The history of the middleweight division is overflowing with legendary names. Sugar Ray Robinson. Harry Greb. Carlos Monzon. Marvin Hagler. So many others. It’s one of the great divisions in boxing history, full of glory, memorable champions, and big fights.
Going over all of it is a task for a book — a big one. But with tonight’s big fight between lineal champion Canelo Alvarez and triple titleholder Gennady Golovkin just hours away, let’s look at at least the modern history, where the lineal middleweight championship has been this century, starting with one of the all-time greats, and one of his biggest wins.
Bernard Hopkins won the vacant championship on September 29, 2001, stopping Felix “Tito” Trinidad in the 12th round of a much-hyped fight at Madison Square Garden, which Hopkins had pretty much dominated. At the time of the stoppage, Bernard led on scores of 107-102, 107-102, and 109-100. Coming in, Hopkins held the WBC and IBF middleweight titles, while Trinidad had the WBA belt.
It was Hopkins who set the tone for the modern middleweight division, really, dominating as he did from the time he won his first belt (IBF) against Segundo Mercado in 1995, until losing that title and the rest of the belts he would pick up over the next decade.
After beating Trinidad, Hopkins would make successful defenses in 2002-04 against Carl Daniels, Morrade Hakkar, William Joppy, and Robert Allen, before a huge money showdown with Oscar De La Hoya at a 158-pound catchweight on September 18, 2004. Hopkins famously knocked a brave but small De La Hoya out in the ninth round with a brutal body shot, gaining De La Hoya’s WBO title and unifying all four belts in the division.
Hopkins made his final successful defense on February 19, 2005, beating Howard Eastman by decision in Los Angeles. After losing the middleweight championship, Hopkins stunned the boxing world by moving up two weight classes and becoming the light heavyweight champion, dismantling Antonio Tarver. His career would be somewhat up and down in terms of wins and losses for the next 10 years, but Hopkins fought competitively up until he was almost 50 years old. He lost his last two fights clearly, at age 49 to Sergey Kovalev in 2014, and age 51 to Joe Smith Jr in 2016.
It was young Arkansas fighter Jermain Taylor who would finally — and controversially — dethrone Hopkins on July 16, 2005, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
Taylor, then a month shy of his 28th birthday, defeated Hopkins on split decision scores of 115-113, 115-113, and 112-116, kicking up plenty of debate, enough that an immediate rematch was pretty much impossible to avoid.
“Bad Intentions” repeated, again with plenty of question about the outcome, on December 3, 2005, beating Hopkins on unanimous scores of 115-113. Both fights were competitive and tough to score.
Taylor’s reign never lived up to its promise, despite healthy hype and the hope that he would use the wins over B-Hop to springboard into true stardom as the new, young king of the glory division. He fought to a draw in June 2006 against Winky Wright, and then had a pair of fairly listless performances in decision wins over Kassim Ouma and Cory Spinks, both of whom were really 154-pound fighters.
Taylor’s career pretty much collapsed after losing the championship, and in recent years he’s unfortunately been more known for his legal troubles. He last fought in 2014, actually once again winning the IBF middleweight title against Sam Soliman. It seems unlikely we’ll see him in a ring again, though you never really know for sure.
Kelly Pavlik, a 25-year-old slugger from Youngstown, Ohio, burst onto the world boxing scene for real on September 29, 2007, when he rallied in a barnburner to knock out Jermain Taylor and win the middleweight championship of the world.
Pavlik was the underdog in the fight, and for good reason — Taylor was, on paper, more skilled, a better athlete, and the proven man in big fights. But in retrospect, Jermain was ripe for the picking, and Kelly Pavlik was the right fighter at the right time, with the right approach.
The two even met in a non-title, 164-pound catchweight rematch in February 2008, with Pavlik winning again, that time by decision.
Like Taylor, Pavlik’s title reign never truly got out of the blocks, a disappointment that failed to capitalize on the big buzz created by his championship victory. He defended against overmatched fringe contenders Gary Lockett, Marco Antonio Rubio, and Miguel Espino in 2008-09, but in the middle of those fights, he took a money bout with Hopkins at a 170-pound catchweight, and was soundly thrashed over 12 rounds. Pavlik’s career never seemed to really recover from that.
After losing the championship in 2010, Pavlik had his own issues outside of the ring, and fought just four more times in 2011-12, beating Alfonso Lopez, Aaron Jaco, Scott Sigmon, and Will Rosinsky. He last fought on July 7, 2012, and announced his retirement in early 2013.
It was Argentina’s Sergio Martinez who came along and took the championship from Pavlik, on April 17, 2010, just months after taking a debated decision loss in a great fight against Paul Williams.
Martinez had been a substitute opponent for Williams, and wasn’t the first choice to face Pavlik, either. Though small by middleweight standards, and perhaps naturally a junior middleweight, Martinez’s awkward style, skill, and speed gave the very basic Pavlik fits over 12 rounds, and in the end, Sergio left as the new king of the 160-pound division.
His first defense came seven months later, when he quite famously knocked Paul Williams out cold in a rematch. Defenses against Serhiy Dzinziruk and Darren Barker came in 2011, and Matthew Macklin fell against Martinez in early 2012, setting up a big money fight for Martinez against popular/famous/coddled Julio Cesar Chavez Jr on September 15, 2012.
Martinez, frankly, embarrassed Chavez in that fight, until the 12th round, when Chavez dropped Martinez, who hurt his knee in the process. Sergio made it through the round and won on clear scores of 117-110, 118-109, and 118-109.
He made his next defense of the championship in April 2013, facing Martin Murray at home in Buenos Aires. Martinez clearly struggled against the aggressive, tough Murray, and once again we had a debate on our hands. Martinez won on unanimous scores of 115-112, despite going down in the eighth round.
But that fight — if not the 12th round against Chavez — was really a harbinger. Martinez faced Miguel Cotto on June 7, 2014, after 14 months off, and was a shell of his former self. Cotto dropped Sergio three times in the first round, and it was clear that Martinez was a hobbled man, fighting essentially on one leg, cashing out. It was the final fight of his career.
If Martinez was small for a middleweight, Cotto was tiny. But again, it was a case of right place, right time for the Puerto Rican superstar, one of boxing’s biggest names in this century.
Cotto made just one defense, stopping Australia’s Daniel Geale in the fourth round on June 6, 2015, before losing the championship via decision to Canelo Alvarez on November 21, 2015.
Now 36, Cotto returned to action recently and even has his sights set on facing the Canelo-GGG winner as he looks to end his career in December.
And here’s where we are now, with Canelo Alvarez as the reigning middleweight champion of the world, despite having never fought at a 160-pound limit.
Alvarez defended his middleweight championship in a 155-pound catchweight fight on May 7, 2016, knocking out blown up welterweight Amir Khan in the sixth round of a predictable (albeit entertaining) fight. He returned to the 154-pound ranks last September, beating Liam Smith for the WBO junior middleweight title, then cashed in for a 164-pound catchweight win over Julio Cesar Chavez Jr this past May.
Now, he faces Gennady Golovkin, the man who has really been dominating this division for the last five years. Neither man is old or worn out or injured or anything else. Some argue that Golovkin is perhaps past his prime, based mostly on his struggles against Daniel Jacobs in March, but Jacobs is a hell of a fighter himself.
If Alvarez wins, he establishes himself as the true middleweight champion of the world, a claim that has been met with healthy skepticism for the last 22 months. If Golovkin wins, he proves that he was really The Man at 160 all along.
Either way, we should be in for a tremendous middleweight championship bout, one that, if all goes well, could go down in history as a truly great fight, one that really meant something.