From Fitzsimmons to Fury: the very best of British heavyweight boxers

Anthony Joshua and Lennox Lewis in happier times

British heavyweight boxing is enjoying quite simply its most golden period ever.

Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua hold all of the major recognised world title belts between them and currently sit atop the fight game’s marquee division. A Fury vs Joshua superfight would be the biggest in British boxing history.

It is likely the pair will meet once, perhaps twice, in 2021 to settle their own personal rivalry. But in the bigger picture they both already rank as British greats.

Furyjoshua.com looks back through ring history to see how these modern-day giants compare with their illustrious predecessors.

The top 10 British heavyweights of all time

Comparing boxers from different eras is a thankless task, but it remains a fascinating topic because there is often no right or wrong answer, and it always creates debate.

The top 10 British heavyweights of all time is an elite list of men who not only dominated domestically, but proved themselves on the biggest global stage against the best their eras had to offer.

1. Lennox Lewis (41-2-1)

It took a long time for Lennox Lewis to feel like he belonged. But by the time he retired in 2004, the man born in London to Jamaican parents and then raised in Canada was a true British sporting legend.

A three-time world heavyweight champion, Lewis took everything the sport of boxing could throw at him, and gave twice as much back.

Both a stylist and a student of the game, Lewis had everything a great heavyweight needs - size, agility, fluidity and power. He was the whole package.

As well as taking the title three times, Lewis also avenged both of his defeats, by Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman, in emphatic fashion.

He is still the last man to have unified the heavyweight titles after outpointing Evander Holyfield in their Las Vegas rematch in November 1999. Arguably he should not have had to wait that long after their first bout at Madison Square Garden in March of that year ended in a highly controversial draw.

Lennox avoided nobody in his storied career, and arguably the only name missing on his pro CV was that of Riddick Bowe (who he had defeated in the amateurs en route to Olympic gold in 1988). ‘Big Daddy’ famously threw his WBC belt in a trash can rather than defend it against Lewis.

Lewis’ one-sided demolition of an admittedly faded Mike Tyson in their eagerly-awaited superfight in June 2002 merely added to a CV already dripping with top-class names.

And his final fight - against late stand-in Vitali Klitschko in the summer of 2003 - was a fitting finale in some ways. With Lewis overcoming adversity and a tough opponent to prevail in what was a brutal if short-lived slugfest.

2. Tyson Fury (30-0-1)

Fury is the reigning WBC, Ring magazine and lineal world heavyweight champion after an astonishing comeback from the brink of boxing oblivion.

‘The Gypsy King’ not only has a CV which includes signature wins over long-time champions in Wladimir Klitschko and Deontay Wilder, he has also done what nobody thought possible.

A near three-year hiatus after that Klitschko win took him to the brink of suicide and about 10 stones away from fighting weight. His recovery and subsequent climb to the top of the mountain again is now the stuff of legends.

Fury’s physical and psychological talents are uncanny. He is 6ft 9ins but moves like a man much smaller. His ringcraft and boxing IQ is off the charts. His personality is promotional gold. He has the whole package and the ability to become an enormous crossover superstar. In the UK, he already is…

Next up is a trilogy match with Wilder and then, hopefully, that blockbuster unification with Joshua. If he wins both, then the conversation can begin about whether he stays at number 2 on this list - or one day overtakes Lewis.

3. Anthony Joshua (23-1)

Joshua’s rise through the ranks from Olympic champion in the amateurs to IBF, WBA and WBO world heavyweight king in the pros was meteoric.

The way he accepted his first career defeat by Andy Ruiz Jr meanwhile, and came back to avenge it, had echoes of the way Lewis went about his business. As did the way he adapted his style to reclaim his belts.

Joshua does not have the natural fluidity possessed by both Lewis and Fury, but he remains a spectacular talent and you get the feeling there is much more yet to come.

The way he demolished all-comers on an impressive CV before that Ruiz defeat stamped him as a heavyweight capable of existing in any era.

His epic victory over Wladimir Klitschko in April 2017 bolstered an already impressive list of victims after his move into the paid ranks following that Olympic success in 2012.

Next is a title defence against Kubrat Pulev, and then hopefully, Fury. It is the latter which for now will likely define his standing and his legacy.

4. Frank Bruno (40-5)

The fact Bruno was a much-loved celebrity who achieved true crossover appeal sometimes masks his boxing achievements inside the ring.

The big-punching Londoner lost only five times in a long career, and four of those defeats came at world-championship level.

There was no disgrace in losing to Tim Witherspoon, Mike Tyson (twice) and Lennox Lewis, all of whom were good champions and two of whom will appear on most all-time lists. Against both Witherspoon and Lewis he was highly competitive before they eventually got the better of him.

First time up against Tyson meanwhile there was the iconic “Get in there Frank” moment from commentator Harry Carpenter as Bruno wobbled ‘Iron Mike’ for a moment with a peach of a left hook.

The night Bruno finally became a world champion, with that heart-stopping points defeat of Oliver McCall at Wembley in 1995, will live long in the memory.

The script was the same as many of his other big fights - strong and competitive in the early stages and then fading down the stretch. This time though he held on for the final bell, the decision and the glory.

Ultimately, Bruno - always in magnificent condition - packed great power into his huge frame but lacked the ringcraft to be a huge force at elite level, particularly when under fire.

But he was still more than good enough to dominate against the vast majority of heavyweights in his era, and merit a lofty position on our all-time British list.

5. Bob Fitzsimmons (61-8-4)

The legendary Bob Fitzsimmons became Britain’s first ever world heavyweight champion with a 14th-round knockout of James J Corbett in 1897. There would not be another one until Lennox Lewis was awarded the WBC belt after then-champion Riddick Bowe threw it in a trash can in 1992.

It is nigh on impossible to compare how the heavyweights of today would fare, like for like, against their counterparts of more than 100 years before. In the case of Fitzsimmons, it’s utterly unthinkable.

Standing just over 6ft tall and weighing only a touch more than today’s super-middleweight limit of 168lbs, ‘The Freckled Wonder’ will likely never lose the accolade of being the lightest ever world heavyweight champion.

What he lacked in size in boxing’s marquee division, Fitzsimmons clearly made up for with power though - being ranked number 8 on boxing bible Ring magazine’s list of the all-time greatest punchers.

To add to Fitzsimmons’ achievements, he also won world titles at both middleweight and light-heavyweight (the latter following his reign as heavyweight king).

6. David Haye (28-4)

Watch Haye’s memorable 2009 victory over 7ft Russian Nikolai Valuev today and it still looks like something out of a fairytale. The tiny (in comparison at 6ft 3ins) Haye executed a disciplined gameplan to perfection to outbox and outpoint a truly giant opponent.

That victory against the odds in Germany gave Haye his world heavyweight title and he would defend it twice, convincingly, against the durable John Ruiz and the disappointing Audley Harrison.

Haye allied immense power with his speed, and despite his respective lack of size he provided a major threat to even the behemoths of the modern era. Quite simply he was an explosive force when at his best.

His showdown with Wladimir Klitschko to unify the titles in 2011 ended ultimately in disappointment and left Haye claiming that a toe injury suffered before the bout had removed some of the trademark power which made him such a threat in the heavyweight division.

Injuries also hampered Haye later in his career and you get the feeling that we never quite saw just how good he could have been. The man who had been such a beast at cruiserweight had already though done more than enough after moving up to merit a place on our list.

7. Henry Cooper (40-14-1)

Like Bruno after him, Sir Henry Cooper became a huge crossover celebrity in the UK, known in circles far wider than just boxing.

He is most famous for the moment which shocked the boxing world when he decked a prime Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) at Wembley on June 16, 1963.

Late in the fourth round Cooper produced what is still one of the most iconic moments in British boxing history as he blasted Ali to the canvas with a trademark left hook.

After being helped to his corner, ‘The Greatest’ somehow managed to regain his senses and came back out to stop Cooper soon after.

Cooper’s second challenge to Ali at Arsenal’s Highbury Stadium was stopped, as the first ultimately had been, with Henry cut badly. It was a curse which plagued him throughout his long professional career.

That left hook in 1963 catapulted Cooper to a level of celebrity and popularity only really shared by superstar footballers in the UK. It was Cooper’s money shot and eventually became affectionately known as “Enry’s Ammer’.

Cooper would never become a world champion, but he was good enough to be competitive against all but the absolute elite of the heavyweight division.

8. Tommy Farr (86-35-19)

Known as ‘The Tonypandy Terror’, Tommy Farr earned his place among the all-time British greats the hard way. Fighting the best.

The pinnacle of Farr’s career was his world-title challenge against the legendary Joe Louis in 1937. In front of more than 50,000 spectators in New York’s Yankee Stadium, Farr went toe to toe with the fearsome Louis early in his 12-year reign as world champion.

While the brave Welshman would eventually lose a unanimous decision, he had performed with huge credit to give a prime Louis one of the toughest nights of his career. So much so that many reports of the bout claim the crowd booed when the scorecards were announced.

Farr’s performances before and after his defeat by Louis highlight his ability to perform at the very top level and that night in Yankee Stadium made him a national hero in Wales and one of the country’s enduring sporting icons.

Farr’s professional career spanned some 23 years in total, including a near 10-year hiatus between 1940 and 1950 before a comeback from retirement. What initially gave him a route out of a life working down the pit, had made him a revered global figure.

9. Joe Bugner (69-13-1)

Joe Bugner may have had something of a love-hate relationship with the British media, but that cannot detract from his ability as a top-level heavyweight over a long period of time.

In a professional career which lasted some 32 years, the Hungarian-born Bugner fought just about everybody at the top level.

He met Muhammad Ali twice (including once in a world-title challenge) and Joe Frazier once and took both of them to the scorecards. His finest victories included superb defeats of Mac Foster, Jimmy Ellis and Jose Luis Garcia among others.

Bugner, who later in life moved to Australia, always felt a real sense of hurt at the beating he took from the UK media after having the temerity to outpoint national treasure Henry Cooper in what would be the latter’s final professional fight in 1971. Hardly Bugner’s fault.

Make no mistake, Bugner was dominant at domestic and European level and showed he could hang with the very best on the world stage. Whether he ever got enough credit for that, is another question.

10. Don Cockell (66-14-1)

Most boxers have their legacies defined not just by their record in wins and losses, but also by who they fought.

And in the same way that Tommy Farr will be forever linked with Joe Louis after their thrilling showdown in 1937, Don Cockell’s legacy will always be linked to Rocky Marciano.

‘The Brockton Blockbuster’ was 47-0 and just four months away from retirement when he defended his world heavyweight title against Londoner Cockell in San Francisco in May 1955.

Cockell was a heavy underdog and despite a promising start, was unable to put a dent in the formidable Marciano as the champion began to dominate. He was eventually stopped in the ninth round.

It was a brutal bout, one which the revered Sports Illustrated described as “a bare-knuckle brawl with gloves”, referring to the champion Marciano as “an uncouth, merciless, uncontrolled and truly vicious fighter”.

Despite the defeat by Marciano, Cockell enjoyed a highly successful career at the top level, winning British and European titles at light-heavyweight, and then British and Commonwealth straps at heavyweight.

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