Throughout the 20th century, professional boxing, particularly the ‘Heavyweight’ division carried with it a folklore quality as an intricate part of American sporting society. To be crowned the ‘Heavyweight Champion of the World’ was to be recognized as the baddest man on the planet. The pugilist of all pugilists. The man standing on top of the proverbial mountain, relishing in the proud defense of all worthy title challengers. Prize fighting in the 20th century captivated the collective imagination of American society in ways that the modern incarnation of the ‘Sweet Science’, frankly, falls short. Reasons for the demise in the overall popularity of boxing are many and varied, however it possesses a rich and colorful historical tapestry that is unmistakeable. Among the men who have valiantly fought their way into the hallowed halls of championship pantheon, are some whose talent, courage, personality, and influence transcended that of a mere champion, and into the rarified air of legend. Perhaps even more profound today, than ever before. The following list aims to highlight 13 of these legendary men who ruled the ring, and by extension, the entire world once upon a time.
#13. Evander Holyfield / 44 Wins 10 Losses 2 Draws 29 KO
Nicknamed the’Real Deal’, Evander Holyfield held world championship titles in the cruiserweight division as well as the heavyweight division. Currently, Holyfield is the only man to have won four (4) Heavyweight Championships including the WBA, WBC, IBF titles, all in 1990. He held them all again in 1993, followed by another WBA, IBF in 1996. In the year 2000, Holyfield won his fourth WBA title. He notoriously suffered a graphic ear injury at the hands of Mike Tyson during a 1997 title fight named the ‘Bite Fight’. Graphic meaning the ‘helix’ section of his ear was bitten off by Tyson prior to his spitting it on the blood stained canvas at their feet. Never known for being a naturally graceful speaker, Holyfield’s accomplishments in the ring did all the necessary speaking on his behalf.
#12. Lennox Lewis / 41 Wins 2 Losses 1 Draws 32 KO
Lennox Lewis holds the distinction of being the very last ‘undisputed’ unified world boxing heavyweight champion. An accomplishment earned from his 1999 defeat of Evander Holyfield (2nd fight) that unified the WBA, WBC, IBF, and vacant IBO title. Lewis is also the only non-American citizen to hold a place on this list, as he is a dual British and Canadian citizen. Lewis is widely considered by boxing purists as one of the greatest heavyweights of all time, his 2002 sound defeat of Mike Tyson part of that credit.
#11. Charles”Sonny” Liston / 50 Wins 4 Losses 39 KO
Throughout his career, Sonny Liston was notorious for his physical toughness, imposing demeanor, and savage punching power. His reputation for hanging out with real life gangsters only added to his mystique of being a tough guy with bad intentions. Liston won the world heavyweight championship with his 1962 physical pounding, 1st round knock-out of Floyd Patterson. Later he became infamous for being knocked out by Muhammad Ali via the legendary ‘phantom punch’ in their controversial 1964 contest. It was rumored that Liston was heavily intoxicated the night before the fight which perhaps helped explain his unexpected loss, as he was a 7 to 1 favorite to win going into the contest.
#10. William”Jack” Dempsey / 65 Wins 6 Losses 11 Draws 51 KO
During the ‘roaring’ 1920’s in the United States, a boxer known by some as ‘Kid Blackie’, and many as ‘The Manassa Mauler’, became a pop cultural icon. His real name was William ‘Jack’ Dempsey and he was the World Heavyweight Champion from 1919 to 1926. Dempsey was known for his vicious fighting demeanor and brutal punching power. He was easily the most popular fighter of the 1920’s largely due to his ability, and arguably due to his representation of his race at the time. Often his fights broke financial records, with attendance records in tow. His 1927 rematch against Gene Tunney became the first million dollar gate in American boxing history, bringing in approximately $2 million dollars. A figure that in today’s money would equal about $15 million. Rumors persisted that Al Capone had tried to have the fight fixed, with Dempsey refusing to have anything to do with it. ‘Kid Blackie’ was one of the greatest fighters of his era, and of all-time.
#9. Kenneth Howard Norton, Sr. / 42 Wins 7 Losses 1 Draws 33 KO
Many people would be surprised to hear that Ken Norton, Sr. also had a 3 fight trilogy against Muhammad Ali. This was besides the fact that he was the WBC world heavyweight champion in 1977 – 1978. Norton was a great fighter with a smooth and powerful style that went along with his sculpted, muscular physique. He beat the great Ali in a 12 round split decision in March of 1973, a fight in which he broke Ali’s jaw. He went on to lose the next two matches, although it was argued that he had in fact won the third. Nevertheless, Ken Norton was one of the greatest heavyweight champs of all-time and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992.
#8. Larry Holmes / 69 Wins 6 Losses 44 KO
If one were to look up greatest ‘left jab’ in boxing history, there would likely be a picture of Larry Holmes directly beside it. His left jab was that good, that great. Larry was never a flamboyant champion, nor was he a flashy champion, but he was undoubtably a great champion. He was the WBC heavyweight champion during the years of 1978 – 1983, as well as the IBF champion from 1983 to 1985. As champion, he achieved 20 successful title defenses, as well as defeating an aging Muhammad Ali, his former sparring partner, in 1980, one of only 5 men to ever do so. His 1985 loss to Michael Spinks left him one victory shy of Rocky Marchiano’s 49-0 career record. Holmes fought and defeated some of the best fighters of his era with victories over the likes of Earnie Shavers, Ken Norton, Gerry Cooney, Tim Witherspoon, Carl Williams and Marvis Frazier. Holmes was great, period.
#7. John Arthur “Jack” Johnson / 73 Wins 13 Losses 10 Draws 40 KO
Over the course of his life and career, Jack Johnson also known as the ‘Galveston Giant’ was a lot of things. Among them was being the very first African American world heavyweight boxing champion starting with his World Colored Heavyweight Championship in 1903, a title he held for a record 2,151 days. He became the overall world champion in 1908, his reign ending in 1915. This was significant because this happened during the height of ‘Jim Crow’ America. Johnson didn’t make things easier for himself by flaunting his many interracial relationships in public which ultimately led to his arrest on racially motivated Mann Act federal charges in 1912. Johnson was famous, infamous, and notorious concurrently. By winning the title in 1908 he started a nationwide movement in the white community calling for a “Great White Hope” or a white someone to take the title away from the black skinned Johnson. His 1910 defeat of anointed ‘great white hope’ James J. Jeffries in Reno, Nevada caused riots all over the country on July 4th.
#6. George Edward “Big George” Foreman / 76 Wins 5 Losses 68 KO
Before George Foreman was the affable pop culture icon that he is today, he was a mean, freakishly strong fighter who routinely knocked his opponents into next thursday. Before he was the villain in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ fight against Muhammad Ali, he was a two-time world heavyweight champion, as well as an Olympic gold medalist. Foreman was awesome in his prime. He would strike the fear of God into his opponents, and with good reason. He absolutely destroyed both Joe Frazier and Ken Norton in succession. He was on his way to beating Ali as well, until he ran out of gas in the later rounds. Nevertheless, Foreman was one of the very best heavyweight champions of all-time. For certain.
#5. Michael Gerard “Mike” Tyson / 50 Wins 6 Losses 44 KO
Mike Tyson was a force of nature. He came virtually out of nowhere to flip the world of heavyweight boxing on it’s ear. During his prime in the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s there was no greater box office attraction fighter on the planet earth. A Mike Tyson fight was an event that brought out the A through Z list of the who’s who of American society. Tyson rarely disappointed, as he routinely dispatched his unfortunate opponents one after another in less time than it took to use the restroom. True story. He became the youngest undisputed world heavyweight champion at the tender age of 20 years, 4 months, and 22 days. Mike Tyson won his first 19 professional fights by extreme knockout, a dozen of those mere seconds into the very first round. In 1986 he won the WBC title by beating Trevor Berbick. In 1987, Tyson won both the WBA and IBF titles making him the first heavyweight boxer to possess the WBA, WBC and IBF titles, concurrently. His career flamed out due to legal and personal difficulties as the flash and excitement were soon a thing of the past, but for a moment in time Mike Tyson was an American supernova.
#4. Joseph William “Joe” Frazier / 32 Wins 4 Losses 1 Draw 27 KO
‘Smoking’ Joe Frazier had the greatest left hook in the history of heavyweight boxing. His left hook was otherworldly, and he threw it with bad intentions behind it, every time. Frazier was an intense fighter who embodied toughness. He was an Olympic gold medalist who later became the undisputed world heavyweight champion in 1970. He successfully defended that title in a fight against Muhammad Ali in Madison Square Garden in 1971 in what was termed the ‘fight of the century’. Joe’s professional career spanned the years 1965 through 1976. Joe Frazier’s punching power was legendary, as was his relentless aggressive boxing style. His three fight series with Ali are legendary for all-time. Joe Frazier was one of the greatest prize fighters of his era, or any other.
#3. Rocco Francis ‘Rocky’ Marciano / 49 Wins 0 Losses 43 KO
Rocky Marciano was a professional heavyweight fighter who never lost a professional fight. True story. Rocky held the world heavyweight title from September 23, 1952 until his retirement in April of 1956 (49 -0). Marciano defended his world title six times fighting opponents such as against Jersey Joe Walcott, Roland La Starza, Ezzard Charles, Don Cockell, and of course his war with Archie Moore. Rocky was an Italian rock of a fighter who had a chin as solid as his right cross, and he knew how to win a fight. He is widely considered, and with good reason, to be one of the greatest boxers of all-time and that isn’t really debatable. His career knockout percentage of 88% is among, if not the highest recorded rates of all-time. There aren’t too many positive things to say about Rocky Marciano that hasn’t already been said, at length. #Great.
#2. Joseph ‘Joe’ Louis Barrow / 66 Wins 3 Losses 52 KO
Joe Louis was also known as the original ‘Brown Bomber’. Louis was the pride of African-American culture all throughout the World War 2 era of America and beyond. He was the world heavyweight champion during the years of 1937 until 1949. He is widely considered one the best of all-time, and in many circles simply the best, period. Louis was the face of pro boxing during the post Dempsey boxing era. He earned a glowing reputation for being a wholesome, all American fighter with a hardworking ethos during an era when boxing was being invaded by unsavory underworld mobster figures. It’s been rumored that Louis never took a pay-off, ever. A huge accomplishment for that era. The ‘Brown Bomber’ gave millions of African-Americans hope and pride during a difficult time in our history.
#1. Cassius Clay aka Muhammad Ali / 56 Wins 5 Losses 37 KO
What can you say about the man who called himself the greatest, and could back every word of it up? You’d just have to call him the greatest, no? Personally, I feel that Muhammad Ali‘s greatness as a fighter, and he was great, almost pales in comparison to his influence and inspiration as a man, and political figure. Was Ali controversial? Sure. Polarizing? You bet. Ali became a political icon in an era where many political icons were born, and far too many died, the turbulent and politically transcendent 1960’s. By his refusal to be inducted into the United States armed forces to go fight in Vietnam, Ali took a stand and made a personal, professional, and financial sacrifice that frankly, not many athletes before or since would have the guts or intestinal fortitude to accomplish. He believed in religious freedom, and racial justice and he did something more than just talk about it. Becoming the world heavyweight champion at the age of 22 was a surprise as he shocked the formidable Sonny Liston in 1964. The rest as they say, is history. Hats off to the greatest fighter, and arguably greatest person of all-time.