They are as much a part of professional boxing as a left jab, and like a good left jab they can have an opponent on the back foot from the opening bell. Some are just fun, some boastful, others reflect personal attributes of the fighter, and some just plainly strike fear into an opponent. But a good nickname, or ring alias, definitely adds an extra dimension to a boxer’s character. They have been a staple part of boxing since the eighteenth century, when the likes of East Londoner Daniel Mendoza, known as the The Light of Israel owing to his Jewish heritage, and Gentleman John Jackson were illuminating the sport.
It’s been well over three hundred years since Jackson, (somewhat ungentlemanly!) grabbed Mendoza’s long black locks with one hand and pummelled him in the face with his other for ten minutes, and whilst the sport of boxing is certainly unrecognisable to what it was back then, the notion of boxers bearing a nickname has lived on through the centuries.
At the turn of the century we had the Manassa Mauler Jack Dempsey, world heavyweight champion from 1919 to 1926. He was challenged by The Orchid Man Georges Carpentier, France’s best ever boxer (although The Moroccan Bomber Marcel Cerdan also has a decent claim to this) at Boyle’s Thirty Acres in Jersey City in 1921, in what was the first fight ever to gross more than $1million at the gate. And, true to his ring alias, Dempsey mauled the Frenchman in four rounds.
The era that followed boasted the likes of the Black Uhlan of the Rhine Max Schmeling, Madcap Maxie Max Baer and the Cinderella Man James J. Braddock. The post-Dempsey era is best remembered, however, for the emergence of the Brown Bomber Joe Louis. Defeated only by The Cincinnati Flash Ezzard Charles, and The Brockton Blockbuster Rocky Marciano in his career, Louis became the youngest heavyweight champion since Dempsey. His reign as champion lasting from 1937 until 1949, Louis is still regarded by some as the greatest heavyweight champion of all time.
Later on we had future Hall of Fame inductees Sugar Ray Robinson and the Raging Bull Jake LaMotta, who met each other six times between 1943 and 1951, boxing a total of fifty-five rounds together. A year after their final meeting in Chicago, Rocky Marciano won the world heavyweight title by defeating Jersey Joe Walcott in Philadelphia and would go on to be the only heavyweight world title winner to sport an unblemished career of forty-nine victories from forty-nine bouts.
Many consider the 1970s as the era of ‘big heavyweights’, and whilst this is true to an extent, in terms of boxing nicknames , only one man really stands out for me. Smokin’ Joe Frazier will always be remembered for his epic fights with The Louisville Lip Muhammad Ali (a much better and more accurate nickname than The Greatest). Perhaps the 1970s is an era we just have to put down as a time when the sheer quality of heavyweight fights meant that nicknames weren't so important!
In Las Vegas in 1978 a new WBC heavyweight champion was confirmed in Larry The Easton Assassin Holmes when he defeated Earnie Shavers at Caesars Palace by unanimous decision. Often underrated, and in some sections disliked purely for defeating Ali, Larry Holmes remains one of the most technically gifted heavyweights ever produced, his professional record comparable to any heavyweight.
But even the most accomplished assassin would struggle to kill iron. Iron Mike Tyson. The nickname exemplified everything that the young rip-roaring heavyweight stood for. Mike Tyson knew, as did many observers, that he had won a decent number of his bouts before his opponent even entered the ring. Possessing one of the hardest right hands in heavyweight history, and in his prime carrying only 5% body fat, the nickname Iron could not be more accurate.
The 1980s saw possibly the greatest pool of talent in middleweight boxing history. Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hitman Hearns, Hands of Stone Roberto Duran and Marvellous Marvin Hagler ensured that attention was dragged away from the heavyweight division for perhaps the first time since Sugar Ray Robinson. All of the meetings between these four were special events, and I'm sure I'm not alone when I say have watched these bouts dozens of times. Although it doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so freely, I’ve always preferred Hearns’s alternative nickname, The Motor City Cobra.
In the UK, Alan Boom Boom Minter apparently derived his nickname from the literal sound he made when he threw double jabs. Across the Irish Sea, from the border town of Clones came the Clones Cyclone Barry McGuigan. Former WBA featherweight champion McGuigan is as much remembered for his fights briefly uniting Ireland as for his cyclonic approach to tearing through opponents.
The 1990s also saw some fantastic boxing nicknames alongside some exciting world champions. One of the men who first got me following boxing closely was The Dark Destroyer Nigel Benn. His two bouts with Simply the Best Chris Eubank are widely regarded as two of the best domestic fights for a world championship, and for me they defined middleweight boxing in the UK in the pre Joe Italian Dragon Calzaghe era.
Nigel Benn’s final bout was against Irishman Steve Collins, The Celtic Warrior, in 1996, but one year prior a twenty-one year old southpaw from Sheffield defeated Steve Robinson at Cardiff Arms Park to claim the WBO world featherweight title. Prince Naseem Hamed went unbeaten from 1992 until 2001, and breathed life into an often overlooked weight division. There is certainly no doubt in my mind that the Prince is the best and most exciting featherweight Britain has ever produced, thirty one knockouts in thirty six fights goes some way to demonstrating how good a puncher Hamed was. And you only have to watch documentaries to see that Hamed really did demand to be treated like a prince wherever he went.
Across in the Atlantic Pernell Sweet Pea Whitaker won world titles at lightweight, light welterweight, welterweight and middleweight. Legend has it that Whitaker’s nickname is the result of a misinterpretation by a sportswriter. As a youngster Whitaker was known to his friends and family has ‘Pete’, and when fans serenaded him with chants of ‘Sweet Pete’ this was erroneously reported as ‘Sweet Pea’. The nickname stuck ever since and Whitaker went on to have a distinguished career, despite being robbed to a draw by Mexican legend Julio Cesar Chavez in 1993.
Honourable mentions from the 1990s include Evander The Real Deal Holyfield, Bernard The Executioner Hopkins and Riddick Big Daddy Bowe.
In the post millennium era, particularly since the retirement of Lennox Lewis in 2004, the heavyweight division has been dominated by Dr Ironfist Vitali Klitschko, and Dr Steelhammer Wladimir Klitschko. Not only are the Klitschko brothers top of the heavyweight division for their impeccable boxing, but they are also top, in my opinion, in terms of ring aliases. Their nicknames exude a surgical, scientific brutality that has come to represent how both men systemically take their opponents apart – although I should point out here they neither of the Klitschkos are Doctors of Medicine, both were awarded their Ph.D from Kiev University in Sports Science. The Hayemaker also does a very good job of representing the strengths David Haye brings to the ring in the form of his prolific punch power.
In the lower weight classes Manny Pac Man Pacquiao is now widely regarded as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, and having won world titles at flyweight, super bantamweight, featherweight, super featherweight, junior lightweight, lightweight, junior welterweight, welterweight and super welterweight, I think it’s safe to say that the name of Manny Pacquiao may even outlive the immensely popular arcade game of the 1980s. It’s becoming increasingly difficult now, though, to mention Pacquiao without bringing up the opponent everyone wants to see him face. Floyd Money Mayweather Jr. is very much entitled to allude to his career earnings every time he enters the ring, having reportedly earned in excess of $25m for his bout with The Golden Boy Oscar De La Hoya in 2007.
Despite the connotations of nicknames and their greater importance, and what they represent in terms of the boxer’s particular attributes, or their heritage, I still have a fairly infantile way of deciding of how much I like a particular nickname, and it falls on the shoulders of the ring announcer. An introduction by Michael Buffer, followed by his trademark catchphrase ‘Let’s Get Ready to Rumble!’ always sets up the atmosphere for an evening of high profile world championship boxing.
And finally, who do I think has the best ring alias in boxing history? I’ll have to get back to you on that one!