To evaluate and compare the relative popularity of fighters from different historical eras, I used four separate and more or less equal criteria:
1. Stature and fame within the sports world and popular culture of their own era;
2. Lasting visibility within modern popular culture;
3. Actual historical importance as a fighter;
4. Genuine affection from the public.
I have tried my best to make this an objective list. This is not a list of my 20 favorite fighters.
However, I am a 41-year-old American fan and that shows. I've selected fighters from the late 1800s through the present, but fighters from the 1970s, '80s and '90s are heavily represented. There is also a clear bias towards North American fighters, with popularity largely defined by visibility within the United States media.
For example, the Klitschko brothers' fights in Germany have the atmosphere of rock concerts and the two are major celebrities both there and in their native Ukraine. A European fan could fairly object that the brothers are as popular as many of the fighters on my list.
Heavyweights dominate here, which should hardly come as a surprise. For many decades of the 20th century, boxing was among the most popular of professional sports and the heavyweight champion, by definition, was one of the most popular heroes of the day.
Since May of 2004, Roy Jones Jr. 55(40)-8(4), has compiled a 6-7 record and the only notable opponent he has beaten was a smaller, past-his-prime Felix Trinidad. This eight-year stretch of sub-mediocrity has somewhat obscured the fact that he was the most talented boxer of his generation, and one of the top few pound-for-pound fighters of the past 40 years.
Prior to 2004, Jones' only career loss had been a disqualification against Montell Griffin. In 1997, International Boxing Digest ranked him as the top pound-for-pound fighter of all time.
Jones had already become well known to American sports fans prior to the 1988 Seoul Olympics, in which he was considered a sure bet for gold. He ended up winning a silver medal, instead, but only because he fell victim to perhaps the worst judging decision in the history of Olympic boxing, losing to Korean native Park Si-Hun.
I can still vividly see Si-Hun in my mind's eye, turning his head and staring in disbelief, stunned along with everybody else as the ref raised his hand in victory.
Jones' brilliant pro career unfortunately coincided with an era when boxing as a sport was falling in popularity with the American public. Jones nevertheless achieved mainstream popularity, taking on acting roles and recording rap albums.
I've heard Bob Arum say in press conferences that Miguel Cotto, 37(30)-2(2), has sold more tickets in Madison Square Garden than any other fighter since 2000. I've even read interviews where he maintained that Cotto had probably sold more tickets at the Garden than Muhammad Ali.
Last December I covered Cotto's rematch against Antonio Margarito in the Garden, so I can report firsthand that perhaps the most hallowed venue in boxing history is unquestionably Junito's House. The crowd at a Rangers or Knicks game could be no more partisan.
Cotto is a kind of textbook example for how a fighter can achieve superstar popularity. He has an extremely passionate fanbase comprised of his fellow Puerto Ricans but is swelled by fans from every background who admire his fighting style and his determined character.
If Cotto can pull off an upset against Floyd Mayweather Jr. on May 5 of this year, his popularity will sky rocket.
The Pride of Lowell, Massachusetts, Micky Ward, 38(27)-13(1), was a fighter like his famed rival Arturo Gatti—the kind that made people fans of the sport. Off the top of my head, I can think of two different people who have told me they became boxing fans as a direct result of watching one of their three famous wars.
As a boxing talent, Ward would rank somewhere above a journeyman, though he never won a major world title. His popularity was based upon the ferocious way he fought—particularly his brutal body attacks, which stood in stark contrast to his calm and soft-spoken demeanor.
Of course it's no secret that Ward's spot on this list was secured thanks to Mark Wahlberg's portrayal of him in the 2010 biopic The Fighter. Ward's career made him a beloved figure to boxing fans, but having his exciting story dramatized in an award-winning movie starring one of Hollywood's biggest stars took his popularity to a new level.
To me, Oscar De La Hoya, 39(30)-6(2), sometimes seems like the last great American boxing star, an Olympic gold medal hero enthusiastically embraced by the public from the very start of his career.
"The Golden Boy" returned from Barcelona in 1992 with his likeness on a box of Wheaties and his name already splashed across the pages of important publications like Sports Illustrated. Within two years and 12 fights, he had beaten 16-0 Jimmi Bredahl for the WBO super featherweight title.
For the rest of the decade, De La Hoya took on and defeated some of the sport's toughest competitors, such as Julio Cesar Chavez, Pernell Whitaker, Hector Camacho and Ike Quartey.
Still a young man, De La Hoya has already transitioned into a very successful promotional career and remains among the sport's most visible figures.
Julio Cesar Chavez, 107(86)-6(4)-2, was among the greatest boxing attractions of the 1980's and perhaps the greatest Mexican champion of all time. Chavez had a relentless, crowd-pleasing style, a granite chin and a brutally punishing body attack.
Chavez's last-second, come-from-behind knockout of Meldrick Taylor was The Ring's Fight of the Year for 1990 and was later selected as fight of the decade. Tragically, Chavez's furious attack destroyed Taylor as an elite fighter and quite likely precipitated his post-career health problems.
There was a great deal of controversy over whether or not Richard Steele's stoppage with two seconds left was appropriate. My own opinion is that Taylor had already taken significant damage going into the last round (even though I would still score him comfortably ahead) and was in desperate condition, and with more than enough time left for Chavez to possibly put him into a coma.
Against Greg Haugen in Mexico City, Chavez fought in front of over 130,000 fans.
The Rocky series might be more commercially popular, but I'd be willing to bet that a poll of movie critics and film school graduates would be nearly unanimous in naming Raging Bull, the story of Jake Lamotta's turbulent career and life, the greatest boxing movie ever made.
Jake Lamotta, 83(30)-19(4)-4, was a world champion and an extremely popular fighter during his career, at a time when boxing stood alongside baseball as the nation's most popular sport. But in Raging Bull, Robert De Niro did for Lamotta what Marky Mark did for Micky Ward, except on steroids.
It's no exaggeration to say that De Niro's performance in this movie made the Bronx Bull a cultural icon. The line, "You never got me down, Ray," was a kind of all-purpose statement of defiance among sports and pop culture wise guys of my generation.
I think the clip I've linked here deserves to be on a short list of the most well-crafted movie scenes in the history of film. It's not too radically far from the actual finish, either.
If this was a list of most disliked fighters, Floyd Mayweather Jr, 42(26)-0, could very well be at the top of it. If you doubt me, spend a little time browsing the Bleacher Report readers' comment section.
But that kind of public animosity is a form of popularity all by itself. And Mayweather has no shortage of legitimate fans. Mayweather has been among the greatest pay-per-view revenue generators in the sport's history. He is a big enough mainstream star to have walked into professional wrestling pay-per-view events.
Mayweather is unquestionably among the most skilled boxers of his generation and never hesitates to rank himself as the greatest of all time. With his big May 5 bout with Miguel Cotto looming and his jail sentence behind that, it's a tough time to really assess what Mayweather's ultimate, all-time standing might be.
Either way, he's been one of the sport's biggest stars during an era when boxing has had few enough of them left.
Born and raised on New York City's lower east side during the years when it was a violent ghetto, Rocky Graziano, 67(52)-10(3)-6, overcame a misspent youth and stints in reform school and jail to become a world middleweight champion and one of the hardest punchers to ever fight in the 160-pound division.
In the late 1940's he fought a classic three-fight series with Tony Zale. The first fight, a six-round KO victory by Zale, was The Ring 1946 Fight of the Year. The second fight, a six-round TKO win for Graziano, won the same honors in 1947.
But it was Graziano's post-fight career that pushed his popularity into the mainstream. Graziano's autobiography, Somebody Up There Likes Me, was the basis for the Oscar-winning 1956 movie starring Paul Newman.
Graziano himself gravitated towards show business and acted in television shows and appeared on variety shows from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s. He also took up painting and had his work displayed in numerous New York City galleries.
This is one of the entries on the list that I anguished over, because I wonder if I have Joe Frazier ranked high enough. At the height of his career, he was among the most well-known fighters in the word, simply by virtue of being Muhammad Ali's greatest rival.
But with his explosive and relentless style, his Olympic gold medal and world heavyweight championship. He would have been a very popular fighter, even if he and Ali had never crossed paths. But ultimately, while he could be humorous and engaging in interviews or during public appearances, he was never quite the gregarious entertainer that Ali was and George Foreman became.
Frazier died tragically last November, marking a very sad day for boxing fans everywhere. I was lucky enough to cover the Cotto-Margarito card not long afterwards, and prior to the card I got to attend a panel with Joe's son, Marvis, where he talked about his own experiences fighting in the Garden and his memories of his father's fabled wars there.
Naturally, there was a tribute to "Smokin' Joe" during the main card, a moment during which more than a few middle-aged and elderly men shed tears.
"The Old Mongoose" Archie Moore, 185(131)-23(7)-10, had a career that lasted for nearly 30 years, from 1935 to 1963. He is regarded by many boxing historians and writers as the top light heavyweight of all time, and Boxrec.com has him No. 1 on their all-time pound-for-pound rankings.
Moore was a slick boxer, a powerful puncher and defensive wizard. He was also charismatic and engaging, and as his career was winding down, Hollywood beckoned. The September 2011 issue of The Ring ran a nice story by Don Stradley about Moore's acting career, extensively detailing the critical acclaim of Moore's turn as Jim in the 1960 film version of Huckleberry Finn.
Moore's debut ended up being the peak of his acting career, though he did land many more roles on television shows throughout the 1960s and early 70s.
Ray Leonard, 36(25)-3(1)-1, exploded onto the American sports world during the 1976 Montreal Olympics, when he won a gold medal as part of the most celebrated U.S. Olympic boxing team ever assembled.
The charismatic kid was so slick and sweet that he earned the ultimate honor, the nickname of "Sugar" Ray, an homage to the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson.
Leonard was a mainstream sports star in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He was among the last boxing stars to build up a fanbase through fighting on network television.
He sold soft drinks and chatted with Oprah and meanwhile beat all-time great champions like Wilfred Benitez, Thomas Hearns, Robert Duran and Marvin Hagler.
The Pacman's popularity is an explosive phenomenon that is still happening, so any attempt to evaluate it right now can do no more than provide a temporary snapshot.
He is one of the two top pay-per-view earners in the sport. Pacquiao is so popular in his native Philippines that he was able to get elected to the Congress there, despite a lack of any real qualifications to hold office and an inability to serve more than part-time while continuing to train to be perhaps the greatest pound-for-pound fighter on the planet.
Pacquiao is the most popular active boxer in the United States. His charismatic personality and propensity for knocking out much larger opponents won him legions of fans who don't traditionally pay much attention to the sport.
Rocky Marciano, 49(43)-0, is the only man to ever retire as the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world. His wild popularity was driven by the fact that he so often won with style: up from the canvas to KO Archie Moore in nine; putting away Ezzard Charles in eight when he was in danger of losing on cuts; dropping Joe Walcott dramatically in 13 when trailing far behind on the cards.
Marciano was The Ring Fighter of the Year in 1952, '54 and '55. In retirement, Marciano dabbled in acting, before dying tragically in a plane crash the night before he would have turned 46.
Jack Dempsey, 61(50)-6(1)-9, was the most popular fighter of his era and one of the great sports figures of all time. The "Manassa Mauler" had a furious and explosive style that thrilled crowds, and a left hook the likes of which the division would not see again until Joe Frazier arrive a half-century later.
Dempsey's popularity only grew in retirement. In his 40's, he served heroically during World War II and his restaurant, Jack Dempsey's, was a New York City institution for years.
I'm not sure if the term "pound-for-pound" was actually invented for Sugar Ray Robinson, 173(108)-19(1)-6, but it might as well have been. Nobody's name has ever been used as often in the same sentence.
Robinson's two-fisted power and slick boxing dazzled crowds at a time when boxing was at its most popular. In the post-World War II era, he was the stylish embodiment of hip, uptown New York glamour.
Robinson is one of the towering figures in the history of boxing, and a iconic figure in American popular culture. People who have never watched a round of boxing would have no trouble identifying "Sugar Ray" as a boxing reference.
Mike Tyson exploded into American pop culture as an teenage phenomenon. When he stopped Trevor Berbick in two rounds for the WBC strap in 1986, he was the youngest heavyweight champion in history, and still not old enough to legally buy beer.
Iron Mike was a street kid handpicked out of reform school by Cus D'Amato, to become a world champion. His was among the most meteoric rises in the history of American society, let alone sports or boxing.
Not surprisingly, the transition from rejected throw-away child to sports superstar was difficult, and once D'Amato passed away early in Tyson's career, things went downhill relatively quickly. In February of 1990 he was knocked out in Tokyo by Buster Douglas, one of the greatest upsets in boxing history.
Although he was still not 24 years old, he had already reached his peak as a professional fighter.
Tyson's history of personal and legal problems is too long to detail here. Between 1991 and 1995 he served nearly four years on a rape charge. He bit Evander Holyfield's ear and threatened to eat Lennox Lewis' children.
Through it all, Tyson has maintained a large fanbase. The crowds at his Hall of Fame induction last year were large and supportive, and the now middle-aged Tyson was visibly moved and unable to finish his speech. When a fan shouted "We love you Mike," the crowd broke into applause.
In recent years, Tyson has seemed to turn a corner in his public persona. His cameo in The Hangover created a sensation and led to a larger involvement in the sequel. Clearly the American public wants to embrace the enigmatic and formerly fearsome champ.
At only 46 years of age, Tyson's popularity appears set to grow.
If George Foreman had not launched one of the most improbable comebacks in sports history in 1987, he would not be on this list. His career from 1969 to 1977 was one of the most impressive in boxing history, but it did not earn him an overwhelming amount of affection from the public.
The Big George who came back in 1987 was destined to become one of the most beloved fighters of all time.
In his second career, Big George was a gregarious, charismatic, larger-than-life figure. When he upset Michael Moorer for the heavyweight title in 1994, he became a hero to just about every middle-aged man in America.
He used his new popularity to transform himself into a cottage industry, a one-man endorsement machine. In 1993 he starred in his own sitcom, titled George.
To this day, "The George Foreman Grill" is a very popular product and Foreman himself remains among the sport's top broadcasters.
John L. Sullivan was the first boxing champion of the gloved era and arguably the first American sports superstar ever. At the height of his career, he was as popular as any fighter who ever stepped into the ring.
Sullivan seems to have enjoyed drinking and telling stories at least as much as he liked to fight. According to Nat Fleisher's seminal book The Heavyweights, Sullivan capped off a tour of England by meeting with the King and told him, "Look me up if you're ever in Boston. I'll make sure they take care of you."
At a time when the boxing game was only marginally even legal in most parts of the United States, Sullivan earned the largest parts of his fortune touring and putting on exhibitions. He had studied elocution and drama at Boston College briefly before dropping out and used the skills he had acquired when he frequently performed on the stage.
Sullivan's colorful life is a biopic waiting to happen, if only an actor can be found in Hollywood manly enough to play the great John L.
Joe Louis ruled the heavyweight division from 1937 to 1949, far longer than any other man. But he was a sports star whose significance far surpassed the world of sports.
When he emerged in the late 1930s as a champion, he was passionately embraced by the African-American community. The poet Maya Angelou devotes an entire chapter of her memoir to recounting the wild celebrations that engulfed her rural southern community when Joe Louis fought.
But as World War II approached, Louis became a hero to the entire nation when he faced the German champion Max Schmeling. This was a crucial development in the evolution of the United States into a more legitimately multicultural society. Against Hitler's favorite, the "Brown Bomber" became "our guy" for an entire nation still struggling, and very often failing, to overcome an extremely racist legacy.
When the war came, Louis enlisted and was assigned to the Special Services Unit. Along with Sugar Ray Robinson, he spent the war touring military bases and entertaining his fellow soldiers.
There could be no other name at the top of a list like this. In the United States and across the globe, Muhammad Ali is not only the most popular boxer of all time. Along with perhaps Pele and Michael Jordan, he is the most famous athlete of all time.
At the height of his career, he was possibly the most popular person on the planet.
In the 1960s, Ali became a symbol of the cultural rebellion that was sweeping the nation and the world. When he refused induction into the military during the Vietnam War he was stripped of his title and threatened with jail time. He became a pariah to much of the mainstream media, but also a hero that transcended sports to a generation of young people.
His first fight with Joe Frazier in 1971 was perhaps the most highly anticipated sporting event ever. Ali lost his initial bid to reclaim his title, but later succeeded in thrilling fashion, upsetting the heavily favored George Foreman in Zaire. Their fight, famously dubbed "The Rumble in the Jungle," was later the subject of the 1996 Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings.
By the end of Ali's storied career, he had transformed from cultural rebel to beloved icon. A Saturday morning cartoon portrayed his fictional, Scooby Doo-style adventures. He did guest appearances on popular sitcoms like Different Strokes.
Ali has famously suffered from Parkinson's disease in his retirement years, slowing down his ability to lead a public life. Nevertheless, his star has never really diminished, as was evident at his recent 70th birthday celebration at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.