The decade spanning the late 1960s to the late 1970s is often called "The Golden Age of the Heavyweights," the time when Muhammad Ali and his many rivals came together to create the most talent-rich period in the history of the division. Not before or since have so many truly formidable characters contended all at the same time, many of whom would have been sure champions in any other era, but were unable to snatch the title away from the likes of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Here is a look at the best men who became legends and made sports history.
1. Muhammad Ali (56-5, 37 KOs; three time world champion, twice as undisputed champion)
Ali bestrides the Golden Age like a colossus. Entering the period following his three year exile from boxing, Ali built a career resume that includes all the contenders of the time. He is, in fact, the only man who did fight them all, taking all comers and literally cleaning out his division. While he lost three times during this period - to Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, and Leon Spinks - he avenged all three losses, and did so against Frazier and Norton twice. In defeating George Foreman, he became only the second man to win back the heavyweight crown for a second time; in avenging his loss to Leon Spinks, he became the first to win the title three times.
It is this record that backs up Ali's longtime claim to be "The Greatest." Although some think of Joe Louis as the greatest heavyweight of all time, Muhammad Ali surpasses him as the unquestioned great of the greatest, most talent-rich time the heavyweights have ever known.
2. Joe Frazier (32-4-1, 27 KOs; undisputed world champion)
Some would ask why Frazier is ahead of George Foreman, given that Foreman famously dribbled Frazier off the canvas in Jamaica. The answer is simple: compare what the two men accomplished between 1967 and 1978. Joe held the championship for five years and defended the title 10 times, a record that only a few heavyweight champions can even approach, let alone match or surpass. He was the first man to defeat Ali, the first to stop Jerry Quarry (on cuts) and Jimmy Ellis (knockout), and one of only three men to stop the tough George Chuvalo. The Ring magazine named him Fighter of the Year thee times, and he was involved in a Fight of the Year four times.
3. George Foreman(76-5, 68KOs; undisputed world champion)
As the third man to win the undisputed championship in the ring during the period, George Foreman is the #3 heavyweight of the Golden Age. Without that accomplishment, his legacy between 1967 and 1978 would be more open to question. His title reign was a short one, lasting less than two years with only two successful defenses before his defeat by Muhammad Ali at the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle. In terms of his record, Foreman won against Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Ron Lyle (in one of the most thrilled heavyweight shoot-outs of all time), George Chuvalo and Scott LeDoux. However, he was easily outboxed by Jimmy Young, indicating a fast, crafty boxer who could fight on the backpedal would be able to defeat him. Against other punchers and aggressive boxer-punchers, Foreman could consistently win by overpowering them; against slicksters, counter-punchers, and boxing craftsmen, he was vulnerable to being outfoxed.
4. Jerry Quarry (53-9-4, 32 KOs)
"Irish" Jerry Quarry is widely referred to as the best heavyweight to never win a world title, and it is pretty safe to say that had he been competing either before or after the heavyweight Golden Age, he certainly would have won a championship. He combined power with a solid chin, and was the period's most accomplished counter-puncher. His only real flaws were that he was a smallish heavyweight for the times, and he cut so easily that Quarry is now synonymous with cuts and boxing. He drew and then later defeated two-time heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, a man who Muhammad Ali called the most skilled boxer he ever fought. Quarry's loss to Jimmy Ellis was razor thin, he defeated the ever-overweight Buster Mathis, Sr., and beat up the undefeated, rising prospect Mac Foster so badly that he practically beat the fight out of the man. He also handily defeated two of the biggest punchers of the era, Ron Lyle and Earnie Shavers. Against this, Quarry was beaten twice by both Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, and suffered a loss to George Chuvalo. His loss to Ken Norton should not be held against him, as he was very shopworn from eight years of gutsy trench warfare by 1975.
5. Ken Norton (42-7-1, 33 KOs; WBC champion)
Ken Norton stands as one of only two men to have defeated Muhammad Ali, and some think he is the only one to have beaten Ali twice. Ali's victory in Ali vs. Norton III in 1976 is regarded by many, including Norton himself, to have been highway robbery. However, Norton's career was very mixed in ways that prevent him from rising higher.
While Norton did hold the WBC heavyweight championship, it was awarded to him. He did not win it in the ring, and remains the only champion to ever receive a title simply because it was given to him. He lost that title in its very first defense to Larry Holmes in 1978, the classic bout that concluded the Golden Age. Given that Norton held the title only because of the WBC's corrupt machinations, and the bout with Holmes should have been over the vacant title, his claim to having been a champion is tenuous at best.
Furthermore, Norton's reputation is largely built around Ali, not the rest of his resume. He did knockout Jerry Quarry, but only after Quarry was used up by eight years of warring with the likes of Joe Frazier. He was only just able to eek out a win over Jimmy Young, who while slick was also a feather fist. George Foreman destroyed him, and Holmes outpointed him (if only just barely). Norton certainly belongs in the top half of this list, but only just barely.
6. Jimmy Ellis (40-12-1, 24 KOs; WBA champion)
Jimmy Ellis is often overlooked when considering the Golden Age of the big men. However, this slickster held the WBA championship, and outpointed Oscar Bonavena, Floyd Patterson, Jerry Quarry, and George Chuvalo. Against that, he was demolished by Joe Frazier, Earnie Shavers, Muhammad Ali, and lost on points decision to Joe Bugner and Ron Lyle. All in all, it is a pretty good record for an over-achieving, blown-up middleweight.
7. Ron Lyle (43-7-1, 31 KOs)
Ron Lyle was one of the most formidable punchers of the era. He retired the fat fringe contender Buster Mathis, Sr., and outpointed Jimmy Ellis, Joe Bugner, and Oscar Bonavena. He also won the shoot-out with the hardest puncher who ever lived, Earnie Shavers. However, he was stopped by George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, outpointed twice by Jimmy Young, and once by Jerry Quarry. He was a more versatile puncher than Foreman or Shavers, and certainly had better stamina than either of them. In many ways, his record is better than Foreman's or Norton's, and he is held back only by having never won a world title.
8. Jimmy Young (34-19-2, 11KOs)
Jimmy Young is perhaps the most under-appreciated ring technician who ever laced up the gloves. While he lost to Earnie Shavers in a crushing knockout, he was a novice at the time, and he came back later to partly avenge that loss with a draw. He outboxed two of the most fearsome punchers of the day in George Foreman and Ron Lyle (twice), and narrowly lost to the old master, Muhammad Ali. His loss to Ken Norton was razor thin. It must be said that the one thing always holding Young's career back was that while he was the slickest of the slick, he was also a feather fist. Not having a punch as a heavyweight is a severe liability, and if his early matchmaking was terrible (witness being thrown to Shavers as a novice), it was masterful in his later career: he was kept away from the people who would not be befuddled by his skills and quickness.
9. Floyd Patterson(55-8-1, 40KOs; two time undisputed champion)
Patterson is often thought of as the relic of a bygone era, but he was still a solid contender in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Ali, who fought him twice, considered him more skilled than any of his other opponents. He drew Quarry in their first encounter, and narrowly lost the second. As late as 1972, Patterson still had enough to outpoint Oscar Bonavena. Against this must be weighed his 1972 TKO at the hands of Muhammad Ali, and his clean points loss to Jimmy Ellis. Although Patterson knocked out Henry Cooper and outpointed Oscar Bonavena, those wins were before 1967 and must be ranked with his prior achievements. The sum total of the man's career was impressive indeed, and his accomplishments in his last years as a professional boxer are just good enough to rate him among the best of the Golden Age.
10. Earnie Shavers (74-14-1, 68 KOs)
Shavers eeks in as the #10 heavyweight of the Golden Age on the basis of what others said about him: both Larry Holmes and Muhammad Ali said he was the hardest puncher they ever fought, and these were men that stood in the ring with the likes of George Foreman, Ron Lyle, Joe Frazier, and Mike Tyson. However, Shavers was in many ways a one-dimensional fighter. His talent as a boxer was limited, and so was his stamina. Chances were that if you could ride out the storm of Shaver's onslaught, he would tire and could then be taken. His career bests were his tie with Young in their rematch and his 1st Round knockout of Jimmy Ellis. Against this, he was knocked out himself by Jerry Quarry and Ron Lyle, and outpointed by Ali and Holmes.
Honorable MentionsAlso contending for fame, glory, and a big purse in the Golden Age were tough George Chuvalo; Oscar Bonavena of Argentina; Hungarian-British boxer Joe Bugner; Buster Mathis, Sr.; and light heavyweight king Bob Foster. Larry Holmes more properly belongs to the next era of heavyweights, the so-called "Lost Generation," as he stands as the dominant champion of that time.