Ranking the 10 Most Accomplished Heavyweight Champions in Boxing History
Historical rankings are a fool’s errand unless one prescribes a strict set of criteria to base the rankings on. The absence of such is exactly why historical rankings of the 10 greatest heavyweight boxing champions vary so widely from list to list, even among notable writers and recognized historians.
To that end, Bleacher Report offers a ranking of the 10 most accomplished heavyweight champions in boxing history. No thought has been given to who would defeat who in presumed fantasy fights, and special emphasis has been placed on title bout wins, length of championship reign and number of consecutive defenses.
Click through to see the 10 most accomplished heavyweight champions ever.
The most difficult part of making any top-10 list are the cuts one must make to pare down the field. The number of heavyweight champions who have had notable and impressive careers is much higher than 10. Moreover, as one moves further down the list from the top, the gap between the competitors becomes smaller and smaller.
But not everyone could make the final cut. Among those who were considered for the top 10 but didn’t quite end up on the finalized list are James J. Jeffries, Jack Dempsey, Joe Frazier and Mike Tyson.
All four men were all-time great heavyweights who had magnificent accomplishments, but they don’t quite rank among the top 10.
Why He’s Here: Vitali Klitschko finished his impressive career with nine consecutive defenses of the WBC title. Moreover, he’s tied with Lennox Lewis for fifth-most title-bout wins in the division at 15. Like his younger brother, Wladimir, Klitschko is often underrated among contemporary boxing aficionados but will likely be far more appreciated by future historians.
Best Win: After almost four years out of the ring, Klitschko came out of retirement in 2008 and dominated WBC titleholder Samuel Peter over eight one-sided rounds until the contest was finally halted.
Why He’s Here: George Foreman was twice lineal champion with 20 years separating each title reign. He was a standout in the most historically deep heavyweight era ever, the 1970s, and earned the championship again in the other great era of the division, the 1990s. Foreman remains the oldest heavyweight to ever capture the title. He was 45 when he knocked out Michael Moorer in 1994.
Best Win: In 1973, Foreman butchered the previously undefeated Joe Frazier in just two rounds to become heavyweight champion. Foreman knocked Frazier down six times on the way to the destructive win.
Why He’s Here: Probably the greatest cruiserweight ever, Evander Holyfield also won legitimate versions of the heavyweight title four times in his career, including twice capturing the lineal championship. He won 10 total title bouts against a myriad of stalwart opposition and consistently displayed the ability to overcome long odds to recapture heavyweight glory when most folks thought it impossible.
Best Win: Holyfield out-brawled Mike Tyson in 1996 for the WBA heavyweight title by knocking him out in Round 11 of a bout very few believed he could win at the time. The win proved him to be one of the most successful heavyweights ever.
Why He’s Here: Rocky Marciano is the only heavyweight champion to ever retire undefeated. His rugged style and powerful punches made him almost impossible to beat in his era, and he proved resourceful enough over the span of his career to pull out remarkable knockout wins when all seemed lost. Marciano’s mauling style is sometimes underappreciated but was unmistakably effective.
Best Win: Marciano’s Round 13 knockout of Jersey Joe Walcott in 1952 is one of the most dramatic moments in the history of the division. Marciano was down on the scorecards but took care of business with a tremendous overhand right to Walcott’s jaw. There has never been a more perfect KO punch thrown in the ring.
Titles: Lineal champion 1952-55
Why He’s Here: Jack Johnson was the first black heavyweight champion and one of the finest defensive fighters who ever lived. He wore the heavyweight crown for eight years and defended his claim to the throne a total of eight times. Johnson could block and parry punches better than any other heavyweight ever, and his thudding power made mincemeat out of would-be usurpers.
Best Win: Few moments in any sport rival the cultural significance of Johnson’s Round 15 knockout of James J. Jeffries in 1910. Jeffries hadn’t fought in six years and was persuaded to come out of retirement to fight Johnson for racial reasons. Johnson mopped the floor with him.
Titles: Lineal champion 1908-15
Why He’s Here: The younger Klitschko brother is one of the most accomplished heavyweight titleholders ever. He’s held some version of the heavyweight championship since 2008 and has defended it 17 consecutive times, third most in the division’s history. Wladimir Klitschko’s 24 total title bout wins is second only to Joe Louis’s 26.
Best Win: Klitschko’s Round 5 knockout of Kubrat Pulev earlier this year showed how high a ceiling the sensational heavyweight still has even at age 38. Pulev was big, strong and highly credentialed, and he fought as mean as he could. But Klitschko destroyed him with ease and showed why he’d be a tough out for anyone ever.
Why He’s Here: Lennox Lewis is the most accomplished heavyweight of the second-best era in the division’s fabled history. He proved himself to be the class of the 1990s and won a total of 15 title bouts over the course of his impressive career. His wins over Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson make his inclusion in any top-five heavyweight list a no-brainer.
Best Win: Lewis bested fellow all-time great Holyfield by unanimous decision in 1999. The bout was a rematch of their highly controversial draw the prior year. The win made Lewis the unified champion and established the talented big man as the best of his era.
Why He’s Here: Larry Holmes defended his heavyweight championship 20 times before being bested by Michael Spinksin 1985. He earned a total of 21 title bout wins over the course of his career against excellent competition. Holmes probably had the best jab in the history of the division and was adept at throwing punches on the move.
Best Win: Holmes defeated stalwart contender Ken Norton in 1978 to become WBC heavyweight champion. Norton was relentless down the stretch, but Holmes showed the grit and determination he’d need to hold onto at least one version of the heavyweight title for over seven years.
Why He’s Here: Nicknamed “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali comes pretty close to living up to it. He is the only heavyweight to ever hold the lineal championship on three different occasions, and Ali’s 22 title bout wins ranks No. 3 all time. Ali was a fantastic boxer with fast hands and feet. Moreover, his grit and determination were unparalleled, and he proved his quality by being the best heavyweight of the division’s best era, the 1970s.
Best Win: Ali probably fought and defeated the best competition of any heavyweight ever, but his best win was probably his upset of George Foreman in 1974. The Round 8 knockout of the menacing slugger, Foreman, is simply one of the greatest performances in boxing history.
Titles: Lineal champion 1964-70 and 1974-78 and 1978
Why He’s Here: Joe Louis is the standard bearer for heavyweight champions. His lineal championship reign was the longest in the division’s history, and he defended his crown 25 consecutive times, tops among his historical rivals. Moreover, Louis’s 26 total title bout wins is the most ever by a heavyweight in the history of the sport. Louis is quite clearly the most accomplished heavyweight champion ever.
Best Win: Louis knocked out Max Schmeling in Round 1 in 1938 in probably the most significant sporting event of the century. Louis was the first black heavyweight champion since Jack Johnson, while Schmeling was a German who at the time was the sporting symbol of his country’s Nazi regime (whether he cared to be or not). The bout was a rematch of Schmeling’s Round 12 knockout win over Louis in 1936.