In search of the greatest heavyweight puncher
Luke G. Williams
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Over the years the big boys have produced many fighters with formidable firepower, but who tops the heavy-hitter list? Luke G. Williams believes he has found the answer, with some help from Michael Bentt, Jay Deas, Ron Lipton and Michael Spinks...
From the earliest bareknuckle days - when every bout was a fight to the finish - nothing has got the pulse of fight fans racing as much as a spectacular knockout. But which heavyweights are the biggest punchers of all in the long history of boxing's blue riband division? And how do the mightiest punchers of yesteryear compare with top heavies today, such as Deontay Wilder and Anthony Joshua?
For some help answering these questions, BM turned to four experts: Jay Deas, who has trained Wilder since the WBC titleholder first laced up in the amateurs; Michael Bentt, the former WBO champion who famously bombed out heavy-handed Tommy Morrison in one round; amateur boxer turned referee Ron Lipton, who sparred with Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali among others; and former light heavyweight and heavyweight champion Michael Spinks.
Bentt begins by giving BM his take on whether punchers are born or made. Well, from my observation and experience they are born with a certain gift, but ultimately timing and matchmaking are also an important factor in how they are perceived in the pantheon of greatness, Bentt says.
"Power is a unique thing," Alabama native Deas tells BM. “Every heavyweight can hit, but some have that it’ factor. Punchers are basically born but you can improve power 10 per cent or so with conditioning and technique. Spacing, distance, timing all play into it.”
How, then, does a boxer ensure a punch is delivered with maximum power? Lipton, an experienced trainer, chimes in: “The strongest muscle in the body is the buttock muscles. I teach all my students to put their behind into each hard shot to drive it through, along with a shoulder snap and lots of abs, intercostals and serratus into the punch.
“It comes up from the floor and the muscle control in each punch puts the entire package in play with each shot.”
The technique that enables a punch to be delivered effectively may be timeless, but comparing the biggest punchers from different eras is problematic, largely because of advances in sports science, nutrition and training methods since the publication of the Queensberry Rules in 1867.
Also, the human anatomy has changed during this period, with, for instance, today’s average American standing around three inches taller than a century ago. Logic suggests that many great punchers of the past would struggle to make an impact among today’s heavyweights - indeed if they were transplanted directly from their era to the present, the majority would be light-heavy or cruiserweights.
It’s a point Deas emphasises. “Not to discount [Jack] Johnson, [James J.] Jeffries [pictured left], [John L.] Sullivan and those guys, but technique and training has advanced so far, it’s not really fair to include them,” he says.
Nevertheless, the greatest punchers of the late 19th and early 20th century certainly deserve mention in a survey such as this.
The last bare-knuckle heavyweight champion, the aforementioned John L. Sullivan, for example, had a career KO percentage of 85. His famed right hand - the “Boston Special” - landed with such force that one victim (so the legend goes) was lifted off his feet and the stage of an opera house in Boston and deposited in the orchestra pit. Paddy Ryan, deposed as bareknuckle champion by Sullivan in 1882, summed up what it was like to be hit by the “Boston Strong Boy”: “When Sullivan struck me,” Ryan remarked, “I thought that a telegraph pole had been shoved against me endways.”
If we are talking pound-for-pound power, though, Sullivan is bested by Bob Fitzsimmons (KO percentage 86.76, pictured left fighting Peter Maher), a physical freak with spindly legs who was a natural middleweight. Fitz’s power was paralysing, even at heavyweight.
“In delivering a KO shot, it helps to land it in an anatomically correct sweet spot, the temple, point of the chin, liver, solar plexus,” remarks Lipton, and in this respect Fitzsimmons was an artist. “The Freckled Wonder” KO’d contenders such as Gus Ruhlin, Tom Sharkey and Peter Maher (who himself notched more than 100 career KOs), while his famous “solar plexus punch” accounted for James J. Corbett. “How it hurt!” Gentleman Jim winced. “It felt as if I should die for the first few moments after I went down!”
James J. Jeffries was another early champion whose power had to be respected. Fourteen of his 19 victims were stopped (KO percentage 73.68), although often as the result of cumulative damage rather than single shots.
Although his one-sided thrashing by Jack Johnson tarnished his reputation, Canada’s only lineal heavyweight champion Tommy Burns (KO percentage 81.25) achieved something only Larry Holmes among later heavyweight champions could match by winning eight successive title fights via KO or TKO.
Another heavyweight not regarded as one of the greatest but definitely one of the hardest hitters was Max Baer (KO percentage 86.76). “Madcap Maxie” possessed one of the mightiest right hands in boxing history and his blows directly and indirectly contributed to the deaths of Frankie Campbell in 1930 and Ernie Schaaf in 1933.
Perhaps the most lethal heavyweight punchers of the first half of the 20th century, though, were Jack Dempsey [pictured left] and Joe Louis. Despite only weighing around 190 pounds, Dempsey (KO percentage 81.48) floored Jess Willard - then the heaviest champ in history - seven times when he won the title in 1919.
Dempsey’s greatest assets were speed and ferocity, while his left hook was fearsome. An impressive 20 of his 44 KOs came in the opening round, including a 23-second blitz of the towering Fred Fulton in 1918.
Louis (KO percentage 78.79) didn’t have Dempsey’s ferocity and rarely won via one-punch KOs, but with destructive power in both fists he was probably the most ruthless finisher in heavyweight history.
Louis [pictured left] won the title by knocking out James J. Braddock and scored KOs in 21 of his 25 title defences, the last against Jersey Joe Walcott.
(It would be 22 KOs if you include the first of Louis’ two title defences against Buddy Baer. This is recorded as a DQ but, as the YouTube video shows, in reality it was a KO as Baer was finished after being dropped three times in the sixth round and carried to his corner when the round was over, only for a disqualification verdict to be given when Baer’s handlers refused to leave the ring for the start of round seven.)
Braddock, describing what it felt like to be KO’d by “The Brown Bomber”, said: “It’s like someone jammed an electric light bulb in your face and busted it.”
Moving to the second half of the 20th century, Rocky Marciano [pictured left] merits serious consideration. Forty-three of his 49 victories came via stoppage (KO percentage 87.76), with his unforgettable KO of Jersey Joe Walcott in 1952 the most famous example of the power in his “Suzie Q” right hand (although Marciano added a left hook for good measure before Walcott crumpled to the canvas).
But how did a man who weighed only around 185 pounds generate such power? Lipton explains: “Marciano’s punches came from the ground up from powerful legs, a terminator rock-hard physique and stamina.”
One of the most intimidating heavyweights in history was Sonny Liston (KO percentage 78), whose defeats against Muhammad Ali often obscure what a formidable fighting machine he was. Liston was a devastating puncher in his prime.
Between 1958 and 1963, he cleaned out a series of top contenders before toppling champion Floyd Patterson and then demolishing him in a rematch. Incredibly, Liston’s six wins against Cleveland Williams (twice), Nino Valdes, Zora Folley and Patterson (twice) detained him for a total of just 13 rounds.
Although Ali, Liston’s conqueror, is widely regarded as the greatest heavyweight of all, with a KO percentage of 66.07 he would be nobody’s choice as the biggest puncher. Nevertheless, the fact he twice stopped Liston (corner retirement after six rounds and KO1) and also halted George Foreman (KO8) and Joe Frazier (TKO end of 14) indicates he could hit with authority.
Frazier himself possessed underrated power, scoring 27 stoppages in 32 wins (KO percentage 84.38), many of them courtesy of perhaps the finest left hook in heavyweight history. However, among lineal heavyweight champions it is Foreman who possesses the highest KO percentage of all, a staggering 89.47, made up of 68 stoppages from 76 victories.
Foreman’s brutish power accounted for quality heavyweights such as George Chuvalo, Ken Norton, Frazier (twice), Ron Lyle and Gerry Cooney - and in 1994 he regained the heavyweight title at the age of 45 with a one-punch KO of Michael Moorer.
Evander Holyfield, who fought Riddick Bowe, Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis, rated Foreman the biggest puncher he faced - and he only encountered the 42-year-old version of Big George.
Bentt pinpoints Foreman’s “wildness” as key. “Watch that first fight with Frazier in Jamaica,” he says. “I don’t think Frazier had the slightest idea where Foreman’s shots were coming from because they were so wild.
“In his first incarnation, Foreman would throw uppercuts, overhand right hands, etc, with no form or pattern at all. But guess what? If he touched you, you were going to sleep.”
Many believe Foreman’s closest rival in the heavyweight power stakes is Mike Tyson (KO percentage 88), whose explosiveness and viciousness were reminiscent of his hero Dempsey. Eddie Richardson, after being knocked out by Tyson in 1985, was asked if he’d ever been struck that hard before. “Yeah, about a year ago,” he quipped. “I was hit by a truck.”
Tyson’s most spectacular victory was his 91-second destruction of hitherto undefeated lineal champ Michael Spinks in 1988. Spinks himself believes Tyson is the greatest puncher of all. “Foreman was the biggest puncher before Tyson showed up,” Spinks told BM. “When Mike showed up, he was decking guys left and right. His punching power was pretty awesome. I am only speaking from my experience, and he hit me the hardest.”
Foreman’s clubbing power was very different from the precise savagery of Tyson, as Deas explains: “Getting hit by Foreman was like getting hit by a truck at 35mph - you feel every inch of it, real pain.
“Getting hit by Tyson was like getting hit by a bullet. Speed power. Doesn’t hurt so much as you’re just on the ground and your body doesn’t work!”
Bentt believes ring intelligence played a part in Tyson’s ability to land power punches. “Tyson’s boxing IQ was off the chart,” said Bentt. “He was a pure slugger, but the way he navigated the ring and would step around guys, and nullify their tools with his offense, was brilliant. Punching wise, he’s up there.”
So, is the biggest heavyweight puncher of the past a straight shoot-out between Foreman and Tyson?
Perhaps, but there are still some wild cards to consider, several of whom never even won a heavyweight title. Earnie Shavers [pictured left], for example, scored 68 KOs in 74 wins (KO percentage 91.89), among them 23 first-round stoppages. Ali - who bested Shavers on points in 1977 - said Shavers hit harder than Foreman or Liston, while rugged contender Randall “Tex” Cobb stated: “If anybody hit harder than Shavers, I’d shoot him.”
Others worthy of mention include Mac Foster, who posted a 100 per cent KO from 30 victories; Cleveland Williams (60 KOs, percentage 75) and Elmer Ray (64 KOs, percentage 75).
Some of history’s less heralded title-holders also accumulated remarkable KO records. Both Deas and Bentt tip a nod to Britain’s two-time WBO champ Herbie Hide (KO percentage 87.76).
“Hide had bone-jarring power,” Deas argues. “He hurt Riddick Bowe every time he hit him. Bowe got him out of there because he had to!”
Bentt, KO’d in seven by Hide in 1994 just five months after shocking Morrison, adds: “Speaking of pop, Herbie had it in spades. The derivation of it is beyond me, as he didn’t have a classic heavyweight chassis or style, but his punching power was like being introduced to Thelonius Monk and Edgar Allan Poe when hung over on hard liquor while holding a fork into an industrial electrical factory socket.”
Deas also rates the late Corrie Sanders [pictured left] of South Africa (“he had scary power and may beat most heavyweights in history in two or three-round fights”, KO percentage 73.81), while Bentt makes mention of unfulfilled talent Ike Ibeabuchi of Nigeria (“his technique was solid as hell and he could crack”, KO percentage 75).
Of course, it’s hard to rate a fighter on the basis of a curtailed career. Equally, it’s hard to assess just how great a puncher some heavyweights were who possessed remarkable KO stats largely forged against lower-tier opposition.
Take Shannon Briggs, former lineal champion and WBO titleholder, who notched 38 first-round wins and a career KO percentage of 88.33 - higher than both Tyson and Marciano. Or Frank Bruno, twice a loser to Tyson, whose 40 victories consisted of 38 stoppages, an overall percentage of 95 - a higher figure than Foreman.
Vitali Klitschko, who stopped Hide in two rounds and Sanders in eight, also possesses one of the highest KO percentages of any heavyweight title holder (91.11 percent) but, like his brother Wladimir Klitschko (82.81 per cent), the knock against him is that the best boxers he stopped won’t be entering the Hall of Fame any time soon.
On the other hand, Lennox Lewis’ KO percentage (78.05) is not as impressive as some, but when he shed his usually cautious style he possessed truly fearsome power, securing spectacular stoppages against opponents such as Razor Ruddock (himself a heavy hitter), Andrew Golota, Briggs, Hasim Rahman and a faded Tyson.
Lewis’ career emphasises the point that quality of opposition vanquished should be a crucial factor in determining the biggest heavyweight puncher of all.
On these grounds, many would argue Tyson cannot be considered the No. 1 KO hitter - sure he iced Spinks and Holmes, but the former was a blown-up light-heavy and the latter was well past his prime. None of Tyson’s other victims would be
considered all-time greats.
Foreman, in contrast, can boast of those sensational victories against a peak Frazier and Norton - one reason why Deas ultimately swings in his favour when comparing Big George’s power with Tyson’s.
“I think Foreman gets the nod,” Deas says of the Foreman/Tyson comparison. “A vicious puncher - even in his second career.”
However, when pushed for a definitive answer, Bentt plumps for Riddick Bowe (76.74 per cent) as his ultimate heavyweight puncher, pointing out “Big Daddy” knocked out a prime Evander Holyfield, possessor of one of the most solid chins in
“I’m kind of prejudiced because I like guys with sound and smooth technique,” Bentt says. “Riddick Bowe was super talented and, for me, the perfect package. He could crack and his power came from his technique. Foreman was a wonderful puncher, as
was Shavers, but they weren’t great technicians.
“I don’t think any other guy of similar size had the talent and technique Riddick Bowe did in his prime. And remember he stopped
Evander before Evander stopped Mike Tyson. That speaks volumes, man!”
Lipton, meanwhile, presents BM with a final shortlist: “If we take the most dangerous puncher on their most formidable, dangerous night who had the best chance to beat anyone in the first round, it would be Foreman, Liston, Tyson and Shavers.
“However, with Shavers there were guys like Ron Lyle who hung in there, taking it all and then stopping him - Foreman, Liston and Tyson would walk through most anyone like a Cape Buffalo through cobwebs.”
One more question, of course, remains, namely is there a puncher operating today who could be regarded as - dare we say it - a superior puncher to all these legends of the past?
Although he lost his WBA, IBF and WBO titles to Andy Ruiz Jr, Britain’s Anthony Joshua has only been extended the full distance once in his career, winning 21 of his 22 fights by way of stoppage (KO percentage 95.45).
Joshua’s most impressive KO was against Wladimir Klitschko, an all-time great to be sure, but who was 41 when he faced AJ. The jury remains out as to whether AJ’s power will prove truly great over time at the very highest level.
Bentt questions whether Joshua possesses the aggressive mindset of some of his predecessors. “KO artists have a specific mood and mindset - especially heavyweights - that connotes: ‘I’m fucking you up.’ Tyson, Liston, Foreman, Lyle, Marciano to name but a few all had that element of outward contempt or disdain.
“I think Joshua has the make-up to muster the kind of controlled loathing that is absolutely required, yet I get the sense he is holding on to the deep edge of the pool [rather than letting himself go].”
What, then, of WBC champion Deontay Wilder (KO percentage 97.56)? The “Bronze Bomber” has stopped every opponent he has faced bar Tyson Fury (knocking out Bermane Stiverne in the first round after winning their first bout by decision), many of them in spectacular, one-punch fashion.
Like Joshua, however, Wilder has yet to stop a truly top-drawer heavyweight at the peak of his powers, with Luis Ortiz being the
most accomplished victim on his ledger.
Nevertheless, Deas believes there is no one to rival the 34-year-old Alabaman for punching power in today’s landscape.
“Ortiz can punch with both hands, Dillian Whyte has a tremendous left hook, Joshua has a right and also a hook, Ruiz has that overhand right and Tyson Fury has a sneaky uppercut he can throw from various range and angles, but hands down Deontay is the biggest puncher,” Deas says.
“I’m not just saying that because I train him. His power is otherworldly. Ask anyone who has been hit by him: Jameel McCline, former four-time world title challenger and a friend, sparred with Deontay and said it’s not like getting hit by a human being.
That was in 20oz gloves and headgear!
“Deontay accidentally hit me under the body protector once and gave me a hernia - I had to have surgery. He dislocated Mark Breland’s shoulder with a right hand when Mark was doing mitts and fractured Coach Cuz [Hill]’s thumb with a hook on mitts.
“Deontay can graze you and hurt you. He has that Tyson speed-type power, but can also hit you where you feel every inch of it, like Foreman.”
Bentt believes Wilder’s unpredictability is key to his success. “He’s not a pretty textbook fighter. He throws punches from anywhere and everywhere and as an opponent you can’t time or anticipate that. His unorthodoxy is what makes him so
dangerous, a bit like Foreman early in his career.”
Lipton adds: “Wilder has a very dangerous right hand that he throws over the top, around the gloves and through openings with bad intentions, and he has good ballistic speed on the punch. It has enough juice on it to disconnect anyone if it lands on the chin or temple.”
So is Wilder the biggest puncher of them all? Right now this writer will stick with Foreman, courtesy of the longevity of his KO
prowess over a career encompassing four decades and two reigns as champion.
Deas, though, begs to differ. “You know I’m going Wilder,” he says. “I’m a boxing historian, so it’s not that I’m viewing through millennial eyes, I’m too old for that. It’s just that Wilder hits like no one ever has.
“He has the hand and bone structure of a basketball player. Thin, long bones. Not big, thick bones like other heavyweights. So it’s really a rare thing. Appreciate him while you can because, boy, can he punch!”
NB: Various sources disagree on fight and KO totals for some fighters. BM has used the sources we believe to be most accurate at the time of writing. Figures were correct as of September 2019, so do not include some recent heavyweight fights.