The Best Performances Ever Seen In The Heavyweight division

11.01.04 -By Janne Romppainen: Undoubtedly the most common and lasting debate among boxing fans is who has been the greatest fighter ever. Slightly behind it would be the dispute about who is the best heavyweight of the history. It is very probable that neither of these discussions will ever come to end. At least as big and continuous argumentation as the former two could be made also about which performances have been the best that we have ever seen in the ring.

It is obvious that great performances often make great fighters but it is not quite that simple. There have been all-time greats who have achieved a lot, won plenty of top-class opponents but who have never absolutely shone in the ring. On the contrary, we have witnessed bouts where an overlooked underdog raises to the occasion and makes a great performance, if only once in his career. In this article I have tried to rank the best showings ever seen in the ring. To make the task a bit easier, I have concentrated only to the heavyweights. Also I have taken only one performance from each fighter to get more variety to the list. The level of the fighters has been taken on account as well, that is why bouts like Jimmy Thunder – Crawford Grimsley (a 13-second knockout) are not included, even though that bout didn’t left much to criticize from Thunder’s part. Here goes:

#10 Lennox Lewis KO4 Hasim Rahman 2001-11-17

The 36-year-old former world heavyweight champion Lewis had lost his crown seven months earlier by a brutal knockout at the hands of Rahman, the reigning WBC and IBF boss. Many suspect that Lewis has already lost his passion and after their first bout, plenty of experts expect Rahman to repeat his victory. Instead, the veteran challenger Lewis shows up in great condition and gives the best performance of his career. He takes the control immediately with his jab and punishes the champion with multiple right crosses. Lewis wins every round early and in the fourth he takes his revenge by a brutal left-right combination that drops Rahman flat on his back. Lewis has beaten everybody he has ever faced but sometimes he can look uninspiring in winning. That was not the case against Rahman though.

#9 Evander Holyfield TKO11 Mike Tyson 1996-11-09

This fight was supposed to be a brutal beating, and in the end, it was just that, though other way around than expected. Holyfield has faced a bad path in his career an looks to be way over the hill, while the returning Tyson seems just as invincible as he did in the eighties. Holyfield has also suffered health problems and many are truly afraid that he will get seriously hurt by Tyson who seems to personally hate “The Real Deal”. Tyson takes the fight at Holyfield but he is forced to see that the 34-year-old challenger is far from done. Holyfield never backs away but stands and trades there with the most feared fighter of the planet. It is a hard-fought and close contest to the halfway mark where Holyfield knocks Tyson down. After that The Real Deal has the mental advantage and even though Tyson never gives up, he doesn’t have a chance to win anymore. Holyfield ends his near-perfect showing in the 11th round after wobbling Tyson badly in the tenth round and with the great victory he solidifies his place among the division’s legends.

#8 Jack Dempsey TKO3 Jess Willard 1919-07-04

“The Great White Hope” and the conqueror of Jack Johnson, Jess Willard is defending his championship for the second title. The 245lbs giant Willard outweighs his foe by almost 60 lbs and even though Dempsey is a known “giant killer”, few give him a chance. The promoter Tex Richard is actually so worried for Dempsey’s sake that he instructs the challenger to stay down if he gets hit hard so that he could live the ring alive. As it turns out, it is Willard who nearly gets killed in the ring. Dempsey breaks his jaw from several places, busts his cheekbone, blasts off some of his teeth and cracks his ribs in the murderous first round that sees Willard being down seven times. Somehow the brave giant fights on and stays on his feet for two more rounds before he is forced to quit on his stool. Dempsey’s brutal victory has created suspicions about whether his gloves were loaded or not, but nevertheless, in this fight, the Manassa Mauler showed exactly why he is one of the biggest legends of the game. The world has never seen such a beating in the ring before nor after.

#7 Joe Frazier UD15 Muhammad Ali 1971-03-08

Despite the fact that we have had plenty of “Fight-of-the-Century”s throughout the history (in fact, we seem to have them nearly every year), we have never seen another boxing date such as the first encounter between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier was. And the chances are good that we never will see anything like it again. The unbeaten reigning champion Frazier is the slight favourite over the unbeaten challenger who has returned to the ring after a three-year lay-off. The fight reaches its expectations as the two best heavyweights of the planet put up a skilful and brutal contest. Ali is not quite as good as he was before his long break, but Frazier’s performance still is something to remember. He starts slowly as usual and eats plenty of jabs and combos by Ali and his face gets reshaped, but “Smokin’ Joe” doesn’t stop. He keeps pushing Ali to the ropes, pounds his body, hurts him badly in the eleventh round and knocks him down in the final to seal his close but unanimous decision victory.

#6 Riddick Bowe UD 12 Evander Holyfield 1992-11-13

Evander Holyfield is defending his undisputed world title against his number one contender, the Olympic silver medallist Riddick Bowe. Holyfield is a bit overlooked champion as some boxing fans still think that, without his prison sentence, Mike Tyson should still be the king. So Holyfield has something to prove too and as usual, he shows up in a tremendous condition against his talented challenger. Unfortunately from Holyfield’s view, Bowe is at his very best in the ring. He stands and slugs against the champion and gets the better of it. Bowe shows great infighting skills, big power and strength, solid chin and huge heart as he systematically pounds the brave champion. In the tenth round Bowe nearly finishes Holyfield and survives his furious counter-attack, then in the next round downs the champion and goes on to win a clear unanimous decision. This victory and performance by Bowe has increased its value afterwards after Holyfield has demonstrated how hard it is to out-slug him even when he is past his best, and Bowe did it against the prime Real Deal. Unfortunately for Bowe, this was his first and last truly great performance, later he faded and is now considered as one of the greatest could-have-beens of the history instead of a great champ.

#5 George Foreman KO2 Joe Frazier 1973-01-22

After defeating Muhammad Ali, Frazier has defended his title twice before facing Foreman. Foreman is one of the biggest prospects of the field but he is the underdog against the supreme champion who already is waiting for a rematch against Ali. Foreman’s trainer Dick Saddler warns everybody about the power of his fighter, but after seeing Frazier going through fifteen brutal rounds against Ali it is hard to see how anybody could put him away. Frazier takes the fight to his challenger in his usual style, but that turns out to be the biggest mistake he could have made. Foreman takes the control with his physical power and when he starts to land, the results are brutal. He downs Frazier with an uppercut in the first round and knocks him down twice more in the same round. Frazier tries to attack in the second round, but this time he is facing a seemingly invincible opponent. Foreman knocks Frazier down another three times before the contest is halted already in the second round. In just six minutes, the boxing world had gotten a new hero who now seemed to be unbeatable. And in the night that he destroyed Frazier, he indeed was very close to that.

#4 Mike Tyson KO4 Larry Holmes 1988-01-22

In Mike Tyson’s record there would be plenty of fights which could be nominees on this kind of a list. The quick destructions of Michael Spinks and Trevor Berbick are among the most overwhelming beatings at the championship level ever. However perhaps the most convincing victory of Iron Mike’s career was the way he brutalized the great Larry Holmes. Holmes was coming from a lay-off and was not at his best anymore of course, but most observers thought that his skill, experience and chin would at least test Tyson. But Tyson walks right through him, punishing him in every round and laying him totally out in the fourth after knocking him down twice before that. Holmes had been down only twice in his whole career before meeting Tyson. Holmes would make another comeback three years later and beat a notable contender in Ray Mercer and even give a good fight for Evander Holyfield. Even though he fought to his 50s, he never was knocked out again, in fact he didn’t even come close of it, but Tyson on that night was something special.

#3 Buster Douglas KO10 Mike Tyson 1990-02-11

This was not the pale shadow of Mike Tyson that was destroyed by Lennox Lewis. This wasn’t even the comebacking version that Evander Holyfield dominated. No, this was the original, unbeaten model of the self-proclaimed Baddest Ass Of The Planet, who seemed to be on his way of rising to the company of the best fighters in the history. And he was facing the greatest underdog of the history, James Buster Douglas, who was 42-1 the underdog. Douglas was known as a somewhat talented underachiever, but this time his role was supposed to be just a sacrificial lamb. But on this particular night, the lamb turned into a lion. After a nervous start, Douglas settled down and fought an astonishing fight. He took control with his jab, outlanded Tyson in every round, pushed him back and hurt him often. On other words, he gave a one-sided beating to Iron Mike in every round early. Tyson made a bit of a comeback in the eighth by flooring Douglas, but even that wouldn’t take away Douglas’ heart this time. He got up and produced to give Tyson a whipping in the ninth. In the tenth round, he did the impossible and cleanly knocked out Iron Mike. It was truly stuff of the big legends. And for this one night, Douglas was suitable to their league.

#2 Muhammad Ali TKO3 Cleveland Williams 1966-11-14

The Greatest was reaching his prime. After six successful defences of the title that he had captured by shocking the world and stopping the feared Sonny Liston, he met one of the most feared punchers of the planet, Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams. Williams was not at his prime anymore, but he had lost only one of his 22 last fights and his record included some big names. Williams had waited for his title shot for years and he was full of will. But he had to step in the ring with the best version of Muhammad Ali that the world ever saw and he was way out of his league. Ali made the frightening KO artist look like a novice sparring partner. In the first round, Ali danced in front of his foe, sticking him with snappy shots and Williams never landed a punch in return. In the second round, Ali befuddled Williams with his famous ‘shuffle’ and knocked him down three times. In the third round, he knocked Williams down once more before the contest was mercifully stopped. The brilliance that Ali showed against Williams started his absolute prime. And who knows what kind of showings did we not see from Ali because of his suspension?

#1 Joe Louis TKO1 Max Schmeling 1938-06-22

The mental pressure on The Brown Bomber’s wide shoulders must have been huge. He was defending his title against a former world champion Max Schmeling who had so brutally pounded him in their first encounter. More than that, the Nazis of Germany wanted to demonstrate with Schmeling that the Aryan race was superior to the others, and the crowd of over 70000 expected Louis to prove otherwise. A lesser man would have been crushed by all this, but Louis was not just a normal man. He trained for the bout better than ever and was full of confidence when the fight begun. Usually Louis was a defensive fighter but this time he was an unstoppable machine who wanted to destroy. He went right after Schmeling and let loose with power punches. Schmeling connected once with his feared right cross, but it had no effect. Louis forced the German to the ropes and pounded him mercilessly. It seemed like nothing could have stopped Louis. The ex-champion went down four times in front of the eyes of the electrified crowd before the bout was stopped. After the contest these bitter enemies met again and became friends for their lifetimes. Even though Schmeling took one of the biggest beatings in the history, he recovered well and is still living at the age of 98!

Here was my picks for the best showings that we have ever witnessed, though from the performances of the fighters that were not included (Marciano, Tunney, Liston, Holmes among others) you could make almost as good list. If you want to agree or disagree or discuss the subject further, feel free to send me an e-mail at

Article posted on 11.01.2004

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