For better or for worse, the little guys and gals in combat sports can’t seem to catch a break compared to their larger counterparts. Historically, in boxing and now in MMA, the biggest draws have always been the heavyweights. Why? Well that’s the million-dollar question isn’t it? Larger fighters, generally speaking, aren’t usually as swift or technical as the smaller ones. Which is not to say the heavyweight fights aren’t a showcase of skill and technique, because they still are, just not at the sometimes-dizzying pace the lighter weight classes are home to. However, there’s one aspect of the fight game that is emblematic of the heavyweight division; the knockout. The bigger fighters walk around with knockout power that smaller ones could only dream of possessing. There’s just more power behind each hit, and a correctly placed punch, snuck in behind a blitz of jabs, can mean lights out.
Nowhere is the heavyweight division more glorified than in boxing. Although the most famous boxer of the moment, Floyd Mayweather Jr., fights far below the heavyweight division, nearly all of the big names of the past can be found among the heavyweights. Ali, Tyson, Hollyfield, Foreman, Frazier, Marciano, all of them competed at heavyweight. There’s just something about watching these titans duke it out that holds more appeal to the general public than normal sized fighters. Maybe it’s the realities of the real world imposed onto the ring by the fans; if you put a heavyweight and a bantamweight – both trained and highly skilled – into a boxing ring, there’s no doubt who the winner would be. For that reason the heavyweight division is considered, implicitly or explicitly, the domain of the best fighters in the world. Compare that to the lighter weight classes, which used to simply be regarded as the ‘best of the rest’.
The kings of heavyweight boxing were the men who were able to become a champion and then cement a legacy by defending that championship. It’s possible to sneak in a fluke victory and become a champion; there are lucky champions. There are no lucky legends. The next 10 men fall into the legend category. These are the 10 longest reigning heavyweight champions in boxing history.
10 James J. Corbett – Championship Reign: 4 Years, 6 Months, 10 Days
We begin with a man some call the ‘father of boxing’. Corbett, an American, competed in the late 19th century and the early 20th century, a time when boxing was still known as ‘prizefighting’. His use of bobbing, weaving, and other standard boxing movements of the modern game was innovative at the time. His artistic approach to the sport was a precursor to what we watch today, and it allowed him to build a large following. He won the Heavyweight Championship from John L. Sullivan in 1892, using feints and jabs to wear him down until knocking him out in the 21st round. Boxing was illegal in many states at the time, and no athletic commissions existed, so organizing championship defenses was a tedious affair. He defended the belt only once during his 4 ½ year reign, before eventually losing the championship to Bob Fitzsimmons.
9 Joe Frazier – Championship Reign: 4 Years, 10 Months, 18 Days
8 Vitali Klitschko – Championship Reign: 5 Years, 2 Months, 4 Days
Ukrainian heavyweight Vitali Klitschko, one half of the Klitschko brothers, was heavyweight champion of the world for 5 years, 2 months, and 4 days. He became WBC Heavyweight Champion in 2004, but retired and vacated the belt in 2005 due to nagging injuries. He announced his comeback in 2007 and was granted an immediate title shot against the current champion Samuel Peter in 2008. He won that fight in dominating fashion to begin a reign that ended in December 2013, again by his own volition. Klitschko vacated the Heavyweight Championship again, this time not because of injury, but instead to put all his focus into the political situation in his native Ukraine. Klitschko has since become a leading figure in the ongoing Ukrainian revolution. The WBC granted him ‘Champion Emeritus’ status, meaning should he choose to return to boxing he’ll have a championship opportunity waiting for him.
7 James J. Jeffries – Championship Reign: 5 Years, 11 Months, 4 Days
James Jeffries was an imposing boxer from Ohio who, from 1899 to 1904, was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. ‘The Boilermaker’ defeated Bob Fitzsimmons in 1899, knocking him out in the 11th round to strip him of his World Heavyweight Championship. Jeffries would go on to defend the belt 7 times over a 5-year period. In 1904, he retired from boxing, and consequently vacated the World Heavyweight title.
6 Jack Johnson – Championship Reign: 6 Years, 3 Months, 10 Days
Jack Johnson holds the distinction of being the first African-American Heavyweight Champion in boxing history, a feat he accomplished by defeating Tommy Burns for the championship in 1908. Johnson’s championship reign released animosity from the racists of white America. Opponents deemed worthy by the media were billed as the ‘Great White Hope’, as many whites sought to unseat Johnson as soon as possible. In the end he was hounded out of the United States by false charges of human trafficking under the Mann Act, because of his transportation of a white woman who was allegedly a prostitute. He lost the Heavyweight Championship of the world in 1915, getting knocked out by Jess Willard in the 26th round of their clash in Havana while in exile.
5 John L. Sullivan – Championship Reign: 7 Years, 0 Months, 9 Days
John L. Sullivan is one of the most important figures in the history of combat sports, as he is generally regarded as the last heavyweight champion of bare-knuckle boxing and the first heavyweight champion of gloved boxing. He was active in the late 19th century, when boxing was illegal and underground across much of the world. Although it’s disputed which of his fights made him a world champion, as there was no official title at the time and he was the first to popularize the moniker, his defeat by James J. Corbett in 1892 lost him his title and was his last professional fight.
4 Jack Dempsey – Championship Reign: 7 Years, 2 Months, 19 Days
Jack Dempsey was the king of the boxing world from 1919 to 1926. He defeated Jess Willard – the man who had ended the reign of Jack Johnson – in dominating fashion to capture the heavyweight championship. He was a massive draw, and his celebrity status had grown so much throughout his reign that the fight against Gene Tunney in 1926, where he lost the championship, was contested in front of 120,557 people in Philadelphia. Unlike many athletes, Dempsey managed to hold on to his wealth long after retirement. He died in 1983 of natural causes.
3 Larry Holmes – Championship Reign: 7 Years, 3 Months, 12 Days
Larry Holmes was champion from 1978 to 1985, and defended his title over 20 times against all comers. He won the WBC Heavyweight Championship in 1978, but relinquished it to become the IBF World Heavyweight Champion, the championship of the newly created International Boxing Federation, in 1983. He would eventually lose his championship to Michael Spinks in a huge upset, and then lost again in the rematch. He would fight a few more times in the 1990s, all the way up to 1999, before retiring and living comfortably off his boxing money.
2 Wladimir Klitschko – Championship Reign: April 22nd, 2006 – Present
The younger brother of Vitali Klitschko, Wladimir, is the current IBF, WBO & IBO World Heavyweight Champion. He is the longest reigning heavyweight champion in modern boxing, with an impressive 15 consecutive title defenses. He successfully acquired numerous championships from various boxing organizations, unifying many of the major heavyweight championships of modern boxing. He is expected to face Alex Leapai on April 26th in a title defense. Whatever the result may be, Klitschko will have been champion for over 8 years.
1 Joe Louis – Championship Reign: 11 Years, 8 Months, 8 Days
In the post-Jack Dempsey era, boxing’s popularity waned significantly. The man responsible for carrying the torch for the sport throughout the late 1930s and all of the 1940s was Joe Louis. He acquired his first taste of championship gold in 1937 against James Braddock, and held on to it for a little more than a decade. He also holds the record for most title defenses (25), a figure that has yet to come even close to being matched. Louis’s era of dominance came to an end against Ezzard Charles in 1950, although he continued fighting until another loss to Rocky Marciano in 1951. He retired with a record of 66 wins and 3 losses, and he died of cardiac arrest in 1981.