The Five Greatest World Heavyweight Champions
By Henry Walter
There was a time when the world heavyweight champion was the most famous sportsperson on the planet. Whilst those days are perhaps gone, due to the multiple array of heavyweight titles in existence today and the hard to understand ranking systems, heavyweight boxing still fascinates the general public.
Men like Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk still have a very unique status in world sport due to their status as the best in the highest division of arguably the most famous combat sport. Even today there is definitely still something special about being able to call yourself the heavyweight champion of the world.
Listed below are who I consider to be the five greatest heavyweight champions in the history of the sport.
5. Rocky Marciano 49-0 (43 KOs)
World Heavyweight Champion 1952-56
A tiny man, in comparison to today’s six-foot-seven giants, at five-feet-eleven, 185 pounds and sporting a welterweight like sixty-eight inch reach, Rocky Marciano made up for his physical disadvantages with a combination of aggression and heart.
He won the world heavyweight title from the slick and clever champion “Jersey” Joe Walcott in 1952 and defended it six times against the likes of fellow greats Ezzard Charles and Archie Moore. He retired as champion in 1956 with a perfect 49-0 (43 KOs) record.
4. Larry Holmes 69-6 (44 KOs)
World Heavyweight Champion 1978-85
Larry Holmes cut his teeth as a sparring partner for an ageing Muhammad Ali in the mid 1970s. By the late-seventies he had left Ali’s training camp and had reportedly been consistently getting the better of his employer during the former’s training camps. When Ali retired, Holmes came into his own, defeating the brilliant, former Ali conqueror, Ken Norton in a back-and-forth 1978 fight for the ages to take the WBC Heavyweight title.
Holmes faced some criticism for beating a depleted shell of a comebacking Ali in 1980, which if anything damaged his credibility rather than enhanced it. Yet Holmes, successfully defended his world title twenty times including high profile wins over Gerry Cooney, Earnie Shavers and Tim Witherspoon, going 48-0, before losing to the light-heavyweight great Michael Spinks in 1985, aged 35.
Holmes boxed on into his fifties losing to the far younger Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Oliver McCall but defeating former Olympic Champion Ray Mercer in 1992.
3. Joe Louis 66-3 (52 KOs)
World Heavyweight Champion 1937-49
Joe Louis won the world title from James J Braddock in 1938, defeating the highly-rated Braddock in just eight rounds. Louis went on to defend his undisputed title a record twenty-five times seeing off the likes of Tommy Farr, Walcott, John Henry Lewis, Billy Conn and Max Schmeling. The Conn and Schmeling bouts are still discussed to this day as two of the most renowned fights in history.
After losing to Ezzard Charles, at age 36, in 1950, Louis chose to box on managing eight more wins before being knocked out by a prime Rocky Marciano in 1951.
2. Lennox Lewis 41-2-1 (32 KOs)
World Heavyweight Champion 1999-01 & 2001-04
Lennox Lewis was a victim of the boxing politics that saw the world titles become fractured in the 1980s. He won the WBC (World Boxing Council) version after reigning champion and former amateur victim, Riddick Bowe refused to face him in 1993.
He lost the WBC crown in 1994, when hard punching US contender Oliver McCall upset him in two rounds before regaining it in bizarre circumstances, when McCall had a mental breakdown during a rematch three years later.
Yet Lewis, didn’t become world number one in the division until 1999 when his team finally persuaded the WBA (World Boxing Association) and IBF (International Boxing Federation) champion Evander Holyfield to fight him.
Lewis dominated the first fight which the judges bizarrely saw as a draw but won the rematch later that same year to become the undisputed heavyweight Champion at 34 years of age.
Lewis successfully defended his title three times before getting knocked out by the then little known American puncher Hasim Rahman in South Africa. Lewis came in lighter and more prepared for the US bound rematch six months later and boxed beautifully to avenge the loss in just four one-sided rounds.
Lewis then defended his newly won title twice more against heavyweight legends Mike Tyson and Vitali Klitschko before retiring as champion in early 2004.
1. Muhammad Ali 56-5 (37 KOs)
World Heavyweight Champion 1964-67, 1974-78 & 1978
Muhammad Ali turned pro as Cassius Clay in 1960, having won an Olympic gold medal as a light-heavyweight.
In 1964 he took on the highly feared reigning heavyweight champion Sonny Liston as a huge underdog. Despite the vast majority of the press expecting him to become yet another Liston KO victim, Ali delivered a stunning performance to upset the champion, who quit on his stool after six rounds.
Ali defended the title nine times (seven wins by KO), including one-sided wins over former champion Floyd Patterson and reigning WBA Champion Ernie Terrell, before being controversially stripped of the title for refusing to fight in the Vietnam war.
Exiled from boxing for three and a half years, Ali came back to the sport in 1970 before being defeated by fellow Olympic Champion Joe Frazier on points when he tried to win his old championship back in 1971.
By 1974, Ali had avenged the Frazier loss but there was a new champion on the heavyweight throne, one who had easily knocked out Frazier.
George Foreman was considered one of the biggest punching heavyweights in history. When he defended his world title against Ali in 1974 there were fears for the 32 year old Ali’s health. Yet Ali stunned the boxing world with a fairly straightforward eighth round knockout win in Zaire, Africa. The fight remains arguably the most famous event in the sport’s history.
Ali defended the title ten times, defeating the likes of Frazier, Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers and Jimmy Young before surprisingly losing the title to 6-0-1 novice Leon Spinks in 1978, aged 36.
Fitter and sharper, Ali avenged the defeat later that same year to become the first three-time heavyweight champion in boxing history.
Two unwise comebacks in the 1980s did little to detract from his status as the number one heavyweight champion in history in the eyes of most.