The 100 Greatest Heavyweights of All Time Part Nine: 20-11

By Matt McGrain on October 2, 2014
The 100 Greatest Heavyweights of All Time Part Nine: 20-11
Holyfield’s career is a picture of inconsistency, but inconsistency born of a love of war.

In the end, by my calculations, there are only fourteen heavies in the history of the ring that are truly deserving of being labelled great…

#20 Jersey Joe Walcott (51-18-2)

Jersey Joe Walcott went something in the region of 50/50 against the considerable Ring ranked opposition he met during his astonishing twenty-three years as a professional fighter. Al Ettore stopped him 1936; he lost to unheralded Joe Louis victim Willie Reddish in his comeback fight and then failed to defeat the middling Billy Ketchel in three efforts before being stopped again by Tiger Jack Fox in 1937. He lost four years to the war, but when he re-emerged in 1944, it seemed a new fighter was among us. A loss to John Allen in 1945 ushered in an unexpected purple-patch as Walcott defeated Joe Baski, Lee Q. Murray, Curtis Sheppard, Jimmy Bivins and Lee Oma. Joey Maxim and Elmer Ray both trimmed his wings in 1946, and then something strange happened; Walcott avenged himself. It was a turning point for him, and one that earned him a shot at Joe Louis.

Post-war, Louis had begun to slide, and in their first contest Walcott ran him close. A majority of newspapermen believed he deserved the verdict, though there were plenty of ringsiders who thought Louis had done enough to retain his title, but the controversy ordained a rematch should be fought. Louis stopped Walcott in the twelfth and probably any chance Jersey Joe had of being ranked a top ten heavyweight was lost to him.

More importantly, the Championship was lost to him – or so it seemed.

Walcott lost three of his next eight, including two losses to the new divisional #1, Ezzard Charles, and really, that should have been curtain, but somehow, and despite an additional loss to Rex Layne, Walcott was given an unprecedented fifth shot at the heavyweight title and a third shot at Charles.

At his best, Walcott looked like a man who had been poured rather than born and he never looked better than he did for his stunning knockout of Charles in that summer of 1951. It had been a long road, but persistence, drive, necessity and strength of character had born out as Walcott became the oldest man in history to claim the Heavyweight Title via perhaps the most beautiful knockout ever to be perpetrated against an incumbent champion.

He even successfully defended it against Charles in their fourth fight, before Marciano forever separated him from it. Probably Walcott did not deserve either three shots at Charles any more than he deserved six shots at the title, but he got ‘em, he took one, and it became difficult to leave him out of the top twenty when he did. A deep, wide win résumé, outstanding longevity and outrageous skill on film all demand it.

#19 James J. Corbett (11-4-3)

James J. Corbett boxed half a career, a total of eighteen contests in his professional career, but to quote Henry Hill and Goodfellas, it was just the good half.

In just his fifth fight he matched the equally inexperienced Joe Choynski in a fight staged on a barge anchored in a California bay, in supposed secret. Listed as 1-0 by BoxRec, as Adam Pollack points out in In the Ring with James J. Corbett, Choynski was held in much higher regard than his paper record would suggest. Corbett outboxed him, closed his eyes, stopping him in twenty-seven hard rounds, despite suffering injuries to both hands.

In the next year, 1890, he made his first real mark outboxing Jake Kilrain over the short distance and under the Marquess of Queensberry Rules. Kilrain was fresh from an incredible contest with the Champion, John L. Sullivan, who had bested him under London Prize Ring Rules over seventy-five tough bare-knuckle rounds. Corbett’s hallowed status as “The Grandfather of Boxing” should be more widely questioned, and I would argue that Peter Jackson or Nonpareil Jack Dempsey are better choices, but there is a certain significance in this result. Gloves, jabs and pugilistic defense were all stressed by Corbett having been notable by their absence in Kilrain’s war with Sullivan.

Corbett smiled his way through his outpointing of the elite Kilrain, and if he didn’t smile all the way through his 1891 contest with Peter Jackson, it is only because that was one of the most difficult wars of that hard time. Outweighed by one of the best fighters of the era at any weight, it was Corbett who shouted the louder about continuing the bout, declared a No Contest after sixty-one hellish rounds. The fight in which he lifted the title was far easier, Corbett taking out the past-prime Sullivan in something of a canter over twenty-one rounds. Corbett would add Charlie Mitchell before his losing the title, but his legend was already by then secured.

As to his skill, Pollack notes that Corbett could “hit, elude and neutralize opponents almost at will, and keep it up indefinitely…he should be remembered in his prime as the shiftiest, quickest, most skillful and most intelligent boxer in the world, with the best pair of legs ever seen on a heavyweight.”

And that is not unreasonable.

#18 Floyd Patterson (55-8-1)

Floyd Patterson beat more ranked heavyweights than George Foreman; he was the Champion of the world for more months than Rocky Marciano;  he won more heavyweight title fights than Jack Dempsey; he was the youngest ever man to lift the title, and the first man to lose and regain it; he ranked in Ring magazine’s top ten heavyweights for more total months than almost any other fighter on this list – and in beating Tommy Jackson, Archie Moore, Ingemar Johansson, Eddie Machen, George Chuvalo and Oscar Bonavena, he defeated many more men that appear upon The 100 Greatest Heavyweights of All Time than the likes of Gene Tunney and Ken Norton. And yet, there will be objections to his inclusion despite all of this statistical evidence to the contrary.

Those objections are often centered upon his chin which is dismissed as vulnerable. Patterson was dropped, and plenty, but he was stopped only by three men, two of which are in the top ten ever at heavyweight. The first man to turn the trick was Ingemar Johansson, perhaps the second most devastating puncher of the era, but one who fell twice in rematches. Later in his career Patterson was crushed utterly by Sonny Liston in two title-fights and twice stopped on accumulation against Muhammad Ali. And that’s it. Losses to two of the most devastating punchers ever to have lived and to arguably the single greatest heavyweight of all time apparently denote Patterson chinny. 

Both of Patterson’s other losses at the weight were disputed, his 1968 loss to Jimmy Ellis something like a robbery both as it appears on film and to ringsiders, as was his loss to Jerry Quarry in 1967; the draw he made with Quarry that same year should certainly have been ruled a Patterson favor too, meaning even his outstanding paper record should arguably have been even more impressive.

Forty stoppages were facilitated by the fastest hands in the history of the division and the type of heart that, had it beaten in Rocky Mariano’s chest, would have been the subject of poetry. If you don’t believe me just check out either of Johansson’s punching cavalcades against Patterson in their first fight and count, if you can, the number of times Patterson drags himself, senseless, from the canvas. 

A near-lock for the top twenty, it is his size that prevents his obtaining a slightly higher ranking, not his supposedly weak chin. As it stands, he more than warrants inclusion at #18.

#17 Ezzard Charles (93-25-1)

Ezzard Charles entered the heavyweight division in the world class, taking on the superb Joey Maxim in back-to-back fights late in 1942. He won both, and between those victories and his 1952 loss to Jersey Joe Walcott he came of second best just once at heavyweight, against Elmer “Violent” Ray on a desperately narrow split in 1947. In that ten-year spell he beat: Jimmy Bivins three times, Joey Maxim on an additional two occasions, took his revenge upon Ray by knockout, battered Jersey Joe Walcott twice, dominated ranked men like Pat Valentino, Lee Oma, Freddie Beshore, Gus Lesnevich and Joe Baksi, all while weighing in just above the light-heavyweight limit. He established himself as the number one contender to the title held by Joe Louis, who retired before facing him but returned only to be savaged by Charles in what remains, to this day, one of the single greatest technical performances ever turned in at the weight. He also became the Champion of the world and staged multiple defenses against strong contenders, but something Charles never succeeded in doing was establishing his credentials as a pre-eminent heavyweight in his own era. 

Like Joe Frazier and Larry Holmes who summited after Muhammad Ali and suffered for it, Charles was not welcomed in the wake of the mighty Louis, and beating his face into a different and less appealing visage brooked no change in that area. I also believe that every bit as much as Gene Tunney before him, Charles suffered as a fighter who used technical brilliance rather than power or violence to establish himself, only Charles lacked the pigmentation and otherworldliness that came with Gene’s exceptional defensive capabilities to make himself a millionaire regardless. Nat Fleischer, writing in 1950, named him “uninspiring” and “primitive” and happily picked Joe Louis in their approaching contest. He was wrong; he and many other spent their entire careers being completely wrong about Ezzard Charles.

It took three attempts but Jersey Joe Walcott eventually got to the Cincinnati Cobra and he began his inevitable slump into mediocrity, but he added to résumé on the way down, gathering himself to outbox a new generation – Cesar Brion, Rex Layne, Tommy Harrison, Billy Gilliam, Bob Satterfield and John Holman, ranked men all.

A past-prime challenge to Rocky Marciano was a bridge too far even for him, but still, even The Rock knew he had been in a fight such was the excellence of the man in the other corner – and there was a brief moment when Charles tottered on the brink of true top-ten immortality as Marciano sought for the new gear that would rescue him from the terrible cut Charles had inflicted upon him; when he found it, Charles would be made to settle for a spot in the top twenty but it is one that he richly deserves.

#16 Wladimir Klitschko (62-3)

The changes Wladimir Klitschko has made to his fighting style since his last loss a full decade ago are astonishing and vastly underappreciated. It may be the single greatest transformation by a mature boxer in the history of the sport.

Aesthetically, it has been displeasing. Only his sometime-status, inarguable upon the occasion of both of Vitali Klitschko’s retirements, as the very best heavyweight in the world has allowed him to thrive in spite of a jab-and-grab style that has all but alienated the American market. Aesthetics are not a factor in determining success however, and success is the core of what makes a fighter great. Despite a chin that has been revealed as vulnerable and despite concerns over stamina and related work-rate, Wladimir has built a style that has made him indisputably the greatest heavyweight post-Lewis. It is his brother, Vitali, who has provided the stiffest competition in this department, but despite the fact that some fans are of the opinion that Vitali would have defeated Wladimir in combat, their careers are not really comparable in terms of competition bested. Here, Wladimir dominates his brother like just another contender.

Firstly, he has established a new lineage, healing a heavyweight title fractured by the ABC caldron to near meaningless in the wake of the departure of Lennox Lewis. A youth to lineal defenses, having only made himself a part of the lineage inhabited by Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis against #2 contender Alexander Povetkin last autumn, he has nevertheless successfully defended one strap or another on twenty-two separate occasions. His domination of top five contenders is outstanding, with Povetkin, David Haye, Chris Byrd and Ruslan Chagaev hardly winning a round between them on the way to painfully one-sided defeats. Byrd is neatly positioned to testify to the changes Wladimir has undergone in the early part of the last decade in an attempt to remedy his habit of losing by devastating knockout. Byrd describes a fighter much changed. “Emanuel Steward really changed him, made him stand up. He uses his height and reach now. He systematically breaks you down with the jab. I got in the ring with him and I was like, man, this isn’t the same guy.”

Emanuel Steward was the chief architect in building the first heavyweight great defined entirely by his weaknesses. It was the greatest work of a great trainer who built a fighter that controls range absolutely in protection of his chin, who controls tempo absolutely in protection of his stamina.  Standing at 6’6 with an 81” reach and a legitimate 245-lb. build, Wladimir is also surprisingly light on his feet, more agile than Lennox Lewis and according to Steward, a harder puncher than Lewis, a feeling shared by Phil Scott, a man whose terrible luck saw him share the ring with both men

Only the lack of a true marquee win keeps Wladimir from the very heights of this list, and continued dominance and increased longevity will without doubt do so anyway, should he obtain them.

#15 Sam Langford (179-30-39; Newspaper Decisions 31-14-16)

Sam Langford was a genius and a monster. That is a genuine rarity, even near the very top of this list. Ali was a genius, but lacked the punching power and aggression to be labelled a monster. Mike Tyson had both of those attributes in deeply wrought spades, but lacked the adaptability and generalship of a thinking fighter. Langford combined what was best of both of them to become an arguably unequalled trapsmith and one of the most devastating punchers to have laced ‘em up pre-Liston.

All this from a fighter standing just 5’7 who was capable of making the middleweight limit into his mid-twenties, and one who did so when matching no less a figure than Jack Johnson. Langford was handled by Johnson, but Johnson was nevertheless impressed, calling Langford “the toughest little son of a bitch who ever lived.”

That quote has taken on a small modicum of fame, but less well known is that Johnson actually agreed to rematch Langford in London for the heavyweight title should he succeed in dethroning Tommy Burns in Australia. It is said, by Langford scholar Clay Moyle, that Johnson signed an agreement stating he would do so in return for the National Sporting Club funding his trip to Sydney and his date with destiny. Triumphant, Johnson suddenly wasn’t so keen to meet with Langford.

“I don’t want to fight that little smoke,” Johnson reportedly told Australian promoter Hugh McIntosh. “He’s got a chance against anyone else in the world. I’m the first black champion and I’m going to be the last.”

Johnson might well have beaten Langford, I would have favored him to do so in 1909, but that is not the point. The point is that Langford inspired fear in his peers every bit as much as Mike Tyson and Sonny Liston did, and that that is now forgotten.

By the time Johnson had lifted the title, Langford was a middleweight no more, and had already began his near-total domination of the two other world-class black heavyweights of his era, men ranked here in the top thirty all-time, Joe Jeannette and Sam McVey. Jeannette named Langford the single greatest fighter of all time and picked him to beat Johnson “any time Johnson would have given him a fight.” Jeannette met both men, multiple times. 

Gunboat Smith, who met both Langford and Dempsey, picked Langford to beat Dempsey at a canter. Harry Wills, who eventually superseded Langford as the dominant black heavyweight, opined that the only way one could be sure of beating Langford was to “hit him from behind with a club and when he turns around in surprise, bust him again…just don’t miss the second shot, that’s all!” All agreed that he was the best puncher that they ever met.

Sam Langford also crushed English champion Iron Hague, Klondike Haynes, Jim Barry, Jim Johnson, Jim Flynn, Jeff Clark, Bill Lang, Stanley Ketchel, Jack O’Brien, Bill Tate, Kid Norfolk, basically anyone who would dare to step into the ring with him and a veritable who’s who of the era. He remains the only man to have knocked out Harry Wills in his fearsome prime, and he went on winning when a near total blindness had overtaken him, feeling his way around the ring against shadows and shades, still able to terminate those savage punches on the tender chins of his opponents. 

The twenties were not kind to him, and fighting, as he did, twenty times a year while partially sighted, it can come as no surprise, but in his prime he can probably be regarded as being as brilliant as the likes of Rocky Mariano and Larry Holmes were in theirs.

Perhaps only Jack Johnson’s stubborn refusal to meet, at any point in his career, his number one contender prevents Langford appearing among the true heavyweight greats.

The True Heavyweight Greats

A top fifteen would have been nice; a top ten even nicer. In the end, by my calculations, there are only fourteen heavies in the history of the ring that are truly deserving of being labelled great. Probably every man on this list had fleeting and wondrous moments of greatness – #100 Luis Firpo dashing a helpless Dempsey from the very ring; #77 David Tua crushing John Ruiz in mere seconds; or more tangible instances such as Hasim Rahman’s glorious and unforgettable moment of towering history at the expense of Lennox Lewis. But the men listed above were consistently great without exhibiting the vulnerability of Wladimir Klitschko or suffering the physical handicaps overcome by Sam Langford. They had everything a great heavyweight needed to be great and with one tragically unresolved instance aside, each was clearly the greatest heavy in the world for an extended period.

In real terms these are the greatest, the most brilliant, the most dangerous many ever to box, symbols of heroism and strength no matter which era they lived in. So little separates them that by my reckoning there is almost nothing to separate them, and just as the man I have chosen to rank at #3 could legitimately be ranked at #14, so the man at #14 could legitimately be ranked at #3, dependent upon perspective and criteria.

This then, is my truth:

#14 Jim Jeffries (19-1-2)

Jim Jeffries retired in 1904 at his absolute peak.

His last fight was against Jack Munroe at a time when Jack Johnson was clearly the outstanding challenger, but it must also be stressed that Jeffries was regarded as being outwith even Johnson’s class; he was widely regarded as the best fighter ever to have pulled on the gloves, a “Goliath” according to The San Francisco Chronicle, “the undisputed champion of all champions.” Both Sam Langford and Bob Fitzsimmons regarded him a man apart and referee Eddie Graney, trainer Billy Delaney and Jim Jeffries himself were of the opinion that Jeffries improved with every fight of his career, culminating in what amounted to a dismissal of Munroe.

Fighting out of a crouch discovered by accident upon being struck by a disabling body punch early in his career, Jeffries was the deluxe pressure fighter of his time, moving his 220 lbs. into range on opponents relentlessly and regardless of the punishment his enemies wrought upon his monolithic frame. Six feet flat, Jeffries was big like nature is big, a sublime sense of inevitability moving in his shadow as he pivoted and stalked his more skillful opponents, getting nearer with each passing round until the ordained collapse occurred.

Such a collapse befell men of the caliber of James J. Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons while a more tortuous long-route was how he dominated Jack Sharkey and Bob Armstrong. Lesser mortals such as Munroe, Jack Finnegan and Pete Everett were dismissed out of hand in short order by a puncher who has become underrated in the department of powers with the passage of the years.

There is little doubt he hit harder than Jack Johnson, for example.

It was Johnson who unmanned Jeffries in the end, coming out of retirement during the former’s absolute prime and absorbing a beating terrible in its humiliation. Karma, perhaps, had the final word here – had Jeffries not insisted upon drawing the color line in 1904 and instead met Johnson he would likely have taken Johnson out six years before Johnson would have had a chance to lay a glove upon him, possibly changing history forever.

As the man once said, it is not in the stars to hold our destiny.

#13 Jack Dempsey (55-6-9; Newspaper Decisions 4-0-2)

Some will read no further than the thirteenth entry in this series; the very sight of “The Manassa Mauler” languishing outside the top ten will be enough to have them tuning out of the remainder. Of all the great heavyweights it is possible that none inspire such a hard-core of hero worship as Dempsey, and I understand why. On film, he is the embodiment of what many people feel boxing should be, aggressive, direct, uncompromising. 

No unthinking savage, Dempsey exhibited tremendous footwork too, the technical ability to move himself out of danger in the unlikely event he met with a more dangerous jungle-cat, and more importantly that worked to bait direct opponents onto his punches. He came by a reputation for heedlessness due to the violence inherent on the film of his destruction of Champion Jess Willard, as hideous a butchery as can be seen in the ring, and certain technical deficiencies anathema to the modern eye, chief among them the lack of a working jab.

Nevertheless, he is Tyson nearly one-hundred years before Tyson, more beloved and nearly as reviled in a career that saw him worshipped as a hero and dismissed as a war-slacker in the same decade, his own journey mirrored in the eyes of a young America which roared out of the Great War and into the twenties. Dempsey fed down-on-their-luck fighters in the kitchen of his mansion and slipped them a few bucks before they left, brutalizing the next generation of down-and-out fighters in sparring the next day. A legend made flesh who ranks here outside the top ten when many people will find his ranking outside the top three unacceptable.

The men Dempsey beat in title fights were a decent bunch, and several of them, Billy Miske (#58), Tommy Gibbons (#69), Willard (#80) and Luis Firpo (#100) made this list – Bill Brennan and Georges Carpentier also had more or less reasonable qualifications to fight for the title, but the problem is that at no time were any of these men the number one contender, nor even the number two.

Harry Greb (#47) thrashed Miske, Gibbons and Brennan in search of a shot with Dempsey and was passed over in favor of his victims, whom he entirely outclassed. More than that, the shadow of Harry Wills looms large in any cohesive telling of the story of Jack Dempsey. I do not doubt that Wills, the other extraordinary heavyweight of Dempsey’s era, was serious when he said he would fight Dempsey for free, but somehow the fight was never made. It is true that the era’s most powerful promoter showed little desire for the contest and it is true that other powerful men did not want to see it, but it is also true Wills was made an early variation on the mandatory when New York banned Dempsey from fighting anyone other than the black heavyweight in that state. When the Champion instead went to Philadelphia to be thrashed by Gene Tunney, it is probable, when combined with Dempsey’s years of inactivity whilst in possession of the title, that avoidance became a duck.

That is arguable, but what is inarguable is that Dempsey’s failure to meet his #1 contender for his entire reign – seven years – takes the shine from the defenses he did make. Prior to lifting the title, he immaculately displayed a breathtaking violence, but often in a low class. A step up, results were more mixed.  He swapped first round knockouts with journeyman Jim Flynn, decisions with obese former flyweight Willie Meehan and boxed a draw with African-American John Lester Johnson, but defeated Carl Morris, Fred Fulton and Gunboat Smith. Perhaps his best win was over the superb Jack Sharkey, who he brutalized between the thrashings he took from Gene Tunney, past his prime and with his savage heart on his sleeve.

Judged upon the things he did do, Dempsey is unarguably great; taken as a whole, I do not think his career locks him into the top ten – even more controversially, I don’t think Dempsey was the best heavyweight of his own era.

#12 Harry Wills (68-9-3; Newspaper Decisions 19-1-3)

One fight Jack Dempsey failed to take that could never be held against him was with Sam Langford. “He’s too good for me right now,” Dempsey is said to have protested. “I need more experience before I take on someone that good.” The year was 1916 and by BoxRec, Dempsey was 19-1-5.

Two years previously Harry Wills stepped into the ring with Sam Langford and boxed a ten-round newspaper draw. BoxRec lists him at 12-1-2 going into that fight. One source has him edging Langford in seven of ten rounds at a time when he had less experience than Dempsey felt he needed to even fight the terrifying “Black Death.” Incredibly, another ten-round draw followed against another elite veteran in Joe Jeannette (#29). Wills then dropped and dominated Willie Meehan, who was about to get into the business of beating Jack Dempsey over four rounds before Langford and Sam McVey (#30) restored the natural dominance of that era’s veterans over its prospects by stopping and outpointing him respectively. 1914 was over. In September of 1915, Wills met and outpointed Sam McVey over twelve rounds; in the following ten years, he lost one fight by disqualification, pulled out of one fight due to a broken wrist, was stopped once by Sam Langford in the nineteenth round and that was it; that was all – the only legitimate loss he suffered was at the hands of the man who Dempsey would duck that same year, of whom he admitted he was terrified. The run was 43-3-1 and only one of the losses was really legitimate. He beat:

Charley Weinert, Luis Firpo, Tut Jackson, Jeff Clark, Bill Tate, Denver Ed Martin, Gunboat Smith, Fred Fulton, Jim Johnson, Sam McVey, Joe Jeannette, Kid Norfolk and John Lester Johnson. He beat many of them on multiple occasions and he beat many of them with great ease, including Firpo who nearly stopped the Champion and John Lester Johnson who boxed a draw with him. Most importantly of all he absolutely mastered Sam Langford, going 5-1 against him for 1915 and 1916.

Many have sought to stress that Langford was getting older at this point and perhaps beginning to creak. I would agree that he was. But I would also point out that the first time Wills beat Langford, he had little more experience than Dempsey had when he ducked him; in other words, Wills, like Dempsey, was improving vastly as a fighter during the series and that this may be the more significant factor.

I do not say that Wills is locked above Dempsey; but I do say that he had greater longevity, defeated better fighters, and that in Langford he dominated a fighter that, although aging, was at least approaching the class of Dempsey, as well as being rather like him in note of danger. For his part, Dempsey never defeated a heavyweight as special as Wills, nor even one as special as Langford – and perhaps not one as special as the aging McVey, or Jeannette for that matter. For these reasons, I prefer Wills over Dempsey here, even though it was Dempsey who held the title.

The fact that they never met in the ring is perhaps boxing’s single greatest failure and had they done so, the victor likely would have ranked as high as #3 here – for the record, I would favor Dempsey.

But I believe history should favor Wills.

#11 Evander Holyfield (44-10-2)

To get it out of the way early thereby explaining my less flattering view of Evander Holyfield’s feted longevity, I do not consider that “The Real Deal” was robbed versus the giant Nikolay Valuev. That controversy was trial by internet, a fact illustrated by the near universal judgement of ringsiders that Valuev was the winner, including Ring magazine which scored the fight against the legendary American. Ring also reported that a straw poll taken by a Swiss magazine found that almost every reporter in attendance agreed – the story goes that Valuev’s jabs, which appeared grazing and limp on film, were more crackling from a few feet away.

By the time of that 2008 Zurich clash, Larry Donald, Sultan Ibragimov, Larry Donald, James Toney and Chris Byrd had already taken advantage of Holyfield’s declining abilities, and he was a fighter for whom the top 1% represented a higher percentage of possible return. To put it more simply, Holyfield’s heart was too big for his body – literally, at one point, though over-hydration and misdiagnosis seems a more likely explanation to the rescindence of the condition that ailed him in the wake of his 1994 loss to Michael Moorer than the faith-healing experience Holyfield claimed to have undergone. 

Taken in tandem with the series loss to Riddick Bowe, the series loss to Lennox Lewis, and the swampy trilogy he fought against John Ruiz paints a picture of inconsistency, but if it is so, let it be known that that inconsistency was born of a love of war. Holyfield went there over and over again and although it was sometimes to his detriment, it was always thrilling.

This was a serious compromise to his generalship and in combination with middling power it should have cost him more than it did, but an iron heart, iron will, superb fluid combination punching, an excellent jab and a mastery of the dark arts spared him. It also brought him dual wins over the fading Mike Tyson in 1996 and 1997, fights Holyfield believed himself born to win, and he treated them with the expected reverence. He never really looked like losing and when Tyson cracked and twice bit him upon the ear in their rematch, the matter was settled forever in his favor.

Holyfield has a superb résumé, stacked with quality from the moment he invaded the division from below against James Tillis, Pinklon Thomas, Michael Dokes, and Alex Stewart before taking the title from James Douglas. Aging versions of George Foreman and Larry Holmes followed, as did Riddick Bowe and Michael Moorer; but it is those dual defeats of Tyson that snaffles him the #11 spot at the expense of the more celebrated Jack Dempsey and Jim Jeffries. His range is 9-14 by my reckoning, but he could give anyone from 1-100 the fight of their lives if they were unlucky enough to fall upon him in the right mood.

The 100 Greatest Heavyweights of All Time Part One: 100-91
The 100 Greatest Heavyweights of All Time Part Two: 90-81
The 100 Greatest Heavyweights of All Time Part Three: 80-71
The 100 Greatest Heavyweights of All Time Part Four: 70-61
The 100 Greatest Heavyweights of All Time Part Five: 60-51
The 100 Greatest Heavyweights of All Time Part Six: 50-41
The 100 Greatest Heavyweights of All Time Part Seven: 40-31
The 100 Greatest Heavyweights of All Time Part Eight: 30-21
The 100 Greatest Heavyweights of All Time Part Nine: 20-11
The 100 Greatest Heavyweights of All Time Part Ten: 10-1

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Ezzard Charles vs Jersey Joe Walcott III

Gene Tunney & James J Corbett Sparring Film, New York 1925

Ingemar Johansson vs Floyd Patterson, II

Ezzard Charles -vs- Bob Satterfield 1954 (Original TV Broadcast)

Wladimir Klitschko vs Alexander Povetkin Full Fight HD

Sam Langford vs. Fireman Jim Flynn III

Jim Jeffries -vs- Gus Ruhlin, San Francisco 11/15/1901 (Rare Film Restoration)

Jack Dempsey and Jess Willard- The Worst Beating in Boxing History - W/ Commentary

Paolino Uzcundon -vs- Harry Wills 1927 (16mm transfer)

TYSON vs HOLYFIELD 1 (Full First Fight) 09 11 1996

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  1. nicolas 02:03pm, 10/15/2014

    I usually try to put greats in thirty year periods since 1892. ERIC makes a good point about Jack Johnson being that sacred cow. However, in those 30 year eras, from 1892 to 1922 or 3, who is the best heavyweight of that period? Now, I generally go from those thirty year periods 4, 3, 2, 1. So considering that, and the belief of the late Nat Fleischer, have Johnson in my top ten. Though I could be way wrong, but then are we to say that no heavyweight from that era deserves to be in the top ten? Perhaps, the late Paul Pender, when interviewed for some book is correct, when he claimed that today (when the book was written in the late 90’s I think) there are 20 middleweights who could have beaten Sugar Ray Robinson, though they could have beaten me as well. Of course let us not forget, that he may have shared the same dislike for Robinson that Basilio did. Please not that my only top ten pick from 22 to 53 for so is Joe Louis, but also I look at the size that the recent heavyweights are. I will be very interested in Mr. McGrain’s final top ten, which I think will be pretty close to mine.

  2. Eric 10:43am, 10/10/2014

    Jack Johnson is another “sacred cow” that needs to be reevaluated. Often times so called “boxing historians” place Johnson automatically in the top 5, and somehow on occasion rank him at number 3. That kind of ranking for someone who largely made their name beating up a tiny Sam Langford, Tommy Burns, Stanley Ketchel, and taking 15 rounds to put away a haggard Jim Jeffries is ridiculous.

  3. The Flea 06:58am, 10/10/2014

    Agree 100% @Springs Toledo

  4. Springs Toledo 06:54am, 10/10/2014

    McGrain’s ranking of Wills over Dempsey is exactly why this series should be read by boxing historians. He makes a powerful case and in so doing has shined what is for some an unwelcome light on a sacred cow. A boxing historian who cannot bring him/herself to question sacred cows is not an historian but an apologist—-and whether or not we agree with the placement is beside the point. As for me, I stand convinced that in terms of “greatness,” Wills deserves to be over Dempsey. However, if this was a H2H list, 1919 Dempsey would have a great case to be over not only Wills but an array of champions as well—-especially the giants.

  5. MikeyB 08:53pm, 10/09/2014

    Wills ahead of Dempsey?  I don’t see it.  Wills was slow, ponderous though powerful.  But that was the kind of guy Dempsey ate for lunch.  Wills had a sloppy wrestling match with Firpo while Dempsey got him out of there in the fourth round, after climbing back into the ring.  You have to have Dempsey ahead of at least Wills on this list.  Anyway great article, love to read it!

  6. tuxtucis 11:21am, 10/06/2014

    @trevor ross: I agree that Jeffries and Dempsey should be from 5 to 10 positions ahead. About Ali no way, if you use a pure career achievement criterion, as the Author does, he must be first. I agree that he lost third match with Norton, that both the fights with Young and Shavers were very very close and that to lose against Spinks is a real shame for anyone. But you have to consider that all those matches were after Manila, when Ali was over the hill. A younger Ali would have done much better.

  7. trevor ross 11:06am, 10/06/2014

    jeffries belongs much higher, dempsey should be 2 or even 1, louis is 1, but dempsey 2, if someone had dempsey 1 i wouldnt argue.  you have to remember that the people who fought dempsey, or watched him fight at the time, they considered him the greatest heavyweight.  ray arcel, who trained most of the opponents of joe Louis, and saw louis fight numerous times, gave the nod to dempsey, max schmeling, who considered dempsey his idol, piled accolades on dempsey.  jack sharkey, who said louis was great, but no one compared to dempsey, no one.  he should be in the top 5 rightly so, but even higher in my estiamtion. he was everything the champion should be, he had it all. and i am a joe louis fan. i suppose ali is going to be #1. its ridiculous. people look at the losses of these other fighters and look for a way to downgrade them, but the guy who lost to leon spinks in his 8th pro fight is going to be #1. norton won at least 2 out of the 3 fights with ali, maybe all three. jimmy young won his fight with ali but they wouldnt give it to him. cooper had to get cheated out of his win and others like evangelista, doug jones, etc. could have went either way, and ali was so great? here we go with the ali worship again.

  8. The Flea 01:56am, 10/06/2014

    I have Wladimir in the top 10, and am often chastised for favouring older fighters over their modern counterparts.

  9. Eric 07:06pm, 10/05/2014

    @Peter, Those old-timers were inhuman when it came to toughness. Just don’t know how someone could be capable of fighting 45 rounds, no matter the shape they are in. I’m sure there had to be lots of rounds with not a lot of action. I read that Jeffries put in 14 miles of roadwork a day while training for Fitzsimmons, sparring 12-16 rounds, along with bag work, rope skipping, wrestling, etc. That kind of workload would kill a Georgia mule. Looking at Jeffries bulky physique, and especially his heavy legs, the 14 miles of roadwork claim is suspect. Hard to imagine someone having the musculature of Jim Jeffries after that kind of running schedule. That kind of schedule would drop someone down to their birth weight. The claim is also that Jeffries would finish that run in 2 hours, which is pathetic if you are a 125lb marathoner, but pretty damn good if you are a 220lb Clydesdale.

  10. tuxtucis 07:53am, 10/05/2014

    @Peter: I’m happy you remembered Carpentier on this thread. He is a forgotten Great, he fought from flies to heavy: He was a French Pacquiao, who today would had collected titles in a dozen of weight classes. Anyway he was never a true heavy (although he was European Champion in this class), so Wills he would have very probably beaten him at weight.

  11. Artem 06:26am, 10/05/2014

    5   names I know !!=)))

    Lennox Lewis

  12. Peter 04:04pm, 10/04/2014

    The Klitchkos are a great new addition to the world of boxing, and their ranking will continue to be reevaluated, but as for right now I would not pick either one of them to beat the true greats, as their size would make them bigger targets instead of fearsome opponents.  These men are giants, but they are cumbersome and awkward, and neither Wlad nor Lennox Lewis’s chins could stand up to the punches of Jeffries, Dempsey, Louis, or Tyson.  Vitali has a very good chin, but I see him unable to keep upwith these smaller but more active opponents. Fighting 45 rounds was not a symbol of laziness nor were the fighters weaker. They were raised hard and lived in a world without antibiotics and sometimes nutrition. They fought and struggled every day of their lives. To them 45 rounds were nothing. Hello peter, I have read your comments as well. Always good to see another bearer of the greatest name in the world

  13. Eric 02:23pm, 10/04/2014

    @tuxtucis: Tyson was short, but he was a solid 216-220lbs in his prime. Still, Tyson always had trouble with tall men. His most difficult fights before prison were all with taller men like Douglas, Smith, Tillis, Tucker, and even Bruno troubled him somewhat. And we all saw what Lewis did to a past prime Mike. None of those guys are in the same league with either Klit brother, with the exception of Lewis.  I can easily see either Klit beating up Mike in a prime vs prime matchup. I can see the Klits beating Ali & Louis, especially Louis, in a head to head matchup, but for historical purposes, and overall talent, I rate Ali & Louis higher.

    @Irish… teehee. Unfortunately you’re probably right. We all long for the good old days, but you are absolutely right. Not only can’t the 1950 Browns compete in today’s NFL, but neither could the ‘70’s Steelers, the 80’s 49ers, or even the ‘90’s Cowboys. The famed Packers of the ‘60’s would probably struggle in Divison II college football.

  14. The Long Count 12:42pm, 10/04/2014

    So Sonny Liston cracks the top 10 but James J. Jeffries does not. I guess beating James J Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons and number 1 contender Tom Sharkey all two times apiece doesn’t match taking out Zora Folley, Eddie Machen and Floyd Patterson. Nor does coming out of a six year retirement and absorbing a tremendous beating in blazing heat while trying to win match two quit jobs against the best opponent Sonny faced.

  15. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 12:35pm, 10/04/2014

    You’re right I don’t know shit about fighters from a hundred years ago other than written accounts and grainy films…..but I do know a little about fighters going back 65 years or so because during that time period and forward I was of an age that I actually could conceptualize what was going on inside that ring…. for the most part aided by my own eyes and common sense. As far as the fighters from the Thirties and earlier I guess you could say that my impression of that time can best be capsulated by the ring announcer who introduced Joe Louis for one of his fights as the fighter who “revolutionized boxing” which from what I had discerned from the boxing film history of the time I took to mean that Joe was the first heavyweight who consistently kept his chin down and his guard up. Accordingly my top ten ATG Heavyweights for the last half century or so goes something like this:
    (1) Vitali Klitschko
    (2) Wladimir Klitschko
    (3) Lennox Lewis
    (4) Muhammad Ali
    (5) George Foreman
    (6) Evander Holyfield
    (7) Mike Tyson
    (8) Joe Frazier
    (9) Larry Holmes
    (10) Sonny Liston

  16. tuxtucis 11:10am, 10/04/2014

    @Irish Frankie Crawford: and today Saint Kitts and Nevis army would easily destroy Alexander the Great army…I’m shocked by Your lack of historical sense…Here we’re not talking about the strongest heavies, but about the GREATEST heavies…So you must consider How much a fighter was great in his era…and anyway, I see 5’10 Tyson easily destroy 6’6 Wlad, at least the pre-Steward one…

  17. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:58am, 10/04/2014

    @Eric-2014 Super Bowl Champs Seattle Sea Hawks 100 to 0 over the 1950 NFL Champs Cleveland Browns and the 2014 NBA Champs San Antonio Spurs 175 to 25 over the 1950 NBA Champs Minneapolis Lakers….tell me where I went wrong.

  18. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:44am, 10/04/2014

    If Wladimir hit either Greb or Corbett in the chest with a solid jab it would literally cause cardiac arrest….there are in fact names on this list that would pose a great threat to the Klitschkos….that is… a great threat of them being charged with manslaughter if they ever engaged in physical combat inside the ring.

  19. Eric 09:38am, 10/04/2014

    Irish… I saw a couple of photos with Marvin Hagler standing next to Vitali,  one where the Marvelous One was standing on a chair next to the giant 6’7” Klitschko. The 5’9” Hagler looked like a midget next to the large Ukrainian. You really get an idea of how absurd a match it would be for someone like a Tommy Burns or a Sam Langford to tackle one of these large supersized heavies. Asking a helluva a lot for someone under 6’2” and under 220lbs to take on one of these mobile, athletic giants.

  20. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 08:37am, 10/04/2014

    Christ Almighty! I was trying…..good God Almighty I was trying…. but this is too much….this is beyond the pale…..this is so much horseshit….5’5” Sam Langford would not….repeat…..would not…. land a single solitary punch on 6’7” Wladimir before his munchkin ass was sent cannon balling across and clean out of the ring by the first solid right hand landed by Klitschko!

  21. Matt McGrain 04:28am, 10/04/2014

    Thanks man, yeah I figured that wasn’t you, different vibes and all.

  22. peter 04:14am, 10/04/2014

    Excellent list, Mr. McGrain. And well substantiated. I look forward to reading the Top Ten, but I’ll be saddened that this contentious fistic journey will finally end. (NB. I see there is another “Peter” commenting on The more the merrier, but don’t confuse him with me!)

  23. Jethro's Flute 06:37pm, 10/03/2014

    “Defend the LEGITIMATE HW title a bunch of times as opposed to meaningless belts”.

    He is the legitimate title-holder and has been for years.

    Anyone who watches with their eyes can tell that.

  24. Jethro's Flute 06:33pm, 10/03/2014

    Eric is right. Corbett was barely over light-heavyweight and Sam Langford?

    Talking about dewy-eyed myth-making.

  25. Jethro's Flute 06:32pm, 10/03/2014

    “Men of that era regularly fought 45 rounds, trained religiously, and had to both take and give terrific punishment”.

    It must have been a rubbish era then.

    The human body cannot withstand great punishment over many rounds and many fights.

    If men fought 45 rounds, the era must have been packed with useless fighters.

  26. nicolas 05:30pm, 10/03/2014

    I take anything that Gene Tunney would have said with a grain of salt. This man I believe never even stepped into the Ring with a black fighter, and according to Max Schmelling, did not even spar with them. Supposedly he wanted to fight Wills, but Wills declined, though there has been some speculation if this is true.  However, George Godfrey was offered, and Tunney declined. Also during the 30’s, he was very critical of the skills of Joe Louis. it is a wonder that his Son John Tunney, the former senator of California was a liberal. To bad no one has interviewed him about his father, the only thing I remember he said once was that his father did not want them to become boxers. Ray Arcel says of course the same thing, but is it possible that Wills was somewhat holding a little back. Also finally, having been involved in the Jonson-Jeffries contest, and the racial riots that came after, it was believed that Rickard did not want anything like that to happen again. Was he afraid that Dempsey might lose? or was he concerned also that blacks might riot, which did happen when Joe Louis lost to Schmeling the first time.

  27. Matt McGrain 03:33pm, 10/03/2014

    Yeah, I have Khan’s book. 
    I thought it was very one-sided on sources.  There was nothing about the speculation that Wills would be Dempsey’s FIRST defence, and he outright implies that the reason Dempsey was banned - BANNED -in New York was because of corruption without producing any evidence at all in support of that notion.
    The book is strong on Dempsey, but very weak on Wills IMO, and if he tried to say the Firpo fight hurt him (can’t remember) that’s inaccurate.  Even the Tate fiasco didn’t hurt him.  Wills-Dempsey was on the lips of writers even that week.
    I’d be shocked if Dempsey could take him in two rounds given that Langford needed 19, but you never know.  Either way, that’s speculation.

  28. Peter 03:14pm, 10/03/2014

    Read Roger Kahn’s book on Dempsey, it puts to rest the Wills greatness myth. The Fight Film Collector also talks about this at length in its Wills footage restoration. The Milwaukee Journal and well as the New York Times and Daily American called him slow, telegraphing his punches, and that large stretches of the fight he would wrestle with Firpo instead of punch. This is the one characteristic that most defines Wills: a standup wrestler. From Ray Arcel to Gene Tunney all commented on how Wills liked to hold and wrestle his opponents. If he did that against Dempsey he would be out of there inside of two rounds.

  29. nicolas 03:02pm, 10/03/2014

    Peter, I agree somewhat with your assessment of Jeffries. I do think he was top twenty, and I have him ahead of Dempsey. Had he defended his title against Johnson in let us say 1905, he probably would have won, though historians would perhaps argue that there is question if it was justified, as was the Hart victory over Johnson. Certainly I think he would have fared far better than Hart, and to have this fight some six years after he retired was just a grave deserve to him. He should have fought first the best active heavyweight before going against Johnson, just to get an idea on his chances. As for the Johnson praise of Jeffries, I would point out that he probably said that because he wanted to be later in life more accepted by the establishment. Look at the disdain he showed towards Wills, and later on Louis. His later years in someway do remind me of Ali now, as he seems also to be trying to become just like the mainstream, as the mainstream has also tried to become more like him.

  30. Peter 02:46pm, 10/03/2014

    I also think ranking Jim Jeffries so low is sad too. Too many people treat Jeffries as an afterthought, that he fought in an era of slow lugheads who was destroyed by Jack Johnson. This is just not the case. Men of that era regularly fought 45 rounds, trained religiously, and had to both take and give terrific punishment. Jeffries defeated in his era a true Murderer’s Row of fighters (Corbett, Fitzsimmons, Sharkey) that would have dominated many other eras. Sharkey-Jeffries II was considered the best fight ever for generations. What perhaps speaks to his ability best is that his only conqueror, Jack Johnson, called him the greatest heavyweight ever. That is strong praise indeed.

  31. Matt McGrain 02:36pm, 10/03/2014

    I can’t agree with that Peter.  I would like to know what the idea that Firpo-Wills hurt Wills comes from?  It’s pretty clear that Wills won almost every round, he “took almost every round…floored his opponent…led all the way” according to the QD Telegraph.” 
    Meanwhile, chatter on a HW fight between Wills and Firpo in 1925 was never hotter - that is the year with most newspaper reports speculating on the fight.  Wills domination of Firpo enhanced his standing as far as I can see - but it’s neither here nor there for the rankings, that fact. 
    If there’s proof to the contrary i’d legitimately love to read it.

  32. nicolas 02:32pm, 10/03/2014

    Jack Dempsey reminds me of that famous line from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, When the facts contradict the legend, print the legend. Dempsey I feel has had his greatness increased because of the famous million dollar gates that he had. the follow up to it, I would suggest that the Dempsey-Carpentier fight is one of the ten most important heavyweight fights in history. While I think that criticism of Larry Holmes by Eric and Clarence I certainly warranted, why do they not hold Jack Dempsey to that same standard? Holmes, I felt was a great fighter but a terrible champion in the title defenses he did make. that he never gave Witherspoon a rematch was not right, and his behavior after losing to Michael Spinks, and the stupid behavior he exhibited even in his older age with Trevor Berbick showed his character, I was so happy when Mike Tyson knocked him out. But if Holmes was a terrible champion, certainly Dempsey was far worse. Gave Billy Miske a title shot, though he was bested not long before by both Kid Norfolk (at heavyweight I should add), and Harry Greb. Bill Brennan as well known also got bested by Greb. Dempsey even when he was considered one of the greats was reported to have said when it was thought if Gerb should fight him for his title, responded, “no thanks”. While there was controversy of his win over Willard because of the Doc Kearns allegations, I think these charges might also have been brought out before, Basically a one punch knockout over Fulton for me right now is a little suspicious, and there is I think some rumor that Morris might have decided to take something of a dive. this is not to say that he would have not beaten these two men, but the manner that the fights ends makes you wonder. We are often told that fighters back then had to fight the fighters they were told to go into the ring with, yet Dempsey in 1916, not long before he became champ refused to fight Langford. he was also at one time later in his career challenged by Joe Jeannette, then 39, but refused. I wonder if his fight with John Lester Johnson, not necessarily one of the great black fighters of the time, but a fighter I think Dempsey admitted was extremely tough helped to further draw the color line, yet made him realize that having black sparring partners might make him a better fighter. Of course the contracts with Harry Wills were signed, but isn’t it interesting that while the check that Dempsey received bounced, Will’s did not, and he went on to have a much more successful financial life than some of his other black compatriots from the boxing world. Finally Dempsey’s trainer, a Mr. Hayes I believe was quoted as saying that they made sure that they matched Dempsey very carefully. Did he perhaps have later on a grudge against Jack, perhaps, I don’t know. Finally was Jack Dempsey a great fighter, I think so, I mean modern boxing, if traced from the Corbett-Sullivan contest has gone on for some time, so unlike the idea there are really only so many great fighters, I would say there are far more greater fighters, and I disagreed with Matt when he did not place Dempsey in his top 100 fighters pound for pound. But I also would not have Dempsey as high as Mat has him, I would say more like top 30.

  33. Peter 02:23pm, 10/03/2014

    I agree that 13 and 14 has spoiled my appetite to this list. To put Dempsey so low and behind Wills is just shocking. The 6 men Dempsey faced before Tunney were all greats, most of them are the in the Hall of Fame. His dominance of them shows how great he truly was. Also, Wills was never a great fighter. I have said this before on this website and I will say it again: the black heavyweights of the 20’s were not the equal of their white counterparts. Roger Kahn himself noted that revisionist history has raised the abilities of Harry Wills and lowered those of Georges Carpentier. If Carpentier had fought Wills in 1921 before fighting Dempsey he would have beaten him.    Wills fight with Firpo was so bad that it actually hurt Wills’s chances of fighting Dempsey, as he looked so weak and soft it seemed beneath the champion’s level. Dempsey was eager to fight him, signed on multiple occasions, but money and the culture of the times stopped it. I assume 1 and 2 will be between Louis and Ali, but really Dempsey should be included in that conversation

  34. Matt McGrain 12:38pm, 10/03/2014

    No, I got my Dempsey victims mixed up, Gibbons with Miske!  Miske boxed a draw with Dempsey but got thrashed by Norfolk who in turn was stopped by Wills.

  35. ch. 12:13pm, 10/03/2014

    Talk about revisionist history, McGrain. I thought Tommy Gibbons gave Kid Norfolk a real beating before finishing the Kid in the 6th round. Could you have been referring to Harry Greb vs. Kid Norfolk ?

  36. Matt McGrain 11:36am, 10/03/2014

    Tuxt: you read.  You read what’s written.  You can object to whatever you like on that basis.  You earn it.  And as you’d expect, i’ll disagree with your disagreements!

  37. tuxtucis 11:32am, 10/03/2014

    I recognize in you a great coherence between your criteria and your ranking, although on that basis I can occasionally disagree (I think Jeffries resumee would deserve him a comfortable top 10, I would think Holyfield has for sure a better resumee than Tyson).

  38. tuxtucis 11:26am, 10/03/2014

    I agree Wills has far better victories than Dempsey, no way. The problem for me is that while I prefer to rank boxers of different ages on career resumee, it’s impossible for me to not rank boxers of the same era on the basis of ideal match-up. So I would rate Jeffries ahead of the Klitschkos cause he has for sure better victories but I would rate Dempsey ahead of Wills, cause I feel sure he would have won the match-up. It’s incoherent, but that is…

  39. Matt McGrain 11:07am, 10/03/2014

    Not that those readership problems aren’t welcome - fun to read the different opinions.  You do start getting a “lofty” sensation of your own opinion after a research program like this though and I admit it needs to be watched.
    @TUXT - that’s the best reason.  But it is interesting that people think that.  In Langford, Wills had experience against the best foil for Dempsey available in that time and maybe all time in Langford.  Dempsey, he didn’t really foil Wills.  That never happened.
    However, I would have to concede that Dempsey looked sensational on film at his best. Not sure I understand your point about Wills resume though?  It’s inarguably better than Dempsey’s as far as I can see.  Norfolk thrashes Gibbons, Wills thrashes Norfolk by quick KO and then Dempsey is extended the fifteen by Gibbons.  On and on it goes.

  40. Matt McGrain 11:01am, 10/03/2014

    It’s interesting though, isn’t it?  Adam Berlin in his post below has Larry as #1 - his #1 heavyweight of all, above Ali, Louis, all of them - and we have others saying he shouldn’t be in the top 14.  I’m sure everyone who thinks Holmes isn’t great would be willing to concede that Adam knows boxing, and i know that Adam will know a few of the names saying he doesn’t belong full stop.  The divisions HW creates are unique…I bet I don’t have this readership problem wat MW, WW etc.!

  41. tuxtucis 10:07am, 10/03/2014

    To judge Holmes ranking is better maybe to wait where it will be in top 10. Anyway McGrain for sure lacks not coherence: if you rank boxers only on career, no way Wills had better victories than Dempsey. The problem is that for me is very difficult to rank boxers who fought in the same era only on career. I feel sure Dempsey would have easily beaten Wills, that’s why I would rate him much higher.

  42. Eric 08:47am, 10/03/2014

    Clarence: Not to mention that Holmes was the first heavyweight to lose his crown to a light heavyweight champ.

  43. Clarence George 07:50am, 10/03/2014

    Eric:  I don’t agree with you on Johnson (as well as some other heavyweights), but you really hit the nail on the head with Holmes.  Considering him one of the great heavies is completely incomprehensible to me.

  44. Eric 07:30am, 10/03/2014

    Larry Holmes has no business in the top 10. During the time Holmes ruled the roost, the heavyweight division was abysmal. Holmes feasted on fighters like Kevin Isaac, Leon Shaw, and Sanford Houpe, before taking on an aging, one dimensional, Earnie Shavers for the first time in 1978. In fact the only somewhat competitive fighter that Holmes faced before Shavers, was the sometime fringe contender, Roy Williams. Holmes struggled with a past his prime Ken Norton, in a fight that many that Norton won, to capture the non-linear WBC title. Here are some of Holmes’s earlier title defenses, names like Alfredo Evangelista, Ossie Ocasio, Lorenzo Zanon, Leroy Jones, Scott Ledoux, a totally washed up Ali, Trevor Berbick and Leon Spinks. After Spinks, Holmes was nearly stopped by unheralded Renaldo Snipes, in a fight that many thought was stopped too soon, depriving Snipes of a shot at maybe pulling off an upset. Other Holmes title defenses include names like Randall Cobb, Lucien Rodriguez, Scott Frank, Marvis Frazier, David Bey. I don’t think anyone would classify any of those fighters as elite heavyweights. Holmes struggled with most of the competitive fighters he faced. He was floored by an ancient, creaky, Shavers in their rematch, caught hell from the then unknown Weaver, won controversial decisions over Williams and Witherspoon, and even had trouble with James Smith. Only Jack Johnson is more overrated than Larry Holmes.

  45. Matt McGrain 05:07am, 10/03/2014

    Yeah, I think that IS a cop out Magoon.  What you just said is that Dempsey is greater because he is more famous.  I want to stress to you that I do NOT think what you just said was racist, racially insensitive or anything of that ilk, at all - but the reason Wills never fought for that title is because he was black.  The reason he was not more famous than Dempsey may BE because he was black.  But then again, maybe he would just have been another opponent.
    I will take resume consistency and dominance over fame any day.  I have absolutely no interest in how famous a fighter was, none.  It doesn’t matter at all…I think the ONLY reason to rank Dempsey above Wills is head-to-head, is because you think Dempsey would beat Wills.  With no footage of Wills at his best, this is difficult.
    Still, I respect your anteing up and defending Jack.  It’s more than anyone else has done so far in this thread!

  46. Magoon 04:39am, 10/03/2014

    I’m not sure boxers can be distilled that way ... not exclusively that way.

    What’s the difference between a beautiful woman and a plain one? A matter of inches. (That’s not an original thought, but I can’t remember who said it.) What’s the difference between a great boxer (Dempsey) and a near-great one (Wills)? Again, inches.

    People who think a boxer is a dog breed know the name Dempsey; they don’t know the name Wills. Why? Because Dempsey was the better boxer? He was, but that’s not the reason. You ask, “what is the possible reason for Dempsey ranking higher?” Because he was Dempsey. Jack Dempsey. Is that a cop-out? I don’t think so. Dempsey - like Louis, Marciano and Ali - symbolized the sport for his era ... and transcended both sport and era. Maybe the why of it can’t be quite pinned down, but that doesn’t make it any less true. And I think that that resounding impact should be brought into the equation. I think it needs to be. But it’s your list, not mine.

  47. Matt McGrain 03:52am, 10/03/2014

    I like the idea of Langford being much higher.
    Magoon, i’m dying for someone to talk to me about this, nobody will do it.  You’ve said Dempsey should be much higher, and Wills should be much lower.  I’ll direct you towards my last paragraph on Wills:
    “I do not say that Wills is locked above Dempsey; but I do say that he had greater longevity, defeated better fighters, and that in Langford he dominated a fighter that, although aging, was at least approaching the class of Dempsey, as well as being rather like him in note of danger. For his part, Dempsey never defeated a heavyweight as special as Wills, nor even one as special as Langford – and perhaps not one as special as the aging McVey, or Jeannette for that matter.”
    So - Wills beat better guys, Wills was a top fighter for a longer period, Wills has fewer prime losses - so I have to ask you, what is the possible reason for Dempsey ranking higher?

  48. Magoon 03:41am, 10/03/2014

    My take on Mr. McGrain’s selections, in order:

    Walcott ... bit higher
    Corbett ... much higher
    Patterson ... bit lower
    Charles ... bit higher
    Klitschko ... much lower
    Langford ... much higher
    Jeffries ... exactly right
    Dempsey ... MUCH higher
    Wills ... much lower
    Holyfield ... much lower

  49. tuxtucis 03:28am, 10/03/2014

    I simply had impression that in Your ranking losses are not so important. I give losses maybe more importance than victories. For me Patterson 4 stoppages in His prime exclude him from top 20, and the fact the only Jeffries loss was 6 years after retirement, put him in top 10. But obviously that’s MY truth.

  50. Matt McGrain 03:17am, 10/03/2014

    Adam - I thank you, that’s high praise indeed.
    Tuxt - losses are considered in great detail. The impact of losses upon the career’s of James Jeffries, Wladimir Klitschko, Sam Langford, Harry Wills, Jack Dempsey and Floyd Patterson are all considered above in great detail; I don’t understand the remark to be honest.

  51. tuxtucis 09:52pm, 10/02/2014

    @Eric: you said…Louis was stopped when he was young by an expert Schmeling (n.21) here…Wlad was stopped about same age by Ross Puritty (!), and again by the likes of Sanders and Brewster (not Marciano)..that’s why he will never be in top 10.
    @McGrain: why in your ranking you don’t consider losses? Not only wins make a career…

  52. Adam Berlin 05:13pm, 10/02/2014

    Matt, what an impressive compilation.  And what a tremendous amount of work.  I hope you’re shopping this around to a book publisher.  Your definition of great, such an overused superlative, puts the top fourteen in perfect context without diminishing the value of the word.  Your write-ups of the first four greats highlight the tangibles as well as that intangible residue, which is such an important part of greatness.  So your “truth” feels well-earned.  I look forward to the final installment and hope, beyond hope, that Larry Holmes gets the number 1 spot (that’s my truth) even though I know he won’t.  Your truth rules here.  Kudos on this series of articles.

  53. ch. 04:48pm, 10/02/2014

    nicolas, I think Godfrey was the most “handcuffed” fighter in history and Wills wanted no part of him, no matter how large the purse. I think he (Wills) felt he long earned the shot at Dempsey and he wasn’t going to risk it against Godfrey. Being the most “handcuffed” fighter does not necessarily mean that he was best of that era, only the most dangerous and feared without the handcuffs. We had long discussions with Baron Dougherty’s son Howard, who promoted fights for many years at Leiperville, and who drove Godfrey across country and he told of some of the concessions Godfrey had to make were outrageous and even tragic…...

  54. Matt McGrain 03:48pm, 10/02/2014

    Yeah, KTFO by better fighters, fewer times.
    Wlad was only KTFO in his prime years. But at his PEAK he was not.  It’s important that he isn’t in his championship years, I feel.  Retiring might get him in, alone.
    But I reject the notion that he is a top ten lock at this time.  He doesn’t have the scalps.

  55. Eric 03:45pm, 10/02/2014

    Almost everyone in the top 10 was KTFO. Joe Louis is rated by many as the greatest heavyweight of all time, and he was KTFO twice, once in his prime by an aging Schmeling.

  56. Eric 03:37pm, 10/02/2014

    Dempsey would’ve taken Bowe. Tyson would’ve probably blitzed Dempsey in a couple of rounds though. Styles make fights, and Dempsey’s style wouldn’t fare well against Tyson.

  57. Matt McGrain 03:37pm, 10/02/2014

    “What does Wlad have to do?”
    This is a very good question.  I’d submit the following as an answer:
    Beat an incumbent HW champion.
    Beat more top five ranked HW champion (he’s currently beaten only a tiny handful)
    Defend the LEGITIMATE HW title a bunch of times as opposed to meaningless belts.
    But mainly, box a few more years without getting KTFO would get him into the ten.  If he gets KTFO again…trouble.

  58. Eric 03:33pm, 10/02/2014

    @Darrell, How in the hell can Wlad not be a top 10 heavyweight. Hell, he could arguably be rated in the top 3. A 6’6” 245lb heavyweight who has made 21 successful title defenses, and held the title longer than any other champion with the exception of Joe Louis. Not to mention, an AWESOME RECORD of 62-3, with 52 knockouts. What does this guy have to do to get any recognition??????????

  59. Matt McGrain 03:30pm, 10/02/2014

    The question isn’t whether Tyson and Bowe compare to Dempsey - - the question is who did Dempsey BEAT that compares to them…Holyfield BEAT both of these men…what competition did Dempsey defeat that comes close?What Dempsey competition comes anywhere near?  Because these are the quality of fighters that Holyfield beat.

  60. Darrell 03:29pm, 10/02/2014

    This is totally wrong, Wlad is a top tenner…..easily!!  And an ATG, not just for heavyweight either.  Agree with Eric entirely.

  61. Clarence George 03:27pm, 10/02/2014

    The question wasn’t necessarily directed at me, but that won’t stop me from answering it.

    Assuming for the sake of argument that Tyson and Bowe faced more impressive opposition than did Dempsey…and?  I don’t disregard quality of opposition as a valid criterion, but it’s not the only one.  Anyway, it shouldn’t be.  There’s more to a boxer than whom he’s faced—much more.  I’ll add, though it should hardly be necessary, that Dempsey is superior to Tyson and incomparably superior to Bowe.

  62. nicolas 03:18pm, 10/02/2014

    CH: Thanks for the information about Wills and Godfrey. I myself think that Godfrey was a far greater fighter than many give him credit for. Sadly, as a black fighter, he never got the opportunity to fight for a world title, though he was recognized at a time as the IBU World Heavyweight champ. It is also noted that many of his fights were fixed, for him to lose.

  63. GlennR 03:18pm, 10/02/2014

    You forget his fights with L Louis as well Matt

  64. Matt McGrain 03:15pm, 10/02/2014

    Here’s a question: what wins does Dempsey have that compare with prime Riddick Bowe and post-prime Mike Tyson?  What wins does he have approaching these in quality even marginally?  IN a heavyweight sense?

  65. GlennR 03:04pm, 10/02/2014

    Well we agree Clarence, i wouldn’t have Dempsey in the same sentence as Holyfield either…...... but for opposing reasons i think!

  66. Matt McGrain 02:57pm, 10/02/2014

    Yep, I read you on that Clarence buddy, i’ll re-address:
    The idea that 3-14 can be interchangeable relative to criteria is demonstrated by the fact that people picking purely on head to head criteria would have to consider each man listed but might come up with something very different but still valid.  A size-queen might find Marciano at #14, but given Marciano’s achievements could he drag him lower?  The same man might find room for Wladimir, but could he remove Jeffries or just lose him, and if he did so would it be based upon era-era comparison or achievement?  The former is reasonable, the later, ridiculous.  It is a nod to the complexities of the issues, which i feel qualified to comment on and which are close to infinite once you consider about 18 fighters.
    Hence, “this is my truth.”
    The search for the objective - whether it is criteria or placement - never ends, certainly not in the face of great difficulty.

  67. Clarence George 02:57pm, 10/02/2014

    Ha!  No booing, Glenn, but I never thought I’d live to see the day where Holyfield is mentioned in the same sentence as Dempsey.

  68. Clarence George 02:52pm, 10/02/2014

    Matt:  While I stand by what I wrote, either you misunderstood or I wasn’t clear about the reference to “unalloyed subjectivity.”  I didn’t at all mean that your criteria come down to subjectivity, unalloyed or otherwise.  Rather, I was commenting on the vagueness of distinguishing, or not, between #3 and #14 “dependent upon perspective and criteria.”  Isn’t that just another way of saying subjectivity?  Perhaps it’s the use of the word “perspective” that I find troubling.  Surely distinguishing between 3rd and 14th place comes down to something more specific and concrete than “perspective,” which is a fancy way of saying, “My gut tells me…”  And another thing:  I said your low ranking of Dempsey is bizarre, not your “work.”  That would be painting with too broad a brush.

    I do not take your response personally, and I’m neither offended nor upset—I have the hide of a good-natured rhinoceros.  I hope you feel the same way, me auld warrior.  I’m not always diplomatic (OK, never), but I’m never mean-spirited.

  69. GlennR 02:46pm, 10/02/2014

    With you on your rating of Dempsey Matt, you can boo now Clarence ;), he just doesnt have the resume of all of the above fighters and, in his moment to shine, was twice easily outboxed buy some guy called Tunney.
    If you can compare his resume to Holyfields, for example, they arent even close.
    I like this selection, Wills i didnt see coming and i think Patterson is just about right.
    Looking forward to the final installment

  70. Matt McGrain 02:08pm, 10/02/2014

    Firstly, the notion of “100 Greatest” has been explained to you in an early part.  Just as a weak horse will have some modicum of strength, or some middling may have some modicum of wonderment, so a non-great fighter will have a modicum of greatness. The term “greatness” is meant to identify a specific type of quality identified throughout the series, most especially in part one where criteria are outlined in detail (though this is expanded upon throughout in introductions and the comments section).
    Theses criteria most especially are NOT “unalloyed subjectivity”.  If you believe that,  I would expect you to engage with those criteria, and their conclusions, rather than level that accusation without any sensible contribution whatsoever.  I would expect that as a minimum of respect both as a fellow writer, and a fellow contributor.
    You seem especially upset at the low ranking of Dempsey; I believe this ranking has been justified, entirely, in detail, in writing.  But you have not engaged that detail, or that writing, despite taking the time to label my work bizarre and stating finally what you would specifically what you would argue…without bothering to argue it.
    My argument is plain, to be seen, and in its detail i believe irrefutable, at least as a reasoned position - that is my stated position.  If you care to challenge it in writing I would be grateful to receive you and enjoy rebutting your position.
    Finally, let me say, I quite like you in spite of that post and you shouldn’t take any of the above personally.

  71. Eric 02:06pm, 10/02/2014

    Gave the 10 spot to Marciano over Holyfield. Super close.

  72. Eric 02:02pm, 10/02/2014

    1. Ali
    2. Louis
    3. Liston
    4. Foreman
    5. W. Klitschko
    6. V. Klitschko
    7. Tyson
    8. Lewis
    9. Dempsey
    10. Marciano

  73. FrankinDallas 01:53pm, 10/02/2014

    So Tye Fields will be in the top ten?

  74. Eric 01:37pm, 10/02/2014

    I think that was the lowest I’ve ever seen Dempsey ranked on any list of all time heavyweights. I have never seen Dempsey not ranked in the top 10 and often he’s in the top 5. So the top ten comes down to Ali, Louis, Jack Johnson, Marciano, Frazier, Foreman, Lennox Lewis, Tyson, Holmes and Liston. Good to see Liston make the top 10. I would rank Liston in the top 5 easily. Sonny has got to be one of the most underrated heavyweights of all time.

  75. tuxtucis 01:19pm, 10/02/2014

    Very interesting. although the only thing I agree is the fact that the boxers between 2 and 14 (the same of mine except Harry Wills) are very very close.
    I disagree on many things:
    - I would rank Schmeling ahead of Charles and Walcott cause he won far better version of Louis than the two black men (I think walcott won clearly first bout, for what I can see on film).
    - Corbett has only 11 win on 18 matches, few to be ranked in top 20
    - Patterson does not deserve to be in top 20; here finally I understand why I disagree with McGrain fundamental statement. For his ranking he does not consider fantasy match-up, but only career resumee. The problem is that for career resumee he means only win. Bur career resumee, at my advice, means losses too. Patterson is the only fighter in this top 20 who wa stopped 4 times in his prime; by Liston was not simply defeated but pulverized.
    - If the ranking is based on win, how is possible that Jeffries is only 14, when he is 8-1-2 with boxers in McGrain top 100 (5-1 with fighters in top 30 and 7-1 with fighters in top 40, with the only loss 6 years after retirement)?. You have even to consider that his only loss was 6 years after retirement.
    - If the ranking is based on victories in career how is possible too that Holyfield is not in top 10 while Tyson will be?

  76. Clarence George 01:10pm, 10/02/2014

    “A top fifteen would have been nice; a top ten even nicer.  In the end, by my calculations, there are only fourteen heavies in the history of the ring that are truly deserving of being labelled great.”  I largely agree, but that brings into question the entire premise and purpose of the series.

    “So little separates them that by my reckoning there is almost nothing to separate them, and just as the man I have chosen to rank at #3 could legitimately be ranked at #14, so the man at #14 could legitimately be ranked at #3, dependent upon perspective and criteria.”  What perspective?  What criteria?  Unalloyed subjectivity, perhaps.  An insignificant difference between #3 and #4, I agree, but the distinction between #3 and #14 must be inherently significant.  If it isn’t, then the very attempt to distinguish among these men brings whole new meaning to meaninglessness.

    I disagree with a lot (though not all) that’s here, but the one that sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb is Dempsey at #13.  I’ll understand physics before wrapping my mind around such a bizarrely low rating.  Dempsey is at least among the top 10…top five, I would argue.

  77. nicolas 12:04pm, 10/02/2014

    Wow, I think Mr. McGrain and I will almost have identical top tens, I believe that he will have Rocky Marciano here in the top ten, where I would have him i the top twenty, while I would replace Marciano with Holyfield, who he has at number eleven.

  78. ch. 11:39am, 10/02/2014

    I recognize Harry Wills as being one of the greatest of all the heavyweights. I just have a problem that for 3 years he ducked a match with George Godfrey, a fight that would have brought Wills the largest payday of his career. Baron Dougherty, manager of “Big Gawge” Godfrey, challenged Wills almost daily from late 1923 thru 1926. Dougherty offered Wills’ management many wide reaching incentives including their choice of terms in purse division if they would consent to a fight with Godfrey…..
    Philly promoters Taylor + Gunnis pursued the match stating that it would easily do a quarter of a million dollars in the Quaker City where Godfrey was a huge attraction. Even Rickard tried to arrange the bout for New York to “decide the leading Negro title challenger.” Also California promoters were interested in staging this fight because Godfrey had become a sensational drawing card in Los Angeles and San Francisco. But Wills’ management still ignored and refused all the proposals…....
    The sportswriters across the nation pressed the issue but got no response. Even the dean of America’s black sportswriters, Rollo Wilson, claimed that Wills was ducking Godfrey and predicted Wills would lose this match-up, with the “handcuffs off” Godfrey…..A new book out “The Baron Of Leiperville” by Rich Pagano,  addresses this whole episode.

  79. Eric 10:55am, 10/02/2014

    Holyfield and Klitschkos are top 10. A 180lb Corbett and a 5’7” Langford in the top 20 of all time heavyweights? Harry Wills at 12?

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