Is it possible to assess Tyson Fury’s place in heavyweight history after his epic victory against Deontay Wilder? Probably not, but Luke G. Williams gives it a go anyway…

There’s a major problem with assessing a boxer’s place in history when they are still active, or have just retired.

Quite simply, it’s impossible to have the necessary perspective to make an objective judgement.

And that’s before we even consider the thorny issue of comparing fighters from eras that are so different… Or of seeking to compare fighters whose careers are well documented on good quality video footage with fighters for whom there is no video footage, or merely a few grainy black and white snippets.

In the case of Tyson Fury, I suspect that he will end up being seen as one of the great heavyweights, but if he was to fight and lose to Dillian Whyte or Otto Wallin in his next fight that judgment might change dramatically.
It even takes a while to be able to assess a fighter’s reputation after they retire. If Fury retired now there would doubtless be a feeling that his career was curtailed too soon. He would be calling it a day with two legitimate threats still out there in the form of Anthony Joshua and Oleksandr Usyk.

Mind you, you could argue that whenever a boxer retires they could be accused of walking away from a dangerous opponent. Lennox Lewis, for example, retired without granting Vitali Klitschko a rematch. Ultimately, his decision hasn’t damaged his legacy too much, if at all.

If Fury does walk away now, however, he would be doing so before we know how the Deontay Wilder story plays out – that’s an issue because it means we can’t yet assess the magnitude of his two victories and a (disputed) draw against the American. If Wilder regains a portion of the heavyweight crown in the future then by extension that not only enhances his own reputation, but Fury’s, too.

The biggest lesson that boxing history provides is that rushing to acclaim or foist greatness upon a fighter is a hazardous business. Many heavyweights have been prematurely anointed as being worthy of the top ten or five of all time before the context surrounding their career had properly settled.
When Evander Holyfield defeated Mike Tyson in 1996 many put ‘The Real Deal’ down as a top five heavyweight of all time.

Now? He’s probably 50-50 to be in the top ten.

After his seventh successful title defence in 1904, Jim Jeffries was widely seen as the greatest heavyweight of all time – six years later he ill-advisedly came out of retirement on his alfalfa farm and was routed by Jack Johnson and his reputation never really recovered. (As an aside – would we so harshly judge Wladimir Klitschko if he came out of retirement in 2023 and was demolished by whoever the heavyweight champion was at that point?)

Talking of Klitschko, he retired in 2017 and critical consensus is still to decide where to place him in the annals of the heavyweights – top ten? Top 15? Top 20?

Wlad is already in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, but his place among the legends of heavyweight boxing is still unclear. It probably always will be, for critical consensus on such matters is rare, if not impossible. A majority of boxing historians probably rank Muhammad Ali as the greatest heavyweight of all time ahead of Joe Louis in second, but beyond that opinions differ wildly.

Having said all of this, I love a ‘ranking the heavyweights’ style debate so I’ll do my best to offer some reasoning for where I think Fury ranks right now – with full awareness that history will most likely make an ass of me.
If he retired tomorrow and never returned, Fury has plenty of facts in his favour pointing to his greatness.

For starters, he would be only the second heavyweight champion to retire undefeated, after Rocky Marciano, and only the fourth ‘lineal’ champion to call it a day with the title in his possession – after Gene Tunney, the aforementioned Marciano and Lennox Lewis.

Fury’s CV also possesses several standout features –he toppled a long-time heavyweight king in Klitschko and also twice destroyed arguably the most heavy-hitting (albeit technically deficient) heavyweight title holder in history in the form of Wilder. His adaptability coupled with his remarkable durability and facility at coming back from adversity – he has climbed off the canvas six times in his career now, and gone on to win (or draw) every time – is also notable.

You would also have to factor in Fury’s amazing comeback from significant mental health issues and weight gain – second only to George Foreman in heavyweight history in terms of outlandish unlikeliness.

On the flipside, we would have to consider that the current heavyweight era is weaker than many others – notably the 1970s. It also lacks the depth of say – the 1920s, 30s and 40s – Boxrec currently lists 1,072 active heavyweights worldwide, and back in the ‘20s there were probably more than that number of licensed heavyweights in America alone.

In terms of longevity, Fury’s status is also open to debate. Technically, he has been lineal champion since 2015, but he has fought only seven times in the six years since and not all of these fights have been universally recognised as ‘world title’ fights.

That statistic compares unfavourably – say – with Joe Louis who defended the heavyweight crown seven times alone in 1941, but favourably enough with Jack Dempsey who fought only ten times in eight years from winning the title in July 1919 to retiring after failing to regain the title in September 1927.

All things considered, I would probably place Fury somewhere around number 15 right about now – that’s above Klitschko on my list but below the likes of Evander Holyfield, Sonny Liston, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Mike Tyson and Jim Jeffries.

Wherever you think he ranks now, or in the future, one thing is for sure – Tyson Luke Fury has made his mark on heavyweight history and it will be fascinating to see where his career goes next.

Luke G. Williams’ heavyweight Top 20 (lineal champions only considered, only achievements at heavyweight considered) 

1. Muhammad Ali 

2. Joe Louis

3. Jack Johnson

4. Larry Holmes

5. Lennox Lewis

6. Rocky Marciano

7. George Foreman

8. Jack Dempsey

9. Gene Tunney

10. Joe Frazier

11. Evander Holyfield

12. Mike Tyson

13. Sonny Liston

14. Jim Jeffries

15. Tyson Fury

16. John L. Sullivan

17. James Corbett

18. Wladimir Klitschko

19. Ezzard Charles 

20. Jersey Joe Walcott 

Main image: Sumio Yamada/World Boxing Council.