One of the most frequent debates and discussions I have with other boxing fans is: who deserves to be recognised as the greatest heavyweight in history? This inspired me to dedicate my next instalment of the Top 5 series to the most glamorous division in boxing.
Although the title of world heavyweight champion has somewhat lost its prestige in recent years, the boxing history books are packed full with incredible heavyweight memories, created by some of the most distinguished competitors our sport has witnessed.
With that in mind, who makes into this edition of Jamie’s Top 5?
Honourable Mentions: Rocky Marciano, George Foreman, Jack Dempsey, Joe Frazier.
5 – Lennox Lewis
I had to get a Brit in there somewhere, right? Lennox Lewis was the dominant heavyweight in the highly competitive 90’s era. He was the prototype for skilled big men; a scientific boxer-puncher with a ruthless instinct and supreme athleticism. He could win fights purely with brutality and thunderous punching power; yet when he considered it prudent, the chess-playing tactician would come to the fore.
After representing Canada in the 1988 Summer Olympics in South Korea, he returned home with a shiny gold medal draped around his neck, stopping future Hall-of-Famer Riddick Bowe in the final of the super-heavyweight tournament. He joined the paid ranks the following year, looking to build his reputation and climb his way up the standings.
He announced himself on the world stage in 1992, with a stunning second round demolition of WBC number one ranked heavyweight, Razor Ruddock. Lewis was named WBC champion after Riddick Bowe famously dumped his title belt in a trash can, rather than face him.
His first title defence was a unanimous point’s win over Tony Tucker, which was followed by a huge domestic showdown with Frank Bruno, stopping the fellow Brit inside seven rounds.
This was followed by victories over former world champions Tommy Morrison and Ray Mercer before suffering a shock defeat to Oliver McCall in 1994.After a close opening round, the American caught the champion with a perfect counter right-hand, which sent Lewis sprawling to the canvas. He rose at the count of six, but referee Jose Guadalupe Garcia deemed him unfit to continue.
Lewis would avenge the loss in 1997 in one of the most bizarre fights in history. McCall refused to engage with the man he had knocked out two years prior to the rematch, instead walking around the ring and complaining to his corner. The referee soon intervened and took a now crying McCall aside to see if he was intending to continue. As the pair came out for the start of the fifth round, Lewis delivered a few heavy, unanswered blows which prompted Mills Lane to call an end to proceedings.
With the title reclaimed, Lennox made routine defences against Henry Akinwande, Andrew Golota, Shannon Briggs and Zeljko Mavrovic before turning his attentions to unifying all the belts in a super-fight against the legendary Evander Holyfield.
Despite dominating most of the twelve rounds, the first fight with “Real Deal” would end in a controversial draw, delaying Lewis’ coronation. Eight months later, he would edge a close rematch and became the first Brit since Bob Fitzsimmons to be recognised as the undisputed heavyweight champion.
He would enjoy three more defences against Michael Grant, Frans Botha and David Tua, before Hasim Rahman unexpectedly inflicted the second blemish on his record.
Lennox was much more focussed in the build up to the rematch and was a comprehensive victor, knocking out Rahman with a beautiful left-hook, right-hand combination.
“The Lion” then enjoyed a comprehensive victory against a fading Mike Tyson and a technical stoppage against upcoming Vitali Klitschko, before hanging up his gloves in 2002.
Unusually for an age when self-promotion and courting controversy had become the norm, Lennox kept his personal life intensely private and was rarely in the media for anything other than sporting reasons. He also had the sense to hang up his gloves before any marked decline could tarnish his legacy. It proved a permanent retirement, despite lucrative offers to face Wladimir Klitschko.
Lewis is one of the only heavyweight champions who beat every opponent they faced in the ring. With 14 successful title defences, he bowed out of the sport with a record of 42-2-1 (32 KO’s), whilst holding victories over thirteen former, current and future world champions.
4 – Jack Johnson
In terms of ability, there are a plethora of other fighters who could have competed for a top five spot. But Jack Johnson had a pivotal role not only in shaping the history of our sport, but American culture itself, paving the way for African American men to compete at the pinnacle of sport.
Though subjected to overt racism throughout his life, Johnson used it to his advantage. He would take pride in mocking and embarrassing his white opponents, whilst publically dating white women, which, in an era of extreme racial tension, was almost suicidal.
After beating the top African American fighters and becoming world coloured heavyweight champion, he grew increasingly frustrated by James J. Jeffries’ outright refusal to face him for the world championship, Johnson was instead given the opportunity in 1907 to fight former champion Bobby Fitzsimmons, whom he annihilated inside two rounds.
In 1908, the “Galveston Giant” was finally awarded an opportunity to compete for the official championship in Sydney, Australia, taking on the Canadian Tommy Burns. Johnson talked himself into the match-up after he spent the previous two years turning up to Burns’ press conferences and publically taunting him. After 14 rounds barbaric rounds, the fight was stopped and the referee awarded the victory to Johnson in what became one of the most historic achievements in sport.
An African-American champion generated extreme animosity amongst the white community and they desperately sought a “Great White Hope” to put Johnson in his place. The middleweight great Stanley Ketchel was tasked with climbing up to the highest weight-class to take on Johnson in an exhibition encounter. The fight was fairly civilised until the twelfth round, when Ketchel dropped Johnson with a right hand. Outraged by Ketchel’s sucker punch, the champion jumped to his feet and launched a wild uppercut, which left the middleweight laid flat on the canvas and his front teeth implanted into the leather of Johnson’s glove.
As racial tension heightened, the aforementioned James J. Jeffries climbed out of his six-year slumber to challenge Johnson in what was later labelled the “Fight of the Century.” In front of nearly 20,000, with the majority being rowdy white spectators, Johnson dominated Jeffries from the outset, dropping him twice for the first time his career. The challenger’s team threw in the towel in the fifteenth round to prevent a knockout loss appearing on Jeffries record. The outcome of the fight sent fans into a frenzy and caused riots across the country. White people had their hopes dashed, whilst the black community jubilated in Johnson’s triumph.
Johnson eventually lost his title in 1915, knocked out in the 26th round of his championship defence against Jess Willard. Despite the rumours that the champion took a dive to help get his Mann Act charges dropped, many people recount that Willard won the fight on merit.
After the fight, Johnson said “I met a better man and was beaten. I did the best I could and put forth the best that was in me to win, but, despite the rain of blows, Willard seemed unaffected.”
His legacy is one of the greatest in the history of sport and he would have been able to compete in any heavyweight era.
3 – Larry Holmes
The most underrated heavyweight of all-time makes it into my third spot. Larry Holmes enjoyed a spectacular career and proved himself one of the most skilled big men ever.
The “Easton Assassin” was ahead of his time in terms of style and boxing ability. He didn’t possess any single extraordinary attribute, but mastered the basics and used his ring intelligence to dictate fights. His powers of recuperation also made him incredibly durable and difficult to break down.
His most potent weapon was his jab, which is still regarded by many as the most effective jab in history. He used it to hurt his opponent and keep them at range, snapping back the head of an opponent and creating openings for the crisp right-hand.
Holmes won his first heavyweight title back in 1978 against an ageing Ken Norton. It was a crossroads encounter; the up-and-coming hotshot against a legend, past his prime – but with enough experience to pose a significant threat. After trading for fifteen rounds in what became a fight for the ages. Holmes edged Norton on two of the judges’ scorecards and was officially announced as world heavyweight king.
Two years later, a certain Muhammad Ali came out of retirement to take on his former sparring partner, who dished out a beating on the faded legend. Ali’s corner rescued him from further damage shortly after the start of the tenth round. In later years, Holmes stated that he deeply regretted taking the fight, believing that Ali was already suffering from the symptoms of Parkinsons Disease.
Holmes would defend his title a total of 20 times, the second highest number of consecutive heavyweight title defences, defeating top heavyweight contenders like Earnie Shavers, Gerry Cooney and future title holders Mike Weaver, Trevor Berbick, James Smith and Tim Witherspoon. Ten of his title defences would come against undefeated challengers, which makes his unbeaten run even more impressive.
He cleaned up the division, racking up an astonishing 48-0 record, before tasting defeat for the first time at the hands of Michael Spinks in 1985. This would spell the end of his campaign at world championship level, as he later suffered losses against Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Oliver McCall.
Although he jumped in and out of retirement during the 90’s, he had already proved himself as one of the greatest heavyweights to don a pair of gloves.
2 – Joe Louis
Just narrowly missing out on the top spot is Joe Louis.
The Brown Bomber was a textbook boxer. His skills are somewhat underappreciated, but it was his impeccable timing, pinpoint accuracy and bone-crushing power that made him a force to be reckoned with.
After the conclusion of the Jack Dempsey era, Louis reinvigorated the sport and re-enthused the mainstream audience. He also became a poster boy for the United States army, featuring on posters and billboards encouraging Americans to play their part in defeating Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.
Louis climbed the rankings and was awarded a tune-up fight against Max Schmeling. The German was not seen as a genuine obstacle on Louis’ path to greatness, so he adopted a relaxed approach to the pre-fight preparation. It’s alleged that Louis spent more time on the golf course than in the gym, training. Schmeling, on the other hand, saw this as an opportunity to leap back in contention for world honours. He saw vulnerabilities in the Louis style, especially a tendency to drop his left hand after throwing the jab. On the night, Schmeling’s thorough preparation proved to be the difference, as he knocked out Louis in the 12th round.
Despite losing his tune-up fight, the champion James J. Braddock was keen to pursue a fight with Louis, as he didn’t want to gift the opportunity to a German fighter, over a fellow American. His long-awaited opportunity came in 1937, with Braddock riding high from his championship victory against the giant Max Baer. He got off to the perfect start by dropping Louis in round one but enjoyed minimal success from that point onwards. The challenger inflicted a beating on the champion before sending him to sleep with a thunderous right hand in the eighth round.
Once he got his hands on silverware, Louis never looked back and enjoyed successful defences over the likes of Max Baer, Jack Sharkey, Billy Conn, John Henry Lewis and Jimmy Bivins. He even exacted revenge on Schmeling in 1938, cleaning him out inside just two minutes and four seconds.
As he entered the later stages of his heavyweight pomp, his skills deteriorated significantly and looked a shadow of his former self, especially in his first against Jersey Joe Walcott. The veteran Walcott dropped Louis twice in the first four rounds and dominated for the most part of the fifteen round fight. To the dismay of Jersey Joe and the fans ringside in Madison Square Garden, Louis was announced victorious via split decision.
The pair returned for a rematch in front of 42,000 at the Yankee Stadium, with Louis entering the ring at his heaviest career weight to date – a hefty 213 pounds. Walcott enjoyed a fast start and knocked Louis down in the third. But the Bomber dug deep and survived the early onslaught to stop Walcott in the eleventh.
Afterwards, Louis would announce his retirement, which proved short-lived as his tax bill from the IRS forced him into competing again. He was easily defeated by the brilliant Ezzard Charles in his return to the ring, before continuing to fight against club-level opposition to help fend off the debt collectors. He would eventually retire in 1951 after being brutally stopped by undefeated contender Rocky Marciano.
Louis amassed a record of 66-3 with 52 knockouts, in a career that lasted from 1934 to 1951. To this day, he holds the record for the longest title reign (12 years) and the record for the most consecutive defences of his crown, with 25.
1 – Muhammad Ali
The most naturally gifted heavyweight in history and the most recognisable character in sport. After winning gold at the 1960 Olympic Games and turning professional shortly afterwards, Muhammad Ali repeatedly proved himself the best heavyweight in the world during the highly competitive 60’s and 70’s eras.
He was everything a heavyweight shouldn’t be; light on his feet, fast-handed and difficult to hit. He could utilise his lightening jab and elusive footwork to dance around an opponent and wait for the right moment to unload with a flurry of punches. For all the talent and ability he possessed, people often forget just how courageous and durable he was.
After going 19-0, he talked his way into a world title fight with the feared champion Sonny Liston, who was coming off the back of two destructive victories over the famous Floyd Paterson.
Despite Liston achieving occasional success, the fight was a mismatch from the outset. Ali danced rings around him and peppered him with the jab before jumping in with ‘punches in bunches’. Despite dealing with impaired vision during the fifth and sixth rounds, Ali continued to inflict punishment on Liston, who complained of a shoulder injury, forcing him to retire on his stool at the end of the sixth round.
History would repeat itself in the rematch a year later when Ali delivered the famous “phantom punch,” which left Liston staring at the ceiling and set the scene for the iconic image of Ali standing tall over the helpless challenger.
Ali would go on to face a total of ten former, current and future world champions throughout his career, along with some of the division’s top contenders in Cleveland Williams, Jerry Quarry, Oscar Bonavena, Ron Lyle and Earnie Shavers.
He played his part in two wonderful trilogies with Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, boasting a 2-1 advantage in both series. Frazier and Ali became the perfect dance partners and enjoyed three wonderful fights together.
“Smokin” Joe claimed the first and Ali returned the favour in the second. The trilogy culminated with the “Thrilla in Manilla” – one of the most historic nights in boxing history. Frazier would retire on his stool at the start of the fourteenth round.
Arguably his most celebrated victory would come against George Foreman – the man who was seemingly unstoppable. After wiping the floor with fellow legends Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, Ali stepped up to the plate in 1974 and looked to regain the crown that he’d lost to Frazier three years prior.
Foreman employed his usual brawling tactics, resting his head on the chest of Ali and wailing away with heavy blows to the body and head. The challenger adopted the famous “rope-a-dope” tactics to tire out the champion and preserve his own energy.
It was one-way traffic for seven rounds, whilst Ali absorbed Foreman’s punishment with smiles and taunts. Ali picked his moment in the eighth to turn the tables and stun the favoured champion with a stoppage.
Having regained the championship for the second time, he would maintain the position until 1978, succumbing to 10-1 underdog Leon Spinks. Despite regaining the title for a record-breaking second time later that year, by unanimous decision, he addressed his decline, saying “I’ve been doing it for 25 years …. it has changed me. I can see it, I can feel it.”
Despite this admission, he fought on and suffered losses to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick, somewhat tarnishing his legacy, especially considering his subsequent illness.
He retired with an impressive record of 56 wins and 5 losses, with 37 knockouts.
Muhammad Ali transcended sport and was one of the most celebrated celebrities of all time, recognised as Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated. After a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, the world mourned his death in June 2016 and waved goodbye to ‘The Greatest”.
Thanks for reading. Whilst you are here, check out my Top 5: Middleweights and Top 5: Mexican’s. Join in the discussion on Twitter by tweeting @JayTB__