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Wilbur’s 100 Greatest Heavyweights of All Time: 40-31

By Brian Wilbur

Hello boxing fans! I hope you are enjoying reading my countdown as much as I have enjoyed writing it. We are moving ever closer to #1, and with each step chronicling the history of a brilliant former warrior. If you have been keeping up you will know that I have been giving proper respect to the pioneers of the sport who fought during the earliest years of the modern boxing.

A few of the slots on this week’s portion of the top 100 countdown retell the careers of terrific old timers who are sadly forgotten by most. Hopefully by doing this countdown I can help boxing fans either discover or rediscover the heavyweights from yesteryear who are deserving of the recognition and remembrance.

Ranking modern boxers to the fighters who fought prior to World War I is difficult since the sport has evolved so much. I rank the candidates based on wins over quality opponents and how they performed against their era. I judge greatness by what they did against peers from their own time instead of trying to guess whether or not an old school fighter could cut it in today’s fight game. Hopefully you agree with my methods, but if not please feel free to email me your own opinions or submit your own rankings.

Now, back to the countdown!

40. Fred Fulton

Fulton was a giant in his day because of his height, of at least 6’4½” but as tall as 6’6½” according to some reports. Today that does not seem like an overwhelmingly tall heavyweight, but in those days the average size of a heavyweight was about 5’11” and 190 pounds. Fulton made use of his height by fighting straight up and keeping opponents away with his quick, stiff jab. Getting to big Fred was hard, beating him was even harder. Fulton’s strategy was to frustrate his opponents into reaching for his chin, and then he would take advantage by unleashing his two fisted power punches. Fulton had a very good knockout percentage scoring 70 KO’s out of 79 wins. He was a skilled fighter, offensively and defensively, who was celebrated as the future Heavyweight Champion in the 1910’s, though his chin was only average. Fred proved that he was the number one contender by cleaning out the division of almost all viable challengers. By the time he was ready to fight for the title, Jack Johnson had already lost his belt to Jess Willard. Fulton was promised a chance at Willard after dispatching of Frank Moran, but the match fell through so Fulton continued to seek out the best available opponents so as to make an overwhelming case for a title shot. That led him, as the betting favorite, into a match against up and coming Jack Dempsey. Dempsey savagely knocked out Fulton in the first round, which spring-boarded Dempsey into an immortal legend. Fulton continued fighting at a high level but another knockout loss, this time to Harry Wills, dashed his hopes of ever getting a crack at the championship and by the 1920’s he was strictly an opponent.

Most Famous Fight(s): KO1 loss to Jack Dempsey in 1918.

Notable Wins: TKO7 over Sam Langford in 1917, TKO3 over Frank Moran in 1918, KO2 over Charley Weinert in 1917.

39. Oscar Bonavena

The first boxer from Argentina on the countdown could be described as ugly. First, his nickname was “Ringo” for his close resemblance to the ugly Beatle, Ringo Starr. But more importantly, Oscar Bonavena was ugly because of his fighting style. He was not a graceful tactician by any means, but he was absolutely a formidable opponent, even for some of the greatest heavyweights of all time. Bonavena fought a majority of his career bouts ruling his home country without equal, though Oscar was not afraid to venture to the United States or abroad to challenge his skills against the best in the world. Bonavena’s rugged, aggressive style tested the heart of his opponents. Even though he was not a refined boxer, Bonavena had a knack for landing his swinging power shots as he lumbered forward. Though the World Heavyweight Champions eluded him, he gave Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali a couple of tough fights in addition to defeating many quality contenders in the golden age of boxing’s heavyweight Golden Age.

Most Famous Fight(s): MD10 loss to Joe Frazier in 1966, UD15 loss to Joe Frazier in 1968, TKO15 loss to Muhammad Ali in 1970.

Notable Wins: MD10 over George Chuvalo in 1966, UD12 over Karl Mildenberger in 1967, UD10 over Leotis Martin in 1968.

38. Primo Carnera

“The Ambling Alp” was a massive Italian boxer who stood 6’5” tall and weighed over 280 pounds of muscle. Though there have been a handful of taller Heavyweight Champions over the years, Carnera held the record for the heaviest Heavyweight Champion until 7’1” 320 pound Nikolay Valuev won the WBA version of the belt in 2005. Primo would be a big heavyweight in any era, but in his era he was a towering behemoth with large advantages in every measurable category over his opponents. As you may expect from a giant, Carnera was not very fast or agile. His boxing skill and knack for the sweet science was not spectacular either. Still, Carnera was able to reach to the pinnacle of the sport by using his strength and pushing his weight around. His resume is impressive, having soundly beaten a handful of boxers who also made my top 100 list, winning the title in 1933 and making two successful defenses. I would rank Carnera higher than where he is currently ranked if not for the overwhelming suspicion that many of his fights were fixed by the mob.

Most Famous Fight(s): KO6 over Jack Sharkey in 1933, TKO11 loss to Max Baer in 1934.

Notable Wins: UD15 over Tommy Loughran in 1934, UD15 over Paulino Uzcundun in 1933, KO13 over Ernie Schaaf in 1933.

37. Ron Lyle

At the ages that most boxers are hitting their primes and reaching the highest points of their pro career, Ron Lyle was sitting in prison after being convicted of gang violence. The naturally athletic Lyle discovered boxing while in prison and decided to pursue prize fighting as a career when he was paroled in 1969. After a brief amateur career he turned pro at the age of 30, which is an extremely late start for a boxer. Lyle was mainly a headhunter, gunning for knockouts with his explosive and straight punches. His aggression was very effective and he kept scoring knockouts even when he stepped up in class. However every now and then Ronnie would surprise his opponents by laying back and employing a stiff jab and underrated boxing skills. But his forte was obviously power punching, making him one of the most dangerous punchers of his era. Lyle never won a title belt though he was certainly good enough. His only opportunity was against Muhammad Ali in a match that Lyle was winning on points before a questionable referee stoppage during on an Ali flurry. After that Lyle was feared and avoided by champions and most ranked contenders.

Most Famous Fight(s): TKO11 loss to Muhammad Ali in 1975, KO5 loss to George Foreman in 1976’s Fight of the Year.

Notable Wins: TKO6 over Earnie Shavers in 1975, UD12 over Oscar Bonavena in 1974, UD12 over Jimmy Ellis in 1974.

36. Jess Willard

Willard was the first giant Heavyweight Champion standing about 6’6” and 235 pounds. He turned pro at age 29 and had little experience prior to that so he was extremely raw and unpolished, even as a champion. Jess found success because of his physical tools and size. He was very durable, being able to take a tremendous amount of punishment without being knocked out, in addition to having excellent stamina. Opponents had to be very wary of the Pottawatomie Giant’s huge right hand, which knocked out many foes. Willard rose to prominence during the “White Hope” era that was Jack Johnson’s title reign. He was considered among the best of the white contenders thus was given the nickname “The Great White Hope” from white Americans who were hopeful that Willard would take the title away from Jack Johnson. Willard was the one who eventually did defeat Johnson, ending his seven year stretch as Heavyweight Champion. Johnson was 37 years old and not in great shape but that did not deny Willard the glory of claiming the biggest prize in sports. Willard was not a fighting champion unfortunately so he did little to build a legacy before losing his belt to Jack Dempsey four years later.

Most Famous Fight(s): KO26 over Jack Johnson in 1915, TKO3 loss to Jack Dempsey in 1919.

Notable Wins: Newspaper decision over Frank Moran in 1916, newspaper decision over Carl Morris in 1913, TKO11 win over Floyd Johnson in 1923.

35. Sam McVea

McVea was an African American heavyweight contender during an era when there was a color line drawn for the Heavyweight Championship. A black boxer contending for the belt was rare, especially after the backlash that Jack Johnson created. McVea was one of a handful of top-notch contenders who unfairly never received a title fight because of the color of his skin despite being significantly better than the white contenders of his day. The elite group of black heavyweights of the day, frustrated because they were boxed out of the opportunities given to white fighters, ended up fighting one another over and over again. For example, he fought Joe Jeanette 5 times, Sam Langford 15 times, and Jack Johnson 3 times. Sam amazingly went the distance against Jack Johnson in only his 7th pro fight. McVea was compact and powerfully built. He used a rare combination of strength and speed to quickly leap at his opponents and assault them, thrusting with his massively muscular legs. McVea and Jeanette battled in an epic marathon fight in which McVea battered and dropped Jeanette at least 7 times. Jeanette, however, did not quit and the bout was scheduled as a fight to the finish. McVea was dominating through the 30th round but the fight kept on going. Finally by the 49th round, almost four hours later, Sam’s eyes were swollen shut and he was forced to quit. The facts describing that incredible bout gives insight on the toughness and grit present in boxers during that era.

Most Famous Fight(s): TKO49 loss to Joe Jeanette in 1909, 20 round points win over Sam Langford in 1911.

Notable Wins: 20 round points win over Joe Jeanette in 1909, 10 round newspaper decision over Harry Wills in 1914, 12 round points win over Sam Langford in 1915.

34. Tommy Burns

Burns was the first Canadian Heavyweight Champion and is also rare in that prior to his shot at the Heavyweight Championship, he had never fought outside of the middleweight division. Burns had lost his claims to any middleweight titles in a 1905 match to Jack “Twin” Sullivan, but immediately was called on by Marvin Hart to challenge for the ultimate prize. Burns was primarily chosen because Hart was drawing the color line and did not want to give the top heavyweight contenders (who were black) an opportunity. Legend has it that Burns enraged Hart before the fight by taunting him, which took Hart off of his game plan and allowed the undersized Burns to escape with the World Heavyweight Championship. Tommy was a rookie in the unlimited weight class but performed surprisingly well, especially considering his fighting style. Burns was a swarmer who liked to get inside. bully his opponents, and was adept at hitting during clinches. That kind of fighter usually does not do well when at a size disadvantage. His speed and ability to dodge punches certainly played a role in Tommy’s success. Now Champion, Burns made an impressive 11 successful defenses, going around the world to fight opponents in their backyard and winning most by KO. The only problem was that Burns was only fighting white opponents and the top contender was Jack Johnson. Johnson followed Burns around the world hounding him and calling him names. Finally Burns granted Johnson a title shot, despite the fierce opposition and criticism he received from the racist white majority in the US. Johnson, more skilled and much bigger, battered Burns to a pulp ending the overachieving little warrior’s busy two and a half year reign as champ.

Most Famous Fight(s): 20 round points win over Marvin Hart in 1906, 14 round points loss to Jack Johnson in 1908.

Notable Wins: KO15 over Fireman Jim Flynn in 1906, 20 round points win over Philadelphia Jack O’Brien in 1907, KO1 over Bill Squires in 1907.

33. Ingemar Johansson

Today the Klitschko brothers, Germans by way of the Ukraine, rule the heavyweight division with an iron fist. The sustained success of European heavyweights is a new phenomenon. European heavyweights used to have a reputation as being overrated stiffs. Ingemar Johansson of Sweden was one of the first exceptions to the rule. Johansson dominated the European competition, winning the European title in only his 15th pro fight when he knocked out Italian Franco Cavicchi in the 13th round. Ingemar would decisively take out the best overseas contenders of the time, although he had the advantage of fighting in his home country of Sweden most of the time. His style was raw but devastating. Johansson stood straight up and pawed the jab, constantly looking for openings for his legendary right hand. That straight right hand was so powerful and frightening that it had several nicknames and single-handedly (pun intended) brought him to the highest levels of boxing. After clearly proving to be the best that Europe had to offer, Johansson convinced number one contender Eddie Machen to come over to Sweden in a title elimination bout. Beating on regional opponents was one thing, but American heavyweights were supposed to be much tougher. Not this time as Machen fell just like the rest to Johansson’s vaunted power. The win earned Johansson a shot against Champions Floyd Patterson and the three took part in a classic three fight trilogy that exposed the flaws and showed the best of each fighter.

Most Famous Fight(s): TKO3 over Floyd Patterson in 1959, KO5 loss to Floyd Patterson in 1960, KO6 loss to Floyd Patterson in 1961.

Notable Wins: KO1 over Eddie Machen in 1958, TKO13 over Joe Erskine in 1958, KO5 over Henry Cooper in 1957.

32. Jerry Quarry

Quarry is yet another great heavyweight from the 60’s/70’s who was denied the Heavyweight Championship because he happened to be in the same era as Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Quarry could have easily been a champion in any other era. I have already said it a number of times during my countdown, but that era was the best period of heavyweights we have ever seen. The golden age not only had elite immortals like Ali, Frazier, and Foreman, but it had a deep pool of excellent contenders. So, even though Quarry fell short of beating a top 10 ranked heavyweights of all time, he still had plenty of top caliber opposition to prove his ability. Jerry’s fighting style was aggressive but very skilled. He loved to fight on the inside and put pressure on his opponent. That made for some exciting fights and thrilling wins, but it also caused him to take a lot of punishment. Perhaps Quarry being slightly undersized (he was about the size of a modern day cruiserweight) was a major factor why Quarry suffered the losses that he did, because he could match just about anyone when it came to boxing ability.

Most Famous Fight(s): TKO7 loss to Joe Frazier in 1969’s Fight of the Year, TKO7 loss to Muhammad Ali in 1972.

Notable Wins: TKO12 over Thad Spencer in 1968, KO6 over Mac Foster in 1970, TKO1 over Earnie Shavers in 1973, UD12 over Ron Lyle in 1973, UD12 over Buster Mathis in 1969.

31. Tom Sharkey

Sailor Tom was an Irish American immigrant who served in the US Navy before deciding to crack skulls as a profession. At 5’8” tall, Sharkey represents one of the shortest heavyweights on the list. However he did fight in the old school (ie. By 1900 he was already past his prime) so Tom was not dwarfed quite as much by his opponents than he would be in today’s heavyweight division. Many liken Sharkey to Rocky Marciano and that is an appropriate description. Both were raw with their boxing skills, short but muscular in stature, but overcame because of their overwhelming toughness and unfathomable punching power. Sharkey’s fists were heat-seeking missiles and he loved to march forward, eating punches in the process if necessary, looking for that one opportunity to land his bombs. Sharkey loved to brawl and never took a step back. Sharkey was on the cusp of becoming Heavyweight Champion during the first modern era, and actually had a loose claim to the title in 1896 after defeating Bob Fitzsimmons but that claim vanished when Jim Corbett decided to come out of retirement. Sharkey was a major player in the second best era of heavyweights in history, fighting all of the best and beating most of them. His two bouts with James J. Jeffries are two of the best and most brutal heavyweight fights of all time.

Most Famous Fight(s): 20 round points loss to James J. Jeffries in 1898, 25 round points loss to James J. Jeffries in 1899,

Notable Wins: KO6 over Joe Goddard in 1897, KO1 over Gus Ruhlin in 1898, DQ9 over Jim Corbett in 1898, KO10 over Kid McCoy in 1899, TKO3 over Joe Choynski in 1900.

Thanks all for reading. Hope you come back next time for the next installment.

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