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Who’s Really ‘The Greatest’ Heavyweight Champion Ever?

Kelsey McCarson

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Boxing writers like to make lists. It’s sort of what we do. I suppose it’s been officially that way ever since promoter Tex Rickard and publisher Nat Fleisher devised the original Ring Magazine ratings policy back in the 1920s, but it was likely a part of boxing long before that. I can picture fans of the old-time, pioneer pugilists listing and rating the great champions of their day, too, if not with the written word then at least with each other in heated barroom debates.

To me, there is no more intriguing debate in the genre than the ranking of all-time great heavyweight champions. In fact, I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time in my life thinking about the topic. There is so much to consider on the subject, and it seems as if every boxing historian in the world has given his or her two cents on the matter to boot.

Still, there seems to be a good enough consensus across the board to say there are really only a handful of legitimate contenders for the high honor of laying claim to the very top spot: the greatest.

Here’s a little bit of information on each fighter to help you decide who you think should get the nod. I’ve listed them below in chronological order: the five definitive fighters of the heavyweight division.

Jack Johnson

“The Galveston Giant” was heavyweight boxing’s first great defensive fighter. He was a master of slips, parries, arm blocks and jams, and his ring generalship was said to be without equal. Johnson was the first black heavyweight champion. He defeated Tommy Burns in 1908 and held the title until he lost to giant slugger Jess Willard in 1915. Johnson later claimed to have thrown the fight at the behest of his promoters, but there’s never been a definitive call on the matter. Jack Dempsey called Johnson, “the greatest catcher of punches that ever lived…he could fight all night. He was a combination of Jim Corbett and [Joe] Louis. I’m glad I didn’t have to fight him.”

Ring Magazine founder and longtime editor Nat Fleisher considered Johnson the best heavyweight he ever saw, which included other men on this list like Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and a young Muhammad Ali.

Jack Dempsey

Dempsey was the roughest sort of hobo you could imagine. He made his way around the world by train long before he hit it big as a prizefighter, but not like those highfalutin hobos who rode inside the cars. No, Jack Dempsey rode the rails by snagging a ride beneath the train, laying himself atop thin metal bars between the undercarriage of the carts and the train track, between life and death.

When a man such as this gets to town, he heads to the only place he can: a bar. There, Dempsey would make himself a few dollars by fighting anyone and everyone who cared to tussle that night. In short, Jack Dempsey was a badass.

Dempsey was an offensive juggernaut. He had punishing power in both hands, and he used them with ferocious intent. He won the heavyweight championship in 1919 by brutalizing the giant Jess Willard over three one-sided rounds in a fight that was over almost as soon as it started. Right before the bout was set to begin, Dempsey learned he had a substantial amount of money to gain if he knocked Willard out in the first round because of a side bet his manager, Jack Kearns, made on his behalf. What followed was perhaps the most brutal, one-sided, first round beatdown in boxing history. Despite it, Dempsey lost the bet. Willard was saved by the bell, and after some confusion that lead Jack to believe he had already won the fight, was remarkably deemed okay to continue by Referee Ollie Pecord. Dempsey had to come back to the ring, and then he finished the big lug off in round three.

Dempsey held the title for almost seven years, fighting sparingly, until he was bested by careful technician Gene Tunney, who had made it his life’s missions to defeat the Great Jack Dempsey, and then did so.

Boxing writer Ted Carroll said Dempsey “possessed the natural gifts of unusual quickness, inborn savagery, ruggedness and punching power…his attack was tigerlike [sic] in its intensity.” It’s no wonder, then, that fans dubbed him the “Manassas Mauler.”

Rocky Marciano

For being the only man on this list to retire unbeaten, Rocky Marciano seems to be consistently underrated by most historians today. The “Brockton Blockbuster” was as tough as they come. He’d come forward, slipping and catching as many punches as he could until he put himself in position to land his devastatingly hard punches.

The Rock won the heavyweight crown in 1952 by defeating Jersey Joe Walcott in classic fashion. Walcott dropped Marciano in the first round, then steadily built a point advantage until he got knocked out in round thirteen round by Marciano’s signature “Suzie Q” overhand right. Marciano held the title until he retired in 1955, besting hall-of-famers Ezzard Charles and Archie Moore along the way.

Perhaps Marciano’s greatest attribute was simply his grit and determination. Our own Springs Toledo notes Marciano would be “unlikely to ever lose a test of wills” and that “he seemed to get stronger as fights wore on and opponents wore out.”

And Marciano wore all of them out. All of them.

Joe Louis

Truth be told, I happen to be of the opinion that God made one perfect heavyweight prizefighter, and that it was Joe Louis. It’s a sentiment shared by many notable boxing historians, though the bulk of the balance might lean towards Muhammad Ali.

“The Brown Bomber” put together the most impressive championship reign in the history of the sport. He kept the heavyweight crown on his head for almost 12 years, defending it a record 25 times before he retired. He was a remarkable 58-1 at the time, having avenged his only loss (Max Schmeling) by first round knockout. It was a picture perfect display of his unparalleled power, speed and technical precision. Louis was devastatingly accurate and wielded beautifully mechanical combination punches with frightening ease. He wasn’t just a monster in the ring. Louis was a machine.

In 2003, Ring Magazine praised him as the greatest puncher of all-time. Our resident historical expert, Frank Lotierzo, calls Louis “the most faultless heavyweight fighter in history.” Moreover the International Boxing Research Organization ranks Louis the top heavyweight in history according to its most recently updated member poll in 2006.

Boxing.com’s Matt McGrain hails Louis “as capable a combination puncher as ever lived, his hands were lightning, devastatingly accurate, he punched with huge power and maximum economy…who could force the attack with horrifying results.”

Muhammad Ali

Many ring historians consider Muhammad Ali one of the top heavyweight champions ever, most often being placed in either the first or second position. Ring Magazine ranked him number one among all-time heavyweight champions in 1998, while the International Boxing Research Organization ranked him second under the same criteria in 2006.

While the weight of certain criteria may be debatable, less so is the stature of his resume in the sports’ grandest division. There is simply no heavyweight champion in history that defeated as many top contenders and fellow all-time greats as Ali.

Ali was tall for a heavyweight, but he patterned his style after the little guys. His “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” tactic mesmerized his opponents when he was young. He’d pop his pristine jab to their jaws and follow it up with hard right crosses almost at will, all the while avoiding a return with his tremendously fast feet.

When Ali slowed down a bit in the later years, he showed he had an all-time great chin to go along with his already impressive repertoire. His three encounters with Joe Frazier, in which he went 2-1, included moments that were some of the best in boxing history. His 1974 upset of the previously undefeated George Foreman ranks among the greatest upsets in boxing history, and he’s the only man to win the lineal heavyweight championship three times.

Through Ali’s title reigns, 1964-1970, 1974-1978 and 1978-1979, he amassed a total of 19 successful title defenses.

The Other Guys

Other men may have claim for consideration, too, but none quite make the grade completely. Sticking to chronological order, James J. Jeffries comes to mind. He was probably the biggest and the best of the old-timers, and he retired undefeated before foolishly trying his hand against Jack Johnson over five years and fifty pounds later. George Foreman and Joe Frazier were great, but neither solidified himself as the best of his era. To that end, wherever you come out on the Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis debate, you might think that person has a shot at the list. But the fact that it’s a lively debate at all leaves enough mystery to leave all of them out. Finally, Wladimir Klitschko may be on his way there someday, but his career still has a ways to go and finding top notch competition will remain tough as ever.

So who’s really the greatest heavyweight champion of all-time?

That’s for you to decide, TSS readers. Tell us who you think is really ‘The Greatest’ heavyweight champion ever. Leave a comment in our forum, or tweet us at @TSSBoxingNews using the hashtag #Greatest. Is there someone else that should be on this list? Is there someone here that doesn’t belong? Let us know!

 

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Lomachenko – Pedraza and More

Thomas Hauser

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Lomachenko - Pedraza

Boxing returned to the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on December 1. Vasyl Lomachenko vs. Jose Pedraza in the main event drew a sellout crowd of 5,312. The non-televised undercard was respectable. And the three-fight telecast that followed the Heisman Trophy presentation on ESPN had moments of drama.

The first televised bout of the evening showcased Teofimo Lopez (10-0, 8 KOs), a 21-year-old lightweight who’s rapidly moving from prospect to contender status. Mason Menard (34-3, 24 KOs) was Lopez’s designated victim. All three of Menard’s losses had been by knockout and this was expected to be the fourth “KO by” on his record.

Lopez has all the confidence and arrogance of a young fighter with a big punch who’s on the rise. It took him all of 44 seconds to blast Menard into oblivion.

Next up, 24-year-old Isaac Dogboe (20-0, 14 KOs) sought to defend his WBO 122-pound title against Emanuel Navarrete (25-1, 22 KOs) of Mexico. Dogboe was born in Ghana but grew up in England. He claimed his belt with an eleventh-round stoppage of Jessie Magdaleno in April of this year and was considered a fighter who doesn’t need protecting.

Navarrete was fighting outside of Mexico for the first time, which is often a sign of a padded record.

Dogboe entered the bout as a 7-to-1 betting favorite and mounted a two-fisted assault to the head and body in the first stanza. But Navarrete had come to fight and began landing shots of his own in round two, at which point Issaac’s chin seemed a bit suspect. As the bout wore on, Dogboe did his best work on the inside. When he gave Navarrete room to punch, Emanuel obliged him.

It was a spirited, back-and forth, action encounter that was even after eight rounds. Then Navarrete picked up the pace and won the final four frames going away. By the end, Dogboe’s face was badly swollen; his left eye was almost shut; and he was trying simply to survive. He made it to the final bell but was dethroned by a 116-112, 116-112, 115-113 margin.

Good fight, good decision.

Lomachenko (11, 9 KOs) vs. Pedraza (25-1, 12 KOs) was promoted on the basis of both men having titles, which is a little like promoting a title-unification football game between the Big Ten and Ivy League champions.

Lomachenko’s ring prowess has been amply catalogued. Twelve of his professional bouts have been contested for world titles. He’s an elite fighter while Pedraza is a good one. In match ups like that, the elite fighter almost always wins.

Top Rank had planned to match Lomachenko (the WBO 135-pound champion) against Raymundo Beltran (the WBA beltholder) as part of an “immigrant-from-Mexico-gets-citizenship” feel-good story. But Pedraza upset the apple cart in August of this year by winning a unanimous-decision over Beltran.

Lomachenko was returning to the ring after surgery to repair a torn labrum suffered in his right shoulder during a May 12 victory over Jorge Linares. Still, Vasyl was an early 12-to-1 favorite over Pedraza and the odds moved as high as 20-to-1 reflecting the fighters’ respective ring skills.

The crowd was highly-partisan in favor of Lomachenko. Fighters from Puerto Rico are rarely booed in New York during pre-fight introductions, but it happened here.

It was an interesting exercise for boxing purists. The early rounds were tactically fought. Then Lomachenko figured out what he had to do to beat Pedraza down and did it. Many of the early rounds were close enough that the judges could have given them to whichever fighter they wanted to. But Lomachenko pulled away late, putting an exclamation mark on his performance with two eleventh-round knockdowns that came close to ending matters short of the 119-107, 117-112, 117-112 judges’ verdict in his favor.

Lomachenko looked a bit less “high tech” against Pedraza than he has in the past. He didn’t exploit angles as effectively and control the range as well as in some of his earlier fights. Part of that was because Pedraza is fast on his feet and spent long portions of the evening jabbing and moving away. Another reason might be that Lomachenko’s best fighting weight by his own evaluation is 130 pounds. There were times when he had trouble with Jorge Linares’s height and reach when he fought Linares seven months ago. And that was true for stretches of time against the taller Pedraza. Mikey Garcia might be a bit too big for Lomachenko.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank

Thomas Hauser’s new email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – Protect Yourself at All Times– was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.

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Cecilia Braekhus, Claressa Shields Win at the StubHub plus Undercard Results

David A. Avila

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Braekhus

LOS ANGELES-A farewell show by boxing network HBO showcased two dominant women in the boxing world as Cecilia Braekhus and Claressa Shields mowed through their respective opponents with little resistance on Saturday.

Braekhus (35-0, 9 KOs) tried hard to put another knockout on her ledger but Aleksandra Magdziak-Lopes showed enough resistance to go the distance in front of a sparse and cold crowd numbering less than 1,000 at the StubHub Center.

The Norwegian fighter Braekhus won by unanimous decision after 10 rounds and retains her hold on the undisputed welterweight championship that includes the WBA, WBC, WBO, IBF and IBO world titles.

Braekhus started slowly and patiently in the first two rounds but was able to rifle right hands and left hooks through the slower Lopes guard. But she never could put that finishing touch.

In the fifth round a counter right cross staggered Lopes but she remained upright though visibly hurt. A follow up attack proved unsuccessful by the welterweight champion.

“I wanted to knock out the girl who also beat Kali Reis,” said Braekhus “I might have pushed it too much. I got a little bit eager. That normally shouldn’t happen but this is a historical night.”

It was the final show of HBO’s 45 year reign as one of boxing’s premier networks.

“I’m just so honored to be on HBO,” said Braekhus

El Gallo

Mexico’s Juan “El Gallo” Francisco Estrada (38-3, 26 KOs) won by stoppage at the end of round seven against fellow hometown fighter Victor Mendez (28-4-2, 20 KOs) at the end of the seventh round in their super flyweight clash.

Both fighters hail from Hermosillo, Mexico but there was no hometown comradery as Estrada broke down Mendez more and more each round. Each round seemed to incite more blows from Estrada who fired five and six-punch combinations with ease to the body and head.

Mendez tried to fight his way out of the onslaught but his blows did not seem to have the effect desired. Instead, Estrada would open up even more with left hook to the body and left uppercut to the chin.

Finally, after one particularly rough one-sided round, Mendez’s corner stopped the fight.

Claressa

In less than a month Claressa Shields (8-0, 2 KOs) wiped out another middleweight contender, this time Belgium’s Femke Hermans (9-2, 3 KOs) by unanimous decision after 10 one-side rounds.

Three weeks ago Shields had dominated Scotland’s Hannah Rankin in similar fashion and had few problems with either European fighter. But sitting front row in the audience was Christina Hammer who holds the WBO version. She will be next.

Shields powered through Hermans with her amped up aggressive style and was especially effective with the check left hook. She also rocked the Belgian fighter with over hand rights but could not drop the European fighter who holds a super middleweight world title.

Hermans learned in the first two rounds she couldn’t match the two-time Olympic gold medalist’s speed, so she settled into a defensive counter punching style. It did not work.

Though Shields tried luring the European fighter into some traps, the Belgian boxer refused to lead. The fight was Shields to take. She began pummeling the body especially in the fourth and fifth rounds. In one volley she unloaded seven consecutive body shots and easily slipped a counter right.

Shields wobbled Hermans in the ninth round with a left hook and staggered her with a pair of shots in the 10th round. But the Belgian fighter stayed on her feet. All three judges scored the fight 100-90 for Shields who retains the WBA, WBC and IBF world titles.

Now Shields is set to face Hammer who has the WBO middleweight title in the early spring. Showtime will televise.

Hammer spoke to the media before the Shields-Hermans fight.

“I move around very well, I have better movement,” said Hammer whose fight with Shields was postponed in November due to a stomach illness suffered by the tall German boxer. “I want to be the undisputed world champion.”

Bang Bang

Australia’s Louisa “Bang Bang” Hawton (9-2, 3 KOs) stopped Lorraine Villalobos (2-2-1) of Los Angeles at the end of fifth round in an atomweight fight set for 10 rounds.

Hawton and Villalobos exchanged furiously for three rounds with each connecting with big blows. But by the fourth round Villalobos slowed considerably and Hawton took over the fight.

The Aussie fighter was supposed to meet interim WBC atomweight titlist Brenda Flores who won a split decision last September. But Flores was forced to pull out.

Other Bouts

Serhii Bohachuk (12-0, 12 KOs) won by KO in the fifth round of a middleweight bout over Puerto Rico’s Carlos Garcia Hernandez (15-19-1)

Mario Ramos (7-0, 7 KOs) knocked out Elliott Brown in the fifth round of a 6-round lightweight fight.

Light flyweight Shukichi Iwata won his pro debut with a fourth round KO of Joel Bermudez (0-2)

Lightweight Reno Moreno floored David Courtney with a body shot to win by KO in round four of a lightweight match.

Photo credit: Al Applerose

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Fast Results From Madison Square Garden: Lomachenko UD 12; Dogboe Upset

Arne K. Lang

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Lomachenko vs Pedraza

Vasiliy Lomachenko successfully defended his WBA lightweight title and added Jose Pedraza’s WBO 135-pound belt with a unanimous decision. The scores were 119-107 and 117-109 twice.

Through the first 10 rounds, the bout was somewhat monotonous. Lomachenko landed the cleaner punches and was clearly ahead on the scorecards. The fight was redounding well to Gervonta Davis who handled Pedraza more handily than what Loma was doing. But then in the 11th, the Ukrainian solidified his reputation as an elite fighter, perhaps worthy of being considered #1 P4P. He strafed Pedraza with combinations to the head and body, landing 42 power punches according to CompuBox, and twice knocked Pedraza to his knees.

Pedraza weathered the storm and made it through the 12th, but when the final bell sounded there wasn’t a shred of doubt that Lomachenko had won his 11th consecutive fight, improving to 12-1. Pedraza fell to 25-2.

DOGBOE-NAVARRETE

In a big upset, Mexico’s unheralded Emanuel Navarrete, in his U.S. debut, wrested the WBO 122-pound title from previously undefeated Isaac Dogboe with a unanimous decision. The scores (116-112, 115-113 twice) did not reflect Navarrete’s dominance. At the end of the fight, both of Dogboe’s eyes were swollen and he was bleeding from his nose. In the late stages, the fight became so one-sided that referee Benjy Estevez would have been justified in stopping it. However, Estevez will be faulted in some quarters for missing a knockdown. In round nine, Navarrete went down hard from a punch that glanced off his shoulder and hit him in the face. Estevez ruled it a slip.

Navarrete was somewhat awkward, but he was bigger and stronger, four inches taller with an eight inch longer reach. With the victory, his twenty-first straight, he improved his ledger to 26-1. Dogboe lost for the first time in 25 starts.

LOPEZ-MENARD

In the first TV bout, Teofimo Lopez (11-0, 9 KOs) scored a spectacular one-punch knockout of Mason Menard (34-4). It was all over in 44 seconds.

Lopez, born in Brooklyn and raised in south Florida, tagged Menard on the jaw with a looping overhand right. The fighter from Cajunland fell face first to the canvas and was unconscious before he hit the floor. He was still woozy as he was helped from the ring.

OFF TV

Welterweight Alexander Besputin stepped up in class and made a very strong showing. Besputin (12-0, 9 KOs) took tough Juan Carlos Abreu of the Dominican Republic to school, knocking him down twice en route to winning a lopsided decision. Besputin won every round on all three cards. His showing was far better than that of the more ballyhooed Egidijus Kavaliauskas, the Lithuanian knockout artist who won a hard-fought 10-round decision over Abreu in Abreu’s previous bout.

Italian heavyweight Guido Vianello, a policeman in Rome, won his pro debut with a second round stoppage of Luke Lyons. A 2016 Olympian who was 7-5 as a pro-am in the World Series of Boxing, Vianello has been training at Abel Sanchez’s compound in Big Bear where he sparred with Tyson Fury. Lyons brought a 5-1-1 record but it was compiled on the disreputable West Virginia circuit.

Twenty-year-old Bronx junior welterweight Josue Vargas, in his first appearance at Madison Square Garden, stopped Panama’s John Renteria (16-6-1) at the 32 second mark of round five. It was no contest as Vargas, who improved to 12-1 (8), knocked Renteria to the canvas three times before the bout was halted.

In the opening bout, slated for eight rounds in the junior welterweight class, Mexico’s Abdiel Ramirez (24-3-1, 22 KOs) scored a mild upset with a 7th round stoppage of Newark’s Michael Perez. There were three knockdowns in all with Perez hitting the deck in rounds one and seven. Ramirez was ahead on the cards at the time of the stoppage.

Check back tomorrow for Thomas Hauser’s ringside report.

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