Top Ten All Time Heavyweights
10. Jack Dempsey
9. Rocky Marciano
8. Mike Tyson
7. Sonny Liston
6. Larry Holmes
5. Joe Frazier
4. George Foreman
3. Jack Johnson
2. Joe Louis
1. Muhammad Ali
Before embarking on an historical assessment journey of this nature, we must first establish the criteria by which we are passing judgment. Are we rating individuals based on their performance relative to their respective era, or rather, based upon hypothetical predictions of success against one another? For example, if the goal is to rate fighters according to how successfully each dealt with the competition of their specific time period, then by all accounts the discussion would most likely conclude with guys like Marciano, Louis, and Holmes at the top of the list. Unfortunately, how a fighter fares within his respective era is often a reflection of relative competition, or a lack thereof, and does not offer a true indication of historical greatness. That is why I feel it is prudent, when compiling a top ten list, to factor in each fighter’s perceived strength and weaknesses relative to others at the same level of ability, in order to determine whether Leroy Brown was merely the baddest man in the whole damn town or whether he was the baddest man in the history of said town.
So that is what I have done. Painstaking research has been conducted, and countless hours have been spent watching fight films, analyzing opponents and opponent’s opponents, in order to expose potential style dilemmas and gauge ability over a variety of skill sets. I took into account punching power, chin, winning percentages in decision only fights, winning percentages before the age of thirty, boxing ability, hand speed, defense, and even tried to get a sense of the mental status of fighters’ on the verge of career decline. Finally, the quality of opposition was reviewed and graded for each fighter, in order to get some idea on a relative “strength of schedule,”and of course, results determined from head to head matchups had a profound impact on the overall positioning within the top ten as well.
So here is the list of the greatest all time heavyweights as rated by the Neutral Corner. Obviously this list is not intended to resolve any age old debates, nor will it serve as some crowning achievement on the classification of past heavyweight champions. It is written simply to rouse debate and offer up yet another opinion on how things might have turned if these great champions ever squared off in the squared circle.
10. Jack Dempsey
Good: Jack Dempsey was a rough and tumble character who reveled in the thrill of the fight and would just as gladly knock a man out over a sandwich and a pint, as he would a six figure payday. Legend has it he once walked 50 miles through the Nevada desert for a thirty dollar payday, and his work ethic and unbreakable spirit have endeared him to those familiar with his rags to riches, fairy tale, life story.
Dempsey was a swarming, accurate puncher who threw combinations from a variety of angles and who grappled very efficiently on the inside. He was very adept at fighting out of a clinch, pushing his opponent backwards and creating space for his torrential two fisted assaults. More importantly, his demeanor dictated that he dispose of his opponents in as quick a manner as possible, as was the case during his three round trouncing of Jess Willard in 1919. Dempsey fought like a man possessed, violently punishing Willard as if he was preventing him from attending a post fight engagement. If you could harness those three rounds of fury and reproduce that same intensity fight after fight for twelve rounds, Dempsey could have worn down and potentially beaten anyone on this list, proving that size is not necessarily the be all end all factor in predicting heavyweight success.
Bad: Dempsey’s resume doesn’t exactly read like a who’s who of upper echelon heavyweights. After winning the title against an old, out of shape Jess Willard, Dempsey only defended his title five times over the next six years, fighting Billy Miske, Bill Brennan, Georges Carpentier, Tommy Gibbons, and Luis Firpo before eventually running into sweet scientologist Gene Tunney in 1927. Miske, a fighter he had fought twice before, was suffering from Bright’s Disease when the two last fought in 1920, Gibbons and Carpentier were essentially light heavyweights (weighing 175 and 172 pounds respectively), and Firpo put him in the press row in the first round of their fight. Famed boxing writer Bugs Baer remarked that “if the fight had been held on a barge, Firpo would be champion because Dempsey would have drowned.” Add to that a dozen or so uninspiring newspaper bouts that failed to produce a clear cut winner, and the once great façade of invincibility begins slowly to crumble.
Conclusion: Americans, historians, and fight aficionados all over the world have a love affair with Dempsey that borders precipitously on hero worship. Obviously he was great fighter or he would not be included as one of the ten best all time; however, I feel that the legend of the fighter has overshadowed his ring accomplishments, and the romanticized image of him as the poster boy for the Roaring 20s has blurred the distinction between myth and reality. Dempsey, for all of his machismo, struggled with bouts of inconsistency. He was easily out boxed by Tunney twice (long count or no long count), and therefore would have most assuredly lost to guys like Ali, Johnson, and Holmes who were all bigger, better versions of the Fighting Marine. As for standing and slugging it out, there are some bruisers on this list that were decidedly better fighters than any of the Porky Flynn’s, Fireman Flynn’s or Errol Flynn’s that reside on Dempsey’s ledger. However, Dempsey’s aggressive style, combined with his solid chin and quick hands, gives him a slight edge over some other very deserving fighters like Evander Holyfield, Sam Langford and Jim Jeffries to land him here just inside the top ten.
9. Rocky Marciano
Good: Marciano was a hardnosed, hard punching fighter with a tremendous chin, an unbelievable amount of heart, and unparalleled conditioning in his prime. He beat the best of his era (an impressive lot that includes the likes of guys like Archie Moore, Jersey Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles, and Joe Louis), and he is the only heavyweight champion in the history of the sport to retire with an undefeated record, compiling a total of 49 victories with 43 coming by way of knockout. Marciano had a good sense of timing and distance, and he knew how and when to seize the smallest of opportunities, laying down a fusillade of firepower on his unsuspecting opponents always as the moment of truth loomed imminent. Simply put, Marciano was never beaten. He may have pulled victory out of the jaws of defeat on too frequent a basis; however, the fact remains that he was always able to extract that extra ounce of fortitude needed to stave off defeat, proving himself to be one of the most resolute and strong-willed heavyweights ever to lace up a pair of gloves. Behind on the cards, bloodied, it didn’t matter. Marciano was never out of a fight and he was never deterred from his quest for perfection.
Bad: It is hard to imagine any scenario where a fighter can give up as much as 18” in reach and more than 30 to 40 pounds in weight against the world’s best fighters and expect to be competitive. As we established in the opening of this piece, the criteria for determining placement within this particular list is based on which fighter would prevail in head to head matchups, and while Marciano was an excellent champion during his era, his bravery and fortitude would have provided little repose in the face of an entire weight class disadvantage.
Physically, Marciano was plodding, came in with his hands low, and was slow of hand and foot. In addition, Jersey Joe Walcott was 38 years old when Marciano faced him the first time, and apart from some usual late round heroics on the part of Marciano, the fight was a one-sided schooling by the cagy veteran. Add to that the fact that Archie Moore was also 38 and a veteran of over 175 professional fights, and Joe Louis was 37 and a shell of the fighter he once was at the time they met. Finally, Ezzard Charles at age 32 was a shot fighter whose career was on a downward spiral, as evidenced by his 10-13 record in the 23 fights that followed his two epic battles with Marciano in 1954. Not to rain on the Brockton Pride Parade, but physically and statistically these are some shortcomings that require some thoughtful consideration when evaluating Marciano’s place in the annals of boxing history.
While it is difficult to fathom an all time ranking that does not include the Brockton Blockbuster, a comparison of fighters at such elite skill levels would hardly be complete without taking into account physical attributes, or in Marciano’s case, deficiencies. Marciano was 5’11 with a 66” reach, and in 49 professional contests he weighed, on average, just less than 185 pounds. In addition, his opponents weighed only 192 pounds on average, which also falls well below what heavyweights of the 60s and beyond routinely weighed in at. Therefore, while Rocky makes the list, a ranking better than tenth may be overstepping the immutable laws of physics.
Famed boxing trainer Whitey Bimstein once said “show me an undefeated fighter, and I’ll show you a guy who’s never fought anybody.” While harsher words have been spoken, it still underscores the fact that Marciano’s legendary status was attained primarily through his granite chin and his indomitable will, rather than an abundance of exalting ring victories or sheer ability. Marciano gave it everything he had night in and night out, but unfortunately, against bigger, stronger, fighters at the elite level, his physical limitations would have been exposed. Ali, Johnson, and Holmes would have kept him on the end of their jab and made it a frustrating fight from the perimeter, as Archie Moore, Walcott, and even Roland LaStarza managed to do, and Marciano would have been at a distinct disadvantage standing toe to toe with giants like Foreman and Liston. In all, the romantic view of Marciano battling against all odds to stop Ezzard Charles in their second fight, or his dramatic KO victory over Jersey Joe Walcott to win the title in 1952, helped create the myth of invincibility that still surrounds Marciano to this day. However, an in-depth analysis of his opponents and an examination into the close fights that he routinely endured provides ample justification for Rocky’s position here at the nine spot.
8. Mike Tyson
Good: Tyson was an incredibly gifted fighter who possessed tremendous hand speed and explosive punching power in both hands. In addition, his head movement, defensive skills, and sense of distance and timing were also very fundamentally sound in his early days. Routinely outweighed and almost always on the short end of a height and reach disadvantage, Tyson employed excellent offensive skills to get inside the jab of his larger opponents and land his vicious hooks and uppercuts. From the beginning of his career in March of 1985 until July 1989, Tyson amassed a record of 37-0 with 33 wins coming inside the distance, and finished each contest on average, in fewer than 3.5 rounds, with 17 of them coming in the first frame. You talk about rolling through a division; not since the days of Jack Dempsey had the boxing world witnessed anything so focused and dynamic. Tyson was truly a force to be reckoned with, and despite the collective opinion regarding 80s heavyweight mediocrity, his impressive performances against the likes of Larry Holmes, Michael Spinks, Tony Tucker, Pinklon Thomas, and Frank Bruno are still noteworthy in their own right.
Bad: OK, the bad news is that Tyson’s biggest wins came against an aged Holmes, a terrified Spinks, and a very mediocre Tucker, Thomas and Bruno. When he did step up in competition, as he did against Holyfield in 1996, he was at a strategic loss when his bullying and intimidating tactics failed to achieve their desired effect. Holyfield stood his ground, backed Tyson up at times, and thoroughly out boxed him, before finally stopping him in the eleventh round. Many Tyson detractors look to this fight and the one against Douglas as evidence that Tyson lacked the mental makeup of a top ten heavyweight, a fact that keeps him off of many top ten lists altogether.
Conclusion: Physically, Mike Tyson may have been the most gifted fighter of the modern era. Unfortunately, some question marks in his later mental constitution make him susceptible against some of the heavyweight divisions most legendary fighters, particularly those he was unlikely to knock out. The question is would the Tyson at age twenty-two be able to physically outmaneuver and out-muscle guys like Marciano and Dempsey? I personally feel that his perfect blend of skill and rage, his proven success grappling with much bigger men, and his ability to fight inside, would have posed serious problems for these much smaller fighters. However, if confronted with such an obstinate challenger, would he have been capable of crafting an effective strategy to overcome his inadequacies?
While his losses to Douglas and Holyfield were both debilitating to his legacy as an all time great, it is impossible not to measure those losses against the backdrop of his tumultuous personal life. By the time he fought Douglas he had already been heavyweight champion for close to three years, and when he fought Holyfield he was just a couple years removed from a stint in prison that kept him from the ring for more than four years. So, while Douglas and Holyfield did test Tyson’s fortitude, I still cannot help but think that a twenty-something Tyson, fighting with the intensity and fire that he displayed in his title winning effort against Trevor Berbick in 1986, would have been a difficult task for anyone unlucky enough to challenge him during one of those formative first 37 fights. That is why I am so heavily conflicted about Tyson’s placement on this list. Part of me feels compelled to include him because of his remarkable highlight reel collection of knockouts and his incredible skills over the first stage of his fighting career, while another part of me questions his resume when measured against the accomplishments of other great champions. In the end, it is impossible to speculate on the mental acuity, or resiliency of Mike Tyson as the events of his life began to unravel. All I can do is look at the video clips and shake my head in wonder at how any fighter, much less one weighing 30-40 pounds lighter, could stand up to the explosive ferocity of a 21 year old latchkey kid from Brooklyn.
7. Sonny Liston
Good: Was there ever a more nasty and surly heavyweight champion than Sonny Liston? The Big Ugly Bear, as he was unaffectionately dubbed, was one of the first heavyweight champions to capitalize on the intimidation factor that resulted from his menacing countenance. He was a big guy, weighing between 210 and 220 pounds in the majority of his contests, with enormous mitts and a demeanor that exuded bad intentions. The question is, was Liston all bark and no bite as some would contend, or did he really posses the skill and resume to be considered one the very best heavyweights of all time? For starters, an examination into his record reveals very impressive knockout wins over Floyd Patterson (2), Cleveland Williams (2), Nino Valdes, Zora Folley, and an easy points victory over Eddie Machen in 1960. In his first 36 pro bouts he held an outstanding record of 35-1 (25 KOs), with his only blemish occurring in an early split decision loss to Marty Marshall in 1954, a fight in which he suffered a broken jaw. In all, while Sonny could evoke fear through his guttural grunts and growls, you could be sure that when he did show his teeth, the intent to bite was at the core of Sonny’s malevolence.
Bad: Any negative associations attributed to Sonny Liston stem predominantly from his two irresolute performances against Muhammad Ali in 1964 and 1965. Going down as the only heavyweight champion in history to ever retire on his stool is a rather ignominious honor, and the controversial nature of his “phantom punch” loss to Ali in the rematch did very little to silence the critics who continue to denigrate his placement among history’s greats. Liston looked listless and his efforts proved futile against the wily youngster, raising questions regarding his ability to contend with faster, more mobile opponents.
Conclusion: An old adage in boxing states that “styles make fights,” and while Liston looked hapless against the fleet footed Clay, he, like George Foreman, relished the opportunity to take apart smaller, static opposition. This very fact makes him a likely favorite against those that choose to fight in the same manner and challenge him at close quarters. He had an incredibly powerful jab and a chin that was capable of withstanding all but the most phantom of punches. Therefore, I believe physically, and psychologically, Liston in his prime would have been too much for smaller sluggers and would have presented difficulties for any fighter that remained anchored in one place for too long. So in all, Liston held some big wins over some big names, and it took the talent of arguably the best fighter in the history of the sport to make him look mortal. Of course, depending on the version of Sonny’s birth certificate you choose to believe, he was either too old or way too old to be expected to compete against that caliber of opposition at that stage of his career.
6. Larry Holmes
Good: Larry Holmes was a big, mobile heavyweight with a punishing left jab, a solid chin, and an array of formidable offensive weapons. From 1978 to 1985, the “Easton Assassin” was the guy in the heavyweight division, and while he may have been a victim of the quality deficient time in which he fought, he still managed to defend his WBA and IBF titles twenty times in those seven years, a span second only to Joe Louis in terms of heavyweight tenure. Included in the rabble of fighters he disposed of were Muhammad Ali, Ken Norton, Ernie Shavers, Tim Witherspoon, Gerry Cooney, Carl Williams, and Trevor Berbick. He was also quick for a man his size, threw the uppercut effectively, and was capable of hurdling parked cars (wearing cowboy boots) with the dexterity of a ballerina. Click here if that last joke failed to register: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m-XVCW95nHU.
Bad: While Holmes possessed an effective jab, he was often lackadaisical about pulling it back in time to protect his chin. He also had a tendency to flail his arms awkwardly under the application of pressure, in lieu of any real head movement or more traditional defensive posturing. In his fight with Ken Norton (still possibly the best opponent he faced in his prime), Holmes was just far too easy to hit and too stationary of a target for the heavy handed Norton. Much like his predecessor Ali, Holmes also carried his hands low, inviting his opponents’ advances; however, unlike Ali, Holmes lacked the head movement and foot movement to get out of harm’s way, thus leaving himself susceptible to big shots in close.
Conclusion: In all, Holmes was an excellent, albeit awkwardly effective boxer, who took on everyone that the late seventies and early eighties had to offer. While his defense was a little suspect, his granite chin enabled him to trade shots and deliver his own number of lethal blows. It wasn’t always pretty but Larry came out on the winning side 48 times in row before finally losing to Michael Spinks long after his skills had begun to deteriorate. The question is would Holmes’ chin have stood up to Foreman or Liston? He did take Ernie Shaver’s best shots after all. Personally, I have to look at the Norton fight as the true indicator of how Holmes would have fared against the division’s best. Norton was able to get to him all night, and the fight as good as it was, should never have been that close. Norton was nowhere near his best that night and he was definitely nowhere near the caliber of fighter as the others on the list, yet he was still a hair’s breadth away from walking away with the title. In all, Holmes’ two losses to Spinks, his trouble with Norton, and his lack of comparative quality wins are the primary considerations for his ranking here no higher than six.
5. Joe Frazier
Good: Frazier had one gear (overdrive) and one direction (forward). His punch output and workload were virtually unmatched, and his left hook is regarded as one of the best all time in heavyweight history. In an era that is generally considered the pinnacle of heavyweight productivity, Frazier was a major player, holding wins over such notables as Ali, Quarry, Bonavena, and Chuvalo. He was an effective pressure fighter with good punching power, and serviceable, albeit sometimes inefficient, defensive skills.
Bad: Two words, “George Foreman.” Actually three words, “Big George Foreman.” Foreman tossed Frazier around like a big hunk of meat and cooked him up “Lean Mean Grilling Machine” style in their two meetings. Everyone remembers the skill and focus that Frazier displayed against Ali in the “Fight of the Century,” and no one will forget the fortitude and heart that he displayed in the “Thrilla in Manila.” However, the image of Frazier being tossed about like an ocean buoy against Foreman is one that Frazier advocates would like to erase completely from memory. At best, you have to question Frazier’s chin against big punchers. At worst, it is almost enough to exclude him from this list entirely. Add to that the fact that he narrowly avoided a stoppage loss against Bonavena in their first fight, and you have a heavyweight resume that appears quite sketchy.
Conclusion: Frazier is on this list because of his exploits on the night of March 8, 1971, when he disposed of the inimitable Muhammad Ali in front of a packed house in Madison Square Garden. Frazier bobbed and weaved, landing hooks upstairs and downstairs, until finally landing that one big shot that floored his previously unbeaten nemesis and solidified both his victory and his legacy. If you could seize that moment in time and reproduce that motivation and relentless aggression for a one time only fight with anyone on this list, you would almost be crazy to bet against Smokin’ Joe.
4. George Foreman
Good: George Foreman may well have been the most intimidating and menacing figure ever to grace a prize-fighting ring. If he and Sonny Liston had a scowl off, it is possible that the resulting aura of animosity might set off a chain reaction of unprovoked small animal cruelty. George was big, mean, and punched harder than anyone in the history of the division. If you stood in front of him, there was about an 83% chance that he would take your head off. Just ask Joe Frazier, who in two contests with Big George, went down more times than a “Tijuana prostituta.” During the first phase of his career, before knocking guys out became an un-Christian thing to do, George compiled a record of 45 wins against only two defeats, with 42 of those wins coming by virtue of knockout. His only losses were to Muhammad Ali in 1974 (the only knockout loss of his career) and Jimmy Young in 1977, his last fight as “Angry George.” Ten years later he reintroduced himself as the trans-fat fighting teddy bear that we all know and love today. However, for our purposes here, we are only concerned with the Foreman that annihilated Joe Frazier twice, laid waste to Ken Norton in two rounds, and stopped George Chuvalo and Ron Lyle inside five rounds. Without question, Big George Foreman was definitely one bad mother slugger and a very dangerous opponent for anyone foolish enough to stand and trade leather with him.
Bad: There are actually two areas of concern for the Foreman contingent: a lack of stamina and an inability to modify his overly aggressive style when facing a more refined, counter punching boxer. Foreman was a seek-and-destroy kind of guy. The bell rang, he went out and tried to deconstruct his opponent, and then he came back every three minutes for a treat. He was conditioned to inflict damage, and when things took longer than expected, there was some definite heavy breathing from lugging all that muscle around. In other words, stamina was not Foreman’s strong suit, and as Muhammad Ali proved, if you take him to deep water he will drown. In addition, George was a stalker, and often times the best way to neutralize a guy wishing to rip you to shreds, is to be quick in and out, give angles, and box him from afar. When he does get inside, tie him up quickly like Jack Johnson did to James Jeffries, and you stand a good chance of frustrating and defeating the big bully.
Conclusion: The majority of heavyweights from decades past had a very suitable style for Foreman. Marciano, Dempsey, Liston, Tyson, and Frazier all seldom fought going backwards, which played right into Foreman’s game plan. To quote Carly Simon, “Nobody does it better, makes me feel sad for the rest.” OK, I promise that is the last cheesy 70s singer/songwriter reference I will use. The point is, George did do it better, and most guys on this list only knew one way to fight, head down and arms pumping, which as Frazier proved, is no way to fight Big George. In all, I think Ali, Louis, and Johnson could have been effective at employing a stick and move strategy, much the way Sugar Ray Leonard did against Roberto Duran in their second fight to keep George frustrated and off balance. However, the slugger types from five to 10 would have been cannon fodder if they were foolish enough to wade into no man’s land against the sport’s biggest puncher.
3. Jack Johnson
Good: Jack Johnson was a big, strong heavyweight that chose to rely on his superior boxing and defensive skills in order to negate the offensive opportunities of his opponents. Much like Muhammad Ali, Johnson was a master at frustrating his opponents by quickly throwing punches and then grabbing them before they could issue a counter attack. Ali was a great admirer of Johnson’s and often remarked about the similarities between their styles within the ring and their common controversies outside of it. In fact, after watching a live production of The Great White Hope in 1968 starring James Earl Jones, Ali remarked, “Hey this play is about me. Take out the interracial love stuff and Jack Johnson is the original me.” Indeed, the similarities were there by design, and Ali realized the effectiveness of being able to make your opponent miss and then capitalize on his vulnerability. While decent footage is difficult to attain for most of his fights, there are some good copies in circulation of Johnson’s fight with James Jeffries in 1910. You can see the ease by which Johnson ties up the 226 pound Jeffries, completely neutralizing his power, while making room for his own lightning quick advances. In all, Johnson ended with a career record of 55-12-7 (35), with six of his 12 losses coming in his last eight fights.
Bad: The bad news for Johnson is there are several head scratchers on his record, particularly in the early and latter portions of his career. If you consider his prime to be somewhere between 1905 and 1910, you would expect nothing less than a flawless ledger. However, Johnson lost a points decision to Marvin Hart in 1905 and fought to draws against Joe Jeannette, Billy Dunning, and 162-pound light-heavyweight Philadelphia Jack O’Brien. Prior to his “alleged” prime, Johnson also suffered a TKO loss in his third professional bout, a knockout loss at the hands of Joe Choynski in 1901,and a decision loss over twenty rounds against Hank Griffin less than nine months later. It is safe to assume that while Jack Johnson was incredibly skilled as a fighter, he often experienced motivational lapses in his training when not overly concerned about his opponent’s chances of winning. Therefore, as the bad goes, Johnson was seemingly prone to the occasional loss of focus and may have had some durability issues early on; however, if you placed the right aging ex-champion in front of him, his disposition became one of “white hot fury.” No pun intended.
Conclusion: In all, Johnson was a very gifted defensive fighter, who was quick enough to box from the outside but strong enough to wrestle for real estate and hold his own on the inside with the biggest fighters in the division. His overall ranking is substantiated in part because of the quality of opposition that he faced over his 30 plus year career in the ring. Guys like Joe Jeannette, Sam Langford, Peter Jackson, and Sam McVey were all great fighters who would have undoubtedly been champions had they fought in any other era, and Johnson dominated all of them in due succession. In fact, from 1905 until 1926, a period of more than twenty years, Johnson won 46 fights against only two defeats, a disqualification loss against Joe Jeannette in 1905, and his eventual KO loss to Jess Willard in 1915, a fight in which Johnson insisted up until his death that he had thrown. Either way, Johnson’s resume still survives as testament to his ability to fight and win in an era that can easily be judged as one of the most highly competitive. In all, he beat some great, unheralded fighters during his nearly three decade career in the ring, and his combination of speed, power, agility, and ring generalship make him a suitable pick for a ranking here at number four.
2. Joe Louis
Good: The numbers don’t lie: twenty-five successful title defenses, an eleven year run as champ, and an overall record of 66 wins against only three defeats (two of which occurred past the age of thirty-six). Statistically speaking, Joe Louis was the most prolific heavyweight in the history of the sport, and his success was due in large part to his knowledge and mastery of the fundamentals. He was an excellent ring technician with good punching power, who was very calculating and methodical in his attack but was capable of launching a volley of sharp, accurate punches when need be. Unlike Marciano or Dempsey, who waded in hoping to land anything anywhere, Louis stalked his opponent in a more efficient manner and attacked with pinpoint precision. In terms of his style, he was a very effective boxer-puncher with almost no visible weaknesses, and it is difficult to imagine a more complete fighter than the twenty-four year old phenom that dismantled a very seasoned and highly accomplished Max Schmeling. In all, Louis’s two wins over Jersey Joe Walcott, and wins over Jack Sharkey and Max Baer, rate relatively high, while his loses to Schmeling, Ezzard Charles, and Rocky Marciano (post-prime) rate as extenuating.
Bad: The only real knock against Louis is the caliber of opponent against which he defended his title. Condescendingly referred to as “the Bum-of-the-Month-Club,” Louis’ assortment of so called challengers has been a point of contention for many boxing writers and fans over the years. With defenses against guys like Nathan Mann, Jack Roper, Johnny Paycheck, Red Burman, Gus Dorazio, and Tony Musto, you almost have to cut Larry Holmes some slack for fighting Randall Tex Cobb (almost). Nevertheless, Louis handled his business like a professional, and he did his job of defeating whoever they put against him.
Conclusion: Apparently the whole “fate of the free world hanging in the balance” thing is a real motivational factor for some. I mean it worked in Rocky IV when Rocky defended the honor of the United States against that performance-enhancing spiky haired Russian, and apparently it was enough of an impetus to inspire one of the worst one-sided beatings ever to take place inside a prize ring. The date was June 22, 1938, and while German forces were contemplating an inevitable attack on Poland, a humble young fighter from Detroit was preparing forces of his own for an impending full frontal assault on Max Schmeling’s unprotected face and torso. In one of those rare, surreal moments when everything comes together perfectly, Joe Louis dished out a beating so severe that German officials reportedly had the sound removed from the fight film because Schmeling’s cries of pain were audible over the commentary. In just a mere 124 seconds, Louis had avenged his only loss, and Schmeling exited the ring severely broken and battered. Joe Louis achieved perfection that night, and to many, that performance is validation enough for his ranking as one of the best heavyweights to ever lace up a pair of gloves.
1. Muhammad Ali
Good: Muhammad Ali was lightning fast, had an exceptionally long jab, excellent defensive skills and reflexes, and recuperative powers akin to a Marvel Comics superhero. In his prime he could dance, slip, counter, and throw combinations better than any heavyweight ever captured on film. He was also a great intellectual fighter, knowing exactly how to control the tempo of a fight, how to dictate its pace, and how to fire off quick shots before tying his opponent up, thus rendering him incapable of punching back. In his later years, Ali relied on his excellent chin to get him through some sticky situations, yet he was savvy enough to outthink and outperform some of the division’s most talented fighters. In all, Ali’s resume contains a wealth of impressive victories and accolades, and excluding the last four fights of his career (in which he won one and lost three), his record was an exceptional 55-2 with 37 knockouts and zero knockout losses.
Bad: Most of the negativity associated with Muhammad Ali involves the clowning and rope-a-dope tactics he employed during the latter half of his career. With his hand speed and reflexes in decline, Ali embraced a strategy of fighting off the ropes, in order to pick off his opponents’ punches and force them into early “tirement.” As a result, his offensive output suffered, and he ultimately paid the price with the amount of punishment he routinely endured. By the early to mid 70s, it was becoming apparent to everyone that Ali was not the fighter of old, including Angelo Dundee, and despite beating Foreman in 1974, the evidence of his deterioration was seen as early as 1973 during his two evenly contested battles against Ken Norton. In all, the Ali that the world witnessed during the second coming of his career was nowhere near the caliber of fighter that had easily handled Floyd Patterson and “whupped” the big ole’ bear Sonny Liston. In some respects, this is more of a validation of Ali’s greatness, having beaten a number of exceptional opponents during the twilight of his career; however, adopting a “passive aggressive” strategy against the likes of a Louis or a Johnson would likely have resulted in disaster.
Conclusion: Leading up to his three year hiatus from boxing in 1967, Muhammad Ali was the most talented heavyweight in an era that produced some of the most accomplished fighters in the history of the division. If you don’t believe it just scan the rest of this list and you will find three other fighters that fought between 1960 and 1975, each of whom Ali held victories over. Simply put, in order to be the best, you have to beat the best, and Ali did that in spectacular fashion, time and time again. Therefore, if I had to choose one heavyweight who possessed the greatest degree of mental dexterity and physical prowess to crown as the greatest heavyweight of all time, I would select the twenty-something Muhammad Ali that humiliated Cleveland Williams, embarrassed Ernie Terrell, and pummeled Zora Folley. I believe that this period in Ali’s career was the point at which he was at his most indomitable and the point in time where his abilities were at their greatest level of competency. In total, Ali’s wins over Frazier (2), Foreman, Liston (2), Patterson (2), and Norton (2) give him a huge edge in caliber of opposition; while his two losses to Norton and Frazier had relatively little adverse effect on his overall ranking. He was the self proclaimed and critically acclaimed “Greatest of all time.”
The Rodney Dangerfield No Respect Award
Good: Gene Tunney was one of the most skillful ring technicians that the fight game has ever known. From 165 pounds up to the heavyweight limit, Tunney fought and beat some of the greatest fighters of his era. Among his many aspirants were Harry Greb (whom he beat four times, thus avenging his only professional loss), Tommy Loughran, Georges Carpentier, Tommy Gibbons, and of course the great Jack Dempsey twice. Tunney was indeed a master craftsman, and he excelled at making guys miss and stinging them with accurate counter shots. His overall record was an impressive 66-1-1 with 48 knockouts, and zero knockout losses, proving that not only was he capable of cleverly out boxing more aggressive fighters like the Mannassa Mauler and the Human Windmill Harry Greb, he was also able to withstand any amounts of punishment they could dish out.
Bad: Pound for pound, Tunney is regarded as one of the greatest fighters of the early twentieth century, and the recipient of a certain top 5 ranking among all time light heavyweights. Unfortunately, for some, his tenure at the top division was too brief for his skills to be fully evaluated at that level. In fact, over the last three years of his career, the average weight of his opponents was just under 188 pounds, and the largest fighter he ever faced was in the last fight of his career against Tom Heeney who weighed in at a mere 203 pounds. Tunney himself averaged just less than 187 pounds over that same eight fight period, which by today’s standards would classify him as a cruiserweight, and would certainly put him at a disadvantage against the spectrum of big time heavyweight punchers on this list. I want to include him in this list bad, but I just don’t have any way to gauge his aptitude against the heavyweight tall timber.
Conclusion: OK, I have Tunney just outside the top ten, but I simply cannot figure out why this guy gets zero respect. Is it because he had the common sense to walk away on top, with all of his faculties intact that people hold him in such contempt? I suppose his decision to retire abruptly is still perceived by many as an apathetic and disdainful gesture towards the sport of boxing, which as a result, has led many to make false assumptions about his character, heart or desire. Tunney is kind of like the guy who comes over and cleans you out on poker night, and then leaves without giving you a chance to win your money back (hate that guy). You have to give props to the skill, but it wouldn’t bother you in the least to see him get mugged on the way home.
Well, I for one think it is time that we give Tunney his just due and finally recognize him not only as a great light heavyweight, but also an extraordinary talent in the heavyweight division as well. Just because his time spent there was brief, doesn’t mean that his accomplishments were any less impressive. Tunney easily defeated Dempsey (an almost universal top five heavyweight in many rankings) twice, and was categorically despised for not imbibing the aggressive qualities of the champion he dethroned. Now, I know many of you will cry “long count” pertaining to the second Dempsey fight in which Tunney was down for an indicated 14 seconds, and to this I say NAY! Watch the footage again and you will see Tunney clearly aware of the referees count and clearly coherent enough to hop up at the referee’s count of nine. He then begins to dance furtively out of harm’s way for the duration of the round, playing matador to Dempsey’s Bull Moose antics, and within a round he’s managed to floor Dempsey tit for tat. Now, I know the consensus is that Dempsey had some ring rust resulting from his three year layoff prior to the Tunney bout, and all indications pointed to his impending retirement. However, I truly believe that regardless of their age, or personal situations, Tunney just had Dempsey’s number, and if they had fought ten years earlier, the result would have been the same. Therefore, it is time that Gene Tunney gets the long overdue praise and credit he deserves, for beating one of the greatest heavyweight champions of all time twice, and beating two mutually shared opponents in just as impressive fashion. If Dempsey is a shoe-in, as most believe he is, then you almost have to also include the guy that bettered him in two head to head matchups, beat countless of pound for pound greats, was never knocked out, and only knocked down once in a career spanning eighty fights.
Others deserving of recognition, but not necessarily warranting a spot in the top ten were Evander Holyfield, Sam Langford, and Jim Jeffries. These three fighters round out the top fifteen, and are all excellent fighters in their own right, justifiable in almost any top ten list. Holyfield was the quintessential warrior, who fought three legendary battles with Riddick Bowe, Sam Langford was one of the best fighters anywhere north of 150 pounds, and Jim Jeffries was undefeated in his prime at 19-0-2, with wins over Peter Jackson, Tom Sharkey, Jim Corbett (2) and Bob Fitzsimmons (2). You can spin it six ways to Sunday, but I think these fifteen fighters in some order or another are the best, and while some could be shuffled up a few spots, or some down a few spots, at the end of the day I am confident that these fifteen are a cut above the rest.
So that concludes the rankings. Obviously everyone has their own opinion on who is most deserving of a place among the all time greats, and the debate will not end here. However, the one constant that this list strives to confirm is the notion that, all things being equal, a good big man will always beat a good little man. That is not to say that a bigger man will always necessarily win, but remember all things equal, a smaller man cannot beat a bigger man at his own game. For example, if he is traditionally a slugger, and his opponent is too, then he must modify his game plan in order to work against his opponent’s strengths. That is why someone like Marciano, who was unwavering in his approach, would have been at a decided disadvantage against a fighter that fought along the same lines, but also happened to carry an additional 30 pounds in his back pocket. Styles, styles, styles…
Second this ranking highlights the importance of quality wins as they relate to predicting possible outcomes. When looking across the great expanse of heavyweight boxing, the two biggest factors of hypothetical success are determined by who you fought and who you beat. Quality of opposition is essentially the most valuable tool we have to gauge how a fighter would have performed under various circumstances, and in similar situations against similar styles. For example, if fighters like Sonny Liston or George Foreman had trouble with fast, mobile, defensive first fighters, than the likelihood of them decisioning someone like Jack Johnson seems unlikely. Likewise, Joe Frazier was someone who struggled against big punchers, therefore his profile would forecast losses against guys like Louis, Foreman, and possibly even Liston or Tyson.
In concluding, nothing is 100%. I hope I have done a good job of stating my case the best I could have, without including too much personal bias. Obviously everyone has a fondness for things, events, and people that shaped the world that they grew up in, and boxing is no exception. The old timers, like my grandfather, will always speak of Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano with the greatest reverence, and those of my father’s generation would never accept anything less than Muhammad Ali as the greatest. Personally, I grew up watching fighters like Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, and developed an appreciation for just how good they were in their prime. However, I have made every effort to be subjective, and provide the most honest and thorough interpretation of boxings’s best all time in the heavyweight division.