The 7 Greatest Defensive Boxers Of All Time

You can't knock out what you can't hit.
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1. Pernell Whitaker

There were always two lines of thought that ran about the career of Pernell Whitaker in boxing circles. The first would be the sort of ignorance that would be aimed at a modern day Floyd Mayweather in that he was a spoiler. Someone who could suck the aggression out of a fight and reduce boxing to little more than sequinned line dancing.

Alternatively however, and probably more true was the second thing people would say about the Virginia lightweight, that he was a technical genius. Floating around the ring in the late eighties and early nineties he was a fighter that seemed an anomaly in the golden age of explosive world boxing. Where the poster boys were all fury and gritted teeth, Whitaker fought like he was composing a secret symphony in the ring.

For a long period he bore that philosophy out too. He even managed to bamboozle one of the greatest fighters of the entire period in Julio Cesar Chavez in a fight that was as one sided as it was controversial. After it was called an infamous draw, Sports Illustrated ran a famous front page headline that simply said 'Robbed'. It kind of summed Pernell Whitaker up perfectly. He was so unique they often didn't even know how to score him properly.

2: James Toney

One of the most naturally gifted fighters ever to step into the ring in the modern era, Toney riffed on the old school ethics of the sweet science with a quiet, fearsome obsession.

Combining raw power with a lack of temperance that rubbed up many in the fight game the wrong way, he rarely ducked anybody and refused to turn down the volume on his style even in training. His sparring sessions alone were said to be brutal, with Toney going flat out and medieval with his gym partners in sessions that were simply extraordinary.

It was his sublime defensive skills that were his real secret weapon. however. Toney used angles like a pool hustler. It allowed him to get in close and throw punches that even today seem other wordly. At his peak he was virtually unbeatable in a middleweight division that was simply brilliant. Toney fought and beat most of them not through particular brutality or determination but simply because he was cleverer than virtually all of them put together. The fact that he would eventually come unstuck against a peak Roy Jones shouldn't detract from his legacy either. Jones in that period was a fight genius. Probably unbeatable in fact.

3: Herol Graham

Alongside Kirkland Laing and the welsh tornado Colin Jones, Herol Graham was one of the greatest British boxers never to win a world title.

His languid, strange style often made him look like he was swaying to some unseen rhythm, but inside the ring it was more than just jive. Graham was like a ghost between the ropes, securing British and European middleweight titles and becoming a distinctive and household name to British boxing fans in the process.

Alas, he fell perilously short on winning a world title on three occasions. As much of a defensive genius that Graham was he just didn't have that extra gear needed in reaching the pinnacle of world boxing. As a famous quote by Eddie Shaw that summed him up best reminds us: 'Herol Graham turned boxing into a poetic art. Unfortunately no one ever knocked anyone out with a poem.'

4: Floyd Mayweather

'Like trying to hit a fly with a window pole,' is how one beleaguered opponent described chasing around the ring trying to tag Floyd Mayweather in a title fight.

From his very beginnings the self proclaimed golden boy of boxing has always been cut from a different cloth from other fighters. With the ability to control the mph of a fight as if he's pressing on an invisible accelerator, Mayweather is so schooled in the art of hitting and not being hit that you almost see the determination draining out of his opponents eyes as they chase around an ever increasing shadow.

It says everything that Mayweather has had to defend himself more vociferously outside of the ring than he ever has inside it. His vainglorious narcissism may not be to everyone's tastes - but make no mistake he's arguably the greatest defensive boxer of all time. A man who even if you threw him into a pit of vipers blindfolded, he'd probably come out smiling without a bite mark on him.

5: Willie Pep

Rated the sixth greatest fighter of all time by the late, great boxing historian Bert Sugar, Willie Pep's name has never really disappeared out of American history due to the amount of references made to him both in literature, TV and pop culture.

The 1920's featherweight would have an astonishing 245 fights in his career but that record isn't an example of his steely durability but simply the fact that very few could hit him.

Pep no doubt laid the defensive foundations which most modern day gliders now walk over. His genius was such that he even once managed to win a round in a contest without throwing a single punch. He even had a brilliant sense of humour too. When doctors in his later life told him that his diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease was because of his vast boxing career he dryly replied. 'It couldn't be because I never got punched in the ring did I.'

6: Bernard Hopkins

Without a doubt one of the most intelligent middleweights of all time, Hopkins at his peak was a sublime craftsman who could execute a game plan and control a fight with sublime ease.

Always the underdog in the so called middleweight super contests, Hopkins would constantly end up victorious with tactics that were meticulously drawn out like a maths professor.

A master of using space and whip hand timing, Hopkins had this un-nerving ability to draw in his opponent into his spiders web before unleashing rapier combinations that were like lightning hitting ice.

Such were his defensive skills on top of that ability, that it would be in 2015 and at the age of 49 before he would be truly dominated in the ring from start to finish by a younger opponent in the form of light heavyweight Sergey Kovalev. A pretty extraordinary feat by any boxing standards.

7: Sugar Ray Leonard

Ray Leonard might seem a confusing choice considering his wars in his first fights with Hearn's and Duran, but really that was more a matter of him trying to show his steel in the ring rather than any lack of ability defensively.

Any fighter that out slicks a boxing genius like Wilfred Benitez and reduces both Duran and Hagler to mere shadows of themselves should be lauded for both their agility and defensive ring craft. Leonard had both in his armoury and could easily have been the Floyd Mayweather of his day. It's just that sometimes he liked to go toe to toe and trade. That was just the entertainer and lion in him and doesn't detract from the fact that he deserves a place on this list.