By: Patrick Mascoe
Anytime you create a list like this you are really just asking for an argument. So let me apologize right now. Judging fighters from different eras is extremely difficult and highly subjective. For example, I have only seen two of the fighters on this list fight in the ring. The others fought well before I was ever conceived and are known, not from what I have witnessed but from what I have read regarding the history of boxing. It can also be argued that most of Canada’s greatest boxers are not even Canadian. So, for the purpose of this list, the definition of a Canadian boxer is anyone who was born in Canada or moved to Canada at a young age and has called Canada home. This means one of two things: Canada as a nation has not produced a lot of home grown talent or Canada is a land of opportunity for those who wish to pursue a career in boxing. Let’s go with the second option.
If you are a Canadian reading this list, you will notice one glaring omission. George Chuvalo, who is easily Canada’s most famous boxer, was not necessarily one of our greatest boxers. Chuvalo twice challenged for the heavyweight title but lost both times by decision. In 93 professional fights, Chuvalo was never knocked down and that includes fighting the likes of Muhammad Ali (twice), George Forman, Joe Frazier, Cleveland Williams, Jimmy Ellis, and Buster Mathis. What keeps George Chuvalo off this list, and makes him an honourable mention, is that unlike all the other fighters on this list, he was never inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. However, any man who went fifteen rounds with Muhammad Ali and then bragged, “When it was all over, he was the guy who went to the hospital because he was pissing blood. Me? I went dancing with my wife” deserves to be mentioned when talking about Canadian boxers.
Without further ado, here is my countdown of Canada’s 5 greatest boxers of all-time:
5. Arturo Gatti (1972- 2009): Arturo Gatti was born in Cassino, Italy, but moved to Montreal as a child and eventually competed as a member of Canada’s National Boxing Team before deciding to turn pro. Gatti was known as a blood and guts fighter who possessed power in both hands. He was also extremely resilient and absorbed incredible amounts of punishment before coming back and winning fights he had no right to win. To say that he had a fan-friendly style is an understatement. Gatti was not great in the traditional sense. He did not have Pernell Whittaker’s defence. He did not have Ali’s speed. Nor did he have Mayweather’s technical skill. What he had was a warrior’s spirit and an entertaining style that made fans love him. He was a fearless all-action fighter. He held the IBF Jr. Lightweight Title from 1995-1998 and the WBC Super Lightweight Title from 2004-2005. He retired with a record of 40-9. Gatti was involved in the Ring’s “Fight of the Year” on four different occasions. Arturo Gatti may very well have been the most exciting fighter of his generation.
4. Jimmy McLarnin (1907 – 2004): McLarnin was born in Ireland and moved to Canada at the age of three. He took up boxing at the age of ten. Three years later he caught the eye of a former professional boxer named Charles Foster who believed McLarnin would one day be a world champion. McLarnin started his professional career fighting in Vancouver but was dissatisfied by the low pay and decided to pursue his craft in the United States. His youthful appearance was a hindrance, so he had to lie about his age. However, once in the ring there was no mistaking his power. It was for that reason he was known as the “Baby-faced Assassin.”
In 1928, he had a title shot against world lightweight champion, Sammy Mandell, but lost the fight by decision. Despite the fact that he beat Mandell twice in the following two years, as well as knocking out Benny Leonard, one of the greatest fighters of all-time, he was made to wait five years before getting another shot at the title. This time, when his opportunity came, he made the most of it by knocking out Young Corbett III in the first round to win the world welterweight title. He would lose his title to Barney Ross, then win it back again in a rematch, only to lose it again in their third match. Unlike many boxers of that era, McLarnin decided to retire while still at the top of his game. In his final two fights, he defeated hall of famers Tony Canzoneri and Lou Ambers. Despite many generous offers, McLarnin refused to come out of retirement. He certainly didn’t need the money as he had invested wisely and was a very wealthy man.
3. Tommy Burns (1881 – 1955): Tommy Burns is the only Canadian-born boxer to ever hold the world heavyweight title. He was born in Hanover, Ontario in 1881. Burns was an extremely small heavyweight, standing only 5 ft. 7 in. tall and weighing 175 pounds. In 1906, Burns was a 2 to 1 underdog when he faced heavyweight champion Marvin Hart. Not only did Burns win the heavyweight title, he went on to defend it eleven times.
Tommy Burns was a man well ahead of his time. Historically, his legacy should be far greater than it is. He is known as the boxer who was defeated by Jack Johnson, who became the first fighter of African descent to win the heavyweight title. As much as history recognizes Johnson’s feat, Burns also deserves a great deal of credit, as he was the first white boxer willing to put the heavyweight title on the line against a fighter of colour. At a time when boxing was almost completely divisive and no white fighter wanted anything to do with Jack Johnson, Tommy Burns had fought half a dozen bouts versus black boxers. He hired and worked out with black sparring partners, and was married for a time to a black woman. He claimed that he would defend his title against all comers and that no one was barred. “I propose to be the champion of the world. If I am not the best man in the heavyweight division then I don’t want the title.” Without this attitude of inclusion, Jack Johnson might not have been given the chance to make history. Johnson said as much in 1909, when he addressed an audience in Vancouver, saying that Burns deserved credit for being the only white heavyweight fighter willing to give a black man a chance to fight for the title.
Although Tommy Burns retired from boxing a wealthy man, he lost everything in the Stock Market Crash of 1929. He ended his career taking jobs as an insurance salesman and security guard. He died at the age of 73 of a heart attack.
2. Samuel Langford (1883 – 1956): According to ESPN, Sam Langford was the “Greatest Fighter Nobody Knows.” Born in Weymouth Falls, Nova Scotia, Canada, Langford started his pro career fighting out of Boston. This explains why he was known as the Boston Bonecrusher, the Boston Terror, and the infamous Boston Tar Baby. Despite standing only 5 ft. 7 ½ in., Langford fought from lightweight to heavyweight. Even though he always gave up either height or weight, he only lost 29 times out of an alleged 300 professional fights. The legendary, Jack Dempsey, once described Samual Langford as the greatest fighter we ever had.
One year after turning professional, Langford defeated World Lightweight Champion Joe Gans in a 15-round non-title fight. On April 26th, 1906 Langford fought future World Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson. Langford gave up 30 pounds to Johnson and lost a 15-round decision. Apparently, Langford showed enough skill in that first fight to make sure that there would never be a rematch. Throughout his career, Johnson repeatedly refused to fight Langford, even though he was considered by many to be Johnson’s most dangerous challenger. Battling Jim Johnson, a man Langford had beaten nine times and had never lost to, was given a title shot against Jack Johnson, while Langford was left waiting. Langford never did get a rematch against Jack Johnson. When Jack Johnson, the baddest man on the planet, avoids you like the plague, then you know you possess greatness.
1. Lennox Lewis (1965 – Present): Lewis was born in London, England and moved to Canada at the age of 12. He represented Canada at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, winning a gold medal. He defeated Riddick Bowe in the final. After winning his first 22 professional fights, he was once again slated to fight Bowe, this time for his WBC Heavyweight Title. Rather than face Lewis, Bowe vacated the title and Lewis was declared the new champion. After defending his title three times, he suffered an upset loss to Oliver McCall. On February 7th 1997, Lewis got his revenge by stopping McCall in the fifth round and regaining the WBC Title.
On March 13th, 1999, Lewis faced WBA and IBF Heavyweight Champion Evander Holyfield. Lewis clearly won the match, out landing Holyfield 348 to 130, but somehow the match was declared a draw. A rematch was immediately ordered and this time the judges saw what everyone else in attendance saw – a clear unanimous decision victory for Lewis. He defended his titles three more times before again being upset by an underdog named Hasim Rahman. He fought Rahman again in an immediate rematch and won back his titles by way of 5th round knockout. He fought twice more after that, knocking out International Boxing Hall of Fame fighters Mike Tyson in 8 rounds and Vitali Klitschko in 6 rounds. Lennox Lewis retired with a 41-2-1 record and rebounded to defeat the only two men to ever beat him. Lewis, along with Ingemar Johansson and Rocky Marciano, are the only world heavyweight champions to retire with victories over every man they ever faced as a professional.