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Posted February 1, 2017

The Greatest 

Heavyweight Champion

 By Roberto Pedreira

According to someone who would know, namely George Foreman, the job of the heavyweight champion is to make as much money as possible without losing the title. Champions have to calculate the risk of losing against the payday for fighting a dangerous challenger (i.e, the probability of receiving the promised payment, discounted by the probability of losing the fight). If he can get away with fighting easier opponents for an adequate amount of money, the temptation would be there. If he can avoid fighting at all, that would be better still, and many champions have tried to fight as little as possible--see below. The sanctioning organizations would need to be paid of course but ultimately the money would come from the broadcasters for the right to offer a "championship" fight, which predictably draw higher ratings, thereby justifying higher rates for advertising. 

Styles matter a lot in fighting and therefore ability (in the sense of who would win a given fight) is not transitive. The fact that fighter A beat fighter B, who beat fighter C, does not mean that fighter A would also beat fighter C. Some champions did beat other,  usually older, former champions. Unlike in the lighter weights, it rarely happened that one heavyweight champion met another when they were both in their prime, but it happened, or almost happened, occasionally (meaning that they sometimes met when they were not yet, or no longer, champions).

How well a champion did his job as George Foreman described it is arguably a pretty good measure of his greatness. It isn't the only one but it is  quantifiable and objective. It has two components. One is how much money did he make (adjusted for inflation).  The other is how many times did he successfully defend his title?

The drawback to assessing champions by their earnings is that no one but possibly the IRS knows what that figure is. And sometimes they don't really know either.

Ring records can also be evaluated in several ways. One logical way is to look at their record as a champion: How many times did they defend their title? Numbers don't lie, but neither do they tell the whole story. A great champion defends his title many times, against the best challengers, preferably everyone who has any claim to be in the ring with a champion (and of course, a few who don't). He doesn't lose his title. He "defends" it. But not losing the title is not the same is winning the fight. Some champions defended their titles by not getting beaten, which, while good, is not as good as defending by beating the aspiring champion. 

This introduces an element of subjectivity. Some may feel that losing the title and then regaining it is a sign of greater greatness than never losing it in the first place. Others may feel the opposite, for example that six consecutive title defenses is better than six defenses separated by a loss. 

In this analysis, we take the position that winning is better than losing. Six successful defenses without a loss is better than six successful defenses separated by a loss. Comebacks are admirable, but not needing to comeback is better. Getting out on top is best. So, other things being equal, retiring undefeated after (for example) five title defenses is better than losing the title after five defenses. Other things are seldom equal. The champion with the most title defenses is the greatest champion. He may not have been the best fighter, but he was the greatest champion. Hypothetically, this need not be true, but statistically speaking, it just so happens to be (true). At, least, the numbers yield a result that knowledgeable observers of the science of boxing will have a hard time disputing.

Unfortunately, there is a complication. When sanctioning organizations proliferated, champions could inflate their championship records by beating the champions of rival organizations. They could also accumulate belts and claim to be the first five time-champion, for example, and similar such semantic games. Its all about the money. As one current egomaniacal champion says, you can't eat unblemished ring records and resplendent reputations. 

The first title sanctioning organization was the National Boxing Association (NBA), which became the World Boxing Association (WBA) in 1962. The World Boxing Council (WBC) was set up in 1963. The International Boxing Federation (IBF) was created in 1983. The International Boxing Organization (IBO) was created in 1988. The World Boxing Federation was also set up in 2009 (it does not have a heavyweight champion).  

Anyone can set up a sanctioning organization and crown its own champions. If anyone wants to be a champion, all they have to do is pay the sanctioning fees and beat someone else who also wants to be a champion.[1]

Nineteen sixty-three (1963) is a logical cut-off year. Muhammad Ali was still Cassius Clay. There was only one world champion in each weight division (and there were only seven divisions: heavyweight, light heavyweight, middleweight, junior middleweight, welterweight, lightweight, and featherweight). Based on the linear principle of "the man who beat the man" it is most sensible to focus on the WBA title holder and to stipulate that the champion must have acquired his title by taking it away from the previous champion. Unfortunately, champions sometimes retire (Gene Tunney, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali) and in one case, was unconstitutionally robbed (Muhammad Ali), making it necessary to select a new champion by elimination. Retirements invariably create chaos in the division, which means that when a particularly dominant champion exits, or in the case of Ali, is illegally deprived of what he legitimately earned with his feet and fists, the division will quickly be populated with sub-par claimants to the throne who otherwise wouldn't have any chance to occupy that lofty position. (There was one partial exception). That's the way the real world works; it's messy. But if a sub-par fighter somehow obtains the title, and then manages to successfully hang on to it throughout a long run of defenses, ducking no one, then he should not be penalized for the fact that the previous champion stepped down. The new champion did what he had to do to get the belt. It's what he did after that that matters. 

So, who was the Greatest Heavy weight champion of all time?

The first and second greatest were exactly the champions that most historically informed boxing fans and pundits would predict (although they might disagree about who was first). 

Counting Them Down

In reverse order, beginning with the worst champions, those with ZERO successful title defenses:

Max Baer

Max Baer (1934-1935). Max had awesome potential. His problem was that he wanted to be a comedian rather than a fighter. What he should have done was be a fear-inspiring great champion first, retire and then be a comedian. 

Unfortunately, Max Baer would have had to beat Joe Louis to do that. Which he didn't do and never could have done. Despite that Max fought tough guys and won a lot (67-13).  He beat Primo Carnera to win the title, partly because Primo never learned how to step inside of swinging rights, which was what Max tended to throw. Primo had another flaw: he couldn't hit hard and he couldn't take a punch. On the other hand, his body was well protected and for his size he was fast. At least, that's what Jack Dempsey thought. Max Baer was the kind of fighter who could hurt a man who stood in front of him and didn't hit too hard. James Braddock wasn't a heavy hands puncher, but he was smart enough to know that his best chance was sticking and moving, which is what he did. Consequently, Max's reign as champion was brief. It was considered a major upset at the time. A best-selling book (Cinderella Man) was written about the fight, and subsequently a movie.

James Braddock

James Braddock. Braddock, like Max Baer, had no successful defenses to his credit, but unlike Baer, he didn't spend his training time partying with leggy chorus girls, and he didn't foolishly fritter the title away clowning around in the ring when he should have been fighting. What he did was even worse. He fought  "The Dark Destroyer from Alabama", as Jack Dempsey described Joe Louis in 1935. Braddock didn't have to fight Joe Louis, at least, not in his first defense. He didn't underestimate Joe. Everyone knew how dangerous Joe Louis was. All respect to James Braddock. It was a foolish economic decision, but life is strange. He ended up with more money than Joe Louis, who owed so much money to the IRS that they finally gave up trying to collect it, and that is something these boys never do. 

Ingemar Johansson

Ingemar Johansson  (1959-1960). Ingemar beat Floyd Patterson in 1959 and lost in the 1960 rematch and then lost again in 1961, both times by KO. Ingemar had a respectable record prior to meeting Floyd but his competition was almost entirely of unknown Europeans, although he did beat a good American fighter, Eddie Machen, and Henry Cooper, both by KO. Henry Cooper was good enough to put Muhammad Ali on the floor. Apparently Ingemar did not make the mistake Ali did, dropping his right hand, against Henry Cooper. But with a heavyweight with the speed of Floyd Patterson, one is ill-advised to drop the hands even for an instant. Ingemar did, both times, and both times he was flattened. He continued fighting for another two years, winning all four of his bouts, but decided that he wanted no part of Sonny Liston and moved on with his life.

Leon Spinks

Leon Spinks (1978). Brother of Michael, another champion. That was a recurrent problem with Ali. He did it with Jimmy Young too. Actually there's a paradox here. Fighters try to estimate their opponents realistically, so that they can plan how much and what kind of training to do. Heavyweights have an extra problem to address, which is how much to weigh at fight time. In other weight classes, boxers try to come in at or very near the maximum allowable weight. Heavyweights don't have a maximum. Yet they don't want to weigh too much. Weight adds power to punches, and can help wear the opponent down in clinches (as Ali did many times) but it also drains the gas tank and other things being equal, compromises speed and mobility. Ali's defense relied a lot on speed and when he was too heavy he tended to get hit (he also got hit because he kept his right hand down). Leon won the title, or rather Ali let him borrow it, and he lost it back again exactly seven months later. It was more an embarrassment for Ali than a big victory for Leon. But that's what happens when you are the best. Just as with Joe Louis, you end up fighting everyone and anyone, several times over. Boxers mechanically promise never to underestimate any opponent but in reality everyone forms an opinion about what the opponent can do and how much sacrifice has to be made to prepare for him. Sometimes fighters pay dearly for inaccurate estimates. Some opponents are, based on their records, extreme long-shots. A great champion can't bring himself to train as intensely for these guys as they do for serious challengers. Usually, things go as the odds-makers call them. Occasionally they don't, thereby giving people like Leon Spinks and Buster Douglas temporary possession of the belt. 

James Buster Douglas

Buster Douglas deserved to be called Cinderella Man as much as James Braddock, probably more. Mike Tyson was another fighter everyone thought was unbeatable (George Foreman was another). Buster beat him, and there was nothing miraculous or mysterious about how he did it. He simple didn't buy into Tyson's intimidation game, and he relied on solid fundamentals. Buster's reign at the top was short. It lasted exactly as long as it took for Evander Holyfield to get into the ring with him, which was slightly more than eight months, or from February 11, 1990 to October 25, 1990.

Bruce Seldon

Bruce Seldon (1995). Bruce won an elimination match with Tony Tucker, then beat Joe Hipp. He next defended his "title" against Mike Tyson in 1996. The punches you don't see are the ones that hurt. Mike hit Bruce with punches Bruce didn't see. In fact, no one saw them. Mike Tyson was thereby again the WBA champion. But it didn't matter, because he immediately lost to Evander Holyfield.

Champions with One Successful Title Defense:

Bob Fitzsimmons

Bob Fitzsimmons (1897-1899). Fitz, aka "Ruby Robert", defended against Lew Joslin (KO in 4) before losing to James J. Jeffries. 

Marvin Hart

Marvin Hart (1905-1906). Hart beat Jack Root to become champion, although Root had never been champion himself, but that's how it goes when the real champion retires (in this case, James J. Jeffries). Hart lost his tenuous "title" to Tommy Burns in 1906. Hart could not have been too bad a boxer. He out-pointed Jack Johnson in 1905. 

Jesse Willard

Jess Willard beat Jack Johnson in 1915, then defended unimpressively against Frank Moran, and then earned a place in ring history by getting demolished by Jack Dempsey in 1919.  That equals one successful defense in four years. Willard liked performing in vaudeville and circus shows more than fighting. However, Dempsey rated Willard fairly highly as a fighter. "Willard was a terrific puncher and he could take it. He had a right uppercut that would take your head right off." Jack said. Like Max Baer and a few others, Willard was a fighter who wanted to be something else.

Jersey Joe Walcott

Jersey Joe Walcott. Jersey Joe won the title in 1951 from Ezzard Charles (who was really a light heavyweight), who won it by beating Jersey Joe in 1949 when Joe Louis steeped down. Ezzard defended the title against Jersey Joe in 1951, but in a rematch four months later, Jersey Joe KOed Ezzard. He then gave Ezzard another chance and won by decision. His reign at the top didn't last long.  Rocky Marciano was waiting for him. Jersey Joe had a brief career as a movie actor, in 1956, performing alongside Humphrey Bogart, Rod Steiger, and Max Baer in The Harder They Fall.

Max Schmeling

Max Schmeling (1930-1932). Schmeling beat Jack Sharkey on a DQ to win the title left vacant when Gene Tunney retired. He out-pointed Young Stribling the next year and then lost by split decision to Jack Sharkey. Schmeling was highly inconsistent but had a pretty solid record of 56-10-4, including his magnificent KO over Joe Louis in 1936, at a time when everyone thought Joe Louis was unbeatable. He noticed a mistake in Louis' fundamentals: Joe dropped his hand when he brought it back after a jab. Schmeling watched and waited and followed Joe's jab in with a right hand. Joe survived the round but not the fight. As Joe might have said if he had ever heard of Nietszche, "what does not kill us makes us stronger".  He did his homework and came back better than before. Max later became a rich man selling coca-cola in Post-war Germany.

Primo Carnera

Primo Carnera (1933-1934) beat Tom Sharkey in a questionable fight in 1933, and defended against Paulino Uzcudun and Tommy Loughran, before getting destroyed by Max Bear in 1934. Carnera was a "manufactured fighter" who couldn't punch, according to Jack Dempsey. He started as a  circus strongman, and  later wrestled professionally. In 1935, he fought and KOed Erwin Klausner, who later became famous for losing to a Gracie brother in a jiu-jitsu match in 1937 (see Choque 1, 3rd edition). Observers at the time were skeptical. Carnera's reputation was well-known and Klausner was a pretty good boxer. Carnera also appeared in Hercules Unchained with Steve Reeves in 1960. His boxing career was the basis for The Harder They Fall.  

Sonny Liston

Sonny Liston (1962-1963). Sonny Liston was a human wrecking machine, arguably one of the best heavyweights ever. He liked to skip rope while listening to James Brown's rendition of Night Train and after he won the title by demolishing Floyd Patterson, he appeared on Ed Sullivan's variety show. He wasn't a gabby fellow, didn't have much to say. What he did on Ed Sullivan was what he did in the gym, skip rope to Night Train. That was enough. Sonny Liston was awesome just skipping rope. He was who George Foreman aspired to be, after he realized he couldn't dance like Sugar Ray Robinson and Ali. Liston scared people simply by looking at them. George wanted to do that. Usually he did. They both had major problems when people weren't intimidated. Ironically, it was the same person who exposed both of them.

Liston's  fatal flaw was over-confidence. He underestimated Cassius Clay (the slave name by which Muhammad Ali was known up to that point, due to the fact that that was the name his parents gave him when he was born). Although he had beaten everyone there was to beat up to that point, he couldn't beat Cassius Clay in 1964 or Muhammad Ali in 1965 (he dropped a spilt decision to Marty Marshall in 1954, but then TKOed him in 1955, and out-pointed him in 1956. Little known fact about Sonny Liston: He also became a movie actor. He appeared in a movie with teen sensations The Monkees in 1968 and a TV commercial with Andy Warhol, who was one of Lady GaGa's inspirations. Small world. It was Andy Warhol who predicted that "in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes", hence the expression "15 minutes of fame". How true it proved to be.

Champions with Two Successful Title Defenses

James Corbett

James Corbett (1892-1897). Gentleman Jim, a former bank clerk from San Francisco, took the title from John L. Sullivan in 1892, defended against Charley Mitchell and Tom Sharkey before losing to Bob Fitzimmons in 1897. Tom Sharkey later learned enough about catch wrestling to win some matches by "handicap" (i.e, by not being thrown as often as the opponent had promised to throw him). He also was active in promoting jiu-jitsu in New York by way of his association with Higashi Katsukuma and the National Police Gazette. Corbett also worked with the National Police Gazette, who published a book under his name called Scientific Boxing.

Gene Tunney

Gene Tunney (1926-1928) defended his title twice before retiring (once was to Jack Dempsey, who he beat to win the title). Dempsey had previously been a fascinating champion, but people didn't like him much. After losing to Tunney, he suddenly seemed human and fans began to adore him and never stopped. Both fights with Tunney were million-dollar gates. Tunney married a rich woman and was never tempted to make a come-back (for several good reasons: he didn't have ex-wives to pay, he didn't owe Uncle Sam any taxes, he wasn't wiped out in the stock market crash, and he liked reading books (his son John became a California state representative from 1965-1970, and senator from 1971-1976; apparently he missed an above average number of sessions[2]). Jack Dempsey always had trouble with slick boxers. Tunney was a slick boxer. He kept his hands high, his elbows  in and his chin down. His jabs were straight and he didn't drop his hand when he retracted it. He moved after he jabbed. James Corbett was called the father of modern boxing. In a way he was, but mostly because he was a total contrast to the style of John L. Sullivan which was designed for bare knuckle and London Prize Ring rules. Hitting a man's head hurt the hands. Boxers were sparing in their output of punches. A man waited in front of his opponent for an opening and then threw his best punch. That was John L. Sullivan's style. Corbett pioneered the practice of creating openings with the lead hand, using light fast punches (jabs) and moving out of harm's way. It was modern in that sense. Tunney was modern in a more literal sense. Watching his fights, he looked like he could be fighting in the 30's, 40's or 50's. He fought the way Billy Conn fought when he almost beat Joe Louis. 

George Foreman

George Foreman (1973-1974; 1994-1997). Big George won the title the way champions are supposed to, bouncing Joe Frazier off the canvass multiple times. Foremans' uppercuts were devastating against a man who leans forward. Joe Frazier's entire style was predicated on leaning forward, crouching, and bobbing and weaving, which is usually a good way to fight a tall, stand-up fighter (as Dempsey demonstrated with Willard). In fact, it was probably the right thing for Joe to do; he didn't really have much choice. Dempsey commented that Willard's uppercut needed to be avoided, and we can assume Joe's corner told him the same about Foreman. But it is a historical fact that Joe underestimated George, and didn't prepare properly, instead singing with a rock group and chasing white women (according to Ali, both were mistakes). The fact that Joe took the fight with George for small money, passing over a big payday for a rematch with Ali, underscores how much he low-rated George. George had never lost a boxing match up to that point and believed he was unbeatable. He defended his well-deserved title twice, against Joe Roman and Ken Norton. Don King entered the picture and set up a match with Muhammad Ali, subsidized by an African dictator. George thought he was going to annihilate Ali. Everyone did (almost). Former football star Jim Brown said he feared for Ali's life. Oddly, everyone forgot to remember that that is exactly what they said before the first Liston- Clay fight. After losing to Jimmy Young in 1977, George retired for 10 years to preach, coming back in 1987 to begin clawing his way back up to title contention, finally KOing Michael Moorer to once again wear the WBA world heavyweight title belt (Moorer won it from Evander Holyfield in 1994). At that point he defended various titles, being "stripped" of the title in 1995.  His last fight was a decision loss to Shannon Briggs, but most people who watched the fight thought George clearly dominated. But George said he didn't care one way or the other. He was done with fighting in the ring for money. He had more important things to think about, such as selling fired chicken grills. If you count these three second-phase come-back career defenses, George's total comes to five.

Michael Spinks

Michael Spinks (IBF title) 1985-1988. Spinks decisioned Larry Holmes twice, proving that he was the man who beat the man. One time could have been a fluke; Larry was in fact over-confident. Many had tried, but few light heavy-weights had done what Spinks was determined to do (Bob Fitzimmons did it, but so long ago no one remembered). It helped that Holmes was a boxer, rather than mauler. Spinks was not intimidated by Larry. Spinks did it again in a rematch. Larry had no excuse that time. The second fight was closer (Spinks took a split decision), but Larry was now the challenger, rather than champion and it was too little, too late. Spinks then TKOed Steffen Tangstad (who? well, he earned a draw with Buster Douglas in 1982, something Mike Tyson couldn't do) and, according to George Foreman, an Irish-American with a devastating left hook named Gerry Cooney, whereby Spinks proved that he could dispatch big boys and hang with heavy hitters. Then he met Mike Tyson. Although the title was IBF, the fact that he took it from Larry Holmes makes it worthy of inclusion. Larry rejected the WBC's authority to tell him who to fight and gave up their title. A newly created group, the IBF, self-servingly (because it immediately gave them a legitimate heavyweight champion) offered him a title and he took it.) Two successful title defenses for Michael Spinks. 

By this time the organization noodle soup had became a vast, cruel, sad joke.  Muhammad Ali's former sparring partner Tim Witherspoon won the WBC title that Holmes gave up and then immediately lost it. He didn't win it by beating Holmes but by beating Greg Page. The next few years were a sickeningly pathetic travesty, with Greg Page, Mike Weaver, Michael Dokes, Gerrie Coetzee, Bonecrusher Smith, Tony Tubbs, John Tate, handing the so-called title back and forth. With some effort, it could be figured out who did what and when. But why bother? Who cares about these guys? No wonder the boxing world was thrilled when Mike showed up. Mike was the post-Ali era incarnation of the "Dark Destroyer", as Jack Dempsey and a lot of the public called Joe Louis (but in an ambivalently affectionate way). Here was a man who was not about to hand his title over to the first clown who climbed into the ring. Mike brought to mind images of Sonny Liston and shattered limbs strewn around the playground (Gay Talese' Floyd Patterson profile is worth reading for the Sonny Liston information; Sonny was in reality a nice, friendly, funny man, but  a man who knew how to manipulate his media persona for maximum effect). 

Joe Frazier

Prior to beating the legitimate title holder, Muhammad Ali, in 1971 Joe Frazier had acquired something ludicrously called the New York State Athletic Commission World Heavyweight championship. (It seems that any group can anoint a World Champion. Well, actually, they can. The first world champion, in fact, the concept that there could even be such a thing, was the invention of a magazine called the National Police Gazette. The first champion was John L. Sullivan. John L. liked being the "world champion" and promoters quickly noticed that fans wanted to see fights more when world titles are at stake.)

Joe beat Jimmy Ellis (a puffed up middleweight) in a tournament to appoint a new champion when Ali was illegally deprived of the title that he earned by beating Sonny Liston. He defended it once, against light heavyweight champ Bob Foster. Logic tells us this doesn't count. Joe's reign began officially when he met the real champion, Muhammad Ali in 1971. As fate had it, the three-year lay-off hurt Ali, and Joe prevailed in the fight. Joe then defended against Terry Daniels and Ron Stander before George Foreman rained hard on Joe's parade in 1973. Joe accordingly has two defenses to his credit. Or three, if we include the Bob Foster fight, before Joe had actually taken the title away from the rightful possessor.

Riddick Bowe

Riddick Bowe (1992-1993). Riddick beat Evander for the title, defended it against Michael Dokes and Jesse Ferguson and then gave it back to Evander. He made a comeback in Pattaya, Thailand as a kickboxer in 2013, obscenely overweight even by Pattaya standards (indicating how seriously he took it), and predictably got his ass kicked by an in-shape Russian who knew the rudiments of the Thai game. 

Champions with Three Successful Defenses

Evander Holyfield

Evander Holyfield (1990-1992; 1993-1994) punched Buster Douglas in the face when Buster tried to throw a right uppercut from far outside. That's what happens when you do that. Don't do that. The year was 1990. Buster had upset the world eight months earlier in Tokyo, thanks to Mike Tyson's even worse mistake, which was getting mixed up with Ruth Roper and her daughter Robin Givens. Buster would have held the title a while longer if he hadn't made that horrendous blunder. Evander then beat George Foreman, Bert Cooper, and Larry Holmes before losing to Riddick Bowe in 1992. He then won it back in 1993 and lost it to Michael Moorer in 1994 in his first defense.

Champions with Five Successful Defenses

Jack Dempsey

The Manassa Mauler, Jack Dempsey (1919-1926) took the title from Jesse Willard and didn't leave anyone wondering who won. In the process he introduced a new style of fighting. Prior to Jack Dempsey, heavyweights stood straight up, tried to keep distance, and threw occasional punches, usually looping swings. Defenses consisted of staying away, clinching, or trying to catch punches in mid-air. Dempsey introduced, or perhaps, proved the effectiveness of, the concept of combining defensive movement with offensive ferocity. His defensive movements simultaneously set up and loaded up the punches (no doubt he wasn't the first, but he was the one no one could ignore). When he had opponents like Jesse Willard, who didn't move much, Dempsey could be devastating. He had problems with boxers who jabbed and moved, he admitted (so did Joe Louis, and for that matter, so does almost everyone). He tended to get walloped plenty, he said, but he didn't mind taking one, or even two punches, to dish one out himself. 

Dempsey defended his title five times. Dempsey was the first boxing mega-star, the man who invented the Million Dollar Gate (with a little help from Carlos Gracie's idol, Tex Rickard) at a time when a million dollars was a lot of money. Newspaper circulation managers during the 1920's knew that the surest way to sell newspapers was to run a story-photo spread on Jack Dempsey. Rickard and Dempsey's manager Jack Kearns knew that the easiest and cheapest way to sell Jack Dempsey was to keep him in the newspapers. It worked because fans knew they were going to see mayhem when Dempsey was in the ring. It's common knowledge now. It was revolutionary then. Ali added a pro wrestling spin to it but it was Tex Rickard (who incidentally paid attention to what pro-wrestling promoters were doing. Dempsey's traveling pre-fight promotional tours included pro-wrestlers and jiu-jitsu fighters in the entourage). According to Reila Gracie and Choque 1, Carlos Gracie was inspired by reports, as plentiful in Rio newspapers as everywhere else, about the money Dempsey was pulling in. Young Carlos paid close attention to the promotional gimmicks of Rickard and Kearns. 

Champions with Six Successful Defenses

Rocky Marciano

Rocky Marciano (1952-1955) defended his title six times after taking it from Jersey Joe Walcott. Two of the defenses were against Ezzard, both brutal slug-fests, and one was a rematch with Jersey Joe. He also fought Roland LaStarza, who gave up boxing to become an actor, and "Ancient" Archie Moore, who kept right on fighting, also losing to Floyd Patterson and Cassius Clay. Clay, not yet known as Muhammad Ali, had considered training with Archie, but Archie wanted the boy to mimic his "Mongoose" style. Clay, quite to the contrary, wanted to float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, and look as cool as Sugar Ray Robinson inside and outside the ring. Rocky retired undefeated (49-0) in 1955. He was the only one who did. Gene Tunney lost one fight (as a light heavyweight, later avenged). Rocky promised when he retired that he wouldn't make Joe Louis's mistake and try to "come back", and he never did. He didn't need the money. But he admitted that he once considered trying to get back in shape and challenging Ingemar Johansson (after Ingo's devastating demolition of Floyd Patterson on June 26, 1959). That was his fighter's mentality speaking to him. His logical brain advised against it. Rocky listened to logic. 

Floyd Patterson

Floyd Patterson made six successful defenses (he won the title vacated by Rocky Marciano by beating Archie Moore, defended it four times, lost to Ingemar Johansson, regained it and then met Ingemar yet one more time, before losing it again, to Sonny Liston.)  

Floyd was a middleweight gold medalist in the Helsinki Olympics in 1952. He could have been an outstanding light heavyweight champion. Muhammad Ali, despite having no problem whipping him twice, said Floyd was the best boxer among his opponents. On the other hand, Floyd's speed worked well for him among the bigger men, at least when he used it. He totally froze against Sonny Liston; his speed was useless because he barely moved (unlike Clay/Ali, who dazzled Liston with his fleet feet and supersonic hands). Floyd's manager was Gus D'Amato, who later managed Mike Tyson. Gus did not want Floyd to fight Liston. A very unwise choice of opponent, Gus thought, a highly dubious way to retain the title. But Floyd was man of honor. Liston was the most qualified contender, so Floyd wanted to give him a chance, despite his apprehensions.

Honor was no help to Floyd against Liston's pulverizing punches. Nor did his fair-weather fans care. They abandoned him immediately. 

Floyd lacked several of the qualities needed in a great heavyweight champion. He was too nice, for one. He was also introverted, shy, timid to a fault. White schoolboys intimidated him. In terms of boxing skills and speed, he was "second to none" as Mike Tyson liked to say. But that wasn't enough to be  great. What then are the qualities that are necessary to be a great heavyweight champion? There's only one way to know. That is to identify the three or four or five greatest and then see what qualities they had.

Mike Tyson 

Mike Tyson (1986-1990) won all of the various titles around at that point, each time wresting it emphatically away from whoever was desperately but vainly clinging to it.  Mike defended the title six times before losing to Buster Douglas in an upset as big as Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, in the process proving that what Ray Arcel said was true. Women will destroy a boxer quicker than any opponent. However, Mike had three championship fights (James Smith, Pinklon Thomas, and Tony Tucker in 1987. His first defense as undisputed, unified champion, (having defeated WBC, WBA, and IBF title holders) was against Tyrell Biggs, also 1987. Tyson also held the WBA title briefly in 1996, after beating Bruce Seldon (well, he won the fight when Seldon insisted that Tyson hit him). Mike then lost to Evander Holyfield in an upset as surprising as when Buster whipped him. As Don King put it, Evander's chances of beating Mike were "slim to none, and slim is out of town". Whoops.

Champions with Eight Successful Defenses

Jim Jeffries

James Corbett's former sparring partner Jim Jeffries (1899-1904) KOed Bob Fitzimmons in 1899 to take the title, and then defended it successfully eight times (one fight was a no-contest, but he retained the title). He Koed Fitzimmons a second time and also stopped James J. Corbett twice. Among his opponents were two boxers who later became wrestlers, Tom Sharkey and Gus Ruhlin. It wasn't surprising. In that era, all or most boxers knew how to wrestle, Jeffries said. Fitzimmons too later took wrestling lessons and, like Jeffries, contemplated fighting a jiu-jitsu man. He retired undefeated in 1904. Unfortunately he made the mistake of trying to "come back" in 1910 against Jack Johnson who at time was near his peak. It didn't go well for Jeff.

Ezzard Charles

Ezzard Charles won the title by beating Jersey Joe Walcott in 1949 after Joe Louis retired. He defended the heavyweight title eight times, beating Joe Louis when Joe was forced by tax woes to come back in 1950 (Joe continued coming back eight more times, with eight wins, until he met Rocky Marciano in 1951, and then wisely hung up the gloves for good. Joe was so up to the neck in debt to the IRS that they eventually gave up trying to get the money. These are guys who never give up until they get the money. But they gave up.) Ezzard Charles was one of the greatest light-heavyweights, if not the greatest, beating Joey Maxim and Archie Moore multiple times. He was too light to reign as a heavyweight, but that rarely prevented light-heavyweight champions from shooting for it. Greatness is alright, but the heavyweight division is where the money is. Nonetheless, based on the numbers alone, Ezzard Charles out-performed most other heavyweight champions.

Champions with Nine Successful Defenses

Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson (1908-1915) beat Tommy Burns and then defended nine times. However, two of the outcomes were draws. He lost by KO to Jess Willard in 1915. He didn't beat two of his opponents, but he did defend the title. Those are the rules. Jack Johnson was another boxer from the early part of the 20th century who was challenged by and considered fighting wrestlers and jiu-jitsu men. Jack took jiu-jitsu lessons from the same man who taught President Theodore Roosevelt. Boxers weren't as naive back in the day as they later tended to be, when wrestling had become the comedy act that is, and jiu-jitsu became judo. Boxers were well aware that they needed to stay on their feet and maintain distance. All respect to Rhonda Rousey for her bronze Olympic medal, but the Amanda Nunes fight demonstrated what a well-prepared boxer can do. Old school boxers did it. 

Champions with 13 Successful Defenses

Tommy Burns

Tommy Burns (1906-1908) made thirteen successful defenses against mostly quality opposition. Not bad and well above average. Even Mike Tyson praised Burns for being a tremendous champion. But he had a problem: He was small. Even worse, no one cared about boxing at that time in history. Boxing was illegal in most American states and cities. That didn't prevent boxing from happening, but it prevented it from becoming huge. Basically, no one paid attention, and if they couldn't avoid paying attention, as when Jack Johnson began beating up white men, taking up with white women, and driving fast cars, then they didn't like what they saw. Boxing was something for low-lifes and the lower classes, immigrants and such. Respectable folk didn't go in for such things. Ugh. Sweaty men beating each other up, yuck. That changed when Tex Rickard showed up. He made boxing cool. It helped enormously that he had Jack Dempsey and his manager Jack Kearns on his team. Suddenly championship fights were opportunities for movie stars and millionaires and their girlfriends and wives to see (each other) and be seen and get their pictures in mass circulation periodicals. (For details, see Randy Roberts' Jack Dempsey).

Champions with 20 Successful Defenses

Larry Holmes

Larry Holmes was Muhammad Ali's former sparring partner. Many old-timers will not like the idea of ranking him as greater than Rocky Marciano or Jack Dempsey, but the numbers don't lie. Larry Holmes successfully defended his title 20 times before losing to Michael Spinks. Larry's major problem was that he followed Ali. An outstanding jab is not enough to enthrall the public. Larry clung to his title, or rather kept a title of some kind for a long time. The problem was that hardly anyone cared. Larry's most interesting fight was his loss to Mike Tyson. He certainly predicted Mike's future with impressive accuracy, but Mike had two things that Larry didn't like to see in an opponent: He was hard to hit and he hit hard. And often. Those were the pre-Robin Givens days. Larry should have waited a few years.

Champions with 21 Successful Defenses

Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali (1964-1967 and 1974-178, and 1978) racked up 21 successful defenses (but separated by a loss to Leon Spinks and non-title losses to Joe Frazier and Kenny Norton). Ali was "The Greatest," as he never tired of proclaiming, and it is possible (or even probable, based on Joe's performances against Billy Conn and a few other stick-and-move style boxers) that he would have dethroned Joe Louis. Ali was The Greatest in a special sense but he wasn't the Greatest Heavyweight Champion. The numbers don't lie. Things almost certainly would have been different if he hadn't been "lynched" by the U.S. government and its agents.[3]  

Coincidentally, Joe Louis was also prevented from boxing for a several year period, also due to a war. Joe Louis's record would be even more impressive than it already is, if a certain Mr. Hitler and his National Socialist pals over in Europe, and their "little yellow monkey" buddies in Japan (as the Germans called them) hadn't decided to make the world a better place for the master race and its second-tier chums.[4]

The Champion with the Most Successful Defenses

Joe Louis

Joe Louis (1937- 1948) Louis successfully and consecutively defended his title 26 times. Joe did get his ass knocked out by Max Schmeling but learned from the experience and came back better than before (and it was before he was champion and Max was a former world champion). Joe Louis was so outstanding that wannabes and self-appointed jiu-jitsu "representatives" in certain South American countries could get their names in newspapers merely by pretending to challenge him.

There it is. The end result is what we would have expected all along. The greatest heavyweight champion was Joe Louis.


Wait a minute. What about the first world heavyweight champion, the Great John L. Sullivan?  He was Great, and he was First. Leave it at that. 

But what about Lennox Lewis? Even Mike Tyson said that he could never beat Lennox Lewis. With all respect to Mike Tyson, Mike Tyson was wrongHe was demonstrably wrong about who he could and couldn't beat. Boxers don't know what is going to happen in a fight. ("That's why the lace up the gloves"). No one knows. But the best way to be right more often than wrong is to follow the numbers, look at the precedents. Shorter fighters who know how to get close can beat taller boxers. The taller boxer's reach is neutralized, whereas the shorter man can punish the body before going upstairs. It has happened often. Indeed, any time a shorter boxer beats a taller boxer, that is the reason it happened. The question then is could Mike get close to Lennox? Obviously he didn't, but that was when he was far from the champion he had been and no longer used the style that Cus D'Amato and his assistants Kevin Rooney and Teddy Atlas taught him.

By the time Lennox arrived the chaotic cluster-fork of organizations and titles had become so confusing that no one cared anymore, other than boxing nuts who would watch any two guys in a ring with gloves on. Boxers competed for "pieces" of the title. Championship boxing had become a game played at the expense of the fans. No one could keep track of all the titles, which seemed to change hands with almost every fight.  The organizations loved it, obviously, they got paid no matter who won. 

Lennox TKOed Riddick Bowe in the 1988 (Seoul) Olympics. Professional boxing is essentially a different sport. Riddick held the WBC title in 1992 but threw it in the garbage rather than fight Lennox again.  The WBC gave Lennox the title, which he then defended against three worthy challengers (Razor Ruddock, Tony Tucker, Frank Bruno) and Phil Jackson. He then got TKOed by Oliver McCall. He convincingly took the IBC title, which no one cared about, from Tommy Morrison, defended it once (against Ray Mercer), and then repossessed the belt from a seriously drug-damaged Oliver McCall in 1997 and defended it three times before facing Evander Holyfield in 1999 for the WBA title, coming up short (the result was a draw; all sane observers agreed that Lennox was robbed). The WBC and IBF titles were at stake, meaning who ever won would be "undisputed". The concept of "undisputedness" was another relatively new marketing device. The word wasn't new, but the meaning had changed. When Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano were "undisputed" it meant there were no pretenders. The first Frazier-Ali fight illustrates. Frazier's title was disputed by Ali, who had every sane reason to dispute it. No one had taken it from him in the ring, least of all Joe Frazier, therefore Ali reasonably claimed that he was still the real champion and most undeluded people agreed. Joe Frazier, despite believing that he could beat a ring-rusty Ali, also agreed. He had to prove it in the ring to be recognized by the public. (The money didn't hurt either).

In any case, Lennox out-pointed Evander in a 1999 rematch and won the WBA title, in addition to the others. But the WBA "stripped" him in 2000, so he wasn't the WBA champion anymore. So it goes. The organization owns the title, not the fighter who beat the fighter who previously wore the crown. The organization can anoint champions for whatever reasons they want. Coinicidentally, it usually involves money. 

So, short story, Lennox could have been among the greatest of the greats, in a different era. It's not his fault. He didn't create all these self-serving, for-profit title granting organizations.  

We are aware that this is a somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion. But as the great Sōtō zen master Dōgen (道元) said,  it is what it is.




1. For examples of the economics behind title-recognition, see the following:

The IBO doesn't have a heavyweight champion. It is included here because it succinctly gets to the point, which is how much you need to pay them in exchange for being able to say that you are a IBO champion.

The two links below include this same vitally important information and much more: See pp. 37-389.

2. On Senator Tunney's performance:


3." Lynch" is the correct word in the sense that the action was extra-judicial. "One hour after Ali refused induction--before he'd been charged with any crime, let alone convicted--the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license and withdrew recognition of him as champion. Soon, all other jurisdictions in the United States followed suit, and the title Ali had worked for throughout his life was gone" (Hauser, p. 172). 

It was also unconstitutional in that it violated Ali's 14th Amendment right to equal protection of the law. The State Athletic commission argued that it had the right to deny a boxer a license if he had been convicted of a felony or military offense. Ali proved that the Commission had granted licenses to 244 boxers with convictions, thus he was being singled out for persecution (Quintana, p. 189-190).

4. This paragraph is deliberately written in the Warner Brothers pro-war propaganda style that was current at the time, modeled loosely on Humphrey Bogart's dialog in the 1942 film All Through the Night (co-starring Conrad Veight and Peter Lorre as Nazis). However, it is a fact that the Germans thought of their Japanese allies as "little yellow monkeys". 




Anderson, Dave. (1991).  In the Corner: Great Boxing Trainers Talk about their Art. New York: William Morrow.

Baglio, Scoot. (2000). The Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act: The First Jab at Establishing Credibility in Professional Boxing. Fordham Law Review, 68:6, pp. 2257-2298.

Hauser, Thomas. (2004). Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. London: Robson.  (Originally published in 1991)

Heller, Peter. (1995). Bad Intentions: The Mike Tyson Story. New York: De Capo. (Originally published in 1988; Postscript added in 1995).

Quintana, Andres F. (2007). Muhammad Ali: The Greatest in Court. Marquette Law Review, 18:1, pp.171-204.

Roberts, Randy (2003). Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler. Urbana, Il: University of Illinois Press. (Originally published in 1979; Postscript added in 2003).

Roberts, Randy (2010). Joe Louis. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press.

Schaap, Jeremy (2005). Cinderella Man. Bston: Houghton Mifflin.

Talese, Gay. (1988). The Loser. In Reading the Fights, ed. by Joyce Carol Oates (originally written after Floyd's second loss to Sonny Liston). New York: Holt. [Most of the other essays in the anthology are also worth reading.]

Additional information and quotations come from a series of articles written by Jack Dempsey assisted by Wesley Stout and Charles Francis Coe,  published in the Saturday Evening Post between 1931 and 1935; from the documentary Champions Forever,  the Leon Gast movie When We Were Kings; back issues of The Ring, Boxing Monthly, International Boxing Digest, World Boxing, Boxing 97, and SRSDX (Japanese martial arts magazine), academic articles and dissertations, film of old fights, and too many documentaries and interviews to list, unless specifically cited. 

Ring records are from the above sources, and also

More Boxing on GTR:

Theory and Practice of the Jab

Piston Horiguchi Boxing Gym, Chigasaki, Japan

Rev. of Kenny Weldon Boxing series

Rev. of Sean O'Grady Boxing series.

Rev. of Ned Beaumont's Championship Street Boxing. 



(c) 2017, Roberto Pedreira. All rights reserved.

Revised February 4, 2017 (correction in Ricky Marciano section; it was Ingemar Johansson, not Sonny Liston, who Rocky was tempted to come out of retirement to challenge. According to Rocky, he secluded himself and worked out, but found the motivation just wasn't there anymore. He quietly packed it in and never mentioned it to anyone, until this 1966 interview here. And on this topic, here's another great interview with Rocky from 1958: here.)

Revised April 8, 2019. Ali did not hold the title when he lost to Joe Frazier and Kenny Norton.

Revised January 2, 2021.



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