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The 8 Greatest Super Flyweights of All Time:Prologue

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With the mouth watering matchup between WBO super flyweight champion Omar Andrés Narváez and Naoya Inoue only a few weeks away, Kyle McLachlan will take a look at the 8 greatest fighters in the divisions short history. In this prologue, we look at the historical predecessors and genesis of the 115lb weight class.

Vic Darchinyan didn't have too much success above 115lbs, but will he make the top 8?
Vic Darchinyan didn't have too much success above 115lbs, but will he make the top 8?
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

In just over a month, we will see an important bout between the universally recognised best super flyweight in the world, Omar Narváez of Argentina, and a young upstart from Japan, Naoya Inoue, who is making a two division leap from light flyweight, where he is also recognised as the best.

In one sentence, admittedly a rather long one, we have seen the mention of two of boxing's 'bastard' divisions. There are four 'bastards' below nine stone, the featherweight limit, and super flyweight (also known as junior bantamweight) separates the flyweights from the bantams.

Flyweight to bantamweight; Three weight classes set at three pound increments. Everything wrong with modern boxing, eh?

Meet the new boss...Same as the old boss

Although many hark back to the days of yore when eight recognised divisions each housed one champion (which was actually never the case) 115lbs was actually used for a variety of 'championships', be it as the bantamweight limit, or for any number of trinkets such as the 'Paperweight' title held by legendary midget Johnny Coulon.

The standardised weighs as we know them today were set in 1909 by the National Sporting Club in London, although the Americans still tended to use 116lbs as the bantam limit.

In 1915, when the brilliant bantam 'Kid Williams lost to Johnny Ertle on a foul in a title bout set at 116lbs, he continued to defend his title claim at 118lbs, where the National Sporting Club had designated the bantamweight limit back in 1909.

While, constructively at least, Ertle is the champion today, many, if not most, of those who saw the battle believe Williams to be the superior fighter. - The Chicago Tribune

With Ertle's title claim being given little credit, this is where the accepted lineage of the bantamweight championship carries on from, as we have known it in our lifetimes, at 118lbs.

Not that weight mattered much to the flyweights and bantamweights of the past anyway. It was commonplace for all the fighters below the featherweight limit to fight each other.

Jimmy Wilde, the pound-for-pound superstar of the 1910s, weighed in below the modern straw weight limit, yet he fought the best at fly, bantam and even some quality featherweights. The aforementioned Johnny Coulon, only 5 feet tall, often gave up height and weight to fight for variants of the 'Paperweight' or bantam title at 114,115 and 116lbs.

Johnny Coulon, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This trend was never more evident than in the '1920s and '30s, where flyweight standouts such as Frankie Genaro, Pancho Villa, Fidel Labarba, Newsboy Brown and countless others faced the best bantamweights of the day, such as 'Bud' Taylor and 'Panama' Al Brown. These bantams had grown into the higher class from flyweight anyway, and in a day where you started young and fought regularly, a few pounds didn't make much of a difference.

This pattern continued for much of the 20th century. Flyweight champions such as Walter McGowan, Salvatore Burruni, Masahiko 'Fighting' Harada and Efren Torres fought the dangerous bantams of the 1960s, such as Eder Jofre, Jose Medel, Ruben Olivares and Alan Rudkin. With both weight classes stacked with talent, it didn't require much of a push to get these proud fighting men in the ring with each other.

So why even introduce a weight class in between in the first place?

The Genesis

Junior bantamweight/super flyweight was one of the last weight divisions added below featherweight, coming after light flyweight (1975) and super bantamweight (originally around in the '20s but properly introduced in 1976) but before straw/minimumweight (1987).

In 1981, a year after the 115lb class had been officially inaugurated, Sports Illustrated touched on the influx of new weight divisions, seemingly pointing at WBC head honcho Jose Sulaiman, with some sarcasm, as bringing them in out of the goodness of his heart,

Clearly there aren't enough quality fighters around to justify so many divisions, but Sulaiman has his reasons--humanitarian reasons, he says. Citing the super bantamweights (119 to 122 pounds), Sulaiman says, "We have made it easy for the fighters. Where were the 122-pounders? You never saw them. They were either in a steam bath getting down to 118 [bantam] or overeating to get up to 126 [featherweight]. We don't just want fighters: we want human beings."

In a breath, the same publication touched on what they felt were the real reasons for the introduction of more weight divisions,

The additional divisions also mean additional sanction fees, additional fighters' purses to be cut, additional junkets and additional ratings to be parceled out. In every title fight the WBC takes 1 1/2% of the champion's purse and 1% of the challenger's. In his last four championship fights, Sugar Ray Leonard, for example,
paid the WBC no less than $300,000 in sanction fees.

It's not like there weren't swelling ranks in both the flyweight and bantamweight classes in 1980 when foundation for a middle ground between two of the most historically brilliant weight classes was laid down.

But why not in the 1960s, when it was even more jam packed with talent?

The story goes that Latin American and Oriental governing bodies pressurised the World Boxing Council to create a new weight division to give more opportunities to their fighters.

With the Oriental and Pacific Boxing Federation having strong ties to the WBC, and Venezuela not yet the home of rival WBA, the first title fight in the junior bantamweight division was made between Venezuelan bantamweight champion Rafael Orono, coming down three pounds, and Seung-Hoon Lee, of South Korea, who was coming up from flyweight, where he was the domestic champion.

Orono, unbeaten in ten fights, and Lee, 11-2, might not have been the best fighters from either fly or bantam that could conceivably make the weight class, but on the 2nd of February, 1980, they found themselves in a world title fight.

The Korean was game, but Orono, big for the weight, proved too strong, and he became the first ever junior bantamweight champion.

A little under a year after Orono had won the title, Sports Illustrated touched on just why a 10-0 bantamweight with no world level experience found himself in the inaugural title fight for a new division when investigating how Fulgencio Obelmejias managed to earn a title shot with unified middleweight champion Marvin Hagler,

The No. 1 contender's manager is Rafito Cedeino, a force in Venezuelan boxing and a friend of both WBC President Jose Sulaiman and WBA President Rodrigo Sanchez. In the past few months no fewer than six of Cedeino's fighters have been in title fights; five lost. The lone victor was Rafael Orono, the WBC superflyweight champion, who beat Jovito Regnifo, who is also in the Cedeino stable in Caracas. Cedeino not only had both fighters in that one, he was also the promoter. Nice guy to have in your corner if you're looking to be No. 1.

So Orono may have been fortunate to have such strong contacts. The division, not really recognised as an important one, was wide open and it was easy enough to slot in someone whose face fit.

In 1981, Sports Illustrated touched on the influx of new weight divisions, seemingly pointing at WBC head honcho Jose Sulaiman, with some sarcasm, as bringing them in out of the goodness of his own heart,

Clearly there aren't enough quality fighters around to justify so many divisions, but Sulaiman has his reasons--humanitarian reasons, he says. Citing the super bantamweights (119 to 122 pounds), Sulaiman says, "We have made it easy for the fighters. Where were the 122-pounders? You never saw them. They were either in a steam bath getting down to 118 [bantam] or overeating to get up to 126 [featherweight]. We don't just want fighters: we want human beings."

Just a few sentences later, the same publication touched on what they felt were the real reasons for the introduction of more weight divisions,

The additional divisions also mean additional sanction fees, additional fighters' purses to be cut, additional junkets and additional ratings to be parceled out. In every title fight the WBC takes 1 1/2% of the champion's purse and 1% of the challenger's. In his last four championship fights, Sugar Ray Leonard, for example,
paid the WBC no less than $300,000 in sanction fees.

So if the new division was merely an exercise in money-grabbing, then how would any prestige be attached to the championship?

It didn't take long before a clear champion was established, and one that could bring pride to the division.

First true champion, title lineage & The Ring rankings

When boxing was dominated by America, or at least fighters based in America, The Ring magazine's rankings were close to definitive. For any budding historian looking to see who was thought of as the best in the division, these rankings are an invaluable tool, the ebb and flow of an era easily visible at the surface.

With the super flyweights you'll have to swim through murkier waters to find what you're looking for.

The Ring didn't recognise the 115lbers in their own division until a nine years after it started. Instead, they were lumped in with the bantamweights.

The WBA introduced their version of the junior bantamweight title eighteen months after the WBC created the division, and even though the WBC had given the division life, The Ring felt that WBA champion Jiro Watanabe was the superior champion, which at this point shouldn't have raised too many gripes among those who cared.

So in 1984, when he opted to unify with the WBC's champion, now Payao Poontarat of Thailand who had defeated Rafael Orono by decision, the merging of the these two divisions should be seen as the time when a true number one was established.

The IBF, a young upstart at this time, were merely using their title to establish a foothold in newer markets. Although they would gain traction this year by convincing the top champions north of featherweight to accept their title in exchange for lower sanctioning fees, they had no such luck in the lower weight classes, and although there were good fighters holding their belt they were mediocre champions.

Ergo, when Jiro Watanabe defeated Payao Poontarat by decision, he established the first true lineage of the super flyweight championship.

This is where it gets slightly confusing. Threatened by the WBA of being stripped if he chose to unify, which he did, Watanabe found himself with only one championship after his victory.

Upon unifying the titles, Watanabe's claim should have been stronger, and the man who beat him, Gilberto Roman, should've been seen as the man to beat in the division.

And for a while he was. The July 1986 issue of The Ring has Gilberto Roman ranked at third in the bantamweight rankings, behind only Gaby Canizales and Miguel 'Happy' Lora, the actual bantamweight titlists.

Khaosai Galaxy, the WBA champion, is behind Roman in the same rankings, and Jiro Watanabe, soon to retire but not yet officially out of the game, sits behind Khaosai.

All perfectly reasonable.

Despite this, when former flyweight champion Santos Laciar defeated Roman ten months later, The Ring chose to rank Khaosai, who only picked up a vacant title in the wake of Watanabe being stripped, as their number one, despite not beating anyone of a higher class than Roman was defeating prior to his loss, nor having beaten 'the man' as Laciar had. He remained above Laciar, Roman and all subsequent lineal champions until the end of his career.

In the days before the internet, only trading video tapes would allow you to see fighters that weren't on your local station. Although he was featured on British television, Khaosai's legend mainly spread due to word of mouth, and by people who were wowed by reading reports of a knockout artist in a far away land.

Disputing his place atop the rankings is not revisionist history. If anything, The Ring were changing history themselves, and this is merely putting things right.

The true title lineage of the super flyweight division remained unbroken from 1984 until 2006, when Japanese boxer, Masamori Tokuyama retired as champion.

The Ring treated their rankings like a game of favourites after Khaosai Galaxy retired. In the same era where they rated Roy Jones Jr as their champion despite him not beating their previous number one ranked light heavyweight, without a legendary knockout puncher in the Far East they instead ranked Western fighters as the number one in the lower divisions, even if they had picked up a vacant bauble and faced uninspiring competition.

Examples of this include Robert Quiroga, who was a fan friendly fighter and IBF champion who had faced generally uninspiring opposition. The Ring didn't stop at awarding Quiroga the 1991 'Fight of the Year', for his admittedly epic bout with Akeem Anifowoshe, but put Quiroga at the top of the heap after he completed his first year as 'champion'. This is despite Sung-Kil Moon, the lineal champion being behind Khaosai Galaxy before the legendary Thai retired.

The Ring recognised Moon as the number one a year later, but only sporadically recognised the lineal champ as the man to beat in the division after that, despite the crown being consistently held by top notch operators beating challengers of high quality.

Of course, there are instances when a new champion can be crowned without fighting the lineal champion. If the true champion fights poor opponents, whilst the secondary titlist is taking out all the top contenders, it can be argued that they have superseded the previously established champion. An easy example would be Samuel Serrano, the lineal super featherweight champion in the late '70s, who fought fringe contenders at best (and even lost to one of them) and Alexis Arguello, who beat a who's who of the division at the time. As has been said before by boxing scribes, the fighter makes the belt, not the other way round.

At 115lbs, this was never the case. The Ring's rankings, in this instance at least, should not be taken as gospel where the champion is concerned.

How I approach rankings

Of course, the top eight super flyweights of all time were not all the true champion. Some fighters parlayed their 'world title' trinket into bouts with formidable, ranked opponents, and will be ranked accordingly and recognised for their achievements.

There are a few respected historians who rank top quality contenders (which is all a 'titlist' is if they're not the number one) who faced better opposition higher than the champions of their era. You won't find many who will argue that Charley Burley wasn't a better welterweight than Fritzie Zivic, and only recently Matt McGrain of Boxing.com held his head high (or should that be kept his chin tucked in?) when he made the case for Harry Wills being a greater heavyweight than Jack Dempsey.

When I rank fighters, I look at the level of opposition beaten first and foremost. There is no better indication of a fighters ability than by proving it against the top fighters in their division.

Consistency is also important, especially in meaningful title fights.

There is no mathematical equation here. Each fighter discussed will have the positives and negatives of their time in the division brought to the fore.

So who will rank highest in the 115lb division? Will Khaosai Galaxy's long unbeaten run and double-digit title defences see him ranked higher than Gerry Penalosa, who managed a few defences of the lineal championship but had a patchier record? Will Johnny Tapia receive recognition for his undefeated record at the weight despite never winning the true championship? Will Jiro Watanabe's deserved reign as unified champion hold much weight once we investigate its quality? Will Rafael Orono make the eight as the first champ in the division, or was his reign lacking a certain je ne sais quoi to elevate it from the ordinary to the extraordinary?

Before we separate the good from the very good, the very good from the great, and the great from the immortals, we will take a look at those who didn't quite make the cut but who deserve recognition for their body of work at the weight.

Come back for part two, the honourable mentions.

No punches will be pulled.