The last five undisputed heavyweight champions: Fury vs Usyk winner to follow in footsteps of legends

When Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk square off in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on February 17 to once and for all settle the debate on heavyweight supremacy, it will be the biggest fight the glamour division has produced in decades.

Fury, the WBC and lineal champion, has amassed a record of 34-0-1 (24 KOs). “The Gypsy King” is a two-time heavyweight champion and has held every legitimate title there is to win – domestic and world. The Englishman’s signature triumphs have come against Wladimir Klitschko and Deontay Wilder (twice).

Usyk (21-0, 14 KOs) captured Olympic gold at London 2012 before claiming the undisputed cruiserweight championship as a professional.

In September 2021, the Ukrainian star outpointed Anthony Joshua to become the IBF, WBA, and WBO heavyweight champ, while simultaneously announcing himself as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Usyk then doubled up on the Joshua win and is coming off a ninth-round knockout over Daniel Dubois.

Incredibly, the winner of Fury vs. Usyk will be only the sixth fighter to claim the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world in 45 years.

Why? That’s a good question. On February 15, 1978, Leon Spinks sensationally upset Muhammad Ali to win the undisputed heavyweight title. Prior to that bout, both men had signed commitments that the winner would face WBC mandatory challenger Ken Norton.

However, Spinks was offered substantially less money to make his maiden defence against Norton than the $4 million he was being promised to take on a revenge-obsessed Ali. There was only one direction “Neon” Leon was heading.

Norton was upgraded to full WBC champion without throwing a punch and would lose to Larry Holmes in his first defence in June 1978. Three months later, Spinks defended the WBA version of the title against Ali in New Orleans and dropped a lopsided unanimous decision.

MORE: Sporting News’ top 12 heavyweight fighters in boxing

Politics, promoter rivalry, and the formation of the IBF led to a nine-year wait before boxing would crown another undisputed heavyweight champion. Among the Hall of Fame fighters who were unable to consolidate the titles were Holmes and both Klitschko brothers, Vitali and Wladimir.

Only five men have achieved the undisputed distinction since 1987, and the Fury vs. Usyk winner will be the first to pull it off since 1999. This will also be the first time that the belts have been brought together in the four-belt era.

As the countdown begins to the superfight, The Sporting News looks back at the five matchups that crowned a new undisputed heavyweight king. 

Mike Tyson UD 12 Tony Tucker

  • Date: August 1, 1987
  • Location: Las Vegas Hilton, Las Vegas

Thanks to a brilliantly conceived tournament format that was the brainchild of executives at HBO, Tyson was matched against fellow unbeaten champ Tucker in the final, with the undisputed championship at stake.

A super-hyped but formidable knockout artist, Tyson had destroyed Trevor Berbick in two rounds to capture the WBC title in Las Vegas in November 1986. This victory also saw the 20-year-old Tyson become the youngest heavyweight champion in boxing history, and he would add Bonecrusher Smith’s WBA title to his collection three-and-a-half months later.

Tucker was supposed to be matched against IBF champ Michael Spinks in the tournament semi-final, but the latter decided to vacate the title and step out of the tournament. An underrated boxer-puncher, Tucker came from behind to knock out replacement foe Buster Douglas (more on him later) in 10 rounds to win the vacant title in May 1987.

While Tucker got off to a great start against Tyson, rocking the Brooklyn star back on his heels with a left uppercut in the opening seconds, his attack soon faded. Tyson was able to outbox the much taller man and he targeted the body well on his way to a convincing decision win.

In June 1988, Tyson would knock out Michael Spinks in a single round to win the coveted Ring Magazine championship. However, history shows that his undisputed distinction began with the Tucker victory.

Buster Douglas KO 10 Mike Tyson

  • Date: February 11, 1990
  • Location: The Tokyo Dome, Tokyo

Tyson had made nine successful defences of the title (six of those undisputed) and was unanimously viewed as indestructible. Massively popular in Japan, the champion ventured to the country for the second time in two years and another easy night was expected.

After building a lead against Tony Tucker in his only world title fight, Douglas had fallen apart and was stopped in 10 rounds. Subsequently, he was viewed by some as a quitter.

Compounding Douglas’ problems in the lead-up to the Tyson clash was his mother tragically passing away less than a month before the fight. The last thing you needed when going against a prime Mike Tyson was to be mentally fragile.

The world was in for a great big surprise. Instead of being distracted by his mother’s passing, Douglas was galvanised by what had been labelled mission impossible.

He took command from the start, nailing Tyson with a rapier left jab and busted up the champion’s face with a varied assortment of power shots. A Japanese crowd is known for being respectful and was actually shocked into silence as the bout unfolded.

However, after posting seven excellent rounds, Douglas left his chin out to dry in the eight and Tyson took advantage with an explosive right uppercut to the jaw. Douglas went down, punched the canvas in frustration, barely beat the count, and was saved by the bell.

But, again, instead of succumbing to Tyson’s pressure and intimidating presence, Douglas struck back in round nine and staggered the champion. Fully recovered, the challenger continued to score at will and Tyson’s left eye was fully closed.

In the 10th, Douglas returned the favour with the right uppercut, stunning Tyson, who was then dropped for the first time in his career by a ferocious three-piece follow-up. Exhausted and battered, Tyson was unable to beat the count.

It remains the biggest upset in boxing history.

Evander Holyfield KO 3 Buster Douglas

  • Date: October 25, 1990
  • Location: The Mirage, Las Vegas

It’s harder to stay at the top than to get there and perhaps no fight illustrates that better than Buster Douglas vs. Evander Holyfield.

Following his sensational upset triumph over Tyson in Tokyo, Douglas did the rounds on daytime TV and enjoyed his victory – perhaps too much. He paid a heavy price for overindulging.

Douglas’ first challenger was Evander “The Real Deal” Holyfield, a former cruiserweight champion who was renowned for his diligent preparation and exceptional physical conditioning.

At 246 pounds, Douglas was 15 pounds heavier than he was for Tyson and it showed. Meanwhile, Holyfield was 208 pounds and looked like he’d been carved out of granite.

It was all Holyfield from the start. The challenger backed Douglas up with a beautiful jab and targeted his opponent’s soft midsection. In the first two rounds, the champion landed nothing of consequence and was completely outclassed.

The end came in round three when Holyfield drew a right uppercut from the champion and countered with an explosive right hand. The shot landed flush with an audible snap and floored Douglas, who made no attempt to beat the count.

Holyfield made history by become the first cruiserweight world champion to win heavyweight gold. If Usyk can defeat Fury, he would be the third cruiserweight titleholder to accomplish the feat, joining Holyfield and David Haye.

Douglas wouldn’t post a win of significance for the remainder of his career.

Riddick Bowe UD 12 Evander Holyfield

  • Date: November 13, 1992
  • Location: Thomas & Mack Centre, Las Vegas

This is the best fight on the list.

Holyfield defended his title successfully with unconvincing points wins over aging legends George Foreman and Larry Holmes. The public weren’t sold on the new champion and when late-replacement Bert Cooper shook Holyfield up before succumbing to a stoppage loss, the criticism increased.

Bowe was an Olympic silver medallist and unbeaten as a professional. His physical size (6ft 5in and 235 pounds) and class as a fighter were clear, but there were those who felt he lacked the requisite dedication to be a great fighter. However, trainer Eddie Futch had the Brooklyn star in the best shape of his life and he couldn’t have been more ready.

The quality of this fight stands alongside any heavyweight championship bout in boxing history. Holyfield was razor-sharp and released his punches with middleweight speed while Bowe worked his vaunted left jab, targeted the body, and controlled the action on the inside, particularly with the right uppercut.

But it was round 10 that saw the fight transition from a great fight to an all-time great fight. In the opening seconds, Bowe stunned Holyfield with a busting left jab and then shook the champion to his boots with a rocket right uppercut to the chin.

Semi-conscious, Holyfield fell into a corner and endured a horrific follow-up assault that should have finished him. Just to survive those moments was incredible, but Holyfield would solidify his legacy with one of the bravest stands in championship history – in the very same round.

With over a minute remaining in the 10th, Holyfield began to unload on the challenger who was punched out. Combinations to head and body crashed home, as Holyfield sought the miraculous turnaround.

The pair rocked each other with headshots in the closing seconds of a classic round and respectfully tapped each other at the bell. It was incredible.

However, the challenger was younger, fresher, and recovered better between rounds. Bowe decked the champion in the 11th and maintained his lead until the final bell. Holyfield knew he was beaten and the result was unanimous in favour of Bowe, who never looked better.

Lennox Lewis UD 12 Evander Holyfield

  • Date: November 13, 1999
  • Location: Thomas & Mack Centre, Las Vegas

After defeating Holyfield in a classic, Bowe was ordered by the WBC to defend against Lennox Lewis. Unwilling to take that fight, the New Yorker famously dumped the belt in a trashcan, in essence relinquishing his status as WBC champion.

It would be seven years before all the titles would be fully unified and the championships would pass between fighters from all over the world.

When all the dust had cleared, the two at the top of the tree were Holyfield and Lewis. Holyfield defeated Mike Tyson and Michael Moorer to pick up the WBA and IBF titles, while Lewis avenged a prior loss to Oliver McCall to regain the WBC crown.

The pair met at Madison Square Garden in New York on March 1, 1999, and what followed was one of the most controversial fights in heavyweight history. Lewis appeared to be the superior fighter across 12 rounds, but the official verdict was a draw. The public were outraged and the rematch was set for November 13 of that year.

The consensus was that Holyfield was now damaged goods and that Lewis would dominate the return fight. In hindsight, it was foolish to write off a fighter of Holyfield’s calibre as he’d proven his warrior spirit on several occasions. And this was another one.

While Lewis won this fight on points and turned in what was arguably the finest performance of his Hall of Fame career, he was forced to earn it. A much better version of Holyfield turned up the sequel and pushed the Londoner to the limit, particularly in Round 7 when he shook Lewis to his boots.

It was a gladiatorial effort from both, but Lewis reigned supreme and claimed a 12-round unanimous decision and the undisputed title.

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