Ten Greatest Heavyweights in Boxing History
While one of the easiest lists to compile, with so many many hallmark names at the top, it is one of the more sticky rankings in the sport. The number one and two spots are easy enough, with an even argument on Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis. After that, it is an absolute free-for-all with some of the giants from the past.
This division, more than any other, requires one to ignore the head-to-head fantasy component. Let’s face it, what a heavyweight really is has changed drastically over the years. Up to 4 of the people on this top-ten might not even be a heavyweight in today’s era of 250-pound cyborgs. This division really forces one to be mindful of the fact that a fighter can only really be judged against his era.
There are so many different factors and who’s to say which ones should carry more weight? One can go off any number of things, like accomplishments, won-loss record, quality of opposition, or a ton of other factors. Not to mention the visceral feeling of simply who you thought the greater fighter was. At the end of the day, you can easily make a case for anyone on this list after number-two moving up or dropping at least several spots.
Here’s my two cents:
1. Muhammad Ali (1960-1981):
A lot of the Ali lore is caught up in sentimentality and his ability to buck the odds time and again. But it’s impossible to deny the quality of his massive triumphs. He beat two guys on this list (Foreman and Frazier), and several others who lurk nearby. His longevity and ability to rule the division’s toughest era when he was already past his prime speaks volumes. The 70’s version of Ali relied on his incredible spirit, intelligence, and durability. The 60’s version just might have been the greatest physical marvel to ever grace the division. No other heavyweight was able to create more magic. Check out this collection of Muhammad Ali Facts.
2. Joe Louis (1934-1951):
As omnipotent a heavyweight who ever existed, with a 12.5 year-reign as Heavyweight Champion. A short and deadly puncher who left bodies quivering in his wake. Louis could carve a man up with his bludgeoning jab, before rifling that short right hand that could not be denied. A revolutionary heavyweight, in light of some of the lumbering kingpins that preceded him. Louis fought more like a middleweight, with textbook technique and punches thrown in crisp combinations. His beatdown of Max Schmeling was one of the historic wins in history, avenging the only defeat he would suffer until well past his best many years later.
3. Jack Johnson (1897-1932):
Completely ruled over his peers with advanced skills. Johnson was athletically-gifted, using movement and defense, in addition to his considerable brawn. He toyed with Hall of Famers, using all the same punches used today. Jack would control opponents with ring generalship, exhibiting a level of defense that had not been seen by big men before. As many fighters in his era did, Johnson came up tough, losing some en route to developing his world-class skills. Once he got on a roll, he was hard to stop. Beat some of the legendary and neglected black heavyweights of his day, including wins over Hall of Famers Sam McVea, Joe Jeanette, and Sam Langford. Unlike his contemporaries, he got a shot at the title and made good–stopping Tommy Burns for the Heavyweight Title. After winning the belt, “The Galveston Giant” beat Hall of Famers Stanley Ketchell and a comebacking Jim Jeffries. Constrained in part by the times he lived, where heavyweight champions would be on the shelf for long periods, he lacks the championship pedigree of others on his list. But even the most scrutiny-filled analysis of Johnson gives way to the conclusion that he was the greatest heavyweight until Joe Louis came around and one of the more dominant forces in the history of the division.
Check out our entire collection of the all-time best fighters by weight class, as well as the breakdown of how these lists were made and what factors were included.
4. Larry Holmes (1973-(2002):
Some say he ruled a weak era. But he might have had something to do with that, reigning for so long, that other heavyweights were shut out of the top spot. Still, his list of victims contains an underrated and hungry list of dangerous heavyweights. With a bad arm, he won the WBC belt from top-20 all-time heavyweight Ken Norton, not losing for another 7 years en route to a 48-0 record. His title-loss and subsequent rematch defeat to Michael Spinks was the least convincing dethroning of anyone on this list. It’s important to note that out of Larry’s 21 title-fight victories, 7 were against fighters who held or would win heavyweight championships. One of the best heavyweights at an advanced age, beating top contender Ray Mercer and giving champions Evander Holyfield and Oliver McCall good fights well past age 40. Legendary toughness and chin, with the best jab in heavyweight history, Larry is in rarefied air.
5. Evander Holyfield (1984-present):
Perhaps no fighter better maximized his capabilities than Holyfield–an undersized heavyweight who ruled in a time of giants. Historically, Holyfield was closest to Ali in having the ability to bounce back and score improbable wins against heavily-favored competition. Knocked out Buster Douglas with one punch, before scoring wins over a veritable who’s-who of modern heavyweight history. With wins over Holmes and Foreman, albeit at an advanced age, he has two victories over top-6 all-time heavyweights. He almost got Lewis in the rematch and his two wins over Tyson, just outside the top ten, also speak volumes. Throw in wins against Michael Dokes, an upset rematch win over Riddick Bowe, Ray Mercer, Michael Moorer (in another rematch), John Ruiz, and Hasim Rahman and you have one of the most complete resumes in history.
6. George Foreman (1969-1997):
No one can match his longevity–the man was a world-class heavyweight in eras that span the Nixon and Clinton administrations for goodness sake. Throw in his demolitions of Frazier and Norton and you have a brief reign at the top, but one that was perhaps unprecedented in its brutality. Making absolute mince meat out of two leading members of the 70’s heavyweight explosion counts for a lot. And though Ali eventually got him, he bounced back nicely, culminating with a legendary off-the-floor win over Ron Lyle in what might have been the greatest of all heavyweight brawls. Emerged from a decade-long retirement and began one of the most successful comebacks in sports history, culminating in him winning the linear belt back against Michael Moorer in 1994, 26 years after he won Olympic gold.
7. Rocky Marciano (1947-1955):
Personally, I find the modern tendency on the part of some to minimize Marciano’s talents to the be one of the biggest misrepresentations of boxing history. Sure, some of his bigger-name opponents were old, but does that mean they weren’t good? And those who point to his lack of speed and coordination or how he was a bleeder with no size should wonder how he managed to clean out the heavyweight division and retire with a record of 49-0 (43). Maybe when you look at films of him now, some things that make him great don’t immediately leap out and grab you. Nevertheless, Marciano was probably the toughest of all heavyweight champs and the hardest puncher under 190 pounds to ever grace the ring. His stamina also ranks among the best of all-time, as does his durability and pain threshold. Jersey Joe Walcott was aging, but still a heck of a fighter and reigning champion when Rocky beat him, and again in the rematch in one brutal round. Go watch his fights with legendary Ezzard Charles and tell me that guy couldn’t still fight. And old Archie Moore would still be winning title fights years after Marciano rose from a knockdown to stop him in 9. Say what you will, but retiring undefeated as champion with no compelling contenders remaining is a status very few can claim.
8. Jack Dempsey (1914-1927):
A revolutionary fighter and figure, Dempsey was a forerunner of a style we still look for in our heavyweight champions. Before he came around, you picture heavyweight boxing as a more gentlemanly endeavor. “The Manassa Mauler” introduced the hyper-aggressive, beatdown-style of fighting that fans still gravitate to in droves. He also drew the parameters of fame and superstardom for boxers. In a sense, one could say his celebrity surpassed his actual value as an all-time great heavyweight, but not by much. Before he even won the title in one of the more graphic beatings in boxing history against Jess Willard, Dempsey had in large part cleaned out the division, dominating a tough roster of contenders. His reign consisted of many long layoffs, which would be intolerable in the modern era. And though he was hardly unique for this practice, he never fought the compelling black contenders of the time. But from 1919-1926, he was the king of the sport and dominated a good list of contenders, even knocking out future champion Jack Sharkey in between his losses to Tunney.
9. Lennox Lewis (1989-2003)
Two punches away from the top-3. At the end of the day, being stopped on fluky one-punch knockouts to the inglorious duo of Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman is what keeps him out of the top reaches of this list. Other heavyweights have absorbed similar losses, but they never lost their belt to fighters of that ilk. Other than that, his resume is impossible to dismiss. I’m not sure I wouldn’t pick Lewis in a mythical tournament among those on this list. His right hand was one of the more destructive weapons in heavyweight history. Many felt Razor Ruddock would rule the post-Tyson era, until Lewis brutalized him in 2 rounds. With wins over Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, and Vitali Klitschko, he beat a wide range of heavyweight champions. It’s his list over good guys just underneath the category of “great” that sets him apart. By beating Tony Tucker, Frank Bruno, Tommy Morrison, Ray Mercer, Oliver McCall, Andrew Golota, Shannon Briggs, Michael Grant, David Tua, and Hasim Rahman, he cleaned out his era as comprehensively as anyone on this list.
10. Joe Frazier (1965-1981):
The recently-deceased Frazier certainly isn’t relying on any sentimentality points to crack this list in the 10-spot. He was one of two men to be in “The Fight of the Century” when he fought #1 Muhammad Ali. Coming out the winner in a fight of that stature counts for a whole lot and represents perhaps the single greatest victory in the history of the sport. And while he came up short against Foreman in a big way, he still had enough to give Ali absolute hell in the Thrilla in Manila. Fought during a very tough era and with wins over Oscar Bonavena (twice), George Chuvalo, Jerry Quarry (twice), Jimmy Ellis (twice), and Bob Foster, he has a body of work that allows his to withstand the later losses to Foreman and Ali with his legacy intact. His left hook was greatest of all heavyweight champions. His win over an unbeaten Ali forever stamped him as a heavyweight great. The Joe Frazier who showed up that night would have been a handful for any heavyweight.