, and we are satisfied enough to rank him as one of the top three dirtiest champions of all time.

2. Mysterious Billy Smith: Originally from Nova Scotia, Canada, Smith was viewed in his heyday as the dirtiest prizefighter alive. Before embarking on his boxing career, Smith had been a longshoreman, working the docks and getting into plenty of fights. No doubt he learned some cruel tricks when brawling with some of those burly dockworkers. Battling his way through the welterweight ranks, he openly butted, stomped on opponent’s feet, struck with his knees and elbows, and was known, when desperate, to put his incisors to use.

Mysterious Billy Smith
Mysterious Billy Smith

He won the welterweight crown twice and for his ability and ruggedness was highly regarded, despite his dirty tactics. His record boasts battles with such warriors as Young Peter Jackson, Tommy Ryan and the great Joe Walcott, whom he fought six times and defeated for the world title. Fully half his 22 losses were via disqualification, though no doubt much of the time Smith was getting away with illegal tactics and leaving a trail of busted noses, damaged larynges and swollen gonads in his wake. As the famous Police Gazette stated: “No one will dispute Mysterious Billy Smith’s right to the distinction of being the most foul, dirty and tricky fighter that the American ring today can boast of.”

1. Fritzie Zivic: The ultimate scoundrel of the ring. If other champs are dirty, Zivic was absolutely filthy. Resilient, clever and hard to hit, Fritzie lacked power and decided to make up for it with an unequaled skill for butting, gouging, lacing, elbowing, kneeing, choking and any other wicked act he could think of. Competing in the 1930s and 40s — a time when jaded referees were known to regularly turn a blind eye to such things – he both got away with and prospered from his talent for violating the rules. And while reviled, he was also revered as a true master of his particular brand of pugilism.

gfh
Zivic: he didn’t get that nose from playing the piano.

Both Sugar Ray Robinson and Billy Conn stated that no one taught them more about what was possible in the ring than Zivic. And the great Henry Armstrong, who dropped two fights to “The Croat Comet,” admitted he had little reply to Zivic’s thumbing and gouging and feared he might go blind from it. Meanwhile Fritzie was not the least bit apologetic. For him, fouling was part of the game and the fact he was condemned by all quarters didn’t bother him in the least. “You’re fighting,” he once famously said when asked about his penchant for dirty play, “you’re not playing the piano.”

— Michael Carbert 

17 thoughts on “Top 12 All-Time “Dirtiest” Champs

  • January 13, 2019 at 5:50 pm
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    As others mentioned, Andre Ward should be included. In fact, one could argue his fouls were more deliberate than Holyfield’s, because he would initiate them even while being comfortably ahead in a fight (Kessler).

    Also, since no footage of Greb exists, he should not be included.

    Reply
  • May 25, 2019 at 3:23 pm
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    Awesome list! Though I think Mysterious Billy Smith should be number 1 without question. Check how many times he was DQ’d compared to Fritzie, plus the fact fouling was much more tolerated in his time. As for Greb, the whole “biting” thing is a myth. Gene Tunney, Tommy Loughran, Augie Ratner and others are on record as saying Harry wasn’t dirty, just fought in a furious style. In fact he was never really accused of being dirty until he went blind in one eye, lost all depth perception, and had to sometimes hold and hit in order to locate an opponent. Heck, Greb wasn’t even the most foul fighter of HIS time! That would go to men like Kid Norfolk, Chuck Wiggins and Capt. Bob Roper. Fun read. Thank you!

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  • July 6, 2019 at 3:18 pm
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    Surprised Tyson doesn’t make an appearance here tbh, he could’ve made it in on the Ruddock fights alone, not to mention Botha, or Holyfield.

    My favourite Zivic quote was along the lines of: “Jeez, kids these days think the laces are for fastening the gloves!’

    Reply
    • July 6, 2019 at 3:54 pm
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      Re: Tyson – I skipped the intro and went straight to the list lol. Withdrawn.

      Reply
  • October 2, 2019 at 12:36 pm
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    I had the honor of growing up in the house behind that owned by Fritzie Zivic in his later years in a suburb of Pittsburgh. Even in twilight years clouded by pugilistic dementia, Mr. Zivic always dressed and played the part of The Champ; he’d walk down the street wearing a tweed cap, turtleneck shirt and sport coat with impeccably shined shoes, two Doberman pinschers on either side. It was beautiful to see. I spent many hours talking to this extremely nice man, and the details he could recall about the night he beat Armstrong to win the title in the Garden were vivid, colorful and fascinating. Unfortunately, after spending 15 to 20 minutes recalling every moment of that night, he would pause, then look you straight in the eye and ask, “Did I ever tell ya about the night I beat Henry Armstrong to win the title?” It was sad in many ways, but he died in his early 70s in the mid-1980s a happy, content man living peacefully in the suburbs who was beloved by his friends and neighbors.

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  • November 2, 2019 at 11:42 pm
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    Lewis always held his opponent’s neck with his left hand and then hit him with the right uppercut. It’s funny when Lewis tries to act like he wasn’t dirty and Max Kellerman called him out on it during the Calzaghe-Bika fight, in regards to the Michael Grant fight. Lewis also hit Mike Acey when he was down. Luis Lazarte should be up there. His performance against Ulises Solis was one of the most blatantly dirty performances ever. Probably even more blatant than Freddie Norwood against Derrick Gainer, and that’s saying something.

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  • November 17, 2019 at 10:54 pm
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    This article had me cracking up. The nickname you gave Hopkins was hilarious. All the colourful euphemisms for people getting drilled in the nuts were hilarious to. Zivic’s attitude towards the dirty tactics made me laugh – it’s a fight – like what do you expect eh. Makes me think of that line from Snatch “you entered the man into a bare knuckle boxing match, what did you expect? A grease down and a shiatsu?”

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  • December 10, 2019 at 8:38 pm
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    After closely examining Andre Ward’s fights, he has to be included next to Bernard Hopkins or maybe even top five being he’s a modern day fighter who gets away with shit that’s not even taught anymore. Every time he leads with a jab or throws a right hand he follows with an elbow or a forearm, then he grabs and holds and butts, hits low and then hits on the break and all of this is done repeatedly over and over until his opponent breaks. Easily dirtier then Pedroza and Hopkins.

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  • January 24, 2020 at 10:39 pm
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    I like how the further down the list you go the more strategic the fouling would be employed. This is a well-researched and entertaining list to read.

    Reply
  • March 5, 2020 at 5:29 pm
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    Where’s Andrew Golotta? He was such a dirty fighter, it was almost comical.

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  • April 24, 2020 at 6:48 pm
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    Way to state your opinion as facts on a page dedicated to someone’s opinion, asshole. He said at the top these fighters truly benefited off of there cheating. You can’t even compare Holyfield and Lewis in that realm. It’s not a contest.

    Reply
  • July 18, 2021 at 4:40 pm
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    Im sorry, but Ali from his Foreman fight on was boxings version of Jordan rules before Jordan knew what a jockstrap was. Ali would be the worst heavyweight dirty fighter of alltime and it won him most of his later fights. Ali in the Foreman fight, over 100 times held behind Foreman neck, 25 times put his gloves behind Georges neck and pushed his head down, back handed George a couple of times, rabbit punched him and laced Georges face with his gloves, Ali was like a Pimp trying to get money
    from his bitches he felt they where keeping back on collection morning. That was Ali’s biggest foulfest. After that fight he did all of those things mentioned above in nearly every fight thereafter albiet in lesser volume. Im suprised you didn’t mention Dempsey’s plaster of Paris rep he had. I think he definestely did it plaster Willards face. The way he punched it looked like his gloves were loaded.

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  • October 5, 2021 at 2:05 am
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    Wildredo Gomez used his elbows in his fights a lot. Check out his fight vs Pintor.

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    • October 5, 2021 at 11:45 am
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      Yes, he is mentioned in the introduction.

      Reply

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