Top Ten Heavyweight Champions
Let us set aside the present and recall the days of more gifted and charismatic champions. Here are the ten best heavyweights of all time…
For a century heavyweight boxing champions were the kings of sports, the baddest men on earth and celebrities of the first rank. In the last twenty years, however, after the in and out of ring demise of Mike Tyson and emergence of mixed martial arts as an alternative form of combat, the heavyweight crown has been placed on a dresser in the rear bedroom and its holders have become as obscure as utility outfielders. Let us set aside the present and recall the days of more gifted and charismatic champions. Here are the ten best of all time.
10. Jack Johnson – The Galveston Giant had more trouble battling white supremacists than boxers in the ring. He dominated a series of opponents for more than a decade while titleholders, promoters, and politicians connived to deny him a championship fight. In 1908, when Johnson was thirty years old, the establishment couldn’t say no anymore, and he journeyed to Australia to batter tiny Tommy Burns and claim the crown.
Johnson was a great boxer and good power puncher and beat everyone until, as an overweight drinker and world traveler at age thirty-seven, he tired under Cuban sun and was nailed on the jaw by young giant Jess Willard.
Johnson in his prime was the only nineteenth-century-born heavyweight who would be competitive with the champions discussed below.
9. Sonny Liston – His name still evokes images of a menacing ex-convict who used long and powerful arms to chop down more than three dozen opponents, in particular the popular but much smaller Floyd Patterson while winning the title by first round knockout. He dispatched Patterson the same way in a rematch. After that he in 1964 prepared to fight young and rambunctious Cassius Clay, who in part appeared to be as afraid of him as other opponents but also called him ugly and a bear and said he was going to whip him. Clay at age twenty-two was and remains the quickest heavyweight ever, and his lateral movement and jabs and overhand rights befuddled and bruised Liston who retired after the sixth round with a strained shoulder and shattered psyche. In their rematch the champion, rechristened Muhammad Ali, threw a right that may have landed but certainly not with enough force to destroy sturdy Liston, who refused to get up. The two debacles against Ali should not diminish Liston’s historical standing. Every man has his nemesis, and most have several. Sonny Liston outslugged most people but had less success with personal demons, and died of a heroin overdose in 1970.
8. Ken Norton – The former marine with a classic physique forever placed his name in the fistic pantheon by hammering Muhammad Ali in three fights. During the first bout, in March 1973, Norton broke Ali’s jaw and won a split decision that one myopic judge gave to Ali. I attended their next fight, in September that year at the Forum in Los Angeles, and watched Ali, unable to move as he had before banishment, often get tagged. Unlike in their first fight, though, Ali also inflicted damage and won a disputed split decision. About that, Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote, and I paraphrase only a bit if at all: “If Ali won that fight then Japan won World War II.”
In his next fight Norton was destroyed by George Foreman in the second round but then stopped seven straight opponents before meeting Ali again, in 1975. Norton was more aggressive as Ali masochistically leaned against the ropes, but also slow danced and scored enough to make it close at the bell when Norton screamed, “I beat you. I beat you.” The judges unanimously disagreed and Norton wept in the ring. The fairest way to assess their three fights is to say Norton at minimum fought Ali to a draw and probably had an edge.
7. Mike Tyson – In the mid-1980s a five-foot-ten teenager began his career throwing combinations with the speed of a lightweight and the power of a sledgehammer, stopping his first nineteen opponents and delighting TV sports news watchers in a pre-internet era. At age twenty he flattened Trevor Berbick to become the youngest heavyweight champion. During his prime few could have survived Mike Tyson, but like all fighters he proved to have vulnerabilities. When Tyson was twenty-three, before a nearly-silent crowd of boxing neophytes in Tokyo, James “Buster” Douglas popped him with long left jabs and strong straight rights, dominated the fight if not two of the three scorecards, survived a Tyson uppercut to arise at the count of nine in round eight, and in the tenth delivered a pulverizing uppercut and several more punches that left the champion on the canvas as he groped for a mouthpiece he shoved partially into his mouth while being counted out.
At age twenty-five Mike Tyson was convicted of rape and served three years in prison. After his release he beat several overmatched foes before Evander Holyfield defeated him by technical knockout and won their rematch as a frustrated Tyson twice bit Holyfield’s ears. The glory years never returned but no fan will forget his sensational rise.
6. Joe Frazier – As with Ken Norton and Sonny Liston, this fighter’s name will always be joined to that of Muhammad Ali, who before their first fight, in 1971, repeatedly badgered Frazier and called him ugly. Ali should have remembered, after three and a half years in exile, that he no longer “floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee.” He’d become a heavier, often flat-footed fighter who tragically concluded, starting with this fight, that the best way to tire out a supremely-conditioned opponent was to let him use Ali’s head and torso as a heavy bag. Frazier obliged, ripping countless left hooks—one of the finest in boxing history—into Ali’s body and right side of his face. Ali had begun the fight decisively, battering Frazier’s head with combinations, but Smokin’ Joe got stronger, or weakened less, and staggered Ali a couple of times and ensured victory by flooring him with another explosive left hook in the fifteenth round. Joe Frazier won a unanimous decision but it was a Pyrrhic victory, as it would have been for Ali. Both men had to be hospitalized, Frazier even longer than Ali, and it’s certain their brains suffered permanent damage.
Two years later Frazier was bombarded by George Foreman and in 1974 lost a nontitle decision to Ali as the latter moved more adroitly than in their first fight, and both men escaped major beatings. In their third meeting, the “Thrilla in Manila” in 1975, they bludgeoned each other for fourteen riveting rounds that culminated with Ali knocking Frazier’s bloody mouthpiece onto the canvas and continuing with power punches that rendered Joe unable to come out for the final round. The real outcome of the fight: Ali, once the world’s most dynamic talker and entertainer, has been silent nearly thirty years, and Frazier garbled words in his final years. He died of liver cancer at age sixty-seven.
5. Joe Louis – Like Muhammad Ali a generation later, Louis was even more important as an inspiration than a fighter. During an era when blacks were segregated and had no vote and couldn’t live or work where they wanted, the Brown Bomber showed they could overcome. If they worked hard enough, they could be like Joe Louis. They could knock the man on his ass. That’s what Joe Louis did better than anyone until George Foreman. During an unprecedented twelve years as heavyweight champion, he put people on the canvas with short, pulverizing combinations, and listeners huddled around their radios knew what awaited his opponents.
The most celebrated fight for Joe Louis was his second against Max Schmeling. In 1936 the former heavyweight champion, a German, though not a Nazi, had clipped Louis on the chin with his best punch, an overhand right, dropping him in the fourth round. Louis later said he didn’t remember anything the rest of the fight, which lasted until he was knocked out in the twelfth round Two years later, an angry and focused and more mature Louis unleashed one of the most horrific one-round beatings in ring annals, registering a tangible victory over Der Max and a symbolic one over fascism.
4. George Foreman – At age nineteen, during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Foreman established that he wielded a left jab like most boxers’ power punch and a right hand that immediately weakened strong men. He launched his professional career with a series of victories, most by knockout, and in January 1973 went to Jamaica to challenge the heavyweight champion, Smokin’ Joe Frazier, the undefeated conqueror of Muhammad and a man believed to be unstoppable. Foreman lambasted Frazier, knocking him down six times during two rounds of what remains the most devastating display of knockout power.
The new champion soon stopped Ken Norton in the second round and, based on his demolition of Frazier and Norton, the only two fighters who’d beaten Ali, he seemed certain to knock out the challenger. The fight was staged in Kinshasa, Zaire (now Congo) and billed “The Rumble in the Jungle.” Ali again used his “rope-a-dope” tactics, his back on the ropes and his arms a shield from elbows in his stomach to gloves over his face. Though incomparably powerful, Foreman was exposed as a slow puncher and Ali repeatedly dodged the champion’s gloves, pushed him around, and nailed him with sharp punches. Suddenly, in round eight, Ali sprang from the ropes and hit a tiring Foreman on the jaw with the best overhand right of his career, and the mammoth champion folded at the waist, hit the canvas, and was unable to rise before the ten-count. From my seat in Sacramento’s aged Memorial Auditorium, I stood in homage.
In his next fight Foreman and ex-convict Ron Lyle repeatedly staggered and knocked each other down in a compelling fight. Foreman stopped Lyle in the fifth round, but the years of lopsided wins had ended. In 1977 slick boxer Jimmy Young outmaneuvered Foreman, floored him in the final round, and earned a unanimous decision. Foreman, only twenty-eight years old, surprised fans by retiring. Many assumed this farewell, like most in boxing, would be brief. It wasn’t.
Ten years later Foreman announced his comeback, which seemed preposterous. He was not only old for a boxer and long inactive but carried forty pounds of flab. Many spectators and sportswriters sneered at the sometimes clumsy former champion. Foreman ignored them and again started knocking people out and after winning twenty-four straight fights, all but one by stoppage, he at age forty-one challenged Evander Holyfield for the heavyweight title. Holyfield moved and punched too quickly for the ponderous challenger, and after Foreman’s loss by unanimous decision most observers assumed he would permanently retire. He instead won three fights before losing a decision to Tommy Morrison, a good but not stellar fighter. The setback serendipitously led, more than a year later, to a title fight with undefeated Michael Moorer. For ten rounds the forty-five-year old Foreman was pounded by the quick and strong Moorer. Watching on pay-per-view in my Bakersfield living room, I simply wanted the fight, and the old man’s career, to be over. Then, rapidly, as if summoning thunder from his younger self, Foreman landed a straight right that hurt Moorer, and a couple of seconds later unloaded an even harder right that knocked Moorer out and made George Foreman by far the oldest heavyweight champion in history.
3. Lennox Lewis – Lewis will never be forgiven for two things: he dominated most of his opponents and failed to inspire while so doing. Even his sometime trainer Emanuel Steward publicly rebuked him for, in effect, settling for safety while winning decisions instead of risking himself to score bloody knockouts. Lewis nevertheless stopped his opponents seventy-two percent of the time, one of the best rates among heavyweight champions. In a career lasting fourteen years he lost only twice and later reversed both with knockout victories. He beat many notable fighters, including Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, and Vitali Klitschko, behaved as a gentleman, and will likely lead a longer and healthier life than most former boxers.
2. Larry Holmes – Holmes was the physical equal of Muhammad Ali but tormented that he lacked the loquacious one’s charm and charisma. He shouldn’t have worried. He controlled fights with the finest left jab in boxing history and frequently ended them with terrific right hands. Like Lennox Lewis, he rarely had the opportunity to fight great boxers in their prime, so his dominance was frequently either ignored or misunderstood. Holmes won the title in an epic 1978 match against Ken Norton. He pummeled Norton early before the latter gained the advantage, and the outcome was determined in the fifteenth round when the men planted themselves and flailed each other until the bell. It was a split decision, and the last close fight Holmes would have for seven years. In 1985 he was fairly outpointed by Michael Spinks, who became the first standing light heavyweight champion to capture the heavyweight crown. Holmes surely won the rematch, though the split decision was awarded to Spinks. Holmes retired for two years before joining the assembly line of Mike Tyson knockout victims. That loss is no more relevant to his career standing than old Ali’s loss to Holmes or aging Tyson’s final two losses to guys you haven’t heard of.
1. Muhammad Ali – Ali began his career as quick and elusive Cassius Clay who was as entertaining before and after fights as when pummeling less gifted opponents. After his three and a half year exile Ali fought much differently, flat-footed and trying to exhaust opponents by letting them hit him. The greatest defensive stylist became the best at eating bombs without falling. He won many stirring fights and faced more quality opponents than anyone in boxing history. He fought five people on this list of special champions a total of ten times and also twice defeated two-time champion Floyd Patterson as well as numerous other distinguished fighters such as Oscar Bonavena, childhood sparring partner Jimmy Ellis, Jerry Quarry, Earnie Shavers, and Leon Spinks, in a rematch after squandering his title in the first fight, his back again needlessly on the ropes.
After his succession of wars in the 1970s, Ali lost his ability to speak, and those from subsequent generations, unless they’ve studied video clips online, have no concept how magnetic he was. He made people believe in him and inspired them to believe in themselves. And, quite rare for a sports luminary of that era, he campaigned for civil rights and human rights and urged people to question political leaders who lied and waged unnecessary wars. He still represents bravery for combating Parkinson’s disease and other maladies that have beset him. He will forever remain “The Greatest.”
This is an excerpt from Uppercuts: Tales from the Ring, by George Thomas Clark. Uppercuts is available as an eBook at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, Google Books, and Apple iTunes. The price is only $0.99. Additional information is available on the author’s website at www.GeorgeThomasClark.com.