WAIL! | The CBZ Journal | February 2004

Ranking the Heavyweights: From Louis to Lewis

By Frank Lotierzo

Being a fight collector, I've seen all of the available films of Jack Johnson, Jim Jeffries, Jack Dempsey, and Gene Tunney, along with other greats. Though it's easy for some to dismiss them as no good, I don't adhere to that mindset. I have a problem with those who just brush them off because they fought in another era, and who have adopted the attitude that if it wasn't shown on HBO or wasn't a SportsCenter highlight, it doesn't mean anything. But personally, I don't feel comfortable ranking fighters who fought that long ago. It's just too hard to grasp their greatness, due to the old films that captured them. The films do them no justice, and with no audio, it makes it even harder to get a true appreciation of their greatness.

Starting at around the Joe Louis era, the film and audio quality improved tremendously. There's plenty of good film available on the fighters from Louis onward, and I feel that it's more than adequate to get a good feel for the fighters. Plus, Louis was the new wave of fighter, way ahead of his time.

Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali

In this writer's opinion, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali are at the top of boxing's heavyweight Mount Olympus. I am confident that both of them would defeat all of the fighters on this list. Ali and Louis had too many weapons and skills for the other fighters, and they were much more resourceful and complete. So, why do I rank Ali over Louis? When great fighters face each other, it often comes down to styles. In a Louis vs. Ali match up, the style advantage goes to Ali. Aside from Billy Conn and Joe Walcott, Louis' opponents usually came to him, which played perfectly into his style. Fighters who moved away or circled caused him some difficulty.

Ali's overall speed and movement would make it hard for Louis to get into position to catch him with combinations, which would be necessary in order to slow Ali down. Also, Louis had a style that Ali was accustomed to. Louis would pressure Ali, but not in the way Frazier or Foreman did, who both forced Ali to react when he didn't want to. Louis applied more subtle pressure, which is something Ali could handle and exploit, and Louis didn't change for any fighter. Louis would just bide his time and wait for Ali to make a mistake, instead of trying to force him to make one, as Frazier and Foreman did. This would favor Ali.

I'd take Ali over Louis, mainly because Louis would have to change and adjust his style and posture, and Ali wouldn't. Also, Ali beat better fighters. In Liston, Frazier, and Foreman, Ali beat three fighters who make almost everyone's all-time heavyweight Top 10. In the case of Frazier and Foreman, Ali defeated them after his 43-month exile and while they were in their respective primes. Ali also is the only heavyweight champion in history whose opposition cannot be questioned, even by the harshest critics.

One final thought on Louis and Ali: It is my firm belief that both of them were plenty big enough to more than handle the giant heavyweights fighting today. And both Louis and Ali defeated fighters as big or bigger than those currently fighting. Both of them were more troubled by smaller, quicker fighters‹not the bigger, ponderous, hulking-type fighters of today.

How I Rated the Fighters

I'm a believer in hypothetical head-to-head fights, and I feel it carries much weight when ranking one fighter over another. For me, to rate Fighter A over Fighter B, I must feel strongly that A would've defeated B if they had confronted each other on their best night. I also think length of title reign can sometimes be misleading. For example, Liston made only one title defense and Foreman made only two, but both of their title tenures were cut short because they fought during the Ali era. Had Ali not been around, Liston could've remained champ through 1970, and Foreman could've reigned from 1973 into the 1990s. Remember, Foreman captured the title a second time in November 1994, and that was after a 10-year ring absence.

I throw out a fight if a great lost to another great but one was coming out of retirement or obviously a shell of what he was at his best. I don't give weight to Holmes' win over Ali, Marciano's win over Louis, or Tyson's win over Holmes. The way I see it, number three beats number four more times in 10 fights than number four would beat number three. From number three (George Foreman) on, I share how I'd see a match up involving that particular fighter against both Louis and Ali.

Top 10

1. Muhammad Ali (knocked down four times; stopped once)
Muhammad Ali had more weapons and ways to beat great heavyweights than any other heavyweight champion in history. He was the fastest heavyweight ever of hand and foot, and he was blessed with a cast-iron chin and very underrated physical strength. Ali had the ability to endure a body shot as well or better than any heavyweight who has ever lived, coupled with never before seen recuperative powers. Ali was the master at psychological warfare and had an indomitable will to win. He could adjust and adapt to all different fighting styles. Ali used his strength to outmuscle the boxers and his speed to outbox the swarmers and sluggers, and he was as tough as could be. Also, Ali fought and dominated during the best era in heavyweight history, despite being out of boxing during the four best years of his physical prime. Unlike Louis, Ali was probably the most flawed heavyweight champion ever, from a fundamental boxing standpoint. He just out-sped his flaws and mistakes because of his great athletic ability. The one thing Ali lacked was one-punch knockout power, which some believe a dominant heavyweight champion should possess.

2. Joe Louis (knocked down seven times; stopped twice)
Joe Louis is the closest thing to a flawless fighter in boxing history. He is the textbook on boxing; he did everything perfect and was light years ahead of his time. He had perfect form, wasted no punches, and threw every punch perfectly with speed and accuracy. He had dynamite in both hands, applied subtle pressure to set up his opponents, and was a great combination puncher who carried his power throughout the fight. Louis also had an outstanding chin. Some incorrectly say his chin was his weakness. He was down seven times, but he was stopped by Max Schmeling early in his career, before reaching his peak and only after absorbing countless flush rights to his jaw. And don't be fooled: Schmeling had a stiff right hand. The other time Louis was stopped was when he was an empty package at age 37, fighting Rocky Marciano, one of history's greatest punchers. Other than these two fights, Louis was never close to being stopped. He was knocked down, but he always jumped right back up (flash knockdowns). The only chink in Louis' armor was that he was sometimes vulnerable to boxers with good foot movement.

3. George Foreman (knocked down four times; stopped once)
I rank George Foreman highly because he was the best puncher in heavyweight history, and had he not lost to Ali, he might have never been beaten.

Versus Louis: This fight would come down to styles. Louis and Foreman are the two most dangerous fighters in heavyweight history when the opponent comes to them. It's suicidal. The fighter who advances toward the other in this fight loses. I see Louis drawing Foreman to him. This would set up Foreman to be hit and countered with Louis' quick combinations. I see Louis being too precise and fundamentally sound for Foreman. Foreman's power would be dangerous for Louis, and a Foreman knockout win would not be an upset or even surprising, but I'd give the Brown Bomber the edge winning by a lopsided decision or a late stoppage, if Foreman tired.

Versus Ali: We actually had the privilege of seeing this fight. Ali's overall speed and experience provided him with a huge advantage. However, what really tilted the fight in Ali's favor was his overall physical strength and cast-iron chin, which enabled him to stand up to Foreman's fierce assault. Foreman was made to order for Ali.

4. Sonny Liston (knocked down twice; stopped three times)
A closer look at Sonny Liston's career reveals that other than losing a decision to Marty Marshall in his eighth pro bout, which he avenged twice, Liston completely went through the division. His defeats by Ali were later in his career, and he was an old man by the time Leotis Martin beat him.

Versus Louis: This is an intriguing fight. In the late 1950s and early '60s, some historians felt Liston was even greater than Louis. Liston's jab would've been troublesome for Louis, but the difference in this fight would be the Louis' hand speed. Louis would be able to get his punches off first and faster, and he was a much better combination puncher than Liston. Louis would win a comfortable decision. Liston's power, like Foreman's, would make him dangerous throughout the fight, and a Liston knockout victory couldn't be considered an upset.

Versus Ali: As with Foreman vs. Ali, we saw Ali vs. Liston |(though it wasn't a prime Liston). Ali just had too many weapons‹along with the size, the speed, the strength, and the chin‹to be defeated by Liston. Like Foreman, Liston is made for Ali.

5. Joe Frazier (knocked down 10 times; stopped three times)
Next is Joe Frazier, who I have no doubt some will say I've ranked too high. In my opinion, Frazier is admonished too harshly for his Foreman losses. Those who say Frazier couldn't fight big punchers basically mean Foreman, but Foreman is the best puncher in heavyweight history! On top of that, from a style standpoint, Frazier is made for Foreman, and Foreman was the only fighter who walked through Frazier. Of the 10 times Frazier went down, eight were by the sledgehammer fists of Big George. Frazier never lost to any fighter he shouldn't have. Other than Rocky Marciano, no fighter on this list can say that.

Also, Frazier gave Ali hell all three times they fought, and on the night of March 8, 1971, Frazier gave boxing one of the greatest performances by any heavyweight ever, winning the biggest fight in boxing history. I rated Frazier above Marciano, mainly because I just can't envision a fighter smaller than Frazier beating him, and Marciano would be more likely to get cut. However, I go back and forth on Frazier vs. Marciano, and on another day I could easily rate Marciano over Frazier.

Versus Louis: Frazier is tailor-made for Louis. Frazier's aggressive attacking style would play into Louis' hands. Louis would catch Frazier clean as he was coming to him. By Frazier coming in, the punch would land with even more impact. Also, Frazier was sometimes vulnerable to being hit with the straight right. Louis' right hand was snakelike and quick, with the explosiveness of a stick of dynamite. I see Louis stopping Frazier. If Frazier could make it to the last third of the fight, he might have a shot with his pressure possibly getting to Louis, but I can't see Frazier making it that far.

Versus Ali: We saw this three times, and we can't thank the boxing gods enough for allowing us the gift of witnessing all three.

6. Rocky Marciano (knocked down twice; never stopped)
Some might think Marciano should be ranked higher because he was undefeated, but I think it's very possible that if some of the above fighters had fought during the time Marciano did, they too might have gone undefeated. That's not taking anything away from Marciano; he had dynamite in both fists and a jaw of granite. He was the best-conditioned heavyweight ever, and no one was tougher.

Versus Louis: We saw this fight, but Louis was 37 and shot. In their primes, I see this fight close to how I see Louis vs. Frazier. Marciano, like Frazier, would apply constant pressure, which is instant death against Louis. Louis would land smashing right hands and devastating right uppercuts to Rocky's head. Marciano is more prone to cuts than Frazier is, but since he doesn't apply quite as much pressure as Frazier, he may last a little longer. I think Louis would decision Marciano or cut him leading to a possible stoppage. Again, like with Frazier, if Marciano were around in the last third of the fight, he could stop Louis. I think Marciano would have a better chance to upset Louis than Frazier would.

Versus Ali: Forget the computer garbage, which had Marciano winning in the United States and Ali winning in Europe. I see Ali-Marciano similar to Ali-Frazier. But I don't believe Marciano would've been quite as tough on Ali as Frazier was. Marciano didn't cut the ring off as well as Frazier did, and Frazier had faster hands on the inside than Marciano did. Marciano would have to try to force the fight on the inside. I think Frazier had a little better head movement then Marciano and was also harder to hit, which would benefit Ali. I see Ali winning a more one-sided decision over Marciano than he did over Frazier, unless he cuts Marciano.

7. Larry Holmes (knocked down six times; stopped once)
Next is Larry Holmes, who, along with Liston, possessed the best jab in heavyweight history. Holmes had the heart of champion and was most dangerous when he was hurt. He also could adapt to opponents with different styles.

Versus Louis: I see Holmes doing well against Louis early, because of his great left jab. Holmes would make Louis work to get close, but the longer the fight went, the more likely it'd be that Louis would get to Holmes and start scoring short straight rights inside of Holmes' jab. Once Holmes started to slow, Louis would be deadly with his body punching against a leg-weary Holmes. Louis would start landing his explosive rights and left hooks more regularly, eventually wearing Holmes down and winning a clear-cut decision.

Versus Ali: Unfortunately we saw this fight, but it was a thoroughly shot Ali two months shy of his 39th birthday facing Holmes at his peak. If both were in their primes, this fight would be painful to watch. Both guys depend on their jab to set up everything they did, and both guys hated to be jabbed at. (See Ali vs. Jones, Bugner, and Young; also see Holmes vs. Witherspoon, Williams, and Spinks.) Another question is which fighter could get the other to be the aggressor. Because both guys liked to have their opponents come to them, the aggressor would be at a disadvantage in this match-up. This fight would definitely go the distance; both Ali and Holmes had great chins, and neither had a big enough punch to knock the other out. I see Ali getting Holmes to be the aggressor, and Ali would be a little faster, stronger, and have better stamina. Ali would win a boring, ugly decision.

8. Evander Holyfield (knocked down six times; stopped twice)
Evander Holyfield is next, and without question, he's the biggest overachiever in heavyweight history. He also was outweighed in all but five of his heavyweight fights, and he defeated every top fighter of his generation.

Versus Louis: The problem for Holyfield against Louis is that Holyfield's heart is too big. Holyfield would be only too willing to engage Louis and to trade with him. Louis would apply enough pressure to force Holyfield to fight back. Holyfield wouldn't have the boxing skills or the punch to discourage Louis from coming at him. Once this fight becomes a toe-to-toe slugfest, the "Real Deal" would be stopped. I don't see any scenario in which Holyfield beats Louis.

Versus Ali: This is another match-up that Holyfield has nothing to win with. He can't outbox or out-speed Ali, and he's not a big enough puncher to bother him or to wear him down. I see Ali circling and boxing Holyfield, being able to pick his spots to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. Ali wins every time, most likely by a decision.

9. Lennox Lewis (knocked down twice; stopped twice)
Current champ Lennox Lewis never fought someone he wasn't able to defeat and, like Holyfield, he fought and defeated the best of his era. I rank Holyfield above Lewis, because I think at their best, Holyfield would decision Lewis. When they fought each other in 1999, Holyfield was capable of only fighting in spurts, which made it impossible for him to outpoint Lewis. Evander also had a better chin than Lennox, which is a must in the heavyweight division.

Versus Louis: I see Lennox's jab keeping Joe at bay for a short time, similar to how Holmes' would. But again, Louis is too fast and sharp of a puncher not to get inside and hit Lennox's chin. Once Louis got inside, he'd start working on Lennox's body with short, crisp left hooks, and the fight would be over. Lewis is such a huge target, I can't see him eluding the Louis assault, and there's no way he'd stand up to Louis' power. Lewis might catch Louis early, but I doubt he'd fight aggressively enough against a fighter with the two-handed power of the Brown Bomber. Louis stops Lewis.

Versus Ali: I don't see Lewis presenting many problems for Ali. Lewis is too big, too cautious, and too slow to bother Ali, and Lewis is too big of a target for Ali to miss. Ali could pick his spots to go in and out whenever he chose to. I see Ali taking Lewis to school, giving him a thorough boxing lesson. The only thing Ali would have to think about is not running into a Lewis right hand. Even so, I can't see Lewis' right hand being as dangerous as the left hook of Frazier or any power punch that Foreman, Liston, or Shavers landed on Ali. Ali wins by lopsided decision.

10. Mike Tyson (knocked down four times; stopped three times)
Despite having tremendous physical talent, Tyson was an underachiever. He was also winless against the best fighters he faced. But his punching power and hand speed cannot be denied.

Versus Louis: I see Louis getting inside of Tyson's looping right hands and left hooks. Tyson has fast hands, but Louis' were also fast, and since Louis threw straight punches, he would beat Tyson to the mark. Once Louis has landed a couple of short, explosive rights on Tyson, Tyson would lose his will and confidence and start trying to land one big punch to knock Louis out. Once this failed, Tyson will go through the motions, as he did against Lewis, until Louis knocked him out. Tyson—like Foreman, Liston, Marciano and Frazier—could always get lucky, but I don't see it. Louis hits too hard and is too refined to lose to Tyson.

Versus Ali: This would play out much like Ali vs. Frazier or Marciano, but it wouldn't be as tough for Ali. Tyson didn't apply as much pressure as Frazier did, and he was easier to hit. He didn't take a punch as well as Frazier or Marciano, and he was nowhere near as tough as either. He had faster hands than both, but against Ali, he'd still get out-sped. As for punches, Tyson's hook wasn't as good as Frazier's, but his right was better. Tyson had a better hook than Marciano did, but his right wasn't as good. Another big difference here is that Marciano and Frazier got stronger as the fight progressed, but Tyson was at his best during the first couple of rounds. He slowed after the third round and didn't quite carry his punch throughout the fight, as Louis and Marciano did. To beat Ali, Tyson would have to get lucky in the first or second round. Ali defeated better punchers than Tyson and definitely tougher fighters than Tyson. Ali stops Tyson!

The above is my opinion of who I think were the 10 best heavyweight champions from the Joe Louis of 1937 to the Lennox Lewis of May 2003. To me, head-to-head confrontation means a lot. What determines who the better fighter is? Why is Liston better than Patterson? Patterson was the better technician, more fundamentally sound, and a two-time champion. Patterson also made six title defenses compared to Liston's one. But in head-to-head meetings, Liston's overall physical strength overwhelmed Patterson's skill. So, he has to be ranked above him. Same with Frazier and Foreman. Frazier made 10 title defenses and Foreman made two. (Foreman's comeback doesn't come into play for me, because he wasn't at his best during his comeback; I compare only prime vs. prime.) Frazier was a better overall fighter than Foreman and was even a better champion. But like Patterson against Liston, Frazier was beaten by Foreman's strength and punch. Foreman must be ranked above Frazier.

I'm sure my rankings of Frazier, Marciano, and Tyson will cause the most outrage, especially with the fight fans 35 or younger. But I saw prime Frazier and Tyson, and I have all of Marciano's major fights on tape. I have also spoken with some of the trainers and fighters from Marciano's era, including Jersey Joe Walcott. So, I'm confident that I have a realistic grasp of Marciano's greatness. Some fans dismiss Marciano because they think he was too small at 185 pounds to 190 pounds. What's not widely known is that he walked the street at well over 200 in his prime and at almost 250 after he'd retired—and he wasn't a slob, he was solid. His fighting weight was so low because of how long and hard he trained. Regarding Frazier and Marciano: I constantly go back and forth with regarding who should be ranked over whom. I have no problem with anyone who thinks Marciano could have beaten Frazier, or who ranks Marciano above Frazier.

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