Trilogies filled with triumphs, tragedies

ESPN.com considers the best three-act ring rivalries in history. Where do you think Arturo Gatti's scrums with Micky Ward rank?

Originally Published: September 29, 2005
By Teri Berg | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: Saturday marks not only the third installment of the Antonio Tarver-Roy Jones rivalry, but the 30th anniversary of "The Thrilla In Manila" -- the final fight in the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier trilogy. ESPN.com revisits the Ali-Frazier classic as well as some of the best multi-part rivalries in boxing and elsewhere in sport.

In sifting through what is a disappointingly limited number of boxing trilogies, we considered even more than just the quality of the fights and fighters to produce ESPN.com's list of best all-time threesomes.

These trilogies feature many "Fights of the Year," "Fighters of the Year," and all-time great rounds and punches thrown. There are also great upsets in these rivalries.

Many boxers here are considered among the best ever in their divisions, such as Tony Zale, Jimmy McLarnin, and Roberto Duran; while others, Muhammad Ali, Ray Leonard, Emile Griffith and Joe Gans, are believed to stand at the very summit of the sport itself, regardless of weight class. And all of them had hearts that wouldn't quit. (Well, maybe not Duran.)

But a few of these trilogies also transcend boxing, indeed the world of sports. Those fights and fighters had significance that crossed cultural and social boundaries. They continue to rivet and inspire, sometimes even a century after punches were thrown, bells rung and bruises healed.

In other words, this list of the best of boxing's triptychs is about more than entertainment value and the visibility of certain fighters and divisions. Some of these man-on-man clashes have become woven into the very fabric of our American experience, and stand as vivid and violent metaphors for their time.

If you want to keep it simple, though, here's a list of thrill-a-minute knock-down, drag-outs that have kept fight fans more than satisfied for nearly 100 years.

A note on what didn't make the list. As with any top-10 collection, something famous or interesting is inevitably forgotten or kicked to the curb. So, our honorable-mention short list gives a quick nod of approval to the 1959-61 battles between heavyweights Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson as well as the 1987-90 lightweight go-rounds of Greg Haugen and Vinny Pazienza. Both troikas deserve praise, but ultimately were edged out of the limelight by the quality of their competition.

And a wealth of competition it's been:

1. Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier

Two of the top heavyweights -- and fighters -- of all time, in what's generally thought to be the strongest era for the division, battled it out in this trio of head-thumpers. Two of the fights, Ali vs. Frazier I & III, both won Fight of the Year honors and usually are seen as two of the best bouts ever staged. Add to that the significance of Ali's comeback from three years of legal (or rather, illegal) sanction as well as his role outside the ring as a civil rights figure, and how he played on that role to taunt and enflame "Smokin'" Joe, and you've got the fixins for the best boxing trilogy of all time.
Tony Zale/Rocky Graziano
The Zale-Graziano rivalry was notable for its gore.

2. Tony Zale vs. Rocky Graziano

Zale vs. Graziano I & II were 1946's and 1947's FOY, and for good reason. In these all-out brawls for the world welterweight title, Zale and Graziano traded furious combinations and knockdowns as well as surprising rallies. Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich said of their first war, "The gore was awful, with both streaming blood." Now that's entertainment! Though Rocky believed "somebody up there liked" him, it was Zale who got the better end of the deal in retaining the crown in their first fight and recovering it in their last -- both by hard-fought KOs.

3. Barney Ross vs. Jimmy McLarnin

The trio of bouts between these two Hall-of-Famers took place in an era of heated ethnic rivalies, and the Jewish Ross and Irish-born Canadian McLarnin -- who had a rep for downing great Jewish fighters -- added fuel to that fire. McLarnin, considered one of the top five welterweights of all time, went 15 grueling rounds in each bout with Ross, who earned one of his three world titles in the first fight in May 1934. McLarnin returned the favor in II, but lost the head-scratcher of a decision in III, as referee Jack Dempsey scored seven rounds as even.

4. Emile Griffith vs. Benny "Kid" Paret

Griffith, a New Yorker via the Virgin Islands, and the Cuban Paret had a lot in common as immigrant fighters from large families (each had seven siblings) and impoverished backgrounds. But no love was lost between these welterweights and, in fact, their fierce enmity ultimately turned to tragedy. In April 1961, Griffith KO'd the favored Paret in 13 and took his world title; in September, Paret snatched it back via split decision.
Emile Griffith
More than 40 years after his fatal fight with Paret, Griffith (foreground) and his story still intrigue.

The rubber match between the two, who were just entering their primes as all-time great fighters, began on a sour note when Paret called Griffith a Spanish homosexual slur at their weigh-in. Griffith, the subject of the recent documentary "Ring Of Fire," never has acknowledged that his pounding of Paret was because of his rage over Paret's taunting. But the stage was set for a heated battle in the third fight.

Though Paret decked Griffith in the sixth, the challenger dominated afterward. In the 12th, Griffith unleashed an attack that tangled Paret in the ropes, where the Cuban suffered 18 unanswered blows before the ref stopped the fight. Paret was carried out on a stretcher and died 10 days later of injuries sustained in the ring. Televised before a national audience, the brutal end of the fight and the resulting death led to boxing's absence from TV until the 1970s.

5. Marco Antonio Barrera vs. Erik Morales

Talk about instant epics! The two Mexican nationals have brought us a trinity of violent spectacles, testimony to their bitter rivalry. Barrera vs. Morales I, 2000's FOY, saw Morales take a disputed split decision to unite the WBO and WBC super bantamweight belts in a fight witnesses believed the challenger won.
Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales
APBarrera, left, did enough to win a unanimous decision over Morales in 2002.

The rematch reversed their roles, and though "El Terrible" pressed the action, his battered face told another tale. Barrera, who'd fought a more technical bout this time, now wore the WBC featherweight crown. Again critics howled at the decision. In 2004, the sworn enemies tangled a third time in a go-for-broke 12-rounder aptly titled "Once and For All," which captured another FOY honor. The breathtaking rage of the fighters kept them center-ring, chin to chin, firing barrages of punishing shots until the very last second. Barrera won a majority decision, as one judge called the fight a draw and the others scored it 113-115 and 114-115. With both fighters still active -- and their mutual hatred unrelenting, this rivalry has a shot to move into the Top 10 foursomes of all time.

6. Arturo Gatti vs. Mickey Ward

Though not vying for a title, these 140-pounders put on three of the biggest crowd-pleasers in boxing history, leading one New York Post reporter to gush, "It wasn't a trilogy -- it was a thrillogy!" Their first free-for-all, 2002's FOY, showcased both as production punchers, as Gatti connected with 92 jabs in the first three rounds. (Fighters usually average 20 punches per round.) But after a Gatti point deduction for a low blow in the fifth, the slugfest looked like a draw.
Arturo Gatti, Micky Ward
Arturo Gatti, left, and Micky Ward clearly brought out the best in each other.

Gatti vs. Ward II was more of the same, though the old-school scrapper Ward found it harder to draw Gatti out of his jab-n-move style this time, and dropped the decision. Their rubber match in June 2003, though not as evenly fought, earned the year's FOY nod nonetheless. Gatti, his hand broken in Round 4, still took the fight to what looked to be a wearied Ward -- and again won the decision. Ward retired after the bout, making the last three fights of his career one of the best trilogies ever.

7. Riddick Bowe vs. Evander Holyfield

These two former Olympians could not have been more different. "Big Daddy" Bowe, at 6-feet-5 and weighing 235, squaring off against the quick 205-pound Holyfield, a natural cruiserweight. Bowe vs. Holyfield I saw the challenger snatch Holyfield's title as Bowe displayed a wide range of shots and a pace that surprised critics. Though critics had before ripped Holyfield as too small and a mere counterpuncher, the skill, fury and heart he showed here, especially in a thrilling Round 10, finally proved he was "The Real Deal."
FanMan
The Fan Man added a touch of the surreal to the Bowe-Holyfield trilogy.

Their rematch pitted a heavier "Big Daddy" against a more determined challenger, and Holyfield took a majority decision for the IBF and WBA belts. Bowe vs. Holyfield II also memorably featured an absurdist Shakespearian brawl-within-a-brawl in Round 7. Just when Holyfield had Bowe pinned on the ropes, pummeling away at the big man, the crowd roared in a way that distracted the aggressor.

Holyfield stopped his attack, looked up, then invited Bowe to join him. Parachuting into the ring was James Miller, aka The Fan Man, who tripped in the ropes in Bowe's corner and instantly was pounced on and beaten senseless by the champ's entourage. Following a 20-minute uproar, the title bout resumed, and Holyfield captured the second of his four world championships.

The pair fought a fierce rubber match in 1995 without a title at stake, and though Holyfield floored Bowe in the sixth, he fell victim to a thundering Bowe side-swipe in the eighth that stopped the fight. Exhausted and dehydrated in the last two rounds, Holyfield had not yet revealed that he'd been suffering from hepatitis.

8. Muhammad Ali vs. Ken Norton

It's a testament to Ali's greatness that he's part of two of the Top 10 boxing trilogies of all time. Though the only title Norton ever held was bestowed by the NABF -- the first time for six months until Ali took it back, the second only because Ali gave it up -- Norton was a solid fighter in an era full of the most dominating heavies. An ex-Marine and former sparring partner of Joe Frazier, Norton seemed to have Ali's number, and in their first clash he broke Ali's jaw, handed "The Greatest" his second defeat, and earned a shocking 12-round split decision.

Their rematch six months later, though the outcome was disputed by many, showed Ali's greater respect for his challenger, as he boxed his way to a split decision. Ali vs. Norton III at Yankee Stadium was just as fiercely and closely contested, with Norton again the more productive fighter and pressing the action. Though the unanimous decision for Ali was widely debated at the time, Norton's sizzling aggression and production distracted critics from what the judges saw: Ali, not yet in his dotage, taking seven of the fight's 12 rounds and snatching points for a superior final-round showing.

9. Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Roberto Duran

"The Brawl in Montreal" was one of the greatest single bouts in boxing history. It pitted the technically superior welterweight champ against Duran, a former champion lightweight slugger, both in their primes. Over a fast-paced 15 rounds, Duran was able to draw Leonard out of his clean and crisp boxing style and drag him into a gutter fight. Leonard never made that mistake again, as it cost him his first professional loss and his welterweight belt.
Roberto Duran and Ray Leonard
"Hands of Stone" met "Sugar Ray" in the "No Mas" fight.

The pair's rematch at New Orleans' Superdome stands out not for how it raised the standard of trilogy bouts, but for its transcendent moment of the bizarre. The Panamanian tried again to lure Leonard into a street fight, but the challenger wouldn't be tempted. Leonard teased Duran, clinching and retreating, using every inch of the squared circle to run from a down-n-dirty slugfest that favored his opponent. Frustrated by the futility of chasing Leonard into the eighth round, Duran finally just turned his back to the American at the end of the round, twice uttering boxing's most infamous two words, "No mas, no mas," as he quit the fight.

Leonard vs. Duran III, nine years and several "retirements" later, featured two older and decidedly worn warriors contesting Leonard's WBC super middleweight title. Again, Leonard took the cautious -- and, to many fight fans, boring -- route, and grabbed a lopsided decision, dancing away as Duran gave chase.

10. Joe Gans vs. Battling Nelson

Gans vs. Nelson, a troika pulled from boxing's dusty attic, edged Patterson-Johansson for a spot in the Top 10 for several reasons. The first native-born black fighter to win a world title, Gans wore the lightweight crown from 1902-1908 -- a feat in itself for a black fighter in this era. It was a limited achievement, given that promoters and challengers often took advantage of the bitter racism of the time to shortchange Gans on payday. Also, Gans, a technical grandmaster and defender ahead of his time, is widely acknowledged as among the best pound-for-pound pugilists ever. Ultimately, he met his match against a relentless Nelson, the best slugger and sturdy chin of the era.

On Labor Day 1906, Gans entered the ring to defend his title in what would become the longest gloved championship bout under Marquis of Queensbury rules; a 2-hour, 50-minute battle royale that pitted him against the Chicago-transplanted Dane who would become his nemesis. Gans took the fight to his white opponent, breaking his hand in the 33rd round. But Gans closed Nelson's left eye and caused him to bleed from his ears, mouth, nose and the cuts on his face. In Round 42, Nelson floored Gans with a low blow, and Gans retained his title by disqualification.

But the fight took its toll on the victor. Gans, reputedly a natural 140-pounder, was forced into an agreement by Nelson's manager that required him to weigh in three times on fight day at 133 pounds. The combination of Gans' weight loss and his slugging through 42 rounds in the hot Nevada sun are thought to have contributed to his contracting tuberculosis.

Gans vs. Nelson II in 1908 saw the former champ suffering the effects of TB, as newspaper accounts from the time described him as ashen and "shivering" in the ring. Though Gans was game early, staggering Nelson in the second and drawing blood in the third, the fatigue associated with TB set in all too quickly, and Nelson scored a 17th-round KO to take Gans' title. A short two months later, Gans challenged for his old belt and dominated in the early rounds, but again succumbed to exhaustion and was counted out in round 21.

"The Old Master" boxed only once more, in 1909, then died of TB the following year, weighing only 84 pounds. Fighting under today's limited-rounds rules, Gans might have finished this trilogy as the champion he entered it as, but nothing could make his performances against Nelson and legacy to boxing more awesome.

The host of Sportscolumn.com's "Weekly NFL Picks" podcast, Teri Berg is a freelance writer for Maxboxing.com and a variety of online publications. She can be reached through her blog, Berg At Bat, or you can email her at bergteri@yahoo.com.