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Undisputed heavyweight greats including Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson & Lennox Lewis

As Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk gear up for their mammoth undisputed heavyweight title showdown in Riyadh we take a look at some of the biggest names in the fighting code to have fully unified the blue riband division.

Tyson Fury v Oleksandr Usyk

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It might be early in the year, but the most significant fight of 2024 is already set. In fact, it could be argued that the battle between Fury and Usyk on 17th February is the most important bout in decades.

The winner will be crowned the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. 

Whoever is victorious will etch their name in to the history books alongside some of the most iconic fighters to have laced up the gloves.

Since the formation of the WBC, in 1963 (joining the NBA, who would become the WBA), only 10 men earned such a distinction and it has been almost 24 years since a fighter last held that status.

These moments are rare.

Here are the boxers Fury and Usyk will aim to emulate:

No. 1: Sonny Liston

(22 July 1963 - 25 February 1964)

Mike Tyson is often cited as the most intimidating fighter of all time, but it is hard to argue that any man was more menacing than Sonny Liston. 

The heavyweight learned to box while incarcerated in Missouri State Prison, having been convicted of armed robbery. He would spend more time behind bars for assaulting a police officer and was heavily linked with the Lucchese crime family throughout his career.

Liston possessed a stare which struck fear into the hearts of his opponents and a right hand which would bring fights to an abrupt conclusion.

Liston captured the NBA heavyweight title by crushing, the great, Floyd Patterson within a round. By the time a rematch took place the following year, the WBC had been established and their strap was also on the line. Their second bout ended the same as the first, with Liston victorious inside three minutes.

At the time, many observers felt Liston was unbeatable.

No. 2: Muhammad Ali 

(25 February 1964 - 14 September 1964)
(6 February 1967 - 28 April 1967)
(29 October 1974 - 15 February 1978)

While the press and observers believed Liston to be unbeatable, Muhammad Ali possessed an unwavering confidence that he would be the man to cut short the champion’s reign of terror.

The Rome 1960 light-heavyweight gold medallist was a fast, flashy, brash and cocky 22-year-old when he faced the undisputed king.

Most of Liston’s opponents were gripped by fear in the build-up, but Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, appeared to be immune to the piercing stare and ferocious reputation, opting to provoke and antagonise the champion.

Most presumed the tactic would backfire.

The 7/1 underdog upset the odds through a combination of fleet footwork, hand speed and combinations. Liston retired on his stool at the end of the sixth round.

Ali proclaimed: “I am the greatest!”

The undisputed tenure of the ‘The Louisville Lip’ was initially a short one.

The NBA had become the WBA and when Ali opted to rematch Liston, the sanctioning body stripped him off the strap.

It would be two-and-a-half years before ‘The Greatest’ unified the belts again by defeating, WBA titlist, Earnie Terrell by unanimous decision. 

His second stint was even shorter. Two months after recapturing the WBA strap, Ali announced his retirement and relinquished his titles after refusing to be drafted for military service, due to his objections over the Vietnam war.

Seven years later, Ali would have a third stint as undisputed champion, once again shocking the world to stop George Foreman, in “The Rumble in the Jungle.”

After 10 successful defences of both belts, it was the Louisville fighter’s turn to suffer an unexpected defeat as he dropped his titles to Leon Spinks.

No. 3: Joe Frazier

(16 February 1970 - 22 January 1973)

Following Ali abdicating his throne, Jimmy Ellis had won a tournament devised by the WBA to crown a new champion.

Joe Frazier was in possession of the New York State Athletic Commission heavyweight title, a belt which had been recognised as a world title in years gone by, but had lost some of its legitimacy since the establishment of the WBC.

In 1970, Ellis and Frazier met, with their respective titles, as well as the vacant WBC strap at stake. The Tokyo 1964 Olympic heavyweight gold medallist was too fast, too strong and accurate, stopping Ellis in the fourth round.

In his second defence, ‘Smokin’ Joe’ took on Ali in ‘The Fight of The Century.’ ‘The Greatest’ was on the comeback trail after a three-year absence from the ring, and entered off the back of wins over fringe contenders. Both were unbeaten, each had captured Olympic gold and they had legitimate claims to being the true heavyweight champion.

The bout was a classic, with Frazier prevailing over 15-rounds.

Two more defences followed, before Frazier encountered his Kryptonite…

No. 4: George Foreman

(22 January 1973 - 29 October 1974)

By the time George Foreman faced Joe Frazier in the ‘Sunshine Showdown’, in Kingston, Jamaica, the Mexico City 1968 Olympic gold medallist was 37-0 and only three of his opponents had heard the final bell.

Of course, ‘Smokin Joe’ represented a significant step up in class, but it was one which ‘Big George’ took in his stride.

The champion was unable to withstand the power of Foreman’s thudding blows and was stopped inside two rounds.

Two subsequent defences ended in the first and second frame, respectively. Foreman was perceived to be a monster, the likes of which the heavyweight division had not seen since the days of Liston.

When Foreman and Ali met in 1974, few gave the former king of the glamour division much of a chance. However, ‘The Greatest’ overcame the odds by utilising his ‘rope-a-dope’ tactic to take the sting out of Foreman’s blows. Once the champion had tired Ali sprung into life to once again, to fell his imperious foe.

No. 5: Leon Spinks

(15 February 1978 - 19 March 1978)

Another short and sweet undisputed run.

Seven-fight novice, Leon Spinks pulled off an almighty upset when he defeated Ali, by split-decision. 

The Montreal 1976 Olympic light-heavyweight gold medallist was a 10/1 underdog going into the fight, but he was too sharp for the ageing champion.

Ahead of the bout, both men had agreed to fight WBC mandatory challenger, Ken Norton, next, but the $4 million on the table for a rematch with ‘The Greatest’ was too enticing and such, the sanctioning body stripped Spinks of their belt.

No. 6: Mike Tyson

(1 August 1987 - 11 February 1990)

It was over nine years before the heavyweight division had another undisputed king. The emergence of the IBF as a third legitimate world title in 1983 had complicated matters.

However, the broadcaster, HBO had devised a tournament to crown a new ruler.

Enter Mike Tyson.

At 20-years-old, Tyson had become the youngest heavyweight world champion of all time when he stopped Trevor Berbick in the second round, in November 1986, to capture the WBC strap.

In his next bout, he added the WBA belt with a wide decision over James Smith, before stopping, former titlist, Pinklon Thomas in the sixth stanza.

In the final, ‘Iron Mike’ faced IBF holder Tony Tucker. The older man started well, but his output diminished as the fight went on. Tucker had no answer for the Tyson’s speed and power, and the Brooklyn man prevailed by unanimous decision.

A star was born.

Six defences followed as the ‘Baddest Man on the Planet’ steamrollered his way through the division.

Like Liston and Foreman before him, Tyson was perceived to be unbeatable, like them, he was not…

No. 7: James ‘Buster’ Douglas

(11 February 1990 - 25 October 1990)

Perhaps the worst thing a fighter can be labelled is a quitter.

That was the reputation Buster Douglas had, ahead of his fight with Tyson.

In his previous world title tile, the Ohio native had raced into a lead against Tony Tucker, before unravelling to be stopped in the 10th round. Observers had formed their opinion; ‘Buster’ was mentally weak.

Lacking intestinal fortitude was a trait which inevitably ended in disaster when facing the imposing New Yorker. As such, ‘Iron Mike’ was a heavy favourite ahead of their bout in Tokyo.

To compound the challenger’s plight, his mother had passed a way mere weeks ahead of the fight. Grief could have caused Douglas to crumble, but instead it fortified him. ‘Buster’ was going to become heavyweight champion of the world and dedicate his victory to his late parent. 

No one believed him.

For the first seven rounds, Douglas was punch-perfect, in the eighth, he was on the floor. It was a heavy knockdown, and many believed the end was in sight.

Somehow, the challenger survived before stunning the world by flooring Tyson in the 10th. The champion could not make it to his feet in time.

The 42-1 underdog had completed one of the greatest upsets in sporting history.

No. 8: Evander Holyfield

(25 October 1990 - 13 November 1992)

After his victory, Douglas became a household name overnight. 

‘Buster’ appeared to succumb to the trappings of fame as he weighed-in 14lbs heavier than he had been against Tyson for his maiden defence.

The man in the opposite corner was former cruiserweight king, Evander Holyfield.

The Los Angeles 1984 Olympic light-heavyweight bronze medallist had not made the same mistake. ‘The Real Deal’ was a toned, finely honed machine on fight night and disposed of Douglas within three rounds.

Three successful defences followed including wins over aged former champions Larry Holmes and George Foreman.

No. 9: Riddick Bowe

(13 November 1992 - 14 December 1992)

While several champions have failed defended the undisputed crown, few have done so as infamously as Riddick Bowe.

The 1988 Seoul Olympic heavyweight silver medallist, captured the belts in a classic battle with Holyfield which would ultimately lead to a trilogy between the two men.

However, the WBC strap remained in his possession for little over a month. 

The sanctioning body ordered the champion to face Lennox Lewis. The two men had history; Lewis had prevailed in the Olympic final. Disputes over a potential purse split resulted in Bowe holding a press conference where he dropped the WBC strap into a bin to signify that he was vacating the title.

No. 10: Lennox Lewis

(13 November 1999 - 13 April 2000)

Lennox Lewis would have to wait seven years to become the undisputed.

In the intervening period since Bowe was in possession of all the belts, the Brit had won, lost and regained the WBC title. While Holyfield had followed a similar trajectory with the WBA and IBF straps.

A new king should have been crowned eight months earlier. The 1988 Seoul Olympic heavyweight gold medallist and ‘The Real Deal’ faced off with all three titles at stake. Observers felt that the Englishman had won comfortably, but the judges disagreed, deeming the fight a draw.

In the rematch, Lewis put the record straight by claiming a unanimous decision, in a bout that was, ironically, more competitive than the first.

Again, an undisputed reign was cut short as a result of politics.

Lewis was ordered to face WBA mandatory challenger, John Ruiz. The sanctioning body then gave the Brit dispensation to fulfil his WBC obligations first, but the ruling was appealed through the courts by Ruiz’s team, who were successful. As a result, Lewis was stripped of his WBA belt.

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