The ubiquitin-proteasome pathway (UPP), which influences essential cellular functions including cell growth, differentiation, apoptosis, signal transduction, antigen processing and inflammatory responses, has been considered as one of the most important cellular protein degradation approaches. Proteasome functions as a gatekeeper, which controls the execution of protein degradation and plays a critical role in the ubiquitin-proteasome pathway. The unfolding of the close connection between proteasome and cancer provides a potential strategy for cancer treatment by using proteasome inhibitors. Small molecular inhibitors of varied structures and potency against proteasome have been discovered in recent years, with bortezomib and carfilzomib having been successfully approved for clinical application while some other promising candidates are currently under clinical trials. Herein, we review the development history of drugs and candidates that target the 20S proteasome, structure-activity relationships (SARs) of various proteasome inhibitors, and related completed or ongoing clinical trials.