The Pugil List: The 10 greatest heavyweight knockout artists of all-time
Last week, the Pugil List focused on the greatest flyweights ever; this week, we venture to the opposite end of the scales and take a look at the best knockout artists in the heavyweight division’s history. Boxing fans and TV networks love knockouts as well, which is why I find it difficult to explain why WBC beltholder Deontay Wilder has not received more traction with American fans. Yes, he is loud (did not hamper Floyd Mayweather Jr.) and uncouth, in some of his comments, but Wilder’s fights almost always end with a highlight reel stoppage. Yes, Wilder’s opposition has been weak overall but he has signed to fight anyone, even agreeing to defend his title in Russia before Alexander Povetkin was busted for steroids. The argument the lack of quality opposition Wilder has faced will be put to the test, even though 18 of 18 experts recently polled by THE RING Magazine picked Wilder to win, when he faces Luis Ortiz tonight (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT) on Showtime.
Wilder’s lack of acceptance is a secondary focus to me right now, as it is time to unveil the 10 greatest heavyweight knockout artists ever. It is not a list based upon pure strength, punching power or the fast left hook. There are different types of knockout punchers to consider, ranging from pure punchers to the fighter who overwhelms, with a combination of volume and killer instinct. Muhammad Ali, for instance, had as respectable 61% kayo ratio but was a surgeon when it came to stoppages, using his accuracy and speed to accomplish his stoppages, while someone like Luis Firpo used brute force. Both were effective and which is preferable remains a matter of opinion.
Missing the cut but considered were: James Jeffries, Muhammad Ali, Joe Jeannette, Peter Jackson, Harry Willis, Ron Lyle, Tommy Morrison, Max Schmeling, John L. Sullivan, Lennox Lewis, Ingemar Johansson, Joe Frazier, Sam Langford, Riddick Bowe, Teofilo Stevenson, George Godfrey, Sam McVea, Razor Ruddock, Cleveland Williams, Gerry Cooney, Tom Sharkey, Ike Ibeabuchi, Gerry Cooney and David Tua.
10. Max Baer, 66-13 (51) – The Hector Camacho of the 1930s, Baer had all the talent in the world but squandered it on wine and women. Max understood how precious life was when opponent Frankie Campbell died from injuries suffered in their bout. The problem with Baer’s epiphany was that enjoying life at a maximum pace prevented him from becoming a great heavyweight champion. Baer’s right hand was of the looping variety but, when it landed, the fight was seconds from ending. A 1993 Boxing Illustrated rating of the hardest pound-for-pound punchers of all-time listed Baer second, only behind the freakishly powerful Jimmy Wilde. In 2004, THE RING Magazine rated the best 100 punchers ever and Baer came in at a respectable No. 22. Baer was as exciting a heavyweight as you would wish to see, a huge puncher whose priority lay on the offensive side. Boxing scribe Ed Schuyler rated Baer No. 6 on his list of most exciting heavyweights, “Thirty years before Ali brought showmanship to boxing, there was Baer, who fought hard and lived harder.” Baer openly acknowledged his flaws as well, “My chin is as wide open as the Sahara desert. But so what? Nobody is tapping it. They are not conscious long enough to do that.”
9. Vitali Klitschko, 45-2 (41) – Some will argue this choice but Vitali’s numbers (87% KO ratio, stopping 41 foes) bear inclusion. Yes, his era was weak but Vitali ducked no one and an athlete can only defeat whom has been put in front of him. Many maintain Vitali was only exceptional because of his size (6-foot-7 1/2 and 250 pounds) advantage but he employed intelligence over brawn and his only career setbacks came via a cut and a shoulder injury. Vitali had better hand speed and reflexes than given credit for, combining great footwork with punching accuracy to score stoppages. It is actually Vitali’s huge body, not his boxing skills, which let the giant down, as he struggled with various injuries throughout his career. It may have been preferable to be stopped inside the distance by the Ukrainian, as Shannon Briggs will tell you, after spending a week in the hospital with two broken orbital bones and a shattered nose, after going the 12-round distance. I am in the minority who believes Vitali was the better Klitschko brother and Vitali said stoppages were always his goal, “A knockout is actually the main point in professional boxing. Nobody has a question about who the winner is after a clear knockout. I give my best. If I have a chance, I knock my opponent out.”
8. Elmer Ray, 97-23-11 (69) – Bore one of the great nicknames, as his ferocious punching and combative style led sparring partners and reporters to dub him “Violent.” Ray did not become a viable contender until he was 36, mostly due to a combination of World War II and his race. Rivals all the legends, in terms of pure power. If one punch was not enough, he clubbed opponents into submission over time. A left hook was his preferred finisher and THE RING Magazine ranked Ray the 44th greatest puncher of all-time. In a time when race mattered, Ray might have hurt himself by looking too good in his 1945 Madison Square Garden debut, stopping fellow contender Jimmy “Shamus” O’Brien in five rounds. Reached his prime relatively late, as a 34-fight winning streak proved when Ray was 37. A 17-fight KO streak, between 1945 and 1946, got him an elimination fight with Jersey Joe Walcott. Unfortunately Ray lost narrowly, by majority decision, in a fight in which he faded. Too bad this product of Southern segregation was too tough to face, unless he got into the mandatory challenger slot. It would have been interesting to see how this two-fisted banger would have fared against fellow slugger Joe Louis. Of the African-American challengers who did not get a crack at Joe Louis, Ray has to rank at or near the top.
7. Earnie Shavers, 74-14-1 (68) – I am deferring to the Hall of Fame guys who got in the ring with Shavers, who almost unanimously rated him the hardest puncher they faced. Boxing historians agree; few hesitate to rank Shavers in the Top 5. Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes claimed Shavers was the hardest puncher they ever met. The problem is Shavers was a one-trick pony and, with limited boxing nous on which to fall upon, those who avoided or absorbed Shaver’s bombs defeated him. This is not to say Shavers was NOT a respectable boxer; after all he won the national amateur AAU title in 1969. He accomplished that, despite the fact that he got a late start in boxing, at age 22. Like many power-punchers, Shavers limited himself after becoming enamored with the KO. Like other great punchers, Shavers’ chin was questionable, as he was stopped in half of his losses. There is no shame in losing to a prime Ali and Larry Holmes and when Shavers won, he did so spectacularly. One of the great tributes to Shavers is how he is remembered. After all Shavers was never a champion but when the great heavyweights of the 1970s are recalled, his name is often mentioned.
6. Sonny Liston, 50-4 (39) – The phrase “Speak softly and carry a big stick” was taken too literally by Liston, who probably struck with a baseball bat without asking questions, as a Philadelphia mob enforcer in his wild youth. The man simply had the look and physique of a rabid grizzly. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes Liston as “the most intimidating, powerful fighter of his era,” a opinions back by a 72% kayo ratio with a good amount of the one-punch variety. It took the greatest heavyweight of all time (OK, Joe Louis fans have an argument) to shove Liston off his throne and, even then, no one wanted any part of Liston, after Ali showed him to be beatable. Liston won his next 14 fights but never got within sniffing distance of another title shot. No way that happens in today’s game. It is probably impossible for anyone to write a bio piece on Liston without using the word “scowl” or “menacing,” and if you were to focus on his punching power, “thunderous” and “explosive” would be added to the word watchlist. Sported one of the largest fists ever measured, some 15 inches in circumference, giving Liston plenty of surface to spread the impact of his punches.
5. Jack Dempsey, 54-6-9 (44) – A larger-than-life sporting icon, Dempsey was Babe Ruth and John Wayne blended into a devastating package of power and charisma. Dempsey thrilled audiences with his ferocity and was one of the first fighters who had his opponents mentally beaten before entering the ring. Three words best described the Dempsey style inside the ring: Seek and destroy. Maybe Dempsey’s punches were not the hardest but they were thrown with such ferocity and abandon that they intimidated opponents psychologically. He grew up the hard way during the great depression, sleeping in hobo camps and hopping on cargo trains, traveling state to state in search of fights to earn a small payday or dinner. His ferocious style got Dempsey the attention of fans and with that came a title shot. In one of the most brutally one-sided fights in any championship fight, Dempsey battered Jess Willard from pillar to post. Dempsey broke Willard’s cheek bone and knocked him down seven times in the first round! With blood pouring from his mouth, Willard retired after the third round. Dempsey showed his heart when he climbed back into the ring, before the referee counted him out, after being knocked out of the ring by Luis Firpo. Gene Tunney proved Dempsey could be outboxed but Dempsey still appeals to greater masses and is generally rated higher than his conqueror by historians. That is what a KO reputation can do for boxers.
4. Rocky Marciano, 49-0 (43) – Talk with boxing fans and they will say Rocky is either very overrated or shamefully underappreciated. It is hard to argue with perfection, since Rocky went 49-0 and retired undefeated. You can throw all kind of statistics around (Rocky had a 88% kayo ratio) but how do you measure heart, guts and determination? You cannot measure the ability to take the other man’s best shot, then brush it off and storm back to knock out opponents because their will had been crushed. Marciano’s style is best described as crudish, determined and, most importantly, effective. Because of his short arms (only a 68-inch reach, the shortest of any heavyweight champ), Rocky needed to fight his way inside without the help of a great jab. This meant bobbing and weaving his way inside by slipping or riding through punches. Marciano would stay low, always looking to unleash vicious hooks to the body or spring up from the crouch to tag opponents. Short thick legs helped Rocky stand his ground, not allowing him to be pushed back, thanks to a low center of gravity. Above all, Rocky used his legs like a coiled snake, dipping low before unleashing hard hooks. Maybe Marciano’s greatest asset was his incredible reserve of stamina and ability to shake off punishment. The right hand that delivered most of Marciano’s stoppages was nicknamed “Suzie Q,” one of the most paralyzing weapons in the history of boxing.
3. Mike Tyson, 50-6 (44) – Forget revisionist history; there was a time when Mike Tyson was indeed, as the phrase that was used to describe him aptly implied, “the baddest man on the planet.” Tyson sported the perfect mix of power and speed, which more than made up for his lack of height and reach. At least Joe Louis got rid of overmatched opponents in quick order, sparing them unnecessary punishment. Not Tyson. Just ask the swollen faces of Tyrell Biggs, Razor Ruddock and Pinklon Thomas. Not only were they facing the most finely-honed brawling machine since Joe Frazier, opponents stood across the ring from a man with a boy’s voice and obvious mental issues. Now THAT is scary! The press readily admitted opponents were beaten before Tyson entered the ring, subdued by talk of a throwback fighter, who came at them with only a towel, black trunks, black shoes, no socks and the worst of intentions. Beyond the athletic excitement he generated, Tyson had a hard-to-justify pull on the public, stoked by trainwreck aspects of his life. Tyson fights were happenings and, the following day, everyone gathered at work to discuss what he did…good or bad. Sure, the last couple years of his career dulled that bully reputation but, if you lived through Tyson’s prime, you cannot forget who “Iron” Mike really was.
2. George Foreman, 76-5 (68) – What alien life form snatched the snarling man-beast known as George Foreman from 1973 and replaced him with the smiling corporate shill we saw in his second incarnation? The legendary intimidation factor of Foreman was multiplied tenfold, when he snuffed out the immovable force that was Joe Frazier, walking away with the title, as if he were taking candy from a prepubescent child. Foreman bounced little Joe off the canvas more times than a basketball at a Harlem Globetrotters game. In the process, Foreman started an unprecedented weight loss campaign by the heavyweights of the day, all attempting to melt down to light heavyweight. It was a given that “Big George’s” opponents would fall, if Foreman did not run out of gas (no wonder his grills are electric) himself. Behind devastating fists were subtle boxing skills, honed in amateur competitions that earned him Olympic gold. The key to Foreman’s intimidation was actually silence, talking as little as possible to leave opponents thinking the worst. Fear of the unknown is a powerful thing. Kind of ironic, considering Foreman made his comeback and title shots viable by talking himself up to anyone who acknowledged the new lovable George. Foreman stopped 42 of 47 in his first run, and scored 26, more after he came back at the age of 36, ending with a 84% KO ratio.
1. Joe Louis, 66-3 (52) – Maybe not the hardest puncher in terms of pure power but when Louis married his power with speed and accuracy, no punch was more dangerous. Where do you start with a great boxer like Joe Louis? His crippling power, killer instinct, supreme balance or the great hand/eye coordination? Maybe the way Louis took small steps toward his prey, slowly shuffling in for the kill and always seeking out tiny openings with a stinging jab? Or perhaps it was his quiet dignity, which won over an entire nation, that was racially divided. Often called the perfect fighting machine, Louis’ record title reign is unmatched. Louis was the heavyweight champ for 11 years, defended the title 25 times (only four lasted the distance and two were knocked out in rematches) and two of his three losses came after a retirement. No man has thrown a short punch with more power. If you gave Louis six inches of space between his fist and a chin, he could knock almost any man down because of his balance. Louis’ finishing skills were second-to-none and, once he knocked a man down, the fighter had little chance of surviving the follow-up attack. Louis was a fighter in real life as well, laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery (the burial place of American armed forces combat veterans, for which he did not technically qualify), at the request of President Ronald Reagan. A just final reward for an American hero.