In the mid-1990s there was a super middleweight champion who fought with some of the best out there and enjoyed a long, distinguished title reign. If he were active today, holding the Super Six Boxing Tournament without him would be unthinkable. This man isn’t Roy Jones, Jr., and today he is largely forgotten except as a bridge that joins die-hard boxing fans and die-hard MMA fans. After “Fabulous” Frankie Liles retired, he slipped into boxing obscurity but became a prominent, if behind-the-scenes figure in MMA.
Frankie Liles was born on February 14, 1965 in Syracuse, New York, growing up in the rough neighborhood of Kennedy Square. Liles quickly established himself as a rising star in the amateur ranks, running up a record of 285-14 with six straight New York State Golden Gloves championships. 1987 saw the peak of his amateur career, when the 22 year old Liles won the US Light Middleweight Amateur Championship and represented the country at the Pan-American Games, winning a bronze. The next year he was set to win a spot on the US Olympic Boxing Team, but Roy Jones, Jr. sat squarely in his path. In 1987, Liles beat Jones twice to win the US championship, ringing Jones’s bell so hard that the future superstar was given two standing eight-counts. In 1988, Jones got revenge and decisioned Liles twice, winning the Olympic berth. Frankie Liles turned pro in November 1988.
Frankie Liles would fight as a super middleweight (168 lbs.) for every bout of his career but the last one. He was a 6’2 1/2″ man with a 77″ reach, making him a tall, lanky fighter who could count on height plus three or four inches of reach on most of his opponents. Liles was also quick on his feet, an unusual feature for a man of that build, and had both good skills and a good punch.
By July 1992, “Fabulous” Frankie Liles was 21-0 and had earned his first big fight, a shot at the USBA title (a regional American belt) against Tim “The Doctor of Style” Littles. Litltes and Liles had fought as amateurs, with Liles winning all three engagements. Both also owned amateur wins over Roy Jones, who was a pro middleweight fighter rising alongside them (albeit with much more of a spotlight). However, Jones spent all his career avoiding Littles and especially Liles, while Littles and Liles actively sought each other out and became arch-rivals. In their first clash as pros, Tim Littles got the win and his revenge, beating Frankie Liles in a Unanimous Decision.
Frankie Liles soon rebounded in fabulous fashion, however. In his very next fight in October 1992, Liles claimed the NABF title (a North American belt) by knocking out fringe contender Merqui Sosa in the 12th. Sosa only survived that long because he fouled Liles from pillar to post, losing four points along the way in a fight where he should have been disqualified. Liles had overcome what was an ugly fight with a stylish TKO ending, and gotten past the loss to Littles in the process.
After biding his time for almost two years, Frankie Liles finally got his world title shot in August 1994 against Steve Little. A talented amateur who was never quite able to put it together as a professional, Little had a mixed record, but had beaten Michael Nunn to win the WBA Super Middleweight Title. Frankie Liles defeated him with a solid Unanimous Decision, and would reign for almost five years.
Frankie Liles won his title in August, and Roy Jones won the IBF’s belt by beating James Toney in November. There was plenty of talk that these two amateur rivals should have squared off in a title unification bout, and given Jones’s lucrative HBO contract the money for such a bout was certainly there. However, that fight never happened and it was entirely the fault of Roy Jones, Jr., who preferred to fight a string of tomato cans on HBO-televised fights rather than pay Liles a reasonable purse for a much bigger (and perhaps riskier) fight.
Instead, Frankie Liles was matched Michael Nunn, and beat him in a thumping points win. After defending his title against journeymen twice, Liles made a rematch with Tim Littles in June 1996, and it proved to be a barn-burner. Eager to avenge his defeat, Liles came out and unleashed a furious volley of punches, dropping Littles in the opened seconds of Round 1. Littles got up and hung on for dear life, but there is little doubt he would have been stopped right then and there if the bell had not run early, ending the round and saving him.
Tim Littles came out in the 2nd looking to get back into the fight, and staggered Liles with a hard right. Unable to finish him, Littles switched from punching to fouling, knocking Liles down with a low blow and losing a point for rabbit punching. Littles ended the round with a cut over his eye. Littles came out looking to do damage again in the 3rd, but Liles smashed him with a counter-right followed by a 1-2. Littles roared back with a flurry of punches and drove Liles through the ropes. Frankie Liles recovered, only to be shaken to the ankles by a Littles left hook. He responded with a crushing right hook of his own that put Littles on the canvas and finished the fight. “Fabulous” Frankie Liles kept his title and evened the score against his rival in three-round war that was widely overlooked, mostly likely because too many people were watching Roy Jones demolish utter no-hopers for big bucks on HBO.
Liles followed his stirring victory over Littles by crushing Segundo Mercado, a man who tied Bernard Hopkins in their mutual first title shot, with a 5th Round knockout. Liles won some more title defenses after that, but by 19998 he was a 33 year old fighter with a lot of boxing miles on his body. He met a rising, 19-0 puncher named Byron Mitchell and suffered for it. Mitchell knocked Liles down in the 2nd, but Liles recovered and proceeded to outbox Mitchell in true championship style. Frankie Liles was on his way to a lopsided points win when Mitchell got his puncher’s chance again, and felled Liles three times in Round 11, earning the automatic stoppage.
Frankie Liles had reigned as the WBA’s Super Middleweight Champion for almost five years and made seven successful defenses. He beat five name opponents along the way. After losing to Mitchell it looked like Liles would retire, but he made an ill-advised comeback effort in 2002 at light heavyweight and got his head handed to him by a pug named Demetrius Jenkins. Liles finally called it a day, retiring with a record of 32-3 with 19 KOs.
Many die-hard MMA fans, as well as a certain loudmouth named Dana White, like to measure their devotion to their sport the number of insults they can heap upon boxing. The truth is, however, that boxing is the single most effective school in the world for striking with the hands. The Israeli mixed martial art Krav Maga borrows heavily from boxing, and none other than Bruce Lee praised its singularly practical virtues. It should therefore come as no surprise that Frankie Liles was able to make the transition into becoming a successful MMA trainer, working with the likes of Tito Ortiz, Brian Viloria and Chuck Liddell.
Sources: boxrec.com; boxing.fanhouse.com/2010/01/27/boxing-champ-frankie-liles-now-trains-maa-stars/; syracusehalloffame.com/pages/inductees/2006/Frank_Liles.html; boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=29043; The Ring magazine; live fight footage.