The Top 25 Heavyweights of All-Time – Top Ten

By Cliff Rold

The Eight, Pt. 8

For any new boxing fan, the time is not long before a fellow fan points out a magic number which grows more mythologized with time: eight.  As in boxing’s original eight weight classes.  The number represents in the mind of many a time when the sport was compressed into fields which couldn’t help but be talented, couldn’t help but draw crowds, because there were so few places on the scale to go.  They were divisions marked by single champions ever challenged by a depth of contenders today’s seventeen weight classes rarely know.

Reflection and research reveals this was not always the case, but it was true often enough to bestow a mystique on boxing’s ‘original eight weight classes’ which carries through to the modern day.  As good as they can be, as great as some of their competitors have been and still are, weight classes prefixed by a “Jr.” designation will always be seen some as bastard spawn which took something away from the game no matter what they added.

Even with classes taking up space in between the old markers, the eight continue to provide memories and spilled blood today.  Over the course of this series, homage is paid to boxing’s original eight by identifying the best of their lot through the years.


Previously, numbers 11-25 were unveiled as:

25) Max Baer (1929-41)
24) Gene Tunney (1915-28)
23) Ken Norton (1967-81)
22) Floyd Patterson (1952-72)
21) Riddick Bowe (1989-2008)
20) James J. Corbett (1886-1903)
19) Joe Jeanette (1904-22)
18) Max Schmeling (1924-48)
17) Jersey Joe Walcott (1930-53)
16) Sam Langford (1902-26)
15) Ezzard Charles (1940-59)
14) Sonny Liston (1953-70)
13) Mike Tyson (1985-2005)
12) Harry Wills (1911-32)
11) Jim Jeffries (1896-1910)

Today, the list moves to the top ten.

10) Jack Dempsey (1914-27)
Record: 62-6-9, 51 KO, 6 No Decisions
World Champion 1919-26, 6 Defenses
Heavyweight Champions/Titlists Faced – 3: (Jess Willard, Gene Tunney, Jack Sharkey)

Born in Colorado, the “Manassas Mauler” fought with the wild abandon dreamed into the dying embers of the mythical west, a fulcrum point between the sports roots and its rapid modernization.  Fighting for wagers in bar rooms, riding the rails as a hobo, and shacking up with the learned in brothels during his teens, Dempsey’s legend begins to be traced at around age 19, his prodigious power already being displayed.  While pseudonyms and unrecorded backroom contests make his true record hard to trace in the early years, Dempsey’s official record shows a slew of knockouts, a spattering of draws, and one official loss over four rounds through 1916.  Some learning stumbles came in 1917.  Facing a vastly more experienced Jim Flynn in February, Dempsey was caught cold and knocked out in one, his only knockout loss.  In his next seven contests through September, he’d lose on points, draw twice, and win once all over a four round distance to Willie Meehan while drawing twice against Al Norton before solving him with a first round knockout.  Hooking up with manager Jack Kearns around the time, Dempsey would rarely stumble again.  From late September 1919-September 1926, through just shy of forty official contests, Dempsey would lose only once (yet another four round loss to Meehan) and contest on even terms with Billy Miske in a ten round no decision contest while scoring 29 knockouts, 19 in the first round.  Most of those contests came before he won the title.  While any such collection of knockouts will include its share of lesser foes, it also encompassed many of the day’s top contenders.  A first round avenging of the Flynn loss; a first round leveling of Fred Fulton just a year after Fulton stopped the great Sam Langford; a sixth round knockout of Bill Brennan in their first meeting; knockout and decision wins over Gunboat Smith; a third round knockout of reigning Light Heavyweight king Battling Levinsky.  All of this led up to a shot at the World title in July 1919 where Dempsey, an underdog at 6’1 and 187 lbs., stepped in with the almost 6’7 245 lb. Jess Willard.  It was no contest, Dempsey flooring Willard seven times in the first with literally bone breaking blows and stopping him in the third.  The to-then highly active Dempsey became a sparse commodity as champion, with variable levels of competition, while enriching himself as many champions had before with an active exhibition schedule.  His first defense resolved issues with a Miske he’d not quite solved in two previous encounters, knocking him out in three in September 1920; in December it was a rematch with Brennan, this lasting into the twelfth before Dempsey lowered the boom.  Dempsey would fight officially only once each in 1921 and 22, both bouts in July, with over 80,000 fans paying to see him run through Light Heavyweight champion Georges Carpentier in four and a veritable exhibition win over Jimmy Darcy in four rounds.  1923 was perhaps the most memorable year of his reign, a fifteen round decision over Hall of Famer Tommy Gibbons in the infamous “Sack of Shelby” followed with a wild war against Luis Firpo at the Polo Grounds in September.  Trading knockdowns in round one, Firpo was down seven times, Dempsey twice including being knocked out of the ring.  Two more knockdowns of Firpo followed in round two, Dempsey winning by knockout in just shy of four minutes of wild action.  It would be his last title defense for over three years and the last time he’d leave the ring as champion.  Returning to real competition in September 1926, Dempsey was easily outboxed by Gene Tunney in ten.  Having packed over 120,000 into the stands the first time, a rematch was an economic must but first Dempsey had to get through rising future champion Jack Sharkey in July 1927 and did just that, coming from behind on points to send Sharkey into the floor in round seven.  He’d drop Tunney as well in their rematch two months later, the infamous “Long Count” in round seven denying Dempsey the chance to become the first two-time king at Heavyweight.  It would be the only round he’d win in twenty against Tunney and Dempsey wouldn’t return to active competition. 

Why He’s Here: A star every bit as big in his time as baseball’s Babe Ruth, Dempsey was at the heart of the “Golden Age of Sport.”  In terms of his significance to the game, Dempsey stands with a handful of the most important fighters of all time.  Separating the magnitude of his star from his body of work can be difficult but, when done, the star appears just a little bit brighter.  Dempsey’s resume in the ring has a gaping hole.  While there isn’t a color line drawn across the entirety of his career, Dempsey did not fight the better black fighters of his time as a contender or champion, including the leading contender for the bulk of his title reign, Harry Wills.  There are political, social, and economic reasons to explain this problem in the context of the times and Dempsey likely didn’t care much who he fought.  It doesn’t erase or excuse the lacking because the same can’t be said of Miske, Gibbons, Smith, Flynn, Carpentier, Fulton, or Levinsky among others.  That Dempsey’s opponents made fights against the likes of Langford and Kid Norfolk among others, and won their share amongst many other quality wins, speaks to how good they were as Dempsey opponents.  However, it would be a mistake to give Dempsey credit for beating his opponent’s opponents when he didn’t.  There is also the lack of a title defense against Middleweight and Light Heavyweight great, Harry Greb, who longed for a shot and beat many of the same leading Heavyweights of the day Dempsey.  The good still outweighs the bad.  Possessing tremendous speed, power, and underrated boxing ability behind a thrilling pressure style, Dempsey’s run from the second half of 1917-23 was every bit as jaw dropping as the peak runs posted by Joe Louis and Mike Tyson after him.  His ability to beat larger men translates well in comparisons to other eras; it’s not hard to imagine Dempsey running someone as timid as today’s Wladimir Klitschko right out of the ring.  Sitting on the title for the second half of his reign doesn’t erase a first half where he fought and dominated mostly legitimate contenders or the run to the title where he did the same.  Dempsey was an inaugural member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame (IBHOF) in 1990.

9) Lennox Lewis (1989-2003)
Record: 42-2-1, 32 KO
Lineal World Champion 1998-2001, 6 Defenses; 2001-04, 2 Defenses
WBC Titlist 1992-94, 3 Defenses; WBC 1997-99, 6 Defenses; WBC/WBA/IBF 99-2000; WBC/IBF 00-01, 3 Defenses; WBC/IBF 01-02, 1 Defense; WBC 2002-03, 1 Defense
Heavyweight Titlists/Champions Faced – 13: (Mike Weaver, Tony Tucker, Frank Bruno, Oliver McCall, Tommy Morrison, Ray Mercer, Henry Akinwande, Shannon Briggs, Evander Holyfield, Frans Botha, Hasim Rahman, Mike Tyson, Vitali Klitschko)

The only British-born lineal Heavyweight champion of the 20th Century, Lewis was an outstanding amateur before his paid career began.  Representing Canada as a Super Heavyweight at both the 1984 and 88 Olympics, he’d lose on points to eventual Gold Medalist Tyrell Biggs in the second round of his first Games.  Improving four years later, Lewis scored three knockouts at the latter to win Gold, the last of these a second round standing stop of future Heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe.  In London for his pro debut, Lewis was not fully received by the British public for many years even as he posted a stream of knockouts.  His breakthrough win to contention came in stopping fringe contender Gary Mason, then 35-0, in seven in March 1991.  Four months later, he made his U.S. debut with a sixth round July stop of faded former titlist Weaver, adding former Cruiserweight titlist Glenn McCrory and a revenge of the amateur loss to Biggs by year’s end.  Three more wins led to another breakthrough for Lewis, entering the underdog against knockout artist “Razor” Ruddock in a WBC eliminator.  Lewis struck early, dropping Ruddock hard at the end of the first and twice in the second for a big win in October 1991.  Unable to secure a shot at a newly crowned Bowe for the undisputed crown, Lewis settled for the subsequently vacated WBC belt.  Defending three times, his first defense saw him drop former titlist Tony Tucker twice en route to a decision and second saw him overcome some big shots in a spry performance from British rival Frank Bruno, bailing himself out with a mammoth hook to set up a stoppage in seven.  Two fights later, a staggering right hand from Oliver McCall dropped Lewis hard for the first time in his pro tenure; he beat the count easily but, still shaken, was not afforded the opportunity to work through it.  The man who trained McCall that night, Emanuel Steward, joined Team Lewis for the remainder of his career and Lewis would not lose again for six years.  Three fights into his 1995 campaign, Lewis faced big punching Tommy Morrison and the next year faced 1988 Olympic Heavyweight Gold Medalist Ray Mercer, beating the first by knockout in seven and winning a grueling decision in the other.  Lewis earned another mandatory shot at the WBC’s belt, vacated by Mike Tyson.  It would be the start of a bizarre three fight stretch.  The WBC belt was up for grabs in a rematch with an unstable McCall fresh from drug rehab; McCall quit fighting by the third, was in tears by the fourth, finally turning his back in the fifth and drawing a stop.  It was followed with a disqualification win over a Henry Akinwande who wouldn’t stop holding and a first round blowout of Andrew Golota who struggled to make it to the arena.  Things returned to relative normalcy in March 1998, Lewis overcoming an early buzzing to stop Shannon Briggs for the lineal crown in five.  Two fights later, Lewis secured a unification showdown with then WBA/IBF titlist Evander Holyfield.  The underdog in Madison Square Garden in March 1999, Lewis dominated the action only to settle for an outrageous draw.  Holyfield improved markedly in the rematch but not enough for the judges and Lewis was awarded a unanimous decision.  2000 was a dominant year featuring wins over his top two contenders, Michael Grant by knockout and David Tua by decision.  He was stripped of the WBA belt in court prior to Grant, despite offering mandatory John Ruiz a summer 2000 fight between his other outings that year and garnering a favorable ruling from the sanctioning body.  April 2001 was anything but favorable, traveling to South Africa and hearing a ten count for the first time at the hands of Hasim Rahman.  Lewis bounced back in November, leveling Rahman in four to become only the fifth man to regain the lineal crown.  Lewis closed his career with a big money win over a well worn Tyson, gave up his IBF belt for big money rather than fighting mandatory Chris Byrd, and survived a scare against Vitali Klitschko in June 2003, winning on a cut stoppage.  With a Klitschko rematch possible, Lewis elected to step away from the game in early 2004 at age 38.  To date, he is only the third reigning champion to retire, and stay retired, with the crown after Gene Tunney and Rocky Marciano.

Why He’s Here: Lewis, at 6’5 and between 230 and 245 lbs. in his prime, was not the sports first “big” big man.  What made Lewis special was what he brought to that frame.  Early in his career, Lewis’s balance was sometimes a problem but his best attributes were always there.  Deceptively quick and fluid in combination, technically proficient (even if it meant some dull affairs), and possessing a concussive right hand, Lewis learned to use his size to remarkable affect.  His competition was solid on paper for most of the years between 1991 and 2003 despite some odd outcomes.  While he can’t get much credit for the Tyson he beat, the aged Holyfield he defeated was still world class to go along with the other notable contenders he toppled through the years.  There are two often made points, one negative and the other supporting, about Lewis which are both somewhat overstated.  The negative is that he had a weak chin.  Lewis’s chin wasn’t the best ever seen, but it wasn’t bad either.  He was put down only twice; he stayed down once, already well into his 30s.  Bruno, Mercer, Klitschko and Holyfield (in the rematch) all caught him with big shots and Lewis took them.  The McCall stoppage was at least debatable, and could be seen as carrying undertones of political and economic convenience.  The supporting argument is Lewis was avoided for years, also only partly true.  Bowe was in no hurry to fight him right after winning the title in 1992 but, had Bowe not lost it the following year, the two likely would have faced off by 1994.  There were, at the time, reported monetary issues in making a fight both sides seemed to believe could get bigger with marinade.  They missed other chances to fight when Lewis lost his belt to McCall that year and later when Bowe fell apart against Golota.  Unification opportunities were discussed with Holyfield in 1994 but both he and Lewis lost that year; recent comments by Lewis indicate that his HBO contract was a big and underreported impediment to a Tyson fight in 1996.  The full body of his career certainly doesn’t lack for big fights or big opportunities and Lewis made the most of them coming through a strong 1990s Heavyweight division and dominating its last gasps before an era of mostly B-class, too often D-cupped, mediocrity fully set in.  When he retired Lewis held a win over every man he ever faced, a rare accomplishment in any era.  Lewis was elected to the IBHOF in 2009.

8) Rocky Marciano (1947-55)
Record: 49-0, 43 KO
World Champion 1952-55, 6 Defenses
Heavyweight Titlists/Champions Faced – 4: (Joe Louis, Lee Savold, Jersey Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles)

Massachusetts’ “Brockton Blockbuster” was the only Heavyweight champion to retire without an official loss on his record, leaving a trail of bloody thrills and prone bodies along the way.  Standing only 5’10 and never weighing much more than 190 lbs., Marciano’s heavy hands gave an impetus to work on what were early in his career heavy feet.  Built slowly, the picture of a contender began to emerge in a close split decision win over undefeated Roland LaStarza in March 1950 but that picture wouldn’t truly take shape until the following year.  Knockout wins over contender Rex Layne (the first of ten straight) and Freddie Beshore led to a star making eighth round knockout of former champion Joe Louis, the farewell outing of the “Brown Bomber.”  In his first four 1952 outings, Marciano went no further than the sixth round retirement in the corner of contender Lee Savold.  A July knockout of favored Hall of Famer Harry Matthews came in round two and set up a chance at the title; it was only Matthews second stoppage loss in some 90 fights.  In a classic September battle, Marciano came off the floor in round one and stalked a Walcott whose points lead grew only to be made irrelevant in round 13 when a short right hand left Walcott without his senses or title.  Walcott gave little effort before succumbing to a first round loss in May 1953 and Marciano cleared up any doubts about his superiority over LaStarza four months later with a battering eleventh round knockout.  His 1954 campaign was waged entirely with one man, former champion Ezzard Charles giving Marciano hell in losing a decision and coming within maybe a round of forcing a cut stoppage before being stopped in round eight of the return; both bouts were classic affairs.  A knockout of contender Don Cockell, who earned his shot with a ten fight win streak, was followed with a showdown against ageless Light Heavyweight champion Archie Moore in September 1955.  Marciano was dropped for only the second time, in the second round, before rising to dish out five knockdowns en route to a knockout win in the ninth.  Taking time to mull it over, Marciano chose to retire in April 1956 aged only 32.  Despite occasional rumors of a return, Marciano avoided the lure of the ring until his untimely death in a plane crash in 1969.

Why He’s Here: Marciano was unbeaten but wasn’t unbeatable.  No man who ever entered the ring could ever really claim that.  Still, never losing will always give him a special place in the Heavyweight pantheon and he didn’t really miss anyone who mattered.  It can be pointed out that Marciano’s best wins came against older fighters…but most of those were damn good old men.  Not all.  Louis was ancient.  Savold was in his last fight and entered off a knockout loss to that ancient Louis.  For others, age was not so big a factor.  Walcott’s performance in the first Marciano fight certainly doesn’t scream old and Charles gave everything he had left in both of their outings.  Marciano beat what Charles had left out of him.  Nino Valdez is often cited as the best contender Marciano didn’t fight but Marciano did face a Moore who bested Valdez twice on points.  In fact, Moore entered their bout with a 21-fight winning streak which included wins over Harold Johnson and Joey Maxim at Light Heavyweight, and a knockout of Heavyweight hopeful Bert Whitehurst, later twice to last the distance with Sonny Liston.  While he can look crude, Marciano was more skilled than given credit for, able to make himself smaller than he already was while winning both early and late.  His rematch record is perfect as regards stopping his man earlier the second time around.  In part a reflection of changed and changing times, Marciano was only the third white Heavyweight champion, from Sullivan to him, to defend against a black challenger and the only one to do it more than once (aided by success in the first try of course).  His struggles with the boxing ability of Charles and Walcott make it easy to envision Marciano struggling with the best larger Heavyweights who followed him, particularly when factoring their size was complimented with athleticism and skill.  The timing of his rise played a part in his success…but that’s the case for most Heavyweights.  He’d have won more than his share in any era.  Marciano was an inaugural member of the IBHOF in 1990.        

7) Joe Frazier (1965-81)
Record: 32-4-1, 27 KO
World Champion 1970-73, 4 Defenses
NYSAC Titlist 1968-70, 5 Defenses
Heavyweight Titlists/Champions Faced – 2: (Jimmy Ellis, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman)

The 1964 U.S. Olympic Gold Medalist, Frazier injured his left arm as a kid, leaving a permanent crook as a sign of things to come.  Frazier, behind a pressuring bob and weave style, would find only a single foe in his prime who could handle the heat.  Turning pro in August 1965, he reeled off eleven straight knockouts and wasted little time in accelerating his competition.  The last stoppage in the early streak came against veteran Billy Daniels, his next contest a rugged test in September 1966 against Oscar Bonavena.  Dropped twice in round two, Frazier worked his way back into the fight and left with a close split decision.  Frazier followed with two more veterans, Eddie Machen and Doug Jones, stopping them in ten and six respectively.  Three fights later it was steel-chinned former title challenger George Chuvalo, Frazier becoming the first man to stop him in over sixty fights in round four, his career less than two years old.  With Muhammad Ali stripped of the Heavyweight title in most states, and by the WBA, during his controversy with the draft, the young Frazier found himself excluded from the WBA tournament to anoint a successor.  Instead, he was matched in March 1968 with former amateur rival Buster Mathis Sr. for the vacant honors under the auspices of the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC).  Frazier battered Mathis, stopping him in eleven, and the drum roll to unification began.  Making four defenses of the NYSAC claim, including a decision in the Bonavena rematch and a seventh round Fight of the Year stop of contender Jerry Quarry (his first stoppage loss), a confrontation with WBA titlist Jimmy Ellis became a must.  Ali retired, fully relinquishing his claim to the crown on February 1, 1970, and on February 16 Frazier stormed through Ellis in five rounds.  Ali, who had attempted to return to the ring and fight Frazier at various times in the previous three years, finally secured a chance to re-enter the sport in October 1970, bringing a confrontation between the two a step closer.  In November, Frazier met Light Heavyweight champion Bob Foster, obliterating him in less than four minutes of action.  Then it was on to March 8, 1971, and a “Fight of the Century” which just might have been.  In fifteen grueling, violent rounds, both Ali and Frazier took the measure of the other.  Frazier survived a vicious round nine to hurt Ali badly in the eleventh, drop him in the fifteenth, and secure the decision for his greatest victory.  It was the peak of his career and, following a hospital stay to recover, Frazier took a couple of soft touch defenses before agreeing to face a young George Foreman in January 1973.  In a surprising defeat at the time, Foreman dropped Frazier six times and had the title in round two.  Joe bounced back six months later with a decision over Joe Bugner and agreed to a rematch with Ali in January, 1974.  In another competitive affair, Frazier would lose a unanimous decision in twelve.  Two more wins, rematch stoppages of Quarry and Ellis, followed while Ali regained the crown from Foreman.  With some believing Joe to be past it, the rubber match was set for October 1975 in Manila, Philippines.  Joe was anything but slipped that night, he and Ali engaging in a brutal war for fourteen rounds before Joe was forced to retire in the corner, his eyes and face a swollen mass.  There would be only two more fights, a rematch loss to Foreman in June 1976 where Frazier improved his performance but still folded in the fifth and an ill advised 1981 draw with Jumbo Cummings that pushed Frazier back into a retirement he’d already been enjoying.   

Why He’s Here: Standing less than six foot and less than 210 lbs. in his prime, Frazier’s smothering body attacks and vicious left hook allowed him to get inside of taller men and inflict damage through most of his career.  Like Marciano, it could be argued that timing aided Frazier’s rise to the title.  The argument has been made that, had Ali not been forced politically out of the scene, Frazier would not have had the same chances.  It might be true.  Ali had all but run out of ready, quality challengers by 1967 and Frazier may have received a shot before he was at the peak of his powers.  It might also be hogwash.  The styles of Ali and Frazier mixed so naturally it’s just as easy to assume they always would have been destined for more than one confrontation.  While Ali had been off, Frazier’s performance in 1971 came against a fighter who could still dance and whose speed had not faltered.  It was Frazier’s punches that brought him off his toes and his ability to take savage blows in exchange that won the fight.  No other Heavyweight active then could have beaten that Ali.  Ali had shown in 1965, against George Chuvalo, that a pressure fighter could do that, force him to work for long stretches in the trenches.  Chuvalo was never what Joe was by late 1967 forward.  And Frazier was more than the Ali rivalry, his string of quality victims an impressive array of skilled pugilists in the deep waters of late 1960s and 70s Heavyweights.  The failures against Foreman, and the fact that he ultimately lost the series to Ali, put him behind those men but not far behind other great Heavyweights who didn’t have to contend with those monstrous talents.  The first and third Ali fights may be the two greatest Heavyweight fights of all time, in whichever order, and the third is remarkable when one considers Frazier was also dealing with cataracts which obscured his vision.  Frazier was an inaugural member of the IBHOF in 1990.  

6) Evander Holyfield (1984-Present)
Record: 42-10-2, 27 KO
Lineal World Champion 1990-92, 3 Defenses; 93-94
WBC/WBA/IBF Titlist 1990-92, 3 Defenses; WBA/IBF Titlist 93-94; WBA Titlist 1996-99, 4 Defenses; WBA 2000-01
Heavyweight Titlists/Champions Faced – 15: (Pinklon Thomas, Michael Dokes, Buster Douglas, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Riddick Bowe, Michael Moorer, Ray Mercer, Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis, John Ruiz, Hasim Rahman, Chris Byrd, Sultan Ibragimov, Nicolay Valuev)

After a unifying title run which marked, and marks, him fairly easily as the top Cruiserweight yet to compete there, Atlanta’s 1984 U.S. Olympic Bronze Medalist moved into the Heavyweight ranks in July 1988 with a fifth round stoppage of James Tillis.  It was the first of seven straight knockouts in his Heavyweight tenure, part of thirteen straight overall.  By March 1989, the “Real Deal” was facing even tougher competition, warring with resurgent former titlist Michael Dokes in a savage affair, Holyfield triumphing in round ten.  Two fight later in the year, in November, it was another classic encounter, Holyfield stopping an undefeated Alex Stewart in eight.  With buzz building for a shot at then-Heavyweight king Mike Tyson, Holyfield became the mandatory contender to all of Tyson’s belts only to be forced to wait and finding his shot instead through “Buster” Douglas.  Holyfield made the most of it, stopping a lackluster Douglas with a right hand in round three.  With Tyson still the brass ring, Holyfield set an early pay-per-view sales record with George Foreman in April 1991, the two combining for a spirited battle over twelve full rounds.  Tyson seemed finally to be next but a reported rib injury scuttled their November 1991 encounter, leaving Holyfield with a replacement opponent (Francesco Damiani) and, when that fell through, a replacement for a replacement.  Suffering his first official knockdown in round three, Holyfield averted disaster by recuperating and stopping veteran Bert Cooper in seven.  He followed with a tougher than expected defense against former champion Larry Holmes in June 1992, needing a strong second half for the win, and found a public unsatisfied with a reign which featured two former champions over 40 as opponents.  Holyfield got the public back in his first defeat, a November 1992 war with Riddick Bowe.  Announcing his retirement, Holyfield quickly capitulated and, one year later, they did it again.  Changing tactics and using a more controlled strategy, Holyfield nipped Bowe by majority decision in a great fight often overshadowed by a seventh round interruption from the infamous “Fan Man.”  With the win he became only the third man to regain the lineal World championship but five months later, with a scored second round knockdown offset by shoulder and originally diagnosed heart problems, lost the crown to Michael Moorer via majority decision.  Holyfield, believing himself faith healed and given a clean bill of health by real doctors, returned thirteen months later to face Ray Mercer, dropping the steel chinned veteran for the first time and winning on points to set up a rubber match with Bowe; oddly lethargic, Holyfield would score a sixth round knockdown only to be stopped in eight.  Believed well past his prime, Holyfield summoned a final defining run.  Two fights after Bowe, he received his long desired crack at a Tyson returned from prison for the WBA belt, dropping “Iron” Mike in the sixth and stopping him in round eleven.  Their biting rematch came and went in June 1997 and Holyfield followed with a November shot at revenge against Moorer, unifying the WBA and IBF belts with five knockdowns before a stop in round eight.  Two fights later in March 1999, Holyfield was dominated in Madison Square Garden by lineal and WBC champ Lewis, lucky to leave with a draw. Despite an improved performance, his chance to match Ali’s feat of three legitimate Heavyweight championships was stymied by Lewis in their November rematch.  Aged 37 by the Lewis rematch, Holyfield continued and continues on.  The highlights have been few.  A trilogy against John Ruiz for the WBA belt resulted in a win, loss, and draw between 2000-01; a June 2002 fight with then recently deposed former champion Hasim Rahman was won fairly easily; and in 2007 and 08, he got shots at belts against Sultan Ibragimov and Nicolay Valuev, competing well with the first and losing a contestable decision to the latter.  Losses to Chris Byrd by decision in 2002 and James Toney by stoppage in 2003 were more indicative of how far he’d slipped.

Why He’s Here: The only active fighter on the list, Holyfield is included because he’s so old, so far past his prime, that his continued activity is irrelevant to his historical standing.  Any big wins now serve only to delegitimize whomever he defeats.  Holyfield was at the heart of what might have been the second best era in Heavyweight history.  He was its best and most consistently thrilling fighter.  Juxtapose that with the notion that, for years, Holyfield dealt with derision from unsatisfied masses.  Because he didn’t beat Tyson for the title the first time, because he had achieved first in the infant Cruiserweight class, Holyfield’s legitimacy was questioned.  The claim of ‘blown up Cruiserweight’ dogged him and is laughable in the context of time.  Prior to the very late 1970s, there was a name for anyone who fought above 175 pounds: Heavyweight.  Holyfield may not have been the biggest man of his day, but he was a big man in any era.  The fighters he beat at Cruiserweight can’t technically count towards his Heavyweight resume because the latter division did exist, but they were also the sort of wins many Heavyweight contenders have had on the way up (if not better than some).  At Heavyweight, it can be argued that Holyfield suffered from an inconsistency of results, but that didn’t become an issue until after the age of 30.  To his credit, Holyfield showed the mark of a great fighter in being able to improve in rematches and avenged both of his first two losses to Bowe and Moorer.  The knockout loss to Bowe in the rubber match was the only such end he suffered before the age of 40 and the only time he finished off his feet.  Part of what made him great was not just adaptability to foes; he also adapted his style from a whirlwind of activity to a more controlled, and yes occasionally dirty, thinking man in the ring.  While, despite the verdict, the first Lewis fight at age 36 should be considered a loss, the rematch performance is often overlooked.  Holyfield rocked Lewis in the bout and some in the press favored Holyfield as the winner; a draw would have been as fair there as it was not the first time.  He also can point to besting a better version of Tyson than Lewis and a superior win over Ray Mercer, dropping the steel chinned former Olympian for the first time in 1995.  From rising officially to Heavyweight in 1988 through the Rahman win in 1992, Holyfield remained as or among the best Heavyweights in the world for a remarkable fourteen years.  Holyfield is not yet eligible for the IBHOF.

5) George Foreman (1969-97)
 Record: 76-5-1, 68 KO
World Champion 1973-74, 2 Defenses; Lineal World Champion 1994-97, 3 Defenses
WBA/IBF 1994-95; IBF 1995, 1 Defense
Heavyweight Titlists/Champions Faced – 7: (Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Muhammad Ali, Evander Holyfield, Tommy Morrison, Michael Moorer, Shannon Briggs)

A 1968 Olympic Gold Medalist at Heavyweight, despite a relatively short amateur career, Foreman wasted little time assaulting the paid ranks.  Eighteen knockouts in his first twenty one wins, including a stop of future title challenger Chuck Wepner in Foreman’s fourth bout, led to a step up in August 1970 against rugged, if faded, veteran George Chuvalo.  Foreman forced a stop in round three, one of only two such losses Chuvalo suffered in almost 100 contests.  The Chuvalo win was part of a 21-bout knockout streak, including a tenth round stop of one of the three men to take him the route earlier in his career (Gregorio Peralta).  Those 21 led directly to a 22nd straight stop on January 22, 1973 in Jamaica.  It was the biggest and best of the bunch, a six knockdown drubbing of undefeated Joe Frazier for the Heavyweight championship of the World.  Down went Frazier and two title challengers, the second of them Hall of Famer Ken Norton, before it was Foreman’s turn to visit the floor.  Outclassed in Zaire, Foreman suffered an eighth round end at the hands of Muhammad Ali in October 1974.  He’d fight only six more times in the 1970s, most memorably in his comeback bout after Ali in January 1976.  Matched with heavy handed Ron Lyle, Foreman found himself in an epic slugfest which saw both men on the floor in the fourth before Foreman trapped Lyle and finished him in the fifth.  Foreman followed six months later with a fifth-round rematch knockout of Frazier and continued chasing a rematch with Ali until a surprising decision loss to slick Jimmy Young in March 1977.  Badly dehydrated and believing he’d had religious visions, Foreman retired and became a preacher.  Most career stories end at a point like that.  If Foreman’s had, he probably isn’t where he is on this list.  Just eight days shy of a full decade later, Foreman returned with the first of eighteen straight knockouts, 23 in 24 fights.  In those wins, stoppages of future title challenger Bert Cooper, younger former Light Heavyweight and Cruiserweight titlist Dwight Muhammad Qawi, and a shelling of Gerry Cooney stood out and earned a second chance for the Heavyweight crown at age 42 in April 1991.  An underdog, Foreman proved he belonged with the best in the world despite defeat at the hands of Evander Holyfield in a hellacious fight.  As was the case the first time around, Foreman’s schedule slowed after a loss, but he managed solid stoppage wins in 1992 and 93 over fringe contenders Alex Stewart (in a bloody affair) and Pierre Coetzer.  A decision loss to Tommy Morrison in June 1993 seemed to signal the end, but Foreman still wasn’t done.  Seventeen months later, Foreman’s star power gave a big assist in getting him first crack at newly crowned Heavyweight king Michael Moorer in November 1994.  Foreman achieved a new level of boxing immortality.  Behind on points, Foreman nailed Moorer with a right in round ten to surpass Jersey Joe Walcott as the oldest Heavyweight champ at age 45.  The WBA stripped Foreman of their belt right away; the IBF followed suit when he would not rematch an Axel Schultz he was fortunate to get by on points in his first defense in April 1995.  Foreman would defend twice more against lesser foes before suffering a controversial points loss to Shannon Briggs in November 1997 and retiring for good (one thinks).

Why He’s Here: It’s hard to avoid Foreman’s living rebuttal of the cliché that “there are no second acts in American life.”  A career that ends with a mark of 45-2, 42 KO, and a Heavyweight title reign is outstanding; 31-3 with 26 stops and the crown ain’t bad either.  One man having both is almost absurd.  That’s what happened with Foreman, winning titles almost twenty-two years apart.  Much was made in his comeback about Foreman being a changed man outside the ring.  He was in the ring as well in terms of temperament.  The young Foreman was a wrecking ball; the older Foreman was a patient stalker with a shotgun of a jab.  Both versions were nothing to be played with.  Foreman wasn’t a perfect fighter in either life.  Smart boxers could trouble, if not always defeat, him and did in the guise of Peralta, Ali, Young, Holyfield, even Moorer for nine rounds.  Morrison, who was thought of as a banger, went stick and move to great effect as well.  Smart boxers are typically trouble for everyone, so Foreman has company.  Until the very end, few others could avoid their fate.  “Big” George was a physical beast, able to batter guys with heavy hands or get rid of them with a single blast and his unique accomplishments speak to a rare breed of prizefighter.  There’s only one man on the planet who knows what it’s like to fight live versions of Ali, Frazier, and Holyfield for the crown and only five to know what it was like to lose, and regain, the real Heavyweight crown.  Foreman wasn’t the best of those five, but he’s certainly among the five best Heavyweights ever.  Foreman was inducted into the IBHOF in 2003.  

4) Larry Holmes (1973-2002)
Record: 69-6, 44 KO
Lineal World Champion 1980-85, 12 Defenses
WBC Titlist 1978-83, 16 Defenses; IBF Titlist 1983-85, 3 Defenses
Heavyweight Titlists/Champions Faced – 12: (Ken Norton, Mike Weaver, Muhammad Ali, Trevor Berbick, Leon Spinks, Tim Witherspoon, “Bonecrusher” Smith, Michael Spinks, Mike Tyson, Ray Mercer, Evander Holyfield, Oliver McCall)

It wouldn’t be unfair to say that Larry Holmes struggled to be wanted.  An embarrassing, and nationally televised, loss to Duane Bobick at the 1972 Olympic trials, combined with Holmes lengthy tenure as a sparring partner to Muhammad Ali, left him judged before he had a chance to present the evidence about who he could be.  It didn’t matter that he’d had a relative handful of amateur fights or that, as he learned his craft, all Holmes did was win.  The public was slow to warm.  Holmes was, conversely, a quick study in the ring.  An April 1976 win over the rough and larger Roy Williams opened some eyes in his 22nd fight; a March 1978 shutout win in a title eliminator versus an Ernie Shavers once removed from nearly toppling Ali opened even more.  The specter of the Bobick outing left questions about his heart going into a crack at WBC titlist Ken Norton in June 1978; Holmes answered with aplomb.  Building a lead early, Holmes held off a furious rush in the later rounds, badly hurting Norton in the 13th and surviving one of the most violent 15th rounds imaginable.  The split decision win legitimized Holmes as a fighter; championship legitimacy emerged as the next struggle.  While he had a belt, Holmes reign began between the two Ali-Leon Spinks battles for the real crown.  Ali retired and the WBA belt went through a tournament to begin a game of musical chairs lasting years.  Holmes was the steady hand over the next two years, defending his belt seven times with memorable stoppages of Shavers and an emergent Mike Weaver.  Between March and September, Holmes place as the undeniable champion was secured, first with knockout victim Weaver winning the WBA crown and then with a ten round battering of a returning Ali who had left as champion.  The Ali bout was the last of an eight defense knockout streak, tying the mark set Tommy Burns almost a century earlier.  His first decision defense came immediately after Ali, an April 1981 dominating of future titlist Trevor Berbick and then it was three more knockouts.  Former champion Leon Spinks went in three, an off the floor stop of Renaldo Snipes came in eleven, and then the most memorable of all his affairs in June 1982.  Heavy racial overtones settled on the bout.  Slighted by a media who treated him like an opponent, a President who set up a line for a victory call to only his foe prior to the fight, and a ring announcer who audaciously introduced the champion first, Holmes dropped undefeated Gerry Cooney in round two and endured some furious bombs (above and below the belt) to win the richest fight in history to then with a stop in round thirteen.  Eight more defenses followed, four of the WBC bauble and three of the newly born IBF variety when Holmes discarded the former’s belt during a promotional struggle with promoter Don King.  The quality of his foes was of varying quality, Tim Witherspoon taking him to the brink in a fantastic fight in May 1983 along with solid victories over Bonecrusher Smith and Carl Williams (all three inside their own first twenty fights); those names were offset by lesser challenges like Scott Frank, Marvis Frazier, and Lucien Rodriguez as Holmes built his mark to within one of mirroring Marciano’s 49-0.  Light Heavyweight champion Michael Spinks blunted his chance at 49 in September 1985, winning a close decision.  Holmes’s more than seven years as the best Heavyweight in the world were done and, despite controlling the bulk of the rounds and badly staggering Spinks late, was denied his chance to return to the throne in an April 1986 rematch whose decision was among the worst of the decade.  Holmes, aged 38, returned for another title shot in early 1988 only to be routed in four by Mike Tyson.  His lone stoppage loss appeared to be his fistic end but Holmes wasn’t done.  Bolstered by the success of George Foreman, Holmes returned in 1991, winning five straight and returning to real contention with a masterful unanimous decision over an undefeated Ray Mercer in February 1992.  A title shot at Holyfield followed and Holmes may even have held a slight lead through the first half before losing in twelve.  He continued in the ring until 2002, almost upsetting WBC titlist Oliver McCall in 1995 at age 45 and exposing undefeated pretender Brian Nielsen even as he lost an egregious decision in 1997. 

Why He’s Here: Pennsylvania’s “Easton Assassin” struggled with the shadows of stars throughout his career.  He wasn’t Ali in his youth; wasn’t Foreman in his comeback; didn’t reach Marciano or Louis in the raw numbers.  It matters less as time goes by because Holmes career stands on its own merits and emerges from any shadows in the full light of history.  He had one of, if not the very, best left jabs in Heavyweight history and a savage will to win, proving himself as a man and champion.  He passed all of the tests of a great fighter.   While some of his bouts were a bore, few Heavyweights have a better collection of rewatchable battles, ironic when considering how many people found him ‘dull’ in his prime.  With a detached bicep, he outdueled Norton; in the Shavers rematch, he took a mammoth right hand only to get up, fight harder, and stop his man.  He shined under the intense spotlight of a genuine Superfight with Cooney.  Beginning to age, Holmes found a younger and hungry Witherspoon capable of taking his jab away in 1983 and turned brawler to save his crown (though the decision was debatable).  He reigned with consistency, defending some version of the Heavyweight title 20 consecutive times and the lineal title 12, both second only to Louis, while besting seven men who held some version of the title during his time (eight if the Spinks rematch had been decided correctly).  He has some resume weaknesses of course.  There was never a unification match with any of the title claimants he didn’t otherwise beat and, post-Cooney, there was certainly some resume padding going on in pursuit of 49-0 (Marvis Frazier?  All these years later, it still begs the question, “Really?”).  The era he reigned over is considered one of the weakest, though the weakness can be overstated.  There were skilled, athletic fighters around but apathy and drugs meant tremendous underachievement.  Against Holmes, those underachievers usually brought their best and the negatives are outweighed.  Up until almost fifty years of age, he could still blow back the scrubs and could compete with contenders and champions into his mid-forties.  The line between the men in front of him on this list is razor thin and Holmes could have beaten or been hell for any of them.  Holmes was inducted to the IBHOF in 2008.   

3) Jack Johnson (1897-1938)
Record: 77-13-14, 48 KO, 19 No Decisions
World Champion 1908-15, 8 Defenses
Heavyweight Titlists/Champions Faced – 3: (Marvin Hart, Bob Fitzsimmons, Tommy Burns, Jim Jeffries, Jess Willard)

Galveston, Texas’s “Papa,” also known as the “Galveston Giant,” was the first black Heavyweight champion, a lightning rod for social controversy and racist stupidity at the turn of the 20th century.  A pro at age nineteen, Johnson learned his trade as most did in his time, losing and taking lumps on the road to improvement.  Stopped twice in his first ten fights, the second time by Hall of Famer Joe Choynski, Johnson began to find his footing in 1902, stopping rugged Frank Childs and decisioning future Light Heavyweight champion George Gardner over twenty.  Seven wins in as many outings in 1903 saw Johnson grow even further into contention, outpointing Ed Martin and Sam McVea in the first two of their three fights.  McVea and Martin wouldn’t last the route a year later and Johnson began to call for a crack at the title.  A debatable decision setback versus a Marvin Hart who would claim the vacant crown two fights later in March 1905 was the first of thirteen contests on the year. As the year developed, Johnson would face professional beginner Joe Jeanette four times, losing once by disqualification and otherwise engaging on even terms until turning the tide in 1906, winning their seventh bout via fifteen round decision.  Johnson would also best a then Middleweight Sam Langford over fifteen that year and added knockouts of former champion Bob Fitzsimmons and stalwart Jim Flynn in 1907 to further fuel his pursuit of the crown.  Chasing then-champion Tommy Burns around the globe, Johnson finally caught him in Australia in December 1908.  It was no contest, Johnson dominating the smaller Burns until the police stopped the action in round 14 and sent it to the cards.  Johnson’s win spurred the birth of the “Great White Hope” movement, a mostly fruitless endeavor which sold plenty of tickets.  Outweighed by over forty pounds, former Light Heavyweight champion Philadelphia Jack O’Brien couldn’t get it done in a six round no contest bout in May 1909; Middleweight king Stanley Ketchell was famously knocked out with a single tooth loosening blow in the 12th later in the year after scoring a knockdown.  Economic heights were reached in the first “Fight of the Century” in July 1910, pitting Johnson against a Jim Jeffries who had vacated the crown in 1905.  The action was one sided before Johnson lowered a closing boom in the fifteenth in Reno.  Johnson wouldn’t fight again for two years, battering Flynn in a rematch through nine in July 1912 and exiting the country by year’s end under a racially charged “White Slavery” indictment.  Johnson defended once in Paris in 1913, a draw with Jim Johnson which marked the first Heavyweight title contest between two black fighters, and added wins in Paris and Argentina the following year.  Finally, in Cuba in April 1915, the reign would end, Johnson well ahead on points before succumbing to a knockout blow in the 26th round.  Johnson was 37 years old, never received another shot at the title, and wouldn’t return to the U.S. until 1920 where he was forced into a year of imprisonment.  He continued to fight into the 1930s and was still doing exhibitions until a year before his untimely death in 1946.

Why He’s Here: One of the most chronicled figures in the sport, it’s hard to add anything new to analysis of Johnson as a symbol, where he shines, or as a man, where he was a mixed bag.  The attempt won’t be made as the focus here is Johnson in the ring.  Between the ropes, he was arguably the finest defensive Heavyweight ever.  Able to pick and parry shots, and an expert clincher, Johnson controlled the space of the ring and the fate of foes.  His resume is packed with early Heavyweight champions, Hall of Famers, and champions from other classes.  Some of the names can be taken out of proper context.  Wins over McVea and Jeanette came when Johnson was much farther along on the learning curve and it speaks well of Jeanette that he could compete with almost no serious professional experience.  Langford wasn’t yet the more consistent, 180-plus pound Heavyweight threat he would evolve into during Johnson’s reign.  None of them got title shots when they peaked.  It could be argued the market wasn’t keen to those fights when Johnson was champion, but Johnson-Johnson happened and Langford was popular enough overseas to draw even better.  Still, did he beat those men, Martin and Childs, and anyone white fans could dream of throwing at him, no really looking his better across almost thirteen years, reigning king for more than six.  Had Willard been contested at a more modern limit of fifteen rounds or twelve rounds, Johnson might have stayed champion for a few more years after that.  Standing almost 6’2 and weighing between 190 and 210 lbs. at his peak, films of Johnson can feature more grappling than punching but can mislead.  Fight film was profitable in the early 20th century and more rounds meant more film.  It’s notable that, when Johnson opened up, fights tended towards a finish.  Johnsons’ offensive arsenal came with a full cup; an expert left jab, educated right, accurate hooks and a wicked uppercut that still jumps at the camera.  He wasn’t just beating some serious pros; he was occasionally toying with them and deciding how long they got to be in the ring.  Only a master can do that with the ease Johnson employed.  The master was an inaugural member of the IBHOF in 1990.

With twenty-three selections out of the way, only two obvious fighters remain.  They are the most discussed, most documented, most celebrated Heavyweights if not athletes of the last eighty or so years.  Both have a legitimate claim to the top slot.  This is one take on who belongs where. 

2) Joe Louis (1934-51)
Record: 66-3, 52 KO
World Champion 1937-49, 25 Defenses
Heavyweight Titlists/Champions Faced – 8: (Primo Carnera, Max Baer, Max Schmeling, Jack Sharkey, Jim Braddock, Jersey Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles, Rocky Marciano)

Detroit’s “Brown Bomber,” with ten knockouts in twelve bouts after a July debut, was already building buzz by the end of 1934.  Louis took the buzz on the road, leaving bodies strewn behind him in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and San Francisco making his New York debut in June 1935 against former champion Primo Carnera.  Louis dropped the giant man three times, scoring a stop in the sixth for his twentieth victory.  Just two fights later another champion fell, Max Baer surrendering in four and Louis seemed at 21 already invincible.  He wasn’t, proven by former champion Max Schmeling in June 1936 when he dropped Louis in the fourth and again in the twelfth for the finish.  Louis wouldn’t officially lose again until 1950.  He bounced right back with a three round rout of Sharkey just two months after Schmeling, the first of seven straight wins that saw him beat Schmeling to a shot at Jim Braddock’s World title in June 1937.  Dropped quickly in the first, Louis rose and stopped Braddock in round eight to kick off a historic title reign.  Three title defenses paved the road to the fourth and the biggest fight of Louis’s career, a first round rematch knockout of Schmeling which captured the attention of the world.  More memorable evenings followed: the great Conn fight in 1941 and it’s not so great rematch; the lucky win at the end against Walcott and the no luck needed knockout in the rematch.  Even past his prime and forced out of retirement, Louis managed wins over solid if similarly aged versions of Jimmy Bivins and Lee Savold.  Astonishingly, in his twenty-five consecutive defenses of the title, only three went the full fifteen rounds.

Why He’s Here: A genuine American hero, Joe Louis is arguably the most important athlete ever.  It’s not an overstatement.  Without Louis’s lengthy title reign, his enduring symbolic value, his war service and carefully projected humility, real integration in sports may not have happened until much later.  The ground breakers who followed him, the Jackie Robinson’s and Ali’s and Jim Brown’s…Louis was the bridge.  That’s out of the ring.  In the ring, he was almost peerless and it’s scary to think of what he might have accomplished in a non-war era.  A precise and devastating combination puncher, Louis knew when and where to hit a man behind an educated jab and scary pressure.  His only defeat, from debut through the end of his title reign, came with less than two years logged as a professional, that to a former Heavyweight champion.  Much is made of the years Ali lost in the 1960’s to his draft controversy but Louis lost even more time in the heart of his title reign for World War II service every bit as honorable as Ali’s refusal to serve.  Louis had only one official contest from March 1942 to June 1946, a glorified exhibition, at a time when he already had 20 of his 25 consecutive defenses.  Without the war, considering how active he was, it’s probable the number grows past 30, maybe even approaches 40 assuming he maintains his twelve years as champion.  It’s no guarantee, as some fascinating challengers emerged in those years.  Louis versus Jimmy Bivins when both were young could have been special; a punchers showdown with Elmer Ray explosive.  It wasn’t meant to be.  A sign of the dominance he displayed in what was can be found in defeating every man who held the World Heavyweight title after Gene Tunney’s retirement by knockout, along with one of the three men to immediately succeed Louis.  Louis’s chin is often cited as a liability, and it could be, but his balance contributed to some of the knockdowns he suffered as well.  The chin stood up to some massive men like Abe Simon and Buddy Baer, an indication that he’d be as frightening today as then.  There really wasn’t much more Louis could have done to rate higher other than pick a different birth year, and no one can do that.  Louis was an inaugural member of the Hall of Fame. 

1) Muhammad Ali (1960-81)
Record: 56-5, 37 KO
World Champion 1964-70, 9 Defenses; 1974-78, 10 Defenses; 1978
Heavyweight Titlists/Champions Faced – 10: (Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, Ernie Terrell, Joe Frazier, Jimmy Ellis, Ken Norton, George Foreman, Leon Spinks, Larry Holmes, Trevor Berbick)

The 1960 U.S. Olympic Light Heavyweight Gold Medalist from Louisville, Kentucky would become among the most recognizable people on the planet.  He could fight a little too.  Born and turned pro as Cassius Clay, Ali overcame some early trips to the floor against Sonny Banks and Henry Cooper and a close decision win over Doug Jones to earn a crack at favored Sonny Liston’s World title in February 1964.  Making his last appearance in the ring as Clay, Ali embarrassed Liston, overcoming an alleged attempt to blind him with liniment to force Liston to quit on his stool before the seventh.  A bizarre rematch knockout of Liston the following year was the first of nine defenses, which included being briefly stripped by the WBA for political reasons only to later regain their belt with a win over Ernie Terrell in February 1967.  His last defense would come one month later.  Refusing to enter the Vietnam draft, Ali wasn’t able to fight for over three full years, retiring briefly and formally in 1970…only to quickly return in October of the year to shake off the rust and prepare for a shot at the man who replaced him a champion, Joe Frazier.  He’d fall short there in a classic March 1971 title fight, and lose the first battle with Ken Norton in 1973, but avenged both in posting a mark of 15-2 from his 1970 return to an October 1974 challenge of then-champion George Foreman.  Famously fought in Zaire, Ali stopped Foreman in eight to regain the title more than a decade after his first reign began.  As was the case the first time, Ali was a fighting champion with four defenses in 1975 which included tough Ron Lyle and culminated in the third and final war with Frazier, won by stoppage before the start of the final round.  Ali was never really the same after that and struggled for consistent professionalism in his preparation.  He showed up fat and nearly lost to Jimmy Young in 1976; got in shape and still should have lost in the Norton rubber match later in the year.  His last great performance came perhaps in September 1977, rallying the final round to hurt hammer fisted Ernie Shavers and seal victory in a close affair.  His last great win would be a revenge of an embarrassing defeat to a novice Leon Spinks in the second of their two 1978 bouts, making Ali the first and only man to win the history’s Heavyweight crown three times.  Two ill-fated comeback fights, with younger Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick, added unnecessary punishment and losses to Ali’s ledger before permanent retirement began in 1981.

Why He’s Here: Blessed with speed, reflexes, underrated power, a chin, and a personality that changed the ways professional sporting folk promote themselves (for better and worse), Ali was a gifted athlete who chose boxing.  A look at the others fighters in these ratings give a clue as to why Ali is here.  Ali was simply the best of what was the best of Heavyweight periods.  While he didn’t get the chance to best Louis’s mark of 25 straight defenses, he had a stronger pool of foes to choose from.  It’s not as hard to imagine Ali beating anyone Louis did as the reverse.  Fights in the imagination like Louis-Foreman or Frazier give far greater pause than Ali-Schmeling or Max Baer.  Ali wasn’t unbeatable and if he looked it prior to the draft controversy it’s worth noting a down time in terms of opposition.  The late 1960s and 1970s crop was just hitting the peak of their development while Ali was being shut down after Folley.  Had he not lost those years, might it still look as it did then, look as if there just was nothing to compete with him?  Maybe, but as  noted above it’s just as easy to assume Joe Frazier always mixes for a trip through hell and brings the best out of him.  Without the motivation supplied by his persecution, it’s no sure thing someone else couldn’t have caught him on a night where he wasn’t as serious as need be.  As a negative, he got some massive benefits of the doubt as he got older and not just the Norton rubber match.  There were plenty who felt both Young and Shavers earned wins; Ron Lyle was arguably ahead and the victim of questionable stoppage.  Those things are offset by the obvious brilliance against Liston and Foreman, the depths he was willing to put his body through with Frazier, and the handling of hard contenders like Jerry Quarry, George Chuvalo, and Oscar Bonavena throughout.  Ali, an inaugural member of the IBHOF in 1990, claimed loudly to be “The Greatest.” 

That’s about right…unless it really is Louis…because…but…

It’s definitely one of them.  Let the argument continue on.

Previous Installments of “The Eight”:

Top 25 Flyweights
Pt. 1:
Pt. 2:

Top 25 Bantamweights
Pt. 1:
Pt. 2:

Top 25 Featherweights
Pt. 1:
Pt. 2:  

Top 25 Lightweights
Pt. 1:
Pt. 2:

Top 25 Welterweights
Pt. 2:

Top 25 Middleweights
Pt. 1:
Pt. 2:  

Top 25 Light Heavyweights
Pt. 1:
Pt. 2:


The results here are compiled in two parts which tweaks the format used for the review of the nine Jr. Divisions conducted earlier this year.

First, a points-based comparison assigns points in part based on:

• Number of fellow champions faced (total) then divided into a competition score to flatten the field due to the fluctuation in titles recognized.
• Lineal World Titles
• Sanctioning Body Titles
• Title Defenses
• 2 Points per KO; -2 per KOBY; 1 per UD against fellow titlists
• Quality Wins (Points Assigned based on opponent accomplishments; i.e. lineal champions can count for 1, a single sanctioning body champion based on their sanctioning body total, discretionary points for established champions from other weight classes)
• Quality Losses (Losses to champion opponents -1 point; selective non-title losses)
• Draws (.5 points)

From this, a baseline is established and the top fifty fighters are identified.  Further analysis focuses on the context of wins and losses, the relative dominance displayed in a fighter’s prime, and the strength of one’s era versus the competition faced, to get to a final top twenty-five.

Note: The websites of the IBHOF, Cyber Boxing Zone, International Boxing Research Organization, and were all heavily consulted in compiling this effort.

Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America.  He can be reached at [email protected]  

User Comments and Feedback (Register For Free To Comment) Comment by kej718 on 01-04-2014

Can't be mad at that top five and am glad Lewis made the top ten, and Tyson is about right where he should be.

Comment by soul_survivor on 01-04-2014

How is Jack Johnson above Foreman and Holmes? Personally I'd have Foreman above Holmes and just below Louis. Ali at number one is just obvious. Holy at 6 is ok, Lewis top 10 definitely. dempsey possibly but no other old…

Comment by Deontay Wilder on 01-04-2014

Nice list by OP, I have the feeling JAB is going to like it for the most part. :fing02:

Comment by Sugar Adam Ali on 01-04-2014

1. ali 2. holmes 3. lennox 4. louis 5. foreman 6. holyfield 7. liston 8. tyson 9. frazier 10. johnson

Comment by jas on 01-04-2014

Tyson is too high at 13...he didn't beat 1 great heavyweight who was in his prime in his entire career.

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