Boxing fans like to make lists.
It’s been officially that way ever since promoter Tex Rickard and publisher Nat Fleischer devised the original Ring magazine ratings policy way back in 1925. If the two gents were alive today, they’d have seen just about every great heavyweight champion who ever lived.
Would the Klitschko brothers make the grade on their list alongside the likes of Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali?
The answer may surprise you.
Boxing has a nostalgia problem. Thumb through any old Ring magazine from the '30s, '40s or '50s, and you’ll read page after page lamenting the good old days. Heck, when your writer was just a wee lad in the early '90s, fight fans and media were wondering how good a young Evander Holyfield really was in comparison to the fighters from, well you know, the good old days.
And he turned out OK.
Similarly, both Klitschko brothers stack up quite favorably against other all-time great heavyweight champions. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of equally dominant champions in the history of the sport.
The gold standard for heavyweights was set during the roaring '20s by the great Jack Dempsey. In 1922, our friend Fleischer awarded “The Manassas Mauler” the very first Ring magazine title belt. He deserved it.
Dempsey was an offensive juggernaut. He had power in both hands and used them with ferocious intent. He won the heavyweight championship by savaging the giant Jess Willard over three one-sided rounds.
Dempsey held the title for almost seven years, fighting sparingly, until he was bested by careful technician Gene Tunney.
As great as Dempsey was, both Klitschko brothers have been more dominant as champions. Both have fought and won more title fights, and each would tower over and outweigh the comparatively diminutive Dempsey. Furthermore, each has the skill to outbox Dempsey, and probably would.
But Dempsey set the standard others exceeded. Truth be told, if there was one perfect heavyweight prizefighter, it was most likely Joe Louis.
“The Brown Bomber” put together what is probably the most impressive championship reign in the history of the sport. He kept the heavyweight crown atop his head for almost 12 years and defended it a record 25 times before he retired.
He was a remarkable 58-1 at the time of his retirement, and he had avenged his only loss by demolishing that opponent by way of first-round knockout. It was a picture-perfect display of his unparalleled power, speed and technical precision.
Louis was devastatingly accurate and wielded beautifully mechanical combination punches with frightening ease.
In 2003, Ring magazine praised him as the greatest puncher of all time. The Sweet Science’s Frank Lotierzo calls Louis “the most faultless heavyweight fighter in history.” Moreover the International Boxing Research Organization ranks Louis the top heavyweight in history, according to its most recently updated member poll in 2006.
Still, Louis was susceptible to power punchers. If he had any weakness, it might’ve been he trusted his own power too much. While most would favor Louis over either Klitschko, he’d likely have a terrible time outworking the rugged Vitali, whose iron chin would keep him in the bout for the long haul.
As good as Louis was, there is only one heavyweight champion to retire unbeaten. Rocky Marciano won the heavyweight crown in 1952 by defeating Jersey Joe Walcott in classic fashion. Walcott dropped Marciano in the first, then steadily built a point advantage until he got knocked out in Round 13 by Marciano’s signature “Suzie Q” overhand right.
Marciano held the title until he retired in 1955, besting Hall of Famers Ezzard Charles and Archie Moore along the way.
Perhaps Marciano’s greatest attribute was simply his grit and determination. Springs Toledo notes Marciano would be “unlikely to ever lose a test of wills” and that “he seemed to get stronger as fights wore on and opponents wore out.”
Still, Marciano would be in for a stern test against either Klitschko brother. A notorious slow starter, he’d likely be blasted to the floor by Wladimir Klitschko’s crushing power early.
Against Vitali Klitschko, Marciano would find himself in equal danger. The elder Klitschko would likely outbox the plodder early on before out-slugging him in the later rounds.
But could either Klitschko defeat “The Greatest”?
Many ring historians consider Muhammad Ali the top heavyweight champion of all time. Ring magazine ranked him No. 1 among all-time heavyweight champions in 1998, while the International Boxing Research Organization ranked him second under the same criteria in 2006.
While the criteria may be debatable, less so is the stature of Ali’s resume in the sport's grandest division. There is simply no heavyweight champion in history that defeated as many top contenders and fellow all-time greats as Ali.
Ali was tall for a heavyweight, but he patterned his style after the little guys. His “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” tactic mesmerized opponents when he was young. He’d pop his pristine jab and follow it up with hard right crosses, all the while avoiding any sort of return with his tremendously fast feet.
When Ali slowed down a bit in his later years, he showed he had an all-time great chin to go along with his already impressive repertoire. His three encounters with Joe Frazier (Ali won two) included moments that were the best heavyweight boxing could display. His 1974 upset of an undefeated George Foreman ranks among the greatest upsets in boxing.
Ali would probably outpoint either Klitschko brother over 15 rounds. Out of the two, Wladimir’s natural speed, quickness and punching fluidity might give him the best chance to pull the upset.
There are other great heavyweight champions of course. No matter the criteria, Jack Johnson, Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Evander Holyfied and Mike Tyson all deserve consideration for upper-echelon placement on any all-time great heavyweight list.
It may not be popular now, but in 20 years or so, fight fans and historians will most assuredly be calling the Klitschko brothers as good as or better than any of those guys. Heck, something tells me if our friends Tex Rickard and Nat Fleischer were around today, they’d tell us the Klitschko brothers are as great of heavyweights as we could possibly hope to see.
Enjoy them, they’d tell us. The good old days are happening right now.