This humble blogger has a confession to make: I love boxing. As a sport that no longer permeates every aspect of American Culture like it once did, I can't help but feel like I was born in the wrong decade. How did boxing fall from grace so fast? Two reasons: Mike Tyson's downfall killed the sport, as well as the perceived lack of great heavyweight fighters over the past 15 years or so. Americans really don't care about the other weight classes. I'm sure that, back in the 70's, many people saw or knew who won the Thrilla in Manilla (Ali vs. Frazier 2). If you asked twenty random people on the street who won the fights between Arturo Gatti and Mickey Ward, which are universally hailed as possibly the best fights of all time, most people would probably say "Who are Arturo Gatti and Mickey Ward?" Welterweights, lightweights, light-heavies, etc., don't command our attention like heavyweights do. And Tyson's meltdown didn't help, either. So, in memory of the great heavyweights of recent and distant past, here is my list of the ten best heavyweight fighters, ever.
The criteria for this list is wins, losses, time of victory, KO's vs. decisions, and time as champion, and dominance as champion. Notice I used the best as opposed to "greatest;" this is intentional, as best refers to skills in the ring, while greatest can mean something totally different. Jack Dempsey was clearly a GREATER champion than Lennox Lewis; Dempsey captured our imaginations and galvanized the country. He was a true national figure. Lewis, on the other hand, was seen largely as that guy from England. He was, however, clearly the better boxer, in terms of raw skills. So the status of, say, Ali or Frazier, as political and cultural icons, will not be factored in to the decision. I'll make mention of these fighters cultural impacts, though. On to the list.
10) Sonny Liston - One of the most powerful punchers in the history of heavyweight boxing, Liston was a dominant champion (as well as an extremely interesting person). His record stands at 50 wins, 4 losses, with 39 wins by knockout. He was a heavyweight champion (September 25th, 1962 - February 25th, 1964) and a Golden Gloves winner. Two of his losses occurred at the hands of Muhammad Ali. Liston was so tough that in his first loss, against Marty Marshall, Liston finished the fight despite breaking his jaw in the third round. This is what led many to believe that Liston's first fight against Ali was fixed, with Liston betting on himself; he withdrew from that fight due to a shoulder injury, but how could that sideline the man who went the distance with a broken jaw? Liston later would knock Marshall out in a rematch. Liston had difficulty getting a deserved shot at champion Floyd Patterson, as Patterson's people attempted to use Liston's links with the mob as an excuse against the fight. In 1962, Liston finally signed to meet the world heavyweight champion for the belt. The fight was going to be held in New York, but the New York commission denied him a license. The fight was held in Chicago, and Liston knocked Patterson out in the first round. He also knocked Patterson out in the first round of their rematch. Liston died under mysterious circumstances in 1970; many believe that his contacts to the mob killed him. Liston was not a popular champion, unfortunately.
9) Max Baer - The one-time "killer" and future inspiration to Jews during WWII, Baer is possibly the most feared puncher ever to box professionally. Baer's record stands at 72 wins, 53 by knockout, and 12 losses. Baer fought Frankie Campbell in 1930; Campbell died in the ring after two blows to the head from Baer. It was later revealed that the punches knocked Campbell's brain completely loose from the connective tissue holding it in place in his head. Baer was profoundly affected by this event. The movie Cinderella Man, director Ron Howard, in one of the most despicable cases of artistic license ever, makes Baer look sadistic and his remorse for Campbell is not shown. In all fairness, the media at the time in the 30's played up Baer's image as a killer, and the film does show Baer accepting defeat graciously, smiling and clapping at Braddock's victory. It can also be argued that the depiction of Baer in the film was in keeping with his depiction in the press at the time, and the image of a destructive, savage boxer was often used by promoters to create interest in Baer's fights. And, while the film's Max Baer in the movie never expresses remorse for the death of Campbell, neither does he actually boast about it. The real life Max Baer helped put Frankie Campbell's kids through college. Later, Baer became an actor. He was heavyweight champion from June 14th, 1934 until June 13th, 1935 (when he lost to Braddock). He died at the age of 50.
8) George Foreman - With a record of 76 wins, 68 by knockout, and 5 losses, Foreman was originally a devastating monster who was feared by the media and public. On January 22nd, 1973, Foreman faced undefeated world Heavyweight champion Joe Frazier in Kingston, Jamaica, knocking him down six times in two rounds and knocking him out in the second round in one of boxing's biggest upsets to become the world champion. He threw an uppercut that connected with such brutal force that Frazier was lifted off his feet before hitting the canvas. Foreman was considered an aloof and anti-social champion by the press in his youth. Foreman held the belt from January 1973 until October 1974, when he dropped the belt to Ali. He would later stun the world in 1994, on November 5th, when he beat Michael Moorer to become, at the age of 45, the oldest Heavyweight champion of all time.
7) Lennox Lewis - Along with Muhammad Ali and Evander Holyfield, Lewis is one of three boxers in heavyweight history to have won the Heavyweight Championship on three separate occasions. Lewis' record is 41 wins, 32 by knockout, 2 losses, and 1 draw. That draw was on March 13, 1999, and is still one of the most controversial fights of all time. Most believe (me included) that Lewis kicked the living snot out of Evander Holyfield. Eight months later Lewis won a much closer match, but it was a unanimous decision. Many feel that the decision in the second bout was a correction of the mistake made in the first. Lewis is number six because while Lewis was a dominant champion, his loss to Hasim Rahman (a 20-1 underdog) coupled with his not so lengthy reigns as undisputed champion, as well as his rather lazy in-ring style make him, to me, not as good as some other champions who may have not held the unified belt as many times. Lewis was great, no doubt, and he did beat the man I am going to make number one, but that man was way out of his prime by then.
6) Floyd Patterson - At the time he won the belt, he was the youngest man to hold it (he was 21 years old). He had a record of 55 wins, 8 losses and 1 draw, with 40 wins by knockout. At the age of just 17, Patterson won the Gold medal in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics as a middleweight. 1952 also saw Patterson, in addition to winning the Olympic gold, win the National Amateur Middleweight Championship and a Golden Gloves. He got his championship chance when he fought Archie Moore on November 30, 1956, for the title left vacant by Rocky Marciano. He beat Moore by a knockout in five rounds, and became the first Olympic gold medalist to win a heavyweight title. Patterson was also the first man to regain the title after losing it. In 1959, he dropped the title to Ingemar Johansson of Sweden, in the first of three excellent fights. Patterson knocked Johansson out in the fifth round of their rematch on June 20, 1960, with a leaping left hook to once again be the world's undisputed heavyweight title. The punch caught Johansson's chin and he hit the canvas, knocked out before he landed flat on his back. Blood could be seen trickling from his mouth, and his eyes were clearly glazed over and his left foot was quivering. After the count, Patterson showed his concern for Johansson by cradling his downed opponent, and promising him a second rematch. Johansson lay unconscious for five minutes. He was still dazed and unsteady fifteen minutes after the knockout as he had to be helped out of the ring. Despite this, Patterson was very popular among Swedish people, who had made Johansson their national hero after he defeated Patterson (Johansson was the first Swedish champion), and when he went to Europe for an exhibition tour after that match, he was greeted by Swedish fans, who were eager to shake his hand, ask for autographs and take photos with the likeable Patterson. Patterson would lose the title to Sonny Liston in 1962. Patterson was also the only "old" fighter to box Muhammad Ali well, losing a 12-round TKO. Despite calling him "the Rabbit," Ali himself later expressed admiration for Patterson's gentle nature and in-ring skills. I don't think there can be any greater boxing complement better than to have Ali say that.
5) Joe Frazier - Considered one of the greatest heavyweights of all time, Frazier is most famous for his trilogy of fights with Muhammad Ali, the first of which, won by Frazier in a unanimous decision, has been hailed as one of boxing's greatest matches. Frazier was known for a dogged and merciless pursuit of opponents, quickly cutting off angles of escape using a chugging locomotion that was likened to a train's advance up a hill. The contrast with Ali's dancing, non-linear style could not have been greater. Together, they are probably boxing's greatest pair of antagonists ever. Their trash talk was legendary, as was their fights. Both Ali-Frazier 1 and the Thrilla in Manilla (won by Ali) are debated as the greatest fights ever. Frazier's record is 32 wins, 27 by knockout, and 4 losses, with 1 draw. Frazier became undisputed champion when he beat WBA world heavyweight champion Jimmy Ellis with a 5th round knockout in February 1970. Frazier is extremely hostile toward Ali, still, and claims to have won all three fights between them. His reign as undisputed champion lasted almost 3 years. In that time, he was the first man to beat Muhammad Ali.
4) Joe Louis - I have to admit, most of my knowledge of Joe Louis came from the Eddie Murphy movie Coming to America. I found out later that Joe Louis was not 75 years old when he fought Rocky Marciano. Louis held the title over 11 years (from 1937 until 1949) and made a record 25 successful heavyweight title defenses and a total of 26 heavyweight championship fights, a record which still stands. Louis' record is 69 wins, 55 by knockout, and 3 losses. A prolific puncher, he knocked out Primo Carnera, a former heavyweight champ, in 6 rounds. Louis then knocked out the iron-chinned former heavyweight champion Max Baer in four rounds. Before losing to Louis, Baer had been knocked down only once, by Frankie Campbell. Louis also knocked out Paolino Uzcudun, who had never been knocked down or out before he met Louis. Louis lost to Max Schmeling, but was awarded the title shot against James Braddock when negotiations with Schmeling failed. Louis would later defend his title against Schmeling, defeating him handily. At a troubled time in America right before the outbreak of World War II, he became a popular and national American hero, along with Jesse Owens, for both black and white America, much like fighters Max Baer and Max Schmeling had become heroes.
Interestingly, at the time he fought the Jewish Baer, Schmeling was called a N*zi by many fans due to his popularity among the party, a title which stuck to him like glue. In reality, the N*zis stopped using him in their propaganda after his loss to Louis, which was a relief to him. In 1928, he hired Joe Jacobs, a Jew, to be his manager. He would point this out for the rest of his life in defending himself against charges of Nazism. Schmeling also visited American soldiers in hospitals, and hid Jewish children in his hotel room from the Gestapo during the Kristallnacht. The two boys, Henry and Werner Lewin, were eventually smuggled out of Germany with Schmeling's help. Though the N*zi government tried to help Schmeling get the title shot he deserved against Braddock, he despised them and opposed them. He also was very good personal friends with Joe Louis, paying his medical bills later in their lives, and acting as a pall bearer at Louis' funeral. Some reports claim Schmeling paid for the funeral, though this has been debated.
In 2003, Ring Magazine rated Joe Louis No. 1 on the list of 100 greatest punchers of all time. In 2005, Louis was named the greatest heavyweight of all time by the International Boxing Research Organization.
3) Muhammad Ali - In my opinion, the greatest showman in sports, ever. Ali has a record of 56 wins, 37 by knockout, and 5 losses. He defeated every major contender in the heavyweight division during the Golden Age of Heavyweight boxing. He participated in some of the greatest matches of all time, including two against Frazier that some say are the greatest ever, period. Ali dominated the division like no-one had up to that point. He destroyed Sonny Liston, twice, when Liston was seen as invincible. He beat Floyd Patterson, and Patterson was a legitimate threat to the title his whole career. And then, when his career was winding down, he defeated the younger, stronger George Foreman at the Rumble in the Jungle. I don't think anything else needs to be said about Ali.
2) Rocky Marciano - With forty-three knockouts to his credit out of 49 wins (which makes for an 88% knockout rate), Marciano remains the only heavyweight champion in boxing history to retire without a defeat or a draw in his professional career. His undefeated record makes him one of the top two in my opinion. Marciano held the belt from 1952 until 1956. He did lose to Colley Wallace in 1948, but that was in a Golden Gloves tournament. Marciano faced world heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott in Philadelphia on September 23, 1952, to win his title. After being dropped in round one, Marciano got up and knocked Walcott out in the thirteenth round. In their rematch, one year later, Maciano knocked Walcott out in the first round. He would never lose the title. After he retired, he began receiveing criticism for never fighting Floyd Patterson. The truth is, while Marciano was champion, Patterson was not a contender for the heavyweight title and he was not a ranked heavyweight. In fact, during Marciano's title years, Patterson fought mainly in the light heavyweight class.
In 1969, shortly before he died, Marciano participated in the filming of the fantasy movie/fight, The Superfight: Marciano vs. Ali. The two boxers were filmed sparring, then the film was edited to fit the predictions of a computer simulation that staged a hypothetical fight between them, considering each in their prime. The bout was aired on Tuesday, January 20, 1970. Marciano won by KO in 13.
And now, for my number one:
1) Mike Tyson - That's right, Iron Mike Tyson. In his prime, Tyson was unbeatable. Displacing Patterson as the youngest man to ever have won the belt, Tyson unified the belts in the broken and destabilized heavyweight division in the late 1980s and won many of his fights by knockout. Tyson knocked out his first 19 professional opponents inside of 6 rounds, 12 of them in the first round. He reigned as undisputed heavyweight champion for over two years, until he was upset by Buster Douglas. This loss would herald the downfall of boxing as we know it. His record stands at 50 wins, 44 by knockout, and 6 losses, with 2 draws. Some could say that if he hadn't made all these dumb comeback attempts, his record would be even better (much like QB's who play past their prime and drag their stats down). Though he effectively killed the sport, and made a mockery of himself, keep this in mind: the man was an animal from the streets. Every father figure in his life either left him or took advantge of him, and despite this, he became the most feared boxer of all time at the age of twenty. Tyson would knockout opponents so fast you would miss it if you blinked. In terms of raw skill and dominance in his prime, Tyson is the best by far.
So there you have it. For those of you huffing with indignation, let me explain: yes, I left off Evander Holyfield and Jack Dempsey. I did this when I saw I didn't have room for Frazier. If you think I'm wrong, let me know! Think I missed someone? Think Tyson shouldn't be number one? Think Dempsey, Holyfield, Ken Norton, or someone else was snubbed? Then you let me know. But this is how I see it.