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Peter Worthington

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Who Is the Greatest Boxing Champion of All Time?

Posted: 12/18/11 06:34 AM ET

As sports writers have repeatedly stressed since his untimely death at age 67 from liver cancer, it's impossible to think of heavyweight fighter Joe Frazier without linking him with Muhammad Ali.

The two fought three times -- bruising fights, with Ali (deservedly) winning two of them. But all were memorable. They were a contrast in styles -- Ali always moving, in-out-sideways, jabbing, mocking, occasionally mixing it. Frazier ever on the attack, plodding, orthodox, tough. Both heavy hitters when required.

Ali, is recognized by many (probably most) as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. More about that in a moment. But for the Ali fights, I doubt if Frazier would be remembered as he is now. A fine fighter, a champion by beating Ali once, but not that memorable. Being decked five times by George Foreman diminishes his status.

Boxing fans love to argue, debate, discuss who they think is the greatest of all heavyweights, and who they think, pound-for-pound, is the greatest boxer of all time.

I'm no exception. My interest in boxing goes back to WWII navy days when I was ordered into the ring for the entertainment of other sailors. I did okay until I met a real boxer and then was humiliated.

On leaving the navy I decided to learn a bit about the trade, and at the University of B.C. became light-heavyweight champion, won in the Golden Gloves, and developed a lasting respect for professional fighters.

After the war I met Jimmy McLarnin, who held the world welterweight title twice, until beaten by Barney Ross (1935). A an even greater credential was interviewing Jack Dempsey at his New York restaurant, and interviewing Joe Louis in 1955 when he was in Ottawa refereeing wrestling bouts.

For what it's worth, I'm one who thinks Louis in his prime was arguably the greatest of all heavyweights. He fought for some 20 years, and defended his title 25 times (a record that will never be matched). He fought every contender in the golden age of boxing winning 21 on his title matches by knockouts. Unmatched for power, hand speed, ring strategy, heart.

He retired undefeated in 1949 (after KO-ing Joe Walcott in the 11th round), then came out of retirement when the IRS claimed he owed $500,000 back taxes. By then Louis' reflexes were gone and he lost to Ezzard Charles and Rocky Marciano, who was loath to fight the legendary champion.

Forget the last few years of Louis' fights when he was older, slower, going through the motions. Go to YouTube.com and see Joe Louis in his prime, and you'll not see a more lethal, controlled fighter. An orthodox, accurate and deadly puncher. Louis was always more dangerous in return bouts. Witness Max Schmeling.

That said, it's possible Ali at his peak might have beaten Louis, simply by staying away from him -- as Britain's Tommy Farr did, and Billy Conn, in his first Louis fight. But as Louis liked to say of Conn in the second bout: "He can run, but he can't hide."

It may seem a contradiction, but the one who would probably have beaten Ali was Rocky Marciano -- the Brockton Blockbuster who never lost a fight and retired undefeated as world heavyweight champion -- 49 fights, 43 won by knockouts.

Rocky, regretfully, KO'd Louis at the end of Joe's career. Had it been the Louis of the 1940s, the result would likely have been different.

The unknown in such speculation is Gene Tunney, who twice beat Jack Dempsey but is often dismissed as a clever boxer more than as a mix-it fighter. This is unfair. Undefeated as world champion, Tunney was smart enough (he had a life-long friendship with playwright George Bernard Shaw and actually read books) to be whatever was necessary to win fights. His record of 48 knockouts in 86 fights is testimony to his fighting skills.

As far as Canadian heavyweights are concerned, there's little argument that George Chuvalo is in a class by himself. The likes of Lennox Lewis (potentially as great as any) and the late Earl Walls and, Sam Langford, way-back-when, were special. But no fighter anywhere, anytime, was tougher than Chuvalo. He was never knocked down.

Three qualities are essential for greatness in a heavyweight: He must be able to take a punch; he has to be a hard-hitter; and a bit of boxing finesse is icing on the cake.

Chuvalo had the first two, but was weak in the boxing department -- perhaps, if it's true as often claimed, that he never fought a preliminary bout, only main events because he was so good. Seasoning in fighting preliminaries on the way up might have enhanced his boxing skills. But, my goodness, as a fighter he was one for the ages!

As for the best fighter, pound-for-pound, most people who know boxing give the nod to Sugar Ray Robinson who, but for an excessively hot night when the heat cost him the fight against light-heavyweight champion Joey Maxim, would have held the welterweight, middle and light-heavyweight titles in succession.

Maybe Roberto Duran, Oscar de la Hoya and others deserve mention as great pound-for-pound fighters, but are they in the class of Robinson, Harry Greb (the only man to ever beat Tunney) and Stanley Ketchel?

As memorable as any fights were the three Tony Zale-Rocky Graziano middleweight title defences of 60 years ago. Look them up on YouTube.com. What's memorable is that as savage as these fights were (none of which went the distance -- the favourite losing each one), Zale and Graziano developed a bond, a respect and friendship, that endured ever-after.

Fighters are a bit like opposing soldiers in a war. They both share an experience denied others, and this can build comradeship, respect, even affection. An exception to this mutual respect may be Joe Frazier's lasting resentment (understandable) of Ali's trash-talking about him as an Uncle Tom and no-goodnik. Frazier was an up-front guy who didn't go in for poor-mouthing.

Boxing is in decline these days -- giving way to "ultimate fighting" which is even more primitive and barbaric (to some). And boxing is the only sport where quality is diminished from the past -- primarily because in the old days, boxing was the only sport in which African-Americans could participate on an equal footing.

Today, every sport is open to those with talent and skill. As a consequence, boxing has suffered a decline.
Others may argue, but that's just the way it is.