Ranking the 10 Most Powerful Punchers in Boxing History
A list of the biggest punchers in boxing history has as much potential for being contentious as a pound-for-pound ranking. KO percentages, testimonies from past opponents, and highlight reels are all useful for narrowing the list down to finalists.
But in the end, subjective opinion is still the deciding factor.
Incidentally, this is not a pound-for-pound list. Major lower weight punchers like Tommy Hearns and Naseem Hamed will not appear.
The only two non-heavyweights I had on my short list were Bob Foster and Archie Moore, two light heavyweight champions who both campaigned among the big boys with pretty fair success.
I've also ultimately come down against most heavyweights from smaller eras, as well. There is no question Rocky Marciano hit like a truck, and he delivered some of the most dramatic stoppage of all time. But only 10 of his 49 opponents even topped 200 pounds.
Jack Dempsey, too, qualified as a near finalist for my top ten. Other earlier fighters I considered, based mostly on historical reputation, included James Jeffries, Sam McVea and Max Baer.
10. Ron Lyle
Ron Lyle was an exciting fighter from the golden era of the heavyweight division, the 1970s. I would rate him as, perhaps, the best heavyweight from the past 50 years who never won a world title.
He gave plenty of problems to the very best of his era, who also happened to be the best of all time. In May 1975, he led the champion Muhammad Ali on all three cards when he was TKO'd in Round 11. The stoppage was viewed as controversial.
But the fight Lyle is remembered best for is his January 1976 war with George Foreman. It was, perhaps, the most brutal and exciting heavyweight fight in history. Lyle rolled the dice with one of the sport's all-time punchers and nearly came out on top.
Lyle took the fight to Big George from the opening bell, rocking him with body shots. Lyle was nearly knocked out cold in Round 2, but managed to recover.
Round 4 of this fight would have to be one of the top 10 rounds in boxing history. Lyle dropped Foreman twice, sandwiched around Foreman flooring Lyle. Foreman ended the fight by knockout in the fifth, after getting rocked early in the round.
9. Gerry Cooney
I came along a few years too late to experience the true golden age of the 1970s. The great heavyweight showdown of my childhood was Larry Holmes versus Gerry Cooney in June 1982.
Cooney ended up suffering the first loss of his career, via Round 13 TKO. He was never a major factor in the division again.
But coming into the fight, he had built a reputation as a ferocious puncher. His last two fights leading up to Holmes were destructive Round 1 stoppages of Ken Norton and Ron Lyle.
The 6'6” Cooney had a crushing left hook to the body and a stiff jab that zapped his opponents, even as it it set up his bigger artillery.
8. Joe Louis
More than 60 years after he retired, many boxing historians still regard Joe Louis as the greatest heavyweight champion of all time. He held the belt for a record 12 years and 25 defenses.
Louis emerged from the hot Detroit amateur boxing scene in the mid 1930s, an athletic and rawboned youth, recently transplanted from the deep south. Under the tutelage of Jack Blackburn, he quickly transformed into a first-rate boxer with a crushing right hand.
Louis only weighed around the current cruiserweight limit during most of his greatest fights, and many of his more famous victims were smaller. But I believe the stature of his frame and the fluidity of his motion would still translate into a punch that would flatten most modern heavyweights unfortunate enough to get in front of it.
7. Mike Tyson
Mike Tyson's emergence as a dominant force at heavyweight in the second half of the 1980s is one of the most documented events in the sport's history. The young "Iron Mike" was a bona fide pop-culture phenomena.
Tyson was like the reincarnation of Jack Dempsey, in a bigger, badder form. He'd move into range cleverly, behind his peekaboo guard, then attack like a buzz saw, exploding concussive punches to the body and head with both hands.
The common criticism on Tyson is to say that, “Once you stood up to him, he'd fold.” I think it's more accurate to say that, if you could control the distance against him, you could take away that dangerous punching power, and make him a short, mediocre heavyweight.
Evander Holyfield did this by mauling him at close range, and Lennox Lewis did it by clubbing him from the outside. But these are two of the greatest heavyweights of all time.
At his best, against nearly any heavyweight contender who ever lived, Tyson could slip into exactly the middle-distance he wanted to occupy, and then, even quicker than that, he could deliver stunning hooks, uppercuts and overhands, in rapid speed. He's one of the few fighters I've ever seen who clearly intimidated other world class heavyweight fighters.
6: Wladimir Klitschko
Wladimir Klitschko has a fatal flaw: a subpar ability to take a shot to the chin, by heavyweight standards. In his otherwise spectacular career, Klitschko has been stopped by such mortals as Ross Puritty, Lamon Brewster and Corrie Sanders.
Klitschko's relative weakness when it comes to taking a shot prevents me from ranking him ahead of a lot of all-time greats, including his older brother, Vitali. But when it comes to pure power punching, there's no doubt in my mind that he is among the top 10 of all time.
They don't call him "Dr. Steelhammer" for nothing. Klitschko was a star pupil of Emanuel Steward, the same legendary trainer who developed Tommy Hearns into an unholy terror at welterweight and junior middleweight.
Even in the midst of heated exchanges, Klitschko's punching form is more often than not good enough to put on a how-to poster. His jab is a punishing blow when he wants it to be. He excels at turning the jab at the last second, making it into a stunning, sweeping hook.
Klitschko's right cross is among the most aesthetically perfect punches in boxing history. To me, the proof of its power is how often it stuns, or even drops, opponents who saw it coming all the way in.
If not for that vulnerable chin, Klitschko would rank higher here. His awareness of the need to protect himself causes him to avoid risks that other big punchers are more than willing to take.
5: David Tua
David Tua never won a world title, but the Samoan from New Zealand put multiple world champions to sleep. If this was a list of the 10 greatest chins of all time, he would probably rank at least this high.
If only Tua could have developed the ability to cut off the ring on a world-class fighter, he would have fought his way into the Hall of Fame. As it stands, he remains one of the most popular fighters of the past 20 years.
Tua's first-round stoppages of world champions John Ruiz and Michael Moorer both show up routinely on YouTube highlight reels. He stopped future world champion Hasim Rahman by Round 10 TKO when trailing badly on the cards.
His decision loss to Ike Ibeabuchi set a record for punches thrown in a heavyweight bout, and it is often speculated that it contributed to a more rapid decline in Ibeabuchi's mental condition. Tua does not appear to have suffered any long-term effects.
In fact, the 40-year-old Tua is scheduled to return to the ring this August in New Zealand, against the 6'8” Alexander Ustinov, a contender who has, so far, lost only to Kubrat Pulev.
4: Sonny Liston
The 1960s were supposed to be the Sonny Liston era in boxing history. The brash upstart from Louisville, the blown-up light heavyweight, Cassius Clay, was supposed to be just one more speed bump in the highway.
That's pretty much exactly what every boxing fan in American thought heading into their 1964 fight. Even most of the diehard fans, who really know what's what. Even most of the writers.
Even the guys who set up the Vegas odds.
The reason for that is simple. Liston was among the most devastating punchers the sport has ever seen.
Liston stood only a half inch above six feet tall, but he had the 84-inch reach of a seven-footer. He wielded his oversized limbs like an angry bear slugging with telephone poles.
Liston entered his fight with Ali having stopped 11 of his last 12 and coming off from consecutive Round 1 knockouts of Floyd Patterson. In June 1970, six months before his death, and years past his prime, Liston dropped the super-durable Chuck Wepner with a body shot in the fifth before stopping him on cuts in nine.
3: Lennox Lewis
Like Wladimir Klitschko, Lennox Lewis' legacy suffers somewhat from the fact that he was stunningly KO'd by two relatively mediocre opponents, Hasim Rahman and Oliver McCall. But unlike Klitschko, Lewis came back to avenge himself against both men, stopping Rahman in four and McCall in five in rematches.
Another difference between Lewis and Klitchko is that I don't think Lewis ever got over-cautious in letting his hands go, as his subsequent performances against Rahman and McCall demonstrate. He remained committed to ending fights early.
At 6'5” and with an 84” reach, Lewis excelled at beating up opponents from a distance and boxing behind his jab. But he was a capable brawler, as he proved when he withstood Vitali Klitschko's assault to stop the challenger on cuts after six.
On the list of fights that never happened, that I wish had, Lennox Lewis vs. Riddick Bowe, circa 1993, rates high. At the time, Bowe was fresh off taking the unified title from Evander Holyfield. But he tossed the WBC version of the belt into a trashcan, rather than face Lewis, who was coming off from a two-round annihilation of Donovan Ruddock.
2: George Foreman
It's not that difficult to imagine a parallel universe where George Foreman ranks as the greatest heavyweight champion of all time, rather than Muhammad Ali. If Foreman could have stayed mentally strong enough to regroup and keep winning the fights that would have forced Ali to give him a rematch, I believe he would have won the second time.
From there, it's not hard to imagine him continuing to reign into the mid 1980s, after turning back Larry Holmes in what would have been among the great heavyweight title clashes of all time. And behind any such wild, speculative fiction rests the solid reality of Foreman's brutal right hand.
Aside from Ali, and Jimmy Young, Foreman crushed the best fighters from the best era in heavyweight history. He stunned much of the boxing world in January 1973, when he smashed world champion Joe Frazier in a mere two rounds, knocking him down six times along the way.
Frazier did little better in a 1976 rematch, going down in five. In March 1974, Foreman stopped Ken Norton in two.
But to me, perhaps, Foreman's most amazing knockout was the one he delivered as a 44-year-old man, against world champion Michael Moorer in 1994. Trailing hopelessly on the cards, Big George caught up to the younger man in Round 10.
The effortless form of that punch is as surprising as the result. It barely looks like Foreman has exerted any energy when he turns over on the punch and sends Moorer tumbling to the canvas, completely separated from his wits.
And it proved for all time that the punch is indeed the last thing to go on a great champion.
1: Earnie Shavers
By the early 1980s, Earnie Shavers' punching power was so legendary that he was able to parlay it into a part-time gig in professional wrestling, serving as a guest referee and ringside enforcer. Not only were 68 of Shavers' 74 victories by stoppage, but also, 33 of them came in the first two rounds.
Shavers' mystique is enhanced from having competed in the division's golden age. Like Tua, certain flaws in his game prevented him from reaching championship status, yet his power made him a threat to nearly anybody who got in the ring with him.
Both Muhammad Ali and Ron Lyle have repeatedly credited Shavers as the hardest puncher they ever faced, even ahead of Foreman. Like many hard-punching heavyweights from the past, he retains a definite cult appeal among fans to this day.