The reaction to Muhammad Ali’s death highlights the impact he had on society as potentially the most famous athlete in the world, but the former boxer could never have exerted so much influence if he didn’t excel at his craft. In the illustrious history of boxing’s top division, Ali made a name for himself in and out of the ring with charismatic personality.
Ali called himself "the greatest of all time," and plenty of experts would agree with that assessment. But was he better than all of the great heavyweights that have ever laced up a pair of gloves?
Here’s a ranking of boxing’s top 10 heavyweights of all time.
10) Mike Tyson (50-6, 44 KO)
Tyson’s prime was cut short because of a stint in jail, and he didn’t have the chance to fight any great heavyweights when he was at his best. But there’s no denying his dominance in the late 1980s and early 1990s when he was the most feared man on the planet. He suffered two losses to Evander Holyfield in 1996 and 1997, but he was a 2-1 favorite when it looked like they were going to fight at the start of the decade.
9) Joe Frazier (32-4-1, 27 KO)
His first fight against Ali alone puts Frazier among boxing’s elite, winning arguably the greatest bout of all time. Frazier lost two of his three meetings with Ali, but he was one of the toughest men to ever step in the ring, holding the heavyweight title from 1968 to 1973. His left hook is still among the best power punches in history.
8) Lennox Lewis (41-2-1, 32 KO)
In an era that saw the decline of the heavyweight division, Lewis stood out as the best among subpar competition. He defeated both Tyson and Holyfield, going out on top with a win over Vitali Klitschko as an exclamation point on a legendary career.
7) Rocky Marciano (49-0, 43 KO)
Marciano’s unbeaten mark is one of the most revered records in American sports, and he had incredible knockout power for a relatively small heavyweight. His reign with the title only spanned three years, though, and he never beat any of the sport’s all-time great heavyweights in their prime.
6) Jack Dempsey (60-7-8, 51 KO)
Dempsey has become somewhat underappreciated nearly 90 years since his retirement. He might not have had the same success had he come along in a later era, but his title defenses against some of the top heavyweights of his time earn him a spot high on this list.
5) George Foreman (76-5, 68 KO)
Foreman’s most memorable fight was a loss to Ali, but his incredible punching power made him one of the best fighters to ever step in the ring. Two decades after emerging as a top heavyweight with wins against Ken Norton and Frazier in the 1970s, he became the oldest heavyweight champ ever at 45 years old. His win over Frazier was immortalized by Howard Cosell's "Down goes Frazier!"
4) Larry Holmes (69-6, 44 KO)
Holmes had fights in four different decades, meeting the best heavyweights of multiple generations. His 20 successful title defenses rank third all time, beating the likes of Ali, Norton and Leon Spinks. The Pennsylvania native is probably the most under-rated power puncher on this list.
3) Jack Johnson (77-13-14, 48 KO)
The most prolific heavyweight on the list, Johnson won 41 bouts with just one loss from 1905-1926. He was the first black champion, dominating the heavyweight division for two decades. He was feared by every fighter of his day.
2) Muhammad Ali (56-5, 37 KO)
Ali might have topped the list if it weren’t for the three-plus years of his career that were lost when he refused to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. After his title wins against Sonny Liston as Cassius Clay, Ali had wins against some of the best heavyweights of all time in the second half of his career, beating Frazier and Foreman in some of the biggest fights in boxing history.
1) Joe Louis (66-3, 52 KO)
Louis’ social impact might not have been as great as Ali’s, but in the ring, there was no better heavyweight. The World War II veteran held the title for 11 years from 1937-1948, retaining the belt against the best fighters of his era with memorable knockouts against the likes of Max Schmeling, Jim Braddock and Billy Conn.