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All-Time Greatness – Muhammad Ali & the Five Former Heavyweight Champions

By Mike “The Rubber Warrior” Plunkett

Over the thirty-plus years that I’ve fervently followed the sport of boxing, one of the things I’ve noticed is the misuse of the term “great”. Indeed, if anything greatness has been all too often and too readily applied to a good fighter off of a singular, notable performance despite that given fighter actually only being a work in progress or displaying notable potential. As time wore on and the eighties gave way to the nineties, more and more I’d read or hear somebody misuse the term “great” or prematurely bestow greatness long before it was warranted.

Adding to this confusing situation and despite how readily greatness is bestowed upon given, popular fighters, the criteria for inclusion in the International Boxing Hall of Fame today is curiously ambiguous.

Recently there has been an ongoing debate here at Ringside Report on the message boards between several well traveled, longtime fans as to what indeed merits greatness and what we should be looking for before labeling a given fighter with what many believe to be a rare tag.

For the purposes of this article, I have decided to spotlight five very well known and highly regarded former heavyweight champions. Of the five former champs, three of them are generally regarded as staples when a review of past all-time great heavyweight kings is conducted. The other two are typically held in very high regard but more often than not their placement among the pantheon of all-timers is questioned for a number of reasons.

Before we move forward and review them for the purpose of evaluating their legacies, it’s important that we understand just what it is that defines greatness in boxing. Often I have found during the misapplication of the term “greatness”, there are marked differences from one fan to another as to what actually merits greatness. All too often the lines are indeed blurred. Conjecture and opinion are the driving factors for many. A difference of expectation or personal favor works its way into the situation creating an uneven playing field for rating fighters. The net effect is confusion which actually devalues the whole concept of “all time great”.

If anything, criteria is the key and certain aspects of a career must be taken into consideration if we are to measure fighters accurately and equitably. Naturally, one must also take into account the climate of the sport during which a given fighter was active. One must make certain allowances in this regard. For the sake of clarity, I will be using the following criteria – quality of opposition, off the deck performance, championship tenure and historical impact. While no two careers are exactly alike, I feel that by using such rigid criteria we are in a better position to logically evaluate all-time great status.

Joe “The Brown Bomber” Louis

He had perhaps the quickest hands of any heavyweight to date. Solid technique, pinpoint accuracy and perhaps the deadliest right hand among an exclusive list of heavyweight champions. Joe Louis had the longest reign of any heavyweight champion in history, holding the title for eleven years. Having amassed a record twenty-five title defenses, it must be pointed out that many of those defenses were against no-hopers in his “Bum of the Month Club”. But it was a different time and a different era. Certainly Louis defended against the best the heavyweight division had to offer during that period. He got off the deck to retain his title against the oft-unpredictable and always dangerous Tony “Two Ton” Galento, and later against future heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott. Over the course of Joe’s stellar career, he faced eight men that had held or would eventually go on to win world titles.

His rise to prominence, his spirit and patriotism bridged the gap between the color line. At the peak of his powers and influence as a sports figure, it is said that entire neighborhoods in the ghetto would go silent as people gathered around radios to listen to his matches with heart-stopping anticipation. As was always the case, that eerie silence would soon give way to joyous celebration as throngs of jubilant people would gather in the streets to celebrate yet another of his victories, dancing and singing well into the wee hours of the night. Joe’s humanitarian spirit and undeniable charisma served to eventually eclipse the color line, thus, paving the way for future generations of black fighters to realize success.

“The Greatest” – Muhammad Ali

Perhaps the most naturally gifted heavyweight champion in history. Equipped with blinding hand and foot speed, Ali also possessed a rock solid chin, underrated power and a fantastic sense of self belief. Ali’s championship career can really be broken down into three distinct chapters. His first championship campaign, 1964-1967, lasted three years before he was stripped of the title for refusing to serve in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector. During that initial reign as champion, Ali made nine title defenses, two against former heavyweight champions, one a successful unification with the WBA title holder.

After a three year exile from boxing, Ali embarked on a four year, seventeen bout journey through the heavyweight ranks. Early into this comeback, Ali engaged in and ultimately lost a fifteen round war with reigning heavyweight champion “Smokin” Joe Frazier. More than ever from that point on it became apparent that Ali was no longer the same, extraordinarily gifted dancing master off old. Using his guile as well as his grit, Ali persevered against five former and future world champions among several top contenders before landing what appeared to be a last opportunity title fight in late-1974 against the seemingly indestructible and undefeated destroyer in “Big” George Foreman. An unlikely storybook win against the far younger and stronger Foreman made Ali a two-time heavyweight champion and the most recognizable face in the world circa that period in the mid-seventies.

The third and final chapter of Ali’s championship career also spans four years. Ali underlined the designation of “world” champion, defending his title in venues such as Malaysia, Puerto Rico, Germany, culminating with a mega rubber match against former heavyweight champion and heated rival, Joe Frazier, in the Philippines. In 1978, Ali lost and regained the World Heavyweight Title against relative novice “Neon” Leon Spinks, making him the only man to win the heavyweight championship a third time to that point in history.

In all, Ali faced twelve men that had or would go on to win versions of, or actual world titles, crossing over into the mainstream and along the way making the heavyweight championship seemingly bigger than it had been at any point since the era of Joe Louis

Rocky Marciano

Relatively small at only 184lbs, Marciano cut a swath through the heavyweight ranks with extraordinary stamina, numbing power in both hands and rock-solid toughness. On his meteoric rise through the ranks, Marciano powered his way through several top-rated contenders, initially often as the decided underdog. Although he made only six title defenses during his championship reign, it is the quality of opposition that underlines how special he truly was. He rose off the canvas against “Jersey” Joe Walcott to win the heavyweight title and ultimately got off the deck to retain his title in his final fight. Along the way, he defeated three men that had held the heavyweight championship as well as the reigning light heavyweight king of that period, all-time great Archie Moore.

To date, he is only heavyweight champion to retire undefeated with a pristine record of 49-0.

Larry “The Easton Assassin” Holmes

Possibly the most underrated heavyweight champion in the history of boxing. Holmes had an unequalled left jab, sharp right-handed power, solid chin and remarkable determination. He held the heavyweight title for seven-plus years, alphabet politics aside. He amassed twenty title defenses, getting off of the canvas to retain the title in dramatic fashion more than once along the way. Many have criticized the quality of opposition he faced, but it must be pointed out that of those twenty defenses, the lion’s share was against top-ten contenders, many of which who would go on to win alphabet versions of the heavyweight championship.

Long after the loss of his title and well after his prime, Holmes would embark on an unlikely comeback, doing well enough to garner three additional title shots, and despite not being successful in regaining the title, the cagey former champ fought well enough into his forties to be ranked firmly within the top-ten for much of the early-nineties. In all, Holmes faced five former or future world heavyweight champions and seven men who held variants of a world championship.

Evander “The Real Deal” Holyfield

What is there to dispute about a man that won the heavyweight championship of the world or a variant thereof on four occasions? An excellent combination puncher with a dogged determination, solid chin and an underrated left hook, Holyfield over time proved to be the embodiment of a tried and true ring warrior. His almost supernatural ability to comeback from the brink of disaster in dramatic if emphatic fashion punctuated the early period of Holyfield’s heavyweight career.

His first reign began in 1990 and ended in 1992. He successfully retained the heavyweight title three times, twice against two former heavyweight champions and later, getting off the deck against a dangerous power puncher in late-minute substitute “Smokin” Bert Cooper. His first reign ended when he lost the undisputed championship to the much larger and undefeated Riddick “Big Daddy” Bowe in a bout which saw Holyfield rebound from almost certain doom in round ten. Notably, that round is now counted among one of the most dramatic rounds in heavyweight history. Ironically, it is here, in defeat, where Holyfield seemingly became bigger and more popular than ever.

Holyfield’s second heavyweight championship came in a rematch with the man that had taken his undefeated record and heavyweight championship from him, Riddick Bowe, a year after their initial encounter. Five months later, Holyfield would lose the championship again, this time under circumstances of curious scoring in a bout that saw him perform poorly against an undefeated and top-rated southpaw in Michael Moorer.

In late-1996, Evander Holyfield won the heavyweight championship for the third time against defending champion and decided favorite, “Iron” Mike Tyson. Entering the bout as a heavy underdog and widely presumed to be “finished” as a force in the division, Holyfield fought beyond himself, dominating and ultimately stopping Tyson in highlight reel fashion.

After losing the heavyweight championship in unification matches in 1999 with Lennox Lewis, Holyfield managed to regroup well enough to win a variant of the heavyweight championship, the WBA Heavyweight Title, a belt discarded by Lewis, against the highly rated John Ruiz. Although Lewis was the recognized World Heavyweight Champion of that period, Holyfield’s win technically made him a four-time heavyweight champion. Regardless of one’s viewpoint, the win does go down as a plus for Holyfield in a career of plusses.

In all, to date, Evander Holyfield has faced eight men that held or would eventually win the world heavyweight title. Beyond that, Holyfield has faced thirteen men that held variants of the world heavyweight or cruiserweight title.

Currently there are three men that lay claim to being world heavyweight champion. Vitali Klitschko, the WBC champion, Wladimir Klitschko, the IBF/WBO and Ring Magazine heavyweight champion, and the WBA title, which at the time of this writing was held by England’s David Haye and up for grabs shortly with a scheduled title defense against Audley Harrison (Haye stopped Harrison in three easy rounds). Each is talented in their own right and as in the case of the each of the Klitschko brothers, have proven active and dominant. Only time will tell if any of today’s champions will one day merit inclusion among past heavyweight greats.

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