By Tyson Bruce
1. Muhammad Ali-56-5-0-(37): In terms of social and historical impact no one even comes close. However, what really puts Ali number one all time is his quality of opposition. Many people consider the 1970’s the best decade in the division’s history and Ali proved beyond a doubt that he was the finest fighter of that or perhaps any generation. Ali holds victories over Joe Frazier (twice), Sonny Liston (twice), Floyd Patterson, Ken Norton (twice), as well as a knockout victory over a prime George Foreman. In total Ali made 21 title defenses during his three reigns as heavyweight champion. Over the course of his prolific career Ali went from being one of the most hated public figures in American to one of the most beloved, speaking volumes about his accomplishments both in and out of the ring.
2. Joe Louis-66-3-0-(52)-1 no contest: America’s first national black sporting hero revolutionized what it meant to be a heavyweight champion. Louis brought a level of talent, skill, and size that made him an unbeatable force during his record breaking twelve years as heavyweight champion. His mind boggling 25 title defenses is a record that will probably never be broken. In one of the major sporting events of the 20th century Louis avenged an earlier defeat against the German Max Schmeling in 1938. With the world on the cusp of war, Louis is given credit for boosting the moral of the nation, as well as helping to debunk Hitler’s myth of Arian supremacy. What prevents Louis from securing the number one spot was his sometimes mediocre opposition, which was unflatteringly dubbed the “bum of the month club”. Nevertheless, the social barriers Louis broke for African American fighters cannot be ignored.
3. Larry Holmes-69-6-0-(44): Easily the most underrated heavyweight champion of all-time. Holmes was the complete package, as he had fantastic boxing skills but also proved many times that he had the heart and toughness of a champion. After winning the title from Ken Norton in an all-time great slugfest, he would go on to make 20 title defenses, second only to Louis’ twenty-five. Holmes had one of the greatest jabs in boxing history and used it to go undefeated in the first 48 fights of his career, including victories over Gerry Cooney, Tim Witherspoon, Mike Weaver, and Ernie Shavers. He spent most of his career lost in the long shadow cast by Muhammad Ali, but Holmes’ accomplishments and consistency makes his resume one of the best in division history.
4. Jack Johnson-80-13-12-(45)-14 no contests: Approximately forty years before Jackie Robinson was given credit for breaking the color barrier in sports, Johnson won the heavyweight championship by knocking out Canadian Tommy Burns in 1908. Johnson’s behavior was the antithesis of Joe Louis, as he frequently bucked the system by verbally taunting his white opponents, openly sleeping with white women, and living a life style of excess and braggadocio that rivals even modern athletes. That he wasn’t assassinated in a country that hung black men for sometimes just looking incorrectly at a white woman is truly remarkable. Johnson also took care of business in the ring where he beat some of the best fighters of his time, including Bob Fitzsimmons, Sam Langford, Jim Jefferies, and Stanley Ketchel. Stylistically, he is credited with bringing a more fluid and scientific approach to boxing—helping to modernize the sport.
5. Rocky Marciano-49-0-0-(43): The “Brockton Blockbuster” was the only heavyweight champion to retire undefeated, ending with a perfect 49-0. Despite being just 5-11 and roughly 185 pounds, Marciano used his ferocity, resilience, and “Suzy Q” right hand to more than make up for his size deficit. Although Marciano’s legacy is often derided because of the quality of his opposition, he must be given credit for being the first white champion to consistently defend his title against black fighters. In total he made six title defenses, against Jersey Joe Walcott, Ronald La Starza, Ezzard Charles (twice), Don Cockell, and Archie Moore. He also beat a faded Joe Louis in 1951, in what was Louis’ final bout.
6. George Foreman-76-5-0-(68): Arguably the hardest puncher in heavyweight history. Foreman’s career can be broken into two parts: his menacing first reign and his subsequent comeback nearly ten years after his first retirement. For legacy standards Foreman is primarily judged on the first part of his career, where he was destruction personified. Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, great heavyweights in there own right, lasted less than four combined rounds with Foreman. He also had resounding knockout victories over top tier heavyweights like George Chuvalo, Ron Lyle, and Jose Roman. Those are the victories that secured his legacy as a heavyweight, but it’s his conquest of Michael Moore at age 45 to regain the championship that has elevated Foreman from great to almost mythical status.
7. Lennox Lewis-41-2-1-(32): A great champion whose legacy continues to grow the longer he’s away from the sport. During his two reigns as heavyweight champion Lewis was widely despised by American fans that regarded him as a safety-first bore machine. However, Lewis’s accomplishments tell a vastly different story. He was able to defeat every fighter he stepped into to the ring with as a professional, avenging his only defeats to Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman by stoppage. Lewis’ combination of size and athleticism ushered in a new era of the ‘super-heavyweight’. He used his massive physical advantages, one- punch knockout power, and excellent technique to dominate the division for the better part of a decade.
8. Jack Dempsey-65-6-11-(51)-1 no contest: “The Manassa Mauler” was probably the most popular heavyweight of all time, becoming the first boxer to set a million-dollar live gate. He was famous for his rabid aggression and vicious punching power. After years spent as a fighting tramp, he was given a title shot against the giant Jess Willard. Despite being a heavy underdog, he ravaged Willard knocking him down seven times. Dempsey would go on to make title defenses against some of the best heavyweights around the globe, including Bill Miske, Georges Carpentier, Luis Fripo, and Tommy Gibbons. Many experts would place Dempsey much higher on this list, but he must be penalized for his refusal to fight black fighters.
9. Evander Holyfield-44-10-2-(29)-1 no contest: “The Real Deal’ was never supposed to become a great heavyweight champion. Experts accused him of being too small and untalented to ever dominate a division that had just been ransacked by Mike Tyson. Holyfield showed that great champions are made from more than just size and punching power, by using his skill and famous heart to consistently beat the odds. Holyfield has wins over Riddick Bowe, Michael Moore, George Foreman, Larry Holmes and two upset victories over Mike Tyson. Not bad for a guy they said would never be heavyweight champion.
10. Joe Frazier-32-4-1-(27): The very definition of a true professional prizefighter. Frazier had a stellar amateur career, which culminated by capturing Olympic gold in 1964. “Smokin’ Joe” gradually emerged as a top contender in the 1960’s by beating a plethora of very good heavyweights, including George Chuvalo and Oscar Bonavena. When Muhammad Ali was stripped of his championship and sent to prison for refusing the draft, Frazier won the vacant NYSAC title from Buster Mathis (KO-11) and the WBC & WBA titles from Jimmy Ellis (KO-5). In arguably the biggest fight in boxing history Frazier won a sensational battle against Ali, knocking him down in the 15th round. Frazier’s only career losses came against George Foreman (twice) and Ali (twice).