World’s best heavyweight boxers: As Tim Tszyu makes his Las Vegas debut we rank the best of the best

Jeff Powell
The Nightly
5 Min Read
Who really was the greatest in the ring?
Who really was the greatest in the ring? Credit: Thomas La Verghetta

1. Muhammad Ali

Ali, nee Cassius Clay, was a three-time champion and involved in several of the most fabled fights in the history of prize-fighting.

More than one distinguished ring historian hedges the bet and declares him and Louis tied in first place. That is a cop out.

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Pushed to shove, that neglects Ali’s impact on so much of American culture and upon world opinion about everything from the Vietnam war to the emergence of the Black Muslims. Also ignores recognition of him not only as a supreme boxer but as the outstanding athlete in the annals of world sport. More instantly recognisable than Pele.

The even bigger picture - beyond the slaying of the Liston monster, the Fight of the Century and the Thrilla in Manilla both against Joe Fraizer and the astounding Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman – portrays a phenomenal personality and a champion not only in gloves but of civil rights.

FILE -  In this May 25, 1965, file photo, heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali stands over fallen challenger Sonny Liston, after dropping Liston with a short hard right to the jaw in Lewiston, Maine.  Ali turns 70 on Jan. 17, 2012.(AP Photo/John Rooney, File)
Muhammad Ali stands over fallen challenger Sonny Liston in 1965. Credit: John Rooney/AP

2. Joe Louis

The easy get-out is to plump for Muhammad Ali in top spot, commonly known as The Greatest and not without with good reason. Yet to reach that determination without examining the case for Joe Louis would be a dereliction of duty.

The Brown Bomber was a cult figure in his own right. One who narrowed the racial divisions in American society. With his comprehensive amalgam of ring intelligence and knock-out power he racked up an unequalled 25 consecutive defences of the world heavyweight title and reigned as undisputed world heavyweight champion for 11-and-a-half years.

FILE--Boxer Joe Louis, left, knocks out Max Schmeling in the first round to win the heavyweight title, June 22, 1938, at Yankee Stadium in New York. (AP Photo/File)
Joe Louis knocks out Max Schmeling in the first round to win the heavyweight title in 1938. Credit: PK TG/AP

3. Larry Holmes

Too often dismissed as just Ali’s chief sparring partner, the Easton Assassin possessed probably the best-ever jab and was such a comprehensive boxer that he held the world title from 1978 to 1985 and (reluctantly) inflicted the only KO of The Greatest’s career.

Larry Holmes with Don King in 1983.
Larry Holmes with Don King in 1983. Credit: Bob Riha Jr/Getty Images

4. John L Sullivan

The last bare-knuckle and the first gloved world champion, the Boston Strong Boy won more than 400 fights (almost all by knock-out) across the two regimes. This huge cult figure and sport’s first millionaire would have hung up the gloves undefeated had he not come out of three-year retirement to satisfy public demand for him to fight rising younger star James J Corbett.

A likeness of the World's Champion Boxer, John L. Sullivan. Engraving 1892.
A likeness of the World's Champion Boxer, John L. Sullivan. Engraving 1892. Credit: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

5. Rocky Marciano

The only world heavyweight champion to retire unbeaten stood but 5ft 10in tall and weighed a mere 188lbs but possessed extraordinary punching power – not least when rupturing the arms of bigger opponents to bring down their guard so he could them knock-out. A method adopted now by Mexican legend Canelo Alvarez.

Rocky Marciano.
Rocky Marciano. Credit: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

6. Joe Frazier

The warrior’s warrior inflicted Ali’s first defeat when knocking him down late in that Fight of the Century at a Madison Square Garden packed with Hollywood and political celebrities. Only George Foreman at his zenith was too much for Smokin’ Joe to handle.

FILE - In this March 8, 1971, file photo, boxer Joe Frazier, left, hits Muhammad Ali during the 15th round of their heavyweight title fight at New York's Madison Square Garden. Former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier is seriously ill with liver cancer. His personal and business manager says Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011, the 67-year-old boxer was diagnosed four or five weeks ago and is under hospice care. (AP Photo, File)
Joe Frazier, left, hits Muhammad Ali during the 15th round of their heavyweight title fight at New York's Madison Square Garden in 1971. Credit: Anonymous/AP

7. Jack Johnson

White America’s nightmare changed the face of boxing and sparked race riots across the length and breadth of the US when he became the first black world heavyweight champion by defeating James J Jeffries in the Fight of the 20th Century. He compounded that perceived affront to the prejudiced majority by marrying a white woman and keeping his title for eight years despite trumped up criminal convictions against him.

Canadian boxer Tommy Burns in action against American boxer Jack Johnson in their world heavyweight title fight at the Sydney Stadium in  1908. The fight lasted fourteen rounds before being stopped and Johnson declared the winner.
Canadian boxer Tommy Burns in action against American boxer Jack Johnson in their world heavyweight title fight at the Sydney Stadium in 1908. The fight lasted fourteen rounds before being stopped and Johnson declared the winner. Credit: Archive Photos/Getty Images

8. George Foreman

Destroyed all-comers except Ali but including Frazier. While making his final comeback Big George became the oldest ever world heavyweight champion at 46 years and 169 days.

George Foreman pictured during weigh-in ahead of his fight against challenger Muhammad Ali in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974.
George Foreman pictured during weigh-in ahead of his fight against challenger Muhammad Ali in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974. Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images

9. Jack Dempsey

The Manassa Mauler was a matinee idol. While his punching power allied to progressive new technical skills brought world title fame in the ring his mass popularity broke box office records, including the first million dollar gate.

Jack Dempsey photographed in 1926.
Jack Dempsey photographed in 1926. Credit: Sports Studio Photos/Getty Images

10. Mike Tyson

The biggest punch ever made Iron Mike the youngest world heavyweight champion and intimidated all-comers during his prime. But it has tended to distract from his exceptional speed of hand and foot and his high ring intelligence. As did the escapades which put one of the sport’s most controversial characters behind bars.

LAS VEGAS - NOVEMBER 22,1986:  Mike Tyson (R) throws a punch against Trevor Berbick during the fight at Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. Mike Tyson won the WBC heavyweight title by a TKO 2. (Photo by: The Ring Magazine via Getty Images)
Mike Tyson (R) throws a punch against Trevor Berbick in 1986. Credit: The Ring Magazine/The Ring Magazine via Getty Imag

11. Lennox Lewis

Our very own three-time world title holder and as such most definitely a distinguished citizen of Britain, to which he pledged his allegiance after winning Olympic gold under the Canadian flag. And STILL the last undisputed world heavyweight champion. Has been for two decades. Will remain so until Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk resolve which of them is the first undisputed champ of the four-belt era – hopefully in May.

** FILE ** In this June 21, 2003 file photo, Lennox Lewis holds aloft his champions belts following his WBC/IBO heavyweight championship bout against challenger Vitali Klitschko in Los Angeles. The English-born Lewis headlined the 2009 International Boxing Hall of Fame induction class announced Tuesday Dec. 9, 2008.  (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)
Lennox Lewis holds aloft his champions belts following his WBC/IBO heavyweight championship bout against challenger Vitali Klitschko in Los Angeles in 2003. Credit: MARK J. TERRILL/AP

12. James J Corbett

Renowned as the only man to beat John L Sullivan. Albeit when the Boston Strong Boy came out of long retirement to face the new champion on the block. Enjoyed a professional career of just 36 fights but nearly all against the rest of the best in big-money fights before becoming a film star.

Portrait of James J. Corbett.
Portrait of James J. Corbett. Credit: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

13. Sonny Liston

A monstrous force who intimidated all opponents – including the much-loved Floyd Patterson twice in winning and retaining the world title – until the impudent Ali bewildered and destroyed him. First mentally, then physically.

BOXER SONNY LISTON
Sonny Liston. Credit: xxx

14. Evander Holyfield

The undisputed world cruiserweight champion who then became the only four-time world heavyweight champion. Had an ear bitten off while demolishing a fading Tyson, twice. Proved himself to be very much The Real Deal, as he was dubbed, by maximising his complete boxer-fighter talents in his epic trilogy with Riddick Bowe.

Russian WBA heavyweight champion Nikolai Valuev, right, and Evander Holyfield from the United States exchange punches during their WBA heavyweight boxing world championships fight at the Hallenstadion venue in Zurich, Switzerland, Saturday, Dec. 20, 2008. (AP Photo/Keystone, Walter Bieri)
Nikolai Valuev, right, and Evander Holyfield exchange punches during their WBA heavyweight boxing world championships fight in 2008. Credit: WALTER BIERI/AP

15. Tyson Fury

Clinched this place by following up his dramatic conquest of the long-reigning, if aging, Wladimir Klitschko with his off-the-canvas trilogy against massive puncher Deontay Wilder which made him a two-time world champion. He will climb sharply higher in the ranking if he defeats Usyk to become the undisputed Gypsy King of the ring, although Usyk would storm into the top 25 should he win. As would Anthony Joshua if he were to beat the winner of those two later this year to become a three-time world champion.

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 23: Tyson Fury celebrates victory after the WBC World Heavyweight Title Fight between Tyson Fury and Dillian Whyte at Wembley Stadium on April 23, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Tyson Fury celebrates victory after the WBC World Heavyweight Title Fight between Tyson Fury and Dillian Whyte at Wembley Stadium in 2022. Credit: Julian Finney/Getty Images

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