The hardest hitters in heavyweight history

A prime Mike Tyson might have been the most destructive fighter ever to climb into a boxing ring. AP Photo

It is no secret why people love the heavyweights. More than in any other division, there is always the chance of a sudden and spectacular ending.

It is sadly true that many heavyweight fights have been disappointing, lumbering affairs, but the big men have also provided some of boxing's most startling moments. Here is a look at 10 heavyweight hitters who have provided some of those moments.

1. Mike Tyson

For six rounds, the peak Mike Tyson was possibly the most devastating fighter ever seen, although trainer Don Turner once reminded me: "After six rounds he isn't the same." At his best, Tyson combined speed and power. Often, he was right on the other man before the poor fellow quite knew what was happening, such as when he crushed Marvis Frazier in 30 seconds. It also helped that Tyson intimidated many of his opponents to the point that they were ready to be knocked out before a punch was thrown (Michael Spinks, Alex Stewart and Bruce Seldon in particular). When Tyson knocked out Spinks in 91 seconds in 1988 he truly looked unbeatable, prompting the remark from Sugar Ray Leonard (a closed-circuit TV analyst for the fight): "He was so destructive he should be locked up." Veteran reporter Ken Jones wrote in the British daily The Independent that Tyson "came to the ring with all the determination and pent-up energy that has helped establish him as perhaps the most intimidating force ever seen in boxing."

2. Sonny Liston

There is a body of opinion that Sonny Liston has been greatly underrated. People think of his dismal performances against Muhammad Ali, yet Liston might have been at his best long before he finally got the chance to fight for the title. His two early KO wins over Cleveland "Big Cat" Williams and a third-round knockout over the classic stylist Zora Folley were considered awesome exhibitions of heavyweight firepower. Liston's uncompromising attitude was summed up in a laconic comment made to the media before the first of the two one-round wins over Floyd Patterson: "My plan is to go right out at the opening bell and get what's coming to me -- and give Patterson what's coming to him."

3. Joe Louis

Louis was not a great one-punch banger -- his famous 13th-round knockout win over Billy Conn came from a series of blows, for instance -- but in his prime he was a machine of destruction. Once Louis had a man hurt, he did not let him get away. He was what old-timers would call a great finisher. As with Tyson and Liston, his aura sometimes had an opponent so unnerved prior to the bout that, even before a blow had been landed, the fearful victim was, in the boxing vernacular, looking for the floor. Louis' knockout wins inspired awe as well as admiration in onlookers. To wit, after the Brown Bomber's one-round blowout of 45-pounds-heavier Buddy Baer in 1942, a wire service reporter named Jack Cuddy described Louis as "the most formidable fighting machine the human race ever produced."

4. George Foreman

Big George did not punch with the impeccable form of a Tyson, Liston or Louis, but there was a time when he looked like an unstoppable force, clubbing his opponents with big, looping, bludgeoning blows. When Foreman hit the heavy bag it was like a cannon blast. A veteran reporter named Walter Bartleman of London's Evening Standard was the only British writer to pick Foreman to beat Joe Frazier in the big upset in Kingston, Jamaica. He told me afterwards he had reasoned that Frazier, with his straight-ahead style, would inevitably walk into a massive punch from which there would be no coming back; he was right.

5. Rocky Marciano

With 43 KOs in 49 successive wins, Marciano has to be near the top of any heavyweight hitters list. His come-from-behind KO win over Jersey Joe Walcott was one of the most dramatic one-punch finishes of all time, but often he would beat down the other man -- softening him up, as it were, with a bruising bombardment. The knockout over Walcott, though, was a graphic example of single-shot punching power carried late into a fight: The big, blockbuster right hand was the fight-ending blow, a follow-up left hook mere window-dressing. Marciano had been losing the fight, but as the Associated Press' Jack Hand reported, Rocky's right hand "changed night into day."

6. Earnie Shavers

Maybe Shavers should be even higher on the list, because he was truly a one-hit specialist, but he didn't have the combinations and he couldn't land the KO blow in his biggest fights against Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes. However, he knocked down Holmes with a right hand that might have finished many heavyweights. Shavers was especially dangerous early in a fight, as he showed when bombing out Ken Norton inside two minutes. Before the fight, Norton was dismissive of Shavers, saying: "He is very mechanical and predictable. Shavers knows his only chance is to come out and try to bomb me out." Unfortunately for Norton, that is exactly what happened.

7. Jack Dempsey

The old Manassa Mauler showed his punching power in the brutal, seven-knockdown win over Jess Willard and again in his wild two-rounder against Luis Angel Firpo, both much bigger men. Dempsey was a bit Tyson-like in that he was faster than the heavyweights of his day, and he could do damage quickly, like when he knocked out the 6-foot-6 Fred Fulton in 18 seconds. When he rallied to knock out Firpo, after being sensationally knocked through the ropes, The New York Times captured Dempsey's fight-ending attack in the colorful writing style of the day: "He was, in a word, Dempsey the man-killer, and he killed with the destructive fury that only those who have felt the full force of his blows can tell."

8. Joe Frazier

Smokin' Joe was surely the greatest heavyweight left-hooker. Sometimes he needed an accumulation of punches to get the job done, but his left hook flattened light-heavyweight champion Bob Foster and blew Jimmy Ellis out of the fight. If Frazier didn't get a man out of the fight with one shot (or a series of them) he would grind him down. As author Robert Lipsyte wrote prior to Frazier's win over Muhammad Ali: "Frazier always does the same thing, which is awesome to watch, and has always been effective. He takes his opponent's best punches, smiling and chortling at any that really hurt him, and when the competitive juice begins running out of his opponent, Frazier gets in close and chops him down."

9. Lennox Lewis

Two-time heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis was one of the best right-hand hitters in the history of the heavyweight division. He will, perhaps unkindly, be remembered mostly for the two difficult 12-round fights with bombproof Evander Holyfield and the shocking upset losses to Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman. Lewis, though, delivered some dramatic KO wins, notably against Razor Ruddock, Andrew Golota, Francois Botha and in the rematch with Rahman. There were fights in which Lewis was frustratingly hesitant, but when he stepped in and really let the right hand fly he was one of heavyweight boxing's most potent practitioners. When Lewis knocked out Ruddock in the second round (although a first-round knockdown effectively ended the fight), veteran British boxing writer Colin Hart called it an "awesome display of speed and power." Writing in the tabloid Sun newspaper, Hart compared Lewis' first-round dumping of Ruddock (with a right hand) to a famous left hook landed by Henry Cooper when he wrote: "The blow that floored Ruddock in the first round was, without doubt, the best single punch I've seen from a British heavyweight since 'Enery's 'Ammer put Cassius Clay on his backside at Wembley Stadium almost 30 years ago."

10. Max Baer

People perhaps think of Max Baer mainly for his loss to Cinderella Man James J. Braddock and the farcical win over huge but hapless Primo Carnera, but the fun-loving Madcap Maxie could really hit with the right hand. Tragically, a boxer named Frankie Campbell died from a brain injury after being severely battered by Baer in 1930. Two years later, 1930s contender Ernie Schaaf was absolutely flattened by Baer with two seconds left in the fight, thus being saved from a count out by the bell; it is widely believed that the lingering effects of Baer's terrifying right hand were a major contributing factor in Schaaf's death after he was stopped by Carnera in 1933. Far from being the cruel character depicted in the film "Cinderella Man," though, Baer actually appealed to referee Arthur Donovan to stop the fight when he had Max Schmeling hurt and helpless in the 10th round of their 1933 bout. Late in his career, Baer did something Joe Louis had been unable to do -- Baer knocked down Tommy Farr, although the tough Welsh heavyweight lasted the full 15 rounds at Madison Square Garden.

Graham Houston is the American editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for FightWriter.com.