A Boxing historian examines the best

Fighters of the 20 century

Decade by Decade!

By Monte Cox


Boxing has evolved from what was considered bare-knuckle barbarism in the late 19 century to the "sweet science" of the 20th century. Along the way there have been many truly great fighters. This article is about those men, the best of the best.

During the days of bare-knuckle boxing fighters had to be very selective and precise with their punches. Mistakes were costly and painful, and a fighter could wind up damaging his hands if he wasn't careful. Boxers of this bygone era reiled on defense; blocking, parrying, countering and wrestling like grappling in the clinches. The action tended to be slower paced with alot of feinting, luring, and drawing tactics. Boxers fought 20, 45, and even 75 round matches. For these reasons boxers had to be conservative with their punches. They would pick their openings and fight in two and three punch bursts over the course of a fight.  

With the advent of gloved boxing and the Marques of Queensbury rules, in the John L. Sullivan versus James Corbett match in 1892, boxing made its first step toward modernization. Styles didn't change right away. Change came slowly and much of the old styles remained at the turn of the century. Boxers in general threw only two or three punches at a time. Parrying, blocking and countering was the epitome of boxing technique at the onset of the 20th century.

Advances in footwork and defense began during this period. Corbett demonstrated that skill could overcome a superior punch. James J.Jeffries was the first to fight out of a crouch. Jack Johnson helped improve footwork and defense. With the hands better protected a boxer did not have to fight so defensively, or be so cautious. By the 1920's combination punching had become universal. Most of the best techniques were in place by this time with minor innovations occuring throughout the century.

"The Best of a Century" examines ten of the best fighters of the 20th century. One fighter is chosen from each of the 10 decades of the century. The fighter chosen represents the highest form of boxing skills of his respective decade. At the end of the 10 week series we will choose the "fighter of the century."  The selections are subjective. Please keep in mind these two important premises: 1) Who is the best fighter pound for pound. 2) Which boxer represents the highest form of boxing technique in his era.

These men are the best of a century of  boxing.