This next post is the culmination of more than 3 years of research. I am a geek, and have always enjoyed lists and rankings. Others have ranked the all-time greatest boxers, both per weight-class, and pound-for-pound. For these last three years, I have been working on sort of a master list of the greatest heavyweights ever, organized by overall strength of resume. Forget head-to-head, as it’s nearly impossible to successfully estimate how fighters from vastly different eras would do fighting one-another, and such a ranking would be far more subjective and imprecise than merely tallying up actual in-ring accomplishments.
This post is an introduction and explanation of the methodology I have used in tallying up my top heavyweights list.
In the sport of boxing, greatness is often difficult to accurately assess. Different individuals have different criteria for measuring greatness. Is a fighter great because they look great? Because they overwhelm and outfight lesser opponents? Or because they face the best there is to offer, regardless of the outcome? Is greatness based on the number of titles and championships won? Is it based on how long they contended or dominated? Few will agree to the exact formula. There likely isn’t one. Lists of greatest fighters frequently vary, though a combination of criteria tends to be used.
Boxing revolves around rankings. More than almost any other sport, ranking fighters is the one way to tell who’s the best. Win-loss record means everything in team sports. However, it’s the record that provides the ranking in football, baseball, soccer, and so on. In individual sports, where schedules are more sporadic and chaotic than in sports leagues, the win-loss record means less. It’s not so much how many wins one has as who those wins are against.
Rankings generally serve to tell who is the best in each weight class, or on a pound-for-pound basis. Champions are decided via rankings.
Another way to rank fighters is historically. Who was the best ever? Or of a certain era? In one weight or all of them? These type of exercises don’t mean all that much to active fighters, but to fans, experts, writers, and historians, they are the best kind of discussions.
I am concentrating my study on heavyweights only. Fighters who have been linear champions or top ten contenders at heavyweight will be considered. There are men who contended at lower weights and moved up to heavyweight. My ranking insists on giving only a cursory glance to deeds outside the realm of the big men. Ezzard Charles was one of the greatest fighters ever at middleweight and light heavyweight, holding multiple wins over contenders, champions, and Hall-of-Famers at both weights. However, those wins would only pad his stats unfairly against other heavyweights. His fights against the big men will be the ones I consider for him.
In boxing, I have given much thought to the heavyweights. Other weight classes have provided great matchups, but there is something I find uniquely fascinating about the fighters who are the literal best in the sport at any given point. Sure, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao have been the best fighters in the world over the last decade, but in an actual fight, either man would lose quickly and painfully to Wladimir Klitschko. Size doesn’t always matter in boxing, but at the top of the sport, when skill levels are close, size becomes more and more of a factor.
The heavyweight division has always been a glamour division, pretty much from the start of the modern boxing era, around 1885 or so. Since then, heavyweights on average have grown larger and stronger. Modern training regimens, better nutrition, and more time between fights have improved the physicality of heavyweight boxers. However, it is arguable if actual boxing skills have improved. Fighting more often and against consistently better competition allowed fighters from the 20s and 30s and 40s to hone their skills in such a way that top fighters now could never hope to. The current heavyweight champion, Wladimir Klitschko, has been the linear champ (by most recognition) since June 2009. As of this writing, it is just under 5 years later, and he has fought 10 times since (and including) that 9th round TKO over Ruslan Chagaev. That’s twice a year, and he’s considered quite active among modern heavyweights.
Naturally, this makes comparing all-time accomplishments a bit tricky, when taking into account fighters from the first two decades of the 20th century like Sam Langford, who fought between 311 and 316 times (accounts vary) over a 24 year career vs Joe Frazier, who fought all but one of his 37 professional bouts in an 11 year span between 1965 and 1976. Langford averaged 13 fights a year compared to a little over 3 for Frazier. And yet, many rank Frazier above, or at least near, Langford in the pantheon of fistic greatness.
Active fighters (as of 2014) will be considered, though that requires some updating as time goes forward. This is not an impediment, but merely an enrichment to a deep history that is as impressive and varied as any major popular sport.
My principal criteria is based primarily on resume. To my eyes, who one fights should be the most important aspect in measuring greatness. There have been fighters who have lacked an eye-pleasing style, or dynamic skill set, who nonetheless have faced and beaten formidable opponents. That is what matters. In recent history, super middleweight contenders Carl Froch and Lucian Bute have provided a clear example of this phenomenom. Bute and Froch were almost universally agreed to be the 2nd and 3rd best fighters in the 168 pound class nearing the midpoint of 2012. Bute won a belt years before and had spent several fights defending it against decent, but rarely world-class opposition, though he nearly always won easily and in style. Bute showcased his remarkable athleticism, speed, power, and reflexes to dominate several good, though hardly great foes. By comparison, Froch fought a gauntlet of the best 168 pound fighters in the world, mostly thanks to the Showtime Networks’ Super Six Tournament. Froch lost two fights in a seven fight span, and others were close and hotly-contested. Froch himself possessed an awkward style. He had some power, little speed, decent reflexes, an excellent chin, and an impressive will to win. His underrated boxing skills and unerrant self-belief allowed him to remain competitive against world-class boxers over and over. Yet, in many rankings by thoughtful and knowledgable boxing experts, Bute ranked higher than Froch, both in a pound for pound sense, and at their mutual weight class.
Some experts considered the fight a toss-up, but a substantial number deemed Bute’s skills and physical attributes to be too much for Froch to handle. He just looked too good. Froch was acknowledged to have talent, but he often fought more like a caveman. Then the fight actually happened, and Froch proved why fights aren’t won and lost on paper. Froch and Bute fought on even terms through only the first round. From then on, Froch had his way with Bute, walking through his best shots, backing him up, intimidating him, and beating him up. Froch didn’t care that Bute looked flashy and fast, and had some impressive one-punch knockouts to his credit. Froch just moved forward, didn’t let Bute breathe, and bludgeoned him to a one-sided fifth round stoppage. Froch proved that fighters prove their worth by fighting the best and proving themselves. The eye test is secondary.
Marcos Maidana recently did something similar to this with both Adrien Broner and Floyd Mayweather. He fought with no respect for their alleged skills (though in the case of Mayweather, the skills are more than alleged). Maidana has his own skill set, but he is known to be somewhat crude. Nonetheless, force of will can overcome pedigree and boxing acumen. The dominating win over Broner and the close and somewhat controversial loss to Mayweather spit in the face of those who fight on paper instead of in the ring. Sometimes a fighter is just good. Who they beat is the ultimate proof of that.
We make do, however. I went through books, websites, particularly Boxrec.com, and magazines, to compile a list of the greatest heavyweights of all time. First, we just start with the champions. Linear championships are the only ones I rank. Alphabet soup titles are corrupt and meaningless. In most cases, I use the Ring Magazine championship as my guide, as well as the historical record from boxrec, the Cyber Boxing Zone, ESPN, and Sports Illustrated. I decided to leave out the three champions from the 19th century. While they were great fighters, John L Sullivan, James J Corbett, and Robert Fitzsimmons are products of an earlier era. Records were not kept very well, the fights themselves were often shady, unsanctioned, and sometimes illegal. There were no organized ratings systems. The rules themselves had not yet entirely soildified. I decided to start my ranking roughly with 1900 and the reign of maybe the first “modern” heavyweight champion, Jim Jeffries. Jeffries fought pretty much all of his fights under the Marquess of Queensberry rules, with gloves and a basically modern ring. At 6’1½” and 225 very solid pounds, Jeffries was the size of a modern heavyweight, with equally impressive athletic ability. The fact that most of his career was contained within the 20th century helps. So, from Jeffries on, we find a total of 40 linear reigns held by 34 men. One man (Muhammad Ali) held the title 3 times, and 4 (Floyd Patterson, Evander Holyfield, George Foreman, Lennox Lewis) have held it twice.
That’s a good start. 34. However, there were many great fighters who never won the title. Many were among the top possible contenders for years, and held wins over those aforementioned champions. A large number don’t even require me pouring over lists of rankings, as their exploits are well-known. But there are a great many more that deserve mention, and even sometimes deserve higher ranking than some of the champions.
Originally, I wanted to settle on a nice, round number of 100 for this list. It’s a big number, and a psychologically satisfying one. However, I sometimes struggle to edit myself, and I found plenty of really good fighters with big wins to their credit below the top 100. Also, a few of the linear champions ended up ranking below 100. So, after much research and time, I came up with a grand total of 178 fighters. I actually went over the records of closer to 300, but there were many with no wins over top ten contenders, or even very many competitive losses. My final total comprises men who at one point or another were all in the top ten of their division, and every single one fought against top ten opponents. Only 8 of the final 178 had zero top ten wins, but those men all managed to crack the top ten at some point, and still made for significant fights. There are no tomato cans in this group.
February 2017 update: The ranking is now officially up to 200 heavyweights. It’s actually at 202, but my title is going to remain 200. I added a couple more active fighters, but mostly just found some overlooked greats from the past. Unless I end up adding a whole bunch more, it’s going to remain the top 200, at least in name. My ratings and methodology remain unchanged, however.
For my rankings, I decided to count only 4 factors as the primary measurements to greatness. I wanted to see first and foremost what kind of record each fighter had against opponents ranked in the top ten at the time they fought. I was willing to consider both top ten rankings going into the fight, and top ten rankings as a result of the fight’s outcome. While there are certainly skilled and worthy opponents who were not ranked in the top ten, I wanted to separate the good from the great. To me, the most important criteria are fight outcomes between the best possible opponents. For the rankings, I went with those of the Ring Magazine. The Ring has been around since 1919, and has compiled top ten ratings and champions since 1924. They are the oldest and most respected boxing publication still operating. There have been some points of contention over the years, a legitimate scandal in the late 70s, and some grumbling over championship policy changes in the last couple years. However, as a whole, the Ring ratings have been fair, accurate, and generally unbiased. Even now, despite being owned by a promoter, the magazine’s heavyweight top ten is pretty much in line with every other major and respected publication. Compare its current top ten to that of the Transnational Boxing Ratings Board, BoxingScene.com, ESPN.com, and BadLeftHook.com. There is very little difference in the rankings, and no clear or obvious bias toward that particular promoter. The Ring also has the advantage of having its historical ratings appear online in easy-to-research format (mostly through boxrec.com).
What do we do about 1900-1923, before there was an official top ten? That took a bit more research. Starting with the champions of the era, I went through their best opponents and analyzed their records, as well as the records of those opponents. After slogging through wins and losses between more than 100 fighters during that 23 year period, I believe I was able to get a pretty good handle on who would be top ten or very close on each fighter’s record. It isn’t perfect, and there are likely to be points of contention, but in these eyes, I’ve got a pretty solid list of the best of the best among heavyweights of the first quarter of the 20th century. There are plenty of examples of fighters who contested against one another a dozen times or more, so I was careful to only use those fights in which the opponent was still in his prime and a clear top contender. By 1920 or so, Sam Langford (as an example) was losing more and more, and falling out of what would generally be considered contention, so fighters who beat and lost to him after that point (or thereabouts) would not be able to include said fights on their list of top ten scalps.
What other criteria do I use? After records against the top ten, I rate records against men who held the heavyweight crown, whether they held it at the time of the fight nonwithstanding. Then I rate records against fighters inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. This one is a bit trickier. There are plenty of examples of fighters who took on hall-of-famers at lower weights before moving up to heavy. Those wins (and losses and draws) will not count. Fighting Archie Moore at light heavy, as Joey Maxim did, will not count toward his heavyweight record. However, Archie did take on plenty of heavies above the light heavyweight limit. Those fights will count.
In 1963, Gregorio Peralta, weighing 183 ½ lbs, won a 10 round decision over Hall-of-Famer Willie Pastrano. In 1964, Pastrano won the rematch by 5th round TKO. Both men weighed 174 ¾ lbs. The fight was for Pastrano’s light heavyweight title.
In my rankings of these fighters, the first fight will count toward Peralta’s record against HOF fighters, as the fight was held above the light heavyweight limit. However, the next fight was held at light heavyweight, and will therefore not be counted.
Finally, I also rate records in fights for the linear heavyweight championship.
It took me some time to settle on a formula for fairly rating fighters on a numerical basis. To me, the most important gauge of greatness is resume. Who were the best fighters each man defeated, and lost to? I deem top ten wins and losses to be the most telling statistic in determining the overall value of a fighter. I took the total number of top ten wins, then added that to the total plus/minus rating of the fighter’s top ten win/loss ledger. Finally, the wins against Hall-of-Fame inductees, linear champions, and wins for the linear crown are added to the total. I weigh top ten wins more heavily than the others, primarily because wins against Hall-of-Famers and champs can be a crapshoot, competition-wise. For example, current champ Klitschko has (as of November 2014) 14 wins over top ten contenders, and one win over a linear champ. However, it’s difficult to consider that a quality win, as the champ in question, Hasim Rahman, was nowhere near contender status at the time they fought. He may have been deserving of a spot at the bottom of the top 25 at that point in late 2008. So, while I think it’s fair to count the win as a win over a former champ, there should be no other special mention due to Rahman’s status as an also-ran at that point in time. Had the fight occurred in 2004 or 2005, when Rahman was still a top contender, the win would count as a much better one for Wladimir, giving him another notch on his top ten belt, as well as the champion scalp.
Totaling this up… I was going to use an actual fighter for the example, but I don’t want to give away anything yet. The rankings are obviously just an intellectual exercise, but it’s still something that took quite a bit of time and research, and spoiling the final results is not something I want to do.
So, my imaginary fighter Example “Bad” Example had a record of 5 wins and 3 losses against top ten contenders, as well as a win over a linear champion, and 3 wins and a loss against hall of famers. He fought twice for the title, winning it the first time, and losing his first defense, going 1-1.
Mr. Example, then would have a score of 5 (top ten wins), then a score of +2 (top ten wins minus losses), and finally 10 (wins over the top ten again plus wins over champs, HOFers, and linear title wins). His grand total score would be 17 – which would actually be in the top 50, at the risk of a small spoiler. Mr. Bad Example could fight, it seems. Apologies to Warren Zevon.
One might notice that I don’t weigh losses very heavily. Well, unless they were against the top available fighters, meaning the top ten, I don’t think they should matter all that much. Many truly great fighters had plenty of losses late in their careers, against less-than-great opponents. It’s a sad truth of boxing that very few fighters get out of the game anywhere near their primes. Many fighters were broke by the end of their careers, taking fights on short notice, helping to build the records of young prospects looking to get a win over a formerly great name. If I counted losses outside of a boxer’s competitive prime too much, then greats with double digit loss totals like Sam Langford and Ezzard Charles would see huge drops in their overall standing, despite the losses not having much bearing on their total accomplishments.
Starting with my next post, I will start listing, one-by-one, the top 200 heavyweight boxers of all time. Truthfully, this list, while as objective as can be, still contains bias and conjecture. It isn’t perfect, and I think it likely gets more accurate the closer to the top one gets… so, numbers 200 to maybe 140 or so may be a bit more interchangeable. Maybe I missed a small number of worthy contenders. It’s possible. Don’t take this list too seriously. I have learned not to. I just hope this is as enjoyable to read as it was to write and research.