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Wilbur’s 100 Greatest Heavyweights of all Time: Top 10!

By Brian Wilbur

Thanks for your patience over the last couple of months as I counted down my list of the 100 greatest heavyweights of all time. The wait is now over as I will reveal the elite of the elite, the top 10. Each of these all time greats are special fighters whose accomplishments are amazing and will be cherished as long as there are boxing fans in the world.

For the first 90 heavyweight boxers I gave a quick biography before listing their best fights. For the top 10, a biography is not needed as much since these fighters are among the most famous sports figures in history. Instead I will describe my reasons why they deserve to be rated as high as I rate them and explain why my ranking may differ from other lists you may have seen in the past.

(Drum roll)

10. Rocky Marciano

Marciano was a legendary wrecking ball in the ring and the only Heavyweight Champion to permanently retire undefeated. He is a man who needs little introduction, so instead of describing his career I am going to defend my ranking and why I rank him so low. As you remember, I created my list of 100 and ranked the heavyweights based on accomplishments, meaning wins over quality opponents. Legacy, perfect records, impact on the sport, and other miscellaneous factors had little to do with my ratings; otherwise Marciano would be higher. Rocky beat the most logical contenders of his era, mostly by definitive knockout, then retired undefeated with no other mountains to climb. Guys like Nino Valdes, Bob Baker, or Jimmy Bivins would have been good title defenses for Marciano, but they were not glaring omissions so Marciano’s early retirement was not tainted by accusations of fighting ducking. Even though Marciano sought out the best, he still fought in a weak era and his legacy is hurt because he did not have enough quality opponents to prove himself against. Bouts against Jersey Joe Walcott and Ezzard Charles are considered to be his greatest wins even though both were past their best. Walcott and Charles were well into their 30’s and did little after losing to Marciano, suggesting that they were washed up. Jersey Joe and Ezzard fought inspired against “The Brockton Blockbuster”, proving that old greats can still have one more fight left in them, but Walcott’s age and Charles’s performance before and after Marciano cannot be ignored. To Marciano’s credit I feel like he was a marvelous slugger and pressure fighter who could have been much higher if he had been lucky enough to come along during a better era of heavyweights. His punching power is the stuff of legends, but Marciano’s endurance, determination, and will to win were just as notable.

Most Famous Fight(s): KO13 over Jersey Joe Walcott in 1952, KO1 over Jersey Joe Walcott in 1953, UD15 over Ezzard Charles in 1954, KO8 over Ezzard Charles in 1954.

Notable Wins: KO9 over Archie Moore in 1955, TKO11 over Roland La Starza in 1953, TKO8 over Joe Louis in 1951, KO6 over Rex Layne in 1951.

9. Lennox Lewis

Lewis was a late bloomer like a few others on my list were, most notably Archie Moore and Jersey Joe Walcott. Lennox’s physical gifts and talents were always present, but I call him a late bloomer for two reasons. First, is that his best wins came late in his career because the top guys like Riddick Bowe and Mike Tyson would rather throw their belts in the garbage can than fight Lewis. He kept fighting and winning, eventually forcing the big fights to come his way, though later on. Second, Lewis truly did get better with age, mostly due to his improvement under trainer Emanuel Steward. Steward shaped Lennox into a more careful and technically sound boxer, but that molding took years to fully come together. Much is made about Lennox’s two KO losses against much lesser opponents, and those hurt his legacy, but avenging both losses with emphatic knockouts helps his case. Lewis, like Marciano, defeated every boxer he ever stepped in the ring against as a pro, but I rank Lewis slightly higher than Marciano because he fought in a better era of heavyweights. The 1990’s was a star-studded era that created a temporary renaissance in heavyweight boxing after the lull in the 1980’s. The only great heavyweight that Lewis did not fight during his era was Riddick Bowe because Bowe wanted no part of Lewis. At 6’5” and about 250 pounds, he ushered in a new era of successful heavyweights that had the athletic ability to go with their extreme size. Lewis could box or punch so his versatility to go along with his size and heart made him a terrific fighter. Like Gene Tunney, the public was slow to warm up to the pugilist specialist, but when he abruptly retired he was sorely missed.

Most Famous Fight(s): 12 round draw against Evander Holyfield in 1999, UD12 over Evander Holyfield in 1999, KO8 over Mike Tyson in 2002.

Notable Wins: TKO6 over Tommy Morrison in 1995, KO1 over Andrew Golota in 1997, TKO2 over Razor Ruddock in 1992, TKO5 over Shannon Briggs in 1998, UD12 over David Tua in 2000, KO4 over Hasim Rahman in 2001, TKO6 (cuts) over Vitali Klitschko in 2003.

8. Jack Dempsey

Dempsey transcended boxing by becoming the most popular sports figure in the world, even more than his baseball contemporary Babe Ruth. His fighting style was savagely aggressive and irresistibly entertaining. His fights broke attendance and revenue records as he thrilled a generation of people during the roaring 20’s. There is not a more legendary figure in boxing’s history than Jack Dempsey. Due to his rightful spot as the game’s most untouchable legend, most rate Dempsey at least in the top 4. And based on impact on boxing, fame, popularity or other of those intangible factors I would put Dempsey up there as well. However, I made my rankings based on wins over quality opponents. Yes, Jack fought and dominated a good amount of quality opponents, but his ranking suffers because he was not a fighting champion. Jack got his title and sat on it for stretches of a year or more. That inactivity robbed him of the chance to build up a better record and record more wins at the championship level. Also, his failure to give a title shot to Harry Wills, his clear number one contender for most of his reign, hurts his ranking. Though his championship reign was not as robust as it could have been, nobody personified the essence of a champion like Dempsey. He set the bar for all future Heavyweight Champions to be measured.

Most Famous Fight(s): TKO3 over Jess Willard in 1919, KO2 over Luis Angel Firpo in 1923, UD10 losses to Gene Tunney in 1926 and 1927.

Notable Wins: TKO6 over Bill Brennan in 1918, KO1 over Fred Fulton in 1918, KO1 over Carl Morris in 1918, KO3 over Billy Miske in 1920, KO12 over Bill Brennan in 1920, 15 round points win over Tommy Gibbons in 1923, KO7 over Jack Sharkey in 1927, KO4 over Georges Carpentier in 1921.

7. Larry Holmes

Holmes is one I have seen ranked as high as #3 and as low as outside of the top 10. Larry was never a popular champion, but with 20 consecutive title defenses, I don’t care whom it was against, he deserves a spot in the top 10. Holmes, unlike many of his opponents, had the luxury of fully developing as a professional, waiting five years and 26 fights before stepping up against world-class opposition. The reason I don’t have Holmes as high as some is that his quality of opposition was weak. To Larry’s credit he was open to fighting anyone but the contenders of the era were not consistent enough to force a title shot. Towards the end of his title reign he was so desperate for a legitimate contender that he would sign to fight every green prospect who scored a significant win. Some of the novices that Holmes fought, like Tim Witherspoon, Carl “The Truth” Williams, and Bonecrusher Smith actually went on to have decent careers after their early losses to Holmes, but they were clearly not ready to fight the best in the world so it is hard to give Holmes much credit for those wins (especially since Witherspoon arguably beat him). Littered throughout the fluff of sub par opposition that is Holmes’s resume he scored a few really nice wins over quality opponents, which I list in the notable wins section. Holmes was vastly underrated for years because he followed Ali, but those who grew up watching are starting to overrate him to counteract his detractors. The middle part of the top 10 is a fair spot for Larry, who I will remember for his peerless jab and unrivaled ring generalship. Holmes’s legacy would have been better if he had tried to unify the titles or made a more concerted effort to fight the best available competition (including giving Witherspoon a rematch).

Most Famous Fight(s): TKO10 over Muhammad Ali in 1980, TKO13 over Gerry Cooney in 1982.

Notable Wins: SD15 over Ken Norton in 1978, TKO11 over Earnie Shavers in 1979, UD12 over Earnie Shavers in 1978, UD12 over Ray Mercer in 1992.

6. Jack Johnson

Johnson was the most controversial Heavyweight Champion in history, being a brash and flamboyant African American who constantly taunted the racist white masses in the United States. He was also a defensive genius and a boxing master, dancing circles around foes and proving to be nearly impossible to hit. Judging pioneer era boxers like Johnson against modern fighters is a difficult task because the sport has changed so much. Boxing during Johnson’s era had a loose set of rules and they fought with gloves that were more like leather pounches. I made my rankings by examining how the fighters did against their own era instead of trying to guess who would beat who in time machine assisted bouts. Johnson was not a fighting champion, similar to Jack Dempsey, but had a great career prior to becoming champion that lofts him into the #6 position. Johnson had no trouble beating the best black and white contenders while chasing down then Heavyweight Champion Tommy Burns. One criticism of Johnson is that he fought the trio of Joe Jeanette, Sam McVea, and Sam Langford while those three were heavyweight rookies and never gave them their much deserved rematches once they were established contenders at their peak. Johnson scored an easy victory over Burns to win the title but then no longer fought other black fighters, drawing the color line like others had before him. He claimed that he had too much fun beating up on the white hopes, especially since white America wanted him to lose so badly. Johnson’s ranking is hurt because he was more concerned with riling people up than seeking out the best available competition to build a stellar record. Johnson also gets too much credit for his most famous fight, a knockout win against James J. Jeffries. Jeffries had been completely retired for over 5 years, was deep into his 30’s, ballooned up to over 300 pounds, and was in no shape to go directly into a World Championship fight. Yet because Jeffries had an aura of invincibility when he retired, the public still thought that he had a good chance to defeat Johnson. We can look back and see that Johnson was a prodigious champion, but not at all because of his win over Jeffries.

Most Famous Fight(s): TKO15 over James J. Jeffries in 1910, 14 round points win over Tommy Burns in 1908.

Notable Wins: 20 round points win over Denver Ed Martin in 1903, KO20 over Sam McVea in 1904, TKO12 over Frank Childs in 1902, 15 round points win over Sam Langford in 1906, KO2 over Bob Fitzsimmons in 1907, KO11 over Fireman Jim Flynn in 1907, KO12 over Stanley Ketchel in 1909.

5. Joe Frazier

From Johnson, who was defensive minded, we go to his anti-thesis, the man who had the greatest left hook of all time. Frazier, unlike Larry Holmes, was fortunate to have fought in an era with a plethora of excellent fighters to build a legacy on. Smokin’ Joe grabbed the title that Muhammad Ali vacated when he was stripped of his championship for refusing to enlist in the Vietnam War. Frazier’s perpetual motion, relentless attack, love for pain, and powerful hooks made him a dominant champion in the late 60’s/early 70’s, steamrolling through the greatest era of heavyweights ever. Frazier is all over the place in heavyweight rankings. I think some don’t know how to rate him since he was only the third best heavyweight of his time whereas most all time greats were clearly the best of their era. I rate Frazier highly because of his tremendous level of opposition, despite being bettered by superior fighters on a few occasions. Frazier’s aggressive fighting style meant that he took a lot of punishment and thus did not have the longevity of the other greats, but he fit enough in his relatively short career to earn his rankings. If anyone ever tries to doubt Frazier’s credentials, all you have to do is say that Joe Frazier beat Muhammad Ali, prime vs. prime. There are more wins over A-list opponents on Frazier’s 37-fight resume that Holmes’s 75-fight resume. Again, that was because Frazier had the luxury of having dozens of excellent opponents ready and willing to fight him, which obviously was not the case with Holmes during the poor era in the 80’s.

Most Famous Fight(s): UD15 over Muhammad Ali in 1971, TKO2 loss to George Foreman in 1973, TKO14 loss to Muhammad Ali in 1975.

Notable Wins: MD10 over Oscar Bonavena in 1966, TKO4 over George Chuvalo in 1967, UD15 over Oscar Bonavena in 1968, TKO11 over Buster Mathis in 1968, TKO7 over Jerry Quarry in 1969, TKO5 over Jimmy Ellis in 1970, TKO2 over Bob Foster in 1970, 12 round points win over Joe Bugner in 1973, TKO5 over Jerry Quarry in 1974.

4. James J. Jeffries

Jeffries is the most underrated of the all time great Heavyweight Champions. Most do not even have Jeffries ranked in the top 10 all time. His most famous fight, a knockout loss to Jack Johnson, unjustly tarnished his reputation. As I described earlier, Jeffries was light years away from his prime form having been out of boxing for 6 years and in terrible shape. His lone loss to Johnson should not be given any more credence than Muhammad Ali’s loss to Larry Holmes, Joe Louis’s loss to Rocky Marciano, or Larry Holmes’s loss to Evander Holyfield. To fairly judge Jeffries’s legacy you have to look at his career prior to the Johnson fight, which was impeccable. Jeffries fought in an era I rate as the third best ever, behind only the late 1960’s/early1970’s (Ali, Foreman, Frazier, etc.) and the 1990’s (Tyson, Lewis, Holyfield, etc.). Jim Corbett is correctly compared to Gene Tunney, Tom Sharkey was a Rocky Marciano clone, and Robert Fitzsimmons was a unique fighter who can’t be compared to any modern boxer but he was undeniably great. Jeffries beat them all, including other notables, completely cleaning out the division of quality heavyweight contenders during his dominating reign as Heavyweight Champion. Jeffries had no blemishes on his record either since he never lost, gave rematches to everyone who deserved it, and ducked no one. Some incorrectly claim that Jeffries drew the color line.

True he did not defend his title against any black contenders, but there were no good ones during his time as champion. Jeffries fought prior to the emergence of the trio of Langford, McVea, and Jeannette, and after the glory days of Peter Jackson (although Jeffries did trounced a washed up Jackson on his way up the ranks). Jack Johnson was active towards the end of Jeffries’s championship career but was still losing to the likes of Marvin Hart and was not considered a serious contender. The best black contender of the day was probably Hank Griffin and Jeffries bested him twice in non-title fights. Jeffries retired after five dominating years as the undefeated and undisputed Heavyweight Champion. James was so good because he was an athletic marvel. He was built like a bear, with a barrel chest and huge legs. Only George Foreman could rival Jeffries’s incredible physical strength, but Jeffries was not a slow lumbering caveman at all. He possessed Olympic caliber speed and jumping ability. Jeffries was an astonishing athletic marvel of strength, speed, and agility. His chin and stamina was among the best of any boxer of all time. His amazing God-given talents allowed Jeffries to achieve the amazing feat of winning the Heavyweight Championship in just his 13th professional fight. His subsequent championship opponents were usually much more experienced but they were still unable to find any advantage. The only knock on Jeffries’s legacy is that he only had 23 official pro fights, but why would we punish him for not needing dozens of development fights before jumping in against quality opposition? We shouldn’t, thus James J. Jeffries deserves a spot in the top 5 all time.

Most Famous Fight(s): TKO 15 loss to Jack Johnson in 1910.

Notable Wins: TKO10 over Jim Corbett in 1903, KO8 over Bob Fitzsimmons in 1902, TKO5 over Gus Ruhlin in 1901, KO23 over Jim Corbett in 1900, 25 round points win over Tom Sharkey in 1899, KO11 over Bob Fitzsimmons in 1899, 20 round points win over Tom Sharkey in 1898, TKO4 over Joe Goddard in 1898, KO14 over Hank Griffin in 1896.

3. George Foreman

Decision wins are up for interpretation and debate, but a clean knockout win is the most decisive that a boxer can earn. Foreman was the king of the knockout, scoring several of the greatest victories in heavyweight history. Big George pounded out thrilling knockouts over some of the best heavyweights of all time. Standing in front of Foreman was a death sentence since he had supernatural strength and power in his clubbing punches. Those foolish enough to stand and fight against Foreman would end up on the ground. The only way to beat Foreman was to get on your bike and run away, or survive somehow, and then hope he gets tired in the later rounds. Foreman’s ability to score multiple dominant, early knockout wins over top 20 heavyweights of all time, and especially those two wins over Joe Frazier, is why I have George firmly at #3 on my list. Foreman’s comeback when he was well into his 40’s simply confirmed that he was a one-of-a-kind freak of nature and an elite great. Foreman knocked out Michael Moorer to become the oldest Heavyweight Champion at the astonishing age of 45. After George won the belt at that age you had the idea that he could have done anything.

Most Famous Fight(s): TKO2 over Joe Frazier in 1973 (Down goes Frazier!), KO8 loss to Muhammad Ali in 1974.

Notable Wins: TKO3 over George Chuvalo in 1970, TKO2 over Ken Norton in 1974, KO5 over Ron Lyle in 1976, TKO5 over Joe Frazier in 1976, TKO2 over Gerry Cooney in 1990, KO10 over Michael Moorer in 1994.

2. Joe Louis

Louis made 25 consecutive defenses of his Heavyweight Championship, which is not just a heavyweight record, but also a record for any weight class. His mark is one that will probably never be broken. Writers of the day called his reign the “bum of the month club” because he clobbered one hopeless contender after another at a record pace. Though the pool of heavyweight talent during Louis’s era was not great, it was not terrible either. Prior to his title reign he fought some excellent opponents including three former champs. As champion he completely cleaned out the heavyweight ranks to become the most dominant Heavyweight Champion of all time. Joe would stalk his opponents down and make them pay for having the gall to step in the ring with him. His punching power was dynamite, but his hand speed and unparalleled punching accuracy is what set him apart, making him the most dangerous puncher the sport has ever seen (as voted on by Ring Magazine in 2003). Louis victim Max Baer said, “ I define fear as standing across the ring from Joe Louis and knowing he wants to go home early.” Two facts make Louis’s career ever more amazing. One is that he was able to set his consecutive defense streak even though he lost about four years of his prime due to World War II. Second, is the way that Louis was able to knockout a prime great in Jersey Joe Walcott, even though he was far past his best, in order to maintain the Heavyweight Championship. No doubt, Joe Louis was a fearsome winner.

Most Famous Fight(s): KO1 over Max Schmeling in 1938.

Notable Wins: TKO6 over Primo Carnera in 1935, KO4 over Max Baer in 1935, TKO4 over Paulino Uzcundun in 1935, KO3 over Jack Sharkey in 1936, KO8 over Jim Braddock in 1937, TKO8 over Arturo Godoy in 1940, KO13 over Billy Conn in 1941, KO1 over Buddy Baer in 1942, KO11 over Jersey Joe Walcott in 1948.

1. Muhammad Ali

Ali kept telling us that he was the greatest and eventually we started believing him. Not because of his persistency, but because he backed it up in the ring. Ali beat all of the best heavyweights from 1960’s and 1970’s, proving to be the clear best in the Golden Age of heavyweights. Ali was lucky to have come along at a time when he had enough great opponents with which to prove his greatness and he took full advantage. On his resume are epic wars, unforgettable trilogies, shocking upsets, dominating knockouts, and more than enough proof to show that Ali had an unrivaled will to win. Muhammad shocked the world when he toppled two feared juggernauts, Sonny Liston and George Foreman, at opposite ends of his fighting career. Similar to Joe Louis, Ali lost over three years of his prime but did not let that derail his pursuit of immortality. I made my rankings with wins over quality opposition as the number one factor and no other heavyweight comes close to Ali. He fought so many great heavyweights (19 of his opponents found a spot on my top 100 list) that I can’t help but give Ali the top spot. Muhammad was able to beat a large number of outstanding fighters with many different fight styles because he was a full step above any other heavyweight when it came to speed, reflexes, and footwork. Ali would tire you out by making you chase, frustrate you by moving in and out of punching range, then lace you with lightning fast combinations. Ali’s legacy is that of the most dynamic Heavyweight Champion ever, both inside and outside of the ring.

Most Famous Fight(s): KO1 over Sonny Liston in 1965, UD15 loss to Joe Frazier in 1971, KO8 over George Foreman in 1974, TKO14 over Joe Frazier in 1975.

Notable Wins: TKO7 over Sonny Liston in 1964, TKO12 over Floyd Patterson in 1965, UD15 over Ernie Terrell in 1967, TKO3 over Jerry Quarry in 1970, TKO15 over Oscar Bonavena in 1970, SD12 over Ken Norton in 1973, UD12 over Joe Frazier in 1974, TKO11 over Ron Lyle in 1975, UD15 over Earnie Shaver in 1977.

I hope you have enjoyed my top 100 countdown. Let the debates begin!

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