A comprehensive roster of boxers who dabbled in the darker arts of ringcraft 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 important 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 guys like “Two-Ton” Tony Galento and getting to see Andrew Golota hammer Riddick Bowe in the walnuts over and over again. Fun stuff.
Now, fouling has always been part of boxing, though permissiveness has waxed and waned. There are some who fear we have entered a new era of no-holds-barred filth (perhaps inspired by the less restrained 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 while the referee looked on admiringly. Or Andre Ward‘s strategic and largely ignored use of his cranium. Or Sakio Bika‘s flagrant roughhousing and low blows in virtually every fight. Or Tyson Fury deliberately nailing Joey Abell in his unmentionables and receiving nothing from the referee but a politely worded request to please not do it again.
But in fact the golden age of underhanded tactics is decades behind us, as our list of blackguard champions suggests. 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.
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.
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.
10. Evander Holyfield & Gene 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.
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 the 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.
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. Very few Hopkins 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, and yet he rarely suffered a point deduction and was never disqualified.
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 19 straight title defenses of his world featherweight title.
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 likely had much to do with Saddler’s particular approach to indulging in dirty pool which essentially boiled down to: “He started it!”
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.
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 were hidden some illegal ones. Few expected Greb to fight clean, so referees usually just shrugged their shoulders and watched the carnage unfold. In fact, when Greb 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.
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.
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.
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, he 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.
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