There have been some great nicknames for athletes ever since sports’ fans adorned their favorite players with archetypal or symbolic nicknames.
But not all lived up to their moniker.
James “Bonecrusher” Smith, for example, was certainly a big, hard punching Heavyweight and the nickname befit him until he faced a prime Mike Tyson in a title unification clash.
Smith held on and clinched Tyson for 12 dreadfully boring rounds, seldom mounting any offense for fear of getting knocked out by the much smaller, but faster and hard punching Tyson.
He was mockingly called “Bonehugger” or “Boneclincher” after such an embarrassing performance and fans never forgave him for that.
Names like Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins and Larry Holmes “The Easton Assassin,” while cool nicknames for sure, did not have the boxing style that befit the label.
Muhammad Ali proclaimed that he was the “Greatest of All Times” early during his illustrious career and years later sportswriters and fans alike acknowledged it to be true. Ali, however, was never introduced by the moniker when he fought. Therefore, I do not count him on this list.
So, here are the 20 best and most well-earned nicknames, in my humble opinion, in the sport’s 113 year history.
“SUGAR RAY” ROBINSON
A master technician, supreme boxer and deadly puncher, Ray Robinson was the perfect boxer.
The game’s sweetest stylist had no equal, plain and simple. With all apologies to Sugar Ray Leonard–who also earned and carried the moniker well–there was only one Sugar Ray.
The best boxer ever had as great a nickname to boast.
Best Win: TKO 13 Jake LaMotta V
THOMAS “HITMAN” HEARNS
Also known as the Motor City Cobra, Detroit’s own Tommy Hearns was an offensive juggernaut, a Welterweight at 6’1” with freakishly long arms, he had tremendous hand speed and carried frightening power in both hands.
His list of knockout victims included tough, durable fighters like Roberto Duran and Pipino Cuevas. He was a cold-blooded assassin with his fists.
Best Win: KO 2 Roberto Duran
“THE LONE STAR COBRA” DONALD CURRY
The Fortworth, Texas native was briefly the top pound-for-pound fighter in the world during the mid 1980’s and seemed destined to be an all-time great, then his career suddenly fizzled.
In his prime, Curry was a near perfect fighting machine, blessed with tremendous hand speed and power, combined with an air-tight defense.
He could quickly dart in and out on his opponents and strike with lightning quick, lethal force.
Best Win: KO 2 Milton McCrory
“THE MONGOOSE” ARCHIE MOORE
The great former Light Heavyweight champion still holds the record for the most career knockouts–131–in boxing history.
But Archie Moore was more than a tremendous puncher.
He was a great ring general and defensive boxer, with a patented cross armed guard and shoulder roll, a tactic which enabled him attack with vigor while not sustaining as much damage in return, earning him the nickname.
Best Win: WD 15 Joey Maxim I
“SMOKIN’ JOE” FRAZIER
Joe Frazier’s nickname came from manager Yank Durham when he told Joe to, “go out there … and make smoke come from those gloves. You can make smoke, boy. Just don’t let up.”
Frazier lived up to and embodied his given nickname, tearing into his hapless opponents with sheer determination, bountiful amounts of energy, durability and formidable punching power–especially with a devastating left hook, in an all-out relentless attack until he wore down and destroyed his adversary.
Best Win: WD 15 Muhammad Ali I
“THE BROWN BOMBER” JOE LOUIS
It was rare for a black man to become a media sensation in the 1930’s. Joe Louis did just that a string of victories against former Heavyweight champions.
Sportswriters gave him the nickname as his mounting victories made headlines.
Technically sound and always in position to land the knockout blow, Louis certainly threw some bombs. In 2003, The Ring Magazine named him the greatest puncher of all-time.
Best Win: KO 1 Max Schmeling II
“THE MANASSA MAULER” JACK DEMPSEY
Born in Manassa, Colorado, a young, skinny but tough Jack Dempsey first earned his reputation and alias from saloon fights beating up lumberjacks and coal miners.
The reputation would grow and he would live up to his nickname by terrorizing opponents as a professional boxer, brutalizing them with his aggressive fighting style, fast hands and exceptional punching power.
Best Win: TKO 3 Jess Willard
JOSE “MANTEQUILLA” NAPOLES
The great Cuban-born, Mexican boxer earned the nickname because of his ‘smooth-as-butter’ boxing style. (Mantequilla is the Spanish word for butter).
His style combined cool ring generalship, fantastic footwork, punching power and seamlessly setting-up his arsenal of shots which usually showcased the jab, uppercuts, right cross and a vicious left hook.
Best Win: WD 15 Emile Griffith
“MANOS DE PIEDRA” ROBERTO DURAN
Widely considered the greatest Lightweight of all time, the Panamanian-born Roberto Duran was a very tenacious, versatile in-fighter and brawler who earned the nickname “Manos de Piedra” (Hands of Stone) because of his devastating punching power.
He hit so hard, there were rumors Roberto knocked out a horse with one punch. Duran’s combination of skill, aggression and power helped him win world titles in four weight divisions and earn legions of fans.
Best Win: WD 15 Sugar Ray Leonard I
“THE RAGING BULL” JAKE LAMOTTA
A bullish, rough and tough fighter whose turbulent life was portrayed by Robert De Niro in the film Raging Bull. Not a big puncher, Jake LaMotta was a very aggressive, effective slugger.
Extremely durable, he had one of the greatest chins in boxing.
This allowed him to absorb incredible amounts of punishment as he constantly stalked and brawled with his opponents, subjecting them to vicious beatings in the ring.
Best Win: WD 10 Sugar Ray Robinson II
JOHN “THE BEAST” MUGABI
The Ugandan born boxer’s incredible knockout power reigned havoc on his opponents in both the Junior Middleweight and Middleweight divisions, winning all 25 fights by KO on his way to a title shot.
Named for his ferocity and untamable style, John Mugabi’s unbeaten record came to an end in his gallant, but losing first attempt at a world title against Middleweight champion, “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler.
“The Beast” gave Hagler one of the stiffest challenges of his career.
Mugabi eventually became a world champion as a Junior Middleweight but was not the same fighter after the Hagler loss.
Best Win: KO 1 Curtis Parker
WILFREDO “BAZOOKA” GOMEZ
The great Puerto Rican boxer Wilfredo Gomez was called “Bazooka” because he could launch rockets with either hand. One of history’s most prolific punchers, Gomez was also a masterful technician.
But it was his ability to render opponents unconscious that earned him adoration of his countrymen and boxing fans worldwide, winning his first 40 fights by knockout.
His 17 title defenses, all by stoppage, was a Junior Featherweight division record. Of his career 44 wins, all but two were by stoppage.
Best Win: TKO 5 Carlos Zarate
“EL FLACO EXPLOSIVO” ALEXIS ARGUELLO
Nicaragua’s Alexis Arguello was exceptionally tall, 5’10”, and rail thin for a boxer under 140 pounds. His prime weight was between 127 to 135 pounds.
But he was called “El Flaco Explosivo” (Explosive Thin Man) for good reason.
His thin build belied the explosive power he generated with both hands. An efficient, economical puncher in the fashion of Joe Louis: patiently stalking his opponents, analyzing their weaknesses, landing fierce body attacks, followed by textbook punches to the head.
Best Win: TKO 14 Ray Mancini
“HURRICANE HANK” HENRY ARMSTRONG
Henry Armstrong was a fighter always in perpetual motion, who used his non-stop whirlwind, pressuring style to wear down and overwhelm opponents in three weight divisions (Featherweight, Lightweight, Welterweight).
In fact, he remains the first and only man to simultaneously hold world championships in three weight classes.
Henry effectively used this style, combined with constant movement and fast, hard punches, to defeat 16 world champions.
Best Win: WD 15 Barney Ross
AARON “THE HAWK” PRYOR
Aaron Pryor was called the “Hawk” for his ability to swoop in on his opponents from all angles and throw unorthodox, fast and powerful punches.
His frenetic, aggressive style reminded many boxing fans of Henry Armstrong.
Pryor rarely took a backward step and was constantly moving forward either straight ahead or from side-to-side. “It’s Hawk Time!” was his war chant as he made his entrance into the ring.
Best Win: TKO 14 Alexis Arguello
“IRON” MIKE TYSON
Perhaps the most ferocious Heavyweight in history, Mike Tyson combined great skill, tremendous punching power with exceptional hand speed.
His explosive punching prowess produced many spectacular, highlight-reel knockouts on his way to becoming the youngest man–at the age of 20 years old–to win the Heavyweight championship.
He earned the nickname “Iron Mike” because many of his opponents did not make it past the first round. His refusal to wear a robe while entering the ring added to his mystic and gladiator persona.
His ring entrances and introduction before fights as Iron Mike Tyson remain some of the most chilling, awe-inspiring moments in the history of boxing.
Best Win: KO 1 Michael Spinks
“THE MICHIGAN ASSASSIN” STANLEY KETCHEL
Raw, unconventional and crude, Stanley Ketchel was known as a murderous puncher who hit so hard, he often fought and defeated much bigger men in the ring.
Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan to Polish immigrants, Ketchel was a troubled youth and got himself into many fights.
He naturally fell into the sport of boxing, where he quickly achieved national prominence by defeating many well-respected fighters.
Some ring historians consider Ketchel the greatest Middleweight of all-time despite a career abruptly cut short when he was murdered at the age of 24.
Best Win: TKO 3 Philadelphia Jack O’Brien
RAY “BOOM BOOM” MANCINI
The thickly muscled Italian American Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini used to go “bang bang” with his fists.
Mancini inherited his distinctive nickname from his father, veteran boxer Lenny “Boom Boom” Mancini, who helped lay the foundation for his son’s career.
The hard punching Mancini was known for his crowd pleasing, energetic, whirlwind style.
Best Win: TKO 3 Bobby Chacon
“BIG GEORGE” FOREMAN
After winning the Olympic gold in 1968, George Foreman powered through the Heavyweight ranks, first winning the world championship in 1973 and, after taking a 10 year hiatus from the ring, again in 1994 at the incredible age of 45.
He was called “Big George” because he was simply bigger, stronger and badder than anyone he fought. Foreman’s 84 percent knockout ratio remains the highest among all retired and inactive heavyweights.
Big George’s ring introduction, along with Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson’s, is one of the most spine-tingling moments in boxing history.
Best Win: TKO 2 Joe Frazier
“THE GOLDEN BOY” OSCAR DE LA HOYA
With an Olympic gold medal in 1992, movie-star good looks and dazzling boxing style, Oscar De La Hoya took over the mantle from Sugar Ray Leonard and Mike Tyson as boxing’s most marketable, recognizable and talented athlete.
Oscar went on the become the sport’s richest athlete in history until Floyd “Money” Mayweather eventually eclipsed him for that distinction.
Best Win: TKO 11 Fernando Vargas