Ranking the heavyweights: reflecting on numbers 38-30
Luke G. Williams
Now that Boxing Monthly’s ‘Ranking the Heavyweights’ series has completed the rankings from 38-30, I thought it was an apt time to reflect on those boxers who finished in the lowest reaches of the chart, from Marvin Hart who came 38th (and last) up to Primo Carnera in 30th.
For ease of reference here are the scores of those fighters assessed so far across the categories of achievement, dominance, style, fortitude and impact, the criteria for which I explained at the outset of the series:
Rank Name A D S F I Total
30 Primo Carnera 6 5 4 8 6 29
31 Jack Sharkey 5 4 7 6 6 28
32 Jess Willard 5 4 4 7 7 27
33 James ‘Buster’ Douglas 6 2 5 5 8 26
34 Michael Moorer 6 3 7 5 4 25
35 Hasim Rahman 5 3 5 6 5 24
36 Leon Spinks 6 2 5 4 6 23
37 Shannon Briggs 4 3 6 6 3 22
38 Marvin Hart 4 3 4 5 2 18
The first thing that strikes me about the lower reaches of the chart, is that it is dominated by boxers whose careers as a whole could be defined as decidedly average - yet who somehow managed to achieve an amazing, against-the-odds victory to win the heavyweight crown.
As such this section of the chart is largely populated by underdogs who ‘grew great for a night’, toppling formidable champions in unexpected circumstances. This description certainly applies to Leon Spinks, who defeated Muhammad Ali; Hasim Rahman, who defeated Lennox Lewis; James ‘Buster’ Douglas, who defeated Mike Tyson; and Jess Willard, who deposed Jack Johnson. It also applies, to a slightly lesser extent, to Michael Moorer, who toppled Evander Holyfield.
The exceptions to this trend are Shannon Briggs and Marvin Hart, who rest at the foot of the table, largely because their claims to the heavyweight title were so strictly lineal that the recognition their championships were given among the public, as well as boxing aficionados, was severely restricted.
Wasted potential is another apparent trend in this section of the rankings. It is interesting to consider how some of these fighters might have fared if they had applied themselves properly throughout their entire careers, rather than only on occasion. It's a purely hypothetical game, of course, but it's intriguing to ponder, for example, how 'Buster' Douglas might have fared against Holyfield if he'd shown the same determination he did against Tyson and so on. Mind you, part of what makes a great champion is the ability to maximise your best form time and time again, which requires considerable mental fortitude, not merely physical skill or strength. A consistently strong mindset is arguably a quality the fighters ranked from 38-30 all lacked.
Indeed, it’s an interesting statistic that the fighters ranked between 37-31 mustered only a solitary successful defence of the heavyweight title between them – Willard's victory against Frank Moran in 1916 (which was, in any event, a no decision / newspaper decision contest). As such, the main reason why Primo Carnera has edged ahead of the pack into 30th place was the fact that he did, for all his faults, manage to defend his crown twice, and against fairly decent opposition too.
While underdogs’ feats may live long in the memory, the first section of this series seems to suggest that it is the longevity of a boxer’s reign that is often the most crucial factor in determining the extent of his 'greatness'. As we reach the higher reaches of the charts, you'll notice that I increasingly have to consider the quality of opposition different champions faced, as well as the length of their reign, which can be a tricky business. How do you compare, for example, a boxer who made only a handful of successful defences against top-quality opponents to a fighter with a longer series of contests against a lower standard of opposition? This is among the many questions I will ponder as the remaining rankings are unveiled.
The top 29 rankings will gradually be revealed over the coming days, weeks and months at BoxingMonthly.com. The 29 boxers left jostling for position are as follows (in alphabetical order):
Max Baer, Riddick Bowe, James J. Braddock, Tommy Burns, Ezzard Charles, Cassius Clay / Muhammad Ali, James J. Corbett, Jack Dempsey, Bob Fitzsimmons, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Tyson Fury, Larry Holmes, Evander Holyfield, James J. Jeffries, Ingemar Johansson, Jack Johnson, Wladimir Klitschko, Lennox Lewis, Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Floyd Patterson, Max Schmeling, Michael Spinks, John L. Sullivan, Gene Tunney, Mike Tyson, ‘Jersey’ Joe Walcott.
N.B. For the purposes of consistency, this series of articles uses the fight records found on BoxRec. I'm aware that, particularly in the era of newspaper decisions, no contests etc there are possible different interpretations / statistics quoted in different sources. Any queries, check BoxRec and then contact me if you have a further query.