Ranking the Best Fighters of All-Time in Every Boxing Weight Division
Have you ever wondered what the all-time top 10 rankings of each weight division in boxing would look like? Debating the historical greats is half the fun of being a boxing fan.
Right here, you’ll find a comprehensive division by division breakdown of the best boxers in history. From the heavyweights and the glamor divisions like welterweight and middleweight, to the little guys at flyweight and the newer divisions mixed in between, you’ll find our entire collection of the best fighters of all time in every boxing weight class.
You won’t find a better or more complete list anywhere on the web.
The Top Boxers in History by Weight Division
Explaining How to Rank the Best Fighters in Every Weight Division in Boxing’s History
Written by Scott Levinson
Boxing might be the toughest sport in which to rank its most historic participants. Imagine trying to rank baseball players in a world where stats mean almost nothing and where players participated in 5 different leagues. It can be quite the difficult task comparing fighters across eras in a sport whose format has changed so drastically over the years.
It seems problematic trying to devise a formula to capture the essence of greatness. Therefore, judgment comes into play. It is not simply guttural, however, as a lot goes into rendering a judgment. Here are some of the more key standards:
Greatness: This is usually achieved with accomplishments. That will always be the key criteria. But when credentials are somewhat comparable, the fighter whose greatness screamed the loudest gets the nod. Greatness can sometimes be achieved in short bursts, while fighters with better longevity never get there.
When it comes down to the wire, you have to go with the better fighter, if it’s in any way obvious. Did Sven Ottke reign longer and beat more contenders at 168 lbs than Roy Jones? Sure. But Jones’ tenure was far more compelling–winning a handful of fights in captivating fashion, including a Superfight whitewash against a fighter many had ranked #1 pound-for-pound in the world. Then you just get down to the bare facts that at 168, Jones was far and away the superior fighting force and he’s ranked higher.
What makes a great fighter consists of many categories.
Accomplishments: These come in many forms. Some guys have a couple of gigantic wins over great fighters, while others have a long run of wins against less-spectacular fighters. Who is to say which is more impressive? At the same time, Sugar Ray Leonard beating 3 Hall of Famers in the span of a couple years will always indicate greatness more than some guy making 20 defenses against so-so opposition. Obviously, it’s never that clear.
Degrees of Variance: Judging fighters historically is based largely on feel, especially upon realizing that no triumphs or setbacks can easily be categorized. There are great wins, then there are great wins. Evander Holyfield winning a rematch against Riddick Bowe is a great win. Muhammad Ali beating George Foreman is a great win.
That goes for losses too. Edwin Rosario and Meldrick Taylor both got stopped by Julio Cesar Chavez. That doesn’t really tell the whole story, though, does it? That has to be factored in. A win is a win. The judges rule how they rule. It can be a slippery slope trying to sort through all of it, so at the end of the day, you more or less have to rely on what the judges or the ref says. That doesn’t mean that an outright robbery registers in the same tone as a righteous decision. And I’m not even saying Chavez-Taylor was a robbery. It’s just hard to look at a first-round knockout loss and the way Taylor lost to Chavez in the same light.
Dominance: There are exceptions, but for a fighter to be great, he must have ruled his division, or at least been the obvious #1 guy in the weight class. To a large degree, the fighter who better captures this dynamic will almost always be ranked higher. Look at lightweight, where the top two fighters, Benny Leonard and Roberto Duran, not only were the #1 guy in their division, but ruled with an iron hand, leaving no doubt as to who the best was. Separating yourself from your peers is a big part of what comprises the definition of being great.
Cleaning Out a Division: Take a guy like Rocky Marciano. People say what they’ll say about the “Brockton Blockbuster,” but the fact that he retired without a single compelling challenger remaining speaks volumes. This is one way to achieve greatness.
Beating Other Great Fighters: A lot of times, a fighter is bound to the limitations of his era, where maybe there weren’t a plethora of household homes for that fighter to beat. You can’t really hold it against a fighter if he fought in a weak era. After all, sometimes he’s the reason that era is so weak because he’s the top dog and no one can get close to him. But there are variations.
For example, Larry Holmes’ greatness is not severely jeopardized by the fact that the heavyweight division was not as good as the decade that preceded him. At the end of the day, he dominated the era and never ducked anybody. Then you go to Roy Jones at light heavyweight and you see a similar situation in terms of a weak era. But then you see him not taking a fight with a long-standing obvious #2 guy in the division, Dariusz Michalczewski, and it’s hard to not look at his legacy a little differently and with less reverence than the guys who took on all comers. Blowing out mediocre types cannot hold a candle to a win over a fellow great, even if it were a titanic struggle.
Bad Tendencies While Judging Fighters Historically
It’s easy to fall prey to a number of different sentiments, subconscious feelings, and faulty reasoning when judging fighters. Coming up with the right names is only part of the challenge, as one must almost beat back some of these standards with a stick. Here are some things to be mindful of and try to avoid when ranking boxers.
Ethnocentricity: It’s a fairly human trait to pay closer mind to what happens in your homeland, while keeping a merely peripheral view on outside business. This is especially true in boxing history, where native historians have always seemed to struggle in fully acknowledging the deeds of boxers from other continents. The sparse amount of Asian boxers in the IBHOF speaks toward this point. In some lower divisions, the best fighters come from everywhere besides the USA and Europe. Historically, the balance of power in certain divisions has shifted from continent to continent. It’s crucial to be mindful of this phenomenon and to consider that greatness can occur without it really being on your radar. There are also allegiances, which may be unconscious, to regions within a country. Being from Detroit, is there a chance that maybe I mythologize guys like Tommy Hearns? Sure there is.
Mythologizing Your Own Golden Era: It’s no coincidence that most people who rank Joe Louis as the #1 all-time heavyweight champion are people whose youth coincided with the heyday of the “Brown Bomber.” People who grew up during the Ali era usually rank him as the best. It can be quite a challenge to not give extra credit to the fighters you grew up watching. For most of us, unfortunately, the ages of 8-20 are our greatest years. It’s normal for people to think the greatest of everything came from that period of out lives and boxers are no different.
Favoritism and Bias: Anybody in the sport, from writers to judges, have fighters that they like more than others, or those they might not like at all. For whatever reason, everyone has their favorites. Maybe a certain boxer was nice to them or had a style they preferred. Maybe a grandfather filled their ears with lore about a particular fighter. When coming up with all-time divisional rankings, one must take a clinical approach and try to leave personal tastes and feelings out of the equation.
Head-to-Head Fantasy Match-ups: Whether I think Mike Tyson would have left Jack Dempsey for dead if the two ever fought is irrelevant. When Jack Dempsey was fighting, he certainly wasn’t going around thinking, “I better really go all-out now because 70 years from now, some beast will come around who people will pick to beat me in a fantasy fight.” A fighter can only be judged against his peers. If a guy dominated his era, how you feel he would fare against more modern champions is irrelevant. So, go ahead and think Rocky Marciano would have been beaten by any of the gigantic heavyweights of today all you want–it doesn’t matter.
Ignoring Losses: Sometimes historians overly focus on a boxer’s triumphs, without really bringing the losses into consideration. Beating a handful of Hall of Famers is impressive any way you cut it, but if that fighter lost to significantly more Hall of Famers than he beat, it’s difficult to ignore. At the same time, one cannot righteously scrutinize old-time fighters, who fought during an era where won-loss records were not important.
The “Weak Era” Fallacy: There is no questioning that some fighters were forced to deal with tougher opponents than others. Other times, however, a lot of greats get docked points for fighting in supposedly weak eras, despite the fact that it was their their very dominance that prevented anyone else from becoming great.
Historically, fighters benefit when they participate during a time when there was parody. You see a bunch of good and evenly-contested fights and the tendency is to rank the fighter who came out ahead in the whole mess higher than a guy who just knocks everyone cold. For example, you will invariably see Evander Holyfield ranked higher than Wladimir Klitschko on all-time lists. Holyfield fought during a good era, winning most, but losing his share along the way. Klitschko has just dominated everyone, unbeaten for many years.
This might be a bad example because in this case, the popular notion is actually correct. But if Klitschko and his brother never boxed, someone else would have been the champion. There may have been several guys in the mix, competing in even fights and getting credited for being good fighters. Who knows? But utter dominance of contemporaries doesn’t necessarily equate to a weak era.
Early Death vs. Self-Sabotage: In some cases, a fighter receives some “what coulda been” consideration. A fighter in his early-20’s who dies in a car wreck sometimes gets credit for projected achievements–not to a large degree, but there is some extra mojo that accompanies that dynamic. On the other hand, if a fighter drinks, smokes, or snorts his way out of legendary status, he gets extended no credit.
Acceptable Losses: A lot of fighters benefit from the tendency on the part of historians to more or less ignore post-prime performances. Fighters of grand stature get a lot of leash in this category. And for good reason. Sugar Ray Robinson losing a slew of fights at the end of his career doesn’t make him any less of a legend. But there’s a fine line. It becomes tricky when a fighter is considered past his prime with that determination being made after a fight takes place where he was favored.
When Evander Holyfield beat Mike Tyson, the feeling was that it was not the best Tyson. But before the fight, people were worried Tyson would maim Holyfield. In this case, it’s fair to go with the pre-fight notion in determining the value of a win. Some cases are more clear than others, but it’s not fair to dock a fighter credit for a good win because his opponent didn’t live up to expectations.
At the end of the whole analysis, you run it all through your filter and try to come up with a list that stands up to scrutiny. And no ranking is black-and-white. Part of devising a well-thought out list is accepting that everything is in shades and degrees, with viable counter-arguments for many different scenarios.
So take a look around and enjoy this collection of the best boxers of all-time for each weight division in the sport!