Commentary

When three fights aren't enough to settle the score

Some rivalries are like a horror film antagonist: They don't die easy. Graham Houston lists the 12 most memorable rivalries in boxing history that went beyond three fights.

Originally Published: March 26, 2008
By Graham Houston | Special to ESPN.com

Willie Pep and Sandy Saddler Bettmann/CorbisBetween and 1948 and 1951, featherweight archenemies Sandy Saddler, left, and Willie Pep waged one of the most memorable four-fight rivalries in boxing history.
This month, the rubber match between Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez and the return fight between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez had fans wanting more.

In the case of Vazquez and Marquez, a fourth fight would be unusual, but by no means unknown. Boxing has had some intriguing rivalries that extended to four or more meetings. Here are some of them.

12. Pongsaklek Wonjongkam-Daisuke Naito

Daisuke Naito and Pongsaklek Wonjongkam
Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty ImagesNaito proved the naysayers wrong by outpointing Pongsaklek in their third meeting, then fighting him to a stalemate in a fourth fight earlier this year.
It's doubtful that anyone thought there would be an extended rivalry between flyweights Daisuke Naito and Pongsaklek Wonjongkam after their initial encounter, when Thai southpaw Pongsaklek knocked out his Japanese opponent in 34 seconds on April 19, 2002. It was the fastest finish ever in a flyweight title bout. In a rematch, Naito, cut severely from a clash of heads, lost on a unanimous technical decision.

It was a case of try, try and try again, though, for the stubborn Japanese fighter. Naito outpointed a possibly overconfident and weight-drained Pongsaklek in their third meeting last July in Tokyo, surely one of the biggest upsets in flyweight history, then fought him to a draw in a fourth fight on March 8.

11. Rosendo Alvarez-Beibis Mendoza

[+] EnlargeBebis Mendoza and Rosendo Alvarez
Al Bello/Getty ImagesEven with a four-pound weight advantage in their last fight, Alvarez, left, could manage only a majority decision over Mendoza.
Hispanic 108-pound rivals Rosendo Alvarez and Beibis Mendoza were evenly matched across a four-fight run. Nicaraguan Alvarez was disqualified for low blows in the first fight in August 2000 but eked out close wins over Colombian Mendoza in three subsequent meetings -- two split decisions and a majority verdict in fights that could have gone either way. Alvarez hit harder, while Mendoza was busier. Alvarez came in over the weight for the fourth bout, but even with a four-pound weight advantage he was still barely able to get the victory.

10. Azumah Nelson-Jesse James Leija

[+] EnlargeJesse James Leija and Azumah Nelson
Al Bello/Getty ImagesLeija, right, and Nelson fought a total of four times, with Nelson scoring the only stoppage of the series in their third encounter.
Ghana's great 130-pound champion Azumah Nelson and Jesse James Leija had a four-fight series between 1993 and 1998 that offered excitement and a dash of controversy.

In the first meeting, on Leija's home ground at San Antonio, Nelson was originally announced as the winner on an unpopular split decision, but an error was noticed on the master score sheet -- the verdict was in fact a draw. Afterward, at the postfight press conference, Leija held an ice pack to a swollen and closing left eye and said: "Every fighter knows in his heart when he's won a fight. I know I won the fight."

Leija twice outpointed Nelson in subsequent fights, boxing beautifully against a stronger opponent. Nelson, though, had the satisfaction of scoring the most vivid victory of the series, stopping Leija in the sixth round outdoors at the Boulder Station casino hotel off the Las Vegas strip.

Down heavily in the first round, Leija fought back gamely but was stopped due to an ugly cut over the right eye. I reported from ringside for Boxing Monthly: "At the age of 37 and after 16 years in the professional ring, Nelson looked just as powerful as he has ever done." It was, though, to be Nelson's last win. He grew old suddenly, in the boxing sense, and retired after losing to Leija in their fourth fight.

9. Stanley Ketchel-Billy Papke

Old-time middleweights Stanley Ketchel and Billy Papke fought four times in the early 1900s, with "Michigan Assassin" Ketchel leading the series 3-1.

Papke's victory over Ketchel at Vernon, Calif., in September 1908 was one of the most brutal and bloody in middleweight history.

Contemporary reports tell us that Ketchel went to shake hands at the opening bell but Papke steamed right into him, landing heavy punches. Ketchel never really got into the fight after that. A contemporary account noted: "The fight was practically over in a minute and 20 seconds after the gong sounded. From that time on it was merely a question as to how long Ketchel would last … When Ketchel stepped to the corner for the second round … his right eye was closed. At the next intermission, his seconds lanced the eye and sucked the blood, but Ketchel did not regain the sight of that eye." By the 10th round Ketchel's other eye was all but closed and by the 12th "his face looked hardly human." Referee James J. Jeffries, the former heavyweight champion, finally heeded the pleas of the crowd and stopped the slaughter in the 12th round.

Incredibly, the two fought again just under three months later, with Ketchel knocking out Papke in the 11th round. What happened in the first fight, Ketchel said, had been "an accident."

8. Jack Britton-Ted 'Kid' Lewis

Classical stylist Jack Britton and London's aggressive Ted "Kid" Lewis had one of the longest-running series of fights in ring history, 19 bouts between 1915 and 1921, with the welterweight title changing hands between them on four occasions. In a number of the bouts, there was no official decision given in an era when boxing matches were classified as sporting exhibitions to meet civic regulations, but Britton stopped Lewis in the most decisive win by either man, in March 1919.

Their most famous meeting, though, was probably the one at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 7, 1921, which Britton won comfortably on points. Lewis controversially wore a mouthpiece -- believed to be the first time that this "rubber contrivance" (as The New York Times called it) had been seen in an American ring.

7. Gene Tunney-Harry Greb

Gene Tunney is best known for his two victories over Jack Dempsey, but as a light heavyweight he had a five-fight series with former great middleweight champion Harry Greb between 1922 and 1925.

"Pittsburgh Windmill" Greb won the first fight, a 15-rounder for the American light-heavyweight title and famous in boxing history for being Tunney's only defeat, on a unanimous decision at Madison Square Garden on May 23, 1922.

The intellectual Tunney, from New York's Greenwich Village, showed great courage against the 12-pounds-lighter-but-more-seasoned, rough-and-tough Greb. The New York Times reported that Tunney "presented a pitiable spectacle as he crossed the ring to shake the hand of his conqueror." Tunney was cut over both eyes, and his nose and mouth were bleeding freely -- "evidence of the relentless attack of the sprightly Greb, who never ceased his assault."

In a rematch in February 1923, Tunney turned the tables, beating Greb on a unanimous 15-round decision although The New York Times reported: "The verdict was greeted with a demonstration of mixed acclaim and disapproval." Tunney and Greb fought three more times; Tunney won twice (one of them a "newspaper decision," as no official verdict was rendered), and the third was ruled a "newspaper" draw.

6. Ezzard Charles-Joey Maxim

Ezzard Charles went 5-0 in his series with Joey Maxim, starting when both were light-heavyweights in 1942 and ending in 1951.

The biggest fight in the series saw Charles defending his heavyweight title against Maxim, the light heavyweight champion, at Chicago Stadium on May 30, 1951. Charles won by unanimous decision, with Maxim in "a sorry mess" at the end, according to a contemporary report.

If we think the heavyweight division lacks excitement today, the same apparently applied in 1951. In a prefight story in The New York Times, columnist Arthur Daley wrote scathingly that the contest "is of interest only to guys who own television sets or have access to same. This is strictly a video show for videots. Its only recommendation is that Charles happens to be the heavyweight champion and that Maxim happens to be the light heavyweight champion." Despite Daley's negativism, a not-too-bad crowd of 7,226 turned out to see the under-appreciated and underrated Charles give a dominant display.

5. Archie Moore-Harold Johnson

[+] EnlargeArchie Moore and Harold Johnson
AP Photo/StaffMoore, right, and Johnson locked horns a total of five times.
The great light heavyweight champion Archie Moore and the superb Harold Johnson met five times, culminating in their title bout at Madison Square Garden in August 1954. Although Johnson beat Moore only once, he came close in the final encounter.

Moore, at 37 and boxing for the first and only time at the Garden, was down in the 10th round and behind on two of the scorecards when he finally hurt and dropped the clever Johnson in the 14th round. Johnson got up but was overwhelmed.

As The New York Times reported: "Time was running out on Moore, and it behooved the champion to do something. He did, and so swiftly, few among the 8,327 boxing enthusiasts could have been prepared for the sudden finish."

4. Ezzard Charles-Jersey Joe Walcott

[+] Enlarge Ezzard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott
Keystone/Getty ImagesWalcott, left, beat Charles by debatable decision in their fourth encounter.
Ezzard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott went 2-2 in four meetings for the heavyweight title from 1949 to 1952. By far the most celebrated fight in the series was the one at Pittsburgh on July 18, 1951, when Walcott's seventh-round knockout victory made him the oldest heavyweight champion in history at 37 (until George Foreman set a new record at 45).

Behind on points, Walcott dropped Charles for the full count with one of the most famous left hooks in boxing history. It was Walcott's fifth attempt at becoming heavyweight champion, having lost twice to Joe Louis and twice to Charles, and it was reported at the time that "the crowd of 28,272 came to its feet with an ear-splitting roar" to acclaim the unlikely new champion.

3. Sugar Ray Robinson-Gene Fullmer

[+] EnlargeSugar Ray Robinson and Gene Fullmer
George Silk/Time Life Pictures/Getty ImagesRobinson, left, became the first four-time middleweight champion by knocking out Fullmer.
In four fights for the middleweight championship, Gene Fullmer came out ahead of the magnificent Sugar Ray Robinson, two wins to one, with one bout called even. Robinson, though, scored the most memorable victory in the rivalry, and one of the greatest in ring history, when he knocked out Fullmer in the fifth round at Chicago Stadium on May 1, 1957, to become the first four-time middleweight champion (he was later to win the title a fifth time).

Fullmer, the "Mauling Mormon" from West Jordan, Utah, was the betting favorite after battering his way to a unanimous decision win over a bloodied Sugar Ray at Madison Square Garden five months earlier. Robinson was losing the rematch on the scorecards, but in the fifth round he went to the body with right hands and then, with Fullmer probably anticipating another right hand underneath, Sugar Ray caught him with one of boxing's most written-about left hooks. As the Associated Press described the finish: "Fullmer crumpled to the floor. He was really tagged!" Just two days before his 37th birthday, the triumphant Sugar Ray was, in the words of the AP reporter, a fighter who "pumps his own fountain of youth with two deadly fists … the marvel of the fistic realm."

2. Sandy Saddler-Willie Pep

Willie Pep won only one of his four featherweight championship fights with Sandy Saddler, but it was his greatest performance and one of the most magnificent displays of boxing artistry in ring history.

In the first fight, at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 29, 1948, the 22-year-old Saddler pulled off a startling upset by knocking out Pep in the fourth round. Pep was down twice in the third round and once in the fourth. It was only Pep's second defeat in 136 bouts. Joseph P. Nichols reported in The New York Times that the fight was surrounded by "fix" rumors, but the manner of Saddler's victory "made it clear no collusion was necessary, that he had enough guns at his disposal to take care of Pep on his own." Writer Frank Graham noted in Sport magazine that "If the cynics were right and Willie took a dive for Sandy, he did it the hard way, soaking up a frightful beating before he was counted out in the fourth round."

Things were very different in the rematch at the Garden on Feb. 11, 1949, as Pep produced a masterful display of ring generalship in the face of superior firepower. As Graham described it, Pep "not only clouted the champion but bedeviled him, tying him up, spinning him, grabbing him and throwing him into the ropes." Pep was cut over and under the right eye and under the left eye and almost got stopped in a precarious 10th round, but he rallied strongly in the 11th and 12th. At the finish, Pep's face was a "grotesque mask," but he had won the unanimous decision.

The third and fourth fights were disappointing, with Pep retiring in his corner each time. He suffered a shoulder injury in the rubber match while he was cut badly over the right eye in the infamous, foul-filled fourth meeting that boxing historian Nat Fleischer described as "a disgraceful brawl palmed off on the public as a title bout."

1. Sugar Ray Robinson-Jake LaMotta

[+] EnlargeJake La Motta
Hy Peskin/Time & Life Pictures/Getty ImagesDespite conceding advantages in size and weight, Robinson, left, came away the winner five of the six times he fought LaMotta.
Of all the multi-bout conflicts, Sugar Ray Robinson's six-bout series with Jake LaMotta is probably the most revered by fight fans.

Robinson and LaMotta had five fiercely competitive nontitle fights between 1942 and 1945. The far more gifted Robinson won four of them but was twice knocked down by the slower but bigger, stronger and heavier LaMotta -- these fights were middleweight against welterweight.

The sixth meeting, at Chicago Stadium on Feb. 14, 1951, was the biggest and most dramatic of the meetings as welterweight champion Robinson hammered LaMotta into helplessness in the 13th round to capture the middleweight title.

It was one of the ring's epic fights, with LaMotta winning the early rounds, then Robinson coming on with sensational combination punching. Referee Frank Sikora finally stopped the fight on a signal from the ringside doctor, with LaMotta being punished on the ropes. "Only his indomitable courage kept him from toppling to the canvas for the first time in his career," reported James P. Dawson in The New York Times.

Of interest is that, apart from the series of fights with Gene Fullmer and LaMotta, Robinson went 4-0 (3 KOs) against Carl "Bobo" Olson, three of the contests being for the middleweight title.

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.