8 Greatest Boxing Heavyweights of all time
The hard truth is that no one cares about boxing unless there is a prolific heavyweight champion at the helm to garner attention.
Most all-time heavyweight champs have benefited from relatively shallow divisions. Every other decade or so a heavyweight comes along with the right combination of competition, popularity, and knockout performances that elevates the sport to its rightful place as the center of the sporting universe.
It should be noted that this list rates champions during their reign as champ, not what they did as contenders or after relinquishing their titles. Thus the criteria for ranking the all-time heavyweight champs shall be the following:
Punching power – A heavyweight champion should provide spectacular knockout, it’s the staple of the division.
Chin – A great champ needs to take a great punch, they should be able to withstand and outlast the competition.
Reign (length) – Longevity is a testament to a champion’s dedication to being the best indicator of his superiority.
Competition (during their reign as champ) – To be the best you have to beat the best and the greatest champions
8- Jack Dempsey
7- Mike Tyson
6- Wladamir Klitschko
5- Joe Frazier
4- Rocky Marciano
3- Larry Holmes
2- Joe Louis
1- Muhammad Ali
#8 Jack Dempsey
Punching power: A
Jack Dempsey was an American-hero. He won his title by knocking out the 245-pound, 6’6’’ Jess Willard on July 4, 1919 and dropped the giant 7 times en route to a 3rd round KO.
Pros: Dempsey had knockout power in either hand and threw every shot with the intention of ripping off an opponent’s limb. He produced 2 of the most exciting fights ever seen in black and white when mauled Willard in 1919 and destroyed Luis Angel Firpo in 1923 when they shared 11 knockdowns before Dempsey stopped the behemoth Firpo in the 2nd round.
Cons: What Dempsey had in power he lacked in activity during his reign as champ. Over 7 years he only defended his title 5 times before he was dethroned by the great Gene Tunney in 1926. Though he fought legit heavyweight contenders like Firpo and Tommy Gibbons, he also never defended his title against any of the popular African-American contenders such Sam Langford.
#7 Mike Tyson
Punching power: A
“Iron Mike” Tyson might have been the most terrifying presence in the ring since Sonny Liston was champ 24-years earlier. Tyson became champion in 1986 when he decimated previous champ Trevor Berbick in only 2 rounds. It was Tyson’s 13th fight of that year and his 11th knockout having turned pro just a year earlier in 1985.
Pros: By the time Tyson was champ there was no longer a single heavyweight title and to be crowned king of the ring, Tyson would need to unify 3 heavyweight belts: the World Boxing Council, the World Boxing Association, and the International Boxing Federation, titles. Tyson unified the division, was considered unbeatable by his early 20’s, and in 1988 made easy work of then lineal champ Michael Spinks in the first minute of the first round.
Cons: Tyson benefited from beating overmatched opponents however during his reign as champ he began to decline and was no longer the refined fighting machine that won the title. In 1990 he was knocked out by underdog named James “Buster” Douglas the biggest upset in boxing history due to lack of discipline. Tyson would win versions of the title again but lost whenever he stepped up to fellow top heavyweights such as Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis.
#6 Wladamir Klitschko
Punching power: A
Wladamir Klitschko is the owner of the second longest heavyweight title reign in history with 22 title defenses from 2006 to 2015. Klitschko, a native of the Ukraine, standing at 6’6” and weighing about 240 lbs won his first heavyweight title in 2000 by beating American heavyweight Chris Byrd in a 12 round decision and was a top heavyweight for over 15 years.
Pros: Klitschko was blessed with size, a terrific jab, impressive footwork, and true power. He knocked out virtually everyone he fought and shut-out anyone that went the distance with him. At no point was he ever in a close fight in his reign as champion until he lost the title to Brit Tyson Fury in 2015 via close decision. Klitschko was truly unbeatable during his second reign and it seemed he might retire as champion before hanging up the gloves.
Cons: Klitschko had hands of steel but a chin of glass. Out of his 5 losses, 4 were by knockout: Once he was knocked out as a defending champ, twice as a challenger for a title. Like his predecessors Larry Holmes and Joe Louis before him, Klitschko benefited from a relatively weak heavyweight division with virtually no real competition. His only real competitor for dominance was older brother Vitali, and the two swore they would never fight and as a result he was never the “undisputed” unified champ.
#5 Joe Frazier
Punching Power: A
Joe Frazier may have had the best left-hook in boxing history and between 1968 and 1973 he dominated the heavyweight division single-handedly with it. Frazier’s nemesis Muhammad Ali was stripped of the heavyweight title 1 year earlier for refusing to participate in the draft for the Vietnam war, this left the division champ-less until Frazier stepped onto the scene.
Frazier won a version of the heavyweight title in 1968 when he knocked out Buster Mathis in 11 rounds in New York. He unified the title in 1970 when he stopped Jimmy Ellis in 4 rounds for the World Boxing Council and World Boxing Association titles. His reign lasted until 1973 when he was nearly decapitated by George Foreman in 2 rounds after being dropped 6 times.
Pros: Smokin’ Joe Frazier defended his title 9 times, 7 of them by knockout and owns the best win of any heavyweight resume in history: A win over an undefeated, 29-year-old Muhammad Ali, flooring him in the 15th round with a legend killing left-hook. Frazier’s power was matched only by will and relentless output. Frazier was known for his pressure fighting and willingness to walk through an onslaught of punishment to topple his enemies. Despite having lost 4 times, 3 by knockout there were only 2 men to ever beat him: Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.
Cons: Frazier was a limited fighter overall and while he beat fellow tough men like Oscar Bonavena and Jerry Quarry, he was knocked out by power house George Foreman. Frazier fought in one gear, moving in one direction, and he had no ability to adapt or change his game plan if he was losing. In the end, Frazier was always beatable, his will just kept him coming forward.
#4 Rocky Marciano
Punching power: A
Rocky’s championship reign began September 23, 1953 when he clobbered old “Jersey Joe” Walcott in the 13th round of their first fight and he did it with what is probably the best right hook ever thrown in the history of right hooks. Rocky went on to defend his title 6 times, beating Walcott in a rematch, Roland LaStarza in a barn burner, Ezzard Charles twice, Englishman Don Cockell, and “Ancient” Archie Moore.
His championship run ended in 1955 after his shoot-out with Moore, a fight in which Marciano himself hit the canvas in the 2nd round for a 2-count before getting up and knocking Moore out in the 9th.
Pros: Marciano had the two attributes necessary for a top heavyweight in any era: punching power and a granite chin. Despite his limited ability his KO percentage is an astounding 87% and is the only heavyweight champ to retire and remain undefeated.
Cons: “The Brockton Blockbuster”, as he was called, was only champ for 2 years. His resume in that time consists of fellow hall-of-famers Charles, Walcott, and Moore but both Walcott and Moore were 39 when they fought him. This means that although he was a popular, pulverizing champ, his short lived reign at the top hinders his all-time ranking.
#3 Larry Holmes
Punching power: A
Larry Holmes is one of the most underrated heavyweight champions in history. He won his title in 1978 versus the veteran Ken Norton in a classic heavyweight bout and defended it 20 times before losing it to Michael Spinks in 1985.
Holmes was 6’3” and his best weight was around 220 pounds and knocked out 44 of his 66 opponents. In 1978 he even stopped his former sparring mate Ali in passing-of-the-torch type fight.
Pros: Holmes possessed what is likely the best jab in the history of the heavyweight division Ali-like speed and an 81” reach. Holmes has the third longest reign in heavyweight history behind Joe Louis and Wladamir Klitschko. Additionally he was a masterful boxer and rarely fell into the trap of a slugfest with the punchers of his generation.
Cons: Despite his long run as champ, Holmes is seen as a place-holder between the era of Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. He was great, but not as great as Ali. He was powerful, but not as spectacular as Tyson. Although he fought top challengers but he also fought a lot of unknown contenders and his place in history is hindered because of it.
#2 Joe Louis
Punching power: A
Joe Louis is the epitome of a heavyweight champ and in a universe where Muhamad Ali doesn’t exist, Joe Louis is the greatest heavyweight champion of all time.
Louis was 66-3, 52 KO’s when he finished his career in 1951. He defended his title a record 25 times, 21 times by KO between 1937 and 1948, making him the longest reigning champ by a longshot.
Pros: Louis, dubbed “The Brown Bomber”, had thunderous power in both hands and knocked out virtually everyone who challenged for his title. He possessed dominating hand-speed for his time, and was a blistering combination puncher. On top of all this, he was a popular champion and did what a heavyweight champion should do: He brought attention to the sport.
Cons: Louis has an amazing reign as champ but anyone with 25 title defenses is bound to have some poor opposition. Louis’s victims were often referred to as, “The bum-of-the-month club”. Take a look at “Two-Ton” Tony Galento who stood 5’9” and weighed over 230 lbs. Or Johnny Davis whose record was 3 wins and 3 losses when he fought Louis before Louis knocked him out in the first minute of the first round.
#1 Muhammad Ali
Punching power: A
There is nothing that can be said about Muhammad Ali that he hasn’t already said himself. Ali became heavyweight champion of the world in 1964 by upsetting Sonny Liston and defended it an incredible 9 times in only 3 years. He won the title for a second time in 1974 in an upset when he dethroned George Foreman in Zaire. During his second reign as champ he successfully defended his title for 3 years again only this time he racked up 10 total defenses.
Pros: Seeing Ali’s punching ability for the first time was like the first time witnessing fire. Fluid, bursting with energy, and purposeful. You couldn’t take your eyes away from it, but if saw it hit something like say, an opponent’s face, it would utterly destroy it. Ali came from the true golden age of heavyweights and beat everyone, donning the best resume in heavyweight history. He stood out, no one could match him for speed, boxing ability, or cleverness. He was as smart as he was courageous and knew when to take chances, like he did when he stopped the heralded George Foreman in 1974 in one of boxing’s biggest upsets.
Cons: Ali got away with breaking the fundamental rules of boxing by being a true freak of nature. Ali kept his hands low, and would often underestimate his opponents which led to him absorbing brutal punishment that he could have avoided. Additionally he was very much a head-hunter who focused nearly all of his attacks above the neck and never followed the traditional school of boxing.