The Best Fighters in Boxing History Who Were Also Olympic Medalists
When Muhammad Ali, then still known as Cassius Clay, left Rome in 1960 as the Olympic gold medalist at light heavyweight, he was already a household name in the United States. When Ray Leonard captured gold in Montreal in 1976, it launched him onto the cover of a Wheaties box.
In an earlier, less-sissified media culture, Olympic boxing was a major draw for network coverage. Some of the great pound-for-pound boxing stars of recent decades launched their careers at the Games.
Note that this list is ranked largely on what the fighters went on to do as professionals. In the Cold War era, a number of Eastern European and Cuban fighters could very likely have had successful careers in the pro ranks.
In no particular order of ranking:
- Oscar De La Hoya
- Meldrick Taylor
- Ivan Calderon
- Daniel Zaragoza
- Andre Ward
- Miguel Cotto
- Wladimir Klitschko
- Michael Spinks
- Floyd Patterson
- Virgil Hill
- Mark Breland
- Antonio Tarver
- Michael Carbajal
- Brian Viloria
- Vernon Forrest
- Jermain Taylor
- Fernando Vargas
- Frank Tate
- John John Molina
- Joel Casamayor
- David Diaz
- Riddick Bowe
- Vassily Jirov
- Ray Mercer
- Chris Byrd
- Ingemar Johansson
- Leon Spinks
- Abner Mares
- Juan Manuel Lopez
- Guillermo Rigondeaux
- Gennady Golovkin
10. Lennox Lewis
Lennox Lewis won a gold medal for Canada at the 1988 games, knocking out Riddick Bowe in the finals. It should have been the opening volley in a classic heavyweight rivalry that would carry on to the professional ranks.
Alas, it never came to pass. The decade of the 1990s was the greatest in heavyweight history aside from the 1970s. But those of us who were alive then will always remember how much better it might have been had Bowe been willing to fight Lewis.
As it ended up, Lewis would have to rate as the best big man of that golden era. I've got him slightly behind Evander Holyfield here, but only because this is a pound-for-pound list and Holyfield was unstoppable at cruiserweight.
9. Evander Holyfield
A member of the legendary 1984 U.S. team, Evander Holyfield won bronze at light heavyweight at the Games in Los Angeles.
Holyfield turned pro right after the Olympics and captured the WBA cruiserweight title from Dwight Muhammad Qawi in just his 12th fight. Holyfield would go on to become the undisputed cruiserweight champion. For my money, Holyfield is the greatest cruiserweight to ever live and his war with Qawi is the greatest fight in the history of the division.
Holyfield captured the undisputed heavyweight crown from Buster Douglas in October 1990. He is the only man to win versions of the heavyweight title four times.
Although it was a nearly unwatchable fight, on my scorecard he beat Nikolai Valuev in 2008, which would have made him a five-time champ, at 46.
8. Wilfredo Gomez
Wilfredo Gomez represented Puerto Rico in the 1972 Games in Munich. After receiving a first-round bye, he lost his only fight.
But Gomez was a monster puncher who was clearly better designed for the professional ranks. I would rate him as the greatest super bantamweight of all time.
After drawing in his first pro fight, Gomez won his next 32 bouts by KO, capturing the 122-pound title along the way. His first loss did not come until he moved up to featherweight and was stopped by the legendary Salvador Sanchez.
Gomez later won world titles at featherweight and super featherweight, as well.
7. Joe Frazier
Joe Frazier won a gold medal at heavyweight fighting in the 1964 Games and turned professional in 1965. By the late 1960s he was undefeated and recognized as the world champion while Muhammad Ali sat out an indefinite suspension from the sport.
In March 1971 Frazier and Ali faced off in the "Fight of the Century," a battle of undefeated heavyweight champions. Frazier's fearsome left hook staggered Ali in the 11th and dropped him in Round 15 to secure the unanimous decision.
Frazier dropped the heavyweight crown in 1973 to George Foreman in one of the division's most famous blowouts. Foreman presented a terrible style matchup for Frazier and butchered him with six knockdowns in the first two rounds, before winning by TKO.
Frazier remained a top heavyweight throughout most of the rest of the decade. In 1974 he dropped a close unanimous decision to Ali in a rematch. In 1975 Frazier faced Ali for the third time, in Manila, Philippines. In a grueling, action-packed fight that is arguably the greatest of all time, Frazier's trainer Eddie Futch refused to allow him to go out for Round 15.
6. George Foreman
George Foreman won the heavyweight gold medal in the 1968 Games. As a professional he was one of the most dangerous punchers in the history of the division.
Foreman captured the heavyweight crown when he blew out Joe Frazier in 1973. For a time he was thought to be unbeatable, but the the always wily Muhammad Ali out-thought him and knocked him out in eight rounds in the heat of Zaire in 1974.
After an upset lost to Jimmy Young in 1977, Foreman retired for a full decade. When he returned to the ring in 1987, it was viewed as a publicity stunt at first.
But Foreman had retained his crushing power and managed to build himself into a legitimate contender. He lost competitive decisions to champions Evander Holyfield and Tommy Morrison, and in 1994 he shocked the world by knocking out Michael Moorer to become the oldest heavyweight champion in history at age 45.
5. Pernell Whitaker
A gold medalist for the legendary 1984 U.S. team, Pernell Whitaker was the greatest defensive fighter of his generation and among the greatest defensive fighters of all time. Whitaker was a four-division world champion and undisputed at lightweight.
Whitaker was on the receiving end of two of the worst decisions of the past 30 years. In 1988 he lost by split decision to Jose Luis Ramirez and in 1993 he came away with a draw against Julio Cesar Chavez. I've watched both fights multiple times (the Chavez fight at least 20 times) and there is no way anybody will ever convince me that Whitaker didn't clearly win both times.
I also think he deserved the decision against the younger and larger Oscar De La Hoya in 1997, though the fight was far too close to call a robbery.
Whitaker has been a successful trainer in his post-fight career.
4. Floyd Mayweather
Boxing protege Floyd Mayweather captured a bronze medal at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. He lost a controversial fight in the semifinals but put on a show in the first three rounds. Boxing fans at the time knew they were watching a potential superstar.
More has been written about Floyd Mayweather than any other current boxer aside from perhaps Manny Pacquiao. He turned professional in 1996 and has yet to lose, almost 18 full years later.
Mayweather's all-time status can be nitpicked, due to the quality of opposition in this era and due to a few fights he never made. I think he would have beaten either Paul Williams or Manny Pacquiao, but I would have an easier time rating him if he had done so.
What can't be denied is that Mayweather has been the obvious top fighter in five different weight classes, from super featherweight to junior middleweight.
That's more substantial than merely having won alphabet soup belts in all those divisions. At one point during the past 17-plus years, Mayweather was the man in every division from 130 pounds to 154.
3. Roy Jones Jr.
The decision that robbed Roy Jones of his gold medal at the Seoul Games in 1988 is the worst boxing decision I've ever seen, amateur or professional. Jones' opponent, Park Si-Hun, himself turned and stared at the ref, mouth open in shock, as his hand was raised.
The decision was so transparently bad that Jones was awarded the Val Barker trophy as the outstanding boxer of the Games, despite not winning the gold medal.
I feel sorry for fans who are not old enough to remember Jones prior to the past decade, when he has too often been a washed-up punching bag. In his prime, Jones was perhaps the most physically gifted athlete in the history of the sport.
He had an unreal combination of lightening reflexes and explosive speed. Jones won world titles at middleweight, super middleweight and light heavyweight, before moving all the way up to heavyweight to capture the WBA title from John Ruiz in 2003.
It made Jones the first fighter in over a 100 years to win the heavyweight title after starting as a middleweight champ.
2. Ray Leonard
The 1976 U.S. Olympic boxing squad was a dream team. Only the 1984 team even deserves mention in the same sentence. The '76 squad won five gold medals, a silver and a bronze. It produced five future world champions in the professional ranks.
Although Howard Davis Jr. won the Val Barker trophy as the Games' outstanding boxer, it was obvious even at the time whom the true future superstar was. Ray Leonard's charismatic performance in Montreal that summer made him a mainstream sports star and household name.
As a professional, "Sugar" Ray lived up to his golden-boy image. Along with Tommy Hearns, Roberto Duran and Marvin Hagler, Leonard was one of what sports writer George Kimball dubbed "The Four Kings," the quartet of boxing superstars who powered boxing's last golden age in the 1980s.
Leonard won titles in five divisions, but like so many all-time greats, it's the fights he was in that define his legend. In his first fight with Hearns he trailed on the cards when he came roaring back to TKO the Hitman in Round 14.
After losing a brawl for the ages to Duran in their first fight, he used finesse to make Duran quit in frustration in the rematch. After a three-year retirement, Leonard came back to win a disputed split decision from Hagler at a time when Hagler was viewed as unbeatable.
1. Muhammad Ali
Then still known as Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali was the darling of the 1960 Games, winning gold at light heavyweight and charming the media with his infectious personality. As a professional, Ali quickly filled out into a solid heavyweight frame, while retaining his light heavyweight quickness. Ali was unorthodox in style but got away with it due to his blinding speed.
Ali is my pick as the greatest heavyweight champion of all time, but his cultural and historical significance far surpassed even his greatness in the sport. During one of the nation's most turbulent eras, Ali became an icon.
In the ring, he was the central player in the greatest era in the history of the sport. He came back from losses to Joe Frazier and Ken Norton to beat George Foreman at a time when Big George was viewed as unbeatable. He went on to beat Frazier and Norton twice each in rematches.
Like so many greats, Ali fought far too long and seems to have paid a heavy price for it. But from his Olympic debut in 1960 up until the present day, no name has been more identified with the sport.