Top 12 Greatest Boxers Who Started Late & Became Champion

Child prodigies often end up being the best in the world as adults, and most athletes start their journeys very young. But while the learning capabilities of children are amazing and starting early in sports or anything else is ideal, it’s not the only way to success. Every field has its fair share of late starters, and boxing makes no difference.

Most world champions started trading gloved punches as teens or even younger than that. But then there are those who found the sweet science later in life and still reach the top of the mountain.

Here are 12 boxers who started boxing late but still became champions, proving are many different paths to success.

1. Bernard Hopkins

Age when started boxing: 18

Professional debut: 23

Record: 55-8-2 (32 KO)

Bernard Hopkins is a mainstay on many lists of boxers who defied time and continued to box at the highest level at an age when most athletes are long retired. So it’s only fitting that the former oldest light heavyweight champion in history (49 years old) started his career a bit late.

B-Hop started boxing at around the age of 18. However, it was in the unusual setting of prison and compiled a serious prison record of 94-4. All of his fights were done through a rehabilitation program, so they are not counted as an official amateur record.

Hopkins was released from jail at age 23 for good behavior, and he immediately jumped into professional boxing. Where, despite losing on his debut, he would go on to accomplish legendary status in boxing. First, as a middleweight, he defended his titles 20 times and became the first male undisputed middleweight champion of the four-belt era.

Later in his career, ‘The Alien‘ defied all odds and reigned over the light heavyweight division, becoming the oldest man to win a world title at 46 and then breaking his own record twice, at 48 and 49. 

2. Anthony Joshua

Age when started boxing: 18

Professional debut: 23

Record: 24-3 (22 KO)

Another one of the modern crops of great heavyweight champions. However, he did not start boxing as a kid like most others. The former two-time unified heavyweight champion excelled at athletics and football but did not pick up boxing gloves until he was 18.

Joshua’s athleticism allowed him to excel quickly in the ring as well, and just two years later, Joshua was the ABA and Great Britain Boxing Champion. The gold medal he won at the 2012 London Olympics was the pinnacle of his amateur career, making him a national hero and the face of British boxing.

Turning pro at 23, his success continued. Winning every single fight by knockout all the way until his 21st pro bout, which was well into his world championship reign. Joshua won the IBF, then the WBA, and IBO titles in the most glamorous division before he was upset by Andy Ruiz Jr. Despite losing to Oleksander Usyk twice in a row, Joshua still has the potential for greatness.

3. Larry Holmes

larry holmes

Age when started boxing: 18

Professional debut: 23

Record: 69-6 (44 KO)

Larry Holmes is one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time and the only man to defeat Muhammad Ali by stoppage. Holmes started boxing at age 18 and made his pro debut when he was 23. What is truly impressive though, is the longevity of his career – albeit with a few “retirements,” Holmes’ professional career spanned an insane 29 years.

Holmes had his first world title fight at the age of 28 on June 9, 1978, after 27 professional fights. When he defeated Ken Norton for the heavyweight WBC title. He continued dominating the heavyweight division and picked up 48 wins, almost tying Rocky Marciano’s record before he was upset by Michael Spinks in 1985.

Holmes tried and failed a few more times to grab the heavyweight crown, but despite not succeeding, he fought until he was 52 and will be remembered as one of the best heavyweights to enter the ring, even with a relatively late start.

4. Sonny Liston

Sonny Liston
Credit AP

Age when started boxing:19

Professional debut: 21      

Record: 50-4 (39 KO)

The tough and powerful heavyweight legend Sonny Liston started boxing at the age of 19. Which is rather late in comparison with most successful fighters. After a brief amateur career, he became a professional at age 21. But his first world title fight didn’t come until he was 30 when some boxers have already retired.

Liston did this by obliterating Floyd Patterson in the first round and became the heavyweight champion of the world. Then in the rematch, he repeated the feat and again knocked out Patterson in the first round.

Despite his famous losses to Muhammad Ali, Liston remained a wrecking ball after that. Even though he never fought for a world title again. Liston’s remarkable life story, fighting style, and the fact that he started boxing at 19 earned him a well-deserved spot on this list.

5. Deontay Wilder

Deontay Wilder
Credit: Getty Images

Age when started boxing:20

Professional debut: 23

Record: 43-2-1 (42 KO)

Believe it or not, one of the biggest punchers in the history of boxers did not put on boxing gloves until he was 20. But when he did, it became clear that this is what he was meant to do.

The Bronze Bomber‘ had a short and sweet amateur career and won the Golden Gloves tournament just 2 years into his boxing training. A year later, he won bronze at the 2008 Olympics.

Shortly after, he started knocking people out as a professional at the age of 23. His earlier opposition was not very impressive, but once he captured the WBC Heavyweight crown from Bermain Stiverne in 2015, Wilder defended it with an iron fist seven times. Before his famous trilogy with Tyson Fury.

As a late starter and with so many early knockouts in his career. Wilder still has a lot to offer, and we can expect at least a few more highlight reels KOs before he hangs up his gloves for good.

6. Antonio Tarver

Antonio Tarver
John Gichigi/Getty Images

Age when started boxing: 20

Professional debut: 28

Record: 31-6-1 (22 KO)

Another world champion who started when he was 20 years old was Antonio Tarver. Not only did Tarver start boxing relatively late, but he also had an extensive amateur career before turning pro. As an amateur, ‘The Magic Man‘ became a Pan American and World champion, as well as earning an Olympic bronze medal. Not only did he become a professional at age 28, but he also competed for a whopping 18 years.

During this time, he won multiple light heavyweight championships, including the WBA, WBC, IBF, IBO, and Ring titles. The Florida-born southpaw had some epic battles with Roy Jones Jr., beating him 2-1 in their trilogy, and a famous fight with Bernard Hopkins at the top of this list. Later in his career, when he stepped up in weight, Tarver won the IBO cruiserweight title.

7. Sergio Martinez

Age when started boxing: 20

Professional debut: 22

Record: 56-3-2 (31 KO)

The Argentinian “Marvel” Sergio Martinez played football and cycled as a kid. It was only when he was 20 years old that he decided to pick up boxing in his native country. This would prove to be the right decision. Debuting at age 22, Martinez compiled a 16-0-1 record in Argentina before moving to Spain.

Martinez was not only a late starter but also a late bloomer. After 13 years and 48 fights as a pro, Martinez finally had his first world title fight at age 35 against Kelly Pavlik. “The Marvel” won the fight and with it the WBC, WBO, and Ring middleweight titles.

He defended the belts six times and was even named The Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year in 2010, and reached third in the pound-for-pound lists in 2011. An extremely impressive 4-year title run from when he was 35 easily makes Sergio Martinez a true inspiration for those that have not found big success in their 20s yet.

8. Rocky Marciano

Age when started boxing: 21

Professional debut: 24

Record: 49-0 (43 KO)

The relentless Rocky Marciano is the only heavyweight world champion to retire undefeated at 49-0 and held the most prestigious title from 1952 until 1956, defending it against fellow legends Jersey Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles, and Archie Moore among other challengers.

The Brockton Blockbuster didn’t pick up boxing until he was drafted into the US Army during WWII when he was 21. He had a brief amateur career, but his true success came as a professional.

Despite his small stature for a heavyweight, Marciano relied on his resilience, unbreakable chin, never-ending cardio, and concussive punching power to dominate the heavyweight division. Unlike most other fighters here, Rocky fought as a professional for only 8 years and retired undefeated with the highest knockout ratio in heavyweight championship history, leaving a mark that has not been replicated ever since.

9. Ken Norton

Credit/ Getty Images

Age when started boxing: 21

Professional debut: 24

Record: 42-7-1 (33 KO

There is something about heavyweights starting later but still reaching the top in boxing. Ken Norton is yet another big boy on our list who debuted rather late for a prizefighter.

Norton discovered boxing while in the military and went on to become the best boxer to ever come out of the Marine Corps. Aside from his trademark cross guard, Norton is most famous for his back-and-forth battles with Muhammad Ali.

Their first meeting won by Norton with a close decision winning was a huge upset at the time, as Ali was a 1-5 favorite. Norton broke Ali’s jaw in the second round and forced him to fight defensively, which was not enough to win the fight. Ali won the second and third fights, but both of them showed that Norton belonged among the great heavyweights of the time, despite his late start in the sport.

10. Ron Lyle

Age when started boxing: 23

Professional debut: 30

Record: 43-7-1 (31 KO)

As we near the back end of our list, the starting age of the boxers increases. Ron Lyle did not manage to win a world title, but his much later start and incredible career deserve to be included among the other boxers here.

Lyle had a troubled start to his life and was imprisoned when he was 19. He learned to box in prison and started fighting in tournaments until he was finally released and made his pro debut at age 30.

In the mid-1970s, Lyle was involved in a few amazing fights that cemented his place in heavyweight history. He challenged for the title against Muhammad Ali in 1975 but fell short. A year later, he fought George Foreman in an absolute slugfest that became the fight of the year. Lyle retired in 1980, but then came back 15 years later, now aged 54, to fight four more times and win every time by knockout.

11. Ray Mercer

Credit: Getty Images

Age when started boxing: 23

Professional debut: 27

Record: 36-7-1 (26 KO)

Ray Mercer never planned to become a boxer until he first put on the gloves while serving in the U.S. Army at age 23. He quickly learned the trade and despite not wanting to devote his whole life to training, managed to conquer the 1988 Olympics and return with gold.

Mercer debuted as a pro at age 27 and just a couple of years later became the WBO heavyweight world champion by knocking out Francesco Damiani. Some of Mercer’s best wins were against Tommy Morrison, Jerry Halstead, Jimmy Haynes, Leo Loiacono, Troy Weida, Brian Scott, and Jeff Pegues. In 1995 and 1996, Mercer lost to Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis, but both efforts were valiant.

Mercer is also one of the very boxers that dared to enter kickboxing and MMA when both sports were rapidly on the rise and threatening to take boxing’s crown as the most-watched combat sport. In 2009 when he was 48 years old, Ray knocked out former UFC champion Tim Sylvia in an MMA fight.

12. Dwight Muhammad Qawi

Dwight Muhammad Qawi
Credit: Tony Triolo (Photo by Tony Triolo /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

Age when started boxing: 24

Professional debut: 25

Record: 41-11-1 (25 KO)

The latest starter on our list is Dwight Muhammad Qawi. He is also another example of how the US prison boxing program saved many people’s lives by diverting them from a life of crime. Qawi found his place in boxing while in jail and became a professional immediately after he was released at age 25. 

Despite a rocky start to his career, he went on to win world championships in two weight classes holding the WBC light heavyweight title from 1981 until 1983. Along with the cruiserweight belt from 1985 until 1986. Like the rest of the gentlemen on this list, Dwight Muhammad Qawi is inducted into the boxing Hall of Fame. 

Hope you enjoyed this boxing list. Make sure to check out more similar related articles below or sign up for my boxing newsletter and get 5 Free discounts! 

Thanks for reading!

Jamie - Boxing Life

I'm a boxing analyst, amateur boxer, and blogger looking to pass on my boxing experiences and passion to anyone looking to learn or find out more about the sport of boxing. Whether that be gear reviews, fighter analysis, news, training tips, or my own personal journey, I'll be covering it on 'Boxing Life'.

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