Over the last few years the light heavyweight division has been one of the hottest in boxing, dominated by names like Andre Ward, Sergey Kovalev, Adonis Stevenson, Artur Beterbiev, and Bernard Hopkins. As one of boxing’s original eight weight classes, the light heavyweight division is one of the sport’s most glamorous, and has featured some of the greatest fighters in boxing history. The third in TalkSports24x7 monthly series on the top 10 fighters in each of boxing’s 17 divisions will look at the light heavyweights.
Like the top ten heavyweight and cruiserweight list, the criteria being used to judge the greatest light heavyweight champions will be provided. The top 10 greatest light 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 the belief of this author 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. Following are the ten greatest fighters in the history of the light heavyweight division:
10. Marvin Johnson
Marvin Johnson may be the most unheralded fighter on the list, but he was one of the most exciting fighters in the light heavyweight division throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Johnson won a bronze medal in the 1972 Olympics and in total held versions of the light heavyweight championship 3 times. Known for a thrilling all action style, Marvin Johnson would pressure fighters looking to knockout his opponent (occasionally being knocked out himself). During his career Johnson had wars with Matthew Saad Muhammad, Mate Parlov, Victor Galindez, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Michael Spinks, Charles Williams, and Leslie Stewart. Johnson was most known for having never successfully defended his title. Having won the WBC and then WBA light heavyweight titles in 1978 and 1979 respectively, Johnson failed to defend both titles. Ironically Marvin Johnson’s would outlast his former conquerors and he won his third title (reclaiming the WBA title) in 1986 against Leslie Stewart. Johnson would finally have his first successful defense of the WBA title before losing a rematch against Stewart.
9. Charles Williams
“Prince” Charles Williams may also be one of the most unheralded fighters on this list. Charles Williams had 4 losses on his record (including a loss in his pro debut) prior to winning the IBF light heavyweight title in an upset against Bobby Czyz. After winning the title Williams would hold on to it for 6 years, defending it a total of 8 times. Williams took on some of the greatest fighters in his era, including defending his title against top contenders such as Frankie Swindell and James Kinchen.
8. Matthew Saad Muhammad
Matthew Saad Muhammad emerged as the most memorable champion in what is considered the best era of the division. Although he only held the WBC light heavyweight title for two years, Saad Muhammad defended it 8 times in some of the most memorable battles in the history of the division. Known as “Miracle Matthew” Saad Muhammad had the uncanny ability to recuperate after being hurt and knocked down to come back for the win (often by knockout). Throughout the 1970s, Matthew Saad Muhammad captivated boxing fans with his thrilling style. Saad Muhammad also fought every major contender in an unbelievably talented era, having defeated former and future champions like Mate Parlov, Marvin Camel, Marvin Johnson and losing a close decision to future champion Eddie Mustafa Muhammad while still a contender. As a champion, Matthew Saad Muhammad defeated top contenders, as well as former and future champions such as John Conteh, Murray Sutherland, Yaqui Lopez, and Jerry Martin. Matthew Saad Muhammad’s come from behind style finally caught up with him against Dwight Braxton (later known as Dwight Muhammad Qawi) where he lost the title by knockout.
7. Harold Johnson
Harold Johnson won the light heavyweight championship in 1961, 15 years after turning pro. Although Johnson held the title for a relatively short time (from 1961 to 1963), his most significant fights occurred prior to his finally winning the title. As a contender Harold Johnson fought the legendary Archie Moore winning one out of their four bouts (he was competitive in his 3 losses to Moore as well). Johnson also beat the legendary Ezzard Charles, and Jimmy Bivins. After winning the title, Harold Johnson defended it 6 times against top contenders such as Doug Jones, Eddie Cotton, and Eddie Machen.
6. Virgil Hill
Virgil Hill is one of the longest reigning fighters in the history of the light heavyweight division, having held the WBA light heavyweight title two times between 1987 and 1997. A silver medalist on the famed 1984 Olympic Boxing Team, Hill defended the WBA light heavyweight title 10 times before losing it to Tommy Hearns. Virgil Hill would regain the WBA light heavyweight title and defended it 10 more times (claiming the IBF and Ring light heavyweight titles in his final defense) before losing it for the final time against Dariusz Michalczewski. In his ten year span as a light heavyweight champion, Hill took on some of the best fighters in the light heavyweight division. Top challengers Hill defeated included fighters such as Bobby Czyz, James Kinchen, Lottie Mwale, Frank Tate, Adolpho Washington, Fabrice Tiozzo, Lou Del Valle, and Henry Maske. Virgil Hill was not known for his power, but he was an excellent boxer with an educated jab, which made his high number of defenses more impressive. Showing his overall greatness as a fighter Virgil Hill would move up to the cruiserweight division and also capture the WBA title twice, becoming a two division champion.
5. Roy Jones Jr
Roy Jones Jr. held the light heavyweight title for 7 years between 1996 and 2003. During his time as light heavyweight champion, Roy Jones was widely considered the best fighter in the sport. Known for his blazing hand speed and unorthodox reflexes, Roy Jones dominated the light heavyweights as few boxers have (capturing the undisputed championship and Ring Magazine titles). As champion Roy Jones defeated top contenders and former champions such as Mike McCallum, Montell Griffin, Virgil Hill, Reggie Johnson, Clinton Woods, and Antonio Tarver (in their first match). Besides being the light heavyweight champion, Roy Jones also won titles at middleweight and super middleweight. Roy Jones is only the second former middleweight and third light heavyweight champion to win a title at heavyweight, which he accomplished against John Ruiz in 2003. Rather than stay at heavyweight after winning the title, Roy Jones chose to return to the light heavyweight where he lost the title in a rematch against Antonio Tarver. While Jones never regained the light heavyweight title despite several attempts, he had already secured his place as one of the greatest fighters in the division.
4. Ezzard Charles
Ezzard Charles is a fighter who is considered not only one of the greatest light heavyweight champions, but one of the greatest fighters in boxing history. Charles is mostly known as a former heavyweight champion, yet he began his career as a middleweight before ultimately winning the heavyweight title. As a heavyweight Ezzard Charles is most famous for his wars with Rocky Marciano; however, Charles was a dominant heavyweight champion as well, defending the title 8 times. Yet it is his work as a light heavyweight which deserves consideration on this list. Ezzard Charles fought as a light heavyweight from 1942 to 1948. As a light heavyweight, Charles proved to be the best in the weight class posting several victories over future champions Archie Moore and Joey Maxim, as well as victories over top contenders like Jimmy Bivins. It is important to note that some boxing publications, most notably Ring Magazine have rated Ezzard Charles as the greatest light heavyweight of all time, despite his never winning the championship. It is the position of this writer that although Charles was the most dominant light heavyweight of his era, his greatest impact was at heavyweight, which is the reason he falls to number 4 on the list.
3. Michael Spinks
Many boxing fans remember Michael Spinks for his 91 second KO defeat to Mike Tyson, in the only loss of his career. This is unfortunate as Spinks is one of the greatest light heavyweight champions in history. Michael Spinks was the first fighter to win the WBC, WBA, and IBF titles at light heavyweight. After gaining the title against Eddie Mustafa Muhammad in 1981, Spinks would defend the title 10 times over 4 years. Spinks was known for an unorthodox style with a dynamite right hand (known as the Spinks Jinx). During his campaign at light heavyweight, Spinks took on almost every big name, including Yaqui Lopez, former champions David Conteh and Marvin Johnson, Dwight Braxton (later known as Dwight Muhammad Qawi), Vonzell Johnson, and Murray Sutherland. Spinks was also the first light heavyweight champion to move up to heavyweight and successfully capture the title against Larry Holmes. Spinks’ historic accomplishment against one of the greatest heavyweight champions, only enhanced his legendary work at light heavyweight.
2. Bob Foster
Bob Foster is one of the longest reigning champions in the light heavyweight division. From 1968 to 1974 Foster defended the title 14 times between several failed attempts to win the heavyweight title as well as non-title fights. While Foster was not able to compete with the heavyweights of the early 1970s he was considered to be unbeatable as a light heavyweight. Bob Foster was extremely tall for a light heavyweight and he had frightening power. Foster captured the title with a frightening KO of legendary Dick Tiger and 9 out his 14 title defenses were by knockout. Like Archie Moore before him, Foster never lost his title in the ring, choosing instead to retire after his 14th defense.
1. Archie Moore
Archie Moore is not only the greatest light heavyweight champion in boxing history, he is one of the greatest fighters to ever step in the ring. Archie Moore held the light heavyweight title for nearly 10 years winning the championship from Joey Maxim in 1952 and he retained the title until 1962 when he was stripped for campaigning mostly as a heavyweight. Archie Moore’s nearly 10 year reign as light heavyweight champion continues to be a record for the division, and his dominance is even more impressive considering he was anywhere from 36 to 39 years of age when he won the title. Prior to winning the title, Archie Moore was widely considered the best fighter in the light heavyweight division and prior champions including Joey Maxim were often believed to duck him. Archie Moore literally fought every fighter of note from middleweight to heavyweight between the mid-1930s to the early 1960s. Moore finished his career with a record of 194-26-8, which included 141 knockouts, which is the most of any fighter in boxing history. Archie Moore established a standard of excellence for light heavyweights which continues to be the criteria used to judge fighters in the division 60 years later.
As with the other top ten list, honorable mention will be given to those who nearly missed it. A number of legendary fighters have won titles at light heavyweight, but either lost or gave up the title (often while moving up in weight). These fighters include names such as Tommy Hearns, Andre Ward, and Mike McCallum. Of all the great fighters to lace up the gloves at light heavyweight, Michael Moore narrowly missed the list. Known more for being a 3-time heavyweight champion, Michael Moore held the WBO light heavyweight title for 2 years between 1988 and 1990, defending the crown 9 times (all by knock out). It is important to note that during the time Moore held the WBO title, it was not recognized as one of the major world titles. Instead of choosing to face the other light heavyweight champions, Moore moved up to the heavyweight division. Also deserving of recognition and barely missing the list is Bernard Hopkins, who holds the record as the oldest fighter to win the light heavyweight title at 46. Hopkins is known more for his work as middleweight champion of the world (where he held the crown for 10 years and defended the middleweight title a record 20 times), but as a light heavyweight he won the title 3 times. Hopkins also was one of the top fighters in the light heavyweight division for nearly 10 years despite being in his 40s.