When it comes to the longest-reigning heavyweight boxing champions the list has changed slightly over the past couple of years with Vitali Klitschko retiring and his younger brother Wladimir losing his title belts to Tyson Fury. This is an updated list and features the 10 heavyweights who reigned over the division for the longest combined number of days. Since it’s quite common for a champion to lose and then regain his title these days we’ve combined their reigns for a grand total.
For example, three of the top 10 listed were three-time heavyweight champions. Of course, that’s not really a good thing since it means they lost their titles twice. These are the men who held onto the heavyweight title(s) the longest from at least one of the major sanctioning bodies in the era they boxed in.
10. Evander Holyfield
When it comes to the number of heavyweight title reigns, Evander ‘The Real Deal’ Holyfield leads the way with four. He made seven successful title defenses and fought in 10 heavyweight championship fights overall. He was also an undisputed cruiserweight champion and at one time was the undisputed heavyweight king. He also won a bronze medal as a light heavyweight at the 1984 Olympics. Holyfield turned pro a few months after the Olympics at the age of 21 and if it seems like he fought forever he came pretty close as he didn’t hang up his gloves until 2011. Holyfield’s record was 44-10-2 with 29 Kos and one no-contest. In total, he was the heavyweight champ for 2,235 days, which approximately 6.1 years. This guy didn’t duck anybody as Holyfield took on the best of his era including Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe, Lennox Lewis, George Foreman, James Toney, John Ruiz, Chris Byrd, Hasim Rahman, Larry Holmes and Michael Moorer.
9. Jack Johnson
American legend Jack ‘The Galveston Giant’ Johnson reigned as heavyweight champ just once, but it was a pretty decent run as it lasted 2,291 days or 6.3 years. In that time, Johnson defended his title eight times and fought numerous non-title bouts. He was the first African/American to win the heavyweight crown, but certainly wouldn’t be the last. Johnson took the title on Boxing Day of 1908 against Tommy Burns down in Sydney, Australia and didn’t lose it until April of 1915 when Jess Willard knocked him out in the 26th round in Havana, Cuba. Johnson fought officially from 1897 until 1931 when he was 53 years old. He compiled a record of 56-11-8 with 36 Kos with five of his losses coming in his last seven bouts. Johnson was a very controversial, historical figure and his life story is well worth checking out.
8. Lennox Lewis
A lot of critics got on Lennox ‘The Lion’ Lewis’ case as they said he couldn’t make up his mind if he was Jamaican, English or Canadian. It doesn’t matter where Lewis’ heart belongs to as he’ll always be one of the best heavyweight boxing champions the world has ever seen. Lewis, a dual citizen, was born in England to Jamaican parents, but fought for Canada in the Olympics after growing up as a young adult in Kitchener, Ontario. He won a gold medal for his adopted homeland at the 1988 Games by beating future world heavyweight champ Riddick Bowe in the final. Lewis fought as a pro from 1989 to 2003 with a mark of 41-2-1 with 32 kos and defended his titles 14 times while winning 15 title bouts. He had three reigns as heavyweight champ and was also the last undisputed heavyweight king as of now. The former British, European and Commonwealth boss held the world title for a combined 2,346 days or 6.4 years.
7. Muhammad Ali
There’s not really anything that hasn’t been said or written about Muhammad Ali. To most boxing fans and boxers themselves he’s simply the greatest of all time. Ali fought professionally from 1960 to 1981 to after winning the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Olympics. He won a total of 22 title bouts during his career and defended his belts 19 times Ali reigned as a heavyweight champ on three different occasions during his legendary career for a total reign of 2,363 days or about six-and-a-half years. He compiled a career record of 56-5 with 37 Kos with three of his losses coming in his last four bouts. Ali was a consummate showman and worldwide legend both in and out of the ring and unfortunately, there will never be another like him.
6. John L. Sullivan
John L. Sullivan of Roxbury, Massachusetts was known as ‘The Boston Strong Boy’. He reportedly reigned as the heavyweight champ for 2,566 days or just over seven years and made just four official defenses of his crown. Sullivan fought in the bare-knuckle days of boxing, but was also the first heavyweight champion of the gloved era in 1885. Records were scarce back then, but Sullivan was generally recognized as being the best around after beating American champion Paddy Ryan in a bare knuckle title fight in 1882. While boxing authorities don’t really have a clear picture of Sullivan’s bouts due to the number of exhibition tours he made, they’re certain he lost his title in 1892 when James J. Corbett stopped him in the 21st round. Sullivan’s official pro career went from 1879 to 1892 and although the former barroom brawler and heavy drinker had hundreds of bouts in his lifetime, his gloved record stands at 38-1-1 with 32 Kos.
5. Jack Dempsey
As well as being the owner of the famous Jack Dempsey’s restaurant in New York City from 1935 to 1974, Dempsey was also the heavyweight champion of the world between 1919 and 1926. Dempsey, known as ‘Kid Blackie’ and ‘The Manassa Mauler,’ fought between 1915 and 1927 with an official record of 54-6-9 with 44 Kos. His most well-known pair of bouts and losses came against Gene Tunney including the infamous “long count” fight of 1927, which was Dempsey’s swansong. He won the title in July, 1919 by stopping Jess Willard after three rounds. Dempsey defended the belt five times during his reign which lasted 2,638 days or 7.2 years. He lost it in his first meeting with Tunney in September of 1926 via a 10-round unanimous decision. It should be noted that Dempsey didn’t defend his title in 1924 and 1925 as he was busy making movies, traveling, endorsing products and fighting in exhibitions.
4. Larry Holmes
One of the most underrated heavyweight champs was Larry Holmes of Easton, Pennsylvania. Holmes reigned as heavyweight king just once, but it lasted for 2,661 days or 7.3 years. He also successfully defended his belt 20 times and won 21 title fights. The ‘Easton Assassin’ fought from 1973 to 2002 and basically more or less retired Muhammad Ali in 1980 after their fight was stopped following the 10th round. Holmes went 69-6 in his career with 44 Kos. He met the best of two different eras as he fought the likes of Ali, Earnie Shavers, Ken Norton, Trevor Berbick, Leon Spinks, Gerry Cooney, Mike Spinks, Tim Witherspoon, Mike Tyson, Ray Mercer, Evander Holyfield and Mike Weaver. Holmes was attempting to equal Rocky Marciano’s record of 49-0 when he was upset by light heavyweight champion Mike Spinks in 1985 and lost his title. He lost to Spinks in a rematch and also lost to Tyson, Holyfield and McCall in his attempts to regain the belt.
3. Vitali Klitschko
Vitali Klitschko of Ukraine was another three-time heavyweight champion. His total combined reigns lasted for 2,735 days or seven-and-a-half years. Klitschko’s career in combat sports actually began n kickboxing where he went 34-2 with 22 Kos. He then turned his attention to boxing and went 195-15 with 80 Kos. ‘Dr. Ironfist’ then turned pro in 1996 and fought until 2012 with a record of 45-2 and 41 Kos. His two losses came to Chris Byrd and Lennox Lewis, but in the long run Klitschko made 12 successful defenses of the title and won 15 title bouts. Klitschko was criticized for some for defending his crown against some of the division’s lesser-lights, but it’s hard to argue his power with 41 knockouts in 45 wins. Along with Lewis and Byrd, Klitschko faced the likes of former world champs Herbie Hide, Shannon Briggs, Samuel Peter, and Corrie Sanders.
2. Joe Louis
The ‘Brown Bomber,’ Joe Louis of LaFayette, Alabama, was another American hero who was also popular with non-boxing fans. Louis holds the record for heavyweight title wins at 26 and defenses at 25. His lone reign as champion lasted for 4,270 days or 11.7 years. Louis won the title in June of 1937 after getting up from the canvas in round-one to stop James J. Braddock the eighth round. He then held the belt until retiring as champion in March of 1949. Louis came back the very next year as he owed the IRS some tax money, but lost a 15-round unanimous decision to Ezzard Charles in about for the vacant title. Louis won his next eight fights and then challenged Rocky Marciano, but was stopped in the eighth round in his final pro bout. Louis retired for good with a record of 66-3 with 52 Kos. He defended his title 13 times in a 29-month stretch between 1939 and 1941 with some critics calling his opponents the ‘bum of the month club.’
1. Wladimir Klitschko
The other Klitschko brother is 41-year-old Wladimir, the younger sibling of Vitali. Nicknamed ‘Dr. Steelhammer’ Wladimir ranks first one overall for being the longest-reigning heavyweight champion in history and achieved the feat in two reigns. In total, Klitschko has been a heavyweight titleholder for 4,383 days or just over 12 years. That number would have been higher if he didn’t lose his belts to Tyson Fury in a huge upset in November, 2015 in one of the worst heavyweight title fights in history. Klitschko then had a chance to win back three of his titles last April, but was stopped by Anthony Joshua in the 11th round of a classic. He should get the chance to regain those titles later this year as he and Joshua are expected to meet in a well-deserved rematch. Klitschko won the super-heavyweight gold medal at the 1996 Olympics. He’s now 64-5 as a pro with 53 kos with 23 successful title defenses and 25 victories in title fights.