The greatest heavyweight boxers of the past 50 years: Where do Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson rank?


Even through dark periods for the division, there’s still something a magical aura surrounding the status of heavyweight champion of the world in boxing. Dating back to John L. Sullivan more than a century ago, being the baddest man in the biggest division provides a mystique unmatched in sports.

Knowing that, CBS Sports boxing experts Brian Campbell and Brent Brookhouse sat down to debate and determine the top-10 heavyweights of the past 50 years. Looking at fighters and resumes since 1970 produced some surprising results, including Mike Tyson coming in a little lower than some may expect. The results stretch across various eras of boxing, right up to the current lineal heavyweight champion Tyson Fury. 

Let’s take a look at how the rankings turned out after days of debating and voting.

10. Vitali Klitschko: It remains amazing that both Klitschko brothers were not only dominant forces in their own era but are top-10 heavyweights over the past 50 years. Vitali started his career 27-0 and was WBO champion for more than a year when he suffered his first loss as a professional, and even that loss comes with a large asterisk after he was forced to quit due to a shoulder injury against Chris Byrd. He would have the chance to be the defining heavyweight fighter of his era when he met Lennox Lewis six fights later. He gave Lewis a thrilling challenge, winning a majority of the rounds before a horrific cut caused a doctor stoppage. While Klitschko would rattle off 13 wins to close his career, never getting the rematch with Lewis or having a defined period where he was viewed as the undisputed top heavyweight in the sport left him in the No. 10 spot. — Brookhouse

9. Tyson Fury: Talk about a guy with a difficult resume and legacy to properly rate. In one sense, the 6-foot-9 Fury has such a remarkable combination of size, speed and intelligence that there’s an argument to make he would be a handful for any heavyweight in history. On the other hand, his personal life has taken so many dramatic turns that it has robbed historians from getting a proper read at how great he really is. Huge chunks of missed time, including a three-year gap when depression and drug abuse saw Fury retire and balloon up above 400 pounds, has seen “The Gypsy King” deprived of the normal prerequisite of defining fights. He has also matched himself painfully soft at times. Still, ending the near-decade reign of Wladimir Klitschko in 2015 by so artfully disarming him only to then walk down and stop a puncher as dangerous as the unbeaten Deontay Wilder in 2020 are stark reminders of why Fury belongs on this list. — Campbell

8. Wladimir Klitschko: While Vitali’s two losses came via the aforementioned stoppages, Wladimir had a bad habit of getting knocked out by lesser opponents. First it was Ross Puritty, then Corrie Sanders, then Lamon Brewster. What lifts Wladimir to a higher spot than his brother, however, is his run from October 2004 to November 2015. For more than a decade, already more than 40 fights into his pro career, Klitschko went undefeated in racking up a 22-fight winning streak. Almost all of those fights came at the championship level, and by the end of that streak, Klitschko held the WBA, IBF, WBO, IBO, Ring and lineal heavyweight championships. He would retire with a record of 64-5 with 53 wins by knockout. — Brookhouse

7. Mike Tyson: Although his absolute prime was painfully short at just under five years before an upset loss to James “Buster” Douglas and personal issues led to a prison stint following a rape conviction, Tyson was as destructive within that stretch as any heavyweight in history. At just 5-foot-10, he was a knockout threat with either hand at any point in the fight and simply destroyed everyone from Trevor Berbick to Larry Holmes to a 91-second demolition of unbeaten lineal champion Michael Spinks in 1988. Tyson also set a seemingly unmatchable mark by winning his first heavyweight title at age 20 in 1986. Even though Tyson remained the sport’s biggest draw from his 1995 comeback through his 2005 retirement, his second chapter was sadly more known for mayhem and self-destruction than anything else. — Campbell

6. Evander Holyfield: Holyfield had already established himself as arguably the greatest cruiserweight in boxing history when he decided to move up to heavyweight in pursuit of Mike Tyson and the heavyweight championship. After six stoppage wins, Holyfield was finally positioned to meet Tyson after two years as the top contender to the title when Tyson was shocked by Buster Douglas. Holyfield would knock out Douglas in three rounds to win the WBA, WBC, IBF and lineal heavyweight titles. After successful defenses against George Foreman, Bert Cooper and Larry Holmes, Holyfield would lose the belts to Riddick Bowe. Upon regaining those titles two fights later, Holyfield would hit a 1-2 skid with a loss to Michael Moorer as well as a defeat in the rubber match with Bowe. This would set up Holyfield to finally get a crack at Tyson. Holyfield stopped Tyson in 11 rounds in 1996, winning the WBA title, and then won the rematch by disqualification in the wake of the infamous ear-biting incident. Holyfield would continue to fight in title bouts into his mid-40s before finally retiring in 2011. — Brookhouse

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5. Lennox Lewis: Of all the legendary names to inhabit a heavyweight era in the 1990s that was one of the deepest in boxing history, Lewis might very well be its best and most complete fighter. With great size, a punishing jab and a lethal finishing ability, Lewis cleaned out the division during his multiple reigns as champion and avenged both career defeats via knockout to regain the title. Although his Olympic rival, Riddick Bowe, chose to drop his WBC title into a trash can to avoid fighting him in 1992, Lewis went on to beat an impressive list of opponents including Donovan “Razor” Ruddock, Tony Tucker, Frank Bruno, Oliver McCall, Tommy Morrison, Ray Mercer, Shannon Briggs, Evander Holyfield, David Tua, Hasim Rahman, Mike Tyson and Vitali Klitschko. — Campbell

4. Joe Frazier: “Smokin’ Joe” started his career 29-0, winning the WBA, WBC, Ring and lineal heavyweight championships. Included in that run was a 1971 win over Muhammad Ali in “The Fight of the Century.” That classic win in Frazier’s best career performance would be enough to cement him in history, but Frazier also defeated a host of other talented heavyweights of his era including Jerry Quarry and George Chuvalo. Frazier would lose his next two fights with Ali, culminating in the “Thrilla in Manilla” and also lost two fights with George Foreman, both by knockout. Those two legendary fighters are the only two to get the best of Frazier in the squared circle. — Brookhouse

3. George Foreman: Whether it was his menacing first championship run in the 1970s or his remarkable comeback as a lovable crowd favorite who became the oldest man to win the heavyweight title at 45 in 1994, Foreman was always a threat to win a fight with one punch. That doesn’t mean the Olympic gold medalist wasn’t a great boxer, when he needed to be, either. But “Big George” was best remembered for knockouts against Joe Frazier (twice), Ken Norton, Ron Lyle as well as his incredible comeback KO of Michael Moorer. Considering Foreman exited the sport for a full decade beginning in 1977 to become a pastor, it made his second chapter all the more memorable (and marketable) given his drastic change in personality. — Campbell

2. Larry Holmes: Holmes started his career 48-0. Among the notable names Holmes defeated in that stretch were Earnie Shavers (twice), Ken Norton, Muhammad Ali, Trevor Berbick, Leon Spinks, Gerry Cooney and Tim Witherspoon. Holmes won the WBC title in June 1978 with a win over Norton. After seven successful title defenses, he defeated Ali to add the Ring and lineal heavyweight titles. Holmes would be stripped of the WBC title after 16 successful defenses, choosing to fight Marvis Frazier instead of Greg Page. Two fights later, he became the inaugural IBF champion, defending that title three times before finally losing the belts against Michael Spinks in September 1985, more than seven years after initially becoming world champ. Holmes would continue fighting until 2002, never reaching the previous heights of his peak, but always remaining a tough out until retiring after a decision win over Eric “Butterbean” Esch. — Brookhouse

1. Muhammad Ali: With a nickname as potent as “The Greatest,” there isn’t much more to say about the unique elements of skill, will and charisma that went into making Ali in discussion for most significant athlete of the 20th century. His legendary career was broken up into two chapters thanks to a nearly four-year exile at the peak of his prime for opposing the Vietnam War. While Ali clearly wasn’t the same fighter physically upon his return in 1970, it’s because of this decade that Ali is so beloved today. Ali’s ability to dig deep and find paths to victory in fights many felt he had no business winning created a belief that no matter the odds, he could find a way to win. Ali also took part in his most memorable rivalries during this stretch including trilogies with Joe Frazier and Ken Norton in addition to his upset knockout of George Foreman in 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle.” — Campbell





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