Don't believe the hype? How 'bout the slights?
A short list of 10 prefight episodes that have generated some of the greatest controversy.
For better or for worse, some of the biggest fights in recent history -- and even some less ballyhooed bouts -- have become as well known for the hype and buildup outside the ring as what eventually happened inside the ropes.
Here's a chronological list of such bouts for which prefight shenanigans set the stage for such memorable outcomes:
Emile Griffith and Benny "Kid" Paret
March 24, 1962
Griffith and Paret had already split two world welterweight title bouts -- Griffith winning the first by knockout and Paret earning a controversial decision in the second -- when they met for the third and final time at Madison Square Garden.
At the prefight weigh-in, Paret turned to Griffith, whose sexuality was a matter of quiet conjecture, and called him out on it. Furious, Griffith had to be restrained from going after Paret then and there.
When the bell rang for the official fight, Griffith recovered from an early knockdown and gradually took control of the fight. In the 12th, a Griffith barrage knocked Paret unconscious, but with the ropes holding up his stricken opponent and the referee frozen in apparent indecision, Griffith continued to pound away on Paret's unresponsive frame until the third man in the ring finally interceded.
Paret died nine days later, and although Griffith went on to win and lose the middleweight crown, many fans believed he was never the same again. Griffith himself admitted Paret's death weighed heavily on him: "I would have quit," he said later, "but I didn't know how to do anything but fight."
Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston
Feb. 25, 1964, and May 25, 1965
Nobody had ever before used showmanship to build up a fight the way Ali did. Even before Liston destroyed Floyd Patterson in their second encounter, Ali and his camp drove to the heavyweight champion's home in Denver and -- in front of the media (who had been forewarned) and a bathrobe-wearing Liston (who had not) -- stood on the champ's front lawn and demanded a title shot.
At the weigh-in, the then-Cassius Clay began behaving like a lunatic, screaming that he wanted to fight Liston immediately and seemingly needing to be held back by a half-dozen people. Against the odds, Clay won the title when Liston retired on his stool with an injured shoulder.
But if the buildup to the first fight had elements of the theatrical, the countdown to the second was truly surreal. Clay was now Muhammad Ali, having joined the Nation of Islam, and that fact weighed heavily on the promotion. On Feb. 21, 1965, Malcolm X was killed; five days later, a mysterious fire broke out in Ali's apartment, and two days after that the Nation of Islam headquarters was bombed. Amid rumors of assassination attempts, the fight was moved to quiet Lewiston, Maine, where Ali stopped Liston with a short right hand to the jaw in the first round. Rumors that Liston took a dive persist to this day.
Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier
March 8, 1971, Jan. 28, 1974, and Oct. 1, 1975
No two men in boxing history have ever been quite as indelibly associated with each other as Ali and Frazier, and the first and third of their bouts are regarded as two of the greatest heavyweight fights of all time.
Indeed, their first, at Madison Square Garden in 1971, was billed as The Fight of the Century. Frazier had become world heavyweight champion after Ali had been stripped of his title and forced into fistic exile for refusing induction into the Army, and in the buildup to the bout, Ali, assuming the mantle of African-American hero, began taunting Frazier as an "Uncle Tom," "ignorant," and even a "gorilla." The insults genuinely hurt and angered Frazier, and served to further ratchet up the tension for their epic battle, which Frazier won by unanimous decision, sealed with a 15th-round knockdown.
Their second bout was less dramatic, but the tension between the two remained palpable, and when Ali again called Frazier "ignorant" on Howard Cosell's show, the two men wound up wrestling on the studio floor.
At the end of the brutal third fight, in Manila, Frazier summed up the personal nature of their rivalry as he lay down in a darkened room: "G-------, when somebody going to understand? It wasn't just a fight. It was me and him."
Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Diego Corrales
Jan. 20, 2001
Mayweather used much of the buildup to this highly anticipated junior lightweight unification bout to taunt Corrales about accusations of spousal abuse, for which Corrales would later serve 14 months in jail. Mayweather claimed he would "abuse him as a favor to all battered women in America."
Corrales was incensed by Mayweather's jibes, and the two men reportedly went at it when they bumped into each other at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas following Lennox Lewis' November 2000 title defense against David Tua. The fight itself, expected to be close and dramatic, was a master class by Mayweather, who dropped Corrales five times en route a 10th-round TKO.
Bernard Hopkins vs. Felix Trinidad
Sept. 29, 2001
The atmosphere surrounding this middleweight unification bout didn't exactly need heightening. After all, the smell of the smoldering towers was still in the air in New York, when the fight -- delayed two weeks because of the 9/11 attacks -- took place in Madison Square Garden. But Hopkins decided to take it up a notch anyway.
Despite widespread criticism given recent and unfolding events, he wore a bandana with the word "War" emblazoned on it at a press conference and then promptly snatched the Puerto Rican flag from Trinidad and threw it to the ground -- not once, but twice, the second time in front of thousands of passionate Trinidad fans in San Juan's Roberto Clemente Stadium.
Somehow, Hopkins escaped the ensuing riot and went on to dominate Trinidad, stopping him in the 12th round and becoming the undisputed middleweight champion.
Lennox Lewis vs. Hasim Rahman
Nov. 17, 2001
Rahman had relieved Lewis of his heavyweight crown with a giant overhand right in South Africa seven months earlier, and the normally unflappable Brit was quietly seething at the sight of Rahman enjoying his time with what Lewis considered was rightfully his championship belt.
When Rahman attempted to take a voluntary defense instead of granting Lewis an immediate rematch, Lewis sued for breach of contract and won. At an appearance on ESPN's "Up Close," Rahman referred to Lewis' legal actions as "gay."
Lewis, whose sexual preferences were a subject of mild gossip at the time, interpreted Rahman's comments as a deliberate attempt to add fuel to that particular fire, offered to demonstrate his heterosexuality, and suggested Rahman's sister as an appropriate partner.
Now it was Rahman's turn to be offended, and the two stood face-to-face and jawed at each other for several seconds until Lewis pushed Rahman, Rahman pushed back and the two grappled each other on to the interview table, which collapsed under the weight.
Two days later, at a press conference in Las Vegas, Rahman again needled Lewis with taunts and appeared to have thoroughly got under the former champion's skin. Not that it did him much good: Come fight time, Lewis dominated his adversary and knocked him flat with a looping right hand in Round 4.
Lennox Lewis vs. Mike Tyson
June 8, 2002
Where to begin? How about the challenge Tyson gave Lewis immediately after his bizarre stoppage of Lou Savarese in Glasgow, Scotland, in which he knocked down referee Joe Coyle when Coyle attempted to step between the combatants and stop the fight.
"I'm the best ever," he proclaimed. "I'm the most brutal and vicious and most ruthless champion there's ever been. There's no one could stop me. Lennox is a conqueror? No, I'm Alexander. He's no Alexander. I'm the best ever. There's never been anybody as ruthless. I'm Sonny Liston. I'm Jack Dempsey. There's no one like me. I'm from their cloth. There's no one that can match me. My style is impetuous. My defense is impregnable. And I'm just ferocious. I want your heart. I want to eat his children. Praise be to Allah."
Tyson never did try to eat Lewis' children (Lewis didn't have any at the time, anyway), but he did chomp on Lewis' leg during a press conference to announce their long-awaited clash. Tyson stalked across the stage toward Lewis, and threw a punch at Lewis' intervening bodyguard (which missed). Lewis measured Tyson with a left and unloaded a right that bounced off Tyson's forehead, the two men wound up in a tangled heap on the floor, and Tyson helped himself to a mouthful of Lewis' thigh.
That was enough for the Nevada commission to back out of staging the bout in Las Vegas, so Memphis wound up as the site for Tyson's bludgeoning, following which a meek Iron Mike gently wiped the blood from his conqueror's cheek and promised to disappear into "bolivion."
Oscar De La Hoya vs. Fernando Vargas
Sept. 14, 2002
|De La Hoya|
The story goes that one day, while training in Big Bear, Calif., a young Fernando Vargas fell over in a snow bank. He raised his arm for the great Oscar De La Hoya, who was running along the same track, to help him up, but instead De La Hoya ran past and laughed.
That, anyway, is the story: a seemingly relatively trivial encounter, but not to Vargas, for whom it stoked a fire of hatred for his Los Angeles-area rival that burned for years until finally the Golden Boy agreed to fight him.
That hatred proved too much for the man from Oxnard when the two came face-to-face at the Mandalay Bay at the press conference to announce the fight; Vargas pushed De La Hoya and grabbed him around the throat, and Ricardo Jimenez, publicist for promoter Top Rank, broke his leg in the ensuing melee.
Mandalay Bay's public-relations mavens, sensing an opportunity, heightened the atmosphere come fight time by having the two fighters weigh in on separate scales and erecting a Plexiglas wall between the two of them.
The fight lived up to the hype, with De la Hoya eventually prevailing by 11th-round TKO. Afterward, Vargas tested positive for steroids and was fined $100,000 and suspended for nine months.
Roy Jones Jr. vs. John Ruiz
March 1, 2003
It wasn't the fighters who escalated the prefight hype for light-heavyweight champ Jones' assault on Ruiz's WBA heavyweight strap, but their camps -- specifically, Ruiz' manager, the volatile Norman "Stoney" Stone, who was always looking for a reason to leap in and defend "Jawny" from some perceived slight or injustice.
At the weigh-in, Stone got in the face of Jones' trainer, Alton Merkerson, accusing him of tampering with the gloves for the fight, and grabbed Merkerson by the shirt. Merkerson hit him with a right hand and the two tumbled to the floor. After they were pried apart, Stone complained of chest pains, had trouble breathing and was taken to hospital with what at first was feared might be a heart attack.
Undaunted, Stone jawed at Merkerson again the following day, telling the trainer, "I owe you one."
After Merkerson's man dominated Ruiz for 12 rounds, Stone screamed at referee Jay Nady, whom he blamed for preventing Ruiz from fighting in his close, mauling style. "I'm gonna find out you bet on [Jones]," he barked. "You're in the bag."
Stone would continue his career of attacking his fighter's perceived enemies: He was expelled from the corner during a November 2004 fight with Andrew Golota -- again for insulting the referee -- and he started a mini-riot in the ring after Ruiz lost his title to Nikolay Valuev in December 2005, when he attempted to snatch back the title belt from Valuev's camp.
Sultan Ibragimov vs. Lance Whitaker
Dec. 15, 2005
In the grand scheme of things, this heavyweight matchup was hardly one of the more significant in fistic history, but it turned out to be a pretty good scrap.
Ibragimov floored Whitaker (who towered six inches above him and outweighed him by 52 pounds) in the first, second and sixth rounds, and Whitaker eventually quit after suffering a nasty gash over his eye in the seventh.
But it was the action at the press conference to announce the bout that gave the bout real attention. During posed photos, Ibragimov placed his right fist to Whitaker's cheek. Whitaker blew a kiss to Ibragimov. Ibragimov shoved Whitaker's face. Whitaker slapped Ibragimov's hand away. And then the punches started flying.
Samson Lewkowicz, Ibragimov's matchmaker, unwisely tried to separate the two and was knocked out cold -- having been hit, according to at least one witness, by punches from both men.
Kieran Mulvaney is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
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