Between sports fans, among the most vital discourses are those of the “greatest” or the “best” in their sport. In some sports, these terms refer to the same people; athletes like Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps, and Usain Bolt are simultaneously the best, most successful, most decorated, and most revered in the game, hence their reference as the “greatest.”
However, in many more sports, this argument is much more contentious. For boxing, a sport wherein just one night can make careers, destroy reputations, or shift years-old narratives. In that sense, the “best” and “the greatest” are not necessarily synonymous
Included in this list are the best boxers — those who, however great their records, transcended mere wins. Critical to this judgment are questions of the “eye test,” of the boxer’s reputation within the sport, and the context for the record the boxer ultimately finished with.
So, here is our list in reverse order, starting with number 10.
10. Mike Tyson
Record: (50-6, 44 knockouts)
Years Active: 1986 – 2005
Once the most terrifying (and troubled) boxer in the universe, Mike Tyson’s peak was brief, aggressive, and culture-changing. He punched heads and chests like Barry Bonds hit baseballs, complimenting destructive, furious power with pinpoint accuracy and blazing speed in an offense still unmatched. Tyson was so fearsome that he was the final boss in a Nintendo game, his peers including literal monsters like Bowser and Ganon.
Among the secrets to Tyson’s success was his compact frame; a heavyweight at just 5’10”, he was dwarfed by most of his opponents. He utilized this lower center of gravity both offensively and defensively, dodging swiftly between attacks and boosting his own punching power. Tyson’s somewhat unimpressive list of opponents may belie his talent on paper, but in terms of pure talent, there is no doubt that Mike Tyson was one of the best boxers to ever fight.
9. Willie Pep
Record: (229-11-1, 65 knockouts)
Years Active: 1940 – 1960
Willie Pep started his career with 62 straight wins before his first loss. After his first loss, he fought 73 more matches before losing again — a ratio of 134 wins to one loss to one tie. He ended his career with more wins than any other boxer on this list has total fights.
Oh, and to divide his career up in another way: Pep’s record was 110-1 when he miraculously survived a plane crash five days into 1947. After the plane crash, Pep would go on to fight another 130 times; fans would observe that it seemed Pep had lost some of his physical abilities due to the nearly fatal injuries he sustained in the crash. They included broken vertebrae, a compound fracture in his leg, and severe trauma to his chest.
Altogether, they left him in a full-body cast for five months, not medically expected to be able to walk again, let alone box. Among the 130 fights Pep took on after this life-altering accident were the 10 he took the very same year. Nothing could stop Pep and his love of the boxing ring.
Even after the crash, Pep maintained a reputation for having an impenetrable defense in the ring. His speed and savvy made him unhittable to nearly every opponent he faced.
8. Joe Louis
Record: (66-3, 52 knockouts)
Years Active: 1937 – 1949
In the early 1930s, a young Joe Louis arose as an immensely popular athlete in the U.S., being awarded the Associated Press’s Athlete of the Year in 1935 with a then-undefeated professional record of 27-0. In 1938, Louis was victorious in a bout against Max Schmeling and the idea of Aryan supremacy in perhaps one of the most historically significant sporting events of all time, akin to Jesse Owens’s gold medals in the 1936 Olympics. It was at this point that Louis was vaulted from being a beloved athlete to a national hero.
At a time when boxing was considered to be as much of a national pastime as baseball, he was the best of the very best, his punches powerful and true, and his form picture-perfect. From 1937 to his retirement in 1949, through 25 title defenses and nearly 12 years, Joe Louis was the heavyweight champion of the world; both of these are still records. As the dynastic champion of the premier class of boxers, Louis was easily one of the best boxers of all time.
7. Henry Armstrong
Record: (152-22, 101 knockouts)
Years Active: 1931 – 1945
In the late 1930s, when there were just eight weight divisions in boxing, Henry Armstrong himself held three titles — after him, the practice of multiple-division champions was disallowed — and in 1940, he nearly gained a fourth when he fought the middleweight champion Ceferino Garcia to a draw. For his career, he fought 17 champions and defeated all but two.
An extremely prolific fighter, Armstrong fought on average more than once a month between 1931 and 1945. From 1937 to 1940, the heart of his career, Armstrong’s record was 59-1-1 with 51 knockouts. To elaborate, over this 48 month period he fought a total of 61 times, including winning all 27 of his fights in 1937. For his triumphs, he was awarded The Ring magazine “Fighter of the Decade” for the 1930s.
Armstrong was known for his movement and relentless attack in the ring, which bore him evocative names such as “Hammerin’,” “Homicide,” and “Hurricane” Hank, as well as “Perpetual Motion” and “the Human Buzzsaw.” In the middle of the above-mentioned 27 fights in 1937, Armstrong began a streak of 27 straight knockouts that continued into 1938. Furthermore, he forever revolutionized close-range boxing in his masterful control and manipulation of his opponents’ movements, the key to which was using his head to maneuver their stance.
6. Sugar Ray Leonard
Record: (36-3-1, 25 knockouts)
Years Active: 1977 – 1997
The iconic Sugar Ray Leonard was arguably the greatest and certainly the most popular of the “Fabulous Four” that carried boxing through the 1980s. A champion in five weight divisions, Leonard’s only three losses were a shocking 1980 title fight with Roberto Durán he would avenge five months later, and failed comebacks in 1991 and 1997. On the other hand, his 36 victories include wins over many of the best of his era, such as Wilfredo Benitez, Durán, Thomas Hearns, and Marvin Hagler (the latter three his fellow members of the “Fab Four”).
Leonard parlayed incredible athleticism, footwork, technique, and boxing IQ into, in no uncertain terms, one of the strongest fight résumés in boxing history. His complete punching repertoire and physical gifts led to a knack for controlling the action in the ring, with perhaps the sole exception being his infamous loss to Durán. More than one of the best boxers of all time, Leonard is an icon of the sport and one of its most storied, decorated figures, being named The Ring’s “Fighter of the Decade” for the 1980s.
7. Roberto Durán
Record: (103-16, 70 knockouts)
Years Active: 1968 – 2001
Roberto Durán is an absolute genius of boxing. The shocking outcomes of his most notorious fights (his two 1980 bouts with Sugar Ray Leonard) might undermine the fact that Durán was perhaps the most malleable, versatile boxer on this list. His aggression, punishing attacks, and ceaseless pressure earned him the nickname “Manos de Piedra” or “Hands of Stone.” This was the reputation that colored his dominance of the lightweight division in the 1970s, in which he won the title in 1972 and held until vacating to challenge Leonard.
It was in the first bout with Leonard that Durán showed the world his genuine mastery of the sport. Spurred by Leonard’s “golden boy” status and correspondingly huge purse, the veteran Durán set out to destroy his unwitting opponent.
He leaned into the media portrayal of himself as a fierce, yet crude barbarian as contrasted with the cool, technical, and physically superior Leonard, and intentionally aggravated Leonard before the fight to throw him off his game. In so doing, Durán incited the champion to fight against type, standing still and trading blows and thereby neutralizing his physical advantages. Durán won by unanimous decision.
Durán’s legacy does not end in 1980 with his embarrassing loss in the rematch with Leonard. Although he briefly retired from boxing, Durán would go on to win titles in two more weight classes. He would not retire from boxing until 2001, when he was involved in a car crash at the tender age of 50; he had been boxing as recently as July of that year, when he lost a title he had won in 2000 at age 49. Ultimately, Durán became one of the longest-tenured boxers ever, his career extending through five decades. Like his contemporary Sugar Ray, he was also a The Ring magazine’s “Fighter of the Decade” for the 1970s.
4. Manny Pacquiao
Record: (62-7, 39 knockouts)
Years Active: 1995 – Current
The only active boxer on the list, and The Ring’s “Fighter of the Decade” for the 2000s, Manny Pacquiao synthesized the best traits of several of the boxers on this list with an all-time great fighting spirit and indefatigable passion. Altogether, he is arguably one of the greatest showmen in boxing history, perhaps second only to Muhammad Ali.
Just as terrifying pound-for-pound as Tyson, Pacquiao’s fights are a spectacle of his bouncing stance and flurrying red fists. Rising from a flyweight in 1995 to a welterweight presently, Pacquiao perfectly exemplifies the competitive nature of boxing in his eagerness to always take on and put down the best of bigger, stronger fighters — Marco Antonio Barrera, Juan Manuel Marquez, Erik Morales, Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, Miguel Cotto, Antonio Margarito, Shane Mosley, Timothy Bradley, Adrien Broner, Keith Thurman — all larger men at the tops of their divisions. Indeed, Pacquiao has won twelve titles and is the only boxer to ever win titles in seven and eight different divisions, including in four of the eight glamor divisions.
The notion that a past-his-prime Pacquiao has been “exposed” by his recent losses to Marquez and Floyd Mayweather, Jr. is fallacious, particularly upon review of the fights. For one, it must be remembered that Pacquiao and Marquez fought FOUR incredible times, with his only loss occurring in the last. For another, Mayweather cheated, breaking his own rules before the fight.
A controversial opinion follows that if Pacquiao and Mayweather had never fought, Pacquiao would have an even stronger claim for best boxer of all time, and certainly better than Mayweather. As awful as their fight was, and as dubious its result, Mayweather still won.
3. Muhammad Ali
Record: (56-5, 37 knockouts)
Years Active: 1960 – 67 and 1970 – 1981
Muhammad Ali called himself The Greatest and there is no one who should deny that. The fighter who started his career as Cassius Clay before converting to Islam and throwing off his “slave” name, Ali was at one point the most famous athlete of all time and one of the most famous people in the world, and used this platform to be one of the most outspoken people in the world — even sacrificing three and a half years of his boxing career to speak out on what he believed. He was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war and lost his boxing license as a result. No boxer will ever be as impactful culturally or for boxing as Muhammad Ali was.
Ali rose to fame on the strength of his radical approach to boxing, epitomized by an unorthodox “non”-defense intended to bait opponents into leaving their heads open (Ali scarcely threw body blows). Instead of keeping his hands up, he avoided punches with the athleticism and footspeed of a much smaller man. He also invented and applied the equally radical “rope-a-dope”, inviting Joe Frazier to tire himself out pounding ineffectually at Ali’s guard against the ropes. This versatile, unconventional style led Ali to become the only three-time heavyweight champion, along the way beating everyone in the heavyweight class worth fighting.
2. Sugar Ray Robinson
Record: (174-19, 109 knockouts)
Years Active: 1940 – 1965
Ali idolized Sugar Ray Robinson, as did any boxing fan who saw him fight. The Ring’s “Fighter of the Decade” for both the 1940s and the 1950s, Robinson began his career 89-1-1 and got to 128-1-2 before losing again; his only loss was to Jake LaMotta, who he would go on to defeat five times in five fights. In 1943, Robinson embarked on an eight-year, 91-fight win streak, during which he was the welterweight champion for five years, then middleweight champion for the first of five times.
The fact that Sugar Ray was dominant across several weight classes made many critics dub him as pound-for-pound, “the best.” His flamboyant out-of-ring lifestyle also added to his celebrity. He relished his fame and was a larger-than-life character that many consider to also be the greatest fighter to have ever entered the ring.
1. Floyd Mayweather, Jr.
Record: (50-0, 27 knockouts)
Years Active: 1996 – 2015, and 2017
Floyd Mayweather, Jr., the human perfect record, achieved “best boxer ever” status on the back of one of the most predictable game plans sports has ever seen. Singularly obsessed with his lossless record, Mayweather meticulously selected opponents in his quest to not lose, entering and returning to an on-and-off retirement to avoid particularly strong opponents. For emphasis, Mayweather does not fight to win, or for glory – he fights to not lose.
Mayweather was the supreme defensive technician. He let his opponents come at him, backpedaling and sidestepping for miles each match before choosing a moment to throw few punches with incredible accuracy that hit hard and score points. He rarely knocked his opponent out, especially in the latter half of his career. Mayweather was an eight-time champion in five divisions and never lost a fight in his entire career. It’s hard to achieve more than that.
He is propped up by the boxing industry as the “greatest” because of the amount of money he makes for everyone in the industry, generating millions of pay-per-view buys and billions in revenue, but it is more appropriate to call him simply “the best.” The Ring named him the “Fighter of the Decade” for the 2010s. Our list considers him the greatest fighter to have ever boxed.