Top 12 All-Time Greatest Lightweights

We continue our periodic series ranking the all-time best boxers in the original eight weight classes by today casting our discerning eye on the lightweights. For simplicity’s sake, and to spread the glory around, we list fighters in one division only, so you won’t find Henry Armstrong or Barney Ross here as we rank “Homicide Hank” at featherweight, while Ross is in our pantheon of all-time greatest welterweights. Click the links to see our lists for flyweight, bantamweight, middleweight and light heavyweight. So without further ado, the greatest lightweights of all-time, complete with ‘Honorable Mentions.’ Disagree with our picks? Leave your comments and give your own take on the best to ever lace up the gloves at 135.

12. Jack Blackburn: The man they called “Chappie” never won the world title, but he faced a long list of all-time greats and has the distinction of giving tough battles to three bona fide legends: Sam Langford, Harry Greb and Joe Gans. Blackburn claimed to have answered the bell more than 400 times in his long career.

Jack “Chappie” Blackburn

11. Battling Nelson: A rough and incredibly tough brawler with amazing stamina, “The Durable Dane” holds wins over Joe Gans, Young Corbett II, Artie Sims and Aurelio Herrera.

Nelson takes a big shot from Wolgast during their famous 40 round war.

10. Carlos Ortiz: Perhaps the greatest of all the great Puerto Rican champions and arguably the best lightweight of the 1960’s, Ortiz bested Joe Brown, Duilio Loi, Flash Elorde, Ismael Laguna and Sugar Ramos.

Ortiz seizes the world title from “Old Bones” Brown in 1962.

9. Julio Cesar Chavez: Without question, the iron-chinned Chavez is an all-time great, his fists leaving a trail of destruction from 130 up to welterweight. One of the greatest body punchers of all-time, at 135 and 140 he defeated the likes of Edwin Rosario, Greg Haugen, Jose Luis Ramirez, Hector Camacho, Meldrick Taylor and Roger Mayweather.

A peak Chavez Senior brutalizes Edwin Rosario. 

8. Lou Ambers: The fighter known as “The Herkimer Hurricane” was at or near the top of the division for the better part of a decade, scoring big wins over Tony Canzoneri, Baby Arizmendi, Frankie Klick, Fritzie Zivic, Al Davis and (albeit, in rather dubious fashion) the great Henry Armstrong.

Ambers (right) mixes it up with Tony Canzoneri.

7. Freddie Welsh: A clever defensive boxer, “The Welsh Wizard” was the British and European lightweight king before he won the world title in 1914. He competed in arguably the greatest 135 pound division in boxing history and holds wins over such luminaries as Benny Leonard, Willie Ritchie, Ad Wolgast, Abe Attell, “Peerless” Jim Driscoll, Battling Nelson, “Mexican” Joe Rivers, and he twice drew with the clever Packey McFarland.

Welsh (left) battles “Peerless” Jim Driscoll.

6. Pernell Whitaker: The man they called “Sweet Pea” is arguably the greatest fighter pound-for-pound of the 1990’s, and one of the best defensive boxers of all-time. For a full decade, 1987 to ’97, he was untouchable, his only setbacks blatant robberies by the judges in bouts with Jose Luis Ramirez and Julio Cesar Chavez. In addition to besting those two champs, Whitaker boasts official wins over Roger Mayweather, Greg Haugen, Freddie Pendleton, Jorge Paez and Azumah Nelson, before moving up to defeat James McGirt and Julio Cesar Vasquez.

For most of the 90s, Whitaker was clearly ‘The Best.’

5. Ike Williams: Fast, powerful and ruthless, Williams was at the top of the division for almost a full decade and scored wins over a long list of Hall of Famers including Beau Jack, Bob Montgomery, Tippy Larkin, Sammy Angott, Jimmy Carter, Johnny Bratton, and Kid Gavilan.

Mean old Ike.

4. Roberto Duran: Duran’s reign of terror in the lightweight division began even before he dealt a vicious battering to gifted champion Ken Buchanan in 1972 and it didn’t end until he unified the title with an awesome demolition of the equally gifted Esteban De Jesus in 1978. “Manos de Piedra” then moved up to win titles at welterweight, super welterweight and middleweight. At 135, he bested such premier talents as Hector Thompson, Guts Ishimatsu, Vilomar Fernandez and Edwin Viruet.

3. Tony Canzoneri: In the late 1920’s the young Canzoneri was so good and so dominant that he was recognized as not just the best lightweight in the world, but the best boxer in the game, bar none. Clever, versatile and heavy-handed, he scored victories over such greats as Johnny Dundee, Charles “Bud” Taylor, Benny Bass, Sammy Mandell, Al Singer, Billy Petrolle, Frankie Klick, Jimmy McLarnin, Jackie “Kid” Berg, Lou Ambers, and Kid Chocolate.

The great Tony Canzoneri.

2. Joe Gans: Only 35 when he died from tuberculosis, Gans packed some 170 bouts into 14 years and thus etched his name forever into the history books as one of pugilism’s first and greatest maestros. Clever, tough and technically sophisticated, Gans triumphed despite years of ill treatment due to his race as he endured biased officiating or being forced to make weight while wearing his boxing gear. He is credited with inventing the uppercut and popularizing the basic techniques of blocking, footwork and counter-punching and his prodigious skills earned him the nickname “The Old Master.”

1. Benny Leonard: Arguably the most cerebral pugilist in boxing history, Leonard reigned as the undisputed lightweight champion of the world when the division was at its absolute strongest.

The Ghetto Wizard. Drawing by Damien Burton.

He defeated a long list of great fighters including Lew Tendler, Johnny Dundee, Rocky Kansas, Richie Mitchell, Johnny Kilbane, Freddie Welsh, and Willie Ritchie. In the 20 year span from May 1912 to October 1932 he suffered only a single defeat. Skill, smarts, power, longevity, toughness and unparalleled ring wisdom, “The Ghetto Wizard” could do it all and will forever be the ultimate king at 135.

Honorable Mentions: Packy McFarland, Beau Jack, Wesley Ramey, Ismael Laguna, Aaron Pryor, Joe Brown, Esteban De Jesus, Lew Tendler, Ad Wolgast, Bob Montgomery, Pedro Montanez, Sammy Mandell, Kid Lavigne, Shane Mosley, Jack McAuliffe, Ken Buchanan.

28 thoughts on “Top 12 All-Time Greatest Lightweights

  • February 21, 2018 at 2:08 pm
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    Bullshit. G.O.A.T Roberto Duran would murder every pugilist in your list. Including Benny Leonard, in fact I’m sure Benny Leonard would avoid him.

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    • February 11, 2020 at 10:51 am
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      Benny Leonard beat another guy on this list, Freddie Welsh. “The Ghetto Wizard” dominated a deep talent pool. In that regard, Duran doesn’t come close.

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    • May 17, 2020 at 4:35 pm
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      Agreed, Duran is the greatest lightweight ever.

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    • June 20, 2020 at 8:21 pm
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      Who exactly did Duran beat at 135 who is anywhere even approaching all-time great status? He low-blowed Buchanan into submission–the ref was the deciding factor in that fight. He lost to DeJesus, who then lost to the heat as much as to Duran in their rematch, and was a full-blown cokehead by their final encounter.
      Who? I ask again–who did Duran beat at 135? Where the hell is this mythical legend bullshit coming from? I’m old enough to have seen everyone of any talent who’s fought since 1970 and Duran was not better than Pryor, Arguello, Whitaker, JC Chavez, Mayweather, or Lomachenko. Duran is perhaps the most overrated fighter ever.
      Who did he beat at 135???

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      • January 8, 2022 at 10:53 pm
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        G.O.A.T Roberto Duran prevented all those names from becoming the next Benny LEONARDs, Gans, Ortiz etc. Therefore they appear like nobodies to you and others. Understand?

        It was Duran otherworldly talent that stopped a lot of world class athletes In the 60s, 70s, 80s from being great.

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    • December 11, 2020 at 7:17 pm
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      You are correct. Duran at 4 is a joke and an insult.

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  • February 21, 2018 at 7:50 pm
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    I respect your opinion, but it can only be Duran in my eyes.

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    • June 22, 2019 at 8:48 pm
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      While I agree, Duran was #1, I would have loved to see him against Pryor.

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  • February 23, 2018 at 10:26 am
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    Its ok but Durán is top 3

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  • April 6, 2018 at 7:18 pm
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    What does Julio Cesar Chavez do in that list?
    This list was written by a mexicanofilo fan?
    Chavez was a “bird of passage” at 135 pounds; his three biggest achievements in his career were against Camacho, Taylor and Haugen and he was at 140 pounds, NOT in the Lightweights.
    If Chavez is included among the best Lightweights undeservedly, then to Duran for having defeated Leonard and Palomino, they should include him among the best Welter.

    Duran won the FIRST place among the best Lightweights in history, not a miserable fourth place, and in the place of Chavez should be Shane Mosley or Ken Buchanan.

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  • May 19, 2019 at 8:12 am
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    Duran was 61 and 1 as a lightweight and he took on all comers. His ranking at number four is an insult.

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  • September 18, 2019 at 10:59 pm
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    You should have Pryor in the top five.

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  • September 19, 2019 at 9:23 am
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    Duran has to be number one!!!

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  • November 25, 2019 at 9:31 pm
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    1. Roberto Duran
    2. Benny Leonard
    Interestgly the 2 best ever lightweights were trained in large part by Ray Arcel.
    3. Pernell Whitaker
    4. Floyd Mayweather JR.
    5. Ike Williams
    6. Alexis Arguello Where the hell is Arguello why isn’t he on this list we are commenting on?
    7. Julio Cesar Chavez
    8. Henry Armstrong
    9. Tony Canzoneri
    10. Carlos Ortiz

    9. Tony Canzoneri
    10. Henry Armstrong

    Reply
    • December 26, 2019 at 6:45 pm
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      1. Joseph Gant (Joe Gans) of Baltimore
      Fought 3 bouts in 1 day. Invented the uppercut.
      2. Benny Leonard
      3. Pernell Whitaker
      4. Roberto Duran
      5. Julio Cesar Chavez

      Reply
    • January 10, 2020 at 9:39 pm
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      Mr. ‘NO MAS’ the best? What horseshit that is. Leonard, Ortiz, Chavez, Tendler and Pryor were all better.

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    • January 11, 2020 at 1:26 pm
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      You like Canzoneri then?

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      • April 15, 2020 at 12:34 am
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        Duran at number four is a joke. Not only the best lightweight ever, but top five pound-for-pound all time. This list is embarrassing.

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        • July 3, 2020 at 11:19 pm
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          “No Mas” means no eligibility for any GOAT discussions at lightweight, and for sure not pound-for-pound. He’s barely in the conversation for top five at 135 pounds.

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  • May 9, 2020 at 6:57 am
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    The list is a joke. Duran is number 1, number 2 and number 3. Duran with one arm is still number one.

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  • August 19, 2020 at 1:47 am
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    How you dare! Durán number 4? What a joke! Roberto Duran is the number 1, by far. Shame on this list!

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  • November 16, 2020 at 8:39 pm
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    Duran should be number one. Who else could have moved up and beaten Sugar Ray Leoanrd? No one. That win shows the skills he had. This is no disrespect to anyone else on the list.

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  • December 8, 2020 at 8:30 pm
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    I am among the biggest Duran fans ever. Let’s face it, though. Ray Arcel trained Benny Leonard AND Duran. His top two boxers ever are Ray Robinson and Benny Leonard, with Leonard getting the nod. No more needs to be said.

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  • January 24, 2021 at 11:24 pm
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    Julio Cesar Chavez is the best boxer of all time

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  • August 12, 2021 at 1:35 pm
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    Mayweather would do well against any of those listed in this top 10. Mayweather vs Pernell at 135 would be great matchup.

    Reply

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