Ten times three: Boxing's best trilogies

Originally Published: November 16, 2006
By Kieran Mulvaney | Special to ESPN.com

If scoring fights is a subjective science, then so is compiling lists of the best of them, and this selection of trilogies is no exception.

The recently completed set between Diego Corrales and Joel Casamayor doesn't make the cut; neither does Bobby Chacon-Ruben Olivares, Muhammad Ali-Ken Norton, Battling Nelson-Joe Gans nor Antonio Tarver-Roy Jones. And while at least four of those five, and perhaps others, have a case to be made for inclusion, the ones that did make this list were either exciting, memorable or significant -- or a combination of all three.

Using those three criteria -- excitement, historical significance and water-cooler buzz generated at the time and thereafter -- we've compiled an entirely subjective list of the top 10 trilogies in boxing history. We also invite you to vote on the best boxing trilogy.

Ready?

10. Humberto "Chiquita" Gonzalez-Michael Carbajal (March 13, 1993; Feb. 19, 1994; Nov. 12, 1994)

Michael Carbajal
Carbajal

Humberto Gonzalez
Gonzalez

This trilogy is frequently overlooked because of the weights (108 pounds) of the combatants and because the second and third bouts didn't live up to the drama of the first. In that bout, IBF junior flyweight champ Carbajal was knocked down twice by WBC beltholder Gonzalez before rising to stop his foe in the seventh. Gonzalez boxed more cautiously the next two times and wound up a points victor on both occasions. The series was notable for being the first time a junior flyweight fighter (Carbajal) earned a million-dollar purse; it proved that even the little guys could be big box-office attractions. The two rivals were elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame together in 2006.

9. Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran (June 20, 1980; Nov. 25, 1980; Dec. 7, 1989)

Roberto Duran
Duran

Sugar Ray Leonard
Leonard

The third bout, fought more than eight years too late, was a forgettable unanimous-decision win by Leonard and should be forgotten; what allows this trilogy to make the cut was what transpired in the first two contests. Seven months before the first fight, Leonard -- the original Golden Boy and the Olympic gold medalist -- took the welterweight world championship from Wilfred Benitez. But then Duran handed Leonard his first defeat; Leonard was mauled and outworked by the snarling fury of the former lightweight king. On that occasion, though, Leonard allowed Duran's prefight insults to take him out of his game; in the rematch, it was Leonard who did the taunting, during the bout, mocking the charging Duran as he evaded the Panamanian's charges and peppered him with swift jabs and right hands. With 16 seconds to go in the eighth round, Duran turned his back on Leonard and threw his hands in the air, an act of capitulation that tarnished his reputation for years. Duran insists, however, that he never actually said the words -- "no mas" -- for which he became infamous.

8. Riddick Bowe-Evander Holyfield (Nov. 13, 1992; Nov. 6, 1993; Nov. 4, 1995)

Evander Holyfield
Holyfield

Riddick Bowe
Bowe

When Bowe and Holyfield first met -- for the undisputed heavyweight title Holyfield had taken from Buster Douglas -- both men were undefeated. Holyfield, the former cruiserweight champion, had defied the criticism that he was "too small" for the heavyweight division with his third-round knockout of the blubbery man-mountain that was Douglas; but Holyfield had not always looked convincing with defenses against tough Bert Cooper and aged George Foreman and Larry Holmes. Bowe, who outweighed Holyfield by 30 pounds, was skilled and strong but frequently derided for being lazy. Both men made mockeries of their caricatures in a skillful and hard-fought first contest, highlighted by a 10th round of constant momentum shifts that may be the greatest three minutes in heavyweight championship history. Bowe snatched the crown from Holyfield's head with that bout, but the rematch, which Holyfield won on points, was memorable more for what happened outside the ring -- or, rather, what began outside the ring and ended up on the ring apron. In the seventh round, James "Fan Man" Miller took his first shot at interfering with a public event, but when he became entangled in the ring ropes instead of landing foursquare on the canvas, he was beaten senseless by Bowe's entourage. By the time of the third bout, two years later, Holyfield had lost the title to Michael Moorer, briefly retired with an apparent heart condition and then returned to the ring after claiming to have been cured by faith healer Benny Hinn. In a bout that, ironically, hastened the demise of Bowe's career faster than that of Holyfield, Evander dropped Riddick to the seat of his pants in the sixth round but, seemingly exhausting himself with the follow-up onslaught, was sent crashing facedown to the canvas in the eighth and was stopped in the same round.

7. Arturo Gatti-Micky Ward (May 18, 2002; Nov. 23, 2002; June 7, 2003)

Micky Ward
Ward

Arturo Gatti
Gatti

The classic example of how a thrilling three-fight series can elevate both fighters involved. Gatti, a former world titlist, was already a favorite with fight fans, but not for his brilliance so much as his heart and the fact that he had to so frequently battle back from adversity. Ward was a B-level fighter on a late career upswing after fighting professionally for 17 years. In the first bout -- a sensational, back-and-forth junior welterweight brawl -- Ward's body punching wore Gatti down and at one stage had him doubled over and seemingly finished before Gatti came back to hurt Ward moments later. Ward eked out a victory in that bout, but in the second fight Gatti, the much more skilled fighter, boxed smartly to take a wide unanimous decision. Gatti appeared to be cruising to a victory in the third bout too, at one stage busting Ward's eardrum and pounding him on the ropes as a dizzy Ward defiantly waved him in. But after Gatti broke his right hand and found it harder to keep his foe at bay, it became once more a crowd-pleasing battle. "When Ward got into the ring with Gatti and had these three tremendous, unbelievable wars, it prolonged his career and gave him the opportunity to make some money before he retired, because he was really at the end of his career," HBO's Harold Lederman says. Gatti, meanwhile, revived his career and moved on to big paydays with Carlos Baldomir and Floyd Mayweather Jr.

6. Floyd Patterson-Ingemar Johansson (June 26, 1959; June 20, 1960; March 13, 1961)

Ingemar Johanssont
Johansson

Floyd Patterson
Patterson

Combine two men with explosive punches and fragile chins, and you get three classic bouts that, between them, added up to less than 14 rounds of boxing. Underdog Johansson spectacularly snatched the heavyweight crown from the undefeated Patterson after knocking him down seven times in the third round, earning the Swede's powerful right hand such nicknames as Hammer of Thor and Ingo's Bingo. But Patterson dominated the rematch, knocking his rival down in the fifth for a nine-count, and then knocking him out, both times with the leaping left hook for which he was most famous. In the process, Patterson became the first person to regain the heavyweight championship. In the rubber match, Johansson dropped Patterson twice in the first, but after hurting him in the sixth, Patterson downed Johansson with a right hand and could not beat the count.

5. Emile Griffith-Benny "Kid" Paret (April 1, 1961; Sept. 30, 1961; March 24, 1962)

Benny Paret
Paret

Emile Griffith
Griffith

Few athletes are as tragically and eternally connected as Griffith and Paret, almost entirely as a result of the shocking ending of their third fight. They had split their previous two: Griffith, behind on points, had knocked out Paret in the 13th to win the welterweight championship; Paret had regained the crown by decision six months later on a controversial split decision that Griffith, and most ringside media, believed should have gone the other way. In the buildup to the rubber match, Paret raised Griffith's ire by insulting him with a homosexual slur, and after suffering a knockdown in the sixth, a relentless Griffith took over, before pummeling Paret into the ropes in the 12th. The entangled Paret was unable to extricate himself as Griffith rained down blow after blow on his defenseless victim, while the referee appeared frozen in shock. Paret, wrote Norman Mailer, "went down more slowly than any fighter had ever gone down, he went down like a large ship which turns on end and slides second by second into its grave. As he went down, the sound of Griffith's punches echoed in the mind like a heavy ax in the distance chopping into a wet log." Paret died from his injuries, and boxing all but disappeared from national television for the better part of a decade.

4. Barney Ross-Jimmy McLarnin (May 28, 1934; Sept. 17, 1934; May 28, 1935)

Jimmy McLarnin
McLarnin

Barney Ross
Ross

One of the few trilogies to comprise three competitive bouts of equally high quality. In the first, lightweight and junior lightweight champion Ross took McLarnin's welterweight crown on a split decision in front of a crowd of 65,000. McLarnin regained the belt four months later, despite boxing with one eye closed from the 12th round on. (Interestingly, both those bouts were fought at the Madison Square Garden Bowl in Long Island City, where every defending champion lost his title.) The rubber match, contested a year to the day from the first bout, was refereed by Jack Dempsey, and Ross won a controversial decision.

3. Marco Antonio Barrera-Erik Morales (Feb. 19, 2000; June 22, 2002; Nov. 27, 2004)

Erik Morales
Morales

Marco Antonio Barrera
Barrera

Now this is a trilogy. Two national rivals who detested (and by all accounts still detest) each other, and who backed up their mutual enmity outside the ring with skill and heart inside the ropes. Entering their first contest, Barrera was three years removed from his shocking defeats to Junior Jones, but even so he had yet to recover the luster of his early career. At the same time Barrera was losing his unbeaten record to Jones, Morales was winning the WBC super bantamweight title from Daniel Zaragoza, and had since defended it eight times, most recently in a barn burner against Wayne McCullough. Morales was the big favorite to add Barrera's WBO belt with relative ease, but although he wound up the points victor, it was at the end of twelve breathtaking, pulsating, hard-fought rounds, with many thinking Barrera deserved the nod. When they met again two years later, Morales was now WBC featherweight champ, and this time Barrera, who boxed more cautiously during the first half before being drawn into another brawl, was the controversial points winner. The crucial moment was an apparent knockdown of Barrera which referee Jay Nady called a slip, and which prevented a 10-9 Barrera round becoming a 10-8 Morales frame. The third fight was the greatest of them all and one of the very greatest of all time, 12 rounds packed with equal parts savagery and skill, two warriors pounding each their with proficiency as well as power, hate permeating their every punch.

2. Tony Zale-Rocky Graziano (Sept. 27, 1946; July 16, 1947; June 10, 1948)

Rocky Graziano
Graziano

Tony Zale
Zale

The middleweight championship series between Graziano and Zale, says boxing historian Bert Sugar, "may have been the best" of the sport's trilogies -- "at least the first two. They had ebb and flow, they flip-flopped continually. In the first fight, Graziano beat the [expletive] out of Zale, until Zale hit him in the stomach [and followed up with a left hook] and that was it. Graziano was out of breath, and couldn't get up. In the second fight, Zale beat the living bejabbers out of Graziano until [Graziano] draped him over the ropes and stopped him. That's when he grabbed the microphone and said, 'Somebody up there likes me.' And the third fight was all Zale [who won by third-round knockout]."

1. Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier (March 8, 1971; Jan. 28, 1974; Oct. 1, 1975)

Joe Frazier
Frazier

Muhammad Ali
Ali

Likely to remain the most celebrated of all trilogies for some time to come, there is little to be added about this series that has not been written or said already. Ali, in just his third bout since returning from enforced exile, challenged the man who had claimed his crown during his absence, but came out on the losing end of what was dubbed the Fight of the Century, a knockdown in the 15th (and final) round sealing the deal. The dislike between the two (or at least, Frazier's dislike of Ali, fomented by Ali's constant taunting) was genuinely and deeply felt. But their second bout -- after Frazier had lost the title to George Foreman, and Ali had lost to (but gained revenge over) Ken Norton -- was relatively lackluster. But the decider, fought in the Filipino heat after Ali had sensationally dethroned Foreman, was a brutal affair, perhaps the greatest heavyweight championship bout of all time. Despite Frazier's insistence that he be allowed to continue, his trainer Eddie Futch halted the bout after the 14th round. "It's all over," said Futch. "No one will ever forget what you did here today." Almost immediately afterward, Ali collapsed in the ring. He said of the fight that it was the closest to death he had ever been.

Kieran Mulvaney is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He covers boxing for ESPN.com, Reuters and TigerBoxing.com.

Kieran Mulvaney covers boxing for ESPN.com, HBO.com and Reuters, and also blogs for Discovery Channel News.

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