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Wilbur’s 100 Greatest Heavyweights of All Time: 30-21

By Brian Wilbur

Thanks for coming back to read the next installment of my countdown; my homage to the great heavyweight warriors of the past. For those of you just tuning in who need to catch up, you can find in RSR’s Archive Section on the right side of the homepage, a link to the rest of the list.

With each week I get more and more excited to write this column because we are steadily approaching legend status as we break the top 30. Some of the boxers and former champions I list this week were terrific champions who had profound effects on the history of the heavyweight division. I also find that ranking the fighters is more difficult because they all have tremendously impressive resumes. With care and consideration, I offer you my top 30.

30. Joe Jeannette

Jeannette was one of the truly great African American heavyweights of the early part of the 20th century who fought during in an overwhelmingly racist era. Jeannette was denied a chance at the world title because of his race though he was clearly superior to the white contenders of his day. Even when Jack Johnson became champion he was boxed out of the title picture. Jeannette said, “Jack forgot about his old friends after he became champion and drew the color line against his own people.” The statement was true since Johnson only fought one black challenger during his seven years as champion and that was against the second rate Battling Jim Johnson, a man that Jeannette had bested multiple times. Jeannette had sound defense but made his home fighting at close quarters and sneaking in power punches on the inside. Perhaps his best asset was his ability to absorb a tremendous amount of punishment. Joe was a natural at fighting, jumping into the ring immediately against proven contenders despite having no amateur experience. He fought an established Jack Jackson in his fourth pro fight! He was surprisingly competitive considering he was a novice. Within two years Jeannette was routinely beating top 10 ranked contenders and he remained one of the world’s best heavyweights for another decade.

Most Famous Fight(s): TKO49 over Sam McVea in 1909, 20 round points loss to Sam Langford in 1913, 15 round points win over Georges Carpentier in 1914.

Notable Wins: TKO8 over Sam Langford in 1905, TKO8 over Arthur Pelkey in 1915, 12 round points win over Sam Langford in 1915.

29. Harry Wills

Wills, another early African American contender, overlapped briefly with the fearsome foursome of Jack Johnson, Sam Langford, Joe Jeannette, and Sam McVea of the 1910’s. He learned his craft in epic battles against those great warriors. Wills entered his prime in the 1920’s, during Jack Dempsey’s reign as Heavyweight Champion. Wills, at 6’2” according to most sources, fought tall employing an accurate jab. He crushed the competition with his tremendous strength and dynamic punching power. Harry was Dempsey’s number one contender for years but the fight never happened. Dempsey was willing to fight Wills and even signed a contract to do so, but promoters and politicians denied the bout in fear of a racial fallout. The controversial reign of Jack Johnson was a catalyst for lynchings and other hate crimes across America, especially in the south. Johnson was still fresh in the minds of boxing’s men-of-power during this time, which was the sole obstacle of Wills in obtaining the match that he deserved. Denied a title opportunity, Wills continued to fight the best available competition and went undefeated between 1917 and 1926 except for one disqualification loss to a man he had already knocked out twice. Wills finally slowed down, lost, and retired in the late 1920’s, just like Jack Dempsey, his destined rival whom he never fought.

Most Famous Fight(s): KO3 over Fred Fulton in 1920, 20 round points win over Sam Langford in 1916, KO19 loss to Sam Langford in 1916.

Notable Wins: 12 round points win over Sam McVea in 1915, 15 round points win over Sam Langford in 1919, KO1 over Denver Ed Martin in 1921, KO2 over Charlie Weinert in 1925.

28. Jimmy Young

The heavyweight division is known for power and strength most of all, but every now and then you find a pure boxer who can hang with the big boys. Young, despite having light fists, perfected the art of hitting and not being hit during his prime in the 1970’s. Moving, jabbing, countering, ducking, dodging…Jimmy Young could make you look silly. He danced circles around his opponents and the harder you tried to hit him the more exhausted you became after swinging at air. Young seemingly came out of nowhere to record some of the most impressive wins of the decade. Well, he came from Philadelphia, but with little fanfare and an imperfect record. Sometime between Young’s 3rd round TKO loss against Earnie Shavers in 1973 and his 1974 rematch against Shavers, Jimmy somehow morphed into a determined beast and an extremely difficult opponent. Unfortunately for him, Young had no power so he had to rely on the judges to award him victories, and judges are notorious for poor decisions. Young was the victim of one such injustice when he fought Muhammad Ali for the Heavyweight Championship in 1976. Young clearly got the better of an aging Ali in everyone’s opinion except for the three blind judges. Jimmy went on to prove that his performance against Ali was no fluke when he dropped and temporarily retired George Foreman in 1977’s fight of the year.

Most Famous Fight(s): Controversial UD15 loss to Muhammad Ali in 1976, UD12 over George Foreman in 1977.

Notable Wins: UD10 over Ron Lyle in 1975, UD12 over Ron Lyle in 1976.

27. Peter Jackson

Jackson fought in the 1880’s and 1890’s; a time when modern pugilism was in its infancy. He fought out of Australia during the first part of his career and made a name for himself when he won the Australian heavyweight title in 1886 by knocking out Tom Lees in round 30. Jackson fought with a defensive approach that was revolutionary at that time. He had the total package of size, strength, and speed that fans look for in a champion even if his style was not especially pleasing to the eye. News of the potential world-beater hit the shores of the United States and his legend grew. Tempted by a chance at fighting champion John L. Sullivan, Peter moved to the United States. Sullivan was openly prejudice and refused to give a black boxer a shot at the title leaving Jackson deeply frustrated, especially since “The Black Prince” was one fighter who presented the loftiest challenge to Sullivan. Other white fighters did face Jackson however and he fulfilled the lofty expectations that Americans had of him. Future champion James Corbett agreed to fight “the great Peter Jackson” as he referred to him. The two fought evenly for 61 rounds before the contest was called due to a lack of action and exhaustion. Later Corbett stated that Peter Jackson could have beaten any heavyweight that he ever saw. Jackson had some impressive wins during his career over some of the best contenders around. Jackson retired in 1892 because he could not secure a title shot. That signified the end of Peter Jackson’s run as an elite fighter though he came out of retirement for money as a badly faded shell of his former self.

Most Famous Fight(s): 61 round no contest against Jim Corbett in 1891, KO10 over Frank “Paddy” Slavin in 1892, 8 round draw against Joe Goddard in 1890.

Notable Wins: TKO30 over Tom Lees in 1886, TKO19 over “Old Chocolate” George Godfrey in 1888, KO24 over Joe McAuliffe in 1888, TKO10 over Patsy Cardiff in 1889, TKO5 over Denver Ed Smith.

26. John L. Sullivan

Sullivan is the George Washington of heavyweight boxing. He became the first Heavyweight Champion under Marquess of Queensbury rules after a long career that included bare-knuckle fights. He was America’s first sports icon, bridging the modern and bare-knuckle eras and during his peak was one of the most famous men in the United States because his fights were the first sporting events to have nationwide press coverage. Sullivan captured the imagination of the public with his brash and cocky personality. He would wander into pubs and declare that he “could lick any man in the house”. Though that phrase carries gay sexual undertones today, back in the 1880’s that was bad-ass stuff. Sullivan would back up his trash talk with his legendary fighting ability. Sullivan crushed his foes with unmatched strength, toughness, focus, and determination. Most who dared to enter the ring against him would end up on the floor. Instead of making excuses, felled opponents would often brag about how long by lasted against the immortal Boston Strong Boy. Because Sullivan was so much better than the competition he had an aura of invincibility that caused the public to become interested in boxing, ushering in modern boxing as a spectator sport. The toughness of Sullivan and boxers of his era defy reason. They would sometimes break limbs, be covered in blood, need immediate hospitalization or be not recognizable due to injury yet continue to fight on. Some of Sullivan’s most famous fights were bare-knuckle fights to the finish under London Prize Rules, including his brutal 75 round TKO over Jake Kilrain in 1889, but this list only considers fights under modern rules. Sullivan finally suffered his first defeat and lost his title at the same time when he lost to scientific boxer Jim Corbett while in semi-retirement and past his prime.

Most Famous Fight(s): TKO3 over Charley Mitchell in 1883, 21 round KO loss to Jim Corbett in 1892.

Notable Wins: 5 round points win over Jack Burke in 1885, 7 round points win over Dominick McCaffrey in 1885, KO3 over Paddy Ryan in 1886.

25. Jack Sharkey

Sharkey was immensely popular in his hometown of Boston, even early on in his pro career when he seemed to lose as many as he won. The “Boston Gob” was an old school slugger who loved to mix it up no matter what the size or reputation of his opponent. This was shown by his willingness to go right after Jack Dempsey without fear. Sharkey’s popularity put pressure on his handlers to match him tough early on, which accounted for many of his losses. The stiff challenges that he may not have been ready for allowed him to learn and develop some subtlety to his ruggedness, thus making him a more complete fighter. By 1930, Jack had proven himself and beaten enough contenders to be picked to fight for the Heavyweight Championship that Gene Tunney had vacated when he retired. Sharkey had two bouts against Max Schmeling for the belt in which neither man proved to be superior over the other, with the first fight ending with an early DQ win for Schmeling and the second ended with a debatable split decision win for Sharkey. Despite the lack of a definite win, Sharkey walked away with the Heavyweight Championship. Jack surprisingly lost his belt in his first title defense, losing to Primo Carnera, a man he had already beaten two years prior, and after that was a non-factor in the division until his retirement.

Most Famous Fight(s): DQ4 loss to Max Schmeling in 1930, SD15 over Max Schmeling in 1932, KO7 loss to Jack Dempsey in 1927.

Notable Wins: TKO3 over Tommy Loughran in 1929,15 round points win over Primo Carnera in 1931, DQ13 over Harry Wills in 1926, UD10 over Jack Renault in 1925, 10 round points win over Young Stribling in 1929.

24. Max Schmeling

Gene Tunney vacated the Heavyweight Championship in 1928 and Jack Sharkey won the American Heavyweight title against Tommy Loughran in 1929. Sharkey did not claim the world title against Loughran, solely because of notable German contender Max Schmeling. Schmeling fought exclusively in Germany for his first 44 matches, many of which were contested at light heavyweight, but then he journeyed across the sea to challenge the best heavyweights in the world in America. Max was a thinking man’s fighter though not particularly defensive-minded. Schmeling took part in several “Fights of the Year” proving that he regularly pleased the crowd. He was a technician who would assess his opponent’s weaknesses to determine the best way to attack his foe, especially with his fearsome right hand. No one would be declared the world’s Heavyweight Champion without going through the prodigious Schmeling so he and Sharkey squared off for the vacant prize. The result was Max becoming the only person to ever win the Heavyweight Championship due to disqualification after a Sharkey low blow in the fourth round. Max successfully defended his belt once before going 1-3-1 over his next five bouts. Many considered the former champion washed up. However, if you look at those fights closely they were competitive and against top-notch opposition. One of the losses and the draw were immediately avenged. Still, not many gave Schmeling a chance against a young Joe Louis in their 1936 non-title bout. Schmeling resurrected his career with a dominant beat down of Louis, exposing a gaping flaw in the Brown Bomber’s still-developing defense. Max, once very popular in America, quickly became a hated symbol of Nazi Germany under the backdrop of World War II. His rematch with Joe Louis for the Heavyweight Championship became a characterization of Germany vs. the rest of the world and became one of the biggest and most anticipated events in sporting history. The match, in the eyes of many, would determine whether or not there was anything to Hitler’s rhetoric regarding an Aryan race. Thankfully, Louis scored a big KO win for America.

Most Famous Fight(s): KO12 over Joe Louis in 1936, KO1 loss to Joe Louis in 1938, DQ4 over Jack Sharkey in 1930, SD15 loss to Jack Sharkey in 1932.

Notable Wins: TKO9 over Johnny Risko in 1929, 15 round points win over Paulino Uzcudun in 1929, TKO15 over Young Stribling in 1931, KO9 over Steve Hamas in 1935, KO9 over Walter Neusel in 1934.

23. Bob Fitzsimmons

Rudy Bob was not a pretty man. He was bald on top with tufts of red hair on the sides, weird skinny legs, and un-proportionally large shoulders and chest. Fitzsimmons rose to prominence in boxing due to one overwhelming trait: freakish punching power. Fitzsimmons might be the hardest pound for pound puncher in boxing history. He was certainly the biggest punching heavyweight of his era, which is impressive because it was a terrific era of heavyweights, and even more so because he weighed in well under the light heavyweight limit for most of his fights. A pound for pound marvel even more than a great heavyweight, Fitzsimmons began his career as a middleweight, won the Middleweight Championship in 1891, and then won the Heavyweight Championship in 1897 despite only weighing 167 pounds. Well aged and past his prime, Fitzsimmons won the Light Heavyweight Championship in 1903 to become the first ever three division champ. He ducked no man and most of the best heavyweights of the 1890’s we felled by his dynamite fists. The only man Fitzsimmons was unable to best at heavyweight was the seemingly impervious James J. Jeffries.

Most Famous Fight(s): KO14 over Jim Corbett in 1897, KO8 loss to James J. Jeffries in 1902.

Notable Wins: KO2 over Tom Sharkey in 1900, KO6 over Gus Ruhlin in 1900, TKO5 over Joe Choynski in 1894.

22. Floyd Patterson

Patterson won an Olympic Gold medal as a middleweight in 1952 and campaigned as a light heavyweight early in his pro career, but his plan was always to become Heavyweight Champion. Patterson’s trainer was the legendary Cus D’Amato and Floyd was a perfect demonstration of the fighting style that D’Amato taught. Sometimes called the Peek-a-boo style, Patterson fought from a crouch with his hands held high, in front of his face. His head and torso were constantly moving and bobbing to avoid being an easy target. This approach was aggressive and offensive-minded. Patterson loved leaping at his opponents with power punches, especially his vaunted left hook. His fighting style required incredible speed and reflexes in order to fight at the highest level of the sport, thus boxers who fight using the Peek-a-boo usually have a bright but short career. Once they slow down a little they are no longer the same. D’Amato knew this so positioned Patterson to rise up the ranks quickly. Floyd won an elimination bout against Hurricane Jackson, earning him a bout against Archie Moore for the Heavyweight Championship that Rocky Marciano vacated. Patterson won and became the youngest Heavyweight Champion at the time (only to be surpassed by Mike Tyson, another Cus D’Amato fighter). Patterson spent six years as champion and went 7-1 over that time including six successful defenses. Though mostly notable for being the youngest champion, he is also known for being knocked down more than any other Heavyweight Champion. When confronted with that fact Patterson would respond by saying that he had also gotten up more than any other Heavyweight Champion. His trilogy with Ingemar Johansson was a classic chapter in boxing history and made him a very popular Champion. He was crushed when he finally agreed to face Sonny Liston, his number one contender, but that says more about the ability of Liston than his own shortcomings. Patterson fought on for far too long and matched up against the best era of heavyweights in history during the late 1960’s/early 1970’s with mixed results.

Most Famous Fight(s): TKO3 loss to Ingemar Johansson in 1959, KO6 over Ingemar Johansson in 1961, KO1 losses to Sonny Liston in 1963 and 1964.

Notable Wins: KO5 over Archie Moore in 1956, TKO10 over Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson in 1957, KO5 over Ingemar Johansson in 1960, 12 round points win over Eddie Machen in 1964, UD12 over George Chuvalo in 1965, UD10 over Oscar Bonavena in 1972.

21. Sam Langford

Langford was an amazing, legendary boxer. Though I rate him as only my #21 greatest heavyweight of all time, I rank him as my #3 pound for pound of all time. Little Sam started his career as a lightweight, beating out one of the greatest lightweights ever, Joe Gans, as a 20 year old rookie. Langford put on weight over the years and excelled in every division, which included showing up Welterweight Champion Joe Walcott in 1904. By 1906, weighing well below the middleweight limit of 160 pounds, Langford began challenging heavyweights because lighter weight boxers were scared of him. The 5’6” natural lightweight went on to become one of the best heavyweights of his era. Sam’s skills were uncanny, especially his unrivaled counterpunching ability, and they had to be because he was fighting men much heavier than he. Langford would go on the attack full speed, throwing punches in flurries, all the while using a seemingly supernatural ability to see punches coming and dodge out of the way. A prime, focused Langford stood right in front of his opponents with both fists swinging, yet they could not find him. Langford set an amazing pace of perpetual motion that opponents, especially the heavyweights could not catch up with. In addition to his amazing speed and supreme boxing skill, Sam was a powerful, dangerous puncher and he did not lose that ability when fighting against towering heavyweights. His occasional struggles at heavyweight came when much taller men were able to keep him at the end of their jabs. Like the other great black heavyweights of his era (Sam McVea and Joe Jeannette), Langford was denied an opportunity to fight for the heavyweight title due to the color of his skin.

Most Famous Fight(s): 20 round points win over Joe Jeannette in 1913, TKO5 over Philadelphia Jack O’Brien in 1911, KO14 over Harry Wills in 1914, KO19 over Harry Wills in 1916, KO7 over Joe Jeannette in 1916.

Notable Wins: 12 round points wins over Joe Jeannette in 1910 and 1911, KO1 over Fireman Jim Flynn in 1908, 20 round points win over Sam McVea in 1912, KO13 over Sam McVea in 1912, KO3 over Gunboat Smith in 1914, KO12 over Battling Jim Johnson in 1916, KO1 over George Godfrey in 1921, KO2 over Tiger Flowers in 1922.

Thanks for reading! We enter the top 20 next week.

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