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Wilbur’s 100 Greatest Heavyweights of All Time: 20-11

By Brian Wilbur

We are nearing the end of the countdown, but don’t be sad faithful readers, because the 20 greatest heavyweights of all time are still to come! If you need to catch up with the previous 80 boxers on my list you can find a link to the past entries under “Categories” on the lower right hand portion of Ringside Report’s front page.

I hope you are enjoying the list so far. I will jump right into it this week.

20. Riddick Bowe

When I mention a fighter’s prime I am referring to the period of years in which a boxer was in their peak mental and physical condition, and usually is the period of time when they record their greatest accomplishments. Riddick Bowe had an extremely short but brilliant prime. At most, one could argue that he was at his best from 1991 until about 1995, roughly four years. I would argue that Bowe went steadily downhill after his title winning effort over Evander Holyfield in 1992. Though still at his physical peak, Bowe struggled with his mental well-being and lacked a desire to train properly. He gained 10 pounds of fat immediately after becoming the Heavyweight Champion, sapping his quickness and endurance. Bowe, despite having an extremely short prime, still did enough to merit consideration as a top 20 all time great. He was a modern day giant sized heavyweight at 6’5” and 235 pounds of muscle.

He had a good jab and boxing ability, but most of the time abandoned those tools and became a slugger. Bowe was a big man who fought small, bending down and fighting on the inside, yet he was superbly effective using this strategy. Riddick’s short career perhaps has something to do with his refusal to fight tall on the outside as he took a lot of unnecessary punches to the head. His opponents probably would have liked to see Bowe fight from the outside too though, since the massive giant throwing accurate, powerful power punches on the inside was as awe inspiring as a wrecking ball. Prime vs. prime, Bowe might have been able to beat anyone else in boxing history, he was that good. Unfortunately for him, his career was not long enough to achieve the necessary accomplishments to reach that all time elite status. Shamelessly ducking Lennox Lewis also hurt Bowe’s legacy. The final installment of the Holyfield vs. Bowe trilogy, though Bowe was able to win, inflicted a tremendous amount of punishment on the big slugger and took all of the fight he had left out of him. In his very next fights, the famous back to back low blow disqualification matches against Andrew “Foul Pole” Golota that incited riots, Bowe was clearly a shell of his former self.

Most Famous Fight(s): UD12 over Evander Holyfield in 1992, MD12 loss to Evander Holyfield in 1993, DQ7 and DQ9 over Andrew Golota in 1996.

Notable Wins: TKO8 over Evander Holyfield in 1995, KO1 over Bruce Seldon in 1991, KO6 over Herbie Hide in 1995, TKO1 over Michael Dokes in 1993.

19. Jim Corbett

100 years before the “The Boxing Banker” Calvin Brock earned a spot near the top of the heavyweights rankings, another former banker was fighting for heavyweight glory. Jim Corbett learned his craft in the popular athletic clubs in San Francisco, which was the only respectable place that one would partake in pugilism in the 1880’s. The lure of fame and fortune pulled him away from his job as a bank teller into prize fighting to the shame of his parents. “Gentleman Jim” took boxing to a whole new level with his revolutionary scientific fighting style. At a time when boxing was illegal in most states and not widely accepted, Corbett helped transform boxing’s image from brute savagery to a sporting art form. After Jim, boxing matches were settled with skill and intelligence instead of raw power. Corbett was one of the smartest fighters in history and was able to make the most out of his athletic ability to box to perfection. He moved in and out, became a master at distance and timing, and threw quick straight punches that would land before his opponent’s looping haymakers.

Corbett had boxing ability that would be noteworthy in any era, but in the 1880’s when proper technique was still being discovered, his prodigious boxing skills stood out even more. Legend suggests that “Gentleman Jim” invented the left hook. Corbett became the second Heavyweight Champion under Marquess of Queensbury rules when he took the immortal John L. Sullivan to school. Corbett was not a fighting champion and defended his title only twice in a span of five years. Bob Fitzsimmons landed a shot to Corbett’s solo plexus to take the championship in an unlikely knockout win. Well into his 30’s and not as fast as he used to be, the former champion challenged James J. Jeffries three years later and made a rousing run at the title but fell short. His heroics in the Jeffries fight and from his years as champion made him a celebrity in retirement and he enjoyed a life on the stage.

Most Famous Fight(s): KO21 over John L. Sullivan in 1892, KO14 loss to Bob Fitzsimmons in 1897.

Notable Wins: KO3 over Charley Mitchell in 1894, 6 round points win over Jake Kilrain in 1890, KO27 over Joe Choynski in 1889.

18. Ken Norton

Norton came out of relative obscurity to shock Muhammad Ali in their 1973 bout. Sure, Ken had been a successful multi-sport athlete in high school and an amateur boxer in the US Marine Corp, but not many tabbed Norton as a future all time great heavyweight. Though Joe Frazier is thought of as Ali’s main rival, Norton’s three fight trilogy with Muhammad is almost as noteworthy, especially since Norton had more success against Ali than Frazier did. On paper, Norton only went 1-2 against Ali in their three close fights. However, one could make a compelling argument that Ken went 3-0 against Ali but was not given a fair chance due to biased judges. Norton’s strength, athletic ability, and most importantly his brilliant, educated jab gave Ali fits. Boxing experts often say that the best way to counter speed is with a jab and Norton executed magnificently. Norton’s lofty ranking on this list comes primarily from his performances against the great Muhammad Ali even though he technically lost two of three. Ali could not find a chink in his armor after 36 tough rounds of trying his hardest. Ken’s only weakness was a shaky chin, and Ali did not have the tools to take advantage. Big time punchers were his biggest nightmare and were able to knock him out four times in his career, once by the fearsome George Foreman when both were in their primes and a couple of times when he was winding down his career. Norton eventually won the WBC Heavyweight Championship by default when Leon Spinks refused to face him in 1977. Overall he had an excellent career even though his best performances came in defeats in fights that could have easily been scored in his favor, which include the two losses to Ali and the debatable loss to Larry Holmes in 1978.

Most Famous Fight(s): SD12 over Muhammad Ali in 1973, SD12 loss to Muhammad Ali in 1973, UD15 loss to Muhammad Ali in 1976.

Notable Wins: TKO5 over Jerry Quarry in 1975, SD15 over Jimmy Young in 1977, TKO1 over Duane Bobick in 1977.

17. Max Baer

If you imagine the top 20 greatest heavyweights of all time as a class of students, Max Baer would be the class clown. His raw talent and devastating punching power were evident very early on in his fighting career, but his biggest challenge was avoiding distractions away from the ring. To Max, boxing was secondary. His kind heart and sense of humor made him the life of the party. Max knew he had the talent to contend, but becoming the heavyweight champion was not a euphoric dream that he had. Sure, he knew that it would come with its perks and aspired to one day be champ, but it was not his sole focus. If there was a pretty girl inviting him for cocktails then you could be sure that the prankster would not being hitting the heavy bag that day. Max had his priorities and he earned his reputation as a party animal. But concerning his boxing talent, sports commentators of the day made comparisons between Baer and Jack Dempsey. They both ravaged a giant to win their title belt and both were hard-hitting aggressive sluggers. The comparisons were not far off and Max probably had the potential to match Dempsey’s greatness, but he lacked the focus and dedication of the Manassa Mauler. Thus his time as Heavyweight Champion was short lived when he lost his belt with a surprising upset in a fight that inspired the movie “The Cinderella Man”. To sum up Baer’s boxing ability in one sentence, he was a devastating raw puncher with underrated elusiveness.

Most Famous Fight(s): TKO11 over Primo Carnera in 1934, UD15 loss to Jim Braddock in 1935.

Notable Wins: MD10 over Ernie Schaaf in 1932, TKO10 over Max Schmeling in 1933, UD15 over Tommy Farr in 1938, TKO8 over Tony Galento in 1940.

16. Jersey Joe Walcott

Walcott is one of those old school boxers from boxing’s glory days who came up the hard way. Prospects were not coddled back then; they were thrown into tough match ups early and often without worrying about wins and losses. Walcott was a late bloomer but he fought several times a year and never ducked anyone. For that, he piled up some losses but he learned from every tough fight and every defeat until he was one of the best heavyweight boxers in the world. Jersey Joe was well rounded, meaning he could box and punch; a true pro. He was also known as a defensive fighter, although that term is used differently today. In today’s boxing world, calling a boxer defensive usually means that he runs away and is boring to watch. You could not be boring in the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s because you would get disqualified for “not trying” and promoters wouldn’t give you fights. Walcott fought more like James Toney than Bernard Hopkins. By 1947, the grizzled veteran had finally matured into his fighting prime. Walcott’s coming out party was being on the wrong end of a terrible decision against an old Joe Louis. Later on in his third match with Ezzard Charles, Walcott proved that three times was a charm and became the oldest champion ever at the time when he secured the belt at the age of 37. It took him so long partially because he was a late bloomer, but also because he lost four years due to World War II. Walcott defended his belt once against Charles, evening their series 2-2, and then lost to a young bull named Rocky Marciano.

Most Famous Fight(s): SD15 loss to Joe Louis in 1947, KO13 loss to Rocky Marciano in 1952.

Notable Wins: SD10 over Jimmy Bivins in 1946, MD10 over Elmer Ray in 1947, KO7 over Ezzard Charles in 1951, UD15 over Ezzard Charles in 1952.

15. Ezzard Charles

Charles is considered by many to be the greatest light heavyweight of all time even though he never won the Light Heavyweight Championship. Charles moved up to heavyweight because he was frustrated at not being able to secure a title shot. The “Cincinnati Cobra” fit right in against the leading heavyweights of the day, despite being undersized, because was a master boxer. Looking at and dissecting video of Charles is a great way to learn proper boxing technique. His body was always in proper position, his footwork uncanny, and his ability to take advantage of imperfections in his opponents assured him great success in the unlimited weight division. Ezzard was a good puncher too, as proven by his big time knock outs against top notch opposition. Perhaps the proper art of pugilism had already been discovered at this point, but few fighters at any weight mastered all of the nuances the way Charles did. The moment he stepped up to heavyweight Charles appeared unstoppable. From his first heavyweight bout in 1946 until 1951, he went 30-1, taking out most of the best contenders and champions of the era. Even the lone loss was a very controversial decision against Elmer Ray. Charles was the man who finally brought an end to the great Joe Louis’s record setting title defense streak, schooling the old man over 15 rounds. Now if Charles had retired as Heavyweight Champion after beating Jersery Joe Walcott for the second time as the dominant king of the heavyweight division, his legacy would be much greater. However, Charles would start a long slide into mediocrity as he aged. First he lost the title to his old rival Jersey Joe Walcott and the losses kept coming. He was far beyond washed up in his later fighting days, blemishing his stellar record until finally hanging up his gloves as a 38 year old battered pug with 25 losses.

Most Famous Fight(s): UD15 over Joe Louis in 1950, UD15 over Jersey Joe Walcott in 1951, KO8 loss to Rocky Marciano in 1954.

Notable Wins: KO4 over Jimmy Bivins in 1947, KO9 over Elmer Ray in 1948, UD15 over Jersey Joe Walcott in 1949, UD15 over Joey Maxim in 1951, TKO11 over Rex Layne in 1951, UD10 over Jimmy Bivins in 1952.

14. Gene Tunney

Tunney’s time at heavyweight lasted only three years and spanned just nine fights. Most of his best work came as a light heavyweight, making him a compelling pound for pound great. So how can I rate Tunney as the 14th greatest heavyweight of all time with such a short career in the glamour division? Because his time at heavyweight was so breathtakingly perfect. He fought his rival Harry Greb for the fifth time, but the first time without any weight restrictions, in 1925 and performed magnificently. Tunney’s performance with the added weight gave him confidence that he could achieve his dream and become Heavyweight Champion. Tunney got his title shot against Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey one year later despite having only beaten one top 10 ranked heavyweight. Harry Wills was a more deserving challenger but Tunney was an excellent opponent as well. Tunney’s two fights with Jack Dempsey are two of the most popular and legendary fights in boxing history. Tunney revolutionized modern boxing technique much the way Jim Corbett did 30 years prior. Gene’s slick boxing style was a perfect contrast to Dempsey’s raw power and aggression. Tunney came away with two wins over Dempsey (though not without the controversy of the “Long Count”) to become an immortal figure. Tunney successfully defended his title once more against his number one contender Tom Heeney then decided to retire on top. Tunney retired with a perfect record at heavyweight and an astonishing overall record of 66-1-1. His lone loss to Harry Greb was avenged three times over.

Most Famous Fight(s): UD10 over Jack Dempsey in 1926, UD10 over Jack Dempsey in 1927.

Notable Wins: KO12 over Tommy Gibbons in 1925, TKO11 over Tom Heeney in 1928.

13. Mike Tyson

I know the Tyson fanatics are going to criticize me for ranking Iron Mike this low. I can sympathize with his biggest fans. Tyson in his prime was an absolute beast and may have been able to beat every other heavyweight ever. If I made my list based on projected head to head match ups, prime vs. prime, then I would have Tyson ranked much higher, as I would with Riddick Bowe. However, I constructed this list based on accomplishment, especially with respect to the quality of the opposition, and Tyson clearly does not deserve to be any higher than this. You cannot deny the impact that he had on the sport and the world. Tyson was boxing for most of his championship career. He was even bigger than boxing, making more money than any other fighter and capturing the imagination of the world as well as any other sports figure ever has. He was the youngest Heavyweight Champion, cleaning up a disheveled heavyweight landscape to become undisputed, and did so with one highlight reel knockout after the other. If you are only familiar with one boxer and you are reading this, that boxer surely is Mike Tyson. His feats and his persona were and are notorious. Where his legacy suffers is his quality of opposition. Mike fought mostly B and C level opponents. He did what he was supposed to do with them, but the lack of a win over a respected and fellow all time great on his resume hurts his case. When Mike finally did step up against the other greats of his era such as Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield, he was badly beaten. Aside from Larry Holmes who was way past his prime when Tyson fought him, the highest rated heavyweight on my list that Tyson beat was Tony Tubbs (who came in at #67). Tyson was clearly one of the greats, but when I look back at his career I can’t help but see wasted potential.

Most Famous Fight(s): TKO2 over Trevor Berbick in 1986, KO1 over Michael Spinks in 1988, DQ3 loss to Evander Holyfield in 1997, KO8 loss to Lennox Lewis in 2002.

Notable Wins: TKO6 over Pinklon Thomas in 1987, UD12 over Tony Tucker in 1987, TKO2 over Tony Tubbs in 1988, TKO7 over Razor Ruddock in 1991, TKO3 over Frank Bruno in 1996.

12. Sonny Liston

Never before has a heavyweight boxer been so feared than a prime Sonny Liston. By about 1959 he was clearly the best contender for the heavyweight title because of the rampage that he went on through the top ten rankings. An up and coming Liston became the only person to ever stop the solid boxer Wayne Bethea when he pulverized him in the first round. From that point on, Liston fought the best heavyweights of a good era one after the other, not just beating them, but annihilating them. Liston was built like a monster with enormous fists, a barrel chest, and limitless strength. His jabs knocked people out. Sonny Liston’s cold frigid stare was the most intimidating sight in boxing history. Liston was simply a man among boys, over powering his unfortunate foes with his superior strength as if he was a schoolyard bully. Naturally, representatives of the spunky but undersized Heavyweight Champion Floyd Patterson wanted no part of Liston and avoided him for as long as they could. Writers discussed the “myth” and “aura” of Sonny Liston, calling him an invincible Boogie Man. When the public pressure became too much, a proud Patterson demanded his people make the Liston fight. Sonny confirmed everyone’s wildest fantasies about his prowess by effortlessly knocking out Patterson in the first round in back to back fights. Everyone figured that Liston would be the Heavyweight Champion for centuries to come because surely no mortal could defeat him. A young Cassius Clay shook up the world by taking Liston’s title, denying him a second successful title defense, ending one of the shortest but most terrifying title reigns in heavyweight history. Liston continued fighting with some success but never got another crack at the belt and mysteriously died in 1970 after he was rumored to be in trouble with the mob.

Most Famous Fight(s): KO1 over Floyd Patterson in 1962 and 1963, TKO7 loss to Muhammad Ali in 1964, KO1 loss to Muhammad Ali in 1965.

Notable Wins: TKO3 over Cleveland Williams in 1959, KO3 over Nino Valdes in 1959, KO3 over Zora Folley in 1960, UD12 over Eddie Machen in 1960.

11. Evander Holyfield

The cruiserweight division was created in 1979 for guys like Holyfield who were too big to be light heavyweights and too small to be heavyweights. Evander turned pro in 1984. Four years and 18 fights later he was the undisputed Cruiserweight Champion and had obliterated all logical contenders in that division with amazing ease. The only thing left was to move up to heavyweight. Holyfield wasted no time, jumping right in against ranked contenders like James “Quick” Tillis, Pinklon Thomas, and Michael Dokes, knocking everyone out who was put in front of him. Though a small heavyweight, Holyfield was not afraid of anyone. His style was to go right after his opponents and slug away. He did so in an extremely skilled and refined way, but his aggression made for extremely fan-friendly fights. Everything about Holyfield was solid. He had world-class speed, power, chin, strength, determination, boxing skills, and a pleasing style to boot. Evander had no weaknesses, except maybe size. The world was licking their chops because it was looking like Mike Tyson was finally going to have a confident, worthy opponent to face off against for the title. Instead, Buster Douglas scored the biggest upset in sports history, temporarily derailing a Holyfield vs. Tyson showdown, but not derailing Holyfield’s quest to become Heavyweight Champion. After crushing Douglas for the title in 1990, Holyfield would seek out and fight every quality opponent that the division had to offer for the next two decades. He would sometimes lose and be counted out only to show of his amazing resilience and come back with another brilliant performance. Evander is the only person to win a version of the Heavyweight Championship four different times. The quality of opposition on Holyfield’s resume is rivaled only by Muhammad Ali’s list of opponents.

Most Famous Fight(s): UD12 loss to Riddick Bowe in 1992, MD12 over Riddick Bowe in 1993 (Fan Man fight), TKO11 over Mike Tyson in 1996, DQ3 over Mike Tyson in 1997 (the ear biting incident), 12 round draw against Lennox Lewis in 1999, UD12 loss to Lennox Lewis in 1999.

Notable Wins: TKO7 over Pinklon Thomas in 1988, TKO10 over Michael Dokes in 1989, KO3 over Buster Douglas in 1990, UD12 over George Foreman in 1991, UD10 over Ray Mercer in 1995, TKO8 over Michael Mooer in 1997, TKO8 over Alex Stewart in 1989, UD12 over Larry Holmes in 1992.

Next up, the sacred top 10…

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