The Heavyweights

Being in Vegas the last couple of days got me thinking about boxing.  I miss it.  The Sweet Science was such an important part of my sports upbringing, and today it is rapidly approaching total irrelevance. The last fight I even marginally paid attention to was Mayweather-McGregor, which was really more of a sideshow than a boxing match.  The last fight I purchased on Pay Per View was Mayweather-Pacquiao, which was a complete and total waste of $95.00.  The last fight I attended was in Vegas on Cinco de Mayo back in 2012.  Mayweather danced his way to a 12-round decision over Miguel Cotto (by the way, for context on what is to follow, Floyd is my least favorite fighter of all time).  The last good heavyweight matchup I was excited about was… was… was…

That’s the problem.  Heavyweights drive the sport, at least for middle-age guys like me who grew up in the golden age of 1970’s heavyweights. No heavyweights mean no boxing excitement. I know all of the reasons given for this — today’s best heavyweights are playing tight end or outside linebacker in the NFL, the popularity of MMA and UFC (I have to admit I don’t even know the difference between MMA and UFC, if there is one) with younger fans has eaten away at the population of trained, qualified fighters, etc. etc.

Whatever. I just wish for the next 10 years or so we could see a rebirth of competitive, charismatic heavyweights fighting for the Heavyweight Championship of the World.  Any alphabet-organization’s combination of initials indicating a championship title will do — just give me a couple of coordinated big men going at each other with boxing gloves on in the ring.

With that longing in mind, I decided to go back into the memory bank and revisit my ten favorite heavyweights of all-time (a reminder that “favorite” doesn’t always equate to “best”).  The fact that the last time any of these guys laced up the gloves was over 10 years ago speaks volumes, by the way.  Here goes:

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10.  Ken Norton — There was something about this perennial bridesmaid that I liked back in the day.  It started the day he broke Ali’s jaw as a (relatively) unheralded, ex-marine (I know, no one’s ever an ex-marine) and he grew in my estimation when he lost (robbed?) a 15-round decision to Ali at Yankee Stadium in 1976 (one of many decisions Ali managed to steal at the end of his storied career based on reputation and his skill at mesmerizing judges by closing out a round well). Norton fought an absolutely great fight against Larry Holmes (but lost) for the vacated title shortly after that, and never really could get over that “good to great” hump.

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9. Riddick Bowe —  You just gotta love “Big Daddy!” I’m tremendously biased here, as his  above-pictured bout against Jorge Luis Gonzalez was the first heavyweight title fight I ever attended, way back in 1995. What I remember most about that fight was how much fun the big man seemed to be having in the ring, both before and after the fight.  In my estimation Bowe is one of the more underrated and unfairly forgotten fighters of the ’90’s.  He could box and punch. His fights against Evander Holyfield were some of the most exciting I’ve ever witnessed, and at the time his rivalry against Andrew (“I’m hitting you low because that’s what I do”) Golota was riveting.

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8. Sonny Liston — Unfortunately he was before my time, but man I wished I could have caught a few of his fights in person.  As it is, his legendary scowl and the grainy old black and white tapes of his fights are enough for him to make this list. Did Ali hit him in the “Phantom Punch” fight?  I’ve watched it at least a dozen times, and his head moves back on impact, but all the historical evidence we have at our disposal today certainly makes it seem as though the fix was in. It’s stories like that one that make boxing history one of the most fascinating for sports fans.

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7. Ray Mercer — Loved this guy.  This one’s admittedly a bit of a homer call, as “Merciless” Ray Mercer was part of the New Jersey-promoted Triple Threat Promotion (anyone remember Ray’s two running mates Al “Ice” Cole and Charles “The Natural” Murray? The three of them all held belts at one time), that for a heartbeat in the early-’90’s looked like it could own the sport. Mercer’s story was a cool one, having discovered boxing later than most (age 23), while serving a stint in the Army. He won Olympic Gold in 1988, but what I’ll always remember was one of the most brutal destructions of all time, when poor Tommy Morrison, already out on his feet, somehow got his arm tangled up in the ropes. He couldn’t quite fall all the way to the canvas, thus prolonging Mercer’s relentless pummeling by several seconds until the ref finally was able to pull him away (photo above).  YouTube that one if you like that sort of thing. I still remember the sound of Mercer’s punches landing on Tommy’s face.  They had a “squish” sound that today feels kind of disturbing in the pit of my stomach as I reflect. Mercer-Morrison back in 1991.

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6. Teofilo Stevenson — Why couldn’t we get this guy in the ring somehow, some way, with Big George Foreman back during their respective primes?  He was a staple of Wide World of Sports growing up in the ’70’s, and is the first fighter that truly felt unbeatable to me, as I watched him dispose of all international competition that came his way. He remains to this day one of only three fighters to ever win gold at three different Olympic Games (1972, 1976, 1980) and there is no doubt in my mind he would have added to that total had Cuba not boycotted the 1984 and 1988 games. He was huge, could box and had enormous knockout power. He remains the face of those tremendous Cuban boxing teams I grew up rooting against.

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5. Earnie Shavers — Best remembered for absolutely rocking Ali with multiple thunderous right-hands while losing a decision to The Champ in 1977. Ali didn’t steal this one, although Shavers landed the more memorable blows, as he proved once again that it was really his chin that made him “The Greatest,” withstanding an outright pounding from Earnie.  The most memorable part of that fight had nothing to do with the action.  For some strange reason the network posted the judges scores following each round, sucking all suspense out of a great fight as Ali built up his lead on the scorecards.  Earnie’s only chance was with a KO and he came oh so close, but that Ali Chin… This ranking also is biased in a positive way, as I had the good fortune to meet Earnie at a charity event in the early-2000’s. What was most remarkable at the time was the fact that he appeared to be in the kind of incredible shape he’d been in twenty years before when he contended for the title (in stark contrast to Aaron Pryor and Ken Norton, both robbed of their senses from too many wars back in their heyday). He was also disarmingly friendly, with a  willingness to engage with starstruck boxing fans (like me), and in possession of a humble, dry sense of humor.  I had given him my card at the time, and a week later an envelope with an autographed picture, personal note and his business card showed up at my office.  Earnie Shavers, class act.

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4. Ron Lyle — This selection may surprise a few.  My ranking is based on one fight, but to me it remains the best heavyweight I’ve ever seen.  Ron Lyle-George Foreman on Wide World of Sports back one afternoon in 1976. If you are to take only one recommendation — ever — from the Sports Attic Blog, please take this one — you must YouTube this fight.  If you only like boxing a little bit, this will be the best half hour you invest.  Lyle packed a huge punch (as you are probably guessing right about now) and also possessed a mean streak.  As a 10-year-old kid, that combination alone made for his inclusion in my nascent “greatest fighters ever” imagination, and when you added in the fact that he was also an ex-con, well that made him even more immortal in my impressionable eyes.  He also threw a huge scare into Ali back in the ’70’s (didn’t it seem every heavyweight did that to Ali back in the ’70’s? Another testament to his greatness), but that fight against Foreman…please watch it.

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3. Joe Frazier — One half of what made the statement “styles make fights” so true.  His first fight with Ali was my first time experiencing a larger than life sporting event, in all it’s glorious hype.  One of my prize possessions to this day is the Life Magazine issue following the fight where Frazier (in what to me were the absolute coolest, satin green trunks, pictured above) is throwing that club of a left cross that floored Ali and won him the fight. The “Thrilla In Manila” was a war also, and makes it into my All-time Top 5 of fights (upcoming post, for sure), but the first fight is the one I’ll always remember.  That and the memorable brawl on stage prior to the “Thrilla”  (also airing on Wide World of Sports, or course) when he nearly decapitated Howard Cosell trying to get at Ali as The Champ did his humiliating “Gorilla” routine with the rubber toy gorilla he beat on repeatedly in an effort to both hype the fight and get in Joe’s head.  Mission accomplished on both counts.

Another quick personal aside on Joe was the time I met him and his son Marvis (an absolutely wonderful guy, by the way) at an HBO party I somehow lucked into attending in the early-2000’s.  Joe was nowhere near the nice guy his son was, and still scary and intimidating even now into his early-60’s. I made the poor decision to cut through the dance floor with a couple of drinks in my hand on the way back to our group’s table (truth be told I may have been a bit unsteady on my feet).  Smoking’ Joe was busy gyrating up a storm with a young lady (who clearly must have been a friend of the family) when our legs became tangled and both of us ended up in a heap on the floor. He was none too happy, but ever since that night my mind snaps back to that hazy moment in Atlantic City each time I hear the Howard Cosell tape of his infamous, nasal bellowing of “Down goes Frazier, down goes Frazier.”

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2. Muhammad Ali — C’mon, it’s too obvious to go with Ali as number one on every boxing list.  So we’ll put him in the 2-slot here. And besides, this is “favorite” not “best,” remember? Yes, he was the greatest, most influential (how many of this Top 10 has he already been referenced in?), iconic —  and the additional adjectives could go on for pages.  In the interest of time, I’ll focus on two things.

First, was his Rumble in the Jungle fight against George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. Mostly remembered for the extreme temperatures, the “Ali Bomaye” chant and the “rope a dope” strategy he rolled out that tired out Big George to perfection, what I remember was Ali’s size.  Because Muhammad Ali was such a skilled boxer, dancer and jabber, it’s easy to forget just how big a man he was.  If you haven’t already done so, one day check out the documentary “When They Were Kings” about this fight (one of the best fight docs I’ve ever seen) and pay attention to how Ali is looking Foreman right in the eye while they square off in the ring. This is meaningful to me because George always seemed such a larger than life giant.  But Ali was a big man, too.  And graceful, with an iron chin and a knockout punch.  The Greatest?  Yes, probably.

The second attribute I would remind folks about was how active a fighter The Champ was.  This guy fought everyone. And I mean fought. He ducked no one, and traded blows in the middle of the ring every time if that was what was needed, or called for, in the flow of the fight.  Check this out — from the date of the “Phantom Punch” fight against Liston in May of 1965 through March 22 of 1967 (less than two years of time!) when he knocked out Zora Folley in the seventh round, Ali fought NINE times. An absolutely remarkable string of boxing activity. Here they are:

5/25/65 — KO Liston 1

11/22/65 — TKO of Floyd Patterson in the 12th

3/29/66 — Decision over George Chuvalo in the 15th

5/21/66 — TKO over Henry Cooper (who had nearly knocked Ali’s head off back in ’63) in 6

8/6/66 — KO Brian London in the 3rd

9/10/66 — TKO over Karl Mildenberger in 12

11/14/66 — TKO over Cleveland Williams in the 3rd

2/6/67 — Decision over Ernie Terrell in 15 (his first fight after having his title stripped for refusal to be drafted into the army)

3/22/67 — KO Folley 7

To put that activity in proper perspective, compare that to today’s consensus pound-for-pound champ Floyd Mayweather.  In the five years of 2007 to 2011, Floyd fought five times (and rarely got hit).  Five times in five years dancing away from trouble versus Ali fighting big-time heavyweights nine times in two years during his prime.  Yes, he was The Greatest.

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1. Evander Holyfield — Yup, my favorite all-time.  The picture above sums it up for me. Respect early on and respect right until the end. I  first started paying attention to Holyfield during the ’84 Los Angeles Olympics.  He took bronze while all his more celebrated teammates were bringing home gold medals.  He won bronze because of a disqualification for hitting his overmatched opponent after the bell.  Knocked the guy out cold, but it came a split second late.  The ref waved the fight off and Evander’s chance at gold vanished.  His opponent raised Holyfield’s arm during the announcement of the decision in an impressive showing of sportsmanship, but to this day what I remain most amazed by was the class Holyfield showed in defeat.  There was no complaining, no hysterics, no jumping around the ring in agony.  He accepted defeat respectfully and moved on.  It was cool.

And then he went pro in that wasteland known as the Cruiserweight weight class.  He really wasn’t a heavyweight (neither was Joe Frazier for that matter, as we learned when he got lifted off the ground by a George Foreman right hand — “Down Goes Frazier!”), but he had Super Heavyweight courage and determination.  I’ve already mentioned his trilogy versus Riddick Bowe, which to me were the highlights of boxing in the 1990’s, but he also put on an unbelievable show in beating the 2.0 version of George Foreman during his comeback tour. However what earns him the Number 1 slot in my personal ranking system are the two wins over Mike Tyson.  Nobody likes a bully, and Tyson was the ultimate bully back then, who appeared well on his way to reclaiming his title of “Baddest Man on the Planet” when he signed to fight Holyfield the first time in what appeared to me to be a mismatch of epic proportion.  But Holyfield doesn’t have a fear gene, which we would soon learn was the only way one stood a chance against Iron Mike, and when he destroyed Tyson that night in 1996 I was both overjoyed and in awe.  It may have been the most perfectly executed fight plan I’ve ever witnessed.  And yes, he went on the whip the bully Tyson again in the rematch (the “Ear” fight), but to me his legacy was already sealed.  Number One for this fight fan always.

So there it is.  I’m interested in how others handicap their list — either in terms of “best” or “favorite.” Yes, I’ve omitted Tyson, Big George, Larry Holmes and Lennox Lewis (for reasons personal to me and my personal boxing perspective), and also the Klitschko brothers (sorry but I could never keep the two of them straight, resulting in them both being kept off the list, not that they would have been included anyway), and I’m sure there are a few others that you might question me on.

I’ve also excluded the old-timers I’ve only read about (other than Liston, who I’ve always been fascinated by).  Many lists would probably have to at least mention Marciano, Louis and Jack Johnson (who I’m also fascinated by, but am still learning more about), not to mention Jack Dempsey.

Boxing is a sport with such amazing history.  It truly saddens me that I don’t pay attention to it anymore.  Find me a heavyweight I can get interested in and that could all  change.  There are some great fighters in the lower weight classes today, but I need the big boys to get me to renew my Ring Magazine subscription (does Ring still exist?) and resume coughing up regular Pay Per View fees.

I’ll close with a shout out to the one and only Peter McNeeley.  If you don’t remember Peter, it’s understandable.  He was the “tomato can” (by the way, isn’t “tomato can” one of the many simply outstanding boxing expressions the sport has bestowed upon us?) hand selected to be Mike Tyson’s first opponent after Iron Mike got out of jail in 1995 following his rape conviction.  The fight ended as we all expected, but McNeeley left us with what to this day remains my favorite fight-hype expression. He “won the press conferences” in spectacular fashion by announcing to the world that he intended to wrap Iron Mike Tyson in a “cocoon of horror.” Bring back the heavyweights, folks.  I miss them.

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