Show Mobile Navigation
Sport |

Top 10 Heavyweight Boxers of All Time

by FlameHorse
fact checked by Alex Hanton

On a previous list I mentioned that I had done a little boxing in my youth. It was a lot of fun and a huge amount of hard work. You really do have to give credit to the guys who do this for a living. Recently someone asked for a boxing list and coincidentally FlameHorse sent one in at the same time. So, for you boxing fans out there, here are the ten greatest heavyweight boxers.


Ezzard Charles


One of the most steel-chinned men ever to fight. He may be the second greatest light heavyweight of all time after Archie Moore. Charles killed Sam Baroudi after a very brutal fight. It shouldn’t be praised, as Charles felt terrible afterward, and adopted a more cautious style. A true gentleman. But it does show the vicious intensity he had in close-quarters mix-ups.

He is the only man to last 15 rounds with Rocky Marciano, a Herculean feat, as by the last 2 rounds, he could no longer see and took power shot after power shot to the head and body, and refused to go down. Marciano gave him a big smile and hug at the bell. He beat Archie Moore three times, and Joey Maxim, and Charley Burley. Then he beat Joe Walcott on points to win the title, then took down the aged Joe Louis the next year. Aged or not, Louis was still Louis, and served as a foil for Charles’s fame.

But Walcott came back to knock him out, and he tried but failed to beat Walcott for the title again. Then he faced Marciano in two astoundingly bloody fights. The second made fight of the year, when it climaxed with Charles cutting Marciano’s nose so badly that his corner stuffed it with super glue to stop the bleeding. He could have peeled his nose in half off his face. Marciano, however, rallied to knock Charles out, because he was in danger of losing due to the blood.


Evander Holyfield


One of the best conditioned fighters in history. Holyfield had nearly inexhaustible stamina, especially amazing given that he had a bad heart, and no one ever knew it until his third fight with Riddick Bowe. It was their first fight that cemented both men’s legacies. In the 10th round, they stood and traded thundering power shots like two trees, banging and swinging until Holyfield went down. Then he got up and swung some more.

He lost that fight by decision, but he gave Bowe his only defeat so far in their second fight, and his only knockdown in their third fight. He scared Mike Tyson so bad that Tyson resorted to ear biting. Holyfield was one of the few men who had no intention of taking Tyson’s bullying, even slamming a good right across Tyson’s face well after the bell.


Joe Walcott


He was one of the craftiest, most superb technicians of the heavyweight division, ever. He put steel-chinned Ezzard Charles down for the count with possibly the finest single left hook ever landed, a picture perfect work of art, that twisted Charles’s head so sharply, the spectators thought his neck was broken.

It was Walcott’s patented maneuver, which he could do with either hand. He’d back up a step or two, let the man come for him, then pop him with his rear hand, whichever was protecting his face. He called it his “sneak hand.” He used it to telling effect on Rocky Marciano, staggering him plenty of times, and knocking him down for one of only two times Marciano hit the mat. Archie Moore gave him his other knockdown.

He’d tie Marciano up every time he came near to do damage, and Marciano was losing badly, until the 13th round, when Walcott went for another sneak right hand, that didn’t turn out the way he’d hoped. Walcott can still take solace in the fact that he gave Marciano the worst pummeling he ever suffered.


George Foreman


Often thought of as the most powerful puncher in the history of the sport, Foreman could easily break men’s bones with his punches. Once he hit his stride in the early 1970s, he developed the bad habit of not fearing his opponents, and thus only training his power, not his endurance. When he took down Frazier in only two rounds, the world figured that he would go on to the end undefeated, since no one was tougher than Frazier.

Then Ali showed the world what a well-conditioned body can withstand, provided that the head is out of the firing line. Foreman never really recovered in his first career, and though he won a lot more fights, he had nightmares about trying to get up in time to finish Ali. This was his impetus for coming out a 10 year retirement. He had been champion, beating Frazier twice. There didn’t seem anything left to prove. But he wanted to account for his loss to Ali, and shocked the world by winning the title back at the ripe old age of 45, fat and lead-footed, from Michael Moorer (not the mockumentary director, although oh, how I wish). Foreman showcased, dubious as it is, his ability to take a lot of punishment, to the head and body, as if it was business as usual.

The whole arena knew what he was trying to do to Moorer, but Moorer just kept standing toe-to-toe with him, until Foreman caught him with his right hand. Lights out every time.


Gene Tunney


Often considered the best pure boxer in history, with the ability to hit hard, but the footwork to stay away. He could also box very well backing up, which Ali never had to do because he was so fast he could stay away without having to punch. But when Ali faced a goliath like Foreman, he turned on his rope-a-dope, which is very simple and effective, if you can take it. It’s too risky and no coach has ever advised it for a whole fight against someone with Foreman’s power. Tunney’s nemesis, Jack Dempsey, had that brutal power, and raging savagery backing it up.

Tunney was not about to stand and weather it, so he displayed some of the finest defensive boxing technique in the history of the ring in order to stay away from the Manassa Mauler. Tunney only lost one professional fight, to Harry Greb, out of 66. He beat Harry Greb twice.


Joe Frazier

Joe Frazier

One of the toughest men in boxing history, bar none. He lived and trained in Philadelphia, and the city has become synonymous with tough-as-nails boxers. He handed Ali his first defeat, and in their third fight, he lasted 14 rounds, out-pointing Ali in at least the middle 5, in sweltering humidity. His corner called the fight because his eyes had swollen and he couldn’t see Ali’s punches.

As soon as it was over, they asked him how he felt, and Frazier said, “We’re gonna fight again!” Both men looked like a brick wall had fallen on them. Frazier had the second greatest left hook in the business, with which he floored Ali and almost killed Jerry Quarry (who claimed to be dizzy for 4 days afterwards). After his first fight with Ali, he was rushed to the hospital for severe dehydration and kidney failure. Foreman’s monumental power suited him perfectly when facing a swarmer like Frazier, and Frazier simply couldn’t stand up to it. The boxing world dropped its jaw when it saw this in two fights. But he was able to hold his own very well against Ali, and every other fighter of the day was no match. He and Ali will forever be synonymous for one of boxing’s all-time rivalries.


Jack Dempsey


Arguably as popular and well known throughout the country as John L. Sullivan in his prime, Dempsey boasts the greatest left hook in boxing history. He used it to knock Jess Willard down for the first time in his career in the first round of Willard’s title defense. He had no business holding the belt, as the fight is recorded, and Dempsey destroyed him.

Willard didn’t answer the fourth bell, at which point he had suffered a broken jaw, broken cheekbones, broken ribs, and four teeth swallowed. Willard was 6’6.5”, Dempsey only 6’1”, which means he had to punch well up when Willard was standing straight, but Dempsey just pounded his body until he bent over.

He was a brawler, and lost to Tunney twice. The second fight, in 1927, is the Long Count Fight, during the 7th round of which Dempsey landed a thundering 8-punch flurry that put Tunney down. Dempsey wouldn’t go to a neutral corner, a brand new rule, and the referee couldn’t start counting until he did. When he finally backed away from Tunney, the referee began counting, and Tunney got up at 9. He had been down about 14 seconds.

He claimed later that he wasn’t hurt, just using all the time he had. Nevertheless, it was the only time Tunney had been knocked down, and though he managed to win on points, nobody in the teens and 20s was as devastating as Dempsey. He later explained to his wife, Estelle, his loss to Tunney, “Honey, I forgot to duck,” and then burst out laughing.

In 1973, Jack Dempsey, at 78 years old, was leaving his famous Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Restaurant, in Manhattan, to go home, when a mugger hurried into his cab after him. Before he could demand money, Dempsey turned around, socked his left hook across the man’s chin, and knocked him sprawling out of the car, out cold in the gutter. Dempsey closed the door and the cab drove off. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.


Joe Louis


The Brown Bomber! Now that was a great fighter! He had the finest mix of dancing and power punching, and the longest reign as world champion, 11 years, from 1937 to 1948, retiring as champion, after 27 title defenses. The only man who beat him in his prime was Max Schmeling. Schmeling, Charles, and Marciano are the only men who defeated him, once each, and Schmeling and Marciano, the only two who knocked him out.

From January 1939 through May 1941, Louis beat thirteen men in title defenses, which was so high a rate of fights that no one had seen it since the bare-knuckle barnstorming of the 1800s. It was unheard of for a champion to agree to that many fights, much less title defenses. He is the only man to have knocked out James Braddock, with a hellacious right hand in the 8th round. If Louis ever had to fight a rematch, he destroyed his opponent. No more being cautious. When he fought Schmeling for the second time, he nearly killed him, in only one round. He cracked several vertebrae in Schmeling’s back, but never hit him in the back. The concussive force was delivered laterally, to Schmeling’s sides, breaking several of his ribs also.

He was well past his prime when he met 29-year-old Marciano.


Muhammad Ali


Muhammad Ali is the most famous boxer in history by far. Everyone in the world knows his famous motto, “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” His dancing skill, his footwork and hammerblow of a jab were unprecedented. Marciano called him the fastest heavyweight he had ever seen. He threw his punches faster than anyone before or since, because he trained by punching underwater. He was so awe-inspiring that even before he won the championship, people were touting his praise over Joe Frazier.

Then they met, and Joe proved to be the toughest man Ali had ever met. He finally floored Ali with his famous left hook, a thing of beauty. After Ali lost on points he said, “Yeah, it hurt! he’s a great fighter! But if you look at me, I don’t have nothing wrong with me. I’m still so pretty! Joe looks like he went drunk driving without a car and ran into a telephone pole about 15 times.”

He was the poet of the boxing world. “The referee calls an end to the fight cause Smokin’ Joe Frazier’s a smoking satellite!” Then he made history by beating Joe’s conqueror, Foreman, the most powerful puncher in the world at the time. He did it in lengendary fashion, going into the fight with a specific gameplan, to outsmart Foreman, and make him punch himself out. His corner thought he was nuts. Foreman had knocked out Frazier, who was tough as nails, in only 2 rounds. 2 years after he lost to Ali, everyone saw that it wasn’t a fluke, when he knocked Frazier out again, in only 5.

Ali had no fear of Foreman, and trusted in his phenomenal body conditioning. After 4 hair-raising rounds of pummeling, he went to his corner and said, “Okay, I got him, now. It’ll be 8 when it happens.” And it was. Unfortunately, the lure of the ring was too much for Ali, and he fought long after he should have retired. Larry Holmes punished his head more than anyone. Now he has Pugilistic Parkinson’s Syndrome (not the disease).

Ali is generally credited with having successfully faced the toughest all around competition in the heavyweight division in history: Frazier, Foreman, Chuvalo, Bonavena, Quarry, Larry Holmes, Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers, and Leon Spinks.

Rumble, young man, rumble.


Rocky Marciano


Oh, there he goes! There he goes! Every time some white guy starts talking about boxing…

Rocky had the worst technique of all the heavyweight champions. So how did he manage to win the championship? Joe Walcott was the man to beat, and he was no slouch. He came closer to putting Marciano down than anyone, and made Marciano look silly for 12 rounds. That’s a long time to weather Marciano’s power.

Then in the 13th, Walcott went for that “sneak right hand,” and Marciano had been waiting for it for a good 5 rounds. His right hand landed first, and it remains the hardest punch ever landed in a fight by anyone. The crowd roared, but when Walcott went down, he didn’t try to get up. He just slumped with his left arm over the bottom rope, and the referee could have counted to 10,000. The arena went deathly silent. Those in the first several rows heard the thump and feared that Marciano had snapped Walcott’s neck with one swing.

His cornermen spent 3 minutes waking him up with smelling salts. He claimed not to remember it. Marciano’s secret for winning consisted of a number of factors, all of which came naturally to him. He loved to train, as opposed to a lot of boxers these days, and ran 5 miles every day, 365 days a year, up and down the steep hills around Brockton, Mass. He’d sprint up, sprint down backward, forward, with 30-pound weights on his shoes.

“If you train like I do, your legs’ll carry you 40 rounds,” he once said. About his power, he explained, “I don’t aim for his face. I aim for the back of his head.” He trained his punches on a special, 300-pound heavy bag, because the normal 80-pound bags no longer held up to his power. After a while, he was able to bend the 300 pounder in half with either fist.

About a month before a fight, he’d run 10 miles a day, then 12 to 15 in the last two weeks before the fight. When he got in the ring, he had power beyond belief, an inexhaustible reserve of energy, and a steel chin that didn’t mind going through Hell to get close to his opponent. All of this more than made up for his relatively small stature, only 5’10.5”, 189 lbs at most, with a reach of only 67 inches. Walcott’s was 74 inches.

He was a swinging machine, who didn’t seem to know the use of fear. “I was too busy getting hit.” He didn’t seem to notice the pain of the punches. “No, I was too busy getting hit.” Archie Moore, his last opponent, said, “It was like fighting an airplane propeller. He had no footwork to stay out of my reach, but then I was the one who wanted to stay out of his. I tried to make him punch himself out, but he never ran out of gas.”

In the 6th round of their fight, Marciano threw haymakers and uppercuts for 45 seconds, nonstop, at the dodging Old Mongoose, most missing or glancing off the top of his head and shoulders, but Marciano just kept swinging until Moore dodged into one too many. When asked later which punch hurt the most, he said, “Man, they all hurt! It was like getting hit with a blackjack or a bag of rocks.”

Marciano put Carmine Vingo in a coma with one punch to the temple. When Vingo recovered, he retired. Marciano pounded on Roland LaStarza’s forearms and shoulders nonstop for 3 rounds, until LaStarza’s arms hurt so badly that he couldn’t lift them to his face. Then Marciano knocked him through the ropes. LaStarza’s forearms were both broken, and their bruises were beaten into thick jelly that had to be surgically removed.

Let the debate rage.

fact checked by Alex Hanton