One of the most frequent and fierce debates which takes place among boxing experts and fans is who deserves to be mentioned as the best fighters of all time. The best fighters in boxing history can either be classified by weight division or they can be placed on a “pound for pound” list, taking the best fighters regardless of their weight class and determining who is the most skilled or who had the greatest impact on the sport. Exclusively for TalkSports 24X7, I will rank the top 10 fighters in each of boxing’s 17 divisions on a monthly basis.
Any reputable listing of great boxers should explain the criteria being used to judge them, which I will provide: The top 10 greatest heavyweight champions of all time will first consider each champion’s dominance in his era. A champion’s dominance will further consider the time period in which they competed; as being a dominant champion in the modern era with 4 major titles (WBA, WBC, IBF, and WBO) looks different than dominance in the 1980s or 1990s when there were 3 major titles (WBA, WBC, and IBF), or the 1960s and 1970s when there were only two titles (WBA and WBC), which of course is different prior to the 1960s when there was only one title.
It is my belief that top 10 lists should never be a comparison of who would beat who, because head to head matchups between fighters of different eras is speculative. A champion’s level of competition (their willingness to take on the top contenders of their era) is the second criteria which will be considered in this list. Lastly historical merit will be the third criteria which will be used to judge the greatness of each fighter, meaning did they achieve a unique historical feat, or did they in some way transcend the sport. To begin our monthly series enclosed is the ten greatest heavyweights in boxing history:
10. Mike Tyson :
Mike Tyson is the youngest champion in the history of the heavyweight division, a distinction he earned by winning the WBC title from Trevor Berbick in 1986 when he was 20 years old. Tyson would become the undisputed heavyweight champion by adding the WBA and IBF titles a year later. In 1988 Tyson won the linear crown from Michael Spinks. Tyson would hold the distinction of heavyweight champion twice in his career and is widely considered as one of the most feared heavyweight champions in history. Mike Tyson was immensely popular during the years that he fought, being featured in videos games, movies, and music videos. Tyson remains one of the most popular and recognized figures in boxing. In his first reign as champion Mike Tyson defended the title nine times, beating seven current or former world champions; however, despite a four year period of dominance Tyson’s level of competition prevents him from being ranked higher on the list. The best fighters Tyson defeated during his reign as heavyweight king, Larry Holmes and Michael Spinks, were both viewed to be past their prime when he knocked them out. Yet perhaps the biggest criticism of Tyson’s brilliant reign as heavyweight champion was his failure to defend against his greatest rival, Evander Holyfield, when he held the undisputed title (despite Holyfield being the #1 contender for all three titles when Tyson was champ). Losses to Evander Holyfield when they finally did meet in the ring as well as a KO defeat against Lennox Lewis in his final world title bout also prevent Tyson for being higher on the list. Despite his losses Mike Tyson still remains one of the best heavyweight champions in the history of the division, and a deserving entry on this list.
9. Jack Johnson
Jack Johnson became the first African American heavyweight champion when he defeated Tommy Burns in 1908. Johnson was among the first fighters to transcend the sport, and he remains one of the most controversial figures in boxing. Jack Johnson was known for mocking and punishing his white opponents and he was infamous for dating white women (which was both illegal and considered suicidal at the time). Yet it was Johnson’s skill in the ring which earns him the distinction as one of the greatest heavyweight champions of all time. Jack Johnson is believed to be one of the first heavyweights to make defense and counter punching premier aspects of his fighting style. Johnson was considered a master boxer, and had a high number of title defenses for his era. During his career Jack Johnson defeated some of the biggest names in boxing including Sam Langford, Bob Fitzsimmons (former heavyweight champion), Stanley Ketchel, and James Jeffries. Prior to winning the heavyweight title against Tommy Burns in 1908, Jack Johnson was known as the Negro heavyweight champion defeating the top African American fighters of the time who white boxers refused to fight (one of the top black fighters Johnson defeated included the aforementioned Sam Langford). One of Johnson’s fans, the late Nat Fleischer (founder of Ring Magazine) considered Jack Johnson as the greatest heavyweight he had ever seen, a position Fleischer maintained until he died in 1972.
8. Rocky Marciano/Jack Dempsey (tied)
Rocky Marciano is the only heavyweight champion to retire undefeated, a record which has stood for over 60 years and earns him a place on the list. Marciano is also considered one of the hardest punchers in the division’s history, and had one of the most brutal knockouts in heavyweight history in his title winning effort against Jersey Joe Walcott. In his career Marciano defeated 4 current or former world champions, including an older Joe Louis. A relatively short title reign and his level of competition are the only considerations that keep Marciano from being rated higher on the list. Marciano had a two year title reign with six defenses, three of his title defenses were against former middle/light heavyweights Ezzard Charles and Archie Moore.
Jack Dempsey was another fighter who if not transcended the sport should at least be considered its first universal star. Dempsey was the first heavyweight destroyer and captured the imagination of America with a spectacular knockout of Jess Willard. Jack Dempsey held the title for seven years, but he only defended it five times. Dempsey fought top contenders Georges Carpenter, Luis Firpo, and Gene Tunney. His short number of title defenses and failure to defend the title against Harry Wills (the best African American heavyweight of the time and widely believed to be Dempsey’s top competition) keeps Dempsey from being ranked higher.
7. Evander Holyfield
Evander Holyfield held versions of the heavyweight title four times, and probably deserved a fifth title in a controversial decision loss against Nikolai Valuev. Evander Holyfield is the only cruiserweight to win both the undisputed heavyweight title and linear title. Holyfield is also the only fighter to become undisputed champion in two different weight divisions since multiple titles became available in the 1960s. In his career Evander Holyfield fought or defeated nearly all the top contenders of his era, facing an incredible 17 former or current champions as a heavyweight. Holyfield was known as counter puncher, who regularly faced fighters bigger and stronger than he was. Evander Holyfield’s trilogy against Riddick Bowe is widely seen as one of the best in heavyweight history (perhaps second only to Muhammad and Joe Frazier). Holyfield’s two victories over Mike Tyson solidified his status as one of the greatest heavyweight champions of all time and made him a household name, yet his few number of title defenses (three apiece in his first and third reigns as champion) prevents him from being rated higher on the list. Still Evander’s dominance as undisputed cruiserweight champion demonstrates his overall greatness as a fighter.
6. Joe Frazier
While many remember Frazier for his losses to George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, he was one of the most dominant champions in the history of the heavyweight division. From 1968 to 1973, Joe Frazier cleaned out a talented heavyweight division, defeating top contenders such as Buster Mathis Sr., Oscar Bonavena, Jerry Quarry, Jimmy Ellis, and Bob Foster. Joe Frazier was the first fighter to defeat the legendary Muhammad Ali, and their three fights are considered to be the greatest trilogy in heavyweight history. Joe Frazier also perfected a style (the Bob and Weave) which shorter fighters still use to successfully compete against taller opponents. Joe Frazier’s most famous weapon, the left hook, is also considered to be one of the best in boxing history.
5. George Foreman
George Foreman won the linear heavyweight title in two different eras, and is widely considered the hardest puncher in the history of the division. Foreman’s title winning effort against Joe Frazier is one of the most brutal knockouts in heavyweight history, and he had equally memorable knockouts of future champion Ken Norton and Ron Lyle. George Foreman’s second career in the 1980s and 1990s distinguishes him from the lower half of the list. After defeating top contenders like Gerry Cooney, Adison Rodrigues, and Alex Stewart, Foreman had a memorable if failed attempt to recapture the heavyweight title against Evander Holyfield. George Foreman knocked out Michael Moore in 1994 (21 years after first winning the heavyweight championship) to secure his spot on the list. George Foreman was also one of the rare boxers who was able to transcend the sport by completely reinventing his image and style. Foreman was one the most feared heavyweight champions in the 1970s, yet was embraced by all due to eventual grandfatherly image in the 1990s. Foreman would make commercials and advertise household products, most famously the George Foreman grill.
4. Lennox Lewis
Lennox Lewis emerged as the dominant fighter of the 1990s, which is considered the third most talented era in the history of the heavyweight division (many including yours truly would argue the 1990s is the second best era of heavyweights). Lennox Lewis held the heavyweight title three times (twice linear and undisputed), with 14 defenses between them. Lewis became undisputed champion, adding WBA and IBF titles to his WBC crown, in a unification fight against Evander Holyfield in 1999. Lennox Lewis also was the first boxer from England to hold the undisputed heavyweight crown in 100 years (since Bob Fitzsimmons in 1897). Much like Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis fought nearly all the top contenders of his era, beating an impressive 13 former, current, or future heavyweight champions in his career. Lennox Lewis’ also boasted a victory over future champion Vitali Klitschko (the most dominant heavyweight of the 2000s) in his final fight. Having avenged his only two losses, Lennox Lewis is considered one of only three heavyweight champions to beat every opponent he faced in the ring. Many credit Lennox Lewis for being a prototype for successful tall boxers, and technically he is the last direct linear heavyweight champion.
3. Larry Holmes
Larry Holmes has the second highest number of consecutive heavyweight title defenses with twenty straight over a seven year title reign. Holmes captured the WBC title in one of the greatest fights in heavyweight history against Ken Norton. As a champion, Larry Holmes defeated seven former or future world champions as opponents. Holmes also faced a record ten undefeated challengers as heavyweight champion. Before losing the title against Michael Spinks, it was widely thought that Holmes had essentially cleaned out the heavyweight division. Four fighters who Holmes defeated, Mike Weaver, Trevor Berbick, James Smith, and Tim Witherspoon would win versions of the heavyweight title afterwards. Larry Holmes arguably had the best jab in the history of the heavyweight division. Much like George Foreman, Holmes competed in two different eras. Although Holmes failed to recapture the heavyweight title (being knocked out by Mike Tyson and losing competitive decisions to Evander Holyfield and Oliver McCall), he had victories over future WBO champion Ray Mercer, and Eric Esch.
2. Joe Louis
Joe Louis holds the record for most consecutive defenses of the heavyweight title (twenty five) and he is the longest reigning champion having held the title for twelve years (although part of this time he was inactive due to WWII). Joe Louis was arguably the first boxer to transcend the sport when he beat Max Schmeling in their rematch on the onset of WWII, and became a cultural hero of not only African Americans but all Americans (Louis was the second African American fighter to become heavyweight champion). Joe Louis would be a national hero until he died in the early 1980s. Louis is criticized by some for his level of competition (journalist at the time referred to them as the Bums of the Month); however, he was a dominant fighter who faced the best heavyweights of his era. Louis defeated seven former and current champions in his career including Primo Carnera, Max Baer, Jack Sharkey, James Braddock, Billy Conn, and Jersey Joe Walcott. Known as a skilled boxer and one of the hardest punchers in heavyweight history, Joe Louis was often instructed to knockout his opponents instead of risking a decision. Louis’ record for consecutive defenses at heavyweight has stood for nearly 70 years, with few fighters coming close to matching it. Joe Louis’ dominance as a champion more than earns him second place on this list.
1. Muhammad Ali
It is difficult to summarize a man who has been the subject of numerous books, documentaries, and movies in one paragraph, but Muhammad Ali is simply “The Greatest”. Muhammad Ali dominated two different eras (the 1960s and 1970s) which are both considered to be the best eras in the history of the heavyweight division. Known as a master boxer with great speed, superior footwork, and a lightning jab, Muhammad Ali defeated the two most feared fighters of his time in Sonny Liston and George Foreman. Muhammad Ali also he fought every major contender of his era, facing ten former, current, or future world champions in his career. Muhammad Ali also faced top contenders such as Cleveland Williams, Zora Folley, Jerry Quarry, Oscar Bonavena, Ron Lyle, Jimmy Young, and Earnie Shavers. Muhammad Ali was involved in two of the greatest trilogies in heavyweight history against Joe Frazier and Ken Norton (Ali won two out of three with each). Ali was also the most famous athlete in the world at the time he fought. Sports Illustrated named Muhammad Ali as Sportsman of the Century, while ESPN named him as the 3rd greatest athlete of the 20th century.
As with many top ten list, honorable mention will be given to those who were placed nearly missed it. Vitali Klitschko and Wladimir Klitschko are tied for 11th on the list. It is difficult to separate the Klitschko brothers because they were simultaneously the dominant heavyweight champions of 2000s (I would argue that either would have dominated in a similar fashion in the absence of the other). Wladimir nearly tied Larry Holmes record of total title defenses (although they were not consecutive), while Vitali was considered the tougher of the two. The Klitschko brothers aren’t ranked higher because their level of competition was abysmal, with them fighting in arguably the worst era in the history of the division. That being said their dominance of an era (2003-2015) deserves mention. Other notable names left off the list included Ezzard Charles, Sonny Liston, and Riddick Bowe. Current heavyweight champions Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder are not being considered as they are still actively fighting.