Commentary

Ten historic fights in boxing history

Ah, the Super Bowl; what sporting event can compare in terms of magnitude, anticipation and viewership? The answer: a prize fight. Graham Houston lists 10 mega fights in boxing history that sparked the imagination and created a stir that could be felt around the world.

Originally Published: February 3, 2008
By Graham Houston | Special to ESPN.com

AP PhotoHagler, left, and Hearns didn't have to do much talking to hype up their highly anticipated fight.
The half-million pay-per-view buys for last month's fight between Roy Jones and Felix "Tito" Trinidad were a reminder of boxing's drawing power.

Even if boxing no longer matters the way it once did, a major contest remains a compelling spectacle for millions. There have been many fights that have truly been awaited with eager expectation on a global scale.

Picking the 10 most important fights historically, with so many from which to choose, was never going to be easy.

For Hispanic fans, showdowns such as Salvador Sanchez vs. Wilfredo Gomez, Gomez against Carlos Zarate and the all-Mexican clash between Zarate and Alfonso Zamora mattered just as much as big fights involving the likes of Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis.

The following top 10 list looks at fights that were not always exciting to watch but that, each in their own way, had a considerable impact on the history of the sport.

10. Larry Holmes TKO 13 Gerry Cooney

[+] EnlargeHolmes and Cooney
Allsport UK /Getty ImagesOver 30,000 fight fans witnessed Larry Holmes, right, dissect Gerry Cooney.
There were many reasons that the heavyweight title fight between champion Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney attracted the boxing public's attention, and one of them was the just-below-the-surface racial angle. It embarrassed Cooney to be considered a sort of latter-day white hope and Holmes acknowledged the situation with a tinge of regret when he said the week of the fight: "I never had any bitterness towards Gerry Cooney. I'm no racist and I don't think he is, either."

What irked Holmes was that the Irish-American challenger had purse parity -- a guaranteed $10 million -- and he also resented what he saw as Cooney's relatively easy rise, in comparison to the champion's own years of struggle. Matters were settled outdoors before a packed, 32,000 crowd at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, on June 11, 1982.

It was a tough, grueling struggle between undefeated boxers. Cooney, down from a right had in the second round, rallied to land his share of heavy hits, but the more experienced Holmes was the superior boxing artist. Cooney had three points deducted for palpably low blows and by the 12th round he was cut over the left eye and weakening fast. The fight ended in the 13th with Cooney's trainer, Victor Valle, entering the ring as referee Mills Lane was giving the game but beaten challenger an eight count. The cheerful postscript is that Holmes and Cooney became friends after the fight and continue to enjoy an amicable relationship.

9. Sugar Ray Robinson TKO 10 Randy Turpin

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Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesSugar Ray Robinson's middleweight rematch with Randy Turpin at the Polo Grounds drew over 60,000 fans.
Just 64 days after losing his middleweight title to Randolph Turpin in London, the great Sugar Ray Robinson got the chance to win back the championship and a crowd of 61,437 was on hand at the Polo Grounds in New York on Sept. 12, 1951, to see if he could do it. James P. Dawson wrote in The New York Times: "The contest surpasses in interest anything in middleweight history and will shatter all financial records for a non-heavyweight fight."

The American public now knew that Robinson was not unbeatable, but columnist Arthur Daley captured the general mood when he wrote in The New York Times: "It's possible to conceive of him being beaten once. But it's impossible to conceive of him being beaten twice by the same man."

So it proved as Robinson, cut over the left eye and facing defeat, sensationally knocked down the British fighter in the 10th round. Turpin beat the count but was under fire on the ropes, his body sagging forward, when referee Ruby Goldstein waved the finish with just eight seconds remaining in the round.

8. Jack Johnson TKO15 James J. Jeffries

Former heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries was dragged reluctantly from retirement by newspaper reporters' pressure to challenge the first African-American holder of the title, the great Jack Johnson, outdoors at Reno, Nev., on July 4, 1910. It might seem unbelievable today, but Jeffries was widely seen as having the responsibility of restoring the heavyweight title to white America.

The enormous interest in the fight greatly pleased the intelligent and witty Johnson, who was supremely confident that he would easily beat an older, slower opponent who had been inactive for six years. Johnson remarked to newspaper reporters at the time: "The tap of the gong will be music to me."

Reno in 1910 was a town built to hold 12,000 people but an estimated 20,000 visitors arrived for the fight. The New York Times reported on the eve of the fight: "The city is packed to the guards. It contains the most famous sporting men in the United States and Canada, with a sprinkling from Europe. They have come by the score for the past two weeks and are still coming. Every train that arrives in Reno unloads its crowds and departs empty." Offices and stores, closed for the Independence Day holiday, were filled with cots to accommodate some of the influx; hotels had cots in the hallways while householders seeking some extra cash rented their spare rooms.

The fight itself was a major anticlimax. Jeffries was no match for Johnson, taking heavy punishment. The referee (and the fight's promoter), Tex Rickard, waved a finish to the uneven encounter when Jeffries went down for the second time in the 15th of a scheduled 45-round fight. Johnson said afterward: "I could have fought for two hours longer. It was easy." Rickard told reporters: "Jack Johnson is the most wonderful fighter that ever pulled on a glove."

7. Julio Cesar Chavez D12 Pernell Whitaker

[+] EnlargeCaesar Chavez and Pernell Whitaker
Holly Stein /Getty ImagesWhitaker's body shots were as cringe-inducing as the judges' scorecards.
Julio Cesar Chavez was seeking to make history as the first Mexican boxer to win world titles in four weight divisions when he challenged Pernell Whitaker for the welterweight title at The Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, on Sept. 10, 1993. Chavez, a champion at 130, 135 and 140 pounds, was the slight betting favorite. The biggest indoor crowd ever to attend a non-heavyweight fight up to that time (56,959) was on hand, almost all of them there to roar Chavez to victory.

Yet, hard though Chavez fought -- and he was the busier man in several rounds -- Whitaker seemed to have the overall advantage. The decision of a draw seemed to stun not only Whitaker but many of those present.

The champion from Norfolk, Va., scored sharply from his southpaw stance, and instead of hitting and moving, as many had expected, he often stood right in front of Chavez and landed what seemed like the harder punches. I covered the fight from ringside and reported in Boxing Monthly: "Whitaker did what he had to do: he fought the perfect fight." It was not enough, though, to get him the decision.

6. Felix Trinidad W12 Oscar De La Hoya

[+] EnlargeOscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad, Jr
Tom Fox/Getty ImagesOscar De La Hoya, left, and Felix Trinidad let it all hang out … on the media tour.
The welterweight unification title match between Felix Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya on Sept. 18, 1999, was billed as "The Fight of the Millennium" and the boxing world eagerly awaited the meeting of undefeated, 26-year-old superstars. A surge of Trinidad money made the fight dead-even in the betting. The sports book director at the host Mandalay Bay casino hotel in Las Vegas told Newark Star-Ledger writer Jerry Izenberg: "It's a blockbuster. We haven't had this hot a betting fight in years."

Unfortunately the fight did not live up to expectations. De La Hoya piled up points early but then back-pedaled through the final few rounds, believing he had the fight won. He miscalculated; Trinidad's strong finish earned the Puerto Rican a desperately close, majority decision victory.

5. Marvelous Marvin Hagler KO3 Thomas Hearns

When Marvelous Marvin Hagler defended his middleweight title against junior middle champ Thomas Hearns at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas on April 15, 1985, it was a fight that intrigued boxing fans. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported: "Not since Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier in 1971 has a fistic confrontation provoked so much discussion." All 15,128 seats were sold for the Monday night fight. Reporter Nick Pitt wrote in Britain's Sunday Times: "This is a big fight. You can tell because Caesars Palace in Las Vegas is groaning with the high rollers who between them will manage to lose several million dollars by Tuesday morning [and without whom none of this would have been possible]."

This was one superfight that fulfilled expectations for drama and thrills, with Hagler walking through some tremendous punches to batter Hearns to the canvas in surely the greatest three-round fight in history. The late Hall of Fame boxing writer Harry Mullan, who was at ringside, told me later: "The first round was so exciting I was praying they'd ring the bell because I honestly thought I was going to have a heart attack."

4. Gene Tunney W10 Jack Dempsey II

[+] EnlargeGene Tunney, Jack Dempsey
AP PhotoWas Gene Tunney, kneeling, the recipient of a long count against Jack Dempsey?
The "battle of the long count" at Soldier Field in Chicago on Sept. 22, 1927, is probably one of the most discussed fights in ring history. Through the years, the debate has continued over whether Jack Dempsey would have won had he only followed a recently (at the time) introduced rule and proceeded to the furthest neutral corner after knocking down heavyweight champion Gene Tunney in the seventh round. Instead, Dempsey, accustomed to standing over opponents after dropping them, lost valuable seconds.

Estimates are that Tunney was down for at least 14 seconds before referee Dave Barry started the count.

Apart from the seventh round, though, this was not a particularly exciting fight; the younger, faster Tunney clearly outboxed Dempsey. As an event it was huge, with The New York Times reporting: "One hundred and fifty thousand persons watched in the darkness -- the greatest of all boxing crowds by about 35,000." The gate receipts of $2,800,000 were staggering for the time.

3. Muhammad Ali KO8 George Foreman

[+] EnlargeMuhammad Ali and George Foreman
AP PhotoNo one could have predicted that Muhammad Ali, standing, would walk through George Foreman's best punches.
Few heavyweight championship bouts have been as keenly anticipated as the Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa, Zaire, on Oct. 30, 1974. Many believed that the powerful George Foreman would batter Muhammad Ali to defeat. Writer Hugh McIlvanney captured the reverence in which Ali was held when he wrote in Britain's The Observer newspaper: "A great tremor will pass through the whole of sport if he falls to George Foreman, and afterwards the landscape will be slightly dimmer for most of us."

Ali's supporters hoped for the best but the widespread concern was that he would not be able to keep moving for 15 rounds and that Foreman would catch up with him. Yet Ali confounded everyone by staying on the ropes, gloves up, letting Foreman expend energy with wide blows that hit arms and gloves. It was the Ali "rope a dope" strategy that is now part of boxing lore, and an exhausted Foreman was hit by a series of hard, clean punches and sent toppling to the canvas in Round 8.

2. Joe Louis KO1 Max Schmeling

The rematch between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling might have been the most important fight, in the widest sense of the word, in ring history. When Louis defended his heavyweight title against Germany's former champ Schmeling before an 80,000 crowd at Yankee Stadium on June 22, 1938, the great old-time sportswriter Henry McLemore noted in a syndicated story: "Not since Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney came to grips in Chicago has New York, the United States, and the world been so excited by a prize-fight."

Nazi Germany was on the rise and The Associated Press reported from Berlin: "Newspapers do not say it, but it is tacitly understood that a Louis victory would be taken here as a disgrace, from the Nazi racial viewpoint."

Louis had been knocked out by Schmeling in their previous meeting two years earlier. The first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, actually tipped Schmeling to win due to the German heavyweight's "cunning and strategy." Louis, though, was an unstoppable force that night, blasting right through Schmeling in 2 minutes, 4 seconds. He was, in the words of AP sportswriter Gayle Talbot, an "incomparable destroyer." I have long felt that Louis' annihilation of Schmeling might have been the greatest one-night display of power and accuracy in heavyweight championship history.

1. Joe Frazier W15 Muhammad Ali

[+] EnlargeMuhammad Ali and Joe Frazier
AP PHOTOJoe Frazier's first clash with Muhammad Ali, right, was one of the most anticipated fights ever.
It was billed simply as "The Fight" and worldwide interest was phenomenal when Smokin' Joe Frazier defended his heavyweight title against Muhammad Ali in front of a packed Madison Square Garden crowd of 19,500 on March 8, 1971. It was the ultimate classic confrontation, with Frazier the come-forward, fierce-punching aggressor and Ali the superior stylist, both undefeated.

Ali, larger than life and already an almost mystical figure, was considered the people's favorite but Frazier had his constituency. It was probably a night like no other in boxing history, with Frank Sinatra shooting photographs at ringside for Life magazine while The Associated Press reported: "The soul brothers and sisters, flamboyant in their minks and feathers, rubbed elbows with government chiefs, tycoons, sports heroes and astronauts."

I watched the fight on the big screen in black and white at the Odeon cinema in London's West End in the early hours of Tuesday morning of March 9, U.K. time, and the bout was so gripping and vivid that the rounds seemed to flash by.

It was an unforgettable experience to watch the drama as it unfolded. Frazier deservedly won the unanimous decision -- but I was not certain he would win until his left hook famously floored Ali in the final round of what The Washington Post's Shirley Povich called "perhaps the fastest-paced heavyweight battle ever fought."

Graham Houston is the American editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for FightWriter.com.

Graham Houston is the American editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for FightWriter.com.