Does the name make the fighter or does the fighter make the name? In the modern era of boxing (after the bare knuckle era that came to an end with the Marquess of Queensberry rules) the practice of using nicknames goes back to at least the first Heavyweight Champion of the world, John L. Sullivan, who had a dozen names—my favorites being: “His Fistic Highness” and “The Hercules of the Ring.” Virtually every boxer since Sullivan has either adopted a moniker of his own, or had one thrust upon him. Over the long history of the squared circle, there have been countless nicknames. Choosing the ten greatest among them is a daunting and maybe even a Sisyphean task. But if there is one thing that boxing fans can appreciate, it’s the guts of the underdog giving it his all in a fight he knows he’s already lost. With the example of those brave souls in mind, let’s talk about the 10 greatest boxing nicknames of all time.
This list is a balance between great names and great boxers. Not all great boxers have had memorable nicknames and not all unknowns have bad ones. On this all-time list I've tried to balance the historical significance of certain names against the pure badassedness of others. Without further ado here they are.
"The Human Punching Bag"
Although countless fighters over the years have been referred to as a human punching bag because of their fighting style, or lack thereof, only one boxer actually was announced with that name, Joe Grim. Like a lot of the names above, this moniker is immediately impacting, but Grim is at best a footnote or parenthetical in the annals of boxing history. He just doesn't measure up against the competition and therefore doesn't make it on the list.
Pernell Whitaker's nickname is one of my favorites. Watching a highlight of his defensive skills, the name Sweet Pea rolls of the tongue effortlessly. It captured him perfectly. But it is a derivative of the other saccharine moniker, that in my mind, stands alone. There's only room for one sweet-style nickname on my list, and that belongs to Sugar Ray Robinson.
"The Bayonne Bleeder"
I'm a sucker for accurate alliteration. Chuck Wepner was born in Bayonne, New Jersey, and as anyone who's seen his fights knows, Wepner was a bleeder of epic proportions. The scar tissue that developed on his eye brows turned into razors from the inside, making it easy for old cuts to split open. But the name doesn't make the list because even though it's a good pseudonym, it's not good enough to balance out Wepner's subpar accomplishments inside the ring. His claim to fame is knocking down Ali once in their 1975 fight and later becoming the inspiration for Sylvester Stalone's "Rocky." That's just not enough to make the list.
Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion belongs on several lists in boxing: greatest heavyweights, best defensive fighters, and all-time greats, but not on this one. His nicknames, like those of many other black fighters of the early 1900s, are or verge on simply being racist. Unlike many of the names above that are celebratory, names like "The Boston Tar Baby"—that belonged to Sam Langford, a heavyweight so fearsome that Jack Johnson unabashedly avoided fighting him after he won the heavyweight title—were never meant to accentuate the good of boxers. They highlighted race above boxing, and that sin cannot be forgiven and certainly not given an accolade. Yet, it’s necessary to recognize where we were to know truly where we are. Words have power. From Johnson’s and Langford’s nicknames to Floyd Mayweather, who changed his moniker from “Pretty Boy” to “Money” three-quarters of the way through his career, the boxing world, and the society who watches it, who marvels at what humans can do inside the ring, have changed immensely.
Now for the actual list...
10) Big Daddy
I know I’m going to get a lot of grief about this pick, but hear me out. Let’s start with the obvious: Riddick “Big Daddy” Bowe is a two-time Heavyweight champion that was the first man to defeat Evander “The Real Deal” Holyfield to become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world (meaning he held the WBC, WBA, and IBF titles at the same time). Leading up to his fight with Holyfield George Foreman said of Bowe: “Anyone who faces Riddick Bowe is crazy. I'd have to be crazy. My advice to all other heavyweights is to leave Riddick Bowe alone." Big Daddy’s record is 43-1 (1 NC). He has defeated every fighter he’s ever faced, except Buster Mathis, Jr., who Bowe knocked out illegally, resulting in a no-contest. Bowe’s only loss came in a rematch again Holyfield, who Bowe defeated in their first meeting.
But Big Daddy deserves a spot on the list because few other names in history have more creatively, and playfully, described the size of a boxer. There are dozens of boxers who have been called [City] Giant, or Giant from [City]. It’s a common formula. Often accurately descriptive but ultimately, boring. Bowe was 6 foot 5 inches, with an 81-inch reach, and was known to balloon in weight easily, especially once he won the belt in 1992. As one would expect from any big daddy, Bowe indulged in the life that boxing afforded him. Hall of fame career, easily understood creative nickname, and harmony between boxer and moniker, yeah, Big Daddy deserves a spot on the list.
9) The Black Destroyer
As with most names on this list, the Black Destroyer nickname captured much about what made the boxer who held the name famous. Earnie Shavers was one of the most feared heavyweights of the 1970s. He is widely considered one of the hardest punchers of all time. Ali said Shavers punched him so hard that it "shook my kinfolk back in Africa." With an endorsement like that adding the Black Destroyer (74-14-1, 76.4 KO%) to the list is a no brainer.
8) The Jewel of the Ghetto
Despite the fact that boxing is often referred to as “a way out” of impoverished conditions, few, if any, nicknames ever highlight that reality. Perhaps it makes sense because fighters enter the ring trying to escape that past, so it seem contradictory to bring that past into the ring. That’s at least partially why this name stands out. It reminded everyone where Ruby Goldstein came from. Goldstein was a hero of the New York Jewish community in the 1920s and 30s. His contemporary, and greatest Jewish boxer of all time, Benny Leonard, nearly made it on this list with his nickname, “Ghetto Wizard,” for many of the same reasons as Goldstein. But in the battle of names, the Jewel shines just a bit brighter than the Wizard.
7) Homicide Hank
For many, Henry Armstrong, is the greatest fighter of all time not named Sugar Ray Robinson. He has the distinction of being the only fighter in history to hold three titles at once, and that was back when there were only 8 titles to begin with! In recent times, Armstrong’s name was resurrected by those looking for an appropriate historical reference point with which to compare Manny Pacquiao’s all-action punches-in-bunches fighting style. It was a lofty compliment to bestow on Pacquiao. Armstrong was, in the words of Burt Sugar, a “perpetual motion machine” that imposed his will on his opponents with a volume of punches and a break-neck fighting pace that also earned him the nickname “Hurricane Hank.”
6) Touch of Sleep
DaVarryl Williamson is a relatively obscure character in the history of boxing heavyweights. He’s never won a title and at age 44 it’s very unlikely he’ll do so. But, he’s managed to succeed where so many others have failed; he created an original and exciting nickname that touches on one of the most electrifying aspects of boxing, the knockout. People will remember him much more for his moniker than for his fistic accomplishments but some boxers never even get that, so he’s already ahead of the curve. Williamson also has the satisfaction of knowing that he earned his nickname with an impressive 67% KO rate.
One boxing sage once said, boxing is more abut defeat than anything else. Those defeats aren't just in the ring, however. Often it’s the politics’ and press outside the ring that give boxers their worst beatings. Marvelous Marvin Haggler had his share of both. Inside the ring he breathed life into the Middleweight class and stole the spotlight from the heavyweights at the same time. But his accomplishments in the ring were hard earned, as he lost decisions he was likely owed and more importantly to Hagler, after he won the championship there were several in the media who refused to give him his due. So many of them refused to use his nickname “Marvelous” that Haggler legally changed his name to Marvelous Marvin Haggler so that they would have to use it. Clearly, Hagler used his determined fight style inside and outside the ring. With 62 wins, 52 by KO, and only 3 losses, Marvelous is a necessary addition to the list.
4) "Manos de Piedra" / Hands of Stone
This nickname belongs to the greatest lightweight of all time, Roberto Duran. With 20 first round knockouts, and a 60% knockout rate in his 119 fights that spanned the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s, Duran showed in fight after fight that he was the personification of his nickname. Hands of Stone makes the list because the name is raw and easily digestible. Even before you knew Duran's impressive record the name clued you in on one of the defining features of this memorable boxer. That is a hallmark of all great nicknames.
No list about boxing names would be complete without Sugar. And although two other men in boxing have famously carried the name, "Sugar Ray Leonard" and Sugar Shane Mosley, the original, the greatest man to ever lace up gloves, is Sugar Ray Robinson. Robinson is unique for many reasons; one being that he's the only man on this list whose whole name is really a pseudonym. Sugar Ray Robinson was born Walker Smith. He got the name Ray Robinson when his trainer, George Gainford handed him another fighter’s name card so Smith could fight as a last minute replacement. Later a news reporter watching Robinson fight turned to Gainford and said, “That’s a sweet fighter you got there.” Gainford replied, “Sweet as sugar.” Sugar Ray Robinson was born that night, and has been amazing anyone with eyes, ever since.
2) The Hitman
Thomas Hearns was a steely eyed assassin in the ring, with a murderous right hand. Few nicknames in boxing more perfectly captured a boxer’s approach in the ring, and the impressions of audiences watching him, than Hitman Hearns. When I think of the Hitman, I always replay one of his most brutal knockouts in my mind, the one against fellow standout knockout artist, Roberto Duran. Hearns’ other famous pseudonym, “The Motor City Cobra” was a homage to his hometown of Detroit as well as lightening fast jab and right hand, not to mention the size of his latissimus dorsi (“lats”), that were so big it gave Hearns the look of a cobra.
1) The Greatest
Perhaps no boxer's nickname, or career for that matter, better exemplifies the tension between becoming the fighter others think you should be and the man you know yourself to actually be or want to become.
The number one spot on the list belongs to Muhammad Ali, known most widely since he won the heavyweight crown in 1965 as "The Greatest." Pithy, powerful, and immediately understandable, Ali's self-proclaimed moniker / title, is everything that a great nickname should be. And it's on this list not just because of what Ali did inside the ring but also for what he meant, and the name represented, for the world of sports generally. You see, "The Greatest" nickname was is direct tension with the name that much of the press and public had given him early in his career, "The Louisville Lip." Honestly, that is a great name in and of itself, because of the accurate characterization and brilliant alliteration. But Ali made quite clear to anyone who would listen, and often those who wouldn't, that he was the greatest. That is who he was and who he wanted everyone else to see him as. As he said once, " I know where I'm going and I know the truth, and I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want. " In a time like ours when such self-determination has been taken to extremes, maybe even to a mockery of what it meant in Ali's day, it's difficult to truly appreciate how novel Ali's words were, not just as a black man in American, but as an athlete in general. Ali’s bravado has predecessors to be sure, but none who are anywhere near as memorable or capture the zeitgeist of the times more aptly. For better or for worse, the “I” in team and sports in general, owes much to The Greatest.
A former college wrestler, Taekwondo black-belt, and wannabe boxer, Paul Navarro (aka Fight Like Sugar) is now a full-time lawyer, part-time fight scribe, and high school wrestling coach.