Despite that, Larry was an outstanding fighter. Countless historians share the opinion that Larry had the best left jab in the history of the sport. Many of Larry's adversaries found themselves fighting the jab rather than Larry himself. Holmes could also brawl when he needed to. (Watch his slugfest with Ken Norton) He had a strong chin, evidenced by the fact that he survived a thunderous blow from Earnie Shavers; even rising from the canvas to knock him out. It took a prime Mike Tyson three knockdowns to keep Larry on the canvas. (Larry was destroyed by Tyson while making an ill-advised comeback in 1988.) After the loss to Tyson, Holmes regained steam by out-boxing younger fighters like Ray Mercer and Butterbean. The Easton Assassin retired for good in 2002.
2014 Update: Check out my recent interview with Larry Holmes and hear his thoughts on his fights with Tyson, Ali, Norton, Shavers and others.
Joe Louis was terrific, but I have my reservations. He was often put on the canvas by punchers who are not in the league of the boxers I'll mention later in my countdown. Jersey Joe Walcott, Max Schmeling, Buddy Baer, Jimmy Braddock, and some of the others who decked Louis do not compare to George Foreman or Mike Tyson in terms of punching power. If Louis was hurt by 195 pound fighters like Walcott, I don't know how he would survive against the power of modern heavyweights, all of whom are well over 200 pounds. I'm not saying that Joe would definitely lose to guys like Foreman or Liston, but he'd have to knock them out first. It's essential. I know Joe had the power to put them to sleep, but I also see them hurting Joe pretty bad if they catch him. Could Joe Louis cope with the long jab and brute power of Lennox Lewis? Perhaps he could, but again, I'd have to see it happen.
Plus, Louis said himself that he hated to be crowded and smothered, which is certainly what Joe Frazier or Mike Tyson would do to him. I don't see Louis maintaining his composure against a swarming Jack Dempsey attack, either. Although Louis was over the hill when he fought Marciano, I feel that Rocky's smothering style would have troubled him anyway. In fact, I'd give any pressure fighter a good chance at knocking out Louis, mainly because he didn't cope well with pressure. With his flat-footed stance, he was relatively easy to maul over to the ropes and pound on.
Famously, the Brown Bomber also had trouble with "stick and move" fighters like Billy Conn, Bob Pastor, and Jersey Joe Walcott. However, he knocked them dead when he caught them. Because of his style, Muhammad Ali would also give Louis trouble, but Louis would likely stop him late.
Joe Louis was great, but I'm convinced that a few modern fighters would take advantage of his vulnerabilities.
2017 Update: Looking back, I ranked Louis waaaaay too low here. My main reasoning was that he was dropped regularly by 195 pound men like Jersey Joe Walcott, Jim Braddock, etc. This, coupled his relatively small size, made me uncomfortable predicting him to beat guys like Lennox Lewis, for example.
But watching Louis destroy giants like (Buddy) Baer, Primo Carnera, etc, shows me that Louis had the speed and the punch to destroy modern monsters as well. Lewis, the Klitschkos, Bowe, etc, are better boxers than the giants Louis KO'd, but Louis had the speed and attack to get them first, and he knew how to weave his way past a jab and get to the body and land his barrages. Seeing how Louis destroyed men of all sizes and styles, (and almost always by knockout) I should have ranked him #2 behind Muhammad Ali.
One thing about Rocky is that he always found a way to win. He certainly had some close calls, especially against Jersey Joe Walcott and Ezzard Charles. But he managed to gather himself and knock them both out. That's what a true heavyweight champion is supposed to do. The Rock applied constant pressure to his opponents. He went into each fight with superb conditioning, endless stamina, and a will to win. The Rock didn't take any fight lightly. He didn't duck anyone, either. In a time of racial divide, Rocky took on every top ranked black heavyweight. He didn't fear anyone in the ring, no matter how big, slick, or skilled they were. He had the courage and the punch to scramble anybody.
Most other heavyweight champions got lazy or unfocused at some point and lost a fight they shouldn't have lost. Not Rocky. Some critics say that Rocky fought weak competition. While it's true that he didn't fight the high class competition of Muhammad Ali or Lennox Lewis, he fought some decent contenders when you really examine them. Rex Layne, Henry Matthews, Roland LaStarza, Carmine Vingo-- all of these guys were good fighters. (They might even be in the top ten if they were fighting today). Archie Moore and Ezzard Charles were great light-heavyweight fighters, but folded when they stepped up to fight heavyweights. Jersey Joe Walcott had a late prime, (he was fighting the best fight of his career against Marciano until he got cracked) and Joe Louis was still somewhat of a threat despite being 37 years old when he fought Rocky. The Brown Bomber was still fundamentally sound. I have no problem saying that Rocky Marciano was the greatest of all time. I just feel that the men coming up on my list would have likely stopped him. However, you can never count Rocky Marciano out against anyone.
Note: I view Rocky Marciano and Joe Frazier as equals. They're really the same fighter, but it's hard to say who is better. Frazier had faster hands, but relied on his left hook for his knockouts. He was also a more accurate puncher than Marciano. Rocky was lighter than Frazier, but a harder puncher. Marciano could get the job done with either hand, but was prone to cut easy. Both men applied relentless pressure, worked the body, cut the ring, and got stronger as the fight progressed. They both had endless stamina and could take a punch. I guess it's a matter of opinion who was the greater fighter.
2013 Update: Whew boy. I feel basically the same, although I give Frazier a slight edge. Frazier fought at the pace of Henry Armstrong. For a heavyweight to fight at such a fast pace is amazing. If Frazier and Marciano would fight each other, I feel that Frazier would beat Rocky to the punch in most exchanges because his hands were quicker and more accurate. Both guys were tough but I think the smoke would be victorious against the hard rock from Brockton.
2014 Update: If you're a Frazier fan, check out my interview with his son, Marvis Frazier!!
The Manassa Mauler was the "Mike Tyson" of the 1920s. Like Tyson, Dempsey steamrolled his opponents at the opening bell and allegedly has more first round knockouts than anyone else. (Not all of his fights are on record). In fact, boxing's first million dollar gate was attributed to Dempsey's popularity. Everyone wanted to see this kid fight. Luis Firpo knocked Dempsey out of the ring, but Dempsey jumped back through the ropes to knock him out. The fight had 11 knockdowns in only two rounds before Jack ended it. Phenomenal.
Unfortunately, Dempsey went Hollywood soon after winning the heavyweight crown. By the time he returned to the ring years later, he wasn't the same fighter, and was easy pickings for Gene Tunney. After retiring, Dempsey trained other sluggers like Tony Galento and Max Baer, but none of his proteges could live up to Jack's success. In his prime, Dempsey was certainly one of the best ever.
2013 Update: Not much has changed here. I'm a fan of Dempsey but I wish the fight footage of him was better. The grainy fight films make it difficult to analyze him. For example, the late boxing historian Bert Sugar once stated that Dempsey had a quicker and "more ferocious" left hook than Joe Frazier. How can you prove that by watching such bad quality fight films? I wish better footage existed so I could analyze him better. It's hard to enjoy a fight when there are frames missing.
There's only one reason why I can't put Lewis as my number 1 Heavyweight....his chin. Lewis was knocked out twice by a single punch. He avenged those losses, yes, but his chin always kept me on the edge of my seat. With a shaky beard like that, it's difficult to rank him. For example, Rocky Marciano could knock Lewis dead with one shot if he caught him clean.
Other than his questionable ability to take a punch, Lewis was great. He only suffered two defeats. He even unified all three heavyweight titles when he defeated Evander Holyfield in 1999. He finished his career by knocking out Mike Tyson in 2002, and stopping current WBC title-holder, Vitali Klitshcko in 2003. Lennox Lewis is the last Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of The World.
2013 Update: I've somewhat changed my views on his chin. He took some big punches from sluggers like Ray Mercer, David Tua, Tommy Morrison, Vitali Klitschko, Shannon Briggs and many others. When McCall KO'd Lewis, his balance was poor and he didn't see the punch coming. You could argue that the stoppage was premature. As for the Rahman knockout, I'm sure that punch would have put many other former champions to sleep, too. As Lewis bounced off the ropes, the punch broke through his guard and destroyed him. It's one of the more devastating one-punch knockouts I've seen. In both of Lewis' knockout defeats his balance was bad. His chin is better than I originally stated, but not good enough to survive against....
Ironically, I think the old version of George Foreman is more dangerous than the prime one. Young George had stamina problems (something exploited by Ali) and threw wild, looping punches that could be countered. The older George didn't have these issues. He developed a heavy jab reminiscent of his idol, Sonny Liston. His punches were now short and compact. He even put together effective combinations. Remarkably, he was never knocked off his feet during his second career. The mature George surprised many people by giving Tommy Morrison, Shannon Briggs and Evander Holyfield a lot of trouble in their primes. I suggest watching Foreman's fight with Ron Lyle on youtube. Both men hit the canvas several times. Lots of action. Probably the most exciting fight since Jack Dempsey-Luis Firpo.
Several mysteries surround Sonny Liston. No one knows his age, no one knows how he died. Heck, people still debate over what hand he wrote with! Liston's career was derailed when he lost two controversial fights to Muhammad Ali. However, despite his age, he was making a successful comeback and had a long string of knockouts before his untimely death.
NOTE: No fighter was perfect, and Muhammad Ali was no different. He made mistakes in the ring that would have gotten him killed by certain boxers. He fought with his hands down low, he leaned back to avoid punches, and he couldn't block a jab. Fighters like Joe Frazier and Ken Norton punished Ali for these mistakes. Ali also didn't know how to cut the ring or fight as the aggressor. (Watch his fights with Doug Jones and Jimmy Young)
Muhammad Ali was a great fighter, but people overlook his flaws. People never talk about the fact that he ducked George Foreman, never giving him the rematch he deserved. Wonder why? Because Big George wouldn't fall for the "rope-a-dope" trick twice. Ali would inevitably have to meet George in center ring and slug it out. In the 1970s, Ali didn't have the speed to allude Foreman, so he would have been clobbered and seriously hurt. Don't get me wrong. Ali did great things for boxing. He brought theatre to the sport. I enjoy him as much as everyone else. But is he the "greatest of all time?" I doubt it.
2013 Update: I still stand by this for the most part. However, I've changed my mind about the outcome of an Ali-Foreman rematch. Following his loss to Ali in Zaire, George became obsessed with maintaining his stamina and was hesitant to "pull the trigger" during his fights after 1974. I still feel that George wouldn't fall for the rope-a-dope again, but he'd be too afraid to let loose. Ali would get a comfortable decision over an insecure Foreman who would be too tense to let his fists fly.
Regarding Muhammad Ali, I have a high level of respect for what he did during the 1960s concerning Civil Rights and his religion. But in the ring, I'd still pick several guys to beat him, even at his best. Ali's speed on hand and foot was tremendous but he wasn't untouchable even during his prime. During the 1960s, George Chuvalo landed plenty of body shots and even stunned Ali with a right cross. (Watch the 13th round for the right hand I'm talking about). Karl Mildenberger and Henry Cooper also caught Ali with great shots but couldn't finish him. These guys were decent fighters at best and even they had success catching Ali. Even at his peak, Ali fought with his hands down low, leaned his head back from punches and couldn't parry or block a jab.
In the 1970s, Ali received gift decisions in the fights with Ken Norton, Jimmy Young, and the 1974 fight with Frazier. You could also argue that Earnie Shavers was robbed in his fight with Ali as well. I think people are caught up in the excitement and legend of Muhammad Ali more than anything else. He was an outstanding fighter. But if we're talking head to head, was he the best of all time? No. That award goes to....
Trained by the late Cus D'Amato, Tyson adopted the crouching style of Floyd Patterson, but combined it with Sonny Liston's power and Jack Dempsey's aggression. Tyson also had quick hand speed and scary punching accuracy. This, juxtaposed to his bone-crushing power, made him one explosive puncher.
With Kevin Rooney in his corner, the self-confident 19 year-old Mike Tyson would smash most of the other Heavyweight legends during a head-on collision in the ring. Does he beat Ali? I think so. We saw what Joe Frazier did to Ali--he had him pissing blood. He also had him on the verge of quitting in The Thrilla In Manilla. Mike Tyson was a bigger, faster, and more talented version of Smokin Joe. Like Frazier, Tyson would cut the ring, corner Ali against the ropes, and bang him in the ribs. Tyson would slip the swift Ali jab, get inside, and land some crushing counters. Like I mentioned earlier, Muhammad fought with his hands down--not smart against Tyson. Ali said himself on the Arsenio Hall Show that Tyson would put him to sleep if he caught him.
On the rare occasions when an opponent remained on his feet, Mike stayed on them, relentlessly pressing and battering them to get the decision. Watch his fights with Tony Tucker and Mitch Green.
To be objective, I only see George Foreman or possibly Sonny Liston giving a peak Mike Tyson any real trouble. Things began to go south for Tyson in 1988 when he fired Kevin Rooney, hired Promoter Don King, and married Robin Givens. He lost focus, and things deteriorated from there.
Tyson's youth was his blessing as well as his curse. He got too much, too quick. Less than five years after robbing people, he was the Heavyweight Champion of The World. The leeches, the women, the money, the fame; all of it came to Tyson before he was mature enough to handle it all. Tyson's prime was only five years, but during that time period, he ruled the heavyweight division with an iron fist.
Everyone knows that Tyson began to lack stamina and self-confidence later in his career. He crumbled like a cookie when his opponents stood up to him and fought back. But I'm not talking about that version of Mike Tyson. You can't compare the sensational 20 year-old Mike Tyson to the insecure 30 year-old version.
To really evaluate Mike Tyson, watch him during 1985-1988. He became the youngest Heavyweight Champion of all time. He was also the first fighter to unify all three World Heavyweight Championships. During that time period, he was the best fighter ever. I don't think we'll ever see a specimen like that again.
Here's a list of the fighters who almost made the list, but fell short. I'll briefly explain why.
Jack Johnson-- Everyone on this list would knock him out.
Evander Holyfield--Too inconsistent as a fighter. Struggled with old Foreman and Holmes. Lost to Moorer, Bowe, Ruiz and others.
Floyd Patterson--Skilled fighter, but had a glass jaw. Too many losses.
David Tua--My favorite boxer. He never lived up to his potential, though. Never won a world championship.
2017 Updates: My views have flip-flopped a lot over the years. I have a new list (head to head) and it's almost nothing like the list I wrote here several years ago. Without further adieu..
1) Muhammad Ali - His speed and toughness would allow him to prevail over anyone. 1964-67 Ali was light years ahead of everyone else, and I don't see anyone beating him, much less stopping him.
2) Joe Louis - He was mean, and combined fierce accuracy, speed and explosive power. I don't care how big you are; you will fall when Joe Louis has you hurt. He was also an intelligent ring general, setting you up for a big finish as early as round 1.
3) Lennox Lewis - Basically a bigger and slower version of Joe Louis in some ways. When Lewis is focused, chances are you're not going to beat him.
4) Vitali Klitschko - Lewis fought better competition, which is why he gets the nod over Vitali in my book. But Vitali's size and awkwardness would overcome the rest of the guys I'm about to mention.
5) Larry Holmes - Great jab and movement. Tough guy.
6) George Foreman - Need I say more?
7) Mike Tyson - Tyson drops much lower than I had him initially. He never lived up to his full potential and lost his legacy fights. These days I'm more into facts than the hypothical "What if's." For different reasons, Tyson blew it. But his speed and power make him a huge threat to anyone.
8) Sonny Liston - One bad mutha.
9) Wladimir Klitschko -Wlad was a monster in his own right. But his chin lowers his ranking here. Any of these guys above could slay him if they land.
10) Joe Frazier/Rocky Marciano - These guys were well-conditioned and put their opponents under so much pressure. They're so similar that if they switched eras Frazier would have gone undefeated and Marciano would have lost to Ali and Foreman. They fight like brutal energizer bunnies and make their opponents increasingly uncomfortable.
Honorable mentions to Jack Dempsey and Evander Holyfield, who were also very capable fighters but not consistent enough to make the final cut.