Boxing is often called the art of hitting without getting hit. For most fight fans little matches the thrill of the art of hitting. When Boxings biggest punchers land their best shots, fans hold their breath in awe as the gladiators of the ring are toppled like trees. We all know who the greatest punchers in the sport are. Mike Tyson was arguably the most exciting Boxer to exist, everyone knows Iron Mike for his ferocious punching power and speed but how many remember him for his head movement which made opponents miss as wide as Scott Norwood’s failed field goal to end Superbowl XXV. The names of Boxers who excelled at the art of hitting are known far and wide, George Foreman, Joe Louis, Sonny Liston, Thomas Hearns and Julian Jackson are just five of the names easily recognised for their punching prowess but what about those Boxers who were wizards in the other half of the sentence, the art of not getting hit?
In this article, I look into the history books and recognise some of the greatest defensive fighters to have graced the squared circle.
The ‘shoulder roll’ is a term that has become popular in the boxing circles over the past decade thanks in large part to one man – Floyd Mayweather, JR. Going hand in hand with the Shoulder Roll is the term the ‘Philly Shell’ to symbolise the famous defensive guard of using the lead shoulder to roll and deflect against shots. George Benton was a master of the Shoulder roll and it comes as no surprise that the boxer hailed from Philadelphia and excelled in the Philly Shell.
Benton fought 76 times and for a period was the no.1 ranked Middleweight in the early 1960’s. So why did Benton never win a title? The sad answer is that Benton was denied a shot at the title because he and his manager were unwilling to get involved with
Boxing’s dark side. Despite beating men who went onto win the World title (Freddie Little, Jimmy Ellis and Joey Giardello) Benton never received the recognition he deserved. In the end, Benton’s defence was so slick, it took a bullet to end his boxing career, the victim of a revenge attack he was in and out of the hospital for two years but they never did manage to remove the bullet lodged near his spine.
George Benton went on to become one of the greatest trainers the sport has ever seen. Amongst the Champions he trained are Meldrick Taylor, Mike McCallum, Leon Spinks and Evander Holyfield. His stint as an assistant included being in Joe Frazier’s corner but he saved his best work as a Head Trainer when he helped guide another defensive wizard to become one of the greats of the game, Pernell Whitaker.
‘Sweet Pea’ was always headed for stardom, having completed a stellar amateur career which included an Olympic gold but Whitaker didn’t just have one of the greatest defences in boxing history, he would also come into the conversation as one of the greatest southpaws in history and probably one of its best ever counter punchers. Whitaker was widely seen as the pound for pound king in the early to mid 90’s and much of it was down to his plastic man like abilities to contort his body and avoid punches coming at him.
Whitaker was schooled in the art of defence by George Benton, already listed in this article as one of the greatest ever defensive wizards. Benton taught Whitaker the ways of old school boxing, polishing Whitaker in to the craftsman he would become inside the ring. The result was a four weight world champion who was virtually impossible to land cleanly against.
Whitaker defence was so good that it was at times difficult to score his fights, what other reason can we give for some very strange decisions which went against him during his career. These included the ‘Robbery’ vs the 87-0 Julio Cesar Chavez which resulted in a draw, a split decision for the WBC title against Jose Luis Ramirez and in his bout defending the welterweight titles against the 24-0 Oscar De La Hoya.
The slippery southpaw was a headache for every opponent he came up against and left countless frustrated fighters by the side – did Whitaker really ever lose a fight? The record books will state 4 losses, but in reality there was only one real loss, when an ageing almost retired Whitaker lost to the great Felix Trinidad in 1999.
Locche was an Argentinian Light Welterweight Champion who fought 136 times and lost just for of those. Nicolino Locche was known for his defensive wizardry, often employing a variation of the shoulder roll, his reflexes were such that he could stand presenting his head to you, hold his hands by his side and still make you miss all of your punches. Locches most notable performance was a victory over Antonio Cervantes – a future Hall of Famer, winning every single round on the judge’s card against a Hall of Fame opponent! Little wonder he was often referred to as ‘The Untouchable’.
Locche had just 14 knockouts in his career yet still he forged himself a hall of fame career on the back of his defensive wizardry. A penchant for smoking and the Argentinian nightlife couldn’t detract from his ring performances but one suspects if Locche had put more effort into his training and lifestyle, he would have been in everyone’s list of top 20 fighters in Boxing history.
Burley was called too good for his own good and at times, despite being a Welterweight and then Middleweight, was forced to fight Heavyweights just to stay active. A member of the infamous Black Murderers Row, Burley was one of history’s most avoided fighters – rumours being even the great Sugar Ray Robinson wanted no part of him. Often described as the greatest Boxer never to win a world title, Burleys God fearing lifestyle meant he was never willing to sacrifice his values to merge with Boxings underworld to gain the title shot he always coveted.
Burley’s defence was legendary, a defensive genius and counter puncher, he did not throw many punches, preferring to throw fewer but more accurate punches. Named by esteemed trainer Eddie Futch as the greatest all round fighter he had ever witnessed and by all time great Archie Moore(who was another master of defence and counter punching) as the best Boxer he ever fought, Burley ended his career with 83 wins and was never knocked out inside the ring. The character ‘Troy Maxson’ from the 2016 movie ‘Fences’ was played by Denzel Washington and was based on the life of Charley Burley.
James Toney was a throwback to old school fighters. Toney and his trainer Bill Miller spent countless hours studying the old greats such as Ezzard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott and it showed in the fighting style of Toney. Toney’s way of the shoulder roll will go down as one of the best in history, as an in fighter and counter puncher, Toney was as good as we have ever seen in the ring. His defence is so tight(and his chin so good) that he was able to start his career as a middleweight and continue on up to heavyweight and was never knocked out or stopped. That is a testament to his defence and technique which allowed him to handle bigger and bigger men. Added to his ability to use the shoulder roll was his effectiveness at rolling under punches and fighting off the ropes. Toney really was a complete fighter, he could stand in the pocket and trade toe to toe and come out unscathed. It took arguably the greatest athlete in boxing history who had one of the greatest primes we’ve ever seen in boxing, Roy Jones Jnr – to inflict the first loss of Toney’s career.
Pep is widely regarded as the greatest Featherweight in history and claimed his first title aged just 20. The great Sugar Ray Leonard once offered some words of wisdom ‘your legs either get you into trouble, or they get you out of trouble…’
Nobody was a better example of this than Willie Pep – very few if any Boxers possessed better footwork than Pep, such was his elusiveness he was nicknamed ‘Will-O the Wisp’. When we call Boxing the Sweet Science and the art of hitting without getting hit, Pep symbolised this with his ring artistry and quite possibly the greatest defence ever seen.
His movement around the ring would make you think you were watching a dancer glide around the ring. Most famously he is said to be the only man to win a round without having to throw a punch, such was his mastery of the ring. Willie Pep’s footwork and ability to turn an opponent is yet to be matched by anyone since.
Pep’s greatness can be seen in his career, winning an astounding 229 fights spanning 26 years, Pep was even able to survive a plane crash in 1947 and return to the ring against all the odds, winning his comeback fight.
Wilfred Benitez was one of Puerto Rico’s greatest Boxers but could have been so much more, the youngest ever World Champion at just 17. Wilfred was nicknamed “El Radar” for his uncanny ability to foresee and dodge his opponent’s blows. El-Radar could easily have been Spiderman using his Spidey Sense to slip punches at the very last fraction of a second. Wilfred Benitez was fighting around the period of the four kings, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler and if there was a fifth member of the famous fighting group it would surely have been Wilfred Benitez.
The reason Benitez is generally denied entry into the Leonard-Hagler-Hearns-Duran club is because he never shared a ring with Marvin Hagler, so despite beating Duran and running Sugar Ray very close and being outpointed by the Hitman Hearns he is unfortunately not always mentioned in the same breath as them. It was in 1982 he impressively outscored Duran over 15 rounds to set up a fight with Thomas Hearns. Hearns was to defeat Benitez and unknown to anyone at the time, would start the downhill slide in El Radars career. A lackadaisical approach to training meant that the fire of Benitez was extinguished long before his time, preferring luxury to hard work and often sidetracked by the fame and everything it bought to a man still so young
by the age of 24, a time he should have been entering his peak was instead replaced by a fighter entering his end.
Despite this Benitez is still regarded as one of the games finest ever defensive wizards but is also seen as one of its biggest wasted talents.
Floyd Mayweather Jr
Where would this list be without a mention of Floyd Mayweather Jr? The shoulder roll is nothing new in Boxing, call it what you will – the shoulder roll, the Michigan defence, the Philly Shell – many old school fighters used a variation of this technique, greats such as Archie Moore, Sugar Ray Robinson, George Benton, Charley Burley, Ezzard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott. But no one has popularised it as much as Floyd Mayweather Jr has. When Muhammad Ali was around, he made it common for fighters to want to stick and move, the Ali shuffle, the flicking jab. Then Mike Tyson appeared and everyone wanted to learn the peek-a-boo and become a ferocious fighter like Tyson. Mayweather Jr has had a similar effect on the shoulder roll, everyone now wants to learn the shoulder roll and box like Floyd Mayweather Jr which is a compliment to just how good Mayweather Jr’s defence is. Mayweather Jr’s defence is a combination of factors, years of learning his craft from when he was just a child, a granite chin, vastly underrated speed and reflexes and a ring genius. ‘Money’ Mayweather’s defence is so good that he has been hit cleanly so little that fans can recall the number of hard shots he has taken over a career, not in one fight but a whole career! In a 2012 study by Compubox, Floyd Mayweather Jr came out on top amongst all boxers with a ratio of just 16% of opposition punches landing on him, little wonder that the man who calls himself ‘TBE’ often made the best boxers look pretty ordinary in the ring against him.
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