By David Martinez / Boxing Historian
I have rated many fighters in many different divisions, eras, and ethnic groups. One of my first ranking features that I posted on this Web site (see Archives / August 2007 or Rankings on menu to view) was my view of the top ten heavyweights of all time (i.e.) “Rating the Heavies”, in which I have gotten some criticism for not including Mike Tyson in my elite group.
First let me say that it is always a pleasure to write what I have seen in my 48 years of following boxing as a sport I deeply love. I have seen every heavyweight champion fight, either by living during his era, by film or by speaking with individuals who actually saw these champions fight, even at the turn of the 20th century. I respect everyone’s opinions and, of course, have mine to tell after having studied this very subject, giving a great degree of research on my part.
As I get older, the majority of people who have disputed that Tyson could have beaten Ali or Holmes if they fought in their primes are mostly people whom, if I asked, “Who was Cassius Clay?”, would not know the answer any more than they would know that George Reeves was the first Superman. This simply tells me that they never knew the fighter that beat a more feared man than Tyson ever was, that being Sonny Liston, and who also survived the biggest knock down in his career in the 1963 Henry Cooper fight, and all when he was Cassius Clay.
I list my top ten as (in order) Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, Rocky Marciano, Gene Tunney, James Corbett, Larry Holmes, Jim Jeffries, and Ezzard Charles. The first four, Johnson, Ali, Louis, and Dempsey I consider to be in a group of their own (in the prime of their careers). They are simply on a different level than any heavyweight of the past or present.
My formula for rating the best heavyweights and my version of the top 10 “pound for pound”, goes back to February 8, 1882, when John L Sullivan knocked out Irish Paddy Ryan in nine rounds, and runs to our present day array of WBA, WBC, IBF, WBO champions.
In rating them, I took a lot of things into consideration. Comparing these fighters from different eras has to be a most difficult evaluation. Figuring out how the fighters of the past would do today is a logical basis to compare; but I put that evaluation in reserve, and ask how the fighters of the present would have done in the past era, with all training factors and tangibles equal. When I rated them I took a strong look at what time in their respective careers they were at their peak and didn’t put such a huge emphasis on who they fought, but more on what they accomplished in the ring.
In this article, I am adding something very unique. I have polled five top authorities in boxing, all whom are friends of mine, to get their opinions and asked them how Mike Tyson would have fared against Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes, being that these three have been more visible to the average boxing fan of today than past fighters such as Marciano, Louis, Dempsey, Tunney, and Johnson. I also am including a Web site fan entry and a special feature from the late Eddie Futch. So in no particular order, here are their quoted opinions:
1) Harold Lederman (HBO World Championship Boxing)
Muhammad Ali was a lot bigger (than Tyson) and very fast. Tremendous leg speed and movement, great jab, hard right hand. Good left hook, terrific skills. Even though Joe Frazier dropped him in the first fight, and I believe Tyson hit as hard as Frazier, I don’t think Tyson could have beaten Ali. Muhammad would have worked that left jab to death against Tyson and stopped him in about seven rounds. Mike would have been able to get to Ali’s body in spurts, but Muhammad’s defense and quick hands would have been the difference. No question Ali wins by KO.
As for Holmes, there again, he was a lot bigger (than Tyson), and with his educated left jab and straight right hand, I think Holmes in his prime knocks out Tyson in ten rounds. Remember, Holmes beat Shavers and Cooney, who both were enormous punchers. Larry throws three left jabs and then flattens Mike with a devastating sharp straight right hand to the jaw. I don’t think Tyson ever had the ring smarts needed to beat Holmes in Larry’s hey day. Holmes proved that he could get hit and still come back like when he fought Snipes, Weaver, Shavers and Cooney.
2) Kerry Daigle (boxing writer and proprietor of www.keeppunching.com)
Tyson vs. Holmes: Holmes the more gifted athlete, not the best at holding on, however, more skills than a Smith, Tillis, etc who went the distance – good fight that could go either way.
Tyson vs. Ali: almost a Frazier vs. Ali scenario, if they fought 5 times Ali would probably win 3 but Tyson could win 2. Remember we are speaking of each fighter in their prime.
3) Rusty Rubin (editor Ring Sports magazine and proprietor of www.ringsports.com)
Mike Tyson squandered his talent due to drugs and jail time. Ali spent the best years of his career in jail (Vietnam) and would have ran rings against Tyson in their hey days. As for Holmes, Tyson was small but powerful heavyweight, Holmes had the best jab around, so how would Tyson catch him? Maybe if Mike would have trained harder and stayed away from temptation he would have rated higher.
4) Jim Carlin (boxing expert and publicist for former WBA heavyweight champion Ernie Terrell)
If they fought each other ten times
Ali over Tyson 8 of 10
Holmes over Tyson 7 of 10
5) Jim Amato (boxing writer/proprietor of www.amatoboxingsite.multiply.com)
I believe that Ali would be able to handle the best Tyson. Ali would control the fight on the outside. On the inside Ali was deceptively strong. He was able to control powerful guys like Liston, Foreman and Norton. He would also be able to control Tyson. Yes, Mike would have his moments but he would eventually become frustrated. Ali by late round stoppage, If they fought ten times, Ali ten out of ten.
Tyson would have a bit more success against Holmes. Still I see a prime Holmes being able to discourage Mike with that great jab of his. Larry would just box and move. Tyson would eventually lose confidence and Holmes would pick him apart. I could see an occasion though where Mike might catch Larry very early in the fight and drop him. I see Larry winning eight out of ten bouts by decision. If Tyson won a couple it would be by an early KO.
A Web site fan (David Schaeffer) wrote in and here’s his opinion: In their prime, Ali would have beat Tyson. I think people look at Ali in the later years 75’-81’, when they compare. You have to go to when he beat Sonny Liston, before the draft issue. That was Ali at his best. Even the Frazier, Norton, Foreman fights were not peak Ali. Ali after his three year layoff, was never as good. Still good enough to be champ though.
Also, I want to add a special conversation that I had with Eva Futch, the widow of the late Eddie Futch, who was without a doubt the greatest trainer in boxing during my lifetime. She states that Eddie has told her that Ali was too big, too fast, with Tyson not even capable of handling the ring generalship of Ali. Eddie Futch also said that Ali was able to adapt to any style, including Mike Tyson’s. Futch also claimed that Holmes in his prime, would have been too big for Mike and that Larry’s jab alone would have beaten Mike Tyson on any day.
I want to thank each of these boxing experts for their sincere and honest opinions.
Personally, I feel that if Ali were to fight Tyson 10 times, Ali would win 10 times. With Holmes, it might have been a little different – maybe Tyson would have sneaked a couple of wins in if they fought 10 times, in the peak of their careers. I always take a pure boxer with great skills over a puncher regardless of how hard he hits.
Ali was just that great — and unquestionably the greatest heavyweight of the modern day era. He was the most gifted heavyweight champion, with lighting quickness, the best left jab ever and footwork far surpassing any other heavyweight. Ali had a great chin and more heart than maybe any other athlete, ever. His three-and-a-half year layoff for refusal of military service was taken during the pinnacle of his career. He is certainly the most recognized sports figure of the last century.
Holmes had the misfortune of following one of the greatest fighters of all time – Ali. Ironically, he possessed the second best left jab ever, next to Ali. He won his first eight title defenses all by knockout and continued on to a 48-0 professional record, one shy of Marciano’s record, when he lost his title (and for the first time) via a controversial decision to light heavyweight champion Michael Spinks. Holmes made 20 title defenses, second only to Joe Louis.
Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion ever at the age of 20 after knocking out WBC titlist Trevor Berbick in 1986. He instantly became a force in the heavyweight division and went on to capture the WBA title from James “Bonecrusher” Smith and the IBF belt against Tony Tucker. Tyson was vicious with his attack, defeating six straight, all by knockout, before losing by KO to 42-1 underdog Buster Douglas, in what is known as boxing’s biggest upset ever. He returned to the ring with a vengeance, after a prison sentence, disposing of six opponents before losing to Evander Holyfield twice. In 2002, Tyson lost to Lennox Lewis by KO. Mike’s career was pretty much over by that time and I felt he should have retired then.
In closing, you might note that in my top 10, there are fighters that I rate higher than opponents that they had lost to – for example Jeffries beat Corbertt, Marciano beat Louis, Tunney beat Dempsey, Holmes beat Ali. This is because I rated them at the height of their careers, in their primes — NOT when they lost to these other fighters.
I have had similar discussions such as, “who might be the best musical group of all time?”, I would quickly say the Beatles, but when others might say the Rolling Stones, Bee Gees, etc, I would honor their opinions with dignity and respect . With that said, I will say thank you to the many that weighed in with their opinions on this topic. My intent is not to change anyone’s mind but I just want to give you my opinion – as I wish that you can respect as well!