Not every boxer can have an epic title reign like those enjoyed by Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Mike Tyson or Lennox Lewis – but these heavyweight giants have truly failed in the “champ” part of being heavyweight champion.
The Boxing Alphabet title craze has given talkSPORT prime contenders to pick the top 10 worst, but we have to impose some rules. Nobody took the WBO heavyweight belt remotely seriously until Wladimir Klitschko gave it some legitimacy in the mid-2000s (thanks Wlad). So we’re not even considering the first WBO champions from Francesco Damiani to Michael Bentt, Siarhei Liakhovich to Sultan Ibragimov. Plus, the WBA “regular” title can sit in the trash forever.
However, these men all had claims to a true world heavyweight title at some point in their careers – and the world was frankly a poorer place for that.
10. Gerrie Coetzee
Nicknamed “The Bionic Hand”, which sounds great and makes it seem like he’s boxing’s own winter soldier until you realize it’s just because he’s been through so many surgical procedures on the injured hand. Oh. South African Coetzee’s best year was 1983 when he faced two talented but troubled heavyweights, drawing with Pinklon Thomas and then upsetting Michael Dokes to win WBA gold (his third belt attempt). Lost in his first defense and knocked out by Frank Bruno in 1986.
9. Greg’s Page
The biggest moment of Page’s career actually came during a public practice session when he knocked down Mike Tyson, signaling that all was not well with “Iron Mike” ahead of his first shock pro loss. Unfortunately, Page was part of the gifted “lost generation” of American heavyweights in the 1980s, beset by personal demons. He picked up an alphabet strap in 1984 but was beaten in his first defense against Tony Tubbs, also out of form. Retired with 17 losses in 2001.
8. Leon Spinks
“Neon Leon” caused an almighty upset when the 7-0-1 novice edged an aging Muhammad Ali in 1978, making him a true lineal world champion. But Spinks struggled with alcohol and drugs throughout his career and, after losing the rematch to a 36-year-old Ali, Spinks suffered another 16 losses and then had a brief career as a professional wrestler. Still in the shadow of Ali and his more devoted brother, Michael, but at least Leon scored an iconic win.
7. John Tate
“Big John” seemed to have potential as vast as his broad shoulders when the 1976 Olympic bronze medalist and undefeated pro won the WBA belt in 1979. However, he suffered back-to-back knockouts in his next two fights – the first a brutal 15th-round knockout at the fists of Mike Weaver that left Tate facing the unconscious first on the canvas. The American was never in contention for the world title again and sadly died in a car accident aged just 43 in 1998.
6. Primo Carnera
Not many champions of old here, because at least they were the true lineal No. 1s unlike today’s fractured titles. However the Italian Carnera is a special case because the giant ‘Ambling Alp’ has participated in several competitions which were, frankly, rigged. Carnera fell victim to all of this, exploited by his handlers and beaten when he came up against 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 a tremendous signature victory: in Buster’s case, the biggest upset in boxing history when he came off the canvas to end Mike Tyson’s reign in 1990. Douglas has showed his skills in this fight, controlling a rusty ‘Iron Mike’ with a flick of his wand. But the rest of his career was a failure. He practiced for his first defense against Evander Holyfield while drinking Long Island iced tea cocktails and was polished in three rounds. A true marvel of a fight.
4. Frank Bruno
It really hurts us to put Britain’s brave and beloved Big Frank here. But stay. While many of his American rivals had all the skills but no discipline, Bruno was more of the opposite. He was in terrific shape and a big puncher, but lost to every good heavyweight he faced until he finally won the WBC belt in 1995, beating the erratic Oliver McCall in a fight that is a good remedy for insomnia. However, he gave his all in the ring and is well worth the hero worship. Forgive us, Frank.
3. Bermane Stiverne
Stiverne is renowned for taking demolitions expert Deontay Wilder the full 12-round distance for the first time in 2015, although he lost a points decision and his WBC belt along the way. Prior to that, Stiverne won the vacant title beating his best Chris Arreola – and in 2017 he would destroy his solid work against Wilder by showing up out of form for the rematch and blasting himself in the first round. A rather disastrous reign from all points of view.
2. Bruce Seldon
Plenty of forgettable heavyweights held alphabetical titles in the 1980s, but at least most of them gave it a try when they stepped into the ring. Seldon had already lost to Oliver McCall, Riddick Bowe and Tony Tubbs when he found himself with the WBA belt after beating a faded Tony Tucker in 1995. A $5 million payday for fighting a post-jail Tyson stood was looming and Seldon was not one to hold on. the party, falling to the canvas in the first round due to a few punches that looked oddly off target. Maybe the wind from them was just very strong.
Charles “I walk the earth like a god” Martin’s 85-day reign as heavyweight champion is the second shortest of all time, but certainly the worst. Even his victory at the vacant IBF title was very lucky as Vyacheslav Glazkov – the pre-fight favorite – twisted his knee in the third round and couldn’t continue. Eddie Hearn sniffed out an opportunity and offered Martin millions to defend his title against rising star Anthony Joshua, although there was little defense on the line as Martin was beaten in two rounds, barely clinching a punch. Sad.