Who was the greatest heavyweight champion of all time? The very question produces heated debate among boxing fans and historians. The task of rating the heavyweight champions has always been difficult. How does one compare fighters from one era to another? In judging the all time greats, how does one eliminate one’s own particular prejudices towards certain fighters? We all have our own likes and dislikes in terms of style whether fast, speedy mobile boxers or brawlers with menacing power. We also have prejudices towards certain times such as the “Golden Age of Boxing” or the “Modern Era”- fighters from our own generation whom we have seen.
According to studies done for radio advertising, an individual’s favorite music, opinions, and political views are all likely to be formed between the ages of 17 to 24. It is not surprising, therefore, that most baby boomers prefer Muhammad Ali, while “generation next” prefer the likes of Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, or Lennox Lewis. Old-timers may prefer Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis, or even Jack Dempsey. Adding to the problem is the fact that the average boxing fan, or even sportswriter, does not have an adequate knowledge of boxing history beyond the last twenty years or so.
The Stat-Chart method is an effort to consider all aspects of a fighter’s ability by assigning values on a 10 point system to an aspect of overall boxing skill. Twenty of the best heavyweight champions from James J. Corbett to Lennox Lewis are rated in ten different essential categories. Under the concept of “Critical skills” I have included boxing qualities such as “durability”, “defense”, and “power”, and I assign each fighter a point value from one to ten in proportion to the fighter’s skill level in each area. Ancillary categories such as “historical impact”, “record”, and “quality of opposition” are not considered, since such factors may be useful in judging the fighter’s individual achievements, but in fact are not fighting attributes.
The Stat-Chart method is a head to head comparison of the greatest heavyweights who ever lived in their all around ability, with 100 points representing the perfect fighter. While this is a subjective endeavor, the fighters can be fairly rated using this method. One should keep in mind that the chart does not necessarily determine the outcome of individual matches. We just can’t know that. What we can determine is the relative level of boxing skills each fighter possessed. Remember lesser-rated and lesser talented fighters score upsets in boxing all the time. This Chart’s purpose is to assess the relative skill level of each man.
The Rating Scale
Each fighter is ranked on the chart on a ten- point system. 5 is the standard rating, 5 represents the average heavyweight skill level in any given category. 10 points is considered a Superior rating, and 1 would be Non-existent. The rating for each fighter is determined by an examination of their skills when at their peak as a champion.
- 1- Non-Existent
- 2- Poor
- 3- Fair
- 4- Below Average
- 5 –Average
- 6- Above Average
- 7- Good/Solid
- 8- Very Good
- 9- Excellent
- 10-Superior/ the best or among the best.
Power is the great equalizer, and reflects how hard a fighter hits in relation to other heavyweights, and his ability in punching effectiveness. Again 5 is average, a 10 represents that the named fighter is one of the hardest punchers in division history. 9 represents an outstanding knockout puncher. 8 means he is capable of delivering a one punch knockout, though this may not be his bread and butter dependency. 7 is a good puncher but not a real knockout fighter. 6 is above average in power and so on.
The hardest hitters in division history all rating a 10 are Jack Dempsey, who at his peak between 1918-1923 was 32-0 with 28 kayo's, 17 in the first round, was one of the greatest punchers in ring history, Joe Louis (who sent men down for long 10 counts, spun them 360%, left them unconsious on lower ropes, and also knocked out much larger opponents such as the 6-6' 260 pound Carnera, the 6'5" 220 pound Buddy Baer, and the 6'4" 255 pound Abe Simon, is one of the great punchers of all time, his knockout percentage is 76% but at his retirement as champion his percentage was 83.6%), Rocky Marciano (87.75% knockout percentage), Sonny Liston (one of the most feared hitters in history), George Foreman (83.9% knockout percentage in 81 fights!), Mike Tyson (without question one of the most prolific punchers in ring history) and Lennox Lewis (whose combination of size and power are under-estimated by some.)
Rated just below the above group are outstanding punchers rating a 9 such as Joe Frazier (Joe has a high enough knockout percentage to be rated in the elite group 72.9% but never knocked out an opponent much larger than himself unless one counts the fat Buster Mathis), and Frazier was not a 2 fisted power puncher to the head, relying on his left to do the damage, although he did dig both hands to the body as well as anyone. 9 is still an excellent score. Also rating an 9 is Jim Jeffries who packed kayo power in his lethal left but was not a two-fisted puncher and he had a tendency to wear down foes due to the fact that he took his time in taking his opponent's apart. But he was powerful hitter. , Riddick Bowe also rates a 9 (for his size, strength and hitting power and knockout percentage 76.1%)
Receiving an 8 is Patterson a strong puncher especially with his hook, his weaknesses were his ability to take it not dish it out.
In the next level are "good punchers" who are not quite as strong as punchers as the above men, in some instances relying more on other aspects of their game, such as Holyfield, Ali, Schmeling, Walcott, and Holmes.
Charles, who lost his aggressiveness as a heavyweight, rates as an average puncher as does Gene Tunney in terms of sheer power.
2. PHYSICAL ATTRIBUTES
This category gives credence to a heavyweights overall size and encompasses height, reach and weight advantages. Unlike Power punching, footwork, defense and ring generalship this is not a skill category but merely a "measurement" of physical attributes.
Scoring a 10 would be fighers like Jess Willard, Primo Carnera, Ridick Bowe and Lennox Lewis who are the largest of heavyweight champions, although the first two are not considered on this chart which is limited to 20 fighters.
When rating Physical Attributes I use the following general formula:
10=Fighters OVER 6'4" and weight over 230
9=Fighters 6'3"-6'4" or weight above 220 with reach over 80 inches
8=Fighters 6'2"-6'3" or weight above 215 with reach 78-80 inches
7=Fighters 6'1"-6'2" and weight over 200 pounds reach 76 inches or greater
6=Fighters 5'11-6'1" weight 185-200 pounds regardless of reach (no lower than 6 unless under this weight).
5=Fighters whose weight is below 185 prime weight.
Riddick Bowe and Lennox Lewis get the only 10's in this category.
Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes and George Foreman are 9's.
Sonny Liston, and Jim Jeffries are 8's.
Joe Louis (peak weight about 207 for rematches against Simon and Buddy Baer) plus height and reach qualify for a 7.
Evander Holyfield about same height and reach as Louis, weight varied from 205 (Bowe 1) to 215 (Tyson 1) prime weight, but overall a 7. He started at cruiserweight.
Mike Tyson height and reach qualify as a 6 but his weight is an 8, this makes him a 7.
Jack Johnson, 6' 1 1/2", 208-210 prime weight makes him a 7.
Max Schmeling 6' 1" , reach 76" enough to qualify for a 7, but his weight under 200 in mid 190's so he rates a 6.
Jersey Joe Walcott was 6' 0" and under 200 pounds reach 74", he is a 6,
Ezzard Charles 6' 0" and under 200 pounds, is a 6.
Rocky Marciano 5 10" 185 pounds, is a 6, and barely at that.
Floyd Patterson 6' 0" weight 190's is a 6.
James J. Corbett weight around 190 for his fights with Jeffries rates a 6.
3.PHAND SPEED, COMBINATION PUNCHING, and ACCURACY
Hand Speed is gauged by the speed with which a fighter lands from point A to point B. It is the ability to beat the opponent to the punch.
Combination punching is how quickly and how well a fighter can put their punches together effectively.
Punching accuracy entails the ability to land effective punches without being wild or sloppy.
Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Floyd Patterson, and Mike Tyson are tops in this category. The crude slugger types receive the same score of 6 here, so I hope the formula is consistent.
A fighter like Jack Johnson scores well in hand speed and accuracy but was not a sophisticated combination puncher so he scores an 8.
One doesn't have to be fleet-footed to rate highly in this category, but it does help. Footwork includes the ability to avoid punches by side stepping, sliding, and dancing out of harm's way. It also includes the ability to rush or spring forward and/or the ability cut the ring to maneuver an opponent to the ropes. This can be a difficult category to judge. Some fighters with excellent footwork are easy to rate, while others who were slower afoot (Louis for example) were experts in cutting the ring, rate higher than if they were judged on foot speed alone though still ranking much lower than the "Fancy Dan" types.
The only fighter I give a ten in this category is Ali. His speed and lateral movement is far above that of any other heavyweight champion. Holmes, for example had excellent footwork (9) but not in the class of Ali.
Rated just below Ali are outstanding movers with a 9 rating such as Tunney, Charles, Walcott, and Holmes.
Also deserving of an 8 are Tyson and Dempsey who are two of the fastest moving attackers in heavyweight history.
Jack Johnson had a tendency to fight and punch flat-footed, and therefore rates a 7. He would slide back and circle backwards in a clinch but did not use his feet to evade punches.
Jeffries who had decent foot speed (he could run the 100- yard dash in world class speed of 10.5 sec’s), Schmeling, Patterson, Liston and Holyfield all who had decent foot speed, and Louis, who was slower, but who was a master at cutting the ring. His footwork was designed to conserve his energy to maintain his strength and power until the end of the fight. In like manner Foreman gets a 7 because he was very good at cutting the ring. I rate Frazier a 7 because he was quick coming in and was consistent in his pressure, more so than Marciano who was not quite as quick coming in.
The bruiser types generally rate a 6, amongst the great heavyweight Jeffries rates here with barely above average in footwork he would follow opponents around the ring and was not sophisticated in the "leg qualities" as Fitzsimmons would say.Marciano attacked in a straight line and was not particularly fast on his feet. He would come in low and that is factored in under defense but his footwork was nil. The only reason fighters of this ilk do not rate lower in footwork is because they can cut the ring down somewhat at times.
A fighter’s defensive ability is defined as boxing skills used to avoid punches. Classic defense is the ability to slip punches with the movement of the head or bending at the waist, parry with the open glove (or closed glove), block jabs with the rear hand, block punches at the elbow, and properly hold ones hand so as not to be open for counters. Another part of defense is “defensive tactics”, such as clinching, smothering, and the use of the crouch or the bob and weave to change ones target level, and turning sideways to offer less of a target (as Joe Louis did among others).
I do not feel any fighter is worthy of a 10 in this category as no heavyweight was truly unhittable. I will explain this further below.
Jack Johnson who was one of the best defensive fighters by reputation, a master at glove and elbow blocking, parrying, feinting, smothering, as well as the clinch. But he was a 1 or 2 punch at a time blocker and many of the things he did would not hold up against a more sophisticated attack. However he was a physical marvel so he still rates a 9.
Tunney was a fine defensive fighter, close to the level of Johnson. He rates a 9.
Tyson, in his prime, had excellent head movement and quickness, making his opponent's miss and countering effectively. Tony Tucker and Bonecrusher Smith only landed one significant punch in each of their fights with Tyson. He rates an 9 in defensive ability in his prime.
Frazier has the highest slip and duck rates amongst heavyweights. His constant bob and weave could make for a difficult targets to hit cleanly. This is especially so against fancy boxing stylists. Angelo Dundee admitted on ESPN radio that Ali said no one made him miss more punches than Joe Frazier. He also rates a 9.
Louis was a solid classic defender, blocking, parrying and slipping an opponent's jab, although he was not in the class of Johnson. Louis held his hands up, kept his chin down and his elbows in, he has the best classic defense of any puncher among the heavyweights, he rates an 8.
Dempsey is similar to Tyson and Frazier and was the first sophisticated swarming style attacker. However he did struggle more against clever boxers and was more easily shut down by guys like Tommy Gibbons, who although he clearly lost he was able to be hit and reset frequently. He could also be coaxed into a slugfest like with Firpo. He receives an 8.
Also Rating an 8 is Holyfield. He could maneuver effectively when he had to and was good at blocking punches, was able to consistenyly block Mike Tyson's hook and counter whereas in 41 rounds Ali never learned to block Joe Frazier's hook. Unfortunately, he had a tendency to abandon defense and slug it out.
Ali never learned the rudiments of classical boxing, did not know how to duck, or parry punches but leaned away (normally a suicidal tactic). He used his footwork, jab and sense of distance for defense, of which footwork has its own category. Ali rates a 7. Lennox Lewis likewise rates a 7 not difficult to hit at times he improved defensively as he matured.
Also rating a 7 are men who were effective fighting out of a crouch, such as Jeffries and Marciano, harder to hit than some might suggest but still not too dicfficult to hit. Remember 5 is average, 6 above average and 7 is good. These men had good defense for their style but it was not exceptional defense like Frazier or Tyson.
Fighters such as big men like Riddick Bowe and George Foreman (the older George would rate one/two categories higher) all of whom were not too difficult to hit. Taking into account the effectiveness of their offense, as part of their defense, none of the champions I consider would rate below a 6.
This category rates the fighter’s ability to take a punch and absorb punishment, and recover from a knockdown. How well can a fighter take a punch without being kayoed, how well can he take a punch without going down, and how well can he fight when hurt? All must be considered when rating the champions in this category. Some heavyweights have "glass jaws" and are easily kayoed, while others were knocked down easily but were much harder to knock out. A fighter who has been knocked out cannot receive a 10 (unless way past his prime).
Deserving of a 10 is Jeffries who it was claimed was "impossible to hurt" and was never knocked down until a 6 year lay-off.
Muhammad Ali also gets a 10 having withstood some of boxing’s biggest hitters, such as Liston, Frazier, Foreman, Lyle, and Shavers.
Tunney (who was floored only once), Marciano, Foreman, Holmes and Holyfield all had excellent chins and receive a 9. Bowe, also down only once from punches above the belt, gets a 9 here.
In the next group are those fighters who had relatively strong chins but who suffered the occasional knockdown or rare knockout are fighters such as Tyson or Frazier who receive 8’s. Frazier's face also had a tendency to swell.
Dempsey scored an 8 he normally had a strong, reliable chin but was knocked out of the ring by Firpo and also dropped by the relatively light-hitting Tunney.
Louis also gets an 8 here, knocked down- but only out twice (once at age 21 before he hit his peak and in his last fight). Louis showed exceptional recuperative ability in recovering from knockdowns, fighting back with skill, power and determination when hurt.
Jack Johnson also gets an 8. He went 12 years between knockout losses and had a 10 year unbeaten streak. In his early loss to Choynski he was still green and when he lost to Willard was 37 years old, past his prime and it was 26 rounds.
In the next level are those who rank as having a "good chin" which is a rating value of 7. Fighters who have shown a good chin but are knocked down and/or out a little too often. Schmeling is of this type.
Then there are those who had fairly good chins, but were vulnerable to an occassional knockout defeat. Charles and Walcott who rate a 6.
Only Patterson rates a 4, below average. The worst chin among the champions, he was dropped 16 times and kayoed five times. Most of his knockdowns were in knockout losses and he never really showed the ability to recover from a knockdown.
A fighter displays Heart when he shows that he has the WILL to win when the chips are down. It comprises the qualities of guts, courage, and determination against all odds of winning a fight.
Those who have superior will and courage are men like Jeffries (who once beat Tom Sharkey with a dislocated elbow). Also worthy of a 10 are Dempsey, Tunney, Louis, Marciano, Ali, Frazier, Holmes, and Holyfield all who demonstrated the ability to come from behind and fight while hurt to win.
Rating just below them with 9 is Foreman, who showed great courage in his comeback against Holyfield, Moorer, Lyle and others. Johnson also rates a 9, as he showed great Heart facing racial discrimination and basically having the whole world against him to become the first black heavyweight champ. He fails to make a 10 because of the various controversies surrounding some of his other fights.
At level 8 we have men like Patterson, Charles, and Walcott who have shown courage and will in the ring.
Rating a 7 are men who didn't demonstrate the same level of will. Sometimes this showed up in their training habits. Bowe is of this type.
Liston, who quit on his stool against Ali, rates a 6.
Tyson, who has never shown the ability to come from behind when hurt in his entire career, rates a 6, which is just above average, showing some will when he was winning, but never really coming through often when the chips were down.
8. KILLER INSTINCT
A fighter with a Killer Instinct will finish off an opponent when he is hurt. Whether this is accomplished by one well placed blow or a through a combination of punches. Killer Instinct is the thirst for blood, knowing your opponent is ready to go and taking him out. This is an important category and should not be taken lightly. A good finisher with killer instinct can keep an opponent from getting back into a fight.
Rating a 10 in this category are Dempsey, without question one of the most savage finishers in boxing history, and Louis, who could end a fight suddenly with one punch or a devastating flurry of blows, rated tops in the category by nat Fleischer. Marciano, with his non-stop attack, rates a 10 as well. Also in the class of these previously mentioned fighters are Liston, Frazier, Foreman, and Tyson, all of whom have demonstrated the ability to be great finishers in their prime. Pure punchers, sluggers and some boxer-punchers tend to be great finishers.
Rated just below them are strong finishers like Holyfield, and Bowe who score an 8, could end matters if their opponent's were hurt.
Johnson “carried” many of his opponents, in order to make a living and didn’t always finish them but he was a great finisher when he wanted to be, he rates an 8. Lewis was not as aggressive as he could be at times but when he wanted to, which was often, he could end a fight in a hurry.
Other champions rating an 8 are the likes of Jeffries, Schmeling, Patterson, and Holmes. They were good finishers but sometimes let their opponent go the distance or into the later rounds after they had them hurt.
Ali rates a 7 as a finisher. Although he could definitely finish a man he did not possess the desire to really go after and hurt his opponent's. He failed to finish Mildenberger when he had him hurt in the mid rounds and didnt finish him until the championship rounds, he didn't go after Terrell, and many other times refused to really punish opponents.
Charles had been a great finisher as a light-heavyweight, but after the death of Baroudi he lost most of his killer instinct, so he rates a 5 at heavyweight. Tunney, who was more of a distance fighter at heavyweight also rates a 5 which is average.
A fighters stamina and endurance is a critical factor in determining how he can maintain his effectiveness over the course of a scheduled boxing match. A fighter that retains his knockout punch to the last round should score higher than one who tires easily. A fighter who is a proven 15 round fighter should score better than one who was known to tire in 12 rounds.
An "all time" rating means the ability to fight and be successful in any era. Those who had the proven ability to fight 20-25 rounds and beyond would have the advantage over those who never fought beyond 12 or 15 in a bout scheduled for that distance.
I have broken down the ratings in this category as follows:
10 - Those who have proven or demonstrated the style to fight beyond 15 rounds and maintian effectiveness. Those who fought 20 rounds or more should get credit over those who never fought beyond 12.
9 - Proven 15 round fighters. Fighters who have demonstrated that they can go 15 and maintain effectiveness.
8 - Fighters who have proven they can go 12 without overly tiring
7 - Those who can go 12 but were known to tire in 12 round fights.
6 - Those who struggled to make it 12 rounds or less without tiring.
5 - 10 round average standard. Since no heavyweight champion failed to prove to be a 10 round fighter -at least a couple of times- none should rate this low.
10. RING GENERALSHIP
Ring Generalship is a broad category that includes a fighter’s command of the action in the squared ring. The ability to dictate the tempo of a fight. The ability to outbox boxers, and out punch punchers. It includes the ability of a fighter to lull his opponent into fighting his kind of tactical fight. Ring Strategy and Tactics are keys to this category.
Those who were the greatest Ring Generals in boxing history include Jack Johnson and Gene Tunney (whose greatest strength was being able to discover the flaws in his opponent's style). Joe Louis was also a master of boxing styles, rates highly in this category. This truth is hammered home by the fact that Louis’ opponents always faced disaster the second time around where he was 10-0. Joe Louis invariably had the answer to their style, and he rarely made a mistake in the ring. He was a master at drawing a fighter into his punching range. Muhammad Ali, a versatile ring strategist, also rates a 10 in this category. Also worthy of a top score as ring generals are Jersey Joe Walcott and Ezzard Charles both masters of ring center, and Larry Holmes a superb technician in the ring.
Holyfield rates a 9, he has ability enough to rate among the top men, but sometimes abandoned his fight plan to slug it out. 9 of course is an outstanding score, nonetheless.
Some of the real old -timers may dis-agree with me giving Corbett only a 9 as a ring general, he certainly was a master of ring center and could dominate even the hardest hitters with ease up to 20 rounds, he was extrmeley clever, but he did peak prior to 1900 and had not fought the versatility of styles that was rising even at that time. He only had 20 pro fights (although he claimed according to one source to have 39 pro fights, which is as many as most top pros today). I deducted him 1 point.
Men like Lennox Lewis, Riddick Bowe, Sonny Liston and Max Schmeling all receive a 9 as ring generals. Lennox could command ring center, and Bowe control the tempo of a bout up close in his style, but were not the ring generals of the men rated above them like Ali and Holmes. Schmeling proved he could outbox-boxers and out-punch puncher and was highly intelligent ring strategist deserving a 9.
8 means "very good" and the following were effective at imposing their style on their opponents. Liston was a very good technician, and is really under-rated here by many. He was a very good ring general but not good enough to deal with a 10 like Ali so a 9 would be too high.
Patterson and Tyson both fought in the same peek-a-boo style taught to them by Cus D'Amato and at times they could box well, slip inside and go to work, come in behind the jab and control the tempo of the bout. Frazier could also slip inside and was the ultimate catch and kill fighter. Tyson and Frazier could both impose their style on a boxer-mover and rate an 8.
Foreman (prime young version) was wild slugger who did not have the sustained ability to outbox anyone over the course of a fight, but he could force his opponets to the ropes, cut the ring and inpose his will, he rates a 7. None of the heavyweight champions considered would rate below a 7 as a ring general, all possess a champions measure of skill in their own particular brand of fighting.
In conclusion, we see that the Stat-chart method is a good way to evaluate the fighting attributes of the greatest heavyweights of all time. By analyzing their boxing ability we can then rate the champions based on the number of skill points they receive. This does not mean that the fighter who is number one will beat number two in a match. It is simply an indicator of how they match up in terms of boxing skills, if they were to meet in the ring. No system is perfect but the fighters are fairly evaluated.
The purpose of the chart was to help me remove some of my own prejudices. The chart (originally) came out differently than I had anticipated, so it was effective. I have viewed film of every fighter on the chart (some of the old-timers there isn’t a lot of film but there are clips of every fighter.) I hope you enjoy the chart and this analysis as I have put alot of work into it!
TO SEE THE RESULTS CLICK BELOW
ALL TIME HEAVYWEIGHT STAT CHART