With the heavyweight division being in the doldrums for the better part of the past 10 years, largely due to the utter domination of the Klitschko brothers, it just may be on the verge of resurgence. As of 2016 the Klitschko era looks to be over with Vitali being retired since 2012 and Wladimir losing to Tyson Fury late in 2015. And if Fury beats Wladimir in their upcoming rematch later this year, it'll mark a changing of the guard in the division. Waiting for Fury will be the likes of the next generation of big men such as Luis Ortiz 24-0 (21), Deontay Wilder 35-0 (34), Anthony Joshua 15-0 (15), Joseph Parker 17-0 (15) and perhaps the winner of the Vyacheslav Glazskov 21-0-1 (13) versus Charles Martin 22-0-1 (20) clash this weekend.
With the dawn of the new era I thought it would be a good time to look back and assess the greatest heavyweights since the end of the Muhammad Ali era which concluded nearly 40 years ago. Of course, things always look better when looking back, even though you didn't realize it at the time. I remember when I was a teenager most elders thought Ali's opponents were a bunch of bums compared to the guys the immortal Joe Louis fought. Today, it would be a herculean task to find one sophisticated observer who believes Louis fought better opposition than Ali.
Since Ali, there have been some really outstanding title-holders in boxing's glamour division. Between the end of the Ali era and the beginning of the Tyson Fury era, the best fighters to hold the heavyweight title chronologically are Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Riddick Bowe, Lennox Lewis, Wladimir Klitschko, and Vitali Klitschko. Of those seven fighters, I think at least five of them rank among the top-15 all-time heavyweight greats. And since the heavyweight division is starting to percolate again, I'm going to rank in a short summation the greatest heavyweight fighters since Ali based on career accomplishments and, more importantly, who I would pick to win a head-to-head confrontation assuming both fighters fought their best fight.
The best heavyweights since, Ali, in order:
1). Larry Holmes…Larry was a complete boxer and almost as versatile as Ali. Holmes owned perhaps the greatest left jab in heavyweight history. He had the style, size, speed, power, toughness and determination along with boxing/fighting aptitude to beat every fighter below. Larry held the title for seven consecutive years when it meant something, and got up off the canvas twice to retain the title. Larry didn't face the greatest opposition, but he passes the eye test and his greatness is certified.
2). Lennox Lewis…Lennox could fight as the attacker and he could box and counter-punch. His right hand might've been the biggest single shot in the division during his prime and he was dominant for nearly a decade. He never met a fighter who he couldn't beat. As for the quality of his opposition during his title reign, Lewis probably ranks behind only Ali and Holyfield.
3). Evander Holyfield…Evander is one of the toughest and most determined fighters I've ever seen at any weight. He was a great counter-puncher and a bigger puncher than credited for being. Evander fought everybody who was somebody during his era and was never blown away despite always giving up size and weight. Based on his rematch with Lewis, I'd favor him to beat him on his best night but can't rank him above Lennox because Lewis was more consistent and may fare better in a field of other past greats. After Ali, Holyfield fought the deepest pool of tough challengers and contenders.
4). Mike Tyson…Mike was the greatest two round heavyweight ever, but he was a front-runner. He was a terrific blend of hand speed and power and so dangerous early. But he was easy to tie up on the inside and when he met stern resistance, he sometimes submitted psychologically and never once went on to win a bout in which he was knocked down. For three years he was something special, but his career was derailed by a plethora of problems and he was never that dominant once he suffered his first defeat. On their best nights, I'd favor Holmes, Lewis and Holyfield to beat Tyson on his best night.
5). Vitali Klitschko…Vitali never looked refined or pretty in the ring, but he could fight from the outside and when he had to he could push the action. He was never knocked off his feet and used his 6'8″ size and reach to great advantage against every opponent regardless of his style. Vitali had more than adequate power and was a better boxer than most give him credit for. I'd make him the underdog to everyone above, however, he would've had the best chance to beat Holyfield due to his tremendous size and reach advantage.
6). Wladimir Klitschko…Wladimir looked a little robotic and rigid in the ring. He hit harder and used his 6'6″ size and reach even better than Vitali. He went undefeated for nearly an 11-year stretch of his career. But like his brother, his opposition was very pedestrian, and due to him being stopped in three of his four losses, he fought with too much trepidation and fighters who had no business going rounds with him did.
7). Riddick Bowe…Riddick may be the most physically gifted fighter of the lot. He could really box and punch. He was great on the inside for a big man and was never stopped. The problem with Bowe was that his career basically consisted of one noteworthy opponent, Evander Holyfield. Yes, he was the first fighter to beat Evander, but he lost to him in their rematch. He stopped Holyfield in their rubber match when Evander was at the lowest point of his career. Other than Holyfield, his body of work isn't there. His window closed fast. Had he not ballooned up in weight between bouts, he had the physical skill to perhaps surpass everyone on this list other than Holmes.
Who knows how good the next generation of heavyweights will be, led by Luis Ortiz, Deontay Wilder, Anthony Joshua, and Joseph Parker. And if you think you do, you really don't.
Remember, when Holmes turned pro it was said he was a cheap Ali imitation with skinny legs and no power. Lewis was thought to be a fighter to watch on the way up, but after getting knocked out by Oliver McCall in their first bout, he was written off. Evander Holyfield was considered too small and his lack of one punch power would be his down fall, yet he was big enough to beat George Foreman, Riddick Bowe and Mike Tyson. Tyson was the best marketed and promoted boxer in history and for the most part he reached his potential, becoming the youngest heavyweight champ in history at age 20. Vitali Klitschko was considered the ugly step sister compared to his brother Wladimir who was supposed to be the real Ivan Drago from Rocky IV. However, it is Vitali who is considered the more formidable of the two. And Riddick Bowe, after Tyson, was considered the surest bet to achieve greatness. Yet, he didn't come close to realizing his full potential.
I’d be ecstatic if just one of the upcoming heavyweights whose names I mentioned in my opening paragraph had his name added to this list in 2026.
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com