Maybe you had to be there. Maybe you had to see it for yourself. That’s how you know that this current age of over-hyped (Tyson Fury), undersized (Oleksandr Usyk), underskilled (Deontay Wilder), or simply under willed (Anthony Joshua) crop of heavyweights doesn’t match up to the days of yore us old heads look back on with not only fondness but reverie. Sure, those four fighters I just mentioned all bring something to the table, but the thing that makes their fights exciting (if you find them to be) is what they lack, not what they have. Only Joshua is a spectacular talent, but his lack of gut and gumption have betrayed him against far lesser opponents.
Perhaps it’s because the brothers Klitschko were so relatively dominant (except for those couple of occasions when Wladimir’s glass jaw was exposed) and so god awful boring for so long that this, this current group of pretenders to greatness looks good to us. I’m here to say it ain’t so. While the heavyweights who pull eyes to the screen the most in this modern-day may be more entertaining than what came just before them (a low bar), they are merely the latest and nowhere near the greatest when it comes to evaluating the best eras of the heavyweight division.
This current age is not golden. This division has known no true sheen since the days of Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, Riddick Bowe, and Mike Tyson.
Not since the time of Ali, Frazier, and Foreman has there been such a superior group of fighters in the heavyweight division at one time. From the moment Mike Tyson blitzed Michael Spinks in 91 seconds on June 27, 1988, to Lennox Lewis’ very technical knockout of Vitali Klitschko on June 21, 2003, the marquee division in boxing was blessed with extraordinary depth.
Even the lesser lights of the era held genuine merit. Fighters like Rahman, Golota, Mercer, Morrison, Moorer, Douglas, Bruno, Ruddock, and remarkably, George Foreman (again!) are worthy of mention. If we’re being honest, though, when the boxing time capsule gets opened in 100 years, there will be four men who will dominate the discussion by a deep and wide margin—the aforementioned Lewis, Tyson, Bowe, and the fearless Evander Holyfield.
So let’s get down to it. How do we sort them out? What shall follow in the remaining body of this article will probably induce fits of anger and potential hate mail – or at least some nasty comments for me to read later in abject terror — by those that should peruse what they find below.
But what the hell. Let’s (and by “let’s” I mean “me”) rank the four standard-bearers of the last golden age of the heavyweights.
Here. We. Go.
1) Lennox Lewis
This should be the least controversial choice. The massive ( 6’ 5, 245 pounds) and ridiculously skilled Brit had a remarkably dominant record sullied only by two shocking knockout losses to Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman—both later avenged. Lewis became the WBC heavyweight champion in December of 1992 when then titleholder, Riddick Bowe, refused to face him. Aside from the two upset defeats to McCall and Rahman, Lewis wasn’t just winning fights during his peak; he was outclassing and surgically brutalizing his opponents. Blessed with a long left arm that housed an anvil on the end of a pristine jab and a massive right hand that could shake foundations, Lewis went 19-2-1 after becoming a belt holder with 13 wins by knockout.
While Bowe ducked, Lewis, Tyson, and Holyfield did not. Both paid for it.
In their first bout, Lewis out-landed Holyfield 348 to 130. Somehow, in a decision so egregious, it makes Pacquiao-Bradley 1 look like it was judged by sages — the fight was scored a draw. Oddly enough, when the two fought again just eight months later, Holyfield acquitted himself better but lost a well-reasoned unanimous decision. In truth, neither fight was particularly close statistically or by the eye test. Holyfield’s indomitable will may have kept him upright, but it didn’t keep him from getting beat up. After their rematch, Holyfield was never the same, finishing his career (8-6-1) against often less than stellar competition.
Tyson fared even worse. After seven rounds of what commentator, George Foreman (he’s everywhere!), called “batting practice,” Lewis finally dispatched Tyson in the final minute of the 8th round with a vicious right hand up the middle. With that menacing blow, Lewis didn’t just end the fight; he extinguished Tyson’s relevance. Tyson became a shot fighter as soon as he hit the canvas.
Lewis didn’t just beat two great fighters; he effectively ended them.
While Lewis may have been the best of the four fighters, he may have been the least popular. His often-gentile English manner seldom played well in the most macho of athletic endeavors, and his occasional passivity could frustrate even the most dogged of skill-loving fight fans. Who can forget his trainer, the late, great Emanuel Steward, all but threatening to put a hit on Lewis if he didn’t exit his stool in the 4th and knock Rahman out in their rematch? Which Lewis did with malice.
Still, as bland a personality — if you don’t believe me, just recall his days commentating for HBO (better yet, don’t) — as he may have been and the lack of aggression, he at times exhibited in the ring, Lewis is the clear, if not personally popular, top of a very impressive heap. Bowe dodged him, Holyfield was well handled, and Tyson was crushed by him. Throw in a number of exceptional performances against next-tier fighters, and there is no logical argument I can think of to counter his pole position. It’s also worth noting that of the four champions on this list, Lewis was the only one who left the game at just the right time. Holyfield and Tyson undoubtedly stayed too long, and Bowe most certainly left with too much left to do.
2) Evander Holyfield
Perhaps the biggest heart and the truest warrior of the bunch. Evander Holyfield is the only one of these great heavyweights to fight all of the other three. Besides Holyfield’s two bouts with Lewis, he had an epic triptych with Bowe and two memorable — and how — skirmishes with Tyson.
The least physically imposing of the four, Holyfield actually began his career as a light heavyweight before moving up to cruiserweight—perhaps the greatest ever at that class — and finally to heavyweight in his 19th professional bout against James “Quick” Tillis, which Holyfield won when Tillis refused to get off his stool after the 5th.
Holyfield took the WBC, WBA, and IBF heavyweight titles by vanquishing Buster Douglas with a 3rd round KO in Douglas’ first fight after his all-time great upset of Mike Tyson just eight months earlier. Holyfield then took two less than impressive unanimous decisions over the aging Foreman and a near shot Larry Holmes, with a 7th round TKO of journeyman Bert Cooper wedged in between. There were many who questioned Holyfield’s bona fides as a world champion when he entered the ring against Riddick Bowe on November 13, 1992. He would answer those questions and then some.
In an extraordinary 12-round slugfest where Holyfield was out-landed, out skilled, and at times nearly out period, the champion withstood a brutal barrage from the challenger. The fight is perhaps best known for a 10th round that rivaled Ward-Gatti (pick a round) in its ferocity and momentum shifts. Bowe dominated the early portion of the round and seemed to have Holyfield out on his feet. Then in what can only be described as a full-force gale of willpower and spirit, Holyfield rallied and had Bowe in deep trouble when the bell rang. While Bowe would go on to win a clear decision, no one you could ever take seriously would again doubt Holyfield’s mettle.
Just one week shy of a full year later, their rematch was nearly as good and better if you were Holyfield. Their second fight was also a classic, going the distance once again, this time with a bit of the bizarre thrown in when a parachutist descended onto the ring in the 7th round, and a melee ensued. Bowe’s wife passed out at ringside, and the “Fan Man”–as he became known – took a serious beating in Bowe’s corner from fans, security, and a member of Bowe’s entourage. It’s still the strangest thing I’ve ever seen while watching a sporting event of any kind. Perhaps understandably, Holyfield kept his composure better than Bowe and then fended off a late rally from the champion to take a majority decision and hand Bowe the only loss of his career.
As one would hope, there was a rubber match between the two well-matched pugilists a year and a half later. In the interim, Holyfield had suffered an upset loss by majority decision to Michael Moorer before taking a unanimous decision over Ray Mercer. Their final fight would be the only one to not go the distance. Suffering from hepatitis, Holyfield appeared gassed going into the 6th when in another incredible moment in their trilogy, he summoned from some ocean-deep well of reserve and knocked Bowe off his feet.
Unfortunately (for Holyfield), Bowe got up, and when he did, he took over the fight, closing the show in the 8thby knocking Holyfield down twice and forcing the hand of the referee, Joe Cortez, who stopped the fight after Holyfield just beat the ten count. It was a fine stoppage and one hell of a way to end their remarkable trilogy.
After three such punishing fights, one might have expected Holyfield to fade. One would be wrong.
A Holyfield-Tyson match was made once Tyson completed his three-year sentence from a rape conviction and got back in the ring. Tyson fought four times after his incarceration, going just eight rounds in the process, scoring three early knockouts and one victory by disqualification. Nearly six full years after defeating (at that time) the only man to beat Mike Tyson – Buster Douglas — Holyfield got his shot at the man himself. Billed as “Finally,” the fight began with Tyson roaring out of his corner and pressuring Holyfield from the outset. There were still many who assumed Tyson would roll through Holyfield. I still recall Sylvester Stallone on Late Night with David Letterman saying Holyfield was “made” for Tyson. Rocky Balboa was not the only one who thought so. Again, one would be wrong.
By the second half of the fight, Holyfield began to dominate in a way that few would have expected – with his strength. Holyfield pushed Tyson all over the ring, seemingly sapping the shorter man of his stamina. While Tyson had his moments through the first six rounds, Holyfield owned all that came after. Holyfield put Tyson down in the 6th and had him reeling in the 10th when the bell rang. The 11th offered more of the same, and the fight was correctly stopped as Holyfield began to pour it on an increasingly defenseless Tyson. It may be hard to believe this now, but at the time, it was considered an upset of historic proportions. It was perhaps Holyfield’s finest moment. Their follow-up would be history-making as well, just not in the way anyone might have expected.
When the two took to the ring seven months later, what followed was both shocking and embarrassing to the sport of boxing. Frustrated by an accidental head butt in round two, Tyson came out of his corner enraged in round three. He spat out his mouthpiece, and once in a clinch with the champion, he bit into his ear, taking off an inch of cartilage which he then expelled onto the ring floor. As wild as that moment was, what came next was stranger still. Referee Mills Lane halted the bout, and instead of disqualifying Tyson immediately, he called over the ring doctor, who ruled that Holyfield could continue. For his part, Holyfield was basically okay with continuing. Alright, I take it back. I’ve convinced myself. This was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen watching a sporting event. To hell with the parachute guy.
When the fight resumed, Tyson doubled down on his cannibalistic tendencies and bit Holyfield again. Seeing that Tyson’s hunger for Holyfield’s lobes would continue unabated, this time, Lane stopped the fight and disqualified Tyson. They would not fight again, but in two bouts, Holyfield had not only removed Tyson’s aura of invincibility but accelerated a descent into madness and increasingly extreme behavior.
Holyfield would then go on to avenge his loss to Moorer before his two fights with Lewis ended his peak. Holyfield was by no means the most skilled of the four fighters. Nor was he the biggest puncher. But during his first 11 years as a heavyweight, he fought an amazing 23 times against top-flight competition, and almost never was a second of it boring. He was the toughest of customers. I cannot think of one other real-life fighter who better fits Ivan Drago’s description of Rocky Balboa in Rocky 4, “He’s not human, he’s like a piece of iron.”
Indeed, he was.
3) Riddick Bowe
It’s easy to forget that Riddick Bowe entered the ring 44 times and lost just once – in an epic battle with Evander Holyfield that included so much drama that a guy in a chute descending upon the ring only registered as a sidenote. Of Bowe’s 43 victories, 33 came by knockout. His list of scalps includes two victories over Holyfield, as well as wins over Tony Tubbs, Michael Dokes, and Pinklon Thomas.
One might ask, “How can you rate Bowe below Holyfield if he beat Evander twice?” Well, look at the drop-off from Bowe’s two wins over Holyfield to his next best victories – it is massive. Bowe never even fought Lewis or Tyson, despite residing smack dab in the era they competed alongside him. Of the four fighters who defined this era, Bowe is the one whose career feels somewhat incomplete. Despite being a great boxer/puncher, Bowe is almost known more for the weird stuff that happened to him in and out of the ring.
The aforementioned “fan man,” the two truly bizarre fights with Andrew Golota, where the big Pole treated Bowe’s cajones like a speed bag, and then his 18–24-month prison sentence for beating his estranged spouse that a judge later reduced due to medical records that exposed Bowe’s brain damage.
Bowe may have won nearly all the battles he was in, but there’s this nagging sense that his personal issues and health condition left him short of winning the war. No one can say that of Lewis and Holyfield.
4) Mike Tyson
And here’s where I get into trouble. I’m sure there are many out there who think I’m insane for picking Bowe (or maybe even Lewis and Holyfield) over Tyson. However, I think the important thing to do when making this judgment is to remove how one might feel about the reign of “Iron” Mike Tyson and examine the record with cold investigative efficiency. For me, it comes down to this, give me the name of the one great heavyweight Mike Tyson ever beat?
I’ve scoured his record, and I’ve got nothing. Oh sure, he blitzed Michael Spinks in 91 seconds, delivering unto him the only loss of his career. Spinks was a great fighter…at light heavyweight. Spinks smartly picked just the right time to go up a weight class to fight a fading Larry Holmes, whom he defeated in two close—and in the case of the second fight, highly questionable—decisions. Spinks fought two more times as a heavyweight against the less than memorable Steffen Tangstad and “The Great White Hope,” Gerry Cooney. While he scored knockout wins against both, those two victories don’t do much to burnish the legacy. Nor does his deer in the headlights performance against Tyson. No matter how you look at it, Spinks was the smartest matchmaking, puffed up light heavyweight until Roy Jones Jr. fought John Ruiz.
Tyson’s other great “name” victory was over an all but fully calcified 38-year-old, Larry Holmes, whom he quickly and appropriately dispatched in the fourth round.
That’s it. There is no one else. An over-the-hill champion and a light in the shorts Michael Spinks. Beyond that, we do have a number of wins against world-class B+ level fighters like Trevor Berbick, Pinklon Thomas, the Tony’s Tucker and Tubbs, Frank Bruno, “Razor” Ruddock, and Bruce Seldon. Good fighters, one and all. Not one great one. Not a single one.
Tyson did fight two great fighters. Lewis and Holyfield. He went zero for three, not even seeing the final round in any of the bouts.
This is where the argument for Bowe begins to take shape. Bowe also had a number of wins against B+ fighters as well. Pinklon Thomas, Tony Tubbs, and Bruce Seldon were all common opponents. Bowe retired Thomas in the 8th, defeated Tubbs by unanimous decision, and knocked Seldon out in the first. He also TKO’d former champ Michael Dokes in a single round. Tyson TKO’d Thomas in the 6th, Seldon in the 1st, and Tubbs in the 2nd. You can give Tyson a slight advantage there.
As well, Tyson had more total quality wins over B+ level fighters. So, for the moment, Tyson would seem to be in the lead. However, there are two places where Bowe separates himself. First, he has had no bad losses in his career. Only Holyfield’s majority decision in their second bout stains his record. Whereas Tyson, at his most formidable, lost to Buster Douglas. A highly skilled big man (the type who always gave him trouble), who for one night put his hands into his gloves and discovered magic residing within. As talented as Douglas was, no one will ever confuse him with greatness. Although I will concede he had one hell of a night in Tokyo on February 11, 1990, when he pulled off what was then considered the greatest upset in heavyweight history.
I don’t want to make too much of Tyson’s losses in his final two bouts against Danny Williams and Kevin McBride. He was but a carcass then. They do exist, though.
More importantly, when deciding between Bowe and Tyson, I come back to the main point. Who did they beat? And when it comes to A+ guys, Tyson has nothing, and Bowe has two legendary wins over Evander Holyfield. A man that Tyson fought twice got hammered by once and left the ring in disgrace on the other occasion. I simply can’t square away taking a fighter with a loss to Buster Douglas and no truly great wins in his career over a man who has no underwhelming losses and two genuinely special victories against an all-time great.
Obviously, it would be helpful if they had fought each other. While that is not the case, is there anyone who saw Tyson get manhandled by Lewis, strafed by Holyfield, and knocked out by a journeyman named Buster Douglas who would want to place a bet on Tyson against Bowe? I wouldn’t. Not a chance.
I’m sure there are many who would. So many of us (I know, I was one of those guys) got caught up in the Tyson comet that came through burning hot and cleaned up a porous division until other, better fighters came along. But come along, they did. They had names. They were called Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, and yes, Riddick Bowe. If you remove emotion and sentiment, I simply don’t know how you order the list any differently. In fact, I’m sure you can’t.
Do you know what else you can’t do? Compare Fury, Wilder, Usyk, and Joshua to these four giants of the ring. It’s not just that these modern heavyweights fall short or that they aren’t within spitting distance of that fearsome foursome; they can’t even see the mountain top they reside on from where they stand.