At a very leisurely pace over the last couple of years, The Fight City has offered its own idiosyncratic rankings of the all-time greatest boxers in each of the eight traditional weight classes. The order in which we presented the respective lists had no logic — we started with the middleweights, before going on to rank the bantamweights, light heavyweights, flyweights, featherweights, welterweights and, most recently, the lightweights — but naturally, we saved the big men for last.
Herewith, our ranking of boxing’s all-time best heavyweights, keeping in mind a couple of stipulations. As will be obvious, all of our lists emphasize individual accomplishment in each fighter’s time, that is to say a holistic view of a boxer’s legacy, with little concern for the unanswerable who-beats-who question. (Or, even when it can be answered, ie. we see Joe Frazier’s ring accomplishments as more impressive than George Foreman’s.) Second, since we have ranked fighters in one division only so we can spread the glory around, you will not see Gene Tunney, Ezzard Charles or Sam Langford here, as they are on our list of the all-time best light heavyweights. So, without further ado, our ranking of the best big men. Feel free to add your thoughts and comments!
12. Sonny Liston: In the late 50’s and early 60’s Liston devastated the division with knockouts over Cleveland Williams, Nino Valdes, Roy Harris, Zora Folley and Eddie Machen before taking the title from Floyd Patterson in 1962.
11. Lennox Lewis: Defeats to Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman do not obscure the fact that Lewis was the dominant heavyweight of the 1990’s with solid wins over David Tua, Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, Tommy Morrison, Shannon Briggs, Ray Mercer and Vitali Klitschko.
10. James J. Jeffries: “The Boilermaker” was revered as one of the greatest ringman in the history of the sport after he scored huge wins over James J. Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons, Joe Choynski and Tom Sharkey.
9. George Foreman: One of the hardest punchers in boxing history is justifiably revered both for his amazing power and his truly incredible comeback which culminated in his regaining the heavyweight championship two decades after he lost it to Muhammad Ali in the famous “Rumble in the Jungle.” His terrifying demolitions of Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, plus his legendary slugfest with Ron Lyle, will never be forgotten.
8. Jack Dempsey: Fast, aggressive and powerful, “The Manassa Mauler” revolutionized boxing with his swarming, all-action style. Holds wins over Jess Willard, Georges Carpentier, Jim Flynn, Big Bill Tate, Billy Miske, Luis Firpo, Gunboat Smith and Jack Sharkey. Reviled early on in his championship reign, he eventually became enormously popular and nothing less an American icon.
7. Larry Holmes: An awesome jab, a dangerous right hand, tremendous heart, and astonishing recuperative powers were among the attributes “The Easton Assassin” brought to the ring. And they enabled him to vanquish, among others, Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers, Gerry Cooney, Tim Witherspoon, Mike Weaver and Trevor Berbick. Having held the world title for seven years, his late career comeback saw him defeat Ray Mercer and almost upset Oliver McCall.
6. Joe Frazier: The man they called “Smokin’ Joe” doesn’t get enough love on most ‘ATG’ lists, but overlooked are two things: 1. Frazier’s iconic and convincing victory over Muhammad Ali and 2. the fact he is second only to Ali in terms of the best boxers competing in the strongest era in division history. Dominant wins over Eddie Machen, George Chuvalo, Jimmy Ellis, Oscar Bonavena, Doug Jones, Bob Foster, Buster Mathis, Jerry Quarry and Joe Bugner prove the point. As Joe liked to say, “‘Nuff said.”
5. Rocky Marciano: With the highest knockout percentage of all heavyweight champions and boasting wins over such greats as Archie Moore, Jersey Joe Walcott, Joe Louis and Ezzard Charles, the undefeated “Brockton Blockbuster” proved himself a remarkable warrior. Power, toughness, and unsurpassed conditioning were Rocky’s calling-cards, along with a brutal relentlessness which no one in his era could withstand.
4. Harry Wills: For a time in the 1920’s, “The Black Panther” was the best heavyweight in the world and there was even talk of a big showdown with official heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, but it never came to be. Even so, Wills holds wins over a host of top heavyweights including Luis Firpo, “Big” Bill Tate, Kid Norfolk, Sam Langford, Billy Miske, Sam McVea, Battling Siki and the great Joe Jeannette.
3. Jack Johnson: Boxing’s first black champion of the big men was remarkably quick, very hard to hit, and dangerous with either fist. Cunning and clever, “The Galveston Giant” didn’t just defeat his opponents but often humiliated them with his skill, smarts and unceasing control of the ring. Among his vanquished foes are Sam Langford, Tommy Burns, James J. Jeffries, Stanley Ketchel, Jim Flynn, Joe Jeannette and Sam McVea.
2. Joe Louis: Deadly power, astonishing timing and accuracy, and an amazing 25 defenses of the heavyweight crown make “The Brown Bomber” one of the greatest boxers, of any weight, who ever lived. Defeated such outstanding talents as Max Baer, Jack Sharkey, James Braddock, Billy Conn, John Henry Lewis, Max Schmeling, Jimmy Bivins and Jersey Joe Walcott. For many years Joe was widely regarded as the greatest of all heavyweights.
1. Muhammad Ali: Why is Ali number one? Simple: no heavyweight in history faced, let alone defeated, a trio of deadly greats like Liston, Frazier and Foreman. But that’s just for starters. Throw in Norton, Quarry, Patterson, Lyle and Bonavena too. And don’t forget Terrell, Shavers and Chuvalo. Or Williams, Ellis and Folley.
As fate would have it, the most gifted athlete the heavyweights ever saw emerged just when the division was stacked with formidable talent like never before or since. And Ali proved himself the best of them all. Amazing speed, unsurpassed ring intelligence, plus astonishing courage, durability, and will to win, not to mention longevity, make Ali a cut above the rest, the best big man of both the 1960’s and 70’s, and in truth, as he liked to say, “The Greatest Of All-Times,” the best of all heavyweights. Ever. Case closed.
Honorable Mentions: Joe Jeannette, Jersey Joe Walcott, Max Schmeling, James J. Corbett, Max Baer, Jack Sharkey, Sam McVea, Peter Jackson, Evander Holyfield, Tom Sharkey, Floyd Patterson, Mike Tyson, Wladimir Klitschko, George Godfrey, John L. Sullivan, Johnny Risko.