The Pugil List: Top 10 heavyweight title reigns of all time
The exciting showdown between IBF/WBA heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko last Saturday was both inspiring and a historical milestone. It signals a dawning recognition of the Joshua era and gave us the final chapter of Klitschko’s Hall of Fame career. For the vast majority of “regular” sports fans, the heavyweight division remains the standard-bearer of boxing, which makes how Joshua defeated Klitschko important beyond the result. It is seen as an indicator of boxing’s health, so having the two best face each other (with deference to Tyson Fury and his health issues) is a pronouncement on the immediate and near future of the sport. However, in this feature I am going back in time to see what Anthony Joshua has to achieve in order to measure up with the legends. It is fun to reflect on some of these mythic names while giving thanks that Joshua gave us and the wider sports world occasion to do so.
There is a difference between a memorable title reign and a great champion, one is more valuable than the other, in my opinion, and this is why two legends like Jack Dempsey and Jack Johnson do not make my list. These kind of judgments can be tricky, depending on preferred methodology, since some value a couple of great wins in a short period, while others demand a consistent level of dominance that spans a memorable length of time. Of course the greats stand out for combining both and two recent heavyweights would have had majestic numbers, if not for an unexpected loss against decidedly inferior foes that separated two still-respectable reigns. A factor with which more recent titleholders have to contend is split titles that came into vogue in the 1960s, when the WBA was the first to split itself, allowing boxers and contenders to avoid each other.
1. Joe Louis (1937-1950) – The indisputable No. 1, both in terms of length reign and successful title defenses. Louis had a stranglehold on the title for nearly 12 years, to include the lean years of World War II, which is the only demerit to this reign, as it limited opposition (famously remembered as the “Bum of the Month Club”), making 25 successful defenses, a record that is likely never to be broken. Only four opponents lasted the distance and two were knocked out in rematches. Where do you start with a great fighter like Joe Louis? His crippling power, killer instinct, supreme balance or the great hand/eye coordination? Maybe the way he took small steps toward his prey, slowly shuffling in for the kill, always seeking out the smallest of openings with the most effective short hook in boxing history. Perhaps it was Louis’s quiet dignity, which won over an entire nation that was racially divided, but there is no doubt Louis enriched boxing and America more than it ever did in return.
2. Larry Holmes (1978-1985) – The venerable Holmes reign clocks in at just over seven years, which spanned 20 defenses that gapped the time between bigger personalities in Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. That is really where Holmes’ historical neglect starts, since he did not have the personality of Ali or Tyson’s explosive qualities, in or out of the ring. Those are his only drawbacks, in hindsight, not his ability, that could have perhaps overcome Ali and Tyson in their respective primes. This was a tough choice and many may have voted my No. 3 in this spot. However, Holmes dominated an obviously shot Ali, showing he had the complete package of skill, which would have given Ali fits, even in his prime, and had a big stage presence, if not personality. Won the title defeating Ken Norton in a legendarily exhausting slugfest before registering the second most consecutive title defenses in succession. Holmes’ incredible jab was the one thing that has escaped the long shadow of Ali, which Holmes ironically credits to developing by trying to find Ali’s range in sparring.
3. Muhammad Ali (1964-1967) – This was the prime Muhammad Ali! This reign encompassed a shock win and defense against Sonny Liston, up to a loss to the United States government for his refusing to join the Army, to fight in Vietnam, on religious and moral grounds. At the height of his fame, Ali was the most recognizable man on Earth, more famous than Pope Paul VI or the President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson. He brought showmanship, excitement and unbelievable talent to the world of boxing. As a fighter, he possessed the fastest hands ever witnessed and his defense rivaled Tunney and Johnson. When defense failed him, Ali had a chin that could take the punishment. Detractors claim Ali never possessed a heavyweight punch; the reason may be that, like Jack Johnson, he preferred to fight in a different style. At this time, Ali was truly beautiful to watch, as lightning fast hands and feet left opponents befuddled in nine defenses over three years. The nickname of “The Greatest” is not wasted upon this man.
4. Lennox Lewis (1997-2001) – An excellent and memorable reign sandwiched between unexpected and somewhat fluky losses to Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman. This reign also excludes Lewis’ win over a shot Mike Tyson and a very good career sign-off against Vitali Klitschko, in Lewis’ ring finale. A span of just over four years, that included nine defenses in total, that will probably be appreciated more in retrospect. Overall, Lewis will probably be underrated in a historical sense, since he did not have a real rival during his prime and his style was more cerebral than crushing. Lewis went out of his way to take on and defeat all challengers, only circumstances and Riddick Bowe’s management prevented their super-fight from happening. Lewis often fought to the level of his opposition, however, and only lost when he was overconfident and underestimated his opponent. There may also be questions about Lewis retiring instead of facing a young Wladimir Klitschko but I see that as a sign of a confident man and actually I give credit to Lewis for it. If it is time to go, then you must go…circumstances be damned.
5. Muhammad Ali (1974-1977) – Ali had two distinct title reigns (encompassing 19 defenses in all) but this is the older version of Ali, who had to rely on guile and guts to win fights instead of speed and power. Admittedly, this was not the prime Ali, who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, but rather the historic Ali, who won more significant fights with lessening skills. A title reign that is also significant for its globetrotting, in which Ali’s charisma preached to the masses in places like Zaire, The Philippines, Germany and Malaysia. This was another three-year reign, as was his first, and is remembered for his victories over George Foreman and Joe Frazier, in the epic third encounter against the latter. Love him or loathe him, it is impossible to deny Ali’s impact on boxing and the world as a whole.
6. Joe Frazier (1968-1973) – Born in South Carolina (no, not Philadelphia), Frazier’s hooks and body attack would take him around the world. In his early days, Frazier was called the “Black Marciano” and with good reason. Frazier put his head in his opponents’ chests and swung with frightening power to the body and head, all the while bobbing and weaving when not in range for his hooks. Held the title for nearly five years and beat back nine challengers, to include his famous “Fight of the Century” win over a comebacking and undefeated Muhammad Ali. Won a gold medal in the 1964 Olympics, as well, among the underpinnings of his undervalued skill set. Frazier was eventually matched with Ali in the “Fight of the Century.” Make no mistake; the Frazier who won their first fight was a match for any heavyweight, at any time, including the prime Ali. Frazier capped that victory with a 15th round knockdown that will be remembered in this century. Styles make fights and George Foreman would take his title but the Frazier legacy was already firmly in place, thanks to this title reign.
7. Wladimir Klitschko (2006-2015) – Sadly, Wladimir will most likely be remembered for his losses instead of the long and dignified reign that saw the Ukrainian beat back 18 challengers over a nine-year period. With exception of his brother Vitali, he faced everyone of worth or importance in an admittedly weakened era…or did Wladimir make them look weak? Half his challengers were undefeated before they left with a loss and a third of Wladimir’s foes were stopped before the final bell, despite his reputation for boring fights. While not appreciated in America, Wladimir is a beloved figure in Europe for his humble persona and the intelligent way he broke down opponents without seemingly breaking a sweat. As an Olympic champion, he obviously had skills that would have been transferable if he did not have that perfectly proportioned 6-foot-6 body and Wladimir defeated a wide range of styles during his reign. He may not have an extensive highlight reel but you cannot ignore Wladimir Klitschko’s lengthy ledger of achievements.
8. Mike Tyson (1986-1990) – Forget the revisionist history; there was a time when Mike Tyson was, as the phrase used to describe him aptly implied, “The Baddest Man on the Planet.” Joe Louis would get rid of overmatched opponents in quick order, sparing them unnecessary punishment. Not Tyson, just ask Tyrell Biggs, Razor Ruddock or Pinklon Thomas. Not only were you facing the most finely-honed brawling machine since Joe Frazier, you were standing across the ring from a man with a boy’s voice and obvious mental issues. Now THAT is scary! Never lost in the 1980s and only four of 36 men heard the final bell in that decade. Unified the heavyweight titles and defended them nine times before Buster Douglas shattered Tyson’s well-earned persona. Tyson’s reign of fear only lasted three years but they were so intense and frightening that many believe it was longer…and some may still believe Tyson is the heavyweight champ. The combination of power, speed, defensive fluidity and menace has rarely been matched by another boxer in any weight class.
9. Vitali Klitschko (2004-2012) – Like his brother, you have to evaluate Klitschko’s brains as much as his brawn, which is hard to do, given Vitali’s imposing body proportions. A dreadnought who does not get enough credit for his ring savvy, people ignore how Vitali smartly used distance and timing to beat faster foes. Consider that even in his two career losses Vitali was ahead on the scorecards at the time of the stoppages. It is a forgotten and undervalued heavyweight reign because it ran concurrently with his brother Wladimir, who often stole the limelight, as naysayers complained Vitali was too robotic and stiff. Don’t tell that to the 11 men he defeated over a five-year span, that included too many lengthy layoffs to generate momentum or visceral memories that come with activity. Americans did not understand or appreciate his safety-first style but it is hard to argue the results that included the stoppage of eight title challengers. One of the few champions to retire with his title, Vitali made the decision to help his Ukrainian countrymen, leaving the ring to win a mayoral race for the city of Kiev.
10. Rocky Marciano (1952-1955) – Still the standard by which boxing retirements are judged and Marciano sealed his place in history by not becoming another victim of the comeback disease. Marciano was a young 32 when he left, having entered boxing at the relatively late age of 24, and had knocked out his final three challengers. Pessimists point out that Marciano did not beat any monsters at heavyweight and was lucky to come along when the best heavyweights, like Joe Walcott and Ezzard Charles, were past their primes. While young guns like Floyd Patterson, Cleveland Williams, Sonny Liston and Ingemar Johansson were still too inexperienced. Never hold the era against a fighter; as long as no one was avoided (maybe a case can be made for Nino Valdez), the boxer should be credited with beating the best available opposition. Besides, Marciano did what he was supposed to when faced with inferior opposition. He knocked six of seven title fight opponents out in a span of just under four years. Became a folk hero for a hellacious punch, early death and incredible work ethic that made him the blue-collar man’s champion.