The greatest heavyweight champions
of all time*

1. Muhammad Ali: It would be hard to imagine another career that could make so elegant a case for the title of The Greatest. Ali conquered great fighters of every style, and in most cases he did so in two or three different fashions, as the years forced his style to evolve from a reliance on speed to a reliance on guile. Ali's speed was unmatched (both hand and foot), his power was underrated (as Cleveland Williams found out), and he could take a punch with the best of them (who else could have emerged a winner in both Kinshasa and Manila?). If Ali hadn't come along to win where they said it couldn't be done, all arguments about the greatest heavyweight of all time might well have come down to Liston vs. Foreman. Ali took care of the out-and-out knockout punchers (Liston, Foreman, Shavers), the relentless grinders (Frazier, Quarry, Chuvalo), and the master boxers (Patterson, Folley). He won both by not being hit (Liston) and by proving he couldn't be hurt (Foreman). He would have found a way to beat anyone.

2. Joe Louis: The Brown Bomber's shuffling footwork would have been his downfall against Muhammad Ali, but in his prime, his incredible hand speed and punching power would have conquered anyone else. The record says it all (and is there a better example in all of history of learning from one's mistakes than Louis-Schmeling 2?).

3. Sonny Liston, 4. George Foreman, 5. Mike Tyson: I'll hazard my best guess and list 'em in this order, but we're really talking about a single entity here: The Beast. There have been other devastating punchers who wore the heavyweight-championship belt (see Nos. 2, 7 and 9), but these three epitomize the tough-guy mystique the heavyweight championship is supposed to stand for (sorry, Cassius). All three spent a good deal of their lives on the wrong side of the law (only Foreman was eventually able to turn things around), and all three delighted in terrifying opponents into virtual submission before the first bell. Not many authorities would rate this trio so highly, but I don't think Liston and Foreman should be unduly penalized for succumbing to the Ali genius. Louis's lightning fists might have knocked them out before they had a chance to get him first, but, with all due respect to the men listed below, I don't think any of them could have done what Ali did -- found the magic to beat Liston and Foreman. As for Tyson, his demonstrated lack of success against opponents who aren't terrified of him makes him difficult to rate. Who's to say whether, say, Joe Frazier would have been afraid of him? For purposes of this ranking, in any case, I'm talking not about The Mouth That Gored, but about the Cus D'Amato Tyson, the perpetual-motion buzzsaw who didn't stop until the opponent fell. The slow, lazy, don't-mind-being-hit Mike Tyson who was undone by Buster Douglas and Evander Holyfield certainly would have been undone by Gene Tunney and Jack Johnson, but the real Mike Tyson, Cus's perfect synthesis of Liston and Patterson, was an awesome specimen indeed. I think even an unafraid Holyfield would have been knocked out by this fighter.

6. Gene Tunney: In the evolution of the master boxer, Tunney comes between Corbett and Ali. He made his case for greatness with a nearly unblemished record and his mastery of Jack Dempsey. The argument against him would include the fact that the two Dempsey fights made up practically Tunney's entire career as a heavyweight. Many people still rate Tunney below Dempsey despite the two victories, but I don't think Jack should be given credit for a victory he never achieved, Long Count or not.

7. Jack Dempsey: I consider the Manassa Mauler more of a brawler (see Nos. 3-5 for my idea of a mauler), and that's why I rank him lower than many experts do. He got hit a lot, and when you get hit a lot you're vulnerable. Still, his punching power alone places him high on the list.

8. Jack Johnson: Johnson is a tough one to rate. By all accounts he was a master boxer who could also punch, but the marquee moments in his career -- torturing a long-retired Jim Jeffries, having to get off the canvas to plaster middleweight Stanley Ketchel, getting knocked out by Jess Willard (asterisk duly noted) and clowning around against a roster of mostly undistinguished opponents -- fail to make a convincing case for the lofty position many would accord him. Worse yet are the fight films, with the incessant circling of the fists like something out of an out-take from "Sanford and Son." Johnson may well have been much better than I'm rating him, but for me the proof just isn't there.

9. Rocky Marciano: I see Marciano almost precisely as I see Dempsey, and yet I see Johnson beating Marciano but Dempsey beating Johnson. Go figure. As I implied with the Dempsey comparison, Marciano was a relatively small heavyweight with an unqualifiedly huge wallop. He's also the only undefeated heavyweight champion in history. Marciano did an awful lot with what he had, but his incredibly short arms (he was the anti-Liston), along with his tendency to cut, lead me to believe he would have picked up a loss or two in an era with a larger supply of quality heavyweights.

10. Joe Frazier: Smokin' Joe was never the same after the first Ali fight, but the relentless aggression he displayed in that 1971 encounter would make him a challenge for just about anyone. His left hook was brutal, but he didn't have the one-punch knockout power of a Liston, Foreman or Tyson, and the two Foreman fights showed he was vulnerable against the heavy hitters.

11. Larry Holmes: Perhaps he's too recent to get a fair shake from history, but the Easton Assassin piled up some pretty impressive numbers with his smooth boxing and underrated punching.

12. Jim Jeffries: A bigger prototype of Dempsey, Jeffries was an awesome figure in his day.

13. Jersey Joe Walcott: The often-beaten Arnold Raymond Cream is not found on many all-time lists, but a look at his performances against Louis and Marciano shows why he belongs. He beat Louis in their first fight; he just didn't get the decision. And he was beating the heck out of Marciano in their first fight when the Rock hit him with the punch immortalized in that gruesome photograph.

14. Jim Corbett: The inventor of pugilistic dancing did to John L. Sullivan what Gene Tunney did to Jack Dempsey, and what Cassius Clay did to Sonny Liston: the impossible.

15. Floyd Patterson: He had a glass jaw, but he also had lightning-quick hands -- you could argue they were faster than Ali's -- and underrated punching power.

16. Ezzard Charles: The Holyfield of his day, Ezzard was a solid all-around boxer-puncher with below-average size but above-average heart. I have to go with Jersey Joe Walcott as the better all-time fighter, but there was little separating him and Charles in their day.

17. Max Schmeling: A smart, capable fighter who was able to dismantle the great Joe Louis, at least the first time.

18. Evander Holyfield: The Ezzard Charles of the '80s and '90s rewrote the book on Mike Tyson. I still think the Tyson of old would have taken care of Evander, especially given Holyfield's decidedly mixed results against the likes of Bowe and Moorer, but the Real Deal proved a lot in his courageous, tactically perfect demolitions of the allegedly iron Mike.

For more information on the heavyweight champions,
check out Don Sibrel's comprehensive history.

*This list includes only legitimate champions -- those who can trace their title back to the Corbett-Sullivan fight. (In other words, crazy as it may seem, George Foreman is still the legitimate heavyweight champion in my book, even though Tyson would murder him.) My list excludes Sullivan (I consider Corbett-Sullivan an elimination bout held to crown the first real gloved champion), as well as the it-wouldn't-have-mattered-anyway crowd, from Marvin Hart to Ernie Terrell to Ken Norton (who might have squeaked in at the end of the list) to Tate-Weaver-Dokes-Coetzee- Witherspoon-Thomas-Page-Tubbs-Smith-Berbick-Lewis-McCall-Bruno, etc. It includes only 18 names because I felt the talent line had to be drawn somewhere. I have tried to be faithful to real-world expectations, up to a point: Despite Bob Fitzsimmons's accomplishments, for example, he was essentially a middleweight and likely would have gotten his ass kicked by any number of today's 250-pound no-talent tubs. On the other hand, Jim Corbett, who lost to Fitzsimmons, gets a place on the list, for I feel his size, style and talent would have given him a chance with the rest of the bunch, aside from his historic significance.