Note: This story appeared in the May 2017 issue of THE RING Magazine.
In the past, I’ve overseen fantasy round-robin tournaments in various weight divisions that matched great fighters from different eras against each other with the results of each fight being predicted by a panel of boxing industry experts.
The heavyweight division doesn’t lend itself to this format. The size differential between fighters from different eras is too great. To draw an analogy to another sport, some of pro football’s greatest lineman from the past weighed 240 pounds. They’d be thrown around like rag dolls today. But they were great.
Also, previous polls in this series were limited to fighters from boxing’s modern age (roughly 1940 to date). That’s because there wasn’t enough film footage of fighters from earlier eras to properly evaluate how they’d perform against one another and also because boxing technique has evolved considerably since the days of Joe Gans.
To offer another analogy: Babe Ruth is widely regarded as the greatest baseball player who ever lived and, with the possible exception of Ted Williams, baseball’s greatest hitter. But if Ruth had been forced to contend with sliders, cutters, screwballs, forkballs, two-seam fastballs, four-seam fastballs and the like, he might have been less dominating.
This heavyweight poll has different criteria from previous exercises. Rather than match champions against each other in a round-robin tournament, the electors were asked to rank them in order of greatness. This is more than who would have beaten who. Other considerations are involved.
The poll evaluated 20 champions dating back to the dawn of gloved heavyweight championship fights. The fighters, listed chronologically, are John L. Sulllivan, James Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons, James Jeffries, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Riddick Bowe, Lennox Lewis, Vitali Klitschko and Wladimir Klitschko.
Great is a hard word to define, and greatness is subjective. It was up to each panelist to quantify greatness.
A fighter’s skill level is important. But so too is that fighter’s skill level within the context of his time.
How great was each fighter within his era? Was he the best of his era? Dominant in his era? How many other great heavyweights fought in his era? Great rivalries make great fighters. Did he fight the other great heavyweights of his time? Which elite fighters who were in their prime did he beat? One fight can go a long way toward defining a fighter’s legacy.
A great fighter needs great competition. That doesn’t necessarily translate into a pristine record.
There was an inclination on the part of the panelists to make pound-for-pound comparisons, thereby elevating fighters like Dempsey and Marciano above today’s much larger champions.
Some fighters were more feared than others. Opponents went into the ring against Louis, Liston and Tyson in their prime fearing for their lives.
And the panelists factored in toughness. Some of the fighters on this list had a bit of quit in them. In the eyes of several electors, that was where Tyson came up short.
And then there are fighters like Ali, Frazier, Holmes, Holyfield and Marciano. You could have shot those guys 10 times with a gun, posits one panelist, and they still wouldn’t have quit.
In weighing greatness, the electors also considered intangibles and how important the heavyweight championship of the world was, once upon a time.
Heavyweight champions have resonated in the culture. In that regard, Lennox Lewis (one of the panelists and also one of the champions being evaluated) observes, “A champion’s contribution to the sport is more than how great a fighter he was. It’s also about what he did outside the ring and what we’re left remembering about him.”
Each generation wants its own great heavyweight champion. Some generations have him. Some don’t. How important was a fighter in his era? What impact did he have on his time?
To what extent does the mythology that enshrouds a fighter factor into his greatness?
Tyson foreshadowed today’s social media world where fame often counts for more than character. Thirty years after Tyson ascended to the heavyweight throne, a Google search for “Mike Tyson” reveals 8,590,00 results. A similar search for “Joe Louis” turns up 432,000. For some electors, the magnitude of a fighter’s fame was worthy of consideration. For others, it wasn’t.
For some, character mattered. But one panelist opined, “For what we’re doing now, I don’t care that Joe Louis was a better citizen than Sonny Liston.”
In sum, the criteria diverged significantly from elector to elector. But lurking in the back of many minds was the question: Which of these fighters took boxing to a new level in terms of skills, societal importance, or both?
Trainers: Teddy Atlas, Pat Burns, Virgil Hunter and Don Turner.
Matchmakers: Eric Bottjer, Don Chargin, Don Elbaum, Bobby Goodman, Ron Katz, Mike Marchionte, Russell Peltz and Bruce Trampler.
Media: Al Bernstein, Ron Borges, Gareth A Davies, Norm Frauenheim, Jerry Izenberg, Harold Lederman, Paulie Malignaggi, Dan Rafael and Michael Rosenthal
Historians: Craig Hamilton, Steve Lott, Don McRae, Bob Mee, Clay Moyle, Adam Pollack and Randy Roberts
Lewis and Tyson also participated in the poll. Neither fighter ranked himself. Instead, a weighted average from the other panelists was assigned to their respective slots on their ballots.
Several electors didn’t feel comfortable rating Sullivan, Corbett, Fitzsimmons, Jeffries or Johnson because there’s virtually no film footage of Johnson in action and none of the other four. Once again, a weighted average of the rankings from the other electors was used to fill the void.
One elector stated a preference for replacing Vitali Klitschko and Fitzsimmons on his list with Max Schmeling and Sam Langford. Klitschko and Fitzsimmons were assigned a position behind the other 18 fighters on his ballot.
A weighted average was also employed for Steve Lott with regard to Tyson because of their friendship and close working relationship during the glory years of Tyson’s career.
In previous polls (which used the who-beats-who formula), most electors were confident in the choices. This time, a repeated refrain was, I could do this again tomorrow and, except for the top few guys on my list, I might have a different order.
But in the end, a consensus emerged.
If one of the fighters had been ranked No. 1 on all 30 ballots, he would have had a perfect score of 30. If a fighter was ranked No. 20 on each ballot, his score would have been 600.
Muhammad Ali’s score was 46, which, when divided by the 30 electors, averages 1.53. That’s Ali’s power ranking, which put him in first place.
Some of the margins that separated fighters were razor-thin. In one instance, there was no margin at all. Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield tied for 11th place with 328 points each.
Jack Dempsey (No. 6) edged out George Foreman (No. 7) by four points.
Joe Frazier (No. 8), Mike Tyson (No. 9) and Sonny Liston (No. 10) were separated by a total of 12 points. If the electors were asked to vote again, the order of these three might be different.
The same is true of Wladimir Klitschko (No. 16), Vitali Klitschko (No. 17), and James Corbett (No. 18), who were also separated by 12 points.
Nineteen of the 30 electors ranked Ali first. Nine chose Joe Louis. Two voted for Jack Johnson. Fourteen of the 19 electors who ranked Ali first ranked Louis second. Seven of the nine electors who ranked Louis first ranked Ali second.
One elector ranked Ali as low as fourth. One ranked Louis fifth.
As illustrated by the chart above, Ali and Joe Louis were tied for first place in the ranking by trainers. Ali finished alone in first place in the rankings by media, matchmakers and historians. Louis finished second in these latter three categories. Johnson finished in third place in the minds of the media and historians. Marciano finished third among the trainers. Foreman finished third among the matchmakers.
In some instances, the panelists offered commentary with regard to their rankings. We’ll come back to Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis later. A composite of comments with regard to the other fighters follows.
Jack Johnson was ahead of his time in so many ways. He had advanced skills for his era. Impeccable defense. Underrated offense (he carried many opponents). He was the first heavyweight in history to truly master boxing.
Despite being black, Johnson refused to meet the best black contenders while he was champion. There was no interest from the American public in two black men fighting for the heavyweight title. But he’d already beaten most of these men on his rise to the championship.
What fighter today would get in the ring in front of tens of thousands of people who hated his guts and literally wanted to kill him, and talk trash to the guy he was fighting and beat him?
Jack Johnson was the father. He was black America’s first black hero.
Nobody ever got more out of what he had as a fighter than Marciano. No one came into a fight in better shape than Marciano. He could punch. He could take a punch. He learned some rudimentary techniques to accentuate his physical gifts and compensate for his limitations. He was relentless and had a will of iron.
Consider the competition that Marciano beat. Walcott and Charles are derided now as old men when he fought them. But watch the film.
They were great fighters who were nowhere near shot. Charles was 32 years old in the first Marciano fight. Walcott was 37, but he outboxed Marciano for most of their first match. Carmine Vingo, Rex Layne, Roland LaStarza; Marciano beat real fighters on his way up. He did lose (Ted Lowry was robbed in their first match). But when his character was tested, nobody was better. I loved his response when someone asked him what he was thinking when Walcott knocked him down in their first fight: Gee, this fellow hits hard. I might have to get up a couple of times before I knock him out.
Marciano wouldn’t be rated as high as he is without his O. But he has the O and none of the other fighters on this list do. He’d be too small for guys like Ali and Foreman. But he took a better punch and was tougher than all of them.
Holmes did what he had to do to win. Getting off the floor the way he did against Earnie Shavers and Renaldo Snipes, coming back and knocking those guys out – that showed a special kind of greatness.
What a jab! Larry Holmes could knock you out with his jab.
The Dempsey who fought Jess Willard was a stone-cold killer. He learned his craft and perfected his style over years of fighting. He wanted to end fights as quickly as possible. And his power was no myth. He changed the way guys fought.
Dempsey and Babe Ruth were America’s two most important sports figures in the Roaring Twenties, when sports became an integral part of the culture. He was wildly popular. He brought a whole new audience to boxing. In a golden age of sports, he made boxing popular and respectable.
A lot of people who are serious about boxing think George Foreman is one of the most underrated fighters ever. He fought his share of soft opponents. But he’s also one of the toughest men to ever box (watch the Lyle and Moorer fights). He’s one of the hardest hitters ever. And after being heavyweight champion, he came back more than a decade later to do it again.
Foreman was a much better boxer the second time around. He was older and slower, but he’d learned to study his opponents and take advantage of what he saw.
Ali fought Joe Frazier three times and Ken Norton three times. He didn’t mess with Foreman again after he beat him.
On March 8, 1971, Joe Frazier could have competed with anybody.
Frazier, like Marciano, was pure fighter. But he lost some of his desire before he retired. And when your biggest asset is desire, that’s not good.
Did some of Ali’s greatness rub off on Joe? Absolutely. And some of Joe’s greatness rubbed off on Ali.
Tyson was the legitimate heavyweight champion of the world for more than three years. That’s a long time in boxing. And he has captivated the public’s imagination for three decades.
Mike Tyson is looked at now as a bully who folded when things got tough. But Tyson in his prime would have been competitive against anyone.
Tyson was the greatest six-round heavyweight of all time. But if he couldn’t take an opponent out in six rounds, he started to fall apart.
When Mike Tyson got discouraged, he wasn’t the same fighter. Joe Louis would have discouraged Tyson real fast. A lot of guys on this list would have discouraged Tyson real fast.
Sonny Liston was the best heavyweight in the world for five years. His left hand – jab and hook – were beyond frightening. If he’d been allowed to fight for the championship when he deserved it, all those fights against Cleveland Williams, Eddie Machen and Zora Folley would have been successful title defenses.
If Cassius Clay hadn’t come along, Liston would have had more time at the top.
Sonny Liston was the baddest man on the planet. Compared to Liston, Mike Tyson was a choirboy.
Holyfield, like Ali, fought everyone.
He beat four other guys on this list: Tyson, Bowe, Holmes, and Foreman. Except for Bowe, they weren’t in their prime when Evander beat them, but that’s still an impressive accomplishment.
Holyfield was bigger than Dempsey and Marciano, but he couldn’t punch like them. And when you’re fighting, punching means a whole lot.
Olympic champion. A giant who fought with finesse. He beat every available contender. He came back to beat the only two fighters who beat him in the pros. And this myth that Lennox had no chin. He got up from that bomb McCall hit him with, and I still think the fight was stopped prematurely. The punch Rahman hit him with in South Africa would have KO’d anyone, and there was the issue of altitude in South Africa. Lewis corrected things with Rahman in the rematch.
Lennox carried himself with dignity and grace for his entire career. That should count for something.
Tunney is another fighter who learned his craft well over years. A better version of Corbett. But Tunney never fought a black man. He was the only heavyweight champion after Sullivan without a man of color on his record.
Tunney caught Dempsey at the end of Dempsey’s career and after Dempsey had been out of the ring for three years. He was able to play the matador to an aging Jack Dempsey’s bull. I doubt that he could have done that against Marciano. Marciano would have beaten Tunney down. In fact, a young Dempsey might have beaten Tunney down.
Sullivan was America’s first massculture hero and the most idolized athlete who had lived up until his time. He stood out as a fighter the way Joe Louis did in his era.
Sullivan fought for 13 years, the last 10 of which he was a fullblown alcoholic. Drinking nearly killed him in 1888, yet he whipped the next-best (white) man a year later in a bare-knuckle match that lasted more than two hours. It took Corbett 21 modern rounds to stop Sullivan when Sullivan was 34 years old, had been inactive for three years and was drinking constantly. This to me is mind-boggling and tells me that Sullivan, in his prime, would have whipped Corbett.
Jeffries was a superior athlete who won the heavyweight championship as a virtual novice. That’s quite an accomplishment.
Forget about Johnson-Jeffries as a measure of Jeffries as a fighter. It was enormously important as a social event. But as a fight, it was like Ali- Holmes. One guy was a once-great fighter who was shot. The other guy was a great fighter in his prime.
We can’t be too American-centric. Boxing is a world sport.
The Klitschkos are two big, well-conditioned guys fighting in an era when the best big guys are going into sports other than boxing.
Give Wladimir credit for staying the course.
Wladimir has never seemed to have his heart in it.
Vitali didn’t have the resume or talent of his brother. But if they fought, I’d pick Vitali. And his role as a serious player in Ukrainian politics adds to his stature.
Corbett was one of the first successful scientific fighters of the gloved era. Give him credit for that. But he fought for 17 years and had only 18 fights. He beat an old drunk (John L. Sullivan) for the title, defended it once against an aging British middleweight (Charlie Mitchell) and lost it to another aging British middleweight (Bob Fitzsimmons).
Bowe was a super talent and a super waste. He had one great fight, the first fight against Evander Holyfield. Then he got lazy. Riddick had the potential to be much higher on this list but never got there. He was a disappointment. When you squander talent like that, you don’t deserve to be ranked high.
Bob Fitzsimmons won championships in three weight divisions. But he was getting his ass kicked in the Corbett fight until he hit Corbett with a body shot.
All of the fighters on this list were great. But Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis stand separate and apart from the rest.
There’s a fight that’s bigger than boxing.
Certain champions touch an entire generation.
Put symbolism aside for a moment. Joe Louis was a better fighter than any fighter the world had seen before. He was the best ever up until his time.
People remember how good Ali was when he was young. They’ve forgotten how good Louis was when he was young. Louis had everything. Power, speed, stamina, a textbook style. He lost one fight in the early years of his career, to a very good Max Schmeling (who Louis took lightly and didn’t train for properly). When they met again with the championship on the line, Louis knocked Schmeling out in the first round.
That night changed the experience of being black in America. Jack Johnson might have been black America’s first black hero. When Louis (the symbol of American democracy) knocked out Schmeling (Adolf Hitler’s favorite fighter), Louis became white America’s first black hero. In 1951, at the end of Louis’s storied ring career, A. J. Liebling wrote, “Joe Louis looks like a champion and carries himself like a champion, and people will continue to call him champion as long as he lives.”
Muhammad Ali had incredible physical gifts, skill, determination and heart. He fought more great heavyweights than anyone and never ducked a challenge. And let’s not forget: Ali was past his prime when he beat Joe Frazier and George Foreman.
Ali wasn’t always a good sportsman. Joe Frazier and Ernie Terrell can attest to that. But as David Halberstam noted, “He knew how to play the role of champion, inside and outside the ring. God, he knew how to play that role.”
Like Louis, Ali changed what it meant to be black in America.
Louis inspired America. Ali inspired the world.
In the end, Ali’s edge over Louis in this poll was that many electors felt he was simply the better fighter.
So, are we talking about boxing’s greatest heavyweight fighter or boxing’s greatest heavyweight champion?
As a symbol, Louis meant as much in his time as Ali did in his; maybe more.
My own preference is to rank Ali No. 1 and Louis No. 1A.
Given Ali’s generosity of spirit, I don’t think he’d mind sharing the No. 1 spot … as long as he’s the one without the A.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at [email protected] His most recent book – “A Hard World: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing” – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.
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