The Greatest Heavyweight Boxer from Every Decade

Briggs Seekins@BriggsfighttalkFeatured ColumnistOctober 4, 2013

The Greatest Heavyweight Boxer from Every Decade

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    Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

    Heavyweight has traditionally been the glamour division in boxing. From the late 19th century through most of the 20th, the World Heavyweight Championship in boxing was viewed as the biggest title in sports.

    Over the years, major stars from every sport have captured the public imagination from time to time. But the heavyweight boxing champ has usually enjoyed a special kind of status as the baddest, toughest man alive.

    In more recent years, the heavyweight division has fallen off in prestige, although this has been more of a phenomenon in the U.S. than abroad. When the Ukranian Klitschko brothers defend their belts in Germany, the atmosphere is as electric as a rock concert.

    On Saturday, younger sibling Wladimir will earn in excess of $20 million to defend his belt against Alexander Povetkin in Moscow, Russia. The fight will even be broadcast stateside on HBO. 

    And even here in America, the division has been gaining more attention in the past year or so, with the charge led by monster-puncher Deontay Wilder, who has knocked out all 29 opponents he has faced as a professional, with every single one of them going down within four rounds.

    So with a major championship bout on offer for the weekend and the weight class gaining momentum here at home, I offer this look back at the best heavyweight from each decade, from the dawn of the gloved era to the present day.  

1880s: John L. Sullivan

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    John L. Sullivan captured the bare-knuckle heavyweight championship of the world in February 1882 when he demolished the much larger Paddy Ryan in nine one-sided rounds. "The Boston Strong Boy" would go on to popularize the use of gloves, thus helping to gradually transition boxing from its shadowy illegal status into the major professional sport that it would become in the next century.

    Along the way, Sullivan became America's first sports superstar. His carousing and drinking were as legendary as his mule-kick right hand. The high-spirited Sullivan earned more money entertaining crowds from the stage than he did fighting in the ring. 

    In 1889, he won the last bare-knuckle world championship fight when he stopped Jake Kilrain in 75 rounds in the stifling July heat of Mississippi. The account I've read about this fight from the Police Gazette archives describe the sort of epic adventure that's impossible in today's world.

    To circumvent the authorities who wished to prevent the fight from being staged, hundreds of sporting gents had to wait and crowd onto a mystery train the morning of the fight, to be transported to an unknown location. Among the luminaries in attendance was the legendary Wild West lawman Bat Masterson.

    Sullivan would hold the heavyweight crown for a decade before losing to the technically adept Jame J. Corbett in September 1892.


1890s: James J. Corbett

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    James J. Corbett was a first-generation son of Irish immigrants who was born and raised in San Francisco in an era when the city was a boxing hotbed. He excelled in every sport he attempted as a youth and had the intellectual ability to launch a career as a banker in his early 20s. 

    But "Gentleman Jim" found his true destiny when he began taking boxing lessons at San Francisco's famed Olympic Club. In short order he became the club's heavyweight champion. 

    The Olympic Club was supported by wealthy boxing aficionados, and its championship carried a nice cash prize. In the boxing world of the time, to win the Olympic Club championship made a fighter a legitimate challenger for the world title. 

    Corbett challenged the legendary John L. Sullivan for his title in September 1892. Few observers gave the 26-year-old challenger much chance against Sullivan, who outweighed him by 34 pounds, according to Nat Fleischer's The Heavyweight Championship. 

    But Corbett unveiled a tactically brilliant skill set. He used speed and angles to outmaneuver Sullivan before knocking him out in Round 21.

    He would hold the belt for five years before dropping it to Bob Fitzsimmons in 1897.

1900s: Jack Johnson

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    For the first decade of the 20th century, there are two solid contenders for greatest heavyweight: Jim Jeffries and history's first African-American champion, Jack Johnson.

    Jeffries was a gigantic bear of a man and extremely athletic. He was mentored by James J. Corbett and served as his sparring partner. In 1899, he knocked out Bob Fitzsimmons to win the crown and held it until 1904 when he retired undefeated for lack of a worthy opponent. 

    In Jeffries' wake, Tommy Burns emerged as the next recognized champ and held the belt for a number of years. But all through the decade, Jack Johnson was traveling the country and building his reputation as a first-rate heavyweight. 

    In December 1908, Johnson faced Burns in Australia and not only beat him but utterly humiliated him, verbally taunting him for 14 rounds, cutting him to ribbons and swelling his face before finally knocking him out.

    In Nat Fleischer's The Heavyweight Championship, Johnson is described as offering Burns free punches and telling him, "Poor Tommy, who told you you were fighter?"

    Johnson's ascendancy to the crown created panic in the racist America of the day, and he seemed to revel in provoking it. He flaunted his wealth and married a white woman in an era when such unions were illegal in much of the United States.

    In 1910, James Jeffries was convinced to come out of retirement to face Johnson after being inactive for nearly six years. In what was then the biggest fight in history, Johnson knocked out the former champ in 15 rounds in Reno, Nevada.

1910s: Sam Langford

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    Jack Johnson was officially the heavyweight champion for the first half of this decade, but he fought infrequently and faced a substandard level of competition. Racist authorities in the United States tried to use the Mann Act to legally harass the champion, which forced him to flee abroad.

    He finally dropped the belt to Jeff Willard in 1915 in a fight he later claimed to have thrown, though eyewitnesses like boxing historian Nat Fleischer have expressed doubts about the claim.

    Either way, Willard was definitely not the top heavyweight of the decade.

    In terms of talent and resume, the four best heavyweights of this decade were all African-Americans who were never given the opportunity to fight for the heavyweight belt: Joe Jeannette, Sam McVea, Harry Wills and Sam Langford.

    Jeannette and McVea fought perhaps the greatest bout in history in Paris, France in 1909, a 48-round war that featured 38 knockdowns, according to Fleischer in his Illustrated History of Boxing.

    Jack Johnson avoided all four of these men, so they spent the second decade of the 20th century fighting each other repeatedly. By the end of the decade, the youngest of the bunch, Wills, had established himself as the best of the group. He would go on to be among the top three heavyweights of the 1920s as well.

    But for the decade as a whole, the honors should fall to Langford.

    Standing under 5'8" tall, he fought from lightweight all the way up to heavyweight during his legendary career. His was a technical master with unreal punching power. 

    He would have to be ranked as among the greatest pound-for-pound fighters in history and one of the best fighters to never win a world title.

1920s: Jack Dempsey

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    Jack Dempsey was not only the top heavyweight of the 1920s, he was also the top sports star of the decade, with the possible exceptions of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. "The Manassa Mauler," with his thrilling, whirlwind style of attack, emerged as the perfect icon of the Roaring 20s.

    The prosperity of post-World War I America combined with breakthroughs in technology like radio to establish a golden era of professional sports. Throughout the decade, Dempsey would consistently set records for attendance and gate receipts at his fights.  

    He captured the title from Jess Willard in 1919, demolishing the much larger man in a fight that rivals George Foreman's destruction of Joe Frazier for the most dominant win in heavyweight championship history. 

    Dempsey would hold the belt for seven years until dropping back-to-back decisions against Gene Tunney in 1926 and 1927. 

1930s: Joe Louis

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    Gene Tunney retired as world champion in 1929. For the first part of the 1930s, the heavyweight crown fell into relative obscurity, as it was held by a series of worthy but lesser champions. 

    In July 1930, German Max Schmeling won the vacant title from Jack Sharkey on a foul, which has to rank among the low points in the storied history of the division. Sharkey won a rematch by decision in June 1932.

    He dropped the belt to the gigantic but technically primitive Primo Carnera in June 1933, in a fight that many boxing historians view as a possible dive. In The Heavyweight Championship, Nat Fleischer also notes that Sharkey's corner at the time claimed Carnera had a foreign object hidden in his glove. 

    Carnera was knocked out in 11 rounds by Max Baer in June 1934. In June 1935, "Cinderella Man" James Braddock scored one of the biggest upsets in boxing history to capture the belt from Baer by decision.

    Meanwhile, Joe Louis had emerged as the most exciting knockout puncher since Jack Dempsey. But a generation had passed since Jack Johnson, and no African-American had been allowed to challenge for the crown.

    Still, Louis' worthiness could not be denied. In 1935, he knocked out Carnera and Baer. In June 1936, he suffered the first setback of his career, losing by Round 12 KO to the clever technician, Schmeling. Despite the loss, he was back in the ring two months later, knocking out Sharkey.

    In June 1937, Louis captured the world title by knocking out Braddock. In June 1938, with World War II looming, he extracted his revenge against Schmeling, destroying Hitler's favorite boxer in Round 1.

    In the process, he became a national hero and the first black man ever truly embraced and cheered for by white Americans.   

1940s: Joe Louis

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    With World War II dominating the first half of the 1940s, boxing took a back burner. Louis defended his belt successfully 13 times between 1940 and 1942, but he then enlisted in the army and spent the war performing traveling exhibitions to entertain his fellow troops. 

    Post-war Louis was a shadow of his earlier self, but he still rates as the best heavyweight of the decade. In December 1947, he won a split decision over future champion Joe Walcott that he probably didn't deserve. But he won the rematch by knockout six months later. 

    In 1949, he retired as champion, although financial troubles would force him to attempt comebacks during the early 1950s. 

1950s: Rocky Marciano

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    Rocky Marciano is the only man in boxing history to retire as the undefeated heavyweight champion, compiling a career record of 49-0 with 43 KOs.

    His standing among the all-time great heavyweight champions is compromised by his overall quality of competition. But there is no doubt that he deserves to be acknowledged as the greatest heavyweight of the 1950s. 

    "The Brockton Blockbuster" captured the belt in September 1952 with one of the most exciting knockouts in heavyweight history. Trailing badly on the cards against the champion, Joe Walcott, Marciano connected with a sensational overhand right to knock Walcott out. 

    Marciano won the rematch the following May by Round 1 KO. In 1954, he beat former champion Ezzard Charles twice, by decision and Round 8 KO. In September 1955, he climbed off the canvas to knock out the legendary Archie Moore in nine.

    He retired in 1956, unfortunately just a little too early to face rising challenger Floyd Patterson. 

1960s: Muhammad Ali

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    Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, won the Olympic gold medal at light heavyweight in 1960. He turned professional and developed into an exciting prospect in short order. 

    But the early part of this decade was dominated by Sonny Liston, a fearsome bear of a man. He captured the world title by knocking out Floyd Patterson in one round in 1962. The following year he won the rematch, again by Round 1 KO. 

    The brash young Clay was given little chance when he faced Liston in February 1964. But his speed and movement thoroughly frustrated Liston, who went down by Round 6 TKO. 

    Shortly after winning the title, Clay announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam. He changed his name and became a cultural icon, first to the Black Pride movement and then to the anti-war movement, when he refused induction into the draft during the Vietnam War. 

    Ali in the 1960s became a figure who transcended the sport. But he was also the greatest heavyweight in history. He was a relatively large heavyweight for his era and had the speed of a middleweight. The combination made him nearly untouchable. 

    In March of 1967, Ali was stripped of his belt for his position on the draft. He spent the next four years exiled from the sport. But he still did enough during the decade to be the greatest heavyweight of the 1960s by a wide margin. 

1970s: Muhammad Ali

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    The 1970s were the greatest decade in the history of the heavyweight division. Mere contenders like Jerry Quarry, Ron Lyle and Earnie Shavers would have likely been world champions in other decades. 

    Legitimately great champions like George Foreman and Joe Frazier, and later Ken Norton and Larry Holmes, had their moments of glory as well.

    But once again, this was Ali's decade. He returned from exile in 1971. In March, he lost the first fight of his career to Joe Frazier and had his jaw broken and suffered his second loss to Ken Norton the following year.

    But he beat both men twice in rematches during the decade. His third and final fight with Joe Frazier in 1975 is considered by many boxing historians to be the greatest fight of all time. 

    In 1974, he became just the second man to reclaim the heavyweight title when he stunned the seemingly invincible George Foreman by Round 8 KO.

    In 1978, he suffered a shocking upset loss to Leon Spinks but won the rematch later in the year to become the first three-time heavyweight champion in history. 

1980s: Mike Tyson

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    For the 1980s, there are two clear-cut candidates for this honor: Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson. And for younger fans I want to make clear that picking between them is nowhere near as obvious as it might seem. 

    In my all-time ranking of heavyweight champions, I'd actually place Holmes over Tyson. Tyson destroyed Holmes when they fought, but Holmes was past his prime.

    But three of Holmes' biggest wins came in the 1970s: his championship victory over Ken Norton and his two wins over Earnie Shavers. He had plenty of big moments during the 1980s, including his Round 13 TKO of the previously unbeaten wrecking machine known as Gerry Cooney, but promotional monkey business prevented him from ever unifying the title.

    He came within a win of tying Rocky Marciano's 49-0 mark. In my book he passed it, since I view his consecutive losses to Michael Spinks in 1985 and 1986 as blatant robberies.

    But in the second half of the decade, Tyson exploded onto the scene. Under the tutelage of Cus D'Amato, he developed into a near-perfect fighter for his compact, athletically explosive frame.

    Tyson became the first undisputed heavyweight champion since Ali. I rate him along with Ali, Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey and John Sullivan as one of the five champions who had the most impact on popular culture.

    At the end of the decade, he stood atop the division and looked like he would continue to do so for years to come. When he lost to Buster Douglas in February 1990, it was one of the most shocking upsets in the history of the sport.   

1990s: Lennox Lewis

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    The 1990s can't quite match the 1970s for heavyweight talent, but it was a golden era nonetheless. For a brief period, Riddick Bowe looked like an emerging all-time great.

    Razor Ruddock, Tony Tucker, Oliver McCall and Shannon Briggs were among the very tough contenders on the scene, with McCall and Briggs staying relevant well into this century. Michael Moorer, Tommy Morrison and Ray Mercer were all talented world champions.

    Mike Tyson spent the first half of the decade in prison on a rape charge. When he emerged, he was nowhere near the talent he had been as a young man, but he was still an exciting factor on the scene and managed to reclaim a belt.

    Even 40-somethings George Foreman and Larry Holmes had moments of greatness in the decade. Foreman came from behind to knock out Moorer for the title, and Holmes gave Mercer a boxing lesson he never saw coming.

    But the decade comes down to two names: Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis. Both men accumulated resumes during the decade that deserve consideration for inclusion among the division's all-time greats.

    And when they met head-to-head, Lewis was the clearly the better man. They faced off for the first time in March 1999, with the fight ending in a draw.

    But that was one of the worst decisions of the decade. Lewis deserved to win, and I've never once heard anybody dispute that.

    When they fought a rematch the following November, Lewis won a clear decision.   

2000 to Present: Vitali Klitschko

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    This one comes down to a simple question. Which brother do you prefer: Vitali or Wladimir?

    Younger brother Wladimir has more wins and more world titles. Vitali took a chunk of this century off to recuperate from injuries. 

    But Wladimir has three losses by knockout on his record. He's been dominant most of the time, but no boxing fan can ever forget the potential vulnerability of his chin. 

    Vitali's only two losses came on a shoulder injury against Chris Byrd in April 2000 and on cuts against Lennox Lewis in June 2003. In both fights, Vitali was winning on the cards.

    I give Lewis full credit for busting Klitschko up badly enough to stop the fight, but I can't help noticing that he walked away from a lot of money to retire rather than fight a rematch. 

    Vitali has barely lost a round since the Lewis fight. So I have to give him the nod here. And even though they will never fight, I personally believe he could kick his kid brother's butt, if he hadn't promised his mother a long time ago that he never would.