Muhammed Ali, Mike Tyson and Boxing's Top 25 Heavyweight Champs of All Time
No particular aspect of any other sport inspires such fantastical debate as heavyweight boxing.
Throughout a prestigious history that has origins in the mid-1880s, many sporting greats have laid their hands on a prize that confirmed them as the planet's supreme fighting man, and to this day arguments still rage over how fighters from boxing's golden ages would have fared against the sport's modern practitioners.
There are hundreds, possibly even thousands, of "best heavyweight" lists to read, with criteria such as legacy, ability, power, skill and downright fighting spirit all valid qualities to be taken into consideration when trying to split such a collection of truly fantastic fighters.
To avoid becoming needlessly bogged down in endless to-ing and fro-ing from one boxer to the next, I devised a very simple system to sort my own personal take on the finest heavyweights from history.
The criteria is this—how good they were at their best, and how often they were at their best.
I didn't take this task lightly, though—countless hours of footage were consulted, opinions were sought and numerous lists were consulted. Eventually, the following list of boxing immortals was born.
Of course, some people will disagree with my choices—the whole nature of this list is based on the uncertain, on speculation and opinion that we will never be able to prove right or wrong.
One thing is certain, though. All these boys could hurt you.
25. Sam Langford
Prime Weight: 185 pounds
Record: 178(129) - 32(9) - 40
World Heavyweight Champion: Never won the title
Finest Moment: Against his arch-nemesis Henry Wills, who he would end up fighting a total of 17 times, Langford scored his finest-ever win with a 14th round knockout of Wills on 26th November 1914.
It was a brutal battle—Langford himself was down four times in the first two rounds, but eventually used his unparalleled ring-savvy to overcome his bigger opponent and reclaim the title of world "colored" heavyweight champion.
Blessed with a natural talent for fighting, Langford is rightly regarded as one of the best boxers to never win a world title as well as being recognised as an all-time pound-for-pound great.
He fought top contenders from lightweight to heavyweight, taking on all comers with his technically-perfect brand of boxing that earned him victories over some of the game's great and good.
He earned notable wins over lightweight champion Joe Gans and light-heavyweight king "Philadelphia" Jack O'Brien, as well as drawing with welterweight hero "Barbados" Joe Walcott.
As a heavyweight, he once lost on points to Jack Johnson despite giving away 30 pounds in weight, and fought many epic battles with other notable black fighters of the day such as Harry Wills (who he fought 17 times), Joe Jeanette and Sam McVey.
Langford essentially had it all—exceptional defence, with a particular mastery of blocking his opponent's blows, tremendous footwork and such hurtful hands that he was named Ring magazine's second best puncher of all time.
A veteran of over 250 fights, with countless more exhibitions and unlicensed bouts on top of that, Langford is undoubtedly one of heavyweight boxing's best ever, even as a 5'6" heavyweight.
24. Joe Walcott
Prime Weight: 195 pounds
Record: 51(32) - 18(6) - 2
World Heavyweight Champion: 1951-1952
Finest Moment: After unsuccessfully challenging for the world heavyweight title four times, it was a case of fifth time lucky for perennial contender "Jersey" Joe Walcott, who finally laid his hands on the belt he deserved at the ripe old age of 37.
The victory came against old foe Ezzard Charles, who had previously beaten Walcott twice with the world title on the line, but a savage left uppercut from Walcott sent Charles crashing to the canvas and simultaneously took Walcott to the very top of his profession.
A perennial contender during prizefighting's toughest times, "Jersey" Joe is one of heavyweight boxing's most honest champions, who gave every man he went up against a very tricky time.
In his early career, he was always decent, a brave and spirited fighter who traded wins and losses with other good fighters of the day such as "Tiger" Jack Fox.
But it was in 1945, when Walcott turned 31, that he really found his feet. There was more finesse and skill to his work, and his record for this period reflected this, as he won 16 of the 19 fights he had from January 1945 to earn his shot at the champion Joe Louis.
Even the great Louis found it difficult to stop him. Walcott put the "Brown Bomber" down in the first and fourth rounds, but the champion did well to recover and beat Walcott by a contentious split decision.
23. Ken Norton
Prime Weight: 210 pounds
Record: 42(33) - 7(4) - 1
World Heavyweight Champion: 1978 (WBC)
Finest Moment: Norton seemed to be one of few men who had the measure of the incomparable Muhammad Ali, with the Jacksonville native recording a hugely impressive victory in the first meeting of the pair’s trilogy.
Ali simply could not work out Norton’s languid style and long arms, with Norton often able to back the normally dominant Ali into the corner and make him look ordinary.
Norton even broke Ali’s jaw in the fifth round to round off a miserable night for his illustrious opponent and proved that Ken Norton belonged among the greats of his era.
One of the most natural athletes to ever take to the boxing ring, Ken Norton more than held his own against some of heavyweight boxing's greatest talents.
Comfortable in a technical boxing match or an all-out fight, Norton mastered an awkward style that confused everybody he went up against, particularly his defensive stance, where his left hand was always carried incredibly low.
He was always very busy, feinting and posturing against his opponent and continually making them think, with Norton's supreme fitness allowing him to do this for the full 12 or 15 rounds.
While he is best remembered for his scraps with Ali, his bout with Larry Holmes has also gone down in boxing folklore.
Thirty-five-year-old Norton was making the first defence of his WBC title against the up-and-coming Holmes, and both fighters contributed to an absolute war that Holmes just got the better of via a close split decision.
It was yet another brave performance from Norton, though, whose comparatively short reign as heavyweight champion isn't a fair reflection of his undeniable talent.
22. Max Schmeling
Prime Weight: 190 pounds
Record: 56(40) - 10(5) - 4
World Heavyweight Champion: 1930 – 1932
Finest Moment: Derided as nothing more than a Nazi and a has-been upon his arrival in America, Schmeling shocked the world when he inflicted the first defeat on a young and prime Joe Louis, who had, up until that time, gone 24 fights without tasting defeat.
Yet Schmeling’s preparations were perfect, and his tactical dissection of Louis made the task at hand surprisingly easy. Schmeling had noticed that Louis’ left hand would stray dangerously low after he’d thrown his left jab, and the "Black Uhland of Rhine" took full advantage of this by repeatedly nailing Louis with his devastating right cross.
Having gone down in the fourth round, Louis fought on bravely but to no avail, as Schmeling finished the job in round 12 to claim a victory that shocked the world.
One of boxing's most misunderstood characters, Max Schmeling was guilty of nothing more than being born in a country that during his fighting career was hated by the world.
Schmeling was no Nazi—he was an intellectual man who actually risked his own life to save two Jewish children during Germany's darkest times.
Plus, he was a mean boxer. A very studious and scientific fighter, Schmeling was always fighting a losing battle in boxing's American heartland, with promoters none-too-keen to work with a cautious fighter whose country of origin was in chaos.
It was a miracle, therefore, that Schmeling even got his chance at the world title, which he won by beating Jack Sharkey via disqualification.
Undoubtedly, his finest performance came in his first fight against Joe Louis, a seemingly unbeatable opponent who Schmeling carefully destroyed before knocking him out in a glorious 12th round for the under-appreciated former world champion.
It was a rare moment of triumph for Schmeling, who only got his acceptance later in life when the political smoke had cleared and people could finally judge the German on boxing alone.
21. Riddick Bowe
Prime Weight: 235 pounds
World Heavyweight Champion: 1992 (WBC), 1992-1993 (IBF / WBA), 1995-1996 (WBO)
Finest Moment: Having blasted his way through the heavyweight scene of the early 90s, Bowe went up against former cruiserweight champion Evander Holyfield for the right to be called the world’s undisputed heavyweight champion.
Bowe, who came into the ring looking trim and well-conditioned, produced a master class of long-range boxing to totally nullify Holyfield and was very close to stopping the notoriously granite-chinned "Real Deal" on two occasions.
Unsurprisingly, all four judges gave Bowe the decision by a wide margin to cap a stellar performance from Bowe, which many thought marked the arrival of a new star in heavyweight boxing.
The perfect example of the sporting enigma, Bowe had the capacity to fascinate and frustrate in equal measure, and has to go down as one of heavyweight boxing's wasted talents.
A trained Riddick Bowe was physically perfect—a 6'5" giant blessed with good footwork, an exceptional jab and a real killer instinct to finish opponents off.
The great Eddie Futch even said that Bowe was the most naturally talented boxer he ever worked with, and the first fight with Holyfield certainly showed signs of this immense promise.
Yet Bowe was certainly no gym rat. Besotted with the good life outside the ring, Bowe's weight ballooned, and while his pure talent earned him wins over decent contenders such as Larry Donald and Jorge Luis Gonzalez, Bowe never again fought at his dominant best.
He was still entertaining, though, with his scraps against Andrew Golota sure to live long in the memory due to their unrivalled insanity.
It's a real shame that these farcical bouts are among his career highlights, because Bowe had a chance to establish a legacy as one of the game's greatest.
20. Ezzard Charles
Prime Weight: 184 pounds
World Heavyweight Champion: 1949-1951
Finest Moment: Having claimed the belt in the absence of Joe Louis, Charles stepped in with the returning "Brown Bomber" in a bid to prove that he was a worthy champion.
Charles certainly did that. Louis was just returning following a temporary 18-month retirement and found the champion in typically elusive form, as the smaller man repeatedly befuddled the bigger challenger with his fleet-footedness and counter punching.
It all proved too much for the aging Louis, for whom Charles was simply too quick, too busy and too good.
Rightly regarded as one of the best light-heavyweights that boxing has ever seen, Charles could certainly mix it with the best heavyweights of his day as well.
It is strange to think that Charles, who beat legends such as Archie Moore and Jimmy Bivins in his light-heavyweight prime, never actually won the world title in that weight class, preferring to step up to heavyweight and try his luck.
It was a wise move. With Joe Louis retiring from the sport as champion, Charles claimed the mantle of world's greatest fighter by beating "Jersey" Joe Walcott for the world heavyweight title, and would hold on to his crown for two years before Walcott finally beat him at the third attempt.
Charles' style was revolutionary, almost a prelude to Muhammad Ali that proved boxers of this size could be elusive, fast and graceful.
Charles was blessed with superb agility, fast hands and excellent footwork, relying on a precise jab and quick counter punches to gain victory after victory over opponents much bigger and stronger.
It certainly won him plenty of plaudits—Bert Sugar rated Charles as the seventh best heavyweight of all time on his list.
19. Harry Wills
Prime Weight: 212 pounds
Record: 68(54)-9(5)- 3
World Heavyweight Champion: Never won the title
Finest moment: "The Black Panther" had to be at his sleek and technical best to overcome his long-time adversary Sam Langford in the pair’s first meeting in May 1914.
With the world "colored" title at stake, Wills repeatedly peppered the savvy Langford with his jab, controlling the fight from distance without ever really hurting the defensive genius that was Langford.
It didn’t matter—he was the dominant force throughout the 10 rounds, and recorded a comfortable decision victory over a man he would go on to meet a further 16 times.
A victim of boxing's infamous "color line," Wills was never granted the title chance he deserved because of the racial tensions that dominated American society.
It was partly fuelled by the controversial reign of Jack Johnson, whose defiance had alienated boxing's predominantly white fans to the extent that no black man was going to be granted a shot at the heavyweight title for the foreseeable future.
He was the leading contender for Jack Dempsey's heavyweight crown for seven years, routinely beating leading black fighters such as Langford, Joe Jeanette and Sam McVey, yet never earning his shot at sport's most coveted prize.
This wasn't the fault of the champion, though. Dempsey himself repeatedly called for the fight for to be made, but his managers weren't happy about Dempsey facing a man who was undoubtedly the most dangerous heavyweight of his time.
As it was, Wills never got his chance at fame, with his skills rapidly declining once he reached his late 20s. He spent the back end of his boxing career losing to the next generation of leading heavyweights.
18. Floyd Patterson
Prime Weight: 188 pounds
World Heavyweight Champion: 1956-1959, 1960-1962
Finest Moment: Having lost his world title to undefeated Swede Ingemar Johansson, Patterson got his chance at revenge in a rematch where many though the smallish Patterson would be simply overpowered.
Yet Patterson was in no mood for messing about, and stalked Johansson with an aggression that was seldom seen throughout his boxing career, eventually dropping the Scandinavian with a big left hook in the fifth round.
One of heavyweight boxing's nicest-ever champions, Patterson was an unlikely master of a sport where causing pain is such an integral part.
A naturally shy and gentle man, Patterson won gold as a middleweight in the 1952 Olympics, and if he had campaigned today he would certainly have done so as no more than a light-heavyweight.
Yet Patterson possessed supreme skill and a dedication to his art, deservedly winning the heavyweight title in 1956 by knocking out Archie Moore.
His reign as champion was a tricky one. Always prone to being out-powered, he was knocked down twice in his first four defences before Ingemar Johansson gave him a thorough beating in 1959.
Patterson wasn't one for giving up, though. He avenged this defeat against the Swede, and despite two heavy losses against Sonny Liston, he would repeatedly try to recapture his crown all the way until 1972, some 16 years after he first won the biggest prize in sport.
It was typical of man blessed with a quiet, steely resolve and a heart of gold that belied his chosen profession.
17. John L. Sullivan
Prime Weight: 210 pounds
World Heavyweight Champion: 1885-1892
Finest Moment: While this bout wasn't fought under the emerging Queensberry rules, Sullivan's 75-round war with Jake Kilrain was the last time the bare-knuckle world title was ever contested, and serves as a dramatic reminder of the rigours that fighters of this era put themselves through.
Kilrain was initially the better man and even drew blood from Sullivan in round seven, but eventually, the "Boston Strongboy" ground the plucky Kilrain down and began knocking him to the floor at will.
Eventually, after 75 long and arduous rounds, the ringside physician pulled Kilrain out of the fight, fearing that he would die if he took any more punishment.
The first scribble on an illustrious list of names, John L. Sullivan was the inaugural winner of the world heavyweight title contested under Queensberry rules.
A man whose skills were crafted in a time of bouts that could be measured in hours rather than rounds, Sullivan was a tough-as-hell Irish-American blessed with outstanding quickness, strength and a devastating right hand.
He certainly enjoyed the fruits of his labour and became America's first sporting superstar, also becoming the first athlete to earn over $1 million.
While his record here shows only 41 fights, Sullivan is believed to have actually fought over five times this amount, with countless exhibitions and bare-knuckle fights not included in his official record.
He could certainly fight, though, travelling all over the world and showcasing the immense talent of a man who will be forever known as the father of modern heavyweight boxing.
16. Wladimir Klitschko
Prime Weight: 243 pounds
World Heavyweight Champion: 2000-2003 (WBO), 2006-Present (IBF), 2008-Present (WBO), 2011 - Present (WBA)
Finest Moment: In the most eagerly anticipated heavyweight match for years, Klitschko squared off against brash Londoner David Haye with the right to be called the world's best heavyweight up for grabs.
Despite many pundits doubting him, Dr. Steelhammer produced a punch-perfect display to completely subdue the lightning-fast Haye, catching him with some big shots without ever really coming close to stopping him.
Yet it was still a vintage performance from Klitschko, whose victory meant that all the major heavyweight title belts belonged to one family for the first time.
Often derided as a freak, a foney or a glass-jawed pretender, Wladimir Klitschko may finally be winning his critics round on the back of yet another classy victory.
The Klitschkos are a difficult puzzle to solve, with neither having been forced to overcome an opponent that was superior in either size or technique.
On the face of it, though, Wladimir is an exceptional fighter. An Olympic gold medallist, a world champion on and off for 11 years who now holds three of boxing's four major belts and who happens to be a 6'6" powerhouse is not a boxer to be sniffed at.
Of course, boxing fans yearn for Klitschko to use these physical and technical advantages in a more destructive fashion, with his softly-softly approach never going to win him plaudits from spectators hungry for knockouts.
But Klitschko is a technical master, someone who has perfected the art of long-range fighting and would fancy his chances against anyone with inferior height and reach having seen the way he made the dangerous Haye look positively impotent.
It would be a truly fascinating prospect to see him up against a prime fighter of years gone by and whether Klitschko could successfully use his obvious advantages against a fighter with the ability of an Ali or a Tyson.
Unfortunately, it is a sight we are never likely to see.
15. Gene Tunney
Prime Weight: 188 pounds
Record: 65(48)-1(0) 1
World Heavyweight Champion: 1926-1928
Finest Moment: Moving up from light-heayweight, Tunney wasn't given a prayer against long-time heavyweight king Jack Dempsey, who was probably the most recognised athlete in the world.
In front of a crowd of over 120,000, though, Tunney produced a masterful display of boxing technique that totally perplexed the naturally aggressive Dempsey, allowing the the "Fighting Marine" to cruise to a unanimous decision victory over one of the sport's greatest champions.
Certainly one of boxing's greatest pound-for-pound fighters, Tunney was an outstanding technical boxer who beat the best middleweights and light-heavyweights of his era before moving up and claiming the heavyweight championship.
Tunney basically had it all. Speed of hand and foot, flawless technique, exceptional fitness and an in-ring savvy that distinguished him from the brawling heavyweight champions before him.
This was the problem, though. The people, who had been brought up on the ferocity of Jim Jeffries and Jack Dempsey, longed for a heavyweight champion whose technique in the ring resembled that of a street fighter.
It was undeserved criticism for a champion as skilled as Tunney, who only lost once in a career that saw him conquer some genuine all-time greats.
Harry Greb, Georges Carpentier and Tommy Gibbons all found Tunney to be the superior fighter, with his meticulous preparation and study of opponents being a technique that was well ahead of his time.
The two victories over Dempsey at the end of Tunney's career, while they were both very unpopular, further enhance the view that he really was one of the game's truly outstanding fighters.
14. Evander Holyfield
Prime Weight: 218 pounds
World Heavyweight Champion: 1990-1992 (WBA, WBC, IBF), 1993-1994 (WBA, IBF), 1996-1999 (WBA), 1997-1999 (IBF), 2000-2001 (WBA)
Finest Moment: Going in as a heavy underdog against Mike Tyson, Holyfield proceeded to confound Tyson like no one had ever done before.
Holyfield seemed to out-fight boxing's most animalistic predator, with Tyson having no answer for Holyfield's spirit and seemingly unbreakable will.
The finale was spectacular—Tyson seemed to wilt under intense pressure from the former cruiserweight champion in round 11, with referee Mitch Halpern forced to jump in and stop the contest.
One of modern boxing's most iconic figures, even at the age of 48, Holyfield is still one of the best heavyweight boxers in the world today.
A former cruiserweight who bulked up to compete in the fight game's marquee division, it was sheer toughness and desire that defined Holyfield's career and allowed him to routinely dismantle fighters with greater strength and skill.
He never gave his opponents an easy ride, never gave them anything cheaply and it was against Mike Tyson that he really came alive.
Tyson, who many thought was back to his primal best, simply could not contend with a man whose iron will alone was capable of withstanding onslaught after onslaught from boxing's most dangerous puncher.
There were other notable wins too, with Riddick Bowe, Michael Moorer and George Foreman all succumbing to Holyfield's relentless style of fighting.
There were just too many poor losses on the record, though, for Holyfield to be any higher up the list, with inconsistency the only barrier between him and a place in this list's top 10.
13. Vitali Klitschko
Prime Weight: 248 pounds
World Heavyweight Champion: 1999-2000 (WBO), 2004-2005 (WBC), 2008-Present (WBC)
Finest Moment: It is perhaps odd that Klitschko's greatest triumph came in defeat, but his war with Lennox Lewis in 2003 was the moment that proved to the world that Klitschko belonged with the best.
Prior to this, Klitschko was still a bit of a mystery man, with a reputation as a quitter stalking him ever since he retired on his stool against Chris Byrd because of a damaged shoulder.
But Klitschko proved the doubters wrong against all-time great Lewis, dominating the fight and, perhaps more importantly, showing a desire to fight on despite a hideous cut forcing the referee to intervene and award the bout to Lewis by technical knockout.
The hardest man in modern boxing, Vitali Klitschko is, along with his younger brother Wladimir, the dominant heavyweight of this generation.
He is basically the perfect specimen for a fighter—a giant, well conditioned athlete with superb coordination, a pinpoint right hand and a chin that can withstand the heaviest of human artillery.
Now 40, Klitschko shows no signs of slowing down. Having dispatched Olympic gold-medallist Odlanier Solis in March, he is now set to face leading contender Tomasz Adamek in September as the Klitschko brothers continue to clean up the latest batch of heavyweights.
While his brother can be accused of having a volatile chin, there is no questioning Vitali's superior resilience, with the older of the Klitschko brothers undoubtedly being the more natural fighter.
Of course, Klitschko has not had the proper platform to showcase his skills, with wins over Danny Williams, Juan Carlos Gomez and Albert Sosnowski hardly likely to cement a credible legacy.
Yet for me, Klitschko's huge size, power and capacity to take punishment mean he would have been a leading contender in any era, and rightfully earns a place just outside the top 10.
12. Jim Jeffries
Prime Weight: 208 pounds
World Heavyweight Champion: 1899 - 1905
Finest Moment: Having defended his world heavyweight title three times, the undefeated Jeffries was thrown into a bout with former title holder James Corbett in a contest that everybody thought would be interesting.
Corbett, having beaten John L. Sullivan a few years earlier, had a knack of toppling giants, but Jeffries was a different animal.
Despite Corbett boxing superbly for 22 rounds, Jeffries eventually caught up with boxing's most cunning operator and floored him with a vicious combination to retain his title.
Still rightly regarded as one of heavyweight boxing's best, Jeffries was the typical boxer/bruiser of old, schooled in the bare-knuckle art and powered by a real relish for fighting.
It is a shame that he is most remembered for his unsuccessful comeback against Jack Johnson, a fight he took at the persuasion of the white people despite being out of the ring for six years.
He fought against nine future hall of famers, and defended his title an unprecedented nine times before retiring without a loss to his name.
Boxing historian Tracey Callis recently selected Jeffries as the greatest heavyweight of all time, and this respect was clearly shared among his peers, as Jack Johnson also regarded him as heavyweight boxing's best ever.
While he is certainly one of the greatest natural fighters of all time, Jeffries never really acquired the skills that were so abundant in someone like Jack Johnson, which stopped me from putting him any higher than no. 12.
Yet Jeffries competed in an era where your passion for fighting was sometimes the most important factor in any bout. On this quality alone, Jeffries deserves to be remembered as one of boxing's best.
11. Larry Holmes
Prime Weight: 212 pounds
World Heavyweight Champion: 1978-1983 (WBC), 1983-1985 (IBF)
Finest Moment: In 1982, Holmes found himself involved in a less tense version of boxing's age-old "black v white" scenario when he squared off against the highly-fancied Irish-American Gerry Cooney.
Cooney, a 25-0 prospect who had graced the cover of Time magazine prior to the fight, was even introduced second on the night despite being the challenger, an act which reflected the depth of feeling in the boxing community that Cooney was the favourite.
Yet Holmes was by far the more accomplished fighter, hurting Cooney on numerous occasions before stopping him late in the 13th round.
A world champion for seven years who came desperately close to breaking Rocky Marciano's record of 49 fights undefeated, Holmes remains one of boxing's most under-appreciated fighters.
Schooled in the sparring ring with Muhammad Ali, Holmes was terribly unfortunate to reach his peak in the post Ali-Frazier-Foreman era, where the standard in heavyweight boxing was virtually guaranteed to drop.
Holmes was a fine heavyweight champion though, competent in every aspect of his trade and with an exceptional jab that one British scribe compared to opening a letter bomb.
He was only stopped once, by a young Mike Tyson, and three of his six defeats came very late in his career when his world championship days were very far behind him.
Yet like so many on this list, the quality of opposition in his era undoubtedly counts against Holmes, as he never once came up against a similarly skilled fighter in their prime.
Plus the fact that Michael Spinks beat Holmes twice, just before that infamous one-round capitulation against Mike Tyson, indicates that maybe Holmes wasn't fearsome enough to rank in this list's very upper echelons.
10. Sonny Liston
Prime Weight: 215 pounds
World Heavyweight Champion: 1962-1964
Finest Moment: Having spread terror through the heavyweight ranks for so long, champion Floyd Patterson eventually caved into public demand and handed Sonny Liston the title shot he deserved.
It was a disastrous move by Patterson. After just 30 seconds, the fight emerged as an obvious mismatch of size and strength, and Liston didn't have to wait long to strike the killer blow.
With Patterson trapped on the ropes, Liston unleashed some of his bone-shattering hooks to fell the brave champion and begin his own reign of terror over heavyweight boxing.
The boxer who Mike Tyson and George Foreman called their inspiration, Liston was one of those fighters whose capability for damage matched that of most bombs.
A fighter who made unique use of intimidation, Liston's brooding personality was matched by his merciless style of boxing, with his famed hooks enough to debilitate even the hardest and bravest of fighters.
Liston himself was very comfortable on the streets, with a desperately poor family background forcing him into a life of crime that he never truly escaped from.
His tragic death in 1971 was almost a fitting end to Liston's story, who lived a life where boxing offered him salvation from the public detest he suffered on a daily basis.
In the boxing ring, he was undoubtedly a force, but a force who lacked the heart of other brave fighters not blessed with Liston's superb gifts of destruction. Invariably with Liston, if the going got tough, he gave up.
9. Rocky Marciano
Prime Weight: 184 pounds
World Heavyweight Champion: 1952-1956
Finest Moment: In Rocky's first crack at the world heavyweight title, he came up against wily veteran "Jersey" Joe Walcott, who was starting to settle into life as heavyweight champion of the world.
Walcott's skills shone through throughout the fight, and the champion was in a clear lead by the time the bout reached round 13.
This was where Marciano's reputable power came into play, though. The "Brockton Bomber" leathered Walcott with a crisp right hook that totally obliterated the champion's senses, allowing Marciano to claim a title he'd never lose in the ring.
The sensational Rocky Marciano was the undisputed king of his era, claiming the prized scalps of Walcott, Joe Louis, Lee Savold and Archie Moore in a career that never once tasted defeat.
He had almost super-human punching power, with his ability to knock fighters out with a single punch marking him out as one of heavyweight boxing's most destructive champions.
His unique style of bobbing, crouching and weaving was particularly unique, and helped the comparatively short Marciano conquer the six foot-plus fighters he would invariably come up against.
The one criticism though was the competition—despite the famous names on his resume, Marciano beat them all at the back end of their careers, when the likes of Louis and Moore were in their late 30s and starting to show their age.
What Marciano needed was a true test to see if his ferocious fists could have taken out these greats in their fighting prime, or whether his lack of height and speed would have counted against him at the very top level.
Regardless, though, Marciano is to this day the only heavyweight champion to retire undefeated—with a right hook like his, it's not hard to see why.
8. Jack Dempsey
Prime Weight: 188 pounds
World Heavyweight Champion: 1919-1926
Finest Moment: Going up against Jess Willard, the man mountain who had dethroned Jack Johnson, it wasn't known if Dempsey's uber-aggressive style would be enough to topple a man who stood five inches taller and 60 pounds heavier.
Within three rounds, the doubters were proved completely wrong. Dempsey absolutely mauled Willard in a scene reminiscent of a lion attacking a wounded buffalo, with Willard totally perplexed by Dempsey's incessant and uncomplicated style.
Having been knocked down several times in the first round, Willard managed to remain vertical from there on in, although the fight was soon stopped, with Willard bleeding excessively after taking the most thorough thrashing of his career.
The "Manassa Mauler" virtually revolutionised the sport of boxing, turning it from a game of slow and considered single punches to a blood-and-thunder sport played at lightning speeds.
Dempsey was certainly no match technically for the likes of Jack Johnson or Sam Langford. There was no real thought with regards to technique, or any thought at all, really.
What Dempsey was, though, was the ultimate people's champion, someone who thrilled crowds and guaranteed excitement with his all-action style of fighting.
The thing is, it worked. As well as beating Jess Willard, he also overwhelmed the likes of Billy Miske, Georges Carpentier and Jack Sharkey.
While he would go on to lose twice to Gene Tunney, who preferred a more measured style of boxing compared to Dempsey's all-out warfare, this was largely due to inactivity—before his first fight with Tunney, Dempsey hadn't set foot in a competitive boxing ring for three years.
Of course, there are more skilled competitors than Dempsey higher up the list. However, Dempsey never pretended or even wanted to be a silky smooth pugilist jabbing his way to victory. He wanted to hurt people.
What people would give for a heavyweight like that today.
7. Lennox Lewis
Prime Weight: 240 pounds
World Heavyweight Champion: 1992-1994 (WBC), 1997-2001 (WBC), 1999-2000 (WBA), 1999-2001 (IBF), 2001-2002 (IBF), 2001-2004 (WBC)
Finest Moment: Having lived in Mike Tyson's shadow for over a decade, Lewis finally found got the chance to silence the doubters when he faced off against the planet's baddest man.
While the fight probably came too late in both fighter's careers, it was still a fascinating spectacle and one that Lewis absolutely relished, bossing an out-of-sorts Tyson from the first bell.
The uppercut which actually finished Tyson was a particularly sweet shot for Lewis, who cemented his legacy as a truly great heavyweight champion with a single punch.
While it was usually Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson who got most of the headlines, there should be no denying that the era before the Klitschkos was actually dominated by Lennox Lewis.
A perfectly-proportioned modern heavyweight, Lewis won Olympic gold in 1988 and claimed his first world title just four years later, and was the last man to be recognised as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
While he was very much a caution-first fighter, with his long jab often enough to keep any opponents at bay, on the occasions where he let his hands go he proved he had phenomenal knockout power.
It wasn't like he ducked anybody either—he fought Holyfield twice, winning one and drawing the other (although that was a very questionable draw, Lewis really did win that fight), while he also beat top contenders such as Tyson, David Tua and Shannon Briggs.
Even when half-fit and past his prime, he still had enough class to dismantle Vitali Klitschko's face and claim the win by technical knockout.
It is really his typically cautious approach that stops Lewis from reaching an even higher ranking on the list—had he been willing to search for more knockouts rather than boxing behind his jab, perhaps his legacy would be even greater.
6. Joe Frazier
Prime Weight: 205 pounds
World Heavyweight Champion: 1968-1973 (NYSAC / WBC), 1970-1973 (WBA)
Finest Moment: 1971 saw one of heavyweight boxing's most titanic clashes, as unbeaten champion Joe Frazier squared off against the returning Muhammad Ali in a bout that captivated the world.
Despite Ali's constant taunts in the build up to the fight, Frazier was clever enough to do his talking in the ring, and subsequently gave Ali the first beating of his career.
Frazier even managed to knock the iron-chinned Ali down with one of his trademark left hooks, although the challenger did show tremendous heart to get back up and reach the fight's end, eventually going down by unanimous decision.
One third of heavyweight boxing's most fascinating rivalry, "Smokin" Joe Frazier was one of the purest fighting men to ever set foot in the boxing ring.
A gold medallist in the light-heavyweight division at the Olympics of 1964, Frazier reinforced the theory that you could be a successful small heavyweight, perfecting a low, crouching style that made him very difficult to hit.
Plus, this low stance added extra explosiveness to his notorious left hook, the punch that became the most feared in world boxing due to its uniquely dangerous combination of speed and power.
Yet above all else, Joe Frazier had the heart of a lion. Even though he came off second best against the other leading fighters of his era, there was a stubbornness and a refusal to give in that marked him out as a very special talent.
As it was, though, his contemporaries George Foreman and Muhammad Ali were perhaps not better, but a little bit bigger. There is no disgrace in that.
5. Jack Johnson
Prime Weight: 209 pounds
World Heavyweight Champion: 1908-1915
Finest Moment: In the first of heavyweight boxing's truly world-stopping spectaculars, Johnson defended his title against former undefeated champion Jim Jeffries, who had been in retirement for six years.
The fight, billed as the white race versus the black, ended up being rather straight forward for the defensive master that was Johnson, with Jeffries unable to shake the ring-rust that had gripped him during his lay-off.
After 15 one-sided rounds, Johnson eventually put the brave former champion out of his misery, sending Jeffries to the canvas and sparking race riots across America.
Recognised by many as the most important athlete in history, Jack Johnson's life in boxing must be considered in its full context rather than being confined to simply how many people he knocked out.
He was the first black man to win the world heavyweight title, and his swagger away from the ring, along with his desire for white women, made him one of America's most vilified figures.
Yet he was the heavyweight champion, and a good one at that. The likes of Sam Langford, Bob Fitzsimmons and Tommy Burns were all outclassed by Johnson, which infuriated America's predominantly white society who couldn't believe a black man could be so technically superior.
Johnson really was a supreme technician, though, with his defensive capabilities making him practically invulnerable to harm despite the rough-house tactics employed by many fighters of the day.
He was eventually hounded away from America to escape arrest, although he continued to defend his title around Europe before returning to America in 1915, where he lost to the giant Jess Willard to lose the crown he held so dear.
It certainly didn't tarnish his legacy though—to his dying day, Ring magazine founder Nat Fleischer recognised Johnson as the best heavyweight he'd ever seen.
4. Mike Tyson
Prime Weight: 217 pounds
World Heavyweight Champion: 1986-1990 (WBC), 1987-1990 (WBA, IBF), 1996 (WBC, WBA)
Finest Moment: At just 21-years-old but already a veteran of 34 fights, "Iron" Mike Tyson stepped into the ring with former light-heavyweight champion Michael Spinks looking to unify the world's heavyweight titles.
Spinks, whose pre-fight face was the very definition of terror, didn't stand a chance. It was essentially an assault masquerading as a world title fight.
Tyson first sent Spinks sprawling with a body shot before the gallant Spinks got to his feet only to be unceremoniously flattened seconds later.
There is not much else to say about Mike Tyson.
He is a man who has been subjected to scrutiny from filmmakers, journalists, therapists, psycho-analyists and occasionally juries—I'm sceptical as to whether I can reveal anymore on the complex characteristics of such a gifted yet troubled individual.
However, I will justify just why Mike Tyson is so high on this list. No boxer has ever divided opinion so much, with boxing's modern day audience viewing Tyson as the best of all time while those familiar with fighters from times gone by are often very dismissive of his skills.
It is a conundrum I faced with great difficulty, and was one I answered with this very simple question—if I had to step in the ring tomorrow with one fighter from history, who is the person I'd least like to be stood in the opposite corner?
The answer was quite blindingly obvious. Tyson—the prime, sub-220 pound Tyson—brought unheralded levels of force into the boxing ring, eclipsing the fear factor seen even with other notorious wrecking balls such as Sonny Liston and Rocky Marciano.
Of course, he faded. He lost against Holyfield, he lost against Lewis and even went down to Kevin McBride, a man who moves slower than the Earth's tectonic plates.
But for those years prior to the Buster Douglas debacle that marked the beginning of the end for Tyson, there were glimpses of absolute boxing talent, a man blessed with such natural fighting prowess that he seemed capable of eclipsing all those that gone before him. For that reason, he deserves to be this high.
3. George Foreman
Prime Weight: 218 pounds
World Heavyweight Champion: 1973-1974 (WBC, WBA), 1994-1995 (WBA, IBF)
Finest Moment: Having only started boxing seven years before, George Foreman found himself stepping in with the unbeaten Joe Frazier for the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world.
Frazier, who had beaten Muhammad Ali two years earlier, came out with confidence but was soon subjected to the full force of Foreman's devastating power, with the previously unstoppable Frazier going down three times in the first round.
Clearly still dazed, Frazier was on the end of a similar pounding in the second round, and having been subjected to an uppercut that actually lifted him off the floor, Frazier was pulled out of the fight by merciful referee Arthur Mercante, who had seen quite enough of such a one-sided demolition.
A man with a natural talent for fighting, George Foreman's transformation from street fighter to prize fighter spawned one of heavyweight boxing's most precocious talents.
When he first burst onto the scene he was the perfect fighting machine—tall, strong, light on his feet and as menacing as they come. Reporters of the day will tell you that not only was Foreman a brute in the ring, he could also be a scary proposition outside of it as well.
During the early 1970s, probably the toughest era in the history of heavyweight boxing, Foreman seemed gifted with almost unnatural power, destroying all-time greats Joe Frazier and Ken Norton inside two rounds.
While he will always be synonymous with his defeat to Muhammad Ali, it's always worth noting that after the first round of boxing on that memorable night, Ali looked, for the first and only time in his career, absolutely terrified.
This is without even mentioning his unbelievable comeback in the mid 90s, where aged 45, he knocked out leading heavyweight of the day Michael Moorer to become heavyweight champion for the second time over 20 years after he first held the belt.
It's this resilience combined with his undoubted power that makes Foreman such a frightening proposition—fighters in the same mould as Foreman, such as Mike Tyson and Sonny Liston, didn't have the mental toughness that Foreman had, and would never have displayed the spirit that Foreman showed during his second reign at the top of the heavyweight tree.
2. Joe Louis
Prime Weight: 200 pounds
World Heavyweight Champion: 1937-1949
Finest Moment: With the eyes of the world watching, Joe Louis stepped into the ring with Max Schmeling in a fight that was about much more than the heavyweight title.
The press had cast Schmeling as the Nazi's fighter (while the reality was far from this, it made things very dramatic), while Louis was the great defender, an American hero fighting for the free world against the oppression of Hitler.
On this occasion, fascism lost by first round knockout. Having learnt his lesson from the pair's first fight two years earlier, where Schmeling knocked Louis out, the "Brown Bomber" made short work of his German opponent, obliterating Schmeling with a perfectly-placed body shot that ended the fight after less than two minutes.
To fully comprehend the extraordinary talent of Joe Louis, you need only look at his standing among boxing's genuine experts.
The International Boxing Research Organisation named Louis as the best heavyweight ever in 2005. The Ring magazine named him as their all-time number two at the turn of the century, as well as naming him the game's greatest-ever puncher in 2003.
He holds the record for the most successful title defences ever in any weight class (25), as well as holding the distinction of being the longest reigning world champion in history having been world champion for 12 years. To put that in perspective, the heavyweight who has come closest to that is Larry Holmes, who was champion for seven.
Yet there is so much more to Joe Louis than the bare facts and statistics. In a time where the race-war still raged in America, Joe's easy charm and sublime boxing talent acted as an olive branch for both sides, with people of all ages, genders and religions able to appreciate the pure talent of the heavyweight champion of the world.
And what a talent it was. Louis was an absolute master of every facet of the boxing trade, although it was his fearsome power that perhaps typified his long and unchallenged reign as the world's best, with either hand capable of finishing a fight in an age where every heavyweight challenger had a degree of boxing nous.
The names of Carnera, Sharkey, Braddock, Schmeling, Conn, Walcott, Charles and Savold all have a giant "L" next to their name on Louis' outstanding record in the ring, with the "Brown Bomber" proving himself the best of his era time after time after time.
1. Muhammad Ali
Prime Weight: 211 pounds
World Heavyweight Champion: 1964-1967, 1974-1978 (WBC, WBA), 1978-1979 (WBA)
Finest Moment: In the most iconic moment in all of sports history, let alone boxing, Muhammad Ali met George Foreman in the heartland of Africa in a fight that would be immortalised as the "Rumble in the Jungle."
Foreman, who had destroyed two of Ali's oldest foes in Ken Norton and Joe Frazier, was widely expected to do similar damage to an aging Ali, with the sombre mood of Ali's dressing room pre-fight hinting at the execution that many expected to come.
What actually transpired is the stuff of legend. Ali employed the now infamous "rope-a-dope" tactic to nullify the naturally aggressive Foreman, who eventually became exhausted from pounding away at Ali. The stage was then set for Ali, in that historic eighth round, to explode off the ropes and send Foreman crashing to the canvas.
There could only be one winner, couldn't there?
Ali was, of course, more than just a boxer. He was the 20th century's most extraordinary personality, a man possessed of character that was both jovial and impregnable, a man who seemed to grow stronger in the face of overwhelming adversity.
Yet among all the plaudits Ali deservedly takes for his work outside the ring, people should not forget just what a sterling fighter he was.
No fighter triumphed in so many iconic moments. The against-all-odds victory over Sonny Liston, the destruction of Floyd Patterson, the defeating of Ken Norton and Joe Frazier in their epic trilogies and of course, the historic moment in Zaire in 1974 when "Big" George Foreman came tumbling down.
While Ali employed kidology to a certain extent during his triumph over Foreman, one has to suspect that a prime Ali would have been able to defeat him using pure boxing skill alone.
His victory over Cleveland Williams in 1966 is as close to perfection as I've ever seen. Ali seemed unstoppable, a 210-pound man who moved with the grace and elegance of a gazelle yet packed the hurtful power of raging buffalo.
It was simply sublime, and the fact is that because of his exile between 1967 and 1970, we may have actually never seen the best of the most supreme fighting machine to ever walk the Earth.