Middle Class: Computing best Philly middleweight of all time

Posted: July 19, 2007

LAS VEGAS - In recalling what was at stake before the Oct. 1, 1975, rubber match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, in what is now renowned as the "Thrilla in Manila," author Thomas Hauser tried to put the matter in perspective.

"They were fighting for so much more than the heavyweight championship of the world. They were fighting for the heavyweight championship of each other," said Hauser, whose 1991 book, "Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times," might be the definitive biography of Ali.

One of these days, longtime middleweight champ Bernard "The Executioner" Hopkins will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y. But although most ring historians tend to assess Hopkins' career in relation to such other premier middleweights as Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Carlos Monzon and Sugar Ray Robinson, B-Hop is, first and foremost, a Philly guy, proud of this city's rich tradition and his place in it.

At the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame induction dinner on May 20, veteran Philadelphia promoter J Russell Peltz ignited something of a minicontroversy. In praising one of the inductees, onetime middleweight contender Bennie Briscoe, whom Peltz had promoted, Peltz said, "If any of you think Bennie Briscoe wouldn't have beaten Bernard Hopkins, you're badly mistaken. Bennie would have kicked Hopkins' [butt]."

Peltz is known for sticking up for his guys, so perhaps he can be excused for taking a jab at Hopkins as a way of elevating Briscoe. But those in attendance couldn't help but wonder what might have happened had two of Philly's best-ever 160-pounders from different eras squared off, prime against prime.

With Hopkins (47-4-1, 32 KOs) in Las Vegas to defend his The Ring magazine light-heavyweight title against Winky Wright (51-3-1, 25 KOs) Saturday night at Mandalay Bay, the time seemed right to do some sorting out in the only way available to fight fans. The Daily News commissioned local computer analyst Craig Sirulnik (www.compufight.com) to conduct a four-man middleweight tournament to determine just who is the best middleweight ever to come out of Philly, whose reputation as America's best fight town is largely owed to its wealth of standouts in that division.

The field is comprised of top seed Hopkins; No. 2 Joey Giardello, another former middleweight champion; No. 3 Briscoe and No. 4 George Benton.

To be sure, many deserving fighters - Eugene "Cyclone" Hart, Willie "The Worm" Monroe and Bobby "Boogaloo" Watts, to name just three - would have been included in a tournament with an expanded format. Benton, who is in the International Boxing Hall of Fame for his work as a trainer (he helped develop Evander Holyfield, Meldrick Taylor and Pernell Whitaker, among others), was a splendid middleweight himself whose ring generalship enabled him to stave off other contenders for the final slot.

Sirulnik's CompuFight program paired the fighters in a series of 100 bouts, with the winner determined by the most consistent result posted. A number of factors - including longevity, quality of opposition and record in big fights - factored into the equation.

Semifinals

No. 2 Joey Giardello vs. No. 3 Bennie Briscoe

The Brooklyn-born Giardello (real name Carmine Tilelli), who moved to South Philadelphia as a teenager in 1948 after serving a 2-year Army hitch, was a slick boxer whom many top contenders avoided during the first 12 years of a career that spanned 1948 to '67. But Giardello, whose only previous title shot had ended in a foul-filled draw with Gene Fullmer in 1960, allowing Fullmer to retain his belt, kept moving forward and finally rose to the top of the mountain when he outpointed the great Dick Tiger on Dec. 7, 1963, in Atlantic City.

The Brooklyn-born Giardello (real name Carmine Tilelli), who moved to South Philadelphia as a teenager in 1948 after serving a 2-year Army hitch, was a slick boxer whom many top contenders avoided during the first 12 years of a career that spanned 1948 to '67. But Giardello, whose only previous title shot had ended in a foul-filled draw with Gene Fullmer in 1960, allowing Fullmer to retain his belt, kept moving forward and finally rose to the top of the mountain when he outpointed the great Dick Tiger on Dec. 7, 1963, in Atlantic City.

"Nobody could have beaten me that night," said Giardello, who had gone in as a 4-1 underdog.

Stylistically, Briscoe was the virtual opposite of Giardello. "Bad Bennie" had some moves, but his rise in the ratings was tied more to his savage punching power and air of intimidation, the byproduct of his withering glare and shaved head.

Other fighters, Hall of Famers even, tried to rough up Giardello (101-25-7, 33 KOs) whenever they could, and Briscoe (66-24-5, 53 KOs) - who was 0-3 in world title bouts, losing to Monzon and twice to Rodrigo Valdes - is no different. He bulls inside often enough to do some damage, but more often than not Giardello, the matador, answers with flurries and moves away.

After the scorecards are tabulated, Giardello is awarded a split-decision victory and a berth in the championship round.

No. 1 Bernard Hopkins vs. No. 4 George Benton

Boxing is called the "sweet science," and these two precise and controlled fighters bring Ph.Ds in pugilism to what shapes up as a 12-round experiment. The early going mostly consists of tactical forays, with each man probing for weaknesses in the other's tight defense and not finding much to exploit.

Boxing is called the "sweet science," and these two precise and controlled fighters bring Ph.Ds in pugilism to what shapes up as a 12-round experiment. The early going mostly consists of tactical forays, with each man probing for weaknesses in the other's tight defense and not finding much to exploit.

But Benton (61-13-1, 36 KOs) - who, in something of a shock, never fought for a world title - isn't content to continue probing indefinitely, and neither is Hopkins, whose nickname is reflective of his youthful fondness for brawling, before he smoothed his rougher edges.

In the middle rounds the pace quickens, as Hopkins seeks to impose his will and Benton demonstrates he can stand his ground and trade just as ably as he can dip and dodge.

Hopkins takes control down the stretch to win by unanimous decision.

Final

No. 1 Bernard Hopkins vs. No. 2 Joey Giardello

There is a hint of bad blood before the bout. Hopkins, upon winning his middleweight championship, on a seventh-round stoppage of Segundo Mercado on April 29, 1995, had proclaimed himself Philadelphia's first "real" 160-pound titlist, since Giardello had been born in Brooklyn. A miffed Giardello countered that he was as all-Philly as anyone who ever lived and fought there.

There is a hint of bad blood before the bout. Hopkins, upon winning middleweight championship, on a seventh-round stoppage of Segundo Mercado on April 29, 1995, had proclaimed himself Philadelphia's first "real" 160-pound titlist, since Giardello had been born in Brooklyn. A miffed Giardello countered that he was as all-Philly as anyone who ever lived and fought there.

Perhaps because of the hint of a turf war, the fight is made at closer range than had been anticipated. Giardello, although lacking one-punch power, is no stranger to working tight, given a resume dotted with such imposing names as Fullmer, Tiger, Sugar Ray Robinson, Henry Hank and Ralph "Tiger" Jones.

The exchanges are lively and entertaining, but, as was the case in his semifinal win over Benton, Hopkins proves too strong. He again closes with a rush to win another unanimous decision and with it, recognition as Philadelphia's "King of the Middleweights." *

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