Boxing is perhaps the oldest and most simple sport known to man. The origins of hand-to-hand combat are pre-historic, but the first form of boxing as an organized sport that we know of dates back to the Greeks, where it became an Olympic sport in BC 688, although we have basic depictions of the sport dating as far back at the 3rd millennium BC. The sport in a form close to that which we know it today has been dated back to late 1600s Britain.
The debate over who is the greatest pound-for-pound boxer of all time is one which is eternal and creates endless debates among boxing fans. There are of course elements such as world titles, successful title defenses and unbeaten runs which one can look at, but the strength of the division, era and opponents all add complications to such a system. As such, there will never be unanimity regarding this topic, but I have attempted to justify my selections and order here.
The system by which we can compare all boxers – heavyweights to flyweights and everything in between – is by the pound-for-pound ranking system, an idea that was introduced in the 1940’s, largely because of Sugar Ray Robinson. With that in mind, let’s look at the best boxers in the history of the sport.
UPDATE: 2023/09/21 16:30 EST BY JOSH EVANOFF
The history of the “Sweet Science” is always ongoing. As one of the oldest sports to ever exist, it’s incredibly hard to rank the greatest boxers to ever step into the ring. It makes sense, as there are almost too many great fighters to name. As a result, boxing fans have argued for decades upon decades, who the greatest are. While there is never going to be a definitive answer on the subject, these are 30 of the best to ever put on the gloves. All of the names are legends in their own right, but some stand above the rest.
30 Julio Cesar Chavez
Julio Cesar Chavez admittedly has a bit of a complicated legacy, and that’s mainly because things can be true at the same time. Yes, it’s true that the Mexican boxer’s resume isn’t great, with many of his 107 wins coming against less-than-stellar competition. However, that’s not entirely fair.
Chavez didn’t face anyone with a pulse until he was 40 fights deep, but whenever he did, it wasn’t even close. A former three-division champion with wins over names such as Meldrick Taylor and Hector Camacho, his place in history is secure. You simply don’t get over 100 wins by accident.
29 Larry Holmes
Larry Holmes is among the most underrated boxers to ever walk the planet. That’s mainly due to his 1980 win over Muhammad Ali. Many hated ‘The Easton Assassin’ for easily dominating the legend, winning by knockout. While he didn’t get many fans because of it, it was the biggest win of his career.
However, Holmes had other great wins over everyone from Earnie Shavers and Ken Norton to Ray Mercer and Butterbean. Furthermore, his clear boxing ability was consistently on display, with his jab being one of the cleanest in the sport’s history.
28 Michael Spinks
Speaking of Larry Holmes, Michael Spinks’ incredible series with ‘The Easton Assassin’ is largely forgotten. A longtime dominant light-heavyweight champion, ‘Jinx’ moved up to heavyweight in 1985. As a heavy underdog, Spinks beat Holmes not once, but twice.
The Olympian later followed up those wins over a title defense over Gerry Cooney in 1987. Sadly, most fans just remember Spinks for his final fight against Mike Tyson. In their undisputed championship fight in 1988, ‘Iron Mike’ won by knockout in the first.
27 Manny Pacquiao
Manny Pacquiao is a bit hard to rank historically, as one of the more recent boxers on this list. Having started his career all the way down at flyweight, he won titles all the way up at welterweight. In fact, ‘PacMan’ even made history at 40 years old as the division’s oldest champion ever, with a 2019 win over Keith Thurman.
Pacquiao is a ferocious boxer, who has even teased that his time in the ring isn’t done. While he’s faltered in some of the biggest moments of his career, including his loss to Floyd Mayweather, his resume and accomplishments can’t be ignored.
26 Roy Jones Jr.
Roy Jones Jr. is a name that might’ve landed at number one had he ended his career at the right time. ‘Captain Hook’ looked like an alien for the first half of his career. Seriously, even fellow all-time greats such as James Toney and Bernard Hopkins could barely win a round against him.
Furthermore, Jones Jr. won gold in four weight classes, even at heavyweight. That being said, his legacy has taken a bit of a hit in many eyes due to fighting far past his prime. In his 50s, Jones Jr. continues to box, even dropping a split decision to former UFC champion Anthony Pettis earlier this year.
25 Stanley Ketchel
Kicking off the list proper is one Stanley Ketchel, a truly outstanding world champion who was sadly murdered at the age of 24. A Polish American who was born in Michigan, Ketchel was nicknamed the ‘Michigan Assassin’ and became Middleweight World Champion at the age of just 21. He defended his title 11 times in three years, and stepped up to the heavyweight division for a legendary bout against Jack Johnson. Johnson was 35 pounds heavier that Ketchel, but the assassin still knocked him out before eventually losing the fight; he was shot and killed less than a year later.
24 Joe Calzaghe
Joe Calzaghe has been criminally underrated by much of the world; one need only look at his record to see what an outstanding fighter he really was. Calzaghe fought 46 times, winning every single one of those fights, 32 by knockout. He was Super Middleweight World Champion for over 10 years, an all-time record, having defended the title on 21 occasions, and only relinquished the title to move up weight divisions. He was successful in his move up to Light Heavyweight, where he also became world champion. His critics point to the lack of high quality opposition, but you can only beat the man in front of you, and Calzaghe’s notable opponents include the likes of Chris Eubank, Jeff Lacy, Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones Jr.
23 Mike Tyson
If every boxing fan was asked to compile a list of this ilk, the man who would vary the most is almost certainly Mike Tyson. Some wouldn’t put him in their top 100, whilst others would have him top. There are points to be considered by either side. When Tyson first emerged he was a force of nature. He had incredible power and destruction in his fists and blew away his first 37 opponents, giving boxing a huge new wave of interest in the late 80’s. Yet as quickly as he emerged, Tyson faded. Holyfield and Lewis beat him convincingly and some would claim Tyson never beat a top class fighter in their prime. For me, he is still worth his place on this list, but only in 23rd.
22 George Foreman
George Foreman’s life and certainly his boxing career can quite easily be divided into two sections. The pre-Ali era and the post-Ali era. Pre-Ali, Foreman lacked charisma, he seemed more machine than man, and his style was that of a lumberjack, powerfully chopping away at his opponents, using his power to send them to the canvas. Post-Ali, Foreman was an immensely likeable figure, who became a beloved figure in the U.S. and returned after 10 years out of boxing to become the oldest heavyweight world champion in history. Foreman’s most legendary performances were his second round destructions of Joe Frazier and Ken Norton.
21 Archie Moore
Archie Moore had a quite extraordinary boxing career, taking part in 219 bouts, of which he won 185 and recorded 131 knockouts, more career knockouts than any other fighter in history. Moore fought his first boxing match in 1935 and his last in 1963, some indication of his incredible longevity. He is the longest reigning Light Heavyweight World Champion in history and most of his defeats came after moving up to the Heavyweight division, including losses against Rocky Marciano, Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali.
20 Lennox Lewis
Lennox Lewis is without doubt one of the smartest and most complete heavyweight fighters of all time. Born in England to Jamaican parents but brought up in Canada, Lewis won gold at both the 1986 Commonwealth Games and the 1988 Olympic Games. He quickly emerged as a top 5 world heavyweight, and became world champion in 1992. Lewis’ most notable victorious came over Frank Bruno, Evander Holyfield, Hasim Rahman, Mike Tyson and Vitali Klitschko. He remains the last undisputed heavyweight world champion, due to the Klitschko’s refusal to fight one and another.
19 Mickey Walker
Mickey Walker is widely regarded as one of the finest boxers to have ever lived, despite having 25 career defeats to his name. Multitalented, Walker was not only an expert in the ring, he was also an exceptional golfer and a fine artist. He became the Welterweight World Champion in 1922, became the lightest man in history to challenge for the Light Heavyweight title and became Middleweight Champion in 1926, which he held until 1931.
18 Joe Frazier
Joe Frazier’s ability as a boxer may have been exaggerated somewhat. His greatest achievement was of course his defeat of Muhammad Ali in 1971, but he was beaten in both the rematches and destroyed by George Foreman twice. Frazier did have, without doubt, one of the most powerful and effective left hooks in boxing history, and a relentless approach which wore down lesser opponents, but once you look past Ali, the list of fighters he beat is not as impressive as some. Frazier is well worth his place on that list, but should not trouble anyone’s top 10.
17 Jimmy Wilde
From a big beast to a little beast, Jimmy Wilde stood at just 5-foot-2, but he had explosive power in his punches that fighters of most weight divisions would be proud of. Wilde is regarded by many to be the greatest flyweight boxer of all time and was nicknamed ‘the Mighty Atom’. He had a number of famous bouts with Englishman Sid Smith, but Wilde won on every occasion. Of his 139 wins, a staggering 99 were by knockout and he was only beaten four times, losing the World Flyweight Title in his last ever fight.
16 Floyd Mayweather Jr.
The only active boxer on this list, Floyd Mayweather Jr. continues to divide opinion. Mayweather’s critics would say that he shirked a number of fights in order to retain his undefeated record, and some have attacked his reluctance to fight Manny Pacquaio when the pair were at their prime. Whatever you say about Mayweather Jr., it still has to be said that his defense is one of the greatest in boxing history and his record of 50 professional fights without defeat is worthy of respect. Mayweather’s greatest victories were those over Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, Miguel Cotto, Marcus Maidana and of course Manny Pacquaio.
15 Joe Gans
Joe Gans was the first African-American boxing world champion and is regarded by many as the greatest lightweight boxer of all time. Gans began fighting in 1891 and didn’t hang up his gloves until 1909. At a time when most boxers were brutes, Gans was more of a thinker. He would weigh up his opponent in the early rounds, assessing their strengths and weaknesses and exploiting them as the fight went on. Gans fought 196 times, winning 158, 100 of which were by KO, losing 12, drawing 20 and with 6 no contests. He was World Lightweight Champion from 1902 until 1908.
14 Harry Greb
Despite dying at the age of just 32, Harry Greb managed to fight 298 times, the third most bouts of any professional boxer in history. Nicknamed ‘the Pittsburgh Windmill’ due to his ability to throw punches in flurries, Greb had great power in his fists and was a very aggressive boxer who liked to mix it up a bit with his opponents. The dark side of Greb’s game was his willingness to employ dirty tactics, a willingness which caught up with him when his opponent did likewise and blinded him in one eye. Greb was World Middleweight Champion from 1923 to 1926, winning 261 fights and dying aged 32 shortly after his last fight due to heart failure.
13 Sam Langford
Sam Langford was once described by ESPN as the greatest boxer you’ve never heard of, but more recently the legacy of Sam Langford has become better known. The Ring named him the second greatest puncher of all-time, whilst BoxRec named him the fourth greatest heavyweight fighter of all time. The reason Langford is not better known is because he never became a world champion. Jack Johnson, who was world champion at the time, refused to fight Langford, meaning the only title he held was World Colored Heavyweight Champion. Langford considered Joe Gans (see no.15) as the greatest boxer in the world, but he defeated Gans in 1903. Overall, Langford fought 256 times, losing only 32 fights.
12 Jack Johnson
The man who prevented Sam Langford from his shot at a world title, Jack Johnson has received a lot of criticism for his supposed cowardice. Despite his reluctance to give Langford a shot, Johnson does deserve a great deal of credit for his achievements and general boxing career. He was the first African-American World Heavyweight Champion at a time when racial tension in the U.S. was perhaps at its most intense. Angered by the dominance of a black boxer, sections of white Americans persuaded the undefeated James Jeffries out of retirement to take on Johnson; Jeffries’ corner threw in the towel in the 15th round.
11 Roberto Duran
It is rare for Roberto Duran to miss out on lists of this ilk; he was named the fifth greatest fighter of the last 80 years by The Ring and the eighth greatest boxer of all time by Bert Sugar. Duran is one of only two boxers to have had a career spanning five decades, along with Jack Johnson. Having made his boxing debut in 1968, Duran fought his last bought in 2001. Nicknamed ‘Hands of Stone’ Duran through hard and consistent punches, he was a savage, a warrior and a monster in the ring. He held world titles in four weight divisions: lightweight, welterweight, light middleweight and middleweight.