Greatest Boxers Defined By Their Defense

Introduction

Defensive boxers are those “slick” boxers who usually make their opponents miss and punish them for doing so. They might throw less punches overall and are seen to be “technicians” more than anything else. Some even lack KO ability and make up for it by honing their defensive skills. In any case, these fighters can be just as pleasing to watch as the most offensive fighters. But it isn’t enough just to be defensive to make it on this list. (Otherwise this list would be very long.) To the best of my knowledge, I’ve made a list of the fighters that are widely known for their defense, boxers defined by their ability not to get hit. For each, I’ll give a quick overview of the boxer and an analysis of his defensive fighting style. Note: this list is in no particular order!

Greatest Boxers Defined By Their Defense

Floyd Mayweather, Jr.

Mayweather’s defense against an assault from Pacquiao in their 2015 fight.

Overview: Money Mayweather has had 50 wins and no losses. He started as a Super Featherweight (130lbs) and, for the most part, dominated the competition on his way up to the Super Welterweight division (154lbs) and to become #1 P4P. Floyd Mayweather can very reasonably be said to have started an era of boxing, where the boxers are more likely to self-promote and be in control of their careers. Everyone knows of Mayweather’s masterful defense. He’s reputed to be the most elusive boxer ever; some say he was also the smartest. (http://boxrec.com/en/boxer/352)

Style Analysis

Two words can describe his defense: Philly-shell. We’ve already covered how the Philly-shell is done. Put simply, the lead arm covers the lead side and the abdomen, while the rear arm is held close to the rear side, protecting the other side of the body. The rear hand is used to parry or block punches coming from that side, while the lead shoulder is typically tasked to rolling punches coming from the other side. This all works well for Mayweather’s counter-punching. From the orthodox stance, pot shots, check hooks, straight rights, and sneaky rear hand uppercuts are served up after Mayweather’s famous defense does its magic.

Mayweather’s Philly-shell guard, ready to defend against Pacquiao.

In combination with the use of this guard, Mayweather likes to duck (particularly against opponents who get too close), pull (so that the only real target area, his head, is out of range), and clinch. These three defensive elements come naturally to Philly-shell users, and Floyd perfected their use and the Philly-shell such that, at times, he seems untouchable. Yet, much of his defensive success depends on his speed and reflexes. If you’re up against Mayweather, you’d probably be discouraged to find that he can see and react to most of your punches, in addition to making your punches ineffective. Notably, Mayweather doesn’t use as much footwork as you’d expect from a top-level fighter. Mayweather in fact does well in the pocket, but he does better at long range. So this is where his tendency to clinch comes into play. It might be relatively easy for an opponent to close the distance against him, but it’s all for nothing if he clinches and prevents any work in the pocket from being done.

Pernell Whitaker

Overview: “Sweet Pea” Whitaker has a record of 40-4-1. He became the undisputed champ in the Lightweight division and went on to fight in the Welterweight division. Whitaker’s defensive style is as masterful as it is spectacular; he’s arguably the most entertaining fighter on this list. But what’s for certain is that his fighting style is definitely unlike that of any other on this list. That said, his career highlights include a controversial draw in his fight against Julio Cesar Chavez, and two controversial losses, one against Jose Luis Ramirez and another against a young Oscar De La Hoya. (http://boxrec.com/en/boxer/555)

Style Analysis

The most unorthodox boxer here, Whitaker crossed his legs, squatted to get low, sat down into the ropes and much more…not to mention he was a southpaw. His defensive toolbox is extremely varied. In general, however, Sweet Pea’s defense consisted of footwork and head movement. Whitaker relied on his footwork at the long- and mid-ranges, while using head movement, like slips, ducks, rolls, and pulls at the mid- and close-ranges. He fought from the half-guard and sometimes used the conventional guard.

There are two distinct modes to Whitaker’s defense. One mode is used when he plans to punch back; the other when he plans to evade and reset the engagement. When Whitaker plans to punch back, his defensive style shifts such that he is ready to punch back, so he would tend to use more conventional footwork and rely on the passive defense of the half-guard, with his rear hand up to block punches coming to that side. When Whitaker plans to evade and reset the engagement, he would be less concerned with being technical; he would use more unorthodox footwork and head movement.

Pernell Whitaker displaying his elusiveness in his fight against Jose Luis Ramirez.

James Toney

Overview: James Toney has a record of 77-10-3. Toney kept fighting for too long, but he was really a great fighter in the 90’s. He started as a Middleweight, becoming the youngest Middleweight champion, and later in his career moved up all the way to Heavyweight. Along the way, he suffered a lost to Roy Jones, Jr. and gained a win against Evander Holyfield. James Toney also used the Philly-shell, and combined it with his strong punching and stalking mentality to create an entertaining style. (http://boxrec.com/en/boxer/1437)

Style Analysis

Fighting out of the orthodox stance, Toney makes use of double wall blocks, ducks, and switches between the half-guard and the Philly-shell. As Toney moves up in weight classes, he tended to use the ducks and the Philly-shell more often. But throughout his career, he has generally used the half-guard for long-range boxing, preferring the philly-shell when boxing mid-range or boxing in the pocket.

What’s different about Toney’s style, compared to Mayweather, is that Toney boxes in a way that complements his power punching. Toney had power in his hands, and he used this advantage in his style. Instead of using many pulls, Toney usually opted to use shoulder rolls to counter-punch. Instead of tying up in the pocket, Toney usually blocked the opponent’s punches. Unlike other defensive boxers, he would stand in front of you and fight, e.g. his fight against Evander Holyfield.

James Toney using much of his defensive toolbox to string together his power punches.

Guillermo Rigondeaux

Rigondeaux defending with his half-guard against Flores’s rear hook.

Overview: The Cuban, whose alias was “El Chacal” but nowadays is “Autism Fighter,” has had an illustrious amateur career. Rigondeaux was a two-time Olympic gold medalist. His professional career, though, is not so decorated, with a major setback when he quit against Vasyl Lomachenko. Regardless of how his pro career turns out, there’s no denying how much of a technical and defensive master he is. Rigondeaux has been compared to Mayweather in his elusiveness and dominated all his competition in the Super Bantamweight division (122lbs). But with his purist style, he is criticized for being boring. (http://boxrec.com/en/boxer/492989)

Style Analysis

Another southpaw, Rigondeaux or Rigo, uses a half-guard and his footwork to set up his jaw-breaking left cross. Rigondeaux’s defense isn’t too varied; it could be said that it’s very simple. At the long-ranges, Rigo blocks his opponent’s punches with his lead hand’s forearm. He keeps his arm bent at almost 90 degrees, so that he can continue to probe. He stays out of range with his wide stance, ready to move back or pivot out of the way. This wide stance is one of the keys to his defense. At the cost of less mobility, this stance lets Rigo 1) move back or pivot quickly, 2) pull back or duck quickly, and 3) shift his weight easily. If you watch Rigo fight, you’d notice how calculated his steps are (he takes relatively small steps and stays just out of his opponent’s range), how much he ducks and pulls while remaining in a duck (this is usually done when he’s trying to reset the engagement), and how he slips to his lead side or pulls back effortlessly.

Rigo’s probing jabs should be mentioned when talking about his defense; they help to inform his footwork, which, as mentioned, generally works to keep him out of his opponent’s range. Much of Rigondeaux’s style depends on timing, i.e. countering with his left hand. So, his defense isn’t as dynamic as that of others on this list. Despite this, he’s just as hard, if not harder, to hit as the rest of the fighters on here.

Wladimir Klitschko


Picture of Klitschko’s long-guard in Joshua vs Klitschko (2017).

Overview: The Ukrainian, Dr. Steelhammer, has had 64 wins and 5 losses. He and his brother, Vitali Klitschko, were arguably the biggest names in heavyweight boxing in the 2000s. His professionalism, ability to remain composed, and right cross were all admired. (http://boxrec.com/en/boxer/7035)

Style Analysis

Klitschko’s style is characterized by the use of a long-guard and jabs to set up his cross. He fought in the orthodox stance, and his guard has frustrated many fighters. What ends up happening in engaging with Klistchko is his opponent would try to close the distance (since Klitschko’s so tall) and would find that Kiltschko’s arms are in the way, with the lead arm probably all in his face, and he can never quite get into range. It may seem like Kiltschko’s style is defensively simple, and you wouldn’t be wrong…but there’s something great about his defense if so many of his opponents have had trouble hitting him.

As mentioned, Klitschko likes to use a long-guard. This lets him use his lead hand’s reach; he probes, and when the distance is closing, he keeps his opponent away by leaving his hand out (shoving it in the opponent’s face). Simple and obvious. But what Klitschko does with his rear hand isn’t so obvious. Klitschko keeps his rear hand very high. At times, it’s doing an unconventional block, where his rear arm is reaching out to block a punch, leaving his head somewhat exposed. He usually does this rear arm block if a hook is coming. Most other times, though, Klitschko keeps his rear hand in front of his face, near his chin, with his elbow up high so that he can quickly block a looping punch. This rear hand position is the main highlight here; the way Klitschko positions it oftentimes makes the opponent’s jabs miss their mark. They get parried (if you can call it that). The incoming jab would slip off Klitschko’s rear hand glove or be directed into his shoulder (or above the shoulder). Combine this with Klitschko’s lead arm, and his tendency to reach out, and you have a hard-to-hit man.

Of course, it isn’t just his guard that makes him avoid punches, but rather it’s how he uses the other elements of his defense in combination with his guard. These other elements are his habit of leaning back and getting his head out the way, his consistent retreating when things aren’t on his terms, and his tactic of becoming more bladed as he does his retreats. While watching Klitschko fight, you may wonder why his opponent doesn’t punish him for having his body so exposed. Part of that is the threat of his right cross…the other part is how these last elements work together to discourage body punching. Just imagine trying to punch one side of his ribs (a small target), while its moving away from you and while his bladed torso puts his solar plexus very much out of range.

It should be noted that Klitschko also has fantastic ring generalship, which helps him stay in his comfort zone (in the middle of the ring). If an opponent caught him against the ropes or manages to close the distance well (and not get tied up), I fear Klitschko’s main defenses would become useless.

Wilfred Benitez

17 year old Wilfred Benitez fighting 30 year old Antonio Cervantes for the Super Lightweight Title.

Overview: Wilfred Benitez had a record of 53-8-1. Hailing from Puerto Rico, Benitez became a champion at 17 years old; the youngest ever champion in boxing. He started his career in the Super Lightweight division (140lbs) and ended up in the Super Welterweight division (154lbs). Benitez is an underrated boxer; although the only great boxer he beat was Roberto Duran, he had immense boxing skill, particularly with regard to his defensive skills. (http://boxrec.com/en/boxer/438)

Style Analysis

I can’t speak on Benitez too much because I don’t know much about him. As you can see below, he is very skilled but because he’s underrated, he’s not talked about as much as others. This means my analysis will be based more on my own perspective of his fighting than others.

Benitez is perhaps one the most conventional and, by extension, versatile fighters on this list. He can fight on the outside, in the pocket, or anywhere in-between. He switches between a conventional guard and a half-guard, but generally he uses a conventional guard. The fights of him that I’ve watched show him using most of the defenses available in boxing, i.e. slips, ducks, blocks, etc. This is why I say he’s versatile; he has relatively more defensive tools in his toolbox than the others, and it shows. I don’t think I need to say much more – just watch the clip of him below, where he defends against an onslaught by Hearns (of all people), and you’ll see why he deserves to be on this list.

El Radar making Hearns more a “Miss Man” than a “Hit Man” in Hearns vs Benitez.

Honorable Mentions (Why aren’t they on the list?)

Nasim Hamed – Hamed had a very unorthodox style, offensively and defensively. Although he had good reflexes to help him pull off some eye-catching defensive maneuvers, at his core, he was not a defensive boxer.

Mike Tyson – Tyson was a knockout artist; his defense, although “impregnable” and undeniably incredible, was meant to support his power punching. He prioritized landing his punches more than not getting hit or countering.

Joe Frazier – Frazier’s bobbing and weaving was very good. He was a machine with it, but his defensive toolbox was also very limited.

Vasyl Lomachenko – Lomachenko could’ve been on this list, but as a boxer, he’s not defined by his defense. He’s more notable for his athleticism, footwork, technical mastery, or whatever else he does incredibly well. To put him on this list is like boxing him in and classifying him as a defensive fighter.

Nicolino Locche – Never heard of him until doing research for this list. I looked up one of his fights on Youtube, and was disappointed (he was not impressive).

Willie Pep – How could I not include the boxer who won a round without throwing a punch? Willie Pep was a great boxer, but I watched up to the 6th round in his fight against Fabela Chavez. I was not impressed. His defense seemed average to me. However, I do recognize that many boxing enthusiasts consider him to be one of the greatest defensive boxers ever…I’m just not one of those enthusiasts.

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