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 for last the guys at the top of the beanstalk: the big men; the heavyweights.
Note: keep in mind that, like all of our rankings, this is not a who-beats-who list, but one that emphasizes individual accomplishment in each fighter’s time and the quality of the opposition they bested (which is why, for example, we rate Joe Frazier above George Foreman). Second, since we have chosen to rank 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, the best heavyweights of all-time. 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. Even after his decisive stoppage defeats to Muhammad Ali, he remained a force in the division thanks to his brute strength, devastating jab, and KO power in either fist.
11. Lennox Lewis: Defeats to Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman, both of which he avenged with emphatic wins, do not obscure the fact that Lewis was the dominant heavyweight of the 1990’s. He boasts solid wins over David Tua, Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, Tommy Morrison, Ray Mercer and Vitali Klitschko.
10. James J. Jeffries: “The Boilermaker” was revered for decades as one of the greatest ringman in the history of the sport as his combination of bone-crunching power, durability and amazing stamina allowed him to retire undefeated in 1904. His famous defeat six years after to Jack Johnson has, over time, obscured his achievements, but there’s no arguing with victories over James J. Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons, Joe Choynski and “Sailor” Tom Sharkey.
9. George Foreman: One of the hardest punchers in boxing history is revered both for his amazing power and his incredible comeback in the 1990’s which culminated in his regaining the world title two decades after he lost it 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. 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 nothing less than 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: Vastly underrated today, it’s easy to forget that for a time in the 1920’s “The Black Panther” was the best heavyweight in the world, and there was great demand for a showdown with official world champ 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 also criminally underrated 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 who has ever lived, at any weight. Defeated such outstanding talents as Max Baer, Jack Sharkey, Bob Pastor, James Braddock, Tommy Farr, Billy Conn, John Henry Lewis, Max Schmeling, Jimmy Bivins, Lee Savold and Jersey Joe Walcott. Final record: 66-3, with 52 knockouts.
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 himself, “The Greatest Of All-Times.”
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.