Muhammad Ali

A History of the Unified Heavyweight Title: 1963 to 2023

World Boxing News charts the reign of every unified champion over sixty years since the inception of split world titles in 1963.

As heavyweight has become the laughingstock of boxing, WBN hopes to provide a remembrance that it was once great.

Following the breakaway of the WBA and the formation of the WBC, boxing faced an uncertain and unprecedented time in the 1960s.

A fight between Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson spawned the age we all know – multiple champions in one division.

Liston handed over to heavyweight legend Muhammad Ali following their famous feud in 1964 before the weight class split for the first time in 1968.

The IBF came into the reckoning fifteen years later, and fans worried the sport would struggle to have one champion until Mike Tyson unified all the belts in 1987.

Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe stood out in the 1990s before 1998 when Lennox Lewis took the bull by the horns and cleaned it out.

The snoozefest reign of the Klitschko brothers followed Lewis. However, the top division always has eyeballs.

The glamor has faded over the last few years, though, despite the fact there have been two unified heavyweight champions ruling.

Unified heavyweight champions – 1963 to 2023

Sonny Liston – 1963 to 1964

Liston defeated Floyd Patterson before running into a young and fresher Muhammad Ali.

Muhammad Ali – 1964 to  1965 / 1974 to 1978

Ali held the belts for one victory – a rematch with Liston. He regained the WBC and WBA straps in the “Rumble in the Jungle” ten years later.

Four years of defenses culminated in Leon Spinks shocking the world – as Ali did fourteen years prior. By the time Ali gained revenge. Spinks had already been stripped of the WBC version.

Joe Frazier – 1970

Frazier briefly reigned as WBA and WBC ruler until running into an unstoppable George Foreman.

George Foreman – 1973 to 1974 / 1994 to 1995

Foreman took both belts into his fateful rope-a-dope with Ali. ‘Big’ George then split the titles twenty years later in his second run before making a successful defense against Axel Schulz.

Mike Tyson – 1987 to 1990

Boxing fans waited another nine years before a juggernaut came along to put two of the now three versions together.

However, it’s hard to say much about the mid-1990s Mike Tyson due to the lack of real opposition until his match-ups with Holyfield and Lewis.

A 1980s Tyson is a far easier measuring stick. But that’s not what we saw when he came out of prison. Tyson also had mental struggles to deal with.

Self-esteem issues ultimately led to Tyson’s second downfall and put the New Yorker away, killing any chance of adding to his legacy.

He briefly returned to his glory days in 1996 but won the WBC and WBA separately in two victories over Frank Bruno and Bruce Seldon.

James Buster Douglas – 1990 to 1992

Douglas wiped out Tyson in one of history’s most controversial and memorable knockouts. Eight months later, it was all over.

Evander Holyfield – 1990 to 1992 / 1993 to 1994 / 1997 to 1999

A two-weight undisputed all-time legend, there aren’t many fighters on the planet who could be compared with Holyfield.

Taking Douglas’ belts quickly, Holyfield is arguably the greatest unified champion ever.

Ironically, a champion today is bidding to equal Holyfield’s unbelievable achievements – Oleksandr Usyk.

Holyfield had a great chin, will, and a champion’s heart – seemingly from birth. He’s undoubtedly the number one due to his cruiserweight and heavyweight standouts.

Riddick Bowe – 1992 to 1993

Despite his impressive heavyweight run, Bowe only reigned once as a unified champion. His win over Holyfield in 1992 saw him at the top of the sport.

In subsequent rematches with Holyfield, Bowe lost two belts before the rubber match was non-title.

Michael Moorer – 1994

Moorer defeated Holyfield before losing out to George Foreman as the big man became the oldest heavyweight champion ever.

Lennox Lewis – 1999 to 2002

After Holyfield enjoyed a brief reign, it was over to the great Lennox Lewis. One thing is for sure: when hit on the chin, his frailties don’t come close to diminishing his achievements.

Lewis had a meditational mental state which helped him during big challenges as he put away the Holyfield and Tyson eras single-handily.

Hasim Rahman – 2001

Rahman was an opportunist who could take advantage of an off-night for the champion then. Lennox Lewis was the victim, but Rahman wasn’t as bad as some of his losses suggest.

Wladimir Klitschko 2008 to 2015

Klitschko was on top for a decade until Tyson Fury called in 2015. Klitschko’s three-belt, 23-title defense run puts him in the upper echelons of unified champions.

Tyson Fury – 2015

Fury dethroned the king of his time in a career-best victory. However, Fury’s time at the top was cut short due to a mass of red tape and a subsequent career blackout.

Anthony Joshua – 2016 to 2019 / 2019 to 2021

The Briton, also a two-time title holder, has held more than one title on and off from 2016 to 2021. For some years, Joshua was once revered as one of the best UK talents.

A record-breaker, Joshua has achieved massive amounts in the numbers game. Recently, he was smashing barriers between casual and regular fans on home soil.

Apart from losing his titles to Andy Ruiz Jr. on his United States debut, it took Usyk to humble AJ after holding all but one of the world straps on and off for five years.

Joshua had some big shoes to fill, but defeating one of those fighters during his tenure certainly elevated him to new heights – a faded Wladimir Klitschko.

Andy Ruiz Jr – 2019

Andy Ruiz Jr. beat Joshua simply due to his Eye of the Tiger and complacency the first time. Holding the belts for six months, Ruiz didn’t train enough in the rematch to give himself any chance.

It could be a trilogy that opens doors to a future world title shot, provided both are in the right condition.

Oleksandr Usyk – 2021 – present

Holding the title of Pound for Pound King and unified heavyweight champion, Usyk could be the top dog for a long time.

Two dominant wins over Anthony Joshua won’t tell the complete story. However, relieving the superlative Ukrainian of his titles will take a lot.

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