From Mike Tyson To Muhammad Ali, The Top Ten Heavyweight Boxers Of All Time

Here are The Sportsman's picks for the ten greatest heavyweight boxers of all-time
15:27, 26 Oct 2021

Dillian Whyte has hit out at claims that world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury is one of the greatest of all time. Speaking to CNN, the Brixton puncher said, "You haven't even achieved half of what Lennox Lewis has achieved. Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman; all of these guys."

Fury’s achievements are undeniable. He was the first fighter to beat Wladimir Klitschko in eleven years, and won a classic trilogy with Deontay Wilder while fighting mental health difficulties along the way. But Whyte is right, the lineal heavyweight champion is not yet at the level of some of his illustrious forebears. That’s not to say he won’t get there, at 33 years old there is still plenty of time for ‘The Gypsy King’ to gatecrash the all-time heavyweight top 10. But for now, here are the heavyweights The Sportsman rank as the greatest of them all. 

10. Mike Tyson

‘Iron’ Mike’s mix of head movement, raw power and deceptive hand speed saw him brutalise his way to the world title before he was old enough to drink. ‘Kid Dynamite’ reigned supreme, scoring signature knockouts over Michael Spinks, Larry Holmes and Frank Bruno along the way. He looked unbeatable, but James ‘Buster’ Douglas overcame his status as a 42-1 underdog to dethrone Tyson. 

A prison stint would follow, after a 1992 rape conviction. Upon his return, Mike would reclaim the WBC and WBA belts, before losing twice to Holyfield. The second fight, a disqualification loss in which he bit off part of his opponent’s ear, would send Tyson into a downward spiral. Never far from the headlines for the remainder of his career, Tyson was far from the title, losing in eight one-sided rounds to Lennox Lewis in his final title challenge in 2002.

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9. Evander Holyfield

‘The Real Deal’ is the only four-time heavyweight champion in history. ‘Commander Vander’ thrashed ‘Buster’ Douglas to claim the title in 1990, and secured wins over aging greats Larry Holmes and George Foreman before losing to Riddick Bowe. 

This kicked off a classic trilogy, with Holyfield reclaiming the gold before losing it back to ‘Big Daddy’. Holyfield’s signature triumph would come in 1996 against Mike Tyson. After losing the championship to Lennox Lewis, he would capture the vacant WBA belt against John Ruiz, and upon losing it launched a further three unsuccessful title challenges.

8. Lennox Lewis

After claiming Olympic gold at the 1988 games, Lewis went 22-0 before being awarded the WBC title which had been vacated by Riddick Bowe. A second-round KO loss to Oliver McCall temporarily derailed things, but he would avenge this defeat on the way to beating Holyfield and becoming undisputed champion. 

Hasim Rahman would take the belts in a ‘Buster’ Douglas-level shock, but this too would be avenged in brutal fashion. By the time Lewis retired, having beaten Tyson and Vitali Klitschko on the way out, he had defeated every man he had faced.

7. Joe Frazier

‘Smokin’ Joe is one of the most fearsome punchers the division has ever seen, and has the distinction of being the first man to defeat Muhammad Ali. Having struggled for recognition as champion, reigning during Ali’s exile, this win crowned Frazier as the definitive heavyweight king.

The Philadelphian made nine defences of his title, and defeated a who’s who of the era, beating Jimmy Ellis, Bob Foster, Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena along the way. George Foreman would shockingly stop him in 1973, and he would fall in two further fights with Ali before retiring for good in 1981.  

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6. Jack Johnson

The trailblazing puncher became the first black fighter to win the heavyweight championship, when he beat Tommy Burns in 1908. Johnson fought for so long to even be allowed a chance at the crown, having to instead compete for the “world colored heavyweight title” in those unthinkably racist times.

As champion, he sparked riots by beating the prominent white fighters of the day. Most famously, his dominant victory over the returning James J. Jeffries caused severe unrest. Jess Willard would end Johnson’s reign in 1915, but his flamboyant lifestyle and fluid ring skills left an indelible imprint on the sport.

5. George Foreman

‘Big’ George embarked on a career of two halves. The concussive puncher pounded his way to the heavyweight title after winning gold at the 1968 Olympics. After knocking out Frazier in two rounds, Foreman needed just three rounds combined to take out Jose Roman and the great Ken Norton in his two defences. Then, he ran headfirst into a piece of someone else’s history.

Muhammad Ali defeated him in ‘The Rumble In The Jungle’, using the famed ‘rope-a-dope’ technique to sap George’s energy before knocking him out in the eighth round. Foreman fought on, winning five fights before retiring after a loss to Jimmy Young. 

Foreman stunningly returned to the sport a decade later, at the age of 38. Initially mocked for his soft physique, ‘Big George’ won hearts and minds with 23 wins in four years before a world title challenge against Evander Holyfield. Foreman lost that bout, and a WBO tilt against Tommy Morrison, but gained respect for his efforts in both.

In 1994, Foreman went one better, dethroning Michael Moorer to become the oldest heavyweight champion of all-time at the age of 45. Most heavyweights on this list enjoyed one great career, George Foreman had two.

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4. Rocky Marciano

Most famous for going 49-0 and retiring as world heavyweight champion, ‘The Brockton Blockbuster’ was known for his ability to take a beating, and pay it back in kind. 

‘Jersey’ Joe Walcott was dominating on the scorecards before Rocky knocked him out in the 13th round, and Archie Moore sent him sprawling in the fourth stanza of his final fight, before he rallied to knock the ‘Old Mongoose’ out in the ninth. Marciano could be hurt, but he could not be stopped. He also owns the highest knockout percentage of any heavyweight champion in history, stopping 87% of his opponents.

3. Larry Holmes

Underappreciated in his own time, the ‘Easton Assassin’ is looked upon more kindly now than he was during 20 defences of the heavyweight crown. Holmes was in the unenviable position of following Muhammad Ali’s glittering run at the top of the sport, and his popularity was not helped by a one-sided 1980 victory over ‘The Greatest’.

Holmes beat Ken Norton to win the title, and saw off former champion Leon Spinks as well as future kings Trevor Berbick, Tim Witherspoon and James ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith during a seven-year reign. Holmes fell one short of Marciano’s ledger, going 48-0 before controversially dropping the belts to Michael Spinks. He would fight on until 2002, spending much of the 90s as a world-ranked contender.

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2. Joe Louis

Punching his way through the door Jack Johnson had opened, Louis holds the all-time record for heavyweight title defenses. While his choice of opponents sometimes drew derision and ‘Bum Of The Month Club’ jibes, wins over ‘Jersey’ Joe Walcott, Max Schmeling and Billy Conn make for a golden legacy.

Not only did he cut a swathe through the division for 13 years, but ‘The Brown Bomber’ did so while displaying unbelievable punching power. 23 of his 26 title victims were stopped or knocked out, a testament to perhaps the greatest puncher the division has ever known. 

1. Muhammad Ali

A populist choice? Perhaps. The correct one? Without question. Ali was almost impossible to hit during his glorious 60s prime, making fools out of quality men like Sonny Liston, Cleveland Williams and Ernie Terrell. After refusing the draft to join the Vietnam War, Ali spent three years out of the ring.

Upon his return, the divine dancer of the 60s was gone, replaced by the ring-savvy chessmaster that would dominate the 70s. The wins are required viewing for anyone who calls themselves a boxing fan. The Frazier trilogy, the Foreman demolition, survival against Norton, redemption against Spinks. Each and every step of the way, Ali created history. 

The end was unbecoming, twin losses to Holmes and the middling Trevor Berbick. The decline was sad, Parkinson’s disease dulling the sharp edges of one of history’s most fascinating men. But the career is undeniable. Muhammad Ali is the greatest heavyweight of all-time. 

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