Posted February 1, 2017
By Roberto Pedreira
to someone who would know, namely George Foreman, the
job of the heavyweight champion is to make as much money as possible without
losing the title. Champions have to calculate the risk of
losing against the payday for fighting a dangerous challenger (i.e, the
probability of receiving the promised payment, discounted by the probability of
losing the fight). If he can get away with fighting easier
opponents for an adequate amount of money, the temptation would be there. If
he can avoid fighting at all, that would be better still, and many champions
have tried to fight as little as possible--see below. The sanctioning organizations would need to be paid of course but
ultimately the money would come from the broadcasters for the right to offer a
"championship" fight, which predictably draw higher ratings, thereby justifying higher rates for
matter a lot in fighting and therefore ability (in the sense of who would win a
given fight) is not transitive. The fact that fighter A beat fighter B, who beat
fighter C, does not mean that fighter A would also beat fighter C. Some
champions did beat other, usually older, former champions. Unlike in the
lighter weights, it rarely happened that one heavyweight champion met another
when they were both in their prime, but it happened, or almost happened,
occasionally (meaning that they sometimes met when they were not yet, or no
well a champion did his job as George Foreman described it is arguably a pretty good measure of
his greatness. It isn't the only one but it is at least measurable and
objective. It has two components. One is how much money did he make (adjusted
for inflation). The other is how many times did he successfully defend his
The drawback to assessing champions by their earnings is that no one but
possibly the IRS knows what that figure is. And
sometimes they don't really know either.
records can also be
evaluated in several ways. One logical way is to look at their record as a
champion: How many times did they defend their title? Numbers don't lie, but
neither do they tell the whole story. A great champion defends his title many
times, against the best challengers, preferably everyone who has any claim to be
in the ring with a champion (and of course, a few who don't). He doesn't lose
his title. He "defends" it. But not losing the title is not the same
is winning the fight. Some champions defended their titles by not getting
beaten, which, while good, is not as good as defending by beating the aspiring
This introduces an
element of subjectivity. Some may feel that losing the title and then regaining
it is a sign of greater greatness than never losing it in the first place.
Others may feel the opposite, for example that six consecutive title defenses is
better than six defenses separated by a loss.
In this analysis, we take the
position that winning is better than losing. Six successful defenses without a
loss is better than six successful defenses separated by a loss. Comebacks are
admirable, but not needing to comeback is better. Getting out on top is best.
So, other things being equal, retiring undefeated after (for example) five title
defenses is better than losing the title after five defenses. Other things are
seldom equal. The champion with the most title defenses is the greatest
champion. He may not have been the best fighter, but he was the greatest
champion. Hypothetically, this need not be true, but statistically speaking, it
just so happens to be (true). At, least, the numbers yield a result that
knowledgeable observers of the science of boxing will have a hard time
is a complication. When sanctioning organizations proliferated, champions could inflate their championship records by beating the champions
of rival organizations. They could also accumulate belts and claim to be
the first five time-champion, for example, and similar such semantic games. Its
all about the money. As one current egomaniacal champion says, you can't eat
unblemished ring records and resplendent reputations.
first title sanctioning organization was the National Boxing Association (NBA),
which became the World Boxing Association (WBA) in 1962. The World Boxing
Council (WBC) was set up in 1963. The International Boxing Federation (IBF) was
created in 1983. The International Boxing Organization (IBO) was created in 1988. The
World Boxing Federation was also set up in 2009 (it does not have a heavyweight
can set up a sanctioning organization and crown its own champions. If anyone
wants to be a champion, all they have to do is pay the sanctioning fees and beat
someone else who also wants to be a champion.
sixty-three (1963) is a logical cut-off year. Muhammad Ali was still Cassius
Clay. There was only one world champion in each
weight division (and there were only seven divisions: heavyweight, light
heavyweight, middleweight, junior middleweight, welterweight, lightweight, and
featherweight). Based on the linear principle of "the man who beat the man"
it is most sensible to focus on the WBA title holder and to stipulate that the
champion must have acquired his title by taking it away from the previous
champion. Unfortunately, champions sometimes retire (Gene Tunney, Joe Louis,
Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali) and in one case, was unconstitutionally robbed
(Muhammad Ali), making it necessary to select a new champion by elimination. Retirements
invariably create chaos in the division, which means that when a particularly
dominant champion exits, or in the case of Ali, is illegally deprived of what he
legitimately earned with his feet and fists, the division will quickly be
populated with sub-par claimants to the throne who otherwise wouldn't have any
chance to occupy that lofty position. (There was one partial exception). That's
the way the real world works; it's messy. But if a sub-par fighter somehow
obtains the title, and then manages to successfully hang on to it throughout a
long run of defenses, ducking no one, then he should not be penalized for the
fact that the previous champion stepped down. The new champion did what he had
to do to get the belt. It's what he did after that that matters.
who was the Greatest Heavy weight champion of all time?
The first and second greatest were exactly the champions that most
historically informed boxing fans and pundits would predict (although they might disagree about who
Counting Them Down
reverse order, beginning with the worst champions, those with ZERO successful title
(1934-1935). Max had awesome potential. His problem was that he wanted to be a
comedian rather than a fighter. What he should have done was be a fear-inspiring
great champion first, retire and then be a comedian.
Max Baer would have had to
beat Joe Louis to do that. Which he didn't do and never could have done. Despite that Max fought tough guys and won a lot
(67-13). He beat Primo Carnera to win the title, partly because Primo never learned
how to step inside of swinging rights, which was what Max tended to throw. Primo had another flaw: he couldn't hit hard and he couldn't take a punch. On
the other hand, his body was well protected and for his size he was fast. At
least, that's what Jack Dempsey thought. Max Baer was the kind of fighter who could
hurt a man who stood in front of him and didn't hit too hard. James Braddock
wasn't a heavy hands puncher, but he was smart enough to know that his best
chance was sticking and moving, which is what he did. Consequently, Max's reign as
champion was brief. It was considered a major upset at the time. A best-selling
book (Cinderella Man) was written about the fight, and subsequently a
Braddock, like Max Baer, had no successful defenses to his credit, but unlike
Baer, he didn't spend his training time partying with leggy chorus girls, and he
didn't foolishly fritter the title away clowning around in the ring when he
should have been fighting. What he did was even worse. He fought
Destroyer from Alabama", as Jack Dempsey described Joe Louis in 1935.
Braddock didn't have to fight Joe Louis, at least, not in his first defense. He
didn't underestimate Joe. Everyone knew how dangerous Joe Louis was. All respect
to James Braddock. It was a foolish economic decision, but life is strange. He
ended up with more money than Joe Louis, who owed so much money to the IRS that
they finally gave up trying to collect it, and that is something these boys
Ingemar beat Floyd Patterson in 1959 and lost in the 1960 rematch and then lost
again in 1961, both times by KO. Ingemar had a respectable record prior to
meeting Floyd but his competition was almost entirely of unknown Europeans,
although he did beat a good American fighter, Eddie Machen, and Henry Cooper, both
by KO. Henry Cooper was good enough to put Muhammad Ali on the floor. Apparently
Ingemar did not make the mistake Ali did, dropping his right hand, against Henry
Cooper. But with a heavyweight with the speed of Floyd Patterson, one is
ill-advised to drop the hands even for an instant. Ingemar did, both times, and
both times he was flattened. He continued fighting for another two years,
winning all four of his bouts, but decided that he wanted no part of Sonny
Liston and moved on with his life.
Spinks (1978). Brother of Michael, another champion. That was a recurrent problem with Ali. He did it with Jimmy Young
too. Actually there's a paradox here. Fighters try to estimate their opponents
realistically, so that they can plan how much and what kind of training to do.
Heavyweights have an extra problem to address, which is how much to weigh at
fight time. In other weight classes, boxers try to come in at or very near the
maximum allowable weight. Heavyweights don't have a maximum. Yet they don't want
to weigh too much. Weight adds power to punches, and can help wear the opponent
down in clinches (as Ali did many times) but it also drains the gas tank and
other things being equal, compromises speed and mobility. Ali's defense relied a
lot on speed and when he was too heavy he tended to get hit (he also got hit
because he kept his right hand down). Leon won the title, or rather Ali let him
borrow it, and he lost it back again exactly seven months later. It was more an
embarrassment for Ali than a big victory for Leon. But that's what happens when
you are the best. Just as with Joe Louis, you end up fighting
everyone and anyone, several times over. Boxers mechanically promise never to
underestimate any opponent but in reality everyone forms an opinion about what
the opponent can do and how much sacrifice has to be made to prepare for him.
Sometimes fighters pay dearly for inaccurate estimates. Some opponents are, based on their
records, extreme long-shots. A great champion can't bring himself to train
as intensely for these guys as they do for serious challengers. Usually, things go as the
odds-makers call them. Occasionally they don't, thereby giving people like Leon
Spinks and Buster Douglas temporary possession of the belt.
deserved to be called Cinderella Man as much as James
Braddock, probably more. Mike Tyson was another fighter everyone thought was
unbeatable (George Foreman was another). Buster beat him, and there was nothing
miraculous or mysterious about how he did it. He simple didn't buy into Tyson's
intimidation game, and he relied on solid fundamentals.
Bruce Seldon (1995). Bruce won an elimination match with Tony
Tucker, then beat Joe Hipp. He next defended his "title" against Mike
Tyson in 1996. The punches you don't see are the
ones that hurt. Mike hit Bruce with punches Bruce didn't see. In fact, no one
saw them. Mike Tyson was thereby again the WBA champion. But it didn't matter,
because he immediately lost to Evander Holyfield.
with One Successful Title Defense:
Fitzsimmons (1897-1899). Fitz, aka "Ruby Robert", defended against Lew Joslin (KO in 4) before losing to
James J. Jeffries.
Hart (1905-1906). Hart beat Jack Root to become champion, although Root had never
been champion himself, but that's how it goes when the real champion retires (in
this case, James J. Jeffries). Hart lost his tenuous "title" to Tommy
Burns in 1906. Hart could not have been too bad a boxer. He out-pointed Jack
Johnson in 1905.
beat Jack Johnson in 1915, then defended unimpressively against Frank Moran, and
then earned a place in ring history by getting demolished by Jack Dempsey in
1919. That equals one successful defense in four years. Willard liked
performing in vaudeville and circus shows more than fighting. However, Dempsey
rated Willard fairly highly as a fighter. "Willard was a terrific puncher
and he could take it. He had a right uppercut that would take your head right
off." Jack said. Like Max Baer and a few others, Willard was a fighter who
wanted to be something else.
Jersey Joe Walcott. Jersey Joe won the title in 1951 from Ezzard Charles (who
was really a light heavyweight), who won it by beating Jersey Joe in 1949 when
Joe Louis steeped down. Ezzard defended the title against Jersey Joe in 1951,
but in a rematch four months later, Jersey Joe KOed Ezzard. He then gave Ezzard
another chance and won by decision. His reign at the top didn't last long.
Rocky Marciano was waiting for him. Jersey Joe had a brief career as a movie
actor, in 1956, performing alongside Humphrey Bogart, Rod Steiger, and Max Baer
in The Harder
(1930-1932). Schmeling beat Jack Sharkey on a DQ to win the title left vacant
when Gene Tunney retired. He out-pointed Young Stribling the next year and then
lost by split decision to Jack Sharkey. Schmeling was highly inconsistent but
had a pretty solid record of 56-10-4, including his magnificent KO over Joe
Louis in 1936, at a time when everyone thought Joe Louis was unbeatable. He noticed a
mistake in Louis' fundamentals: Joe dropped his hand when he brought it back
after a jab. Schmeling watched and waited and followed Joe's jab in with a right
hand. Joe survived the round but not the fight. As Joe might have said if he had
ever heard of Nietszche, "what does not kill us makes us
stronger". He did his homework and came back better than before. Max
later became a rich man selling coca-cola in Post-war Germany.
(1933-1934) beat Tom Sharkey in a questionable fight in 1933, and defended against
Paulino Uzcudun and Tommy Loughran, before getting destroyed by Max Bear in
1934. Carnera was a "manufactured fighter" who couldn't punch,
according to Jack Dempsey. He started as a circus
strongman, and later wrestled professionally. In 1935, he fought and KOed
Erwin Klausner, who later became famous for losing to a Gracie brother in a
jiu-jitsu match in 1937 (see Choque 1, 3rd edition). Observers at the
time were skeptical. Carnera's reputation was well-known and Klausner was a
pretty good boxer. Carnera also appeared in Hercules Unchained with Steve
Reeves in 1960. His boxing career was the basis for The Harder
Sonny Liston (1962-1963).
Sonny Liston was a human wrecking machine, arguably one of the best
heavyweights ever. He liked to skip rope while listening to James Brown's
rendition of Night Train and after he won the title by demolishing Floyd
Patterson, he appeared on Ed Sullivan's variety show. He wasn't a gabby fellow,
didn't have much to say. What he did on Ed Sullivan was what he did in the gym,
skip rope to Night Train. That was enough. Sonny Liston was awesome just
skipping rope. He was who George Foreman aspired to be, after he realized he
couldn't dance like Sugar Ray Robinson and Ali. Liston scared people simply by
looking at them. George wanted to do that. Usually he did. They both had major
problems when people weren't intimidated. Ironically, it was the same person
who exposed both of them.
Liston's fatal flaw was over-confidence. He underestimated Cassius Clay (the
slave name by which Muhammad Ali was known up to that point, due to the fact
that that was the name his parents gave him when he was born). Although he
had beaten everyone there was to beat up to that point, he couldn't beat Cassius
Clay in 1964 or Muhammad Ali in 1965 (he dropped a spilt decision to
Marty Marshall in 1954, but then TKOed him in 1955, and out-pointed him in 1956.
Little known fact about Sonny Liston: He also became a movie actor. He appeared
in a movie with teen sensations The Monkees in 1968 and a TV commercial with
Andy Warhol, who was one of Lady GaGa's inspirations. Small world. It was Andy
Warhol who predicted that "in the future, everyone will be famous for 15
minutes", hence the expression "15 minutes of fame". How true it
proved to be.
Champions with Two Successful Title Defenses
James Corbett (1892-1897).
Gentleman Jim, a former bank clerk from San Francisco, took the title from John
L. Sullivan in 1892, defended against Charley Mitchell and Tom Sharkey before losing to Bob Fitzimmons
Tom Sharkey later learned enough about catch wrestling to win some matches by
"handicap" (i.e, by not being thrown as often as the opponent had
promised to throw him). He also was active in promoting jiu-jitsu in New York by
way of his association with Higashi Katsukuma and the National Police Gazette.
Corbett also worked with the National Police Gazette, who published a book under
his name called Scientific Boxing.
(1926-1928) defended his title twice before retiring (once was to Jack Dempsey,
who he beat to win the title).
Dempsey had previously been a fascinating champion, but people didn't like him
much. After losing to Tunney, he suddenly seemed human and fans began to adore
him and never stopped. Both fights with Tunney were million-dollar gates.
Tunney married a rich woman and was never tempted to make a come-back (for
several good reasons: he didn't have ex-wives to pay, he didn't owe Uncle Sam
any taxes, he wasn't wiped out in the stock market crash, and he liked reading
books (his son John became a California state representative from 1965-1970, and
senator from 1971-1976; apparently he missed an above average number of
sessions). Jack Dempsey always had trouble with slick boxers. Tunney was a slick
boxer. He kept his hands high, his elbows in and his chin down. His jabs
were straight and he didn't drop his hand when he retracted it. He moved after
he jabbed. James Corbett was called the father of modern boxing. In a way he
was, but mostly because he was a total contrast to the style of John L. Sullivan
which was designed for bare knuckle and London Prize Ring rules. Hitting a man's
head hurt the hands. Boxers were sparing in their output of punches. A man
waited in front of his opponent for an opening and then threw his best punch.
That was John L. Sullivan's style. Corbett pioneered the practice of creating
openings with the lead hand, using light fast punches (jabs) and moving out of
harm's way. It was modern in that sense. Tunney was modern in a more literal
sense. Watching his fights, he looked like he could be fighting in the 30's,
40's or 50's. He fought the way Billy Conn fought when he almost beat Joe
(1973-1974; 1994-1997). Big George won the title the way champions are supposed
to, bouncing Joe Frazier off the canvass multiple times. Foremans' uppercuts
were devastating against a man who leans forward. Joe Frazier's entire style was
predicated on leaning forward, crouching, and bobbing and weaving, which is usually a good way to
fight a tall, stand-up fighter (as Dempsey demonstrated with Willard). In fact,
it was probably the right thing for Joe to do; he didn't really have much
choice. Dempsey commented that Willard's uppercut needed to be avoided, and we
can assume Joe's corner told him the same about Foreman. But it is a historical
fact that Joe underestimated George, and didn't prepare properly, instead
singing with a rock group and chasing white women (according to Ali, both were
mistakes). The fact that Joe took the fight with George for small money, passing
over a big payday for a rematch with Ali, underscores how much he low-rated
George. George had never lost a boxing match up to that point and believed he
was unbeatable. He defended his well-deserved title twice, against Joe Roman and
Ken Norton. Don King entered the picture and set up a match with Muhammad Ali,
subsidized by an African dictator. George thought he was going to annihilate Ali.
Everyone did (almost). Former football star Jim Brown said he feared for Ali's life.
Oddly, everyone forgot to remember that that is exactly what they said before the first
Liston- Clay fight. After losing to Jimmy Young in 1977, George retired for 10
years to preach, coming back in 1987 to begin clawing his way back up to title
contention, finally KOing Michael Moorer to once again wear the WBA world
heavyweight title belt (Moorer won it from Evander Holyfield in 1994). At that
point he defended various titles, being "stripped" of the title in
1995. His last fight was a decision loss to Shannon Briggs, but most
people who watched the fight thought George clearly dominated. But George said
he didn't care one way or the other. He was done with fighting in the ring for
money. He had more important things to think about, such as selling fired chicken
grills. If you count these three second-phase come-back career defenses,
George's total comes to five.
Michael Spinks (IBF title) 1985-1988. Spinks decisioned Larry Holmes twice,
proving that he was the man who beat the man. One time could have been a fluke;
Larry was in fact over-confident. Many had tried, but few light heavy-weights
had done what Spinks was determined to do (Bob Fitzimmons did it, but so long
ago no one remembered). It helped that Holmes was a boxer, rather than mauler.
Spinks was not intimidated by Larry. Spinks did it again in a rematch. Larry had no excuse that time. The second
fight was closer (Spinks took a split decision), but Larry was now the
challenger, rather than champion and it was too little, too late. Spinks then
TKOed Steffen Tangstad (who? well, he earned a draw with Buster Douglas in 1982,
something Mike Tyson couldn't do) and, according to George Foreman, an
Irish-American with a devastating left hook named Gerry Cooney, whereby Spinks
proved that he could dispatch big boys and hang with heavy hitters. Then he met
Mike Tyson. Although the title was IBF, the fact that he took it from Larry
Holmes makes it worthy of inclusion. Larry rejected the WBC's authority to tell
him who to fight and gave up their title. A newly created group, the IBF,
self-servingly (because it immediately gave them a legitimate heavyweight
champion) offered him a title and he took it.) Two successful title defenses for
this time the organization noodle soup had became a vast, cruel, sad joke.
Muhammad Ali's former sparring partner Tim Witherspoon won the WBC title that
Holmes gave up and then immediately lost it. He didn't win it by beating Holmes
but by beating Greg Page. The next few years were a sickeningly pathetic
travesty, with Greg Page,
Mike Weaver, Michael Dokes, Gerrie Coetzee, Bonecrusher Smith, Tony Tubbs, John
Tate, handing the so-called title back and forth. With some effort, it could be
figured out who did what and when. But why bother? Who cares about these guys? No wonder the boxing
world was thrilled when Mike showed up. Mike was the post-Ali era incarnation of
the "Dark Destroyer", as Jack Dempsey and a lot of the public called
Joe Louis (but in an ambivalently affectionate way). Here was a man who was not
about to hand his title over to the first clown who climbed into the ring. Mike
brought to mind images of Sonny Liston and shattered limbs strewn around the
playground (Gay Talese' Floyd Patterson profile is worth reading for the Sonny
Liston information; Sonny was in reality a nice, friendly, funny man, but
a man who knew how to manipulate his media persona for maximum effect).
to beating the legitimate title holder, Muhammad Ali, in
1971 Joe Frazier had acquired something ludicrously called the New York State Athletic
Commission World Heavyweight championship. (It seems that any group can anoint a
World Champion. Well, actually, they can. The first world champion, in fact, the
concept that there could even be such a thing, was the invention of a magazine
called the National Police Gazette. The first champion was John L.
Sullivan. John L. liked being the "world champion" and promoters
quickly noticed that fans wanted to see fights more when world titles are at
beat Jimmy Ellis (a puffed up middleweight) in a tournament to appoint a new
champion when Ali was illegally deprived of the title that he earned by beating
Sonny Liston. He defended it once, against light heavyweight champ Bob Foster.
Logic tells us this doesn't count. Joe's reign began officially when he met the
real champion, Muhammad Ali in 1971. As fate had it, the three-year lay-off hurt
Ali, and Joe prevailed in the fight. Joe then defended against Terry Daniels and
Ron Stander before George Foreman rained hard on Joe's parade in 1973. Joe
accordingly has two defenses to his credit. Or three, if we include the Bob
Foster fight, before Joe had actually taken the title away from the rightful
Riddick Bowe (1992-1993). Riddick beat Evander for the title, defended it
against Michael Dokes and Jesse Ferguson and then gave it back to Evander. He
made a comeback in Pattaya, Thailand as a kickboxer in 2013, obscenely overweight even
by Pattaya standards (indicating how seriously he took it), and predictably got his
ass kicked by an in-shape Russian who knew the rudiments of the Thai game.
with Three Successful Defenses
(1990-1992; 1993-1994) punched Buster Douglas in the face when Buster tried to
throw a right uppercut from far outside. That's what happens when you do that.
Don't do that. The year was 1990. Buster had upset the world eight months
earlier in Tokyo, thanks to Mike Tyson's even worse mistake, which was getting
mixed up with Ruth Roper and her daughter Robin Givens. Buster would have held
the title a while longer if he hadn't made that horrendous blunder. Evander then
beat George Foreman, Bert Cooper, and Larry Holmes before losing to Riddick Bowe
in 1992. He then won it back in 1993 and lost it to Michael Moorer in 1994 in his
with Five Successful Defenses
Manassa Mauler, Jack Dempsey (1919-1926) took the title from Jesse Willard and
didn't leave anyone wondering who won. In the process he introduced a new style
of fighting. Prior to Jack Dempsey, heavyweights stood straight up, tried to
keep distance, and threw occasional punches, usually looping swings. Defenses
consisted of staying away, clinching, or trying to catch punches in mid-air.
Dempsey introduced, or perhaps, proved the effectiveness of, the concept of
combining defensive movement with offensive ferocity. His defensive movements
simultaneously set up and loaded up the punches (no doubt he wasn't the first, but
he was the one no one could ignore). When he had opponents like Jesse Willard,
who didn't move much, Dempsey could be devastating. He had problems with boxers
who jabbed and moved, he admitted (so did Joe Louis, and for that matter, so
does almost everyone). He tended to get walloped
plenty, he said, but he didn't mind taking one, or even two punches, to dish one
defended his title five times.
Dempsey was the first boxing mega-star, the man who invented the Million
Dollar Gate (with a little help from Carlos Gracie's idol, Tex Rickard) at a
time when a million dollars was a lot of money. Newspaper circulation managers during the 1920's
knew that the surest way to sell newspapers was to run a story-photo spread on
Jack Dempsey. Rickard and Dempsey's manager Jack Kearns knew that the easiest
and cheapest way to sell Jack Dempsey was to keep him in the newspapers. It
worked because fans knew they were going to see mayhem when Dempsey was in the
ring. It's common knowledge now. It was revolutionary then. Ali added a pro
wrestling spin to it but it was Tex Rickard (who incidentally paid attention to
what pro-wrestling promoters were doing. Dempsey's traveling pre-fight
promotional tours included pro-wrestlers and jiu-jitsu fighters in the
entourage). According to Reila Gracie and Choque 1, Carlos Gracie was
inspired by reports, as plentiful in Rio newspapers as everywhere else, about
the money Dempsey was pulling in. Young Carlos paid close attention to the
promotional gimmicks of Rickard and Kearns.
with Six Successful Defenses
(1952-1955) defended his title six times after taking it from Jersey Joe
Two of the defenses were against Ezzard, both brutal slug-fests, and one
was a rematch with Jersey Joe. He also fought Roland LaStarza, who gave up
boxing to become an actor, and "Ancient" Archie Moore, who kept right
on fighting, also losing to Floyd Patterson and Cassius Clay. Clay, not yet
known as Muhammad Ali, had considered training with Archie, but Archie wanted
the boy to mimic his "Mongoose" style. Clay, quite to the contrary,
wanted to float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, and look as cool as Sugar
Ray Robinson inside and outside the ring. Rocky retired undefeated (49-0) in
1955. He was the only one who did. Gene Tunney lost one fight (as a light
heavyweight, later avenged). Rocky promised when he retired that he wouldn't make
Joe Louis's mistake and try to "come back", and he never did. He
didn't need the money. But he admitted that he once considered trying to get
back in shape and challenging Ingemar Johansson (after Ingo's devastating
demolition of Floyd Patterson on June 26, 1959). That was his fighter's mentality
speaking to him. His logical brain advised against it. Rocky listened to
Floyd Patterson made six successful defenses (he won the title vacated
by Rocky Marciano by beating Archie Moore, defended it four times, lost to Ingemar
Johansson, regained it and then met Ingemar yet one more time, before
losing it again, to Sonny Liston.)
was a middleweight gold medalist in the Helsinki Olympics in 1952. He could have
been an outstanding light heavyweight champion. Muhammad Ali, despite having no
problem whipping him twice, said Floyd was the best boxer among his opponents. On
the other hand, Floyd's speed worked well for him among the bigger men, at least
when he used it. He totally froze against Sonny Liston; his speed was useless
because he barely moved (unlike Clay/Ali, who dazzled Liston with his fleet feet and
supersonic hands). Floyd's manager was Gus D'Amato, who later managed Mike
Tyson. Gus did not want Floyd to fight Liston. A very unwise choice of opponent,
Gus thought, a highly dubious way to retain the title. But Floyd was man of
honor. Liston was the most qualified contender, so Floyd wanted to give him a
chance, despite his apprehensions.
was no help to Floyd against Liston's pulverizing punches. Nor did his
fair-weather fans care. They abandoned him immediately.
lacked several of the qualities needed in a great heavyweight champion. He was
too nice, for one. He was also introverted, shy, timid to a fault. White
schoolboys intimidated him. In terms
of boxing skills and speed, he was "second to none" as Mike Tyson
liked to say. But that wasn't enough to be great. What then are the
qualities that are necessary to be a great heavyweight champion? There's only
one way to know. That is to identify the three or four or five greatest and then
see what qualities they had.
Tyson (1986-1990) won all of the various titles around at that point, each time wresting
it emphatically away from whoever was desperately but vainly clinging to
it. Mike defended the title six times before losing to Buster Douglas
in an upset as big as Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, in the process proving that what Ray
Arcel said was true. Women will destroy a boxer quicker than any opponent.
However, Mike had three championship fights (James Smith, Pinklon Thomas, and
Tony Tucker in 1987. His first defense as undisputed, unified champion, (having
defeated WBC, WBA, and IBF title holders) was against Tyrell Biggs, also 1987.
Tyson also held the WBA title briefly in 1996, after beating Bruce Seldon (well,
he won the fight when Seldon insisted that Tyson hit him). Mike then lost to
Evander Holyfield in an upset as surprising as when Buster whipped him. As Don
King put it, Evander's chances of beating Mike were "slim to none, and slim
is out of town". Whoops.
with Eight Successful Defenses
James Corbett's former
sparring partner Jim Jeffries (1899-1904)
KOed Bob Fitzimmons in 1899 to take the title, and then defended it successfully
eight times (one fight was a no-contest, but he retained the title). He Koed
Fitzimmons a second time and also stopped James J. Corbett twice. Among his
opponents were two boxers who later became wrestlers, Tom Sharkey and Gus Ruhlin.
It wasn't surprising. In that era, all or most boxers knew how to wrestle,
Jeffries said. Fitzimmons too later took wrestling lessons and, like Jeffries,
contemplated fighting a jiu-jitsu man. He retired undefeated in 1904.
Unfortunately he made the mistake of trying to "come back" in 1910
against Jack Johnson who at time was near his peak. It didn't go well for Jeff.
Ezzard Charles won
the title by beating Jersey Joe Walcott in 1949 after Joe Louis retired. He defended the heavyweight title eight
times, beating Joe Louis when Joe was forced by tax woes to come back in 1950
(Joe continued coming back eight more times, with eight wins, until he met Rocky
Marciano in 1951, and then wisely hung up the gloves for good. Joe was so up to
the neck in debt to the IRS that they eventually gave up trying to get the
money. These are guys who never give up until they get the money. But
they gave up.) Ezzard Charles was one of the greatest light-heavyweights, if not
the greatest, beating Joey Maxim and Archie Moore multiple times. He was too
light to reign as a heavyweight, but that rarely prevented light-heavyweight
champions from shooting for it. Greatness is alright, but the heavyweight
division is where the money is. Nonetheless, based on the numbers alone, Ezzard
Charles out-performed most other heavyweight champions.
with Nine Successful Defenses
Jack Johnson (1908-1915) beat
Tommy Burns and then defended nine times. However, two of the outcomes were
draws. He lost by KO to Jess Willard in 1915. He didn't beat two of his
opponents, but he did defend the title. Those are the rules. Jack Johnson was
another boxer from the early part of the 20th century who was challenged by and
considered fighting wrestlers and jiu-jitsu men. Jack took jiu-jitsu lessons
from the same man who taught President Theodore Roosevelt. Boxers weren't as
naive back in the day as they later tended to be, when wrestling had become the
comedy act that is, and jiu-jitsu became judo. Boxers were well aware that they
needed to stay on their feet and maintain distance. All respect to Rhonda Rousey
for her bronze Olympic medal, but the Amanda Nunes fight demonstrated what a
well-prepared boxer can do. Old school boxers did it.
with 13 Successful Defenses
Tommy Burns (1906-1908)
made thirteen successful defenses against mostly quality opposition. Not bad and
well above average.
Even Mike Tyson praised Burns for being a tremendous champion. But he had a
problem: He was small. Even worse, no one cared about boxing at that time in
history. Boxing was illegal in most American states and cities. That didn't
prevent boxing from happening, but it prevented it from becoming huge.
Basically, no one paid attention, and if they couldn't avoid paying attention,
as when Jack Johnson began beating up white men, taking up with white women, and
driving fast cars, then they didn't like what they saw. Boxing was something for
low-lifes and the lower classes, immigrants and such. Respectable folk didn't go
in for such things. Ugh. Sweaty men beating each other up, yuck. That changed
when Tex Rickard showed up. He made boxing cool. It helped enormously that he
had Jack Dempsey and his manager Jack Kearns on his team. Suddenly championship
fights were opportunities for movie stars and millionaires and their girlfriends
and wives to see (each other) and be seen and get their pictures in mass
circulation periodicals. (For details, see Randy Roberts' Jack Dempsey).
with 20 Successful Defenses
Holmes was Muhammad Ali's former sparring partner. Many old-timers will not like the idea of ranking
him as greater than Rocky Marciano or Jack Dempsey, but the numbers don't lie. Larry
Holmes successfully defended his title 20 times before losing to Michael Spinks.
major problem was that he followed Ali. An outstanding jab is not enough to
enthrall the public. Larry clung to his title, or rather kept a title of some
kind for a long time. The problem was that hardly anyone cared. Larry's most
interesting fight was his loss to Mike Tyson. He certainly predicted Mike's
future with impressive accuracy, but Mike had two things that Larry didn't like
to see in an opponent: He was hard to hit and he hit hard. And often. Those were
the pre-Robin Givens days. Larry should have waited a few years.
with 21 Successful Defenses
(1964-1967 and 1974-178, and 1978) racked up 21 successful defenses (but separated by
a loss to Leon Spinks and non-title losses to Joe Frazier and Kenny Norton). Ali was "The
Greatest," as he never tired of proclaiming, and it is possible (or even
probable, based on Joe's performances against Billy Conn and a few other
stick-and-move style boxers) that he would have dethroned Joe Louis. Ali was The
Greatest in a special sense but he wasn't the Greatest Heavyweight Champion. The numbers don't lie.
Things almost certainly would have been different if he hadn't been
"lynched" by the U.S. government and its agents.
Joe Louis was also prevented from boxing for a several year period, also due to
a war. Joe Louis's record would be even more impressive than it already is, if a
certain Mr. Hitler and his National Socialist pals over in Europe, and their
"little yellow monkey" buddies in Japan (as the Germans called them)
hadn't decided to make the world a better place for the master race and its
Champion with the Most Successful Defenses
(1937- 1948) Louis successfully and consecutively defended his title 26 times.
Joe did get his ass knocked out by Max Schmeling but learned from the
experience and came back better than before (and it was before he was champion
and Max was a former world champion). Joe Louis was so outstanding that wannabes
and self-appointed jiu-jitsu "representatives" in certain South
American countries could get their names in newspapers merely by pretending to
it is. The end result is what we would have expected all along. The greatest
heavyweight champion was Joe Louis.
a minute. What about the first world heavyweight champion, the Great John L.
Sullivan? He was Great, and he was First. Leave it at that.
But what about Lennox Lewis? Even
Mike Tyson said that he could never beat Lennox Lewis. With all respect to Mike
Tyson, Mike Tyson was wrong．He
was demonstrably wrong about who he could and couldn't beat. Boxers don't know
what is going to happen in a fight. ("That's why the lace up the
gloves"). No one knows. But the best way to be right more often than wrong
is to follow the numbers, look at the precedents. Shorter fighters who know
how to get close can beat taller boxers. The taller boxer's reach is neutralized,
whereas the shorter man can punish the body before going upstairs. It has
happened often. Indeed, any time a shorter boxer beats a taller boxer, that is
the reason it happened. The question then is could Mike get close to Lennox? Obviously
he didn't, but that was when he was far from the champion he had been and no
longer used the style that Cus D'Amato and his assistants Kevin Rooney and Teddy
Atlas taught him.
the time Lennox arrived the chaotic cluster-fork of organizations and titles had
become so confusing that no one cared anymore, other than boxing nuts who would
watch any two guys in a ring with gloves on. Boxers competed for
"pieces" of the title. Championship boxing had become a game played at
the expense of the fans. No one could keep track of all the titles, which seemed
to change hands with almost every fight. The organizations loved it,
obviously, they got paid no matter who won.
TKOed Riddick Bowe in the 1988 (Seoul) Olympics. Professional boxing is essentially a
different sport. Riddick held the WBC title in 1992 but threw it in the garbage
rather than fight Lennox again. The WBC gave Lennox the title, which he
then defended against three worthy challengers (Razor Ruddock, Tony Tucker,
Frank Bruno) and Phil Jackson. He then got TKOed by Oliver McCall. He
convincingly took the IBC title, which no one cared about, from Tommy Morrison,
defended it once (against Ray Mercer), and then repossessed the belt from a
seriously drug-damaged Oliver McCall in 1997 and defended it three times before
facing Evander Holyfield in 1999 for the WBA title, coming up short (the result was
a draw; all sane observers agreed that Lennox was robbed). The WBC and IBF titles were at stake, meaning who ever won would be
"undisputed". The concept of "undisputedness" was another
relatively new marketing device. The word wasn't new, but the meaning had
changed. When Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano were
"undisputed" it meant there were no pretenders. The first Frazier-Ali
fight illustrates. Frazier's title was disputed by Ali, who had every sane
reason to dispute it. No one had taken it from him in the ring, least of all Joe
Frazier, therefore Ali reasonably claimed that he was still the real champion
and most undeluded people agreed. Joe Frazier, despite believing that he could
beat a ring-rusty Ali, also agreed. He had to prove it in the ring to be recognized by the
public. (The money didn't hurt either).
any case, Lennox out-pointed Evander in a 1999 rematch and won the WBA title, in
addition to the others. But the WBA "stripped" him in 2000, so he
wasn't the WBA champion anymore. So it goes. The organization owns the title,
not the fighter who beat the fighter who previously wore the crown. The
organization can anoint champions for whatever reasons they want.
Coinicidentally, it usually involves money.
short story, Lennox could have been among the greatest of the greats, in a
different era. It's not his fault. He didn't create all these self-serving,
for-profit title granting organizations.
are aware that this is a somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion. But as the great Sōtō zen master Dōgen
it is what it is.
For examples of the economics behind title-recognition, see the following:
IBO doesn't have a heavyweight champion. It is included here because it
succinctly gets to the point, which is how much you need to pay them in exchange
for being able to say that you are a IBO champion.
two links below include this same vitally important information and much more:
See pp. 37-389.
On Senator Tunney's performance: https://www.govtrack.us/congress/members/john_tunney/410979
Lynch" is the correct word in the sense that the action was extra-judicial.
"One hour after Ali refused induction--before he'd been charged with any
crime, let alone convicted--the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his
boxing license and withdrew recognition of him as champion. Soon, all other
jurisdictions in the United States followed suit, and the title Ali had worked
for throughout his life was gone" (Hauser, p. 172).
was also unconstitutional in that it violated Ali's 14th Amendment right to
equal protection of the law. The State Athletic commission argued that it had
the right to deny a boxer a license if he had been convicted of a felony or
military offense. Ali proved that the Commission had granted licenses to 244
boxers with convictions, thus he was being singled out for persecution
(Quintana, p. 189-190).
This paragraph is deliberately written in the Warner Brothers pro-war propaganda
style that was current at the time, modeled loosely on Humphrey Bogart's dialog
in the 1942 film All Through the Night (co-starring Conrad Veight and
Peter Lorre as Nazis). However, it is a fact that the Germans thought of their
Japanese allies as "little yellow monkeys".
Dave. (1991). In the Corner: Great Boxing Trainers Talk about their Art.
New York: William Morrow.
Scoot. (2000). The Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act: The First Jab at Establishing
Credibility in Professional Boxing. Fordham Law Review, 68:6, pp.
Thomas. (2004). Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. London: Robson. (Originally
published in 1991)
(1995). Bad Intentions: The Mike Tyson Story. New York: De Capo.
(Originally published in 1988; Postscript added in 1995).
Andres F. (2007). Muhammad Ali: The Greatest in Court. Marquette Law Review,
(2003). Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler. Urbana, Il: University of
Illinois Press. (Originally published in 1979; Postscript added in 2003).
Roberts, Randy (2010).
Joe Louis. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press.
Schaap, Jeremy (2005).
Cinderella Man. Bston: Houghton Mifflin.
Gay. (1988). The Loser. In Reading the Fights, ed. by Joyce
Carol Oates (originally written after Floyd's second loss to Sonny Liston). New
York: Holt. [Most of the other essays in the anthology are also worth reading.]
information and quotations come from a series of articles written by
Jack Dempsey assisted by Wesley Stout and Charles Francis Coe, published
in the Saturday Evening Post between 1931 and 1935; from the documentary Champions
Forever, the Leon Gast movie When We Were Kings; back issues of
The Ring, Boxing Monthly, International Boxing Digest, World Boxing, Boxing
97, and SRSDX (Japanese martial arts magazine), academic articles and
dissertations, film of old fights,
and too many documentaries and
interviews to list, unless specifically cited.
records are from the above sources, and also boxrec.com.
Boxing on GTR:
and Practice of the Jab
Horiguchi Boxing Gym, Chigasaki, Japan
of Kenny Weldon Boxing series
of Sean O'Grady Boxing series.
of Ned Beaumont's Championship Street Boxing.
(c) 2017, Roberto Pedreira. All rights reserved.
Revised February 4,
2017 (correction in Ricky Marciano section; it was Ingemar Johansson, not Sonny
Liston, who Rocky was tempted to come out of retirement to challenge. According
to Rocky, he secluded himself and worked out, but found the motivation just
wasn't there anymore. He quietly packed it in and never mentioned it to anyone,
until this 1966 interview here.
And on this topic, here's another great interview with Rocky from 1958: here.)
Revised April 8, 2019.
Ali did not hold the title when he lost to Joe Frazier and Kenny Norton.