Greatest Heavyweight Champs Since Muhammad Ali – On June 27th 1979 Muhammad Ali announced his retirement from boxing. At that time he hadn’t fought in nine months. In his most recent bout he defeated Leon Spinks in their rematch to capture the heavyweight title, WBA version, for the third time.
Many thought boxing was going to die a slow death without Ali around, who at the time was the most recognized person on the planet. However, boxing was in a little better shape than most perceived it to be. When Ali announced his retirement Larry Holmes a year into his reign as WBC heavyweight champ, Sugar Ray Leonard would win the WBC welterweight title two months later in November of 1979, and Marvin Hagler was emerging in the middleweight division and by September 1980 he would be the undisputed champ at 160.
With Ali’s departure Larry Holmes was dogged by the boxing media for years to come because he lacked Ali’s flash and natural charisma. In October of 1980 Holmes turned back Ali in his comeback bid in trying to win the title for a fourth time. As fate would have it, by late 1980 Holmes did everything as a fighter better than Ali. And Larry reluctantly gave Ali a one-sided beating with Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee mercifully stopping the bout after the 10th round. For the next five years Holmes was still fighting Ali’s ghost in and out of the ring, but years later in retirement Holmes finally got his just due. Most sophisticated boxing historians, at least those who are worthy of carrying the title historian, grasp that Larry Holmes was/is an all-time top-5 heavyweight champ.
Since Muhammad Ali retired there have been five outstanding/great fighters who held the title or had an impressive run as champ. In chronological order with the year they won the title they are: 1978-Larry Holmes, 1986-Mike Tyson, 1990-Evander Holyfield, 1993-Lennox Lewis and 2000-Wladimir Klitschko. Instead of evaluating how all five would’ve matched up versus Ali prime for prime (incidentally all five would’ve been an underdog) I thought I’d rate them from 1-5 as to who was the greatest and most complete fighter. And in most cases the higher ranked fighter, at least in my opinion, would’ve defeated the fighter/s underneath them.
Below is my ranking of the five greatest heavyweight title holders since Ali last held it. My ranking is based on how I think they’d fare in head-to-head confrontations against each other, but more so on who was the greatest and most complete fighter and champion. My choice of Wladimir Klitschko over Vitali Klitschko is centered on the fact that he was the better technician and fought more title bouts against top contenders for a decade without interruption. However, if you insert Vitali in place of Wladimir, my ranking doesn’t change and the five spot would still be held by a Klitschko.
The synopsis on the fighters below is brief as I believe the reader is very familiar with all five fighters’ careers, including their highs and lows. It would be long and boring for me to go into specific details since each is so well known. Of course there are things not mentioned, but it’s an overview to stimulate thought and debate since Muhammad Ali’s passing June 3rd of this year. I have given it much thought, and would be hard pressed to modify the ranking I have below.
5). Wladimir Klitschko, years active 1996-2015.
Wladimir was the supposed new breed heavyweight fighter. At 6-6, 245 pounds, he had size and strength. He fought behind a hard jab, which at times he was a little tentative delivering. During his prime his right hand was perhaps the biggest single shot in boxing once Lennox Lewis retired. Physically, Wladimir had it all. His biggest liability was his gumption and constitution. When he faced fighters who weren’t intimidated by him and actually threw their punches with serious intent, he let them alone and fought too cautious. He also wasn’t consistent in fighting like a big man and often used his size more defensively than offensively. And let’s be honest, of the five top heavyweights who have held the title since Ali, Wladimir no doubt confronted the weakest opposition and was stopped in three of his four career defeats. However, he dominated for 10 years and he did beat some decent fighters during his title tenure.
4). Mike Tyson, years active 1985-2005.
Tyson is no doubt a top-5 great physical talent, who uniquely blended speed and power in his swarmer like aggression. He was the youngest heavyweight champ, and ex-champ in history. He was also the fastest starter and most dangerous heavyweight champ in history, for two rounds. However, Mike was managed perfectly and was kept away from some of the fighters who were a threat to him, like Ray Mercer, Tim Witherspoon, Oliver McCall and even an old George Foreman. When Tyson was confident that he could beat the other fighter, he was tough to beat. He was aggressive and had legitimate knockout power in both hands, but when things didn’t go his way he sometimes came unglued. And it goes against Tyson that he never got up off the canvas to win a fight, and either quit or was stopped in all six of his career defeats. Mike Tyson is the fourth greatest champ since Ali.
3). Evander Holyfield, years active 1984-2011.
Many consider Evander, the former undisputed cruiserweight champ, an undersized heavyweight who lacked the big punch. However, aside from Ali, Holyfield may be the toughest heavyweight who has ever held the title. Holyfield was a counter-puncher who loved to mix it up and trade, even when it wasn’t to his advantage. He also fought practically every name fighter of his era, and aside from his contemporary Lennox Lewis, and Muhammad Ali, Holyfield may have faced the greatest level of opposition in the history of the division. He also had more lives than a cat, and every time you thought he was at the end of the road, he’d come back and beat a fighter he wasn’t supposed to. Like Tyson he fought way past his prime, but unlike Tyson, Holyfield was only stopped twice in his career and that encompasses fighting Dwight Muhammad Qawi twice, Riddick Bowe three times, Mike Tyson twice, Lennox Lewis twice and George Foreman. Had Holyfield been slightly more consistent, he’d occupy the second slot on this list over Lennox Lewis.
2). Lennox Lewis, years active 1989-2003.
Like Wladimir Klitschko, Lewis at 6-5, 227/245, had size and power. Lennox was a boxer-puncher, only much more versatile than Riddick Bowe and both Klitschko brothers. Lewis could fight as the aggressor or he could step off and counter. His right hand was probably the biggest single shot in the division during his era, with the possible exception of David Tua’s left hook, a fighter Lennox dismantled during one of his title defenses. Also, like Holyfield, Lewis fought the best of the best during his era, which is the second best era in heavyweight history. Lennox was stopped twice during his prime when he was out of shape, but he exacted revenge on the two fighters who beat him. So it can be said Lewis never met a fighter he couldn’t beat. He retired from boxing as the universally recognized champ, and got out at the perfect time with his health, wealth and respect. Prime for prime I’m not sure Lewis beats Holyfield. When they fought Lennox was at his peak and Holyfield was well past his, and the rematch was very close. The biggest reason Lewis ranks above Holyfield to me is that he was more consistent and probably matches up with the other four slightly better because of his size, but that’s it.
1) Larry Holmes, years active 1973-2002.
“I don’t get no respect” was Holmes’ favorite saying. For a long time Larry was right. Because he followed Muhammad Ali and was succeeded by Mike Tyson, two of the three biggest heavyweight superstars in history, along with Jack Dempsey, he didn’t get enough respect. But looking back, Holmes is no doubt the best and most complete heavyweight champ since Ali. Larry had perhaps the best left jab in history. He was a great boxer who could fight on the inside and also had great stamina. And like Ali did versus Joe Frazier in round 15 in The Fight of the Century, Holmes got up from the grave when Earnie Shavers dropped him in the seventh round with a right hand that may have broken the sound barrier during their WBC championship bout. Holmes also had a huge heart and the harder he got hit, the harder he fought. For seven years Larry held the title and was clearly the class of the division. In 75 career bouts he was only stopped once, and that was against Mike Tyson when Mike was in his prime. And when they fought, Holmes was 38 years old and had been retired for the two previous years. Like Tyson and Klitschko, Holmes didn’t fight the greatest opposition during his title reign. But that’s not his fault, and looking back, his opposition looks a little better than it did at the time.
Yes, Larry Holmes is the greatest heavyweight champion since Muhammad Ali last held the title 37 years ago. He was equally as tough, and more complete, than the other four fighters above. And in a prime-for-prime head-to-head confrontation, I believe Holmes would’ve defeated Lewis, Holyfield, Tyson and Klitschko — and may have won by stoppage against all four with the exception of Holyfield.
Greatest Heavyweight Champs Since Muhammad Ali
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com