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HEAVYWEIGHT BOXING CHAMPIONS

INTRODUCTION

In boxing, there are many different belts but the lineal heavyweight champion can be traced to the first fight which was regarded as the world heavyweight boxing title match in 1885 in which John Sullivan defeated Dominick McCaffrey. The lineal champion is the fighter who defeats the previous lineal champion. One of the key differences between the lineal championship and a belt are that a lineal champion can't be stripped of their title. For example when Muhammad Ali was stripped of his belts in 1969 for refusing to fight in Vietnam, he remained the lineal heavyweight champion. When a lineal champion retires, a new lineal champion is determined when the 2 fighters widely considered the best fight each other. This page looks at the lineal heavyweight champions in the following charts and data table:

Charts

1. Black American Lineal Heavyweight Champions by Region of Birth

2. White American Lineal Heavyweight Champions by Region of Birth

3. Lineal Heavyweight Champions by Country

4. American Lineal Heavyweight Champions by Region of Birth

5. Lineal Heavyweight Boxing Champions by Race

6. Lineal Heavyweight Boxing Champions by Height

7. Knockout Percentage of Lineal Champions

8. Number of Lineal Defences

Data Table

9. Lineal Heavyweight Champions by Win%, KO%, Height, Reach, Race and Place of Origin

Photo by Sabatu

Photo by José María Mora 

The South and the Northeast have been the two most dominant regions for producing American lineal heavyweight champions. The Midwest has a modest representation while the West has a very low representation. However this wasn't always the case. The Midwest and the West produced 4 of the first 7 American lineal heavyweight champions. However soon the division became exclusively dominated by fighters from the South and the Northeast. 

The majority, 58%, of black American lineal heavyweight champions were born in the south. The south has had the largest black population so this isn't surprising. Both Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis, considered the two greatest heavyweights of all time, were from the south. The low representation of the south among white American lineal heavyweight champions is notable.

The Northeast shows the strongest representation with 45%. The white ethnic communities such as Italians, Irish and Jews in northeastern cities like New York and Boston had a strong boxing tradition in the first half of the 20th century. Many famous boxing coaches in the latter part of the 20th century were from these communities, most notably Cus D'Amato.

The United States has dominated heavyweight boxing for most of it's history. This was true from the start but the dominance of American fighters was particularly so in the 60s, 70s and 80s when heavyweight boxing was completely dominated by American fighters. It's certainly not the case now. 3 of the last 4 have been from outside the USA with Hasim Rahman (who had no successful lineal defences) being the only American fighter to be lineal champion this century. This cause of this dramatic change is debated.

The 2 fights between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling in the 1930s in shadow of World War II were highly charged with nationalistic sentiments. 

Photo by Sabatu

In the early days of heavyweight boxing, it was almost exclusively contested between white boxers. Of the first 15 lineal heavyweight champions, only Jack Johnson was black. After Jack Johnson, black fighters were effectively barred from competing for the heavyweight title for years. After Joe Louis became champion, things changed. Although two white fighters, Rocky Marciano and Ingemar Johansson, were prominent in the 1950s, black fighters would soon come to completely dominate the division. From Ingemar Johansson's loss to Floyd Patterson in 1960 till Wladimir Klitschko became lineal heavyweight champion in 2009, all lineal heavyweight champions were black fighters. This has changed recently. With the decline of black Americans from the division, there has been a rise in European fighters. The last two lineal heavyweight champions, Wladimir Klitschko and Tyson Fury, are white Europeans. 

Photo by Pulitzer Publishing Company

The tallest of the lineal heavyweight champions is Tyson Fury, the current lineal champion. This is unsurprising as there has been a gradual increase in height of boxers in the heavyweight division. The fighter he won the title from, Wladimir Klitschko, is the 3rd tallest of all time. Very notable, however, is the 2nd tallest Jess Willard who fought in the early 20th century. Mike Tyson and Rocky Marciano, two of the greats, are among the 4 shortest lineal heavyweight champions. This shows that height isn't everything in heavyweight boxing.

Photo by Abelito Roldan

Licensed under CC BY 2.0

Rocky Marciano has the best Knockout rate of lineal heavyweight champions with 88%. George Foreman is second with 84%. Mike Tyson, who is 5th highest at 76%, is notable for the high amount of matches won by first round KO. Fighters with high KO percentages tend to be power punchers. Marciano, Foreman and Mike Tyson were formidable punchers. Notable on the graph is the low position of Muhammad Ali who is considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, but has a relatively low 61% KO rate. This reflects his style of fighting where he would break opponents down with jabs rather than deliver powerful KO punch. In his prime, he would often win fights by TKOs. However in the latter part of his career, he won more fights by decisions. 

The incredible run of title defences by Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, can be seen from this chart. He far exceeds anyone else with 25 total defences from 1937 to 1948. Second is Muhammad Ali with 19 total lineal defences. Muhammad Ali is notable in being lineal champion 3 separate times, winning his title first when he famously defeated Sonny Liston in 1964. Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali are widely considered the two greatest heavyweight boxers of all time. Mike Tyson notably has only 2 lineal defences which doesn't reflect his domination of the division during the 80s. This is due to the fact that for much of his time as undisputed heavyweight champion, Michael Spinks remained the lineal champion. Mike Tyson eventually defeated Spinks to become lineal champion in 1988 but was famously defeated by Buster Douglas 3 fights later in a shock defeat. 10 lineal heavyweight champions don't have any lineal defences. These are often fighters who won the title unexpectedly such as Buster Douglas and Hasim Rahman.

Photo by Carl Van Wechten

DATA TABLE
9. Lineal Heavyweight Champions by Win%, KO%, Height, Reach, Race and Place of Origin
Lineal Champion Order
Boxer
Win %
KO %
Lineal defences
Height (cm)
Stance
Reach (cm)
Racial/Ethnic Group
Country
US State of Birth
1st
John L. Sullivan
92.68
78
3.5
179
Orthodox
188
White/European
USA
Massachusetts
2nd
James J. Corbett
55
25
1.5
185
Orthodox
185
White/European
USA
California
3rd
Bob Fitzsimmons
76.25
71
1
182
Orthodox
182
White/European
UK
N/A
4th
James J. Jeffries
79.17
67
8
183
Orthodox
194
White/European
USA
Ohio
5th
Marvin Hart
71.79
51
0
182
Orthodox
188
White/European
USA
Kentucky
6th
Tommy Burns
79.66
59
12.5
170
Orthodox
188
White/European
Canada
N/A
7th
Jack Johnson
71.79
45
8
184
Orthodox
188
Black/African
USA
Texas
8th
Jess Willard
78.57
71
1
199
Orthodox
211
White/European
USA
Kansas
9th
Jack Dempsey
79.71
65
5
185
Orthodox
196
White/European
USA
Colorado
10th
Gene Tunney
95.59
71
2
183
Orthodox
193
White/European
USA
New York
11th
Max Schmeling
80.00
56
1
185
Orthodox
193
White/European
Germany
N/A
12th
Jack Sharkey
69.81
25
0
183
Orthodox
193
White/European
USA
New York
13th
Primo Carnera
86.27
70
2
197
Orthodox
216
White/European
Italy
N/A
14th
Max Baer
83.54
65
0
189
Orthodox
206
White/European
USA
Nebraska
15th
James J. Braddock
60.26
35
0
189
Orthodox
191
White/European
USA
New York
16th
Joe Louis
95.65
75
26
187
Orthodox
193
Black/African
USA
Alabama
17th
Ezzard Charles
78.51
43
4
183
Orthodox
185
Black/African
USA
Georgia
18th
Jersey Joe Walcott
71.43
44
1
183
Orthodox
188
Black/African
USA
New Jersey
19th
Rocky Marciano
100
88
6
179
Orthodox
173
White/European
USA
Massachusetts
20th & 22nd
Floyd Patterson
85.94
63
4 & 2
183
Orthodox
180
Black/African
USA
North Carolina
21st
Ingemar Johansson
92.86
61
0
184
Orthodox
183
White/European
Sweden
N/A
23rd
Sonny Liston
92.59
72
1
185
Orthodox
213
Black/African
USA
Arkansas
24th, 27th & 29th
Muhammad Ali
91.80
61
9 & 10 & 0
191
Orthodox
198
Black/African
USA
Kentucky
25th
Joe Frazier
86.49
73
4
182
Orthodox
185
Black/African
USA
South Carolina
26th & 38th
George Foreman
83.95
84
2 & 3
191
Orthodox
199
Black/African
USA
Texas
28th
Leon Spinks
56.52
30
0
185
Orthodox
193
Black/African
USA
Missouri
30th
Larry Holmes
92.00
59
12
190
Orthodox
206
Black/African
USA
Georgia
31st
Michael Spinks
96.88
66
3
0
null
0
Black/African
USA
Missouri
32nd
Mike Tyson
86.21
76
2
178
Orthodox
180
Black/African
USA
New York
33rd
James "Buster" Douglas
82.22
53
0
192
Orthodox
211
Black/African
USA
Ohio
34th & 36th
Evander Holyfield
77.19
51
3 & 0
189
Orthodox
198
Black/African
USA
Alabama
35th
Riddick Bowe
95.56
73
2
196
Orthodox
206
Black/African
USA
New York
37th
Michael Moorer
91.23
70
0
188
Southpaw
198
Black/African
USA
New York
39th
Shannon Briggs
88.24
78
0
193
Orthodox
203
Black/African
USA
New York
40th & 42nd
Lennox Lewis
93.18
73
5.5
196
Orthodox
213
Black/African
UK
N/A
41st
Hasim Rahman
80.65
66
0
189
Orthodox
208
Black/African
USA
Maryland
43rd
Wladimir Klitschko
92.75
77
11
198
Orthodox
206
White/European
Ukraine
N/A
44th
Tyson Fury
96.43
68
2.5
206
Orthodox
216
White/European
UK
N/A
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