Human beings have an evolutionary predisposition to admire excellence and things done well, because potential partners ever since our distant past have associated this with better chances of offspring survival as well as the promise of getting resources more easily. If anything, this admiration for discipline and the ideal of perfection should only strengthen in the future, instead of diminishing.
And as human beings, competition and combat are also part of our historical heritage, with all the negative but also positive consequences that competition brings. Like aggression, domination, ruthlessness, a lack of sympathy/empathy, the downright harm or even death of others on the negative side as well as technological progress and the propagation of genes specialized to survive on this Earth, in spite of the many natural factors and creatures that threaten us, on the positive side.
Now, it’s easy to understand why combat sports have such an appeal, because they combine the aforementioned competition part with the excellence and discipline part into an adrenaline releasing, thrilling to watch experience. Or chilling, primitive, appalling and disgusting, depending on where your views on the matter lie, of course.
But combat sports are clearly not a niche thing, judging by the millions of people who do like to watch them each year. And probably the most popular such sport (possibly to be surpassed only by the growing popularity of MMA), one of the oldest to gain the spotlight, is boxing.
So let’s look at 7 of the great names this sport gave forth, in other words 7 now legendary heavyweight boxers. As an important mention, this is not by any means a top of the best boxers, in any order. They are all great boxers and for each of them the case can be made, subjectively, for being the best.
1. Joe Frazier
Born in 1944, Joe fought 37 matches during the course of his 11 year career (1965 – 1976), winning 32 of them, 27 by knockout. He also had 1 draw, his very last match that was also his 1981 comeback.
Apart from his strong upper cut which many fans, trainers and boxers consider to have been remarkable, also notable is his achievement of successfully defending his title as heavyweight champion when defeating Muhammad Ali. Along with Ken Norton, he is one of the only two boxers who can boast of defeating Ali when the latter was in his prime.
As regards knockouts, statistically he’s above Ali because Frazier won 73 percent of his fights like this, while Ali “only” won 60 percent of his by KO.
Joe Frazier unfortunately died in 2011 because of a metastasized liver cancer.
But his memory will surely live on in the minds of his fans and young boxers who look up to him.
2. George Foreman
Born in 1949, he’s the boxer who in 1973 took the title from the then-undefeated Joe Frazier. By knock out in the second round, no less.
And it was in no way a fluke, because George Foreman is now considered to be one of the strongest, hardest hitting boxers of all time, a fact which is also reflected in an interesting statistic.
Foreman won 84 percent of his matches by knockout! So if Frazier’s 73 percent was impressive compared to Ali’s 60 percent, just put this into perspective with Foreman’s 84 percent.
And it’s not like it can be argued away by his career being shorter, with less matches or something. Because Foreman fought 81 matches, lost just 5 and won all the rest 76. From which, that 84% shines: 68 matches by KO.
Which is why many boxers, even those that agreed to step into the ring with him, feared George Foreman in his prime.
Also remarkable: he had a 10 year hiatus in his career, as he officially retired in 1977 only to announce a surprise comeback in 1987 at the age of 38, considered by many analysts and boxers to be way to old.
Not only did he comeback, but he kept up a string of victories, including KOs. As Mike Tyson was in his prime and the champion (the youngest to ever take the heavyweight title), Foreman wanted to fight him, but the match never happened.
3. Evander Holyfield
A match that did happen, however was between George Foreman and Evander Holyfield in 1990, which the latter won.
This match was Holyfield’s first title defense after he had gained it from Buster Douglas earlier the same year. Which is an interesting piece in the Foreman – Tyson – Holyfield triangle of interactions.
As mentioned before, the Mike Tyson vs. George Foreman fight never happened (by many accounts, including industry insiders, even those close to Tyson because Tyson was afraid Foreman would beat him). But during the time Foreman was in his spectacular victory laden comeback after 10 years of pause, Mike Tyson was in his prime and the undisputed champion, while Holyfield had been ranked as the no. 1 contender for the title by many magazines.
So, a fight between Tyson and Holyfield was a given in everyone’s minds, even if Tyson never agreed to a bout with Foreman. He did actually agree to a fight with Holyfield in 1990, but before it could take place Buster Douglas, who was relatively unknown and clearly not considered a serious contender for the title, knocked out Mike Tyson in the 10th round of their match in Tokyo to the shock and awe of the whole boxing world.
That’s how Holyfield ended up fighting Douglas for the title that year and winning in the 3rd round, by knockout.
Then winning the very next match against Foreman and defending his title.
But the match-up between Holyfield and Tyson did finally happen. Twice. The first time in 1996 when Holyfield won in the 11th round by Technical Knock Out (TKO). And the second time in 1997 when the infamous ear-biting episode took place, disqualifying Tyson in the 3rd round.
As for Holyfield’s statistics, they are as impressive as a legendary boxer’s should be: 44 wins out of 57 fights. 29 by knockout.
4. Mike Tyson
Born in 1966, he took the boxing world by storm, becoming the youngest boxer to hold the WBA, WBC and IBF titles simultaneously, a record he still holds to this day. He won those titles when he was 20 years, 4 months and 22 days old. A pretty tough job for any boxer aiming to break this record.
His most impressive achievements are: the first 19 professional fights that he won in a row, all of them by knockout, of which 12 matches ended with a knockout in the first round; the 9 times that he successfully defended the world heavyweight championship and the fact that he is one of the 6 boxers of all time to have regained the title of heavyweight champion after losing it.
And he did all of this with what some experts consider a tactical disadvantage: his height. Because although he was a heavyweight boxer, he was just 5 feet and 10 inches tall, or 1,78m. Of course, others argue that his smaller size meant more speed, which is evident in the style he adopted, relying on a flurry of punches and swarming the adversary. Still, in the heavyweight category, taller boxers usually have more tactical options than smaller ones and can disengage if necessary, using their reach as offense or defense.
Mike Tyson is also famous (or infamous) for his ferocity, including the above-mentioned incident when he bit both of Evander Holyfield’s ears, in succession, the second time managing to rip part of one off with his teeth and spitting it to the floor, later earning this match the name of “The Bite Fight”.
The overall statistics: 58 fights, 50 wins and 44 knockouts.
5. Lennox Lewis
As Mike Tyson (arguably) started declining around 1990, Lennox Lewis was steadily making a name for himself, like Tyson succeeding an impressive streak of consecutive wins: his first 21 matches.
He would go on to become the undisputed champion after defeating Holyfield in 1999. He is the most recent undisputed world heavyweight boxing champion (meaning a boxer that won all the titles from all major boxing organizations for his category), despite retiring in 2004, because no other boxer has managed to achieve this after he did.
Also notable: he was the one who defeated Mike Tyson when the latter made his comeback to reclaim the world heavyweight title in 2002. Lewis won by knockout and the match was highly charged because before the fight Tyson had provoked Lewis repeatedly including insults and verbal attacks on his family.
Lewis is also remarkable for his height (1.96 meters or 6 feet 5 inches) and his correspondingly huge reach (213cm or 84 inches), both factors making him a very difficult opponent in the ring, along with his excellent technique and mental control.
During his career, he fought 44 matches, lost just 2, had 1 draw and won the other 41, by knockout 32 times.
6. Muhammad Ali
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., he is one of the greatest boxers to have lived, along with his surprising technique. Because for a tall, well-built boxer (6 feet 3 inches or 191cm) he was extremely mobile, using lots of excellent footwork coupled with fast blows to his advantage, to keep his opponent guessing and probe his defenses.
When he first fought for the heavyweight world champion title against Sonny Liston in 1964, he summarized this technique with the following lines: “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see”.
He won the match, despite Liston being the favorite by far and Ali being just 22 at the time. His win at such a young age (for a professional heavyweight boxer) was at the time, a record, broken later by Floyd Patterson and ultimately by Mike Tyson, as mentioned before.
Ali’s technique was so remarkable that it influenced the whole boxing domain, because Ali proved it to be efficient countless times. As an example, Ali’s speed and force were measured by Jimmy Jacobs and compared to that of Sugar Ray Robinson, another legendary boxer that isn’t on this list because he was a welterweight and middleweight, not a heavyweight.
Still, Sugar Ray Robinson is considered by the great majority of boxing experts to have been the greatest pound for pound boxer of all time (pound for pound meaning regardless of weight category), with insanely fast hits and possibly the most impressive boxing record: 200 fights in total, 173 wins, 108 by knockout!
So, prepare to be amazed. Jacobs measurements with a synchronizer showed Ali to be 25% faster than Sugar Ray Robinson. Considering that his punches produced, on average, about 1000 pounds of force or 453 kgs, the result in the ring is fearsome to ponder. Ali was akin to an artillery barrage. That also happened to move a lot and apparently didn’t tire. And since Ali was 45 – 50 pounds (20-22kgs) heavier than Robinson, this statistic is even more impressive.
Ali fought both Frazier and Foreman (among other notable opponents).
He lost his first match to Frazier, by unanimous decision. This was the first professional defeat in Ali’s career. He won the second match against Frazier, by unanimous decision. The third time, he won by Technical Knockout because he managed to open a cut on Frazier’s right eye and make his left one swell and close, leading to Frazier’s coach demanding the end of the match, although Frazier protested and wanted to continue, despite his greatly impaired vision. Ali said after the match that it was the closest thing to dying that he knew.
His fight with Foreman in Zaire in 1974 was for the heavyweight title and was greatly anticipated by the boxing world which dubbed it the “Rumble in the Jungle”. It was one of the riskiest things that Ali ever did in the ring, tactically. Because he let Foreman get close and hit him during the first rounds, relying on clinches and counter-attacks to keep the fight going in hope that Foreman would tire.
This seemed suicidal, because Foreman is widely considered one of the heavy hitters of all heavyweight boxers, as previously described.
But he did tire and Ali knocked him out in the 8th round.
As for Ali’s record, he had 61 fights in total, 56 victories and 37 KOs.
7. Rocky Marciano
You probably noticed that all the boxers on the list so far had some lost matches. Well, Marciano earns his place here by being the heavyweight boxing legend who didn’t.
That’s right, he had 49 matches and won absolutely all of them. Of which 43 by knockout. 11 by knockout in the first round. If you look at these results, you get a knockout percentage of 87.75, one of the highest in all of boxing history and a testament to his hard-hitting style to rival that of Foreman, Frazier and others.
When it comes to style, Marciano was also famous for his seemingly endless stamina, ability to take damage without passing out or staggering (what is called an iron chin in boxing) and his constant pressure on his adversaries.
He was world heavyweight champion for an impressively long time (1952 to 1956) and he defended his title successfully 6 times during this period.
Many have wondered what a match between Ali and Marciano would have looked like, because Marciano’s style was completely different from Ali’s, Marciano being criticized throughout his career for his very poor footwork and relying instead on closing in and swarming the adversary with powerful hits, while taking many himself.
For his part, when asked about Ali, Marciano said: “I’d be conceited if I said I could, but I’d be lying if I said I couldn’t”.
Of course, the age difference between them and Marciano’s retirement in 1956, before Ali’s time made a match between the two impossible.