Boxing is perhaps the oldest and most simple sport known to man. The origins of hand-to-hand combat are pre-historic, but the first form of boxing as an organized sport that we know of dates back to the Greeks, where it became an Olympic sport in BC 688, although we have basic depictions of the sport dating as far back at the 3rd millennium BC. The sport in a form close to that which we know it today has been dated back to late 1600s Britain.
The debate over who is the greatest pound-for-pound boxer of all time is one which is eternal and creates endless debates among boxing fans. There are of course elements such as world titles, successful title defenses and unbeaten runs which one can look at, but the strength of the division, era and opponents all add complications to such a system. As such, there will never be unanimity regarding this topic, but I have attempted to justify my selections and order here.
The system by which we can compare all boxers - heavyweights to flyweights and everything in between - is by the pound-for-pound ranking system, an idea that was introduced in the 1940's, largely because of Sugar Ray Robinson. Boxing has such a long and incredible history and so many great names have blessed the sport that we must first start with the honorable mentions. Here are the top 25 greatest boxers of all time:
The history of boxing is such that this could be a list of the 250 greatest boxers of all-time, and there would still be some great names left out. However, one felt the need to mention the six men above as particularly honorable mentions. Gene Tunney was an incredible heavyweight champion, who lost only once, to Harry Greb; he retired with a record of 61-1-1-1. Marvellous Marvin Hagler was the undisputed world middleweight champion for a remarkable six years and seven months, retiring with a record of 62-3-2. Julio Cesar Chavez is widely regarded as the greatest Mexican boxer of all-time, and retried with a record of 108-6-2. Manny Pacquiao and the Klitschko's are fresh in all our minds as three of the finest fighters of our generation.
Kicking off the list proper is one Stanley Ketchel, a truly outstanding world champion who was sadly murdered at the age of 24. A Polish American who was born in Michigan, Ketchel was nicknamed the 'Michigan Assassin' and became Middleweight World Champion at the age of just 21. He defended his title 11 times in three years, and stepped up to the heavyweight division for a legendary bout against Jack Johnson. Johnson was 35 pounds heavier that Ketchel, but the assassin still knocked him out before eventually losing the fight; he was shot and killed less than a year later.
Joe Calzaghe has been criminally underrated by much of the world; one need only look at his record to see what an outstanding fighter he really was. Calzaghe fought 46 times, winning every single one of those fights, 32 by knockout. He was Super Middleweight World Champion for over 10 years, an all-time record, having defended the title on 21 occasions, and only relinquished the title to move up weight divisions. He was successful in his move up to Light Heavyweight, where he also became world champion. His critics point to the lack of high quality opposition, but you can only beat the man in front of you, and Calzaghe's notable opponents include the likes of Chris Eubank, Jeff Lacy, Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones Jr.
If every boxing fan was asked to compile a list of this ilk, the man who would vary the most is almost certainly Mike Tyson. Some wouldn't put him in their top 100, whilst others would have him top. There are points to be considered by either side. When Tyson first emerged he was a force of nature. He had incredible power and destruction in his fists and blew away his first 37 opponents, giving boxing a huge new wave of interest in the late 80's. Yet as quickly as he emerged, Tyson faded. Holyfield and Lewis beat him convincingly and some would claim Tyson never beat a top class fighter in their prime. For me, he is still worth his place on this list, but only in 23rd.
George Foreman's life and certainly his boxing career can quite easily be divided into two sections. The pre-Ali era and the post-Ali era. Pre-Ali, Foreman lacked charisma, he seemed more machine than man, and his style was that of a lumberjack, powerfully chopping away at his opponents, using his power to send them to the canvas. Post-Ali, Foreman was an immensely likeable figure, who became a beloved figure in the U.S. and returned after 10 years out of boxing to become the oldest heavyweight world champion in history. Foreman's most legendary performances were his second round destructions of Joe Frazier and Ken Norton.
Archie Moore had a quite extraordinary boxing career, taking part in 219 bouts, of which he won 185 and recorded 131 knockouts, more career knockouts than any other fighter in history. Moore fought his first boxing match in 1935 and his last in 1963, some indication of his incredible longevity. He is the longest reigning Light Heavyweight World Champion in history and most of his defeats came after moving up to the Heavyweight division, including losses against Rocky Marciano, Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali.
Lennox Lewis is without doubt one of the smartest and most complete heavyweight fighters of all time. Born in England to Jamaican parents but brought up in Canada, Lewis won gold at both the 1986 Commonwealth Games and the 1988 Olympic Games. He quickly emerged as a top 5 world heavyweight, and became world champion in 1992. Lewis' most notable victorious came over Frank Bruno, Evander Holyfield, Hasim Rahman, Mike Tyson and Vitali Klitschko. He remains the last undisputed heavyweight world champion, due to the Klitschko's refusal to fight one and another.
Mickey Walker is widely regarded as one of the finest boxers to have ever lived, despite having 25 career defeats to his name. Multitalented, Walker was not only an expert in the ring, he was also an exceptional golfer and a fine artist. He became the Welterweight World Champion in 1922, became the lightest man in history to challenge for the Light Heavyweight title and became Middleweight Champion in 1926, which he held until 1931.
Joe Frazier's ability as a boxer may have been exaggerated somewhat. His greatest achievement was of course his defeat of Muhammad Ali in 1971, but he was beaten in both the rematches and destroyed by George Foreman twice. Frazier did have, without doubt, one of the most powerful and effective left hooks in boxing history, and a relentless approach which wore down lesser opponents, but once you look past Ali, the list of fighters he beat is not as impressive as some. Frazier is well worth his place on that list, but should not trouble anyone's top 10.
From a big beast to a little beast, Jimmy Wilde stood at just 5-foot-2, but he had explosive power in his punches that fighters of most weight divisions would be proud of. Wilde is regarded by many to be the greatest flyweight boxer of all time and was nicknamed 'the Mighty Atom'. He had a number of famous bouts with Englishman Sid Smith, but Wilde won on every occasion. Of his 139 wins, a staggering 99 were by knockout and he was only beaten four times, losing the World Flyweight Title in his last ever fight.
The only active boxer on this list, Floyd Mayweather Jr. continues to divide opinion. Mayweather's critics would say that he shirked a number of fights in order to retain his undefeated record, and some have attacked his reluctance to fight Manny Pacquaio when the pair were at their prime. Whatever you say about Mayweather Jr., it still has to be said that his defense is one of the greatest in boxing history and his record of 48 fights without defeat is worthy of respect. Mayweather's greatest victories were those over Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, Miguel Cotto, Marcus Maidana and of course Manny Pacquaio.
Joe Gans was the first African-American boxing world champion and is regarded by many as the greatest lightweight boxer of all time. Gans began fighting in 1891 and didn't hang up his gloves until 1909. At a time when most boxers were brutes, Gans was more of a thinker. He would weigh up his opponent in the early rounds, assessing their strengths and weaknesses and exploiting them as the fight went on. Gans fought 196 times, winning 158, 100 of which were by KO, losing 12, drawing 20 and with 6 no contests. He was World Lightweight Champion from 1902 until 1908.
Despite dying at the age of just 32, Harry Greb managed to fight 298 times, the third most bouts of any professional boxer in history. Nicknamed 'the Pittsburgh Windmill' due to his ability to throw punches in flurries, Greb had great power in his fists and was a very aggressive boxer who liked to mix it up a bit with his opponents. The dark side of Greb's game was his willingness to employ dirty tactics, a willingness which caught up with him when his opponent did likewise and blinded him in one eye. Greb was World Middleweight Champion from 1923 to 1926, winning 261 fights and dying aged 32 shortly after his last fight due to heart failure.
Sam Langford was once described by ESPN as the greatest boxer you've never heard of, but more recently the legacy of Sam Langford has become better known. The Ring named him the second greatest puncher of all-time, whilst BoxRec named him the fourth greatest heavyweight fighter of all time. The reason Langford is not better known is because he never became a world champion. Jack Johnson, who was world champion at the time, refused to fight Langford, meaning the only title he held was World Colored Heavyweight Champion. Langford considered Joe Gans (see no.15) as the greatest boxer in the world, but he defeated Gans in 1903. Overall, Langford fought 256 times, losing only 32 fights.
The man who prevented Sam Langford from his shot at a world title, Jack Johnson has received a lot of criticism for his supposed cowardice. Despite his reluctance to give Langford a shot, Johnson does deserve a great deal of credit for his achievements and general boxing career. He was the first African-American World Heavyweight Champion at a time when racial tension in the U.S. was perhaps at its most intense. Angered by the dominance of a black boxer, sections of white Americans persuaded the undefeated James Jeffries out of retirement to take on Johnson; Jeffries' corner threw in the towel in the 15th round.
It is rare for Roberto Duran to miss out on lists of this ilk; he was named the fifth greatest fighter of the last 80 years by The Ring and the eighth greatest boxer of all time by Bert Sugar. Duran is one of only two boxers to have had a career spanning five decades, along with Jack Johnson. Having made his boxing debut in 1968, Duran fought his last bought in 2001. Nicknamed 'Hands of Stone' Duran through hard and consistent punches, he was a savage, a warrior and a monster in the ring. He held world titles in four weight divisions: lightweight, welterweight, light middleweight and middleweight.
Sugar Ray Leonard was named the 'Boxer of the Decade' for the 1980s and had an exceptional career, winning world titles in five weight divisions. He won Gold at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal and was the first boxer to make $100 million from purses. Sugar Ray should have retired with only one career defeat to Roberto Duran, but instead came out of retirement twice, looking a shadow of his scintillating best on both occasions, resulting in a career total of 40 fights, 36 wins, 3 losses and 1 draw.
Jack Dempsey was immensely popular in the U.S. throughout the 1920s and was the face of the sport which was, at the time, arguably the most popular sport in the country. Handsome, charismatic and a very hard and fast hitter, Dempsey was loved by men and women alike. The Associated Press even named Dempsey the greatest fighter of the last 50 years. Dempsey fought 83 times, winning 65 times, losing 6 times and drawing 11 times. Dempsey was World Heavyweight Champion from 1919 to 1926.
Rocky Marciano's detractors point to the fact that the heavyweight division was not at its strongest when Marciano dominated the division from 1947 to 1955. He had an exceptionally short boxing career for someone at his level. Yet Marciano still defeated Joe Louis, Jersey Joe Walcott and Archie Moore. Marciano's record speaks for itself. He is the only heavyweight world champion to have gone his entire career undefeated and he has the highest KO percentage of any heavyweight world champion. He ended his career with a record of 49 fights, 49 wins and 43 KOs.
The longest reigning lightweight champion of all time, Benny Leonard was born out of a Jewish Manhattan slum and began fighting on the street. Leonard became lightweight champion in 1917, retiring as champion in 1925. Having lost almost his entire fortune to the 1929 stock market crash, Leonard was forced into making a return to the ring seven years after his retirement. Following his return he won 18 of his 19 bouts, losing his last fight to fellow Hall of Famer Jimmy McLarnin. Leonard is remembered as one of the finest all-round boxers of all-time, who had quick feet, a solid defense and explosive power in his punches.
Probably the most controversial placement on this list is Sonny Liston being as high as sixth place, but hear me out. Sonny Liston is a criminally underrated heavyweight fighter who has been terribly hard done by history. He was a very shady character and he never endeared himself to the public much in the way Ali or Foreman did, but that should not detract from his boxing prowess. He annihilated top class fighters like Cleveland Williams and Floyd Patterson, often within a single round. He lost the first fight to Ali having done very little training and carrying an injury, and most likely threw the second fight. It is worth remembering that Liston may have been as old as 45 by the second Ali fight. At his best, Liston was the complete heavyweight boxer, and he shouldn't merely be remembered as the guy Ali knocked out when Liston was twice his age.
Widely considered the greatest featherweight boxer of all time, Willie Pep was a two-time World Featherweight Champion. His career spanned 26 years, in which time Pep fought 241 times, winning 229 times, losing 11 times and drawing once. A record made all the more impressive when one considers that Pep was seriously injured in a plane crash in 1947, midway through his career. Legend has it that Pep is the only man to have ever won a round of boxing without throwing a punch, and he is best remembered for his bewildering speed, quick feet and remarkable defense.
Henry Armstrong was a world champion in three different weight divisions, at a time when there were only eight weight divisions. Even more remarkable than this, Armstrong held all three titles at the same time, he remains the only man to have ever done this. Armstrong became featherweight champion in 1937, welterweight champion in 1938 and lightweight champion the same year. He faced a staggering 17 world champions over the course of his career, and beat 15 of them.
Joe Louis is one of the titans of boxing history. He became an American hero, particularly among the African-American community, for his rise from a poor family of eight kids to international superstar. His first major bout came against Max Baer, who had already killed a man in the ring, but Louis won by KO in four rounds. His first loss came against the German Max Schmeling. He became heavyweight champion of the world in 1937, and beat Schmeling two years after their first meeting in the 'Fight of the Decade'. He remained world heavyweight champion until his retirement, having held the position for over 11 years and defending his title 25 times, a record in any weight division.
As alluded to earlier, it is precisely because of the prowess of Sugar Ray Robinson in the middleweight division that the need for a pound-for-pound system came into being. He is regarded by many as the greatest pound-for-pound boxer to have ever lived. He became welterweight world champion in 1946, a title he held for five years until stepping up to the middleweight division, where he became world champ once more.
Sugar Ray attempted the step up to Light Heavyweight but found it too much for him. He is widely regarded as the most complete fighter of all time. He lost only one of his first 123 fight, against Jake LaMotta, who he then beat five times. After being utterly dominant in the welterweight division he was still successful at middleweight level, becoming the first boxer to win a division title five times.
There has been an attempt recently to re-write the history books and somehow diminish the legacy of Muhammad Ali by some. It seems to have become cool or quirky to claim that Ali is or was overrated. It may be cliche and it may be obvious, but Ali thoroughly deserves top spot on this list. He is the greatest boxer of all time. There has never been a heavyweight fighter who moved like Ali. In his early days when he was known as Cassius Clay, Ali's claims that he would dance around his opponents were only part humoring. At that stage of his career he really did dance around his opponents, just take a look at his fight against Cleveland Williams in 1966 if you don't believe me.
The Ali of that time was the greatest heavyweight boxer to have lived. He was suspended at the age of 25, arguably at his best, and didn't return to the ring until he was almost 29. His first defeat came at the hands of Joe Frazier, who he beat convincingly in the two rematches. Ken Norton was the only other man to beat Ali, before the regrettable final few years of his career, when he was a shadow of his former self. Ali fought in the toughest weight division during its Golden Era, and emerged the greatest. His list of defeated opponents include Henry Cooper, Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and George Foreman. Despite losing his finest years, Ali remains the only three-time Heavyweight World Champion in history.