On 29th October 2023 Tyson Fury, the WBC heavyweight champion of the world, beat Francis Ngannou in Saudia Arabia. Ngannou, a former UFC fighter, had never had an official boxing match before but Fury was only able to gain a controversial points win, with many believing that the underdog deserved to be awarded the contest.
The prestige of the heavyweight division has often fluctuated over the years but this has been accentuated in recent times with a perceived lack of world-class champions. Many felt that this was changing with the emergence of Anothony Joshua, Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder. However, this latest farce, plus the seeming inability, or unwillingness, of promoters to make the fights the punters really want to see, once again has fans of the biggest punchers in the sport looking back wistfully at days gone by.
And that is what we intend to do right now, as we take a look back at some of the greatest heavyweights to have ever fought. Comparisons between sportspeople of different eras are always tricky. Due to the nature of boxing, which is entirely a head-to-head contest with no real stats other than a fighter’s win and loss record, that is especially the case when it comes to the art of pugilism. As such, this list is not in any particular order and is very subjective – who do you think we should have included?
Iron Mike Tyson was one of the most vicious finishers of a fight the sport of boxing has ever seen. At 5ft 10in he was short for a (relatively) modern heavyweight, and at less than 16 stone he was reasonably light too. The other Tyson – Fury – would stand almost a foot taller than Mike, and weigh around two or three stone more. However, Mike Tyson was fast, ruthless, mobile and had an extremely hard punch.
Boxing fans love to debate who would win between X, Y and Z, and a peak Tyson is often included in those debates. He finished with a record of 50 wins and six losses from 58 bouts, with two no contests and 44 of his 50 wins coming by KO. However, those stats were sullied by his later career and after winning his first 37 fights, his record was 45-1 after 46.
Marciano was the same height as Tyson but fought three decades earlier and was born in 1923. Many claim he is the best of the best and the obvious starting point for that argument is the fact that he remains the only undefeated heavyweight champion in the history of the sport. The Massachusetts-born ace won all 49 of his fights, including 43 by knockout.
He was world champion from 1952 to 1956 and was a superb all-round fighter. He had a great chin, as you would expect from an unbeaten fighter, and also hit hard – his knockout-to-win ratio being exceptional at almost 88%. He was also relentless, boasting excellent stamina, and although he only defended his title six times, he certainly belongs among the heavyweight division’s greatest fighters.
Ali is one man who would surely make everyone’s list – you don’t get a nickname “the Greatest” unless you’re kinda good. But Ali was so much more than a magnificent boxer. He was an entertainer, a poet, a revolutionary, a man of principles and, in later life, a philanthropist and activist.
The Louisville Lip lost five fights but he won 56 and would surely have had a more impressive record had he not missed four of his peak years due to his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. Several of his fights are regarded as classics, including the famous Thrilla in Manilla (against Joe Frazier) and the Rumble in the Jungle (against George Foreman). His style of fighting was not always pretty but his unorthodox approach, incredible reflexes and great speed made him a nightmare to fight against. He was the undisputed champion of the world from 1974 to 1978 and held various titles at other times too. Both the BBC and Sports Illustrated named him the greatest sporting star of the 20th century.
Lennox Lewis was born in London, raised in Canada but fought professionally under the Union Jack. He lost just two of his 44 fights, a shock defeat to Oliver McCall after he had triumphed in his first 25 contests and then towards the end of his career against Hasim Rahman. He avenged both of those defeats and ended his career by beating Tyson and Vitali Klitschko to really cement his status as one of the greats.
Lewis was an elegant fighter with a magnificent jab and a classical style. He made the most of his size and strength but was quick too. He won Olympic gold and was the undisputed, unified champion of the world after beating Evander Holyfield in their second fight (after a controversial draw in the first).
What happens over the next few years may decide just how worthy of a place on this list Fury is but we’re going to include him. Like Ali and others on this list, he has entertained, provoked and caused controversy. However, the way he turned his career around from being seen as a joke to being the best in the world was very impressive. His size, strength and style make him very hard to fight against and for a giant fighter his technique, footwork and speed are excellent. As we saw against Wilder, he can also take a punch and at the time of writing he is unbeaten, with 34 wins (24 KOs) and a draw (that most think he won), from 35 contests.
Louis was world champion from 1937 to 1949, boasting 25 defences of his title. That is a record for all divisions and is a strong reason to suggest the Brown Bomber is the GOAT. Born in 1914 he was also an influential figure before and during WWII and is also considered by many to be the first African-American to be viewed by white Americans as a hero.
He won 66 of his 69 pro fights, knocking out 52 opponents and losing three times. He beat other contenders for this list such as Max Baer, James J Braddock, Ezzard Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott and Maz Schelling. He retired following defeat against Marciano in 1951, at the age of 37.