San Francisco, CA– Some of you will be surprised by my list of the top three heavyweight champions I’ve put together. My mentor, the great Jacob Finkelstein who became a Hall of Fame writer writing columns for 40+ years for the San Francisco Chronicle (using the pen name Jack Fiske) was of the opinion that this is an impossible task. Jack felt that you cannot compare fighters of different eras. That being said, I will go against the deceased Godfather of boxing scribes in this instance and rate the top three heavyweights of all time.


Larry Holmes

1) Larry Holmes, Easton, PA. With a record of 69-6, 44 KOs, Holmes’ jab and chin are what separates his from the rest. With 19 defenses of (16 WBC & 3 IBF) of the linear heavyweight championship, Holmes got off the deck against Earnie Shavers, the hardest hitter in history, as well as a flush shot he didn’t see coming from Renaldo Snipes, and went on to stop them both. While I think the first fight with Michael Spinks could have gone either way, the second time around Larry was jobbed. Past his peak when he faced Mike Tyson in 1988, I watched Holmes prior to capturing the heavyweight title from Ken Norton in 1978 beating on Muhammad Ali in Deer Lake, PA circa 1974. As far as today’s heavyweights, Larry would have in my mind beaten both Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko.



Muhammad Ali

2) Muhammad Ali, Louisville, KY. From 1960 to 1981, Ali went 56-5, 37 KOs. In most polls, the man born Cassius Clay is #1. The reason why I can’t place him there is because Ali really didn’t have a “prime.” That period of his life was taken away by his refusal to be a tool of the U.S. Government and become an advocate of the Vietnam war. The war against the North Vietnamese, as it turns out was started under false pretenses. Although I have respect for all veterans, the 58,000 that lost their lives and the hundreds of thousands that returned damaged either physically or emotionally, they weren’t fighting for our country, they were tools used by the Military Industrial Complex, as were the men and women that were/are in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ali was a greater public figure than he was in my mind a heavyweight champion.



Jack Johnson

3) Jack Johnson, 53-11-9, 34 KOs of Galveston, TX. Having boxed 817 rounds from 1897 to 1931, “Double J” was a threat to the thought of White supremacy here in the USA. His philandering with woman who were Caucasian brought the “Mann Act” which made taking a woman across state lines a crime and Johnson a wanted Felon and forced “JJ” to leave the country. He returned years later and spent 366 days in prison! Although I’ll be the first to admit Jack was bold, cocky, and while he may have pushed the envelope a bit too far, it was racism that took away his prime for the most part. His defending the “colored” title as it was called is significant to me. After a 20 round points loss to Marvin Hart in 1905, Johnson was DQ’d vs. Joe Jeanette whom he beat twice in three more fights with one draw. After beating Stanley Ketchel (1909) and Jim Jeffries in 1910, Johnson fought but four times as he was a “wanted” man and It wasn’t until 1915 that Johnson lost to Jess Williard in Cuba in the 26th round. He won 13 fights before losing in eight to Bob Lawson in 1926. He would lose four more before finishing in 1931 with a “suspicious” win in Kansas over Brad Simmons. Like Ali, his prime might have been taken away by the US Government. In all, the “Galveston Giant” was 67-14-12 including “Newspaper” scored fights as boxing was illegal for a time. Because films of Johnson are so limited, he might have deserved the top spot!


Pedro Fernandez

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  • #1. The Manassa Mauler, Jack Dempsey, #2. The Brown Bomber, Joe Louis, #3. And, last but not least, Rocky Marciano. Dempsey and Louis would have destroyed any of the above. I do agree with you about the solders. Imperialism, hegemony, and the interest of corporate America is what drives these illegal, immoral, and dirty wars.

  • I meant to list my three greatest heavyweights. I rank them according to their absolute peak; I don’t worry about how long a career lasted. Based on this I believe that the top three were:

    1. Sonny Liston

    2. George Foreman

    3. Jack Dempsey

  • Dick “the Mick”, Ray Arcel DID NOT quit Duran after the second Leonard fight; Freddie Brown did. Arcel worked Duran’s corner for his fight with Benitez (I know, I was there). I even had lunch with Ray Arcel and his wife at Las Vegas’ airport the day after the fight.

  • Geoffrey Sadao Prenter

    I’ll go with Ali, Louis and Holmes. Jack Johnson also deserves strong consideration. Ali was deprived of his peak, but he was at his best in ’66-’67. I don’t know if any other fighter could’ve beaten him during those years. Louis from ’37-’41 was devastating. Holmes from ’78-’82 was terrific; beautiful jab, great ring generalship and tremendous heart.

    As far as underrated champions, I have to go with Ezzard Charles. Although he weighed less than 190 lbs., he could do it all. A great ring mechanic who became much less aggressive after killing an opponent. Jack Fiske mentioned several times that Holyfield reminded him of Charles.

    How about best the heavyweight contenders who never won the title? You could mention Machen,Folley, Lyle, Bob Baker, Quarry, Young (when he was in shape), etc.

  • I found the Gallender book a great read….while I grew up with Ali, and always loved him, I’ve come to believe that had Liston been in great shape, and perhaps a few years younger, he would have beaten Ali. I love watching Sonny Liston, and I confess that I also really feel for his horrible upbringing, and the incredibly racist way that he was treated by the press.

    While I’ve heard these stories about Holmes beating on Ali in sparring in the mid 1970’s, I think that Ali had lost much by that point. I just can’t see the Ali of right before his enforced retirement losing to Holmes. In fact, the Ali that fought liston in the first fight was just coming of age. This Ali versus say the Liston that beat Cleveland Williams would have been an amazing fight. Perhaps the fantasy fight that I’d want to see above all others….

    I cannot argue with the choice of Jack Johnson.

  • Duran lost to Kirkland Lange. Yes, his jab was better than anyone else!

  • So the guy who lost twice to the Light Heavyweight Champ is the best Heavyweight of all time ? Even if the second fight could have went to Holmes, there were enough people who thought Spinks won.

  • Man, I loved Larry as a fighter. He has to be one of the toughest guys ever. It pisses me off being from Houston and having family from Galveston that Jack Johnson is virtually ignored in his hometown here. There should be schools and highways here named after this great man. I saw Ali as a kid at the Astrodome versus Williams, Terrell, Ellis and Mathis and he was truly one of a kind. I have Joe Louis at Number One as I just think he was the best fighter ever, but am glad to see Larry up there. As far as thumbing goes, this is professional prizefighting and not ballet.

  • Pedro, Thanks for the article. I totally missed it last week. I agree with you about Holmes. Great chin, determination and heart. He manipulated his poopnents with that jab. His right cross (Big Jake) was formidable and underated. He was too clever, mobile and fastfor Klitschkos to ever beat him. I do believe Lennox Lewis would have posed problems for Larry. Muhammad Ali from 1960-74 would have been a chess match and a pick-em. I also believe a prime Holmes would have spanked Tyson and stopped him late. Great article. I believe Ali certainly belongs in the top three as well. I could also argue a case for Joe Louis. I’m not sure about Jack Johnson as I’ve never seen a lot of footage of his fights. Dempsey and Marciano were simply too small to compete with Ali, Holmes, Lewis, Klitschkos, etc. However Dempsey vs Marciano would have been a great pier one brawl – and short! Another pick-em.

  • Jim,

    I am not going to scour the web looking and researching old top 10s of heavyweights figuring out who Marciano’s manager avoided. I have never heard he avoided anyone before.

    Throw out a few names or I will consider your argument fallacious.

  • Black & White Ali (meaning Ali’s fights through 67) was the baddest, most gifted SOB at HW I have ever seen. He took some for making remarks about Jack Dempsey and how he would have wiped the floor with the likes of Dempsey… But it was an analytical observation and everything he said was 100% true… lol

    The guy had the lightning quick reflexes of a ‘Wet Cat’ and a gliding pair of feet that belonged on some damn HOF caliber Featherweight. Had every physical tool someone could wish for and was BRAVE beyond words… And not a half bad poet… lol

  • “Heavyweights today couldn’t carry Larry Holmes jock.”

  • “Heavyweights today couldn’t carry Larry Holmes jock.”


  • Jon,
    Rocky Marciano did not duck anybody. His manager Al Weil did the ducking. Like Cus D’Amato protected Floyd Patterson and even the great Tony Zale was protected from fighting Jake LaMotta.
    There are sites on the internet which give Ring Magazines top 10 fighters every year during Marciano’s reign. You can see for yourself who he did not fight.

  • Holmes was awesome. He was a fighter that could actually box and move an entire fight and when he got knocked down he got back up and came after you again. You don’t see much of that anymore.

    He fought everyone and when he won the fight you knew it was because he beat the other guy not just because he was more popular except, maybe, for the Tim Witherspoon fight. Heavyweights today couldn’t carry Larry Holmes jock.

  • Who did Marciano avoid?

    He fought in a relatively weak era against older guys but I never heard him accused of ducking anyone.

  • Nick.
    Tyson was a front runner, could not fight on the inside at all, and he would not have been able to take out the great HW’s early in the fight and then he would have looked for a way out, He had no character. You must be mixing up Louis and Marciano. Louis fought the best of his era which by todays standers was excellent. Marciano did not,

  • Not a big fan of Holmes’ style, you can’t argue with the results the jab garnered. If Ali was uninterrupted in his career, he may have been the best as he looked unbeatable in his younger days. When people consider modern fighters as more skilled, I think the other way around and rate Jack Johnson number 1. A defensive wizard who fought with 4 or 6 ounce gloves and could have been killed in the ring by onlookers, he gets my vote. If Jersey Joe Walcott was brought along the right way at a younger age, he might be in the top three. Joe Louis was as fundamentally sound as they come, and he could have damaged any heavyweight with his shots. However, he didn’t always fight the best guys and I think there’s something to be said about that. With Mike Tyson’ combination of speed and power, he may have defeated anyone of these guys on a given night when he was at his best. Holyfield would argue that of course. There are a few others you can argue for as well.

  • Hey pharoh – lol at you – Vlad never even fought Adamek. Vitali did and he didn’t have a “Hell of a time” with him. Get a clue. At least learn to tell the brothers apart before commenting.

  • I would say there are 3 ways to answer the question.

    1. Greatest period. You make the 10 greatest heavyweights of all time all fight each other–who wins most? To answer that question, I would actually say Lennox Lewis. Too big, too strong, too effective.

    2. I would say the most skilled heavyweight was Muhammad Ali.

    3. I would say the most accomplished heavyweight was Joe Louis.

    Personally I would say Joe Louis was the greatest heavyweight of all time.

  • pedro, i have a great deal of respect for you, you never hold back. Kind of like the union navy admiral who said Damn the torpedoes full speed ahead! ( most folks do not know thats what happened he hit a torpedoe and his boat sank!) Larry holmes the greatest over Ali umm No. Holmes probably not in all time top ten. Who did he fight? Ali beat all the best heavyweights in two decades the 60 s and 70 s while its not homes fault he came in a decade where all he had to face were so so fighters. Just ask yourself would ali ever lost to a light heavy like spinks? no. compare who they faced and yes holmes very lucky he came along in a time of bonecrusher hugger smith.As for Jack Johnson what i absolutely detest about the man is how he drew the racial line after he became champion! refused to fight sam langford (yes he deserves to be on top heavy list) joe jeanette and any other black fighter! Johnson ducked more great black fighters than anyone. The risk did not justify the reward >

  • This is always gonna be a tough one. So many ways to look at it. Are you listing them by who you think wins head to head agenst each other? Stand alond body of work? Influnce on the sport? Or a mix of all of those and a bunch more?
    Here`s a lil game for you old school boxing guys, try it on a boring night. List every great heavey weight or straight up every fighter to hold the real tital.
    Here are the rules. Every fighter fights each other 1 time. Best record wins with tie breaker being number of knock outs. The second tie breaker if it comes up is who had the win between the 2 top fighters with the same record.
    You a computer or paper it doesn`t matter. Its alot of fights to think out but if your unbiased as possible you might be surprised by your own results.
    Why bohter with every fighter having to fight each other at least 1 time? Well if its fantasy might as well do it right. Style match ups are always key and some fighters no matter what have anothers number right? Give it a try.

  • Man let’s be realistic here. George Foreman is the goat!! Sill got lucky that fing rope in Zaire was not put on proper. He never gave George a rematch and didn’t want to!! Also big George never would’ve been outsized by today’s big boys. Needless to say the man won the title after 20 some odd years after losing it!! Still koing mofoes. Holmes got hit a lot and 1 foreman punch changed history. I think joe Louis would’ve beat Ali he threw short compact shots was accurate and powerful. Ali almost got ktfo by Henry cooper? At the end all against all foreman could fight and be champ in any era. Also missing Lennox also could’ve been champ any era he is my number 2. 6’5 250 solid. Great jab killer uppercut, destructive right hand. And a great left hook if he would’ve ever thrown it more. I’m just staeing the obvious

  • Ali commented (I can’t remember where) that he had intended to move more in the Foreman fight, but that the ring was very slow, and he realized that his legs would have gotten too tired, and Foreman would have gotten to him. So the rope a dope was kind of a plan B. As far as Frazier lasting longer with Foreman – I remember that in the second fight, he tried to move more to last longer, but Foreman got to him anyway.

  • vlad had a helluva time getting adamek out of there, but he’s going to knock out holmes? lol

  • Gary G
    I don’t think Ali knew he was going to rope a dope. He did know that Foreman would get tired from throwing thunderous blows with every punch. If you watch early Foreman fights he was mighty exhausted even when he won. Had Frazier the smarts to alter his style to make the fight go past the 6th or 7th I believe he would have KO’d Foreman. Thats why I don’t rate Frazier in the elite of the HW’s. Ali did what he had to do and his running days were behind him in 1974 when he fought Foreman. He was creative.
    Perdo I know you love to start controversy and this column shows that. I think it’s a stretch, to say the least ,that Holmes was the greatest HW,but I think you are wanting to get your readers riled up. GOOD SHOW!

  • Ali was the best. Mainly because he fought in the best era and was the best of them all, and he fought in numerous countries, sometimes in opponents backyards. I think the K brothers are victims of a weak era, much like Joe Louis. If Lewis would have fought in a better era he’d probably be considered the best. However what was great about Ali, besides his skills was an ability to take a punch. I think thats what puts him over the edge. He was never stopped until he got old. Louis was stopped before he ever became champion, including Vlad.

  • Pedro:

    I always thought that, in the Foreman fight, it was brilliant of Ali to constantly say “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” before the fight. But during the fight, he did the “rope a dope” which I’m sure most of the viewers were not expecting (and probably shocked to see) based on what he said he was going to do in the fight.

    Do you think that this was his strategy, or did he not have his legs anymore as you stated in the past?


  • Ali never had a prime. Don’t think pre-layoff Ali or Holmes would have had problems with Frazier.

  • Kurt, pretty cheap shot, but thanks for your opinion.

  • But do you really think that Holmes would have beaten the pre-layoff Ali?

  • Larry “TheThumb” Holmes won more fights by intentionally thumming his foe than any other heavyweight champion. Take away his thumb and Holmes was a glorified club fighter

  • Top 3 heavyweights of all time:
    1.Joe Louis
    2.Joe Louis
    3.Joe Louis


  • Great top three….Joe Louis was a good one as well.

  • Pedro: I think Jack Fiske was correct in saying it’s almost impossible to compare fighters from one era to another era. I do remember an interview that Ray Arcel gave in which he said an in shape and motivated Jack Dempsey could have beaten all the champs after him. Arcel trained over two thousand fighters in his career and had 22 world champions, including Ezzard Charles, Roberto Duran, Larry Holmes, Benny Leonard. Jimmy Braddock, Tony Zale and many others. He retired after training Larry Holmes for the Gerry Cooney fight. He was also considered the best cut man of them all. He really spanned 70 years as a trainer and thought Dempsey and Joe Louis were the best of the heavyweights. I do totally agree with you that Larry Holmes was and is very greatly underrated. Arcel did think that he was one of the all time greats. He was of the opinion that Duran was in trenendous shape for the first Leonard fight and way out of shape and weight drained for their second fight(He quit Duran as soon as the fight was over and he got paid) Thanks for the good piece and for your work on behalf of Yory Boy campas and Joe Diaz when no one else stood up for them………..

  • Vlad would easily knock Holmes out!!!

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