Not every fighter can rule an epic title like Muhmmad Ali, Joe Louis, Mike Tyson or Lennox Lewis – but these unwieldy behemoths really failed in the “champion” part of being heavyweight champions.
Boxing’s alphabet title madness has given us some candidates for the top 10 worst, but we have to lay down some rules. No one took the WBO heavyweight belt vaguely seriously until Wladimir Klitschko gave it some legitimacy in the mid-2000s (thanks Wlad). So we’re not even thinking about early WBO champions from Francesco Damiani to Michael Bentt, Siarhei Liakhovich to Sultan Ibragimov. In addition, the WBA “regular” title could end up in the trash forever.
However, these men were all entitled to a real world heavyweight title at some point in their careers – and the world was frankly a poorer place for it.
Nicknamed ‘The Bionic Hand’ which sounds great and like he’s boxing’s very own Winter Soldier, until you realize it’s because he’s had a lot of surgery on his injured hand. Oh. South African Coetzee’s best year was 1983 when he took on two talented but tricky heavyweights, signing with Pinklon Thomas and then upset Michael Dokes to claim WBA gold (his third attempt at the title) . Lost in his first defense and was eliminated in 1986 by Frank Bruno.
9. Greg Page
The biggest moment of Page’s career actually came in a public sparring session when he took down Mike Tyson, signaling that not all was well with “Iron Mike” before his shocking first pro defeat. Sadly, Page was part of the gifted ‘Lost Generation’ of American heavyweights in the ’80s, ravaged by personal demons. He picked up an alphabet belt in 1984, but was beaten in his first defense against the also out of shape Tony Tubbs. Retired with 17 defeats in 2001.
8. Leon Spinks
“Neon Leon” delivered a huge shock when the 7-0-1 novice defeated an elderly Muhammad Ali in 1978, making him a true, outright world champion. But Spinks struggled with drink and drugs throughout his career, and after losing the rematch to 36-year-old Ali, Spinks suffered 16 more defeats and had a brief career as a professional wrestler. Forever in the shadow of Ali and his more devoted brother, Michael, but Leon achieved at least one iconic victory.
7. John Tate
‘Big John’ seemed to have as great potential as his broad shoulders when the 1976 Olympic bronze medalist and undefeated pro captured the WBA belt in 1979. However, he got two back-to-back knockouts in his next two fights – the first a brutal KO in the 15th round with the fists of Mike Weaver, leaving Tate unconscious on the canvas at first. The American was never again in the fight for the world title and sadly died at the age of 43 in 1998 in a car accident.
6. Primo Carnera
There aren’t many old champions here because at least they were the real, linear No. 1s as opposed to today’s broken titles. The Italian Carnera is a special case, however, as the gigantic ‘Ambling Alp’ took part in several competitions that, frankly, were fixed. Carnera was a victim in it all, exploited by his handlers and beaten when he took on top boxers like Max Baer and Joe Louis. He later became a box office draw as a professional wrestler, which he much preferred to boxing.
5. James ‘Buster’ Douglas
Like Leon Spinks, Douglas has one great signature win: in Buster’s case, the biggest upset in boxing history when he climbed off the canvas to end Mike Tyson’s reign in 1990. Douglas showed his skills in that fight, piloting a rusty ‘Iron Mike’ with a ramrod jab. But the rest of his career was a failure. He trained for his first defense against Evander Holyfield by drinking long Island iced tea cocktails and was buffed within three rounds. A true one-fight wonder.
4. Frank Bruno
It pains us to put Britain’s brave, beloved Big Frank here. But still. While many of his American rivals had all the skills but no discipline, Bruno was a bit more the other way around. He was in great shape and a big puncher, but lost to every good heavyweight he came across, until he finally won the WBC belt in 1995, beating the erratic Oliver McCall in a fight that is a good cure for insomnia. However, he gave his all and was well worth the hero worship.
3. Bermane Stiverne
Stiverne’s fame is that he first took over the full 12-round haul in 2015, though he lost a points decision and his WBC belt along the way. Before that, Stiverne had captured the vacant title by beating a past of his best Chris Arreola – and in 2017 he would undo his solid work against Wilder by coming out of form for the repechage and being knocked out in the first round. A pretty terrible reign, anyway.
2. Bruce Seldon
Plenty of forgettable heavyweights had alphabetical titles in the 1980s, but most at least tried it when they got into the ring. Seldon had already lost to Oliver McCall, Riddick Bowe and Tony Tubbs when he took the WBA belt after beating a faded Tony Tucker in 1995. A $5 million payday for fighting a post-prison Tyson loomed and Seldon was not one to hold out for the party, who flopped to the canvas in the first round from some punches that strangely looked off target. Maybe the wind from them was just really strong.
1. Charles Martin
Charles “I walk the earth like a god” Martin’s 85-day reign as heavyweight champion is the second shortest ever, but almost certainly the worst. Even winning the vacant IBF title brought good luck when Vyacheslav Glazkov – the pre-fight favorite – twisted his knee on round three and was unable to continue. Sensing an opportunity, Eddie Hearn offered Martin millions to defend his title against rising star Anthony Joshua, although there was little defense to be seen as Martin was knocked down in two rounds and barely got a blow of his own. Shame.