By: Ronald Cameron
I’ve been a boxing fan for 35 years and I’ve seen my share of GREAT heavyweight champions when they were in their primes. I also have watched a plethora of fights that took place before my time and have watched several of heavyweight champions who dominated in their respective eras. There were some champions who were great for a short time and others who had long title reigns but fought in eras where there was not a lot of competition. Some dominated by knocking everyone out while others got the job done with a great left jab, tremendous hand speed and great defense. With that said and considering there were several great heavyweights, I have to ask this question… who are the 5 greatest heavyweight champions? I’m going to give you my 5 greatest champions along with the reasons why I believe they belong on the list.
Now before I begin, I rank fighters based on a few criteria’s and here they are:
Quality of opposition: This is HUGE to me. If you fought and beat GREAT fighters who were in their prime, it shows that you’re a great fighter and belong on this list.
Long title reigns: I also believe this category is important. It defines longevity and dominance. Now to be clear, this doesn’t mean that you can reign as champion for a 6 years, fight a bunch of recycled road-kill and expect to be considered a GREAT fighter. When I look at long title reigns, I look to see if they fought ELITE fighters who were in their primes and won.
Performance in big fights: This is the last category but it’s also very important. Winning big fights by knocking out your opponents is something that I hold in high regard, but also winning fights by out-boxing your opponent and displaying superior skills is also a plus.
Now that you know how I judge these great champions, let me reveal my list of the Greatest Heavyweights of All Time:
5.) George Foreman:
Biggest wins: Joe Frazier I (TKO 2), Ken Norton (TKO 2) Michael Moorer (KO 10)
Now I expect to hear some backlash from this pick, but “Big George” was one of the most feared heavyweights who ever lived and certainly one of the hardest punchers in boxing history. The former 1968 Heavyweight Olympic Gold medal winner used to spar with former heavyweight champion Sonny Liston and during that time, Liston took Foreman under his wing. Foreman emulated Liston’s baleful, pre-fight stare and he fought very similar to how Liston boxed. Like Liston, Foreman had a punishing left jab and could knock out his opponents with either hand. And let’s not forget, Foreman also adapted Liston’s no so friendly attitude towards people. During his first career, Foreman was not the smiling, grill-selling nice guy that he is right now. In the 1970’s, Foreman was very intimidating to a lot of people, especially to his opponents.
After compiled a record of 37-0 with 34 knockouts, Foreman finally got his chance to fight for the title when he faced heavyweight champion Joe Frazier. In this one-sided mismatch, Foreman knocked Frazier down 6 times and was stopped in the second round as George realized his dream of becoming the heavyweight champion of the world. Foreman followed that up a year later with a vicious 2nd round knockout over Ken Norton; the same Norton who had just gave Muhammad two close fights that could have gone either way.
Now we all know what happened once he faced Ali (More on this fight later) but Foreman recovered from that loss and defeated tough Ron Lyle in 5 action packed round that saw Foreman taste the canvas but unlike what happened in Zaire with Ali, Foreman got up from the floor not once but twice, and came back to knock out Lyle in the 5th round. Foreman then faced Joe Frazier again and destroyed him in 5 rounds, fought and won a few more fights against B level fighters and then he faced the slick, Jimmy Young in Puerto Rico. Foreman lost a close decision over Young and he retired soon after this fight, leaving the sport for 10 years.
When Foreman returned to boxing after being gone for 10 years, he was no longer a mean spirited man who sometimes ran out of gas late in fights. The older, wiser Foreman was now a minister who was fun to be around and as a fighter, he was very patient yet he still possessed tremendous power in both hands capable of knocking out anyone put in front of him, as guys like Gerry Cooney found out. After losing to Evander Holyfield and later Tommy Morrison in title fights, Foreman did not let that discourage him.
He received one more title shot, this time against the WBA/IBF Champion Michael Moorer. Simply put, the 45 year old Foreman took a savage beating for 9 rounds but in the 10th, Foreman decided to pick up the pace as he landed some good left-right combinations that got champion’s attention. After throwing a hard right hand that landed high on Moorer’s head, Foreman threw the right hand again, this time aiming for Moorer’s jaw. This right hand landed flush on the champion’s jaw and it sent him crashing to the canvas with a thud. Moorer tried to beat the count, but he could not get up, as George Foreman, at the age of 45, became the oldest fighter to win the world heavyweight title.
This was one of the most shocking moments in boxing history and once the fight was over, HBO’s Jim Lampley famously said as only he can, “It Happened! It Happened!!!” George Foreman proved once again that he had the heart of a champion by coming from behind and winning a fight he had no business winning. Foreman also showed the world that the age of 45 is not a death sentence and anyone can accomplish anything if they put their mind to it.
Foreman vs. Frazier 1
Foreman vs. Norton: Full fight
Foreman vs. Moorer: Full fight
4) Jack Johnson:
Biggest wins: Sam Langford (W 15) Tommy Burns (KO 14) Jim Jeffries (TKO 15)
There may have been many Heavyweights who may have been faster or stronger but I don’t believe there was a better defensive/counter punching heavyweight than Jack Johnson. Johnson could punch and he was fast when he needed to be and at times he used to toy with his opponents as he talked trash to them. Now before you absorb that, remember how things were back in the early 1900’s, especially for African Americans. I don’t want to turn this into a Black History article because I could go on and on about this topic, all I will say is Jack Johnson was a very proud, bold man, who enjoyed the finer things in life and let’s just say that there were MANY Caucasians that did not approve of how Johnson lived his life, in particular with who he lived his life with.
Johnson received many death threats and because he chose to live the way he did, he had no choice but to leave the country. I don’t like to get into fighter’s personal lives, but because this is somewhat of a racial topic and I don’t want to confuse you, I will define what I mean by “finer things in life”. Jack Johnson preferred to date and marry Caucasian women, something that could get most African Americans lynched back in those days. Think about that.
Before Johnson got his opportunity to fight for the title, he fought and defeated future Hall of Famers Joe Jeannette, the GREAT Sam Langford and he knocked out former heavyweight champion Bob Fitzsimmons in two rounds. Johnson did everything he could to get a title shot against the champion Tommy Burns, including showing up at his fights and taunting him. After years of ducking Johnson, Burns finally decided to give Johnson a title shot. The fight was no contest, Johnson gave Burns such a savage beating over the course of 14 rounds the police had to step in and end the fight, and they were so outraged that they stopped filming the fight just as they stopped the fight.
In his next big fight, he was matched against middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel. There were many who believe this fight was supposed to be an exhibition, including Johnson, who took it easy on Ketchel for the first 11 rounds. But in the 12th round, Ketchel threw all that out the window as he landed a hard right hand that dropped the champion and the hostile crowd went wild. Johnson, who was pissed off to put it mildly, immediately got up from the knockdown and within seconds, responded with an enormous right hand right in Ketchel’s mouth that sent the challenger to the canvas. There was no need to count, Ketchel was knocked out cold, but the only one guy had to do some counting was Johnson, who was shown picking Ketchel’s teeth out of his gloves one by one.
After doing away with Ketchel, later Johnson faced the former Heavyweight champion Jim Jefferies, who came out of retirement in hopes of taking the title from the hated champion. Jeffries, a known racist, once famously said, “I feel obligated to the sporting public to at least make an effort to reclaim the heavyweight title for the white race…. I should step in the ring and demonstrate that a white man is king of them all!”
Johnson ignored Jeffries comments and he focused on the task at hand which was trying to beat the former champion. The fight was a total mismatch. Johnson toyed with the former champion, knocking him down twice before finally stopping him in the 15th round.
Johnson was champion for 7 years and during that time his many critics were anxious to find an opponent that could beat him and shut him up. Even writer Jack London wrote an article hoping that a “The Great White Hope” would come along and beat Johnson.
Johnson finally met his match against Jess Willard years later, losing his title in 26 rounds in a controversial fight, but Johnson was clearly a dominant Heavyweight champion who fought many Hall of Fame fighters during his career and he belongs on this list as one of the greatest Heavyweights Champions of all time.
Johnson vs. Burns: Highlights
Johnson vs. Ketchel: Highlights
Johnson vs. Jeffries: Highlights
**VISIT BOXINGIQ.COM FOR PART TWO OF RONALD CAMERON’S “WHO ARE THE 5 GREATEST HEAVYWEIGHTS OF ALL TIME”**