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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 Mentions

Also 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.

By "the 1930s," I really mean the times following Gene Tunney's retirement to the start of WW2, which I think make for a neat, tidy era. This is just something to chew on.

1. Joe Louis: Well, duh Who else was going to head up this list? Louis was not just the dominant champ of the 1930s - if you consider how infrequently past champs fought, he was the first truly dominant heavyweight champion period.

He kayoed Paulino Uzcudun and Kingfish Levinsky, as well as former champs Max Baer and Primo Carnera on his way to the title. Right there he knocked off four of the world's best heavyweights in only his second year as a pro fighter. After taking the title from Braddock, he defeated John Henry Lewis, Billy Conn, Arturo Godoy twice, Tony Galento, and avenged his sole defeat to Max Schmeling in spectacular fashion. This was the period of the pre-war Joe Louis, where his legend was built. He rules the era like a colossus.

2. Max Baer: Ah, "Madcap" Maxie Baer, the underachieving clown prince of heavyweight boxing. He was a brilliant talent - Jack Dempsey thought so - and we saw a glimpse of what Baer could have done if he had been as dedicated as Louis after he pulled himself back together from the Frankie Campbell tragedy. He beat Paulino Uzcudun and Tuffy Griffiths, and stopped Max Schmeling and Primo Carnera. There ought to be no doubt in anyone's mind that the only reason Baer lost the fight with Jim Braddock is that he didn't want to win it; after becoming champ, it seems very much like whatever fire that was in Baer's belly went completely out.

The bottom line, however, is that while Baer did nothing of note after he got the title, he did some pretty impressive things before winning it, and that is why I think of him as #2.

3. Max Schmeling: I often muse on what would have happened if Schmeling had not been completely ripped off in the original "we wuz robbed!" stinker, rigged decision in his rematch with Jack Sharkey. Regardless of what the record books say, he beat Sharkey twice, and it's hard for me to see him losing to Primo Carnera. If Schmelin had enjoyed a decent title reign - and one he clearly deserved - he would be the #2 on this list. Alas...

On top of beating Sharkey, he scored two wins and a draw against Paulino Uzcudun, and of course his famous stoppage of the comer Joe Louis. In the prime of Schmeling's career, his only losses were to Louis, Baer, and Steve Hamas.

4. Primo Carnera: Surprised to see Primo Carnera here? Don't be. The guy didn't win all his fights because of the mob - and I've always felt that allegations that Carnera relied on rigged decisions to be wildly overstated. To even win the title in the first place, he had to knock out Jack Sharkey, something Schmeling couldn't do. His win against Paulino Uzcudun was legitimate; his win over Tommy Loughran was not. Against this, he was stopped by Baer and Louis.

5. Jim Braddock: The number 5 slot was strictly between Braddock and Sharkey; that Braddock carries it says more about Sharkey than Braddock. Contrary to what the film would have you believe, the only truly formidable fighter he met on his way back to the title was John Henry Lewis, and Lewis was a true light heavyweight and the smaller man. To top it off, Braddock lost the title in his first defende, and no one really doubts that a focused, motivated Baer would have destroyed him. Still, the guy had character and guts, and compared to our #6 ...

6. Jack Sharkey: Well, where to start. Before the period in question, a young Sharkey was knocked out by an old Jack Dempsey. As noted, he lost two fights to Max Schmeling (or that is what the record books ought to say). He was knocked out by Primo Carnera and Joe Louis, and outpointed by Kingfish Levinsky. His only really good win was over Tommy Loughran, but that has to be balanced against losing the rematch. Like Braddock and Baer, he lost the title on his first defense. Unlike Braddock and Baer, he should never have won it in the first place, and has a string of high profile defeats to his name.

How about some fights of fighters in the SAME era that never happened?

Azumah Nelson vs JC Chavez
Dariusz Michalczewski vs. Roy Jones, Jr.
Joe Calzaghe vs. Sven Ottke (I want to see this one just so Ottke gets his ass whipped)
Floyd Patterson vs. Rocky Marciano
Ike Quartey vs. Felix Trinidad

I've always looked at this as being one of the more plausible and more interesting "what if" exercises in boxing history. When George Foreman became only the third man to ever stop tough George Chuvalo in 1970, it was by a closer margin than I think many realize. Foreman hurt Chuvalo, but didn't have him in the same kind of trouble that Joe Frazier did (Frazier crushed Chuvalo's eye socket; against Foreman, Chuvalo was merely staggered). In the video, Chuvalo's legs look good, he was covered up and weathering the storm, taking very few of the bombs Foreman was pourng on him in an effort to finish him. His head was clear enough when the fight was stopped to famously declare to the referee "What are you, nuts?"

So let's assume that Chuvalo did a little something to prevent the referee from stopping the fight - threw a few punches back, moved along the ropes more, or best of all spun out. Foreman has since admitted he completely punched himself out on Chuvalo. Foreman might have been stronger and hit harder than Chuvalo, but Chuvalo unquestionably had the bigger gas tank and the tougher will. If the just-as-plodding Foreman was left standing there completely spent, Chuvalo would have knocked his ass to the ground. It would have been an early, Chuvalo-style rope-a-dope. Chuvalo TKO5 Foreman.

So now what happens? George Foreman was a 21-0 comer at the time; going into his later bout with Frazier, the only big name under his belt was Chuvalo. If the gatekeeper Chuvalo stopped Foreman, he would have been "exposed" and forced Foreman back to the drawing board. Foreman would be back, but there would have been no fight with Frazier in Jamaica, and no "down goes Frazier!" Frazier and Muhammad Ali were in stalled negotiations for a rematch, and with no Foreman upset that would have taken place. So Frazier vs. Ali II would have been for the title, but more important Frazier would not be coming off the physical trauma of being dribbled like a basketball in Jamaica. Who knows what might have happened then?

Then what happens with Chuvalo? The irony is that Chuvalo beating Foreman would have not done as much for Chuvalo's career as the reverse did for Foreman. It would be a good win, similar to what beating Mac Foster did for Jerry Quarry, and also it was now Chuvalo's second big win in a row (he stopped Quarry the previous year); enough to earn a big fight, but not a rematch with champion Frazier. So who would be out there?

Having been lucky to stop Jerry Quarry the year before, I doubt Chuvalo would seek a dangerous rematch with him. Ken Norton was still a non-entity in 1970/71; Ali was seeking out Frazier (another reason why a rematch with Frazier was out of the question).

Chuvalo had two narrow losses behind him crying for revenge: former two-time champ Floyd Patterson and Argentine Oscar Bonavena, and both men were still active in 1970 and 1971. Bonavena had only recently lost to Ali at the end of 1970. Patterson spent 1971 fighting journeymen and angling for another big fight. What would have happened then?

I think Patterson had lost far more than Chuvalo by 1971. They first fought in 1965 in a Fight of the Year, with Patterson winning a clean-but-close decision. Chuvalo UD12 Patterson. Bonavena is a harder call - that fight was close, with the rough and tumble Bonavena boxing to a narrow MD win. However, that was in 1966; by 1971 he had lost twice to Frazier, once to Jimmy Ellis, and was coming off a TKO at the hand of Ali. In 1972, Patterson would outbox him. Chuvalo is on a winning streak and confident, and I think he could edge the Argentine in a reversed MD win.

And so then Chuvalo would have done enough to have earned a rematch with Frazier, possibly in 1972, where "Smokin'" Joe would stop him again.

You can see how a little change in tactics by Chuvalo, or a little more patience by Arthur Mercante could have changed the entire history of heavyweight boxing...

Roberto1 - this is one of the things I mentioned in my article (linked to above). Basically, if you buy the idea that the most fertile recruiting ground for pro fighters are working class inner city kids that don't have an option like baseketball, then the former Soviet Bloc is where a big chunk of the future heavyweight contenders are going to come from. It has that combined with being one of the few places in the world that turns out big guys in quantity. I also think the quality of the "Red Army" will improve as the next generation, free of the all-amateur style of the Soviet days, comes into the scene.

Ode to Joe on Wed 18-Jun-2008:
This is what I call "making yourself look ridiculous." Believing this kind of drivel is automatically indicative of living in the fantasyland where facts can change. Is the sky green where you live? Undecided

Nelson vs. Fenech Primer on Mon 16-Jun-2008:

I wrote a couple of profiles for the young'uns who might not remember who Jeff Fenech and Azumah Nelson were:

Jeff Fenech: Puncher, Ladies Man, All Australian

An African Boxing Legend: Azumah "The Professor" Nelson

I know I was merely a sophmore in college and toiling away on the university boxing team at the time Laughing

This is a dinosaur bout, and therefore will mean little to world boxing past its entertainment value. I understand it is a big deal in Australia (perhaps Mr. Upham can comment on that).

I can't really guess at who has an edge here without knowing how consistently Fenech and Nelson have been in the gym for at least the last couple of years. Nelson has an advantage in being the naturally bigger man, but that's the only one that leaps out at me.

Yes, I agree. I've taken to calling the horde of Slavic heavyweights "The Red Army Invasion." The former Soviet Bloc just has a big number of big men for whom boxing is one of only a few viable professional sports that offer a way out of the ranks of the working poor.

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