There are fewer figures in boxing as venerated than the knockout artist.
If time has taught us anything, it is the admiration for these modern-day gladiators is far-reaching. Throughout the 20th century, a number of the grittiest, most fearsome and notorious pugilists went on to be heralded as celebrities.
Boxers even branched out into the entertainment and proprietary industries. The “Bronx Bull” – later to be regarded as “The Raging Bull” due to the Scorsese biopic of the same name – Jake LaMotta, owned a nightclub. Sugar Ray Robinson, LaMotta’s rival and arguably the greatest of all time, became an entertainer (albeit, very briefly).
In Broadway, opposite Madison Square Garden, and (almost poetically) standing big, loud, and majestic, was a restaurant named after one of the greatest of all time. A man who, quite literally, learned how to knock people out to survive. That fighter – Jack Dempsey – is the first on our list of the Greatest Knockout Artists of All Time.
Jack Dempsey: 54-6-9 (44 KOs)
Born William Harrison Dempsey in 1895, “The Manassa Mauler” was the quintessential boxing icon of the first half of the 20th century.
A fighter with a reputation which well and truly preceded him, the powerful heavyweight was known for his wrecking ball mentality inside the ropes. In other words, Dempsey was there for one reason, and that was to destroy. If you were in his way, you the chances were it wouldn’t be long before being persuaded otherwise.
Dempsey’s early days saw him suffer greatly on account of The Great Depression. In order to survive, he slept rough in poor camps, hopping trains to travel in search of prize fights. Eventually, his reputation and all-action style earned the rough diamond a shot at Jess Willard’s heavyweight title.
Come fight night, Willard (almost 6’7″ and 245 pounds) dwarfed Dempsey (6’1″ and 187 pounds). The size difference was no advantage. Dempsey brutalized Willard, smashing his cheekbone into pieces and knocking the champ down seven times before the first bell was sounded. Willard quit in the third round, and the world had a new heavyweight champion.
Dempsey is still cited as one of the most important boxers of all time, mostly on account of his incredible propensity for a knockout.
Rocky Marciano: 49-0 (43 KOs)
If Irish fight fans have a particular affinity with Jack Dempsey, Italians will always champion the cause of “The Rock.”
Marciano is one of boxing’s greatest jewels, yet some still question if his reputation was deserved. Yes, Marciano went 49-0 before retiring, knocking out 43 men on the way, but detractors argue that his opponents were not of the greatest caliber. You can only beat what you have in front of you when all is said and done. Marciano did have some great names on his record, regardless of their age.
Regardless, “The Brockton Blockbuster” was the epitome of a boxing hard man. His ability to move forward the following shot after shot is still of legend. Quite simply, his chin, gas tank, punching power, heart, and never-say-die attitude are qualities which fans adore. For Marciano, his small stature and short reach (68 inches) meant that he would always be up against it.
Marciano’s style was based on relentless pressure and crude attacks to the body to open up a doorway to the head, with massive uppercuts and right hands carrying traction from his thick legs and low center of gravity. From there on, it was up to “Suzie Q,” the name of Marciano’s iconic right hand, to get the job done.
Mike Tyson 50-6 (44 KOs)
It is difficult for younger fans to truly appreciate the impact Mike Tyson had on the heavyweight boxing scene in the 1980’s.
While it seems almost fashionable to label the former “Baddest Man on the Planet” as overrated these days, Tyson was a juggernaut of epic proportions when he arrived on the scene.
As with Dempsey and Marciano before him, Tyson was not the largest heavyweight ever to grace the sport, at 5’10”. Despite his shorter stature, Tyson possessed a shocking combination of power and speed. This, in addition to his excellent technique installed in the young man by legendary trainer Cus D’Amato, created one of the most truly special fighters ever to have laced gloves.
As the knockouts continued to amass, Tyson’s terrifying reputation practically beat fighters before a single punch was thrown. In November 1986, Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion of all time, when he knocked out Trevor Berbick in Las Vegas. Tyson’s stock exploded, and he became the most famous man on earth.
Tyson would go on to claim the WBA and IBF titles, before meeting Michael Spinks for the lineal championship in 1988. If a fight fan needs any proof of Tyson’s pure and unadulterated intimidating personality at that time, review the footage of Spinks standing inside the ring waiting for the bout to start. Pure. Terror.
Tyson’s career would, unfortunately, go haywire with a loss to the heavily unfancied Buster Douglas a couple of years later, before imprisonment and a series of other events would contribute to his demise as a fighter.
George Foreman: 76-5 (68 KOs)
While Foreman advertises his own brand of grills these days with a trademark smile and familiar warmth, it wasn’t always that way.
Foreman’s previous line of work was beating and bashing big men around the ring, putting them to sleep like a non-compromising anesthetist. Foreman was a monster of a man, who seemed to enjoy the absolute stealing of his opponents’ souls.
It wasn’t until Foreman made legendary heavyweight Joe Frazier look out of his depth, that the wider public took notice. Foreman was an Olympic gold medalist in 1968, but it took him three years to win his first pro title. Two years later, he battered Frazier to dethrone the champion inside just two rounds. Foreman defended his title just twice before suffering an unexpected loss in 1974 in Zaire.
What makes Foreman an even more remarkable fighter is that he was only ever knocked out once. The “man” (or superhuman) responsible for handing Foreman that loss was “The Greatest,” and the one and only, Muhammad Ali. Although Ali was unfancied to the point that media had expressed fears for his safety against Foreman, the truly amazing happened on that fateful night of “The Rumble in the Jungle.”
Foreman would continue to fight, winning 5 consecutive bouts before losing to Jimmy Young and hanging up his gloves in 1977. When his church needed to raise funds, Foreman was back in the ring ten years later. An incredible run saw him land a title shot against Evander Holyfield in 1991, which he unfortunately lost. Three years later, he was back in title contention, only to lose to Tommy Morrison.
The following year, Foreman stuck it third-time lucky with an unbelievable knockout of Michael Moorer to become the oldest world champion in heavyweight boxing history.
Joe Louis: 66-3 (52 KOs)
Joe Louis is the greatest heavyweight champion in the world, to many boxing writers.
Stylistically, he was an incredible and precise puncher, with the knack of putting men to sleep. He had it all: a cultured jab, supreme technique, impressive vision, great footwork, and a fantastic killer instinct inside the ropes.
Even a quick glance over Louis’ record will show why he was so revered. “The Brown Bomber” amassed 25 title defenses inside 11 years, with all but four culminating in knockouts. His knack of being in the right place at the right time, and seizing even the smallest of opportunities, added the cherry to what was already a finely-crafted cake. His ability to read an opponent and pick them apart before crushing them is still unmatched in boxing.
Louis lost just three fights in his career, with defeats to Ezzard Charles and Rocky Marciano occurring following a U-turn in his retirement from the game. His record is one of the greatest in heavyweight history.
Louis is considered by many as the first African-American to be regarded as a national hero in the United States. His boxing legacy will forever be the stuff of legend. To this day, his name still holds respect.
The Joe Louis Arena, which was the former home of the Detroit Red Wings of the National Hockey League, and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County’s Joe Louis “The Champ” Golf Course, in Illinois both celebrated one of the true greats of boxing.