Rocky is a great movie, and Creed was pretty good, but they get my town all wrong when it comes to boxing. The films portray Philadelphia as a city of lovable losers who can almost never get to the top, a locale where success is rare and defeat commonplace. Now, admittedly, this is an accurate representation of Philly sports teams. In 135 years, the Phillies have won a grand total of two World Series; the Flyers haven’t won it all since the 70s; the Sixers since the early 80s; and our beloved Eagles won their first ever Super Bowl just last year. (It only took 52 tries!)
But when it comes to boxing, Philadelphia’s not made of “losers,” though we definitely have our share of hard-luck warriors. In fact, we can call Philly a legit “title town,” blessed as it has been with both superlative pugilists and champions through the whole history of the game. And I’d argue that boxing encompasses the zeitgeist of the city better than any other sport. It’s been said that in Philly even the homeless guys know how to hook off the jab, an aphorism that still holds true today.
So to help set the record straight, below is a list of my top Philly world champions. This is not a ranking of the all-time greatest boxers from “The City Of Brotherly Love,” as many of our greats, such as Lew Tendler and Bennie Briscoe, never won a world title. Instead it’s a roll call of my favorite legit champs who were through-and-through Philly fighters. At the same time I factored in things like quality of opposition, duration of their respective reigns, plus such intangibles as grit and heart and the willingness to really rumble. I also took into account the fighters’ stories, because no town values an underdog overcoming challenges quite like Philadelphia does.
While all are from the Philadelphia area, it’s important to note that the true “Philly” domain extends beyond its official borders. Southern New Jersey and the counties bordering the metropolis are in fact part of the sports culture of “The City Of Brotherly Love.” For example, Atlantic City has always been part of home turf for Philly boxers, and athletes from Camden and other nearby regions have rightfully claimed to have Philly roots, and I stick to that extended geography here. So without further ado, these are my top Philly world champions. Check it out:
12. Dwight Muhammad Qawi: “The Camden Buzzsaw” was born across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, in South Jersey, but he trained in Joe Frazier’s famous North Philly gym and regularly fought in both Philadelphia and Atlantic City and I will happily take him as one of my Philly champs. He twice beat fellow Philadelphian Matthew Saad Muhammad, as well as Eddie Davis, James Scott, Jerry Martin and Leon Spinks. In his prime, only all-time greats like Michael Spinks and Evander Holyfield could beat him. He overcame a rough childhood and incarceration to lead a fine life, both in boxing and after, as he now helps troubled youth overcome drug and alcohol addiction.
11. Sonny Liston: He’s not higher on the list because he could easily be called a St. Louis boxer, but Liston relocated to Philadelphia in 1957, a move that sparked his unstoppable assault on the heavyweight division. He knocked out Cleveland Williams, Zora Folley, and Roy Harris before taking the heavyweight crown from Floyd Patterson in 1962. For at least five years he was a destroyer with underrated technical skill—Philly qualities to be sure. Sadly, during that time Philadelphia didn’t appreciate him. Liston returned to the city after becoming champion to find no welcome whatsoever from the citizenry. Undoubtedly, this was because of his criminal history, and people’s continued racism towards black athletes. Posthumously inducted into the IBHOF in 1991, we here in Philly should welcome Liston now in whatever ways we can, as he was a dominant heavyweight who didn’t get his due before he fell to the ring genius of Muhammad Ali.
10. Meldrick Taylor: An Olympic gold medalist, a world champion, and in his prime one of the pound-for-pound best in the sport, Meldrick Taylor was an elite ring warrior forged in the heart of Philadelphia’s gyms. To some extent his career will always be defined by his first fight with Julio Caesar Chavez and referee Richard Steele’s decision to wave the fight off in the Mexican’s favor with only two seconds left. But even in that defeat, Taylor gave a brilliant performance and fought like a true champion, and he would in fact go on to regain a world title soon after. Those first few years when his hand speed looked straight out of a Hollywood special effects department, plus big wins over James “Buddy” McGirt, Aaron Davis and Glenwood Brown, cement his legacy as one of the top champions from this proud fighting city.
9. Philadelphia Jack O’Brien: With fast hands for any fighter, let alone a big man, in 1905 O’Brien stopped the great Bob Fitzsimmons to earn the world light heavyweight title. He never defended it. For that reason, he’s not higher on this list, but at the time the division was unpopular and many light heavies boxed as heavyweights, which is what O’Brien did. Regardless of weight class, he took some notable scalps in his highly prolific career. Along with Fitzsimmons, O’Brien beat the likes of Joe Choynski, Young Peter Jackson, Dixie Kid, and Joe Butler, and fought heavyweight legends Tommy Burns and Jack Johnson to draws. A true all-time great and Hall of Famer, O’Brien was ranked by Nat Fleischer as the second greatest light heavyweight in history.
8. Joey Giardello: One of many great middleweights from Philadelphia, Giardello took plenty of knocks in his career and had a long, hard journey before, at the age of 33, he finally established himself as the top contender for the title with a victory over an aging Sugar Ray Robinson. He then defeated tough Dick Tiger for the championship and successfully defended it against equally tough Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. That match was in fact a one-sided clinic from Giardello who made Carter look confused and inept throughout, but it was portrayed very differently in the Hollywood film of Carter’s life, “Hurricane,” which presented the match as a crooked one with a bogus decision for the Philly champ. Giardello would successfully sue Universal Pictures for its inaccurate depiction and true Philly boxing fans know Joey Giardello for the excellent champion he was and for his great battles with Tiger, Carter, Joey Giambra, Billy Graham, Ralph “Tiger” Jones, and Gene Fullmer.
7. Matthew Saad Muhammad: The WBC light heavyweight champ for almost three years, Muhammad competed in a stacked division, besting such excellent fighters as John Conteh, Marvin Johnson, Jerry Martin, Richie Kates and Yaqui Lopez. His crushing power and all-action style made him a popular performer on national television and his ability to absorb frightening punishment before roaring back to win earned him the nickname “Miracle Matthew.” His life outside the ring further marks him as a unique Philly fighter, as he was abandoned as a five-year-old child on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway before being adopted by foster parents. Sadly, he returned to the Philly streets decades later when he found himself broke and homeless years after his boxing career had ended. A Hall of Famer, Matthew Saad Muhammad is widely regarded as one of boxing’s hardest punchers and most exciting fighters.
6. Benny Bass: A two division champ and Hall of Famer, Bass fought on the inside due in part to his lack of reach, and had a left hook from hell plus a heart as big as The Liberty Bell. He lost his featherweight title via close decision to the great Tony Canzoneri, during which he broke his collarbone in five places but he fought on and, incredibly, even staged a rally late in the fight. Talk about Philly heart! He would later lose to all-time great Kid Chocolate, but he defeated a slew of great boxers including Johnny Jadick, Eddie Cool, Charles “Bud” Taylor and Tony Falco, in the process winning 158 of some 200 fights. None other than Jack Dempsey said he was the greatest fighter he ever saw.
5. Battling Levinsky: Light heavyweight champion of the world and Hall of Fame inductee, Levinsky held his title for four years. But more than that, he just loved fighting, and took on all comers, from Jack Dempsey to Georges Carpentier to Harry Greb. He battled Jack Dillon, from whom he took the light heavyweight crown in 1916, ten times. He official record shows an incredible 287 bouts, but he claimed to have actually been in some 500 fights. While there’s no way to determine exactly how many scraps Levinsky had, his attitude was pure Philadelphia: ready to go hard, every day, all hustle, no ducking, no quit. What a fighter!
4. Tommy Loughran: Before he even became champion, Loughran boasted wins over the likes of Harry Greb and Georges Carpentier, and he had battled the great Gene Tunney to a draw. Then in 1927 he unseated Mike McTigue for the light heavyweight title and ruled for three years, never losing it in the ring. Instead, like many light heavyweights of his day, including Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, he gave up his crown at 175 for the money and glory of the heavyweight division. A true all-time great and a most clever ringman, he defeated a long list of stand-out fighters, including Mickey Walker, Jeff Smith, Jim Braddock, Leo Lomski, King Levinsky, Jack Sharkey, and Max Baer and many believe he deserved a 15 round points win over Primo Carnera in 1934 in his one and only chance at the heavyweight crown.
3. Jersey Joe Walcott: Born in Pennsauken, just north of Camden and right across the river from Philadelphia, Walcott might be the most stereotypically “Philly” member of this list with a story that can’t be beat. He had four shots at the heavyweight championship before finally winning it at the age of 37. Further, he’d been a pro for 17 long years before he finally got a chance at a world title, a split decision loss to the great Joe Louis which pretty much everyone thought Walcott deserved, including “The Brown Bomber” himself as a crestfallen Louis actually tried to leave the ring before the official decision was revealed. When the split verdict for Louis was announced, the champion went over to Walcott and said, “I’m sorry, Joe.”
Walcott would fall to the famous Louis fists in their rematch, a defeat that was followed by two more title losses to Ezzard Charles before, shockingly, Jersey Joe won the title in try number five with a one punch knockout of “The Cincinnati Cobra,” the great victory taking place in Philadelphia. The win made him the oldest heavyweight champion in boxing history but he lost the title to Rocky Marciano in his first defense, ironically, also by violent one punch KO, and also in Philadelphia. Jersey Joe didn’t have a long reign at the top but his skill, perseverance and wins over such top talents as Joey Maxim, Elmer Ray, Jimmy Bivins and Harold Johnson make him one of the great Philly champs.
2. Joe Frazier: If this was a list solely about boxers with legit, hard-won Philly-cred, then without a doubt, Smokin’ Joe, who came to Philadelphia as a teenager and never left, would be number one. Think about it: Frazier was the fighter who in real life worked in a slaughterhouse and punched slabs of beef. He was the one who really did run up those 72 stone steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In addition to all that, Frazier was a truly great champion in the greatest era in heavyweight history with wins over Oscar Bonavena, Jerry Quarry, Jimmy Ellis, George Chuvalo, Bob Foster and, of course, Muhammad Ali. His legendary rivalry with “The Greatest” is forever a part of boxing lore and his achievements make his statue in South Philadelphia seem an inadequate tribute. And anyone who insists he has to be number one on this list will get little argument from me.
1. Bernard Hopkins: It’s hard to keep “The Executioner” out of the top spot in a list of great Philly champions, because for an incredible 20 years almost all he did was win championship fights. He got his first middleweight strap in 1995 and defended it 20 times, beating the likes of Félix Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya along the way, in the process becoming the first man to claim undisputed status in the four belt era. When he was finally dethroned in 2005, he promptly moved up to 175 and won another title at 42 years of age.
Five years later, he won another, in the process becoming the oldest boxer in history to win a world championship, and he would win more straps in 2013 and 2014. And he achieved all of this without being a blue-chip prospect. A Philadelphia ex-con who didn’t take up the sport until he was eighteen and on the inside, Hopkins lost his first pro fight and his first two title shots. He had everything going against him when it came to being a champion, until he in fact became one of the greatest in boxing history.
Bernard Hopkins wasn’t an underdog who had a moment of glory, but an underdog who became the best for two full decades — with wins over Glen Johnson, Antonio Tarver, Tavoris Cloud, Kelly Pavlik and Jean Pascal — and the bottom line for me is that is the most Philadelphia story I have ever heard. — Joshua Isard