It’s a heck of a lot easier to win a world title in boxing these days since there are so many belts floating around between the numerous sanctioning bodies. Things used to be a little tougher a few decades ago when there were fewer titles to fight over. This meant there were dozens of great boxers who never managed to win a world championship. Most of them fought for world titles, but fell just a little short. In addition, some of them won regional, interim or international titles, but never won a fully-fledged world title fight, at least not officially.
We’re going to take a look at 12 of the best boxers never to win a world championship fight. They may have done so with a little luck or if they fought in another era, but they just failed in their attempts. A couple of them actually beat reigning world champions, but due to their luck, did so in non-title bouts. We’ve tried to stick to the modern era as much as possible since readers may have seen these boxers in action rather than just read about them.
12. Ken Norton
Former heavyweight Ken Norton of San Diego was actually named a world champion even though he never won a title fight. Norton beat several top contenders and gave Muhammad Ali all he could handle on three occasions. Some swear he beat Ali at least twice and others insist he won all three fights. Officially, he won the first bout by split decision when he broke Ali’s jaw in the second round. Norton went 42-7-1 with 33 Kos and lost to Ali by unanimous decision for the WBA and WBC belts. He was also stopped in the second round by George Foreman for those same titles. Norton beat Jimmy Young in a title eliminator and was handed the WBC crown when champion Leon Spinks decided to meet Ali in a rematch instead of Norton. In his first bout as paper champion, Norton lost a thrilling split decision to Larry Holmes. Norton beat the likes of Ali, Young, Jerry Quarry and Duane Bobick, but had the bad luck of upsetting Ali when The Greatest didn’t hold a world title.
11. Martin Murray
The only active boxer on the list is Martin Murray of England. The 35-year-old middleweight turned pro in 2007 and is currently 36-4-1 with 17 Kos and all losses coming to one-time world champions. His first title fight came in Germany against WBA Champion Felix Sturm in 2011 and he fought to a controversial draw. Murray then met WBC Boss Sergio Martinez in Argentina two years later. He decked the champion in the eighth round, but lost a decision. In 2015 he took on IBO/WBA/WBC Kingpin Gennady Golovkin, but succumbed to the hard-hitting champion in the 11th round. After winning three fights in the next nine months Murray took on WBO Super Middleweight Champ Arthur Abraham in Germany and dropped a controversial split decision. He’ll get one more chance to get off this list though as Murray meets WBO Middleweight Champ Billy Joe Saunders on June 23rd.
10. Clyde Gray
Welterweight Clyde Gray was definitely one of Canada’s best boxers and went 69-10-1 with 48 Kos between 1968 and 1980. He won Canadian, North American and Commonwealth Championships, but was another who fell short in world title shots. Gray took on the best of his era including five one-time world champions. He beat Dave Hilton and Marcel Cerdan Jr on his way to his first title shot against WBA/WBC Champion Jose Napoles in 1973. However, he lost a 15-round decision at Maple Leaf Gardens. Gray met Angel Espada in San Juan two years later for the vacant WBA Title and dropped another decision. Gray had a third title shot when he met WBA Champ Pipino Cuevas in 1977 and was stopped in the second round. Two years later he was stopped in the final round by Tommy Hearns before ‘The Hitman’ became world champion.
9. Herol Graham
England’s Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham (48-6, 28 Kos) was a southpaw who fought between 1978 and 1998. He won the European Super Welterweight title along with the British and European Middleweight Crowns, but never a world belt. Graham made a name for himself by beating Sanderline Williams, Ayub Kalule and Mark Kaylor and earned a vacant WBA title shot against Mike McCallum in 1989. He lost by split decision though and carried on. Just three fights later he faced Julian Jackson for the vacant WBC Title. Graham looked to be in control, but walked into one of Jackson’s famous power shots and was stopped in the fourth round. Graham would later win and defend the WBC International Super Middleweight belt against Chris Johnson and Vinny Pazienza. He was then stopped by Charles Brewer in the 10th round for the IBF World Title in his final bout after decking Brewer twice.
8. Bennie Briscoe
Those familiar with the typical Philadelphia fighters of the 1970s have probably heard of Bennie Briscoe. The shaven-headed middleweight went 66-24-5 from 1962 to 1982 with 53 Kos and was stopped just once. He earned three world title shots, but fell short each time. Briscoe met future middleweight champ Carlos Monzon in 1967 and earned a draw in Argentina. He faced Monzon five years later when Monzon was world champ and lost a 15-round decision. Briscoe then met Rodrigo Valdez for the vacant WBC Crown in 1974 and was stopped in the seventh round. He met Valdez again in 1977 for the WBA and WBC Titles and dropped a 15-round decision. Briscoe took on one-time middleweight champs Vito Antuofermo, Marvin Hagler and Emile Griffith and beat future light-heavyweight champs Vicente Rondon and Eddie Mustafa Muhammad. He also beat top contenders such as Billy ‘Dynamite’ Douglas, Jose Gonzales, Cyclone Hart, Tony Mundine, Tony Chiaverini and George Benton.
7. Vilomar Fernandez
Vilomar Fernandez of the Dominican Republic was one of the few men to beat hall of famer and former world champion Alexis Arguello. The problem was he did so during a non-title fight. Fernandez may not have had the best record around at 30-11-2 with nine Kos from 1971 to 1985, but four of those losses came to one-time world champions. His first title shot came against Roberto Duran in 1977 after beating Ray Lampkin, Frankie Otero and Ray Lunny. However, ‘The Hands of Stone’ stopped him in the 13th round. He beat Arguello by decision in 1978 when Arguello was the Junior Lightweight Champ, but it was a non-title bout. Fernandez earned another title shot in 1980, but lost a 15-round unanimous decision to WBA Lightweight Champ Hilmer Kenty. He then lost a decision to Arguello in their rematch in 1983.
6. Ruben Navarro
The ‘Maravilla Kid’ Ruben Navarro hailed from East Los Angeles and racked up a record of 33-8-2 with 15 Kos from 1967 to 1974 and was stopped just twice. Navarro drew with former world champ Yoshiaki Numata and beat WBA/WBC Super Featherweight Champion Hiroshi Kobayashi in a non-title fight in Japan after his first 17 pro bouts. His 18th fight came against Rene Barrientos for the vacant WBC Title in 1969. He lost a hotly-disputed unanimous decision after 15 grueling rounds in the Philippines though. Navarro then went on a 10-fight winning streak and earned a shot at WBA/WBC Lightweight Champion Ken Buchanan. Once again Navarro gave it his all, but fell short on the scorecards after 15 rounds. Navarro would go on to lose five more fights after that before hanging up his gloves.
5. James Scott
There’s no denying former light heavyweight James Scott of Newark, New Jersey wasn’t an ideal role model. Scott fought from 1974 to 1981 and went 19-2-1 with 10 Kos. His first 11 fights were held in Miami Beach and the rest of them took place in Rahway State Prison. He was locked up for armed robbery this time, but beat an accompanying murder charge. He was retried in 1981 though and handed a life sentence when found guilty. Scott somehow talked the prison into allowing him to fight there and soon after television cameras were broadcasting the inmate’s bouts. He beat top contenders Jesse Burnett, Richie Kates, Yacqui Lopez, Bunny Johnson, Jerry Celestine and future world champion Eddie Mustafa Muhammad. Scott’s only losses were to Jerry Martin and future world champion Dwight Muhammad Qawi. He was paroled in 2005 at 58 years of age.
4. Sam Langford
We have to give credit where it’s due so we’re going back to a completely different era of boxing to check out Nova Scotia-born Sam Langford. This was a guy who fought for about a quarter of a century and never received a title shot. He became known as the Boston Bone Crusher and put together a record of 180-29-39 between 1902 and 1926 with 128 Kos. Langford stood just over 5-feet-7-inches tall and took on all comers between lightweight and heavyweight. This included bouts against the best of his era such as Joe Gans, Jack Johnson, Joe Walcott, Sam McVey, Joe Jeannette, Jim Barry, Jeff Clark, Harry Wills and Stanley Ketchel. Langford combined speed, power and boxing skills and was stopped just nine times in 248 fights. He started to lose his eyesight and then boxed on instinct alone. Langford was also the first non-champion to be inducted into Ring Magazine’s Hall of Fame.
3. Armando Muniz
Mexican-born Armando ‘El Hombre’ Muniz was a former U.S. Olympian who made a name for himself at welterweight after turning pro. He went 44-14-1 with 30 Kos from 1970 to 1978, faced eight world champs and was stopped just twice. After beating Clyde Gray for the NABF Title, Muniz headed to Mexico in 1975 to take on WBA/WBC Champion Jose Napoles. Muniz was even on one scorecard and well ahead on another when the fight was halted in the 12th round due to cuts suffered by Napoles. However, the champion retained his title by technical decision in a robbery and Muniz lost the rematch by decision. He earned two more title shots, but was stopped in the 15th round by WBC Champ Carlos Palomino in 1977 and lost the rematch by decision. Muniz also faced the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard, Pete Ranzany, Angel Espada, Emile Griffith, Hedgemon Lewis and Marcos Geraldo.
2. Oscar Bonavena
The 1960s and 1970s were arguably the best of times in the heavyweight division with the likes of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Floyd Patterson, George Foreman, Earnie Shavers, Ken Norton, Jerry Quarry, George Chuvalo, Jimmy Ellis, Ron Lyle and many more. One of the most memorable characters was Oscar Bonavena of Argentina. Bonavena was a tough son of a gun who went 58-9-1 from 1964 to 1976 with 44 Kos and was stopped just once. He took Ali into the 15th and final round in 1970 before being stopped and also lost to Frazier (twice), Lyle, Ellis, Patterson and Zora Folley on points. Bonavena had Smokin Joe down twice in their first fight, but failed to finish him off. Bonavena beat Tom McNeeley, Dick Wipperman, Gregorio Peralta, Chuvalo, Folley, Karl Mildenberger, Al Blue Lewis and Leotis Martin before being shot to death outside of a Nevada brothel at the age of 33.
1. Ruben Castillo
Ruben Castillo of Bakersfield, California was a force in the featherweight and super featherweight divisions back in the 1970s and 80s. He debuted in 1975 and by 1980 with a record of 46-0, earned a super featherweight title shot against the great WBC Champion Alexis Arguello. Castillo was ahead on one judge’s card when he was stopped in the 11th round after Arguello landed a couple of debilitating body shots. Two fights later, Castillo was in the ring with another hall of famer in WBC Featherweight Champion Salvador Sanchez and dropped a close 15-round decision. Castillo would lose another decision for the WBC Featherweight Crown three years later when Juan Laporte beat him and two years after that was stopped by Julio Cesar Chavez in the sixth round for the WBC Super Featherweight Belt. Castillo retired in 1997 at 70-10-2 with 38 Kos and six losses coming in his last 13 contests.