Ranking the great heavyweights: a statistical approach

Luke G. Williams
18/01/2016 9:56am

While checking through some old computer document folders a while back, I found an article I wrote around 17 years ago for a boxing website I was planning on setting up with one of my friends. We never did set it up (pre-Millennium the challenge of finding an html programme that we could both understand defeated us), but what interested me was that within this article I'd devised a scoring system with which to rank the greatest heavyweights of all time. 

Well, I say devised... what I'd actually done was shamelessly crib the system used by a mid-1990s Channel 4 programme which sought to identify the greatest British sportsperson of all time by ranking contenders out of ten marks in five categories: achievement, dominance, style, fortitude and impact. Presented by Daley Thompson, this fascinating programme concluded that, er, Daley Thompson was the greatest British sportsperson of all time. 

Despite this questionable finding, I was fascinated by this system, so I decided to apply it to boxing by scoring and rating every lineal heavyweight champion from John L. Sullivan onwards across these five categories. I ended up with Muhammad Ali top, Joe Louis second, Rocky Marciano third, Jack Johnson fourth and Marvin Hart bottom, just below Leon Spinks.

I liked this ranking system so much that I even adapted it, with my co-author Paul Gadsby, and applied it to World Snooker Champions in a chapter at the end of our book Masters of the Baize (highly acclaimed by The Sunday Times, by the way, and still available via Amazon etc). The resultant publicity was good for our sales and got our book some media attention on the BBC website and on Ceefax (remember that?) - all of which proved that such lists are definitely a good commercial proposition, even if they are, in rational terms, utterly ridiculous.

I’ve therefore decided, for fun and for the delectation of Boxing Monthly online readers, to re-rank the lineal heavyweight champs in these five categories. Compared to 17 years ago, my results have changed a fair amount, and my top four is no longer the same as it was back then.

Before launching into the standings though, a bit of explanation about the categories and how I applied them: 

1. Achievement - refers to what a boxer achieved in the course of their career, e.g. the titles they won, lost or regained, the length of their career at the top level etc. Depending on the level of competition at the time, winning the heavyweight title might be a particularly notable feat or not as the case may be. Similarly, becoming the youngest or oldest to win the title, or winning it in difficult or challenging circumstances might count as a more significant achievement. 

2. Dominance - how well a champion dominated their opposition and era. This might link to how long they reigned for, or how many defences they made, as well as the nature of their wins and quality of their opposition. For example, did they, by choice or misfortune, avoid fighting any of their major contenders? If so, this mark might be adversely affected.

3. Style - an assessment of the aesthetics and expertise of each boxer's individual skills-set. Probably the most controversial category, style being, in so many ways, in the eye of the beholder. 

4. Fortitude - how well a boxer reacted to adversity throughout their career, as well as how much bravery they showed in (and possibly outside) the ring. This category might incorporate the ability to fight back within an individual contest when seemingly being dominated or outgunned, as well as the ability to bounce back from setbacks and defeats.

5. Impact - the social, historical and cultural effect a boxer did (or did not) have on the times during which they fought or lived, and the extent to which they are still viewed as a significant sporting, historical or cultural figure. A key question in this category is whether a boxer managed to transcend their sport, or widen boxing's popularity or horizons.

That's the categories explained, so here's the 38 fighters I considered and the dates they reigned as lineal champion (thanks to the information on The Cyber Boxing Zone for saving me some time here).

Boxing Monthly’s website will be posting my scores, rankings and thoughts in reverse order throughout 2016, starting with the boxer I ranked 38th and last sometime in the next few days. In the meantime, maybe readers might like to rate the former champs themselves using the above criteria.

Heavyweight boxing Lineal champions:

John L. Sullivan (1885-1892)

James J. Corbett (1892-1897)

Bob Fitzsimmons (1897-1899)

James J. Jeffries (1899-1905)

Marvin Hart (1905-1906)

Tommy Burns (1906-1908)

Jack Johnson (1908-1915)

Jess Willard (1915-1919)

Jack Dempsey (1919-1926)

Gene Tunney (1926-1928, then retired)

Max Schmeling (1930-1932)

Jack Sharkey (1932-1933)

Primo Carnera (1933-1934)

Max Baer (1934-1935)

James J. Braddock (1935-1937)

Joe Louis (1937-1949)

Ezzard Charles (1949-1951)

'Jersey' Joe Walcott (1951-1952)

Rocky Marciano (1952-1956)

Floyd Patterson (1956-1959, 1960-1962)

Ingemar Johansson (1959-1960)

Charles 'Sonny' Liston (1962-1964)

Cassius Clay / Muhammad Ali (1964-1970, 1974-1978, 1978-1979)

Joe Frazier (1970-1973)

George Foreman (1973-1974, 1994-1997)

Leon Spinks (1978)

Larry Holmes (1980-1985)

Michael Spinks (1985-1988)

Mike Tyson (1988-1990)

James 'Buster' Douglas (1990)

Evander Holyfield (1990-1992, 1993-1994)

Riddick Bowe (1992-1993)

Michael Moorer (1994)

Shannon Briggs (1997-1998)

Lennox Lewis (1998-2001, 2001-2004)

Hasim Rahman (2001)

Wladimir Klitschko (2009-2015)

Tyson Fury (2015-present)