The Most Intelligent Boxers….An overlooked trait to the casual eye is the ring smarts required to be a successful boxer, it is not always speed, power and athleticism which wins you the fight, when it comes to the highest levels of the sport, a fighter will inevitably come across opponents who are quicker than them, hit harder than them and are younger than them. But here is where experience and ring smarts helps bridge the gap.
Not for nothing is boxing called ‘The Sweet Science‘, fighters will feint, fighters will lay traps and fighters will walk you into their tricks. Boxing has seen plenty of fighters whose ring IQ was the icing on the cake to their already world class skills and often it is their ring IQ which sets them apart. In this article I am going to go over six of the most intelligent boxers to have entered the ring in history. I will not be taking a look at current or recently retired boxers, that means fighters like Terence Crawford, who in my opinion is not only the number one pound for pound ranked fighter in the world right now but also the smartest boxer in the world, will not be included. Crawford has a lot of boxing skill but to me he is the heir apparent to Floyd Mayweather Jr, Crawford combines his ring intelligence with his various boxing skills to adjust to any opponent and then get to work on slowly breaking them down. The man he replaced as the worlds best boxer, Andre Ward will also not be under consideration, not for nothing was Ward undefeated when he wasn’t especially fast or powerful and that’s because he was especially smart inside the ring. Lomachenko, another extremely smart fighter will also not be included, Rigondeaux although he hasn’t fought much in recent years is also not under consideration.
Let’s get to my list of Top Six Most Intelligent Boxers(in no particular order).
It’s only fair we start off with the man commonly believed to have started ‘the sweet science’. Gans was a boxer who began boxing as a professional towards the end of the 19th century. The one they called the ‘Old Master’ was the first to really bring a strategic approach to boxing. Gans liked to find out his opponents strengths and weaknesses and then form his game plan with all the information he had acquired. His ring IQ was good enough to help him fight and beat bigger opponents throughout his career despite being a lightweight himself. The first real student of the sport, a statue of Gans sits in the lobby of the Madison Square Gardens.
Sugar Ray Robinson
Now I realise this is a little unfair – Robinson is widely regarded as the greatest boxer to have ever lived and he possessed a number of physical gifts which almost always had him at an advantage over his opponent, but Robinson was incredibly smart when it came to fight tactics and ring IQ. Robinson could identify patterns in his opponent and then quickly get to work exposing any flaws. A prime example of this was Robinsons perfect left hook against Gene Fullmer – Robinson was working on Fullmer in the lead up to the punch and set the trap perfectly, knocking him out in the process.
Fullmer was also one of his opponents who managed to defeat Robinson in their first meeting, but Robinson would come straight back and beat them in the next encounter, Jake LaMotta and Randy Turpin being two other such examples(although it is fair to say when Robinson battled Fullmer numerous times, Sugar Ray was well past his best). Again this displays Robinsons ring intelligence, there were also strong rumours that it was Sugar Ray Robinson who helped provide Muhammad Ali(then Cassius Clay) with the blueprint on how to beat Sonny Liston, at a time no one gave Clay a chance and Liston was the most feared man in boxing.
Robinson could box when he wanted to, he could use his power more if needed, he could fight on the offensive or beat you fighting on his back foot, there really wasn’t anything Sugar Ray Robinson couldn’t do.
Sugar Ray Leonard
From one Sugar to the next. Again, like Robinson, this Sugar was a physically gifted fighter. Exceptional speed for starters, he also had a chin on him with a heart to match. Despite Leonards bravado and flair, behind the smile of the media darling was a killer and a fighter with a sharp boxing brain. If there was any weakness in your game or any weakness in your training camp, Leonard made sure to expose you. Three such examples occured against elite fighters of his period. Wilfred Benitez was the youngest world champion in history at just 17yrs old with a bucketful of natural talent, but Leonard knew the young man was cutting corners in his training, falling foul of the many temptations a young world champion would be facing. Leonard started off strong against Benitez before ‘El Radar’ mounted a comeback in the middle, the latter half though Leonard began to cut down Benitez’s body before eventually winning the fight in the final round.
Roberto Duran, another of the all time greats had beaten Leonard in their first encounter but Leonard knew where he went wrong and quickly set upon rewriting the wrongs of the first fight with a much better game plan, he was also wise to get the fight done as quickly as possible, forcing the still celebrating Duran to crash weight loss for the fight. The fight resulted in the famous ‘No Mas’ bout.
There was still yet more, Thomas ‘Hitman’ Hearns is rightly considered as one of the most feared punchers the world has ever seen. Hearns was very tall and rangy for a welterweight, standing at 6ft 1 and was undefeated. Yet Sugar Ray stood his ground when he realised he needed a knockout to win, against the most dangerous puncher in the world he decided he would change tactics and go toe to toe with the puncher, stalking Hearns around the ring – he came out on top, stopping Hearns in the 14th round.
Ali looked up to Robinson, Leonard looked up to Ali. All three shared similar traits, speed, flamboyance, heart, chin and all three were crafty ring technicians. Due to Ali’s speed, his hand speed and foot speed for a heavyweight are yet to be matched, many often forget just how intelligent a fighter Ali was. We all know about the speed, we know Ali had a chin and we know he could dig deep when he needed to. But Ali was also the smartest heavyweight fighter in history. If you managed to beat Ali, he would always come back and beat you better. Frazier, Norton and Leon Spinks all beat Ali yet lost their next encounters, 2 each for Frazier and Norton, one against Spinks as Ali won the world title for the 3rd time and then retired. The only two losses Ali did not avenge was Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick – more due to Ali coming out of retirement and showing signs of Parkinson’s disease.
Ali invented fight tactics such as the rope-a-dope which he used to defeat world champion George Foreman. Foreman was knockout out everyone he was facing and was such a bad man that people feared for Ali’s life. Armed with a ferocious punch, few gave Ali much chance of lasting longer than the couple of rounds Frazier and Norton could only manage against Foreman. Yet Ali changed his tactics and let Foreman punch himself out whilst he fought off the ropes and eventually winning the world title back in the 8th round. In the previous decade, Ali had already shocked the world when he upset the odds by defeating Sonny Liston to become the champion of the world, again in a fight few believed he could win but Ali was able to pick Liston off at will and make Liston miss all night.
Floyd Mayweather Jr
Mayweather Jr seems to be one of those fighters you either love or you hate, there doesn’t seem to be any middle ground with Floyd. But what cannot be denied, regardless of how you see his career, whether you think he was a cherry picker or waited for the right time to make a fight – you cannot disagree that Mayweather Jr is extremely smart when it comes to fighting inside the ring and when it comes to making money. Allegedly Mayweather Jr doesn’t even bother to study film of his opponents, he prefers to go into the ring and figure it all out for himself, whether that is true or not, shouldn’t take away from thr fact how high his ring IQ is. Mayweather Jr could make adjustments in the ring against any fighter, if you managed to tag him with a shot(as Shane Mosley did) he would succeed in shutting you down for the rest of the fight. It didn’t matter if you were faster than him, younger than him, hit harder than him, southpaw or orthodox or whether you liked to box or if you liked to brawl – Mayweather Jr was able to provide an answer for every question a fighter threw at him. 50-0 tells a story, Mayweather Jr went up in weight and beat every style he came across. The one controversial decision on his resume was against Diego Castillo, Mayweather Jr shut down the argument in the rematch with an easy win. Others might bring up Marcos Maidana who solved the problem of Mayweathers protege, Adrien Broner – again Mayweather Jr won with ease in the second fight.
There is not much footage available on this old school fighter but everything written about him suggests he was an all time great. Part of the infamous black murderers row, a group of black fighters who were elite and fought eachother because no one wanted to give them a title shot, Charley Burley is widely held as the best of the bunch – Burley even has his supporters as being the best boxer in history, yes even above Sugar Ray Robinson.
Burley’s style was that of a defensive counter puncher, which meant he may not have always been the most exciting fighter to watch but what he did have was high boxing acumen. Burley did not throw many punches in combinations, like a sniper he would pick you off with a perfectly placed bullet but he was a master of distance and feinting, and when you hesitated at his feinting, he was ready to pick you off again. Few fighters were better at feinting than Burley and he kept a big right hand in his tool box which he used to attack either your head or your body. Burley was so smart inside the ring that despite being avoided in his weight class, he could move up to fight heavyweights and still win the fight. As a middleweight Burley would be outweighed by as much as 70lbs against a heavyweight named J.D Turner but his sharp ring intelligence enabled him to come out the winner.
Nicknamed ‘The Ghetto Wizard’ Leonard is one of the greatest lightweights in history and one of the greatest boxers of all time. What set him apart was his fast thinking, able to quickly think on his feet in the middle of the bout he was a master of slipping and counter punching.
Hopkins went on fighting into his 50’s and won a world title at 49. Hopkins had a water tight defence but his excellent ring smarts helped him to beat much younger, faster and harder hitting fighters to become the world champion numerous times in his late 40’s.
Lewis beat everyone he stepped into the ring with, avenging losses to Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman. Some may say Lewis was conservative but in reality he wasn’t conservative, he was just working you out and waiting for the right time to pounce.
Boxing Coach Strength and Conditioning Coach Boxing Author of: The Boxing Cheat Sheet - Your Ultimate Guide to Ring Survival Strength and Conditioning for Boxing - Work out Hits to get you Fighting Fit! Forgotten Legends of the Ring - Ten Past Masters of the Squared Circle *Any videos or images used on this site to support my articles that are copyrighted are used in accordance to the fair use act and are not my own - all credit is due to the respective owners. No copyright infringement intended.
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