• +One

The 25
Super Fights

Boxing’s biggest bouts that lived up to the hype

BY ALLEN KIM and richard o'brien

  • Image 01
  • Image 02
  • Image 03
  • Image 04
  • Image 05
  • Image 06
What ingredients make up a super fight?


Mar. 1, 2008 Carson, California (Home Depot Center) WINNER: Vazquez / 12-round Split Decision

Israel Vazquez vs. Rafael Marquez

While Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez would go on to fight four times, it was the rubber match that fight fans will remember most. The first fight was a brawl, and it was topped by their second fight, which was named fight of the year. Anticipation ran high as fight fans once again expected nothing short of an all-out war between the two in their third meeting.

Photo by Mark J. Terrill/AP

Unlike their first two battles, this one would go the distance. Neither fighter held a commanding lead throughout the fight as they traded rounds for most of the night. This bout would also produce the most memorable round of their series, with the fourth round serving as its high point. While Marquez was able to send Vazquez to the mat for the first time in their three fights, he recovered beautifully and nearly put Marquez on the mat.

Photo by Mark J. Terrill/AP

Vazquez was able to knock Marquez off his feet in the final moments of the 12th and final round, but Marquez was able to hold onto the ropes to prevent the obvious knockdown. However, referee Pat Russell correctly ruled it a knockdown, saying that the ropes prevented him from hitting the canvas. Despite protests from Marquez and his corner, it was obvious that he was completely off balance and would have otherwise fallen if not for the ropes.

Photo by Mark J. Terrill/AP

Two of the judges were split with a score of 114-111 while the final judge scored it 113-112. After losing to Marquez in their first fight, Vazquez won their second fight by TKO and he took the decisive third fight by split decision after 12 brutal rounds. It was a controversial ending as Marquez appeared to be ahead in the fight. However, the fight could just as easily have been a draw or gone in favor of Marquez if not for two pivotal point deductions.

Photo by Mark J. Terrill/AP


July 4, 1910 Reno, Nev. WINNER: JOHNSON / 15th round TKO

Jack Johnson vs. James J. Jeffries

The anticipation surrounding the Jack Johnson-James J. Jeffries bout transcended sports and went straight to the troubled heart of America in the early 20th century. In 1908 Johnson had knocked out Tommy Burns to become history’s first black heavyweight champion, enraging much of white America. Amid growing racist fervor, the undefeated former champion Jeffries was lured out of retirement to take on the mantle of Great White Hope.

Photo by Sports Studio Photos/Getty Images

Jeffries, one of the strongest heavyweight champs in history, had not fought in six years and had to lose more than 100 pounds in preparation for the fight. He hoped to jump on Johnson from the opening bell, in hopes of scoring an early knockout. Johnson, however, was a master of defense and far faster than the 35-year-old Jeffries. He easily evaded the former champion’s rushes as nearly all of the 15,000 spectators cheered against him under the brutal Nevada sun.

Photo by ullstein bild/Getty Images

Jeffries fought bravely, even as he continued to take punishment from the champion. Watching from ringside was heavyweight contender Ed (Gunboat) Smith, who had once boxed an exhibition with Johnson. Smith would later say that Johnson “could have knocked [Jeffries] out in the first round if he wanted to.” Jeffries himself would echo that thought, saying after the fight, “I could never have whipped Johnson at my best. I couldn’t have hit him. No, I couldn’t have reached him in 1,000 years.”

Photo by ullstein bild/Getty Images

The end came in the 15th round. With Jeffries bloodied, his face swollen, Johnson moved in and landed a barrage of withering punches that dropped Jeffries for the first time in his career. He got up at nine, but Johnson knocked him through the ropes. He was helped by spectators back into the ring. Staggering, he took a final combination that put him down for good. Johnson’s victory would lead to race riots across the country in which at least 10 people died.

Photo by Bettman/Corbis


Sept. 28, 1976 Bronx, NY (Yankee Stadium) WINNER: ALI / 15-round Unanimous Decision

Muhammad Ali vs. Ken Norton

With New York police officers on strike, there was a heightened sense of tension at Yankee Stadium for the rubber match between Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton. Their first two fights were split decisions, with Norton taking the first and Ali taking the second. No matter the outcome of their third fight, this would go down as one of boxing’s greatest heavyweight trilogies.

Photo by Neil Leifer for Sports Illustrated

The saying that styles make fights is a cliche often heard in the sport, and it couldn’t have been more evident in their three battles. Norton was one of Ali’s most difficult challenges, possessing an unusual style that, at times, confounded his opponent. Norton would often drag his right foot as he bobbed his way to get inside, throwing jabs from a crouched stance as he looked for an opening to connect with his powerful overhand right.

Photo by Neil Leifer for Sports Illustrated

Looking to reclaim the title, Norton kept Ali on his toes all night, continually pressuring him and forcing him to backpedal for long stretches as Ali tried to keep some distance while scoring with his jab. Norton even attempted to beat Ali at his own game, playing mind games with the master of mind games by refusing to sit on a stool between rounds to show that he was not tired or hurt. Ali would respond by doing the same between rounds.

Photo by Neil Leifer for Sports Illustrated

It was a fairly even fight up until the final rounds, and it was there that Ali was able to retain his title. Norton and his corner believed that they were ahead entering the final round and that they would be able to comfortably cruise to a win as long as he avoided getting hurt. Norton almost seemed content letting Ali dance around him and hit him with jabs, avoiding any major punches or combinations that could have swayed the judges.

Photo by Jerry Cooke for Sports Illustrated

However, in the eyes of the three judges, it was the final three rounds that ultimately decided the winner that night. Ali was unusually quiet after the final bell rang, and it appeared that even he was unsure of the outcome. It’s been said that close fights always go the way of the champion, and that may have been the case here. He would go on to win by unanimous decision, but the outcome is still heavily disputed to this day.

Photo by John Iacono for Sports Illustrated


Sept. 23, 1957 New York, N.Y. (Yankee Stadium) WINNER: BASILIO / 14-round Split Decision

Carmen Basilio vs. Sugar Ray Robinson

Sugar Ray Robinson is generally acclaimed as the greatest fighter ever, pound-for-pound. In fact, they invented that phrase just for him. Carmen Basilio just may be the toughest fighter ever, pound-for-pound—and pounding-for-pounding. Robinson was 37 by the time of this bout, but still fighting with brilliance. Basilio, 30, held the welterweight title and was moving up to challenge for Robinson’s middleweight crown. Every boxing fan wanted to see this one.

Photo by Walter Kelleher/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

In today’s era, when Floyd Mayweather Jr. proclaims himself TBE—The Best Ever—citing his 47-0 record, it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around the résumé that Ray Robinson brought into the ring. His record stood at 140-5-2. Basilio, the proud “Onion Farmer” from Canastota, N.Y., was a more workman-like 51-12-7. Basilio gave up both several inches and some six pounds to Robinson. Few fighters could take a shot like Basilio, though, and from the bell, he stood against Sugar Ray.

Photo by AP

In a spectacular back-and-forth contest, Basilio gave as good as he got—maybe even better. Every time Robinson thought he’d hurt his challenger and start to leap in, as was his style, Basilio, bobbing and weaving, ripping hooks to the body, would stand him off. In fact, Basilio more often than not seemed to get the edge in the power exchanges. Both men sustained tremendous damage throughout the bout, yet neither slowed over the closing rounds. Even for Yankee Stadium, this was a rare slugfest.

Photo by Hy Peskin for Sports Illustrated

After 15 rounds of nonstop action, Basilio was awarded a split decision, and with it the middleweight championship of the world. The bout was declared the Fight of the Year. Their rematch in 1958, won this time by Robinson on a split decision (and remembered for Basilio’s historically swollen eye), would receive the same honor. Fittingly, both Basilio and Robinson are enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame—in the Onion Farmer’s hometown of Canastota.

Photo by Charles Hoff/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images


Feb. 19, 2000 Las Vegas, Nev. (Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino) WINNER: MORALES / 12-round Split Decision

Erik Morales vs. Marco Antonio Barrera

In a fight to unify the super bantamweight titles, the first fight between Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera kicked off one of the most exciting rivalries in boxing history. With Julio Cesar Chavez having recently retired, the vacancy for the title of the next great Mexican boxer was up for grabs, and this was a fight that neither fighter could afford to take lightly.

Photo by John Gurzinski/AFP/Getty Images

The fight started fast as the two fighters wasted no time going to work. They began trading haymakers the instant that they met in the center of the ring, and there was non-stop action from start to end. But of all the wildly entertaining rounds, none could match the fifth, which is one for the history books. It looked like a schoolyard brawl as they wildly threw punches at one another, testing each other’s chin. The rest of the fight would continue the same way.

Photo by Jeb Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Morales connected with more punches when all was said and done, but Barrera seemed to be winning the fight as he appeared to get in cleaner, stronger shots. Even when he slowed down in the later rounds, Barrera was more accurate and seemed to dictate most of the action.

Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

With less than a minute remaining in the final round, Morales looked as if he was on his last legs after Barrera hit him with a brutal combination, but he was able to use the ropes to steady himself. Barrera eventually scored the only knockdown of the fight after Morales went down on one knee a few moments later, but it appeared as if Morales slipped. However, in the end, Morales would win by a controversial split decision.

Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images


June 22, 1938 New York, N.Y. (Polo Grouds) WINNER: LOUIS / 1st-round TKO

Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling

Not only was the heavyweight championship of the world at stake, but also, to so many observers, the very direction of the world itself. On the eve of World War II, America’s Joe Louis, only the second black heavyweight champ, would defend his title against Max Schmeling, who was being touted as a hero of Nazi Germany. For the 70,000 on hand in Yankee Stadium, and millions more tuning in around the globe, the stakes could not have been higher.

Photo by The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

Louis and Schmeling had fought once before, when Louis was an undefeated sensation, streaking toward the title. Before that bout Schmeling had studied films of Louis, noticing that the young star was open to a right hand.Schmeling used that punch to score an upset knockout. And though Joe would go on to win the championship with a knockout of James J. Braddock, he would say, “Don’t call me Champ until I beat that Schmeling.” He made sure he was ready when the opportunity came.

Photo by NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

Schmeling, who was never a member of the Nazi party and only reluctantly endured Hitler’s acclaim, hoped to again outbox Louis and wear him down over a long bout. Joe, though, had other ideas. He was determined to overwhelm Schmeling from the opening bell and to go for a quick knockout. After a few moments of careful feeling out by both men, Louis went on the attack. It would be a short night, but surely no one who witnessed the action would go home feeling cheated.

Photo by NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

Louis was one of the most devastating punchers in heavyweight history, and the firepower he unleashed on Schmeling was frightening to behold. Though Schmeling would land one hard right, the punch that had won him the first bout, Louis shrugged it off. He then nailed Schmeling with his own right, driving the German to the ropes. Four thudding body shots and a combination to the head left Schmeling sagging, and referee Arthur Donovan stepped in for a one-count.

Photo by The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

The end was a stunning display of Louis’s finishing ability. Waved back in by Donovan, he landed a right that appeared nearly to take Schmeling’s head off, dropping him to the canvas. The game Schmeling bounced back up, but Louis was on him instantly and dropped him two more times. A towel fluttered in from Schmeling’s corner just as Donovan waved the bout over, saving Schmeling at 2:04 of the round. Interestingly, Louis and Schmeling would go on to become lifelong friends.

Photo by NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images


Nov. 13, 1992 Las Vegas, Nev. (Thomas & Mack Center) WINNER: BOWE / 12-round Split Decision

Riddick Bowe vs. Evander Holyfield

The first meeting between Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield would initiate one of the greatest heavyweight rivalries in all of boxing, and it’s unfortunate that the spectacle of the Fan Man incident from their second meeting in some ways overshadows their three fights. While Holyfield was the favorite prior to their first bout, Bowe had advantages in size, speed, strength and age.

Photo by Richard Mackson for Sports Illustrated

Holyfield was expected to keep his distance and outbox Bowe, but thankfully for fight fans, he instead chose to go inside and trade with the bigger, younger fighter. Both Bowe and Holyfield chose to practically ignore defense for most of the night, and that eventually led to one of the most exciting rounds the sport has seen in decades, with the 10th round being an absolutely brutal slugfest between the heavyweights.

Photo by Richard Mackson for Sports Illustrated

Holyfield managed to survive a powerful uppercut followed by a flurry of power shots early in the round, and he battled back valiantly after it looked like he was destined to hit the canvas. Bowe would eventually go on to win the fight by unanimous decision and take the belt from Holyfield, but even in defeat, Holyfield would gain a tremendous amount of respect for the way he fought against the bigger Bowe.

Photo by Holly Stein/Getty Images


July, 16, 1947 Chicago, Ill. (Chicago Stadium) WINNER: GRAZIANO / 6th round TKO

Rocky Graziano vs. Tony Zale

Red Smith once called the three wars waged by Tony Zale and Rocky Graziano “the most two-sided fights ever.” Their first meeting, on Sept. 27, 1946, best described as a middleweight Dempsey-Firpo, was won by Zale on a resounding sixth-round knockout. Their second bout was set for the following July, and for fight fans it was seen as a sure-fire match of the year. It would more than live up to the billing.

Photo by Ed Feeney/AP

The Gary, Ind.-born Zale, known as the Man of Steel, was 34 years old and the middleweight champion of the world. He had spent four years in the Army during World War II before returning to the ring in 1946. Graziano, the original Dead End Kid, was born Thomas Rocco Barbella in Brooklyn on June 7, 1922. After stints in reform school, prison and the Army, he’d turned to boxing. When the two weighed in for their second meeting, America was watching.

Photo by Ed Maloney/AP

Graziano called this fight “a private war,” adding that, “If there hadn’t been a referee one of us would have ended up dead.” Fighting in 100-degree heat, the two men battled from the opening bell. Graziano’s right eye was nearly closed in the first round, and Zale was shaken badly in the second. In the third, Zale dropped Graziano. In the fifth Graziano leaped to the attack, clubbing Zale repeatedly with the right. He would end it in the sixth with a barrage of more than 30 punches that left Zale in a heap.

Photo by AP

Graziano had fought in a kind of blind rage, bellowing and cursing as he attacked. After scoring the knockout, Rocky had continued to storm around the ring, battering his own cornermen until they could manage to calm the new champion down. He’d then grabbed the ring microphone and shouted, “Hey, Ma! Your bad boy done it.” He would return to his beloved New York, still bandaged from that private war, to enjoy a very public welcome home.

Photo by AP


Oct. 30, 1974 Kinshasa, Congo (Stade du 20 Mai) WINNER: ALI / 8th-round KO

Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman

After beating Joe Frazier in their second meetup, Muhammad Ali was tasked with fighting the monstrous George Foreman in an attempt to regain the title of heavyweight champion of the world. However, the odds were significantly in Foreman’s favor, especially after it took him only a combined five rounds to dispatch of his previous three opponents, which included Frazier and Ken Norton.

Photo by Neil Leifer for Sports Illustrated

Known as “The Rumble in the Jungle”, the fight took place at a stadium in Kinshasa, Zaire. Ali and Frazier spent that summer training in Zaire in order to acclimate themselves to the tropical weather, and there was a tremendous amount of hype following both camps. While a cut near Foreman’s eye during training postponed the fight over a month, the two would eventually meet in the ring for the highly-anticipated bout in late October.

Photo by Neil Leifer for Sports Illustrated

Ali started the fight aggressively, dancing around the ring while attacking Foreman with straight shots to his face. It was a stark contrast to the rest of the fight, as Ali would eventually switch tactics to the now-famous rope-a-dope strategy. Instead of trying to keep his distance and outpoint his much larger, stronger foe, Ali leaned against the ropes, keeping his body exposed to vicious body blows from Foreman as he as he protected his head.

Photo by Neil Leifer for Sports Illustrated

Ali looked like a punching bag as he leaned against the ropes while Foreman wailed away at him with huge arcing hooks. In the sweltering Zaire heat, Foreman would eventually tire himself out from all the punches he threw at Ali. Resting against the ropes and absorbing the worst that Foreman could dish out, Ali kept his strength up and bided his time as he waited for the most opportune moments to unload on an exhausted Foreman.

Photo by Ed Kolenovsky/AP

Foreman’s punches eventually lost any real power, and he looked as if he was going through the motions as he pounded away at Ali. In the waning moments of the eighth round, Ali found the perfect opening as he hit a dazed Foreman with a combination to the head that would drop him to the canvas. Foreman could not beat the count, and Ali shocked everyone as he would once again become the heavyweight champion of the world.

Photo by AP


Sept. 22, 1927 Chicago, Ill. (Soldier Field) WINNER: TUNNEY / 10-round Decision

Gene Tunney vs. Jack Dempsey

The 1920s were America’s Golden Age of Sport, and as heavyweight champion, Jack Dempsey reigned in a pantheon of heroes that included Red Grange and Babe Ruth. In the ring he was a ferocious, attacking force, seemingly unbeatable—until in 1926 the clean-cut “Fighting Marine” Gene Tunney outboxed him to take the title. The rematch was seen as a chance for Dempsey, even more popular in defeat, to wrest his rightful crown back.

Photo by AP

The rematch, held at Soldier Field, drew a record gate of $2,658,000. Tunney, who had won the first fight easily, picked up where he left off, outboxing Dempsey, who continually came forward in his signature bob-and-weave. In the seventh round, though, Dempsey drove Tunney to the ropes and unleashed a devestating seven-punch combination that dropped Tunney for the first time in his career. The next 20 seconds would be among the most dramatic in boxing history.

Photo by NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

Under a recently-introduced rule a boxer scoring a knockdown would be required to go to the farthest neutral corner before the referee could begin to count. Dempsey, used to standing over his fallen foes, ignored ref Dave Barry’s instructions, a delay that gave Tunney precious extra time to recover. Estimates show that Tunney was down for some 13 seconds. When he finally did get back to his feet his head was clear enough for him to avoid Dempsey’s charge and survive the round.

Photo by NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

The rematch, held at Soldier Field, drew a record gate of $2,658,000. Tunney, who had won the first fight easily, picked up where he left off, outboxing Dempsey, who continually came forward in his signature bob-and-weave. In the seventh round, though, Dempsey drove Tunney to the ropes and unleashed a devestating seven-punch combination that dropped Tunney for the first time in his career. The next 20 seconds would be among the most dramatic in boxing history.

Photo by The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

Despite his reputation among boxing fans as a safety-first high-brow (He reads Shakespeare!), Tunney was as tough as they come. After “getting on his bicycle,” as he put it, Tunney came out in the eighth round and resumed outboxing the still-stalking and still dangerous Dempsey. Sticking to his game plan, he was able to land repeatedly with stiff jabs and long right hands, piling up points. The largely pro-Dempsey crowd of 104,943 rooted the former champion on.

Photo by The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

The Dempsey-Tunney rematch drew 104, 943 spectators to Soldier Field and generated a record live gate of $2,658,000. Though the popular former champion was unable to regain the crown, he was gracious in defeat, telling Tunney, “You were the best. You fought a smart fight, kid.” The two fighters, seemingly from such different worlds and of such different temperment, would go on to become close friends, forever bound by their shared role in what became known as the Long Count Fight.

Photo by ullstein bild/Getty Images


Nov. 30, 1955 Boston, Mass. (Boston Garden) WINNER: BASILIO / 12th-round TKO

Carmen Basilio vs Tony DeMarco

Fighting in front of a raucous home crowd at the Boston Garden, Tony DeMarco, the former welterweight champion, was looking to avenge his loss to Carmen Basilio and regain the title he lost to him several months earlier. As evidenced by their first fight, the two were evenly matched brawlers, and anticipation ran high for their rematch as fans expected a similar outcome.

Photo by Hy Peskin for Sports Illustrated

The two fought evenly through the first four rounds, but DeMarco would then take the lead and dominate the middle rounds. He nearly floored Basilio in the seventh after catching him with a powerful left to the head, but Basilio was able to stay on his feet and escape the round. The two continued to trade shots through the next three rounds, with defense largely taking a backseat as they attempted to rearrange each other’s faces.

Photo by AP

Fatigue clearly began to set in for both fighters once the 10th round rolled around, but DeMarco looked as if he was in worse shape, practically telegraphing some of his punches as he often overextended himself. While exhausted himself, Basilio was the sharper figher, landing cleaner shots against his opponent. Basilio threw a lot of punches at DeMarco’s body, which clearly began to take its toll on him as the fight wore on.

Photo by Hy Peskin for Sports Illustrated

Basilio would continue working DeMarco’s body until he saw an opening in the 12th, where he was able to floor him with a combination to the head. DeMarco was able to beat the count, but he was clearly not fully recovered. After the referee let his gloves go, DeMarco staggered toward Basilio and took several more shots that knocked him unconscious mid-air as he fell to the ground, with the referee catching him and holding him up as he fell.

Photo by AP


June 9, 1978 Las Vegas, Nev. (Caesars Palace, Sports Pavilion) WINNER: HOLMES / 15-round Split Decision

Larry Holmes vs. Ken Norton

Ken Norton, who was the top challenger for the WBC heavyweight title, was automatically awarded the belt after the WBC stripped it from Leon Spinks following his decision to immediately offer a rematch to Muhammad Ali after the huge upset in their first match-up. With both Ali and Spinks out of the picture, Larry Holmes would become the top challenger to Norton.

Photo by John Iacono for Sports Illustrated

Norton was already an established fighter with a victory over Ali on his resume. Holmes, on the other hand, was still looking to come out from under the shadow of Ali as his former sparring partner. While undefeated with a 27-0 record, Holmes was considered the underdog. The fight played out better than anyone could’ve expected, as it would go on to become one of the greatest heavyweight fights of all time.

Photo by AP

Relying on his jab, Holmes was able to easily control the early rounds against an overly-passive Norton. It wasn’t until the sixth round that Norton really turned it on and fought back against Holmes. After mostly using jabs in the early rounds as they settled into the fight, they eventually traded up for full-blown haymakers. As fatigue set in, the two would eventually forgo defense in the later rounds as they exchanged punches.

Photo by Tony Triolo for Sports Illustrated

The two stood toe-to-toe, and the fight went the distance as they battered each other for 15 rounds. However, in the end, the fight may have been decided by a single blow. In the closing seconds of the fight, Holmes rocked Norton with an uppercut that may have swayed the scorecards in his favor as he won the fight by a one-point split decision, with all three of the judges scoring the fight 143-142 in favor of Holmes.

Photo by AP


Feb. 11, 1949 New York, N.Y. (Madison Square Garden) WINNER: PEP / 15-round Unanimous Decision

Willie Pep vs. Sandy Saddler

Willie Pep, known as the Will o’ the Wisp, for his seemingly magical elusiveness in the ring, had run up a record of—seriously—134-1-1 when he and Saddler (85-6-2) met for the first time, in October of 1948. Saddler, though, a 22-year-old with uncanny power in his lanky frame, had scored an astounding upset, taking Pep’s featherweight title on a 4th-round KO. A rematch was immediately scheduled, for barely three months later.

Photo by MZ/AP

Pep, who famously once won a round without throwing a single punch, so brilliant was his defence, could also turn on the offense when he wanted, and this time he went all out against the rough and aggressive Saddler. Pep threw 37 jabs in the first round alone, and he matched Saddler’s roughhouse tactics when the occasion arose. Saddler never stopped firing though, cutting Pep around the eyes. In the end Pep prevailed in what would be declared the Fight of the Year.

Photo by AP

A battered but victorious Pep soaked up the cheers of the Garden crowd. It would not be the last time that he and Saddler met. In one of the ring’s greatest rivalries, the two would clash twice more—with “clash” being the operative term. In their third fight, Pep suffered a dislocated shoulder and had to withdraw, while their fourth was so wild, brutal and, well, dirty that both men had their licenses suspended. Saddler won that one when Pep, though ahead, retired on his stool with his eyes swollen shut.

Photo by MZ/AP


April 6, 1987 Las Vegas, Nev. (Caesars Palace, Outdoor Arena) WINNER: LEONARD / 12-round Split Decision

Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Marvin Hagler

The fight between Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler was a long time coming and in the works for over half a decade. Leonard, who had previously retired in 1982, was the clear underdog. He only fought once in the five years since he first retired, and this would be his first fight as a middleweight. Hagler, on the other hand, was riding an 11-year undefeated streak along with 12 consecutive title defenses.

Photo by John Iacono for Sports Illustrated

Despite the prolonged absence from the ring, Leonard looked as if he had never walked away from the sport. Leonard looked as fast as the day he retired, and he had a clear advantage in speed. Leonard knew that he stood no chance of going toe-to-toe with Hagler, and he focused on dancing around the ring and outboxing him, smartly avoiding any prolonged exchanges with Hagler, who had the power to easily end the fight with one punch.

Photo by John Iacono for Sports Illustrated

Leonard’s strategy to try and steal rounds late by throwing a flurry of punches may have ultimately won him the fight in the eyes of the judges. Leonard’s punches didn’t seem very effective as they didn’t have a lot of power behind them, and Hagler was the far more aggressive fighter. But it was a tough fight to score, and the results were highly controversial after Leonard won by split decision. The bout was eventually named upset of the decade.

Photo by Manny Millan for Sports Illustrated

Unfortunately, the world will never know what would’ve happened had they fought again as it would be the final fight of Hagler’s career. There were some discussions of a rematch, but it never came to fruition. Hagler believed that he was robbed that night, and he abruptly retired the following year. While we can only speculate how they would have fared against one another in their primes, we were treated to an unforgettable fight.

Photo by Manny Millan for Sports Illustrated


Sept. 23, 1952 Philadelphia, Penn. (Municipal Stadium) WINNER: MARCIANO / 13th-round KO

Rocky Marciano vs. Joe Walcott

Jersey Joe Walcott was 38 and looked older. That he was even champion was a bit of a surprise. He’d taken the title with an upset of Ezzard Charles the year before. Marciano on the other hand, was the coming star. He’d hammered Joe Louis into retirement in 1951, a sad fight that many saw as a changing of the guard. Fans were eager to see the Rock take on Jersey Joe—but few expected to witness one of the all-time great heavyweight fights.

Photo by AP

The 40,000 fans who turned out were treated to the roughest, most hard-fought battle among the big men in 25 years. From the bell, it was clear that the perceived notion of the fight and the reality would be very different. The normally slick Walcott came out banging, and with a perfect left hook dropped Marciano on the seat of his pants. It was the first time Rocky had ever been down and he scrambled up immediately. Walcott couldn’t capitalize, though. But it was clear a fight was on.

Photo by AP

In the second round, Walcott continued to press the challenger. It seemed as if he were reading from a different script than the one written in the public’s expectations. Marciano, meanwhile, was settling into the old script just fine. If this man was going to speak new lines, Rocky would just go on saying his old lines—louder. He came on strong in the middle rounds, cutting Walcott. But the champion never backed down, turning the tide again himself to dominate the 11th and 12th rounds.

Photo by AP

By the 13th, Walcott was far enough ahead that Rocky’s only hope lay in a knockout, a result that seemed increasingly unlikely with each passing minute. And then Rocky knocked him out. Less than a minute into the round, Walcott, his back to the ropes, started a right for Marciano’s head. Rocky beat him to the lunch with his own right hand. The punch landed flush on Walcott’s jaw, was among the hardest ever thrown in a heavyweight title fight.

Photo by Staff/AFP/Getty Images

The ending was sudden and definitive. As the great boxing writer A.J. Liebling describe the knockout, “Walcott flowed down like flour out of a chute.” Referee Charlie Daggert counted to 10 above him, but it was only a formality. The Reign of Rocky had begun. The two men would meet in a rematch eight months later, but any hope for another classic was quickly dashed. Marciano knocked Walcott out in the first round.

Photo by Howard Sochurek/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images


May 18, 2002 Uncasville, Conn. (Mohegan Sun Casino) WINNER: WARD / 10-round Majority Decision

Micky Ward vs. Arturo Gatti

With the potential to be one of the leading candidates for fight of the year, you could tell right from the opening bell that the first bout between Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti was going to be special. While the two fighters were not considered true superstars of the sport, this fight was a long time in the making, and true fight fans knew that if the two ever got into the ring it was bound to be an exciting brawl.

Photo by The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

Every round was a vicious slugfest, but the ninth round would prove to be one of the most exhilarating rounds of all time. Both fighters barely had enough energy to even attempt to defend themselves, and technique went completely out the window as they ferociously traded blows for nearly the entire round. By some miracle, both fighters managed to escape the ninth round on their feet, and neither fighter wavered until the very end.

Photo by Chris Polk/HBO Boxing After Dark/AP

The fact that either fighter managed to make it to the 10th round is a testament to their tenacity, endurance and durability. There was never a dull moment as they each took enough punishment to last several fights. During the broadcast, Emanuel Steward would say, “You know, you dream of fights like this, but very seldom do they live up to the expectation. This is even more than you can dream of!” He couldn’t have been more right.

Photo by Chris Polk/HBO Boxing After Dark/AP


April 6, 1975 Montreal, Quebec, Canada (Olympic Stadium) WINNER: DURAN / 15-round Unanimous Decision

Roberto Duran vs. Sugar Ray Leonard

The excitement leading up to the “The Brawl in Montreal” between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran was matched only by the electrifying Ali-Frazier fights that preceded it. Considered the two best fighters in the sport, the winner of this fight would be deemed the best in the world. Their contrasting styles only generated more interest as it would go on to become the biggest prizefight in history at the time.

Photo by Manny Millan for Sports Illustrated

It was a classic matchup of styles, as Leonard was the finesse boxer while Duran was the tough brawler. However, in an unexpected move and against the wishes of his trainer, Leonard chose to go against convention by standing his ground against Duran. He lived up to his word and fought Duran’s fight by brawling with him flat-footed for most of the fight instead of using his speed and superior boxing skills to his advantage.

Photo by Manny Millan for Sports Illustrated

Duran suffocated Leonard right from the opening bell, giving him no space to maneuver as he pressured him at nearly ever turn. Leonard had no choice but to engage Duran for most of the fight, and there were times that he looked like he was nearly on his last legs. But Leonard was able to turn things around in the fifth where he was able to find some room to counter Duran and hit him with powerful combinations.

Photo by Neil Leifer for Sports Illustrated

The two would battle fairly evenly until the end, with most rounds being close enough to be scored for either fighter (one judge scored 10 of the 15 rounds a draw). There was a lot of infighting throughout the bout as the two dug in and grappled with one another, trading punches at point blank range. While Leonard was able to show the world that he could stand toe-to-toe and weather the storm in a brawl, ultimately, it cost him the fight.

Photo by Manny Millan for Sports Illustrated

Leonard was no club fighter, and by taking him out of his comfort zone, Duran was able to score arguably the greatest victory of his career. It was a tight fight, with two judges scoring a one-point differential and the third having it by only two. Duran would win their first showdown by unanimous decision, handing Leonard the first professional defeat of his career while taking the WBC welterweight title away from him.

Photo by Neil Leifer for Sports Illustrated


June 18, 1941 New York, N.Y. (Yankee Stadium) WINNER: LOUIS / 13th round KO

Joe Louis vs. Billy Conn

The great Joe Louis was in the middle of his Bum-of-the-Month parade, having already defended his heavyweight championship on 17 occasions. This time, however, he was about to meet a fighter who was anything but a bum. A handsome, cocky—and widely popular—Pittsburgh Irishman, Conn was a gifted boxer who’d given up his light heavyweight title belt to cmove up and hallenge boxing’s big boys.

Photo by NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

Conn was outweighed by more than 25 pounds (174 to Louis’s 1991/2). But with the jab working, and moving well, Conn never let Louis get set. Landing flurries, he had the champion befuddled. During a clinch in the 10th round, Conn leaned in and said, “You got yourself a fight tonight, Joe.”

“I know it,” said Louis.

Midway through 12th Conn landed a left hook flush on Louis’s chin. As the crowd roared, the champion clinched to keep from going down.

Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images

The bell rang for the 13th. “All I had to do,” Billy would say later, “was stay away for three rounds and I would’a been champ.” But he had told his cornermen after the 12th, “I’m gonna knock this bum out,” and that’s what he set out to do. Conn continued to land, but he was too close to Louis, and finally Joe caught him. A furious combination rocked Conn, and then Louis, perhaps the greatest finisher in heavyweight history, landed a right that put Conn down for good.

Photo by AP

The press insisted afterward that Conn’s Celtic nature had cost him the title. “What’s the use of being Irish,” replied Conn, “if you can’t be stupid?” In the aftermath of their epic battle, Conn and Louis would go on to become life-long friends. In later years Conn would say, “Joe, couldn’t you have let me have the title for just six months?” Joe always replied, “You had the title for 12 rounds and you couldn’t hold onto it.”

Photo by Tom Watson/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images


Mar. 17, 1990 Las Vegas, Nev. (Hilton Hotel) WINNER: CHAVEZ / 12th-round TKO

Julio César Chávez vs. Meldrick Taylor

Meldrick Taylor, often compared early on in his career to Sugar Ray Leonard, was one of the most exciting boxers leading up to his fight with Julio Cesar Chavez. Chavez, while not as exciting or flashy as Taylor, was one of the toughest and best pound-for-pound fighters in the world with an untarnished 68-0 record. A unification title fight, this was one of the most anticipated non-heavyweight title fights in years.

Photo by John Iacono for Sports Illustrated

The fight certainly did not disappoint, as the two practically battered each other for 12 straight rounds. Taylor was the dominant fighter early in the fight, hitting Chavez with punches practically at will. While Taylor was able to land more punches throughout the night with his lightning-fast hand speed, Chavez was able to consistently get in cleaner, more powerful hits against his quicker, more active foe.

Photo by Ken Levine/Getty Images

As the fight wore on, the power of Chavez’s punches clearly began to take their toll on Taylor. Just one look at Taylor’s face was all that you needed to see to get a feel for how much punishment he took throughout the night. A dazed Taylor nearly even went into Chavez’s corner after the end of the 11th round, but he had to be guided into the right corner by the referee, and you could sense a shift in momentum as the final round began.

Photo by Ken Levine/Getty Images

Taylor may have been winning the battle on the scorecards with all the points he racked up through the sheer volume of punches he landed, but it was Chavez that ultimately won the war. Chavez wore Taylor down through attrition, and Taylor’s body paid the price in the end. His face had swollen up like a balloon, the bones around his eye sockets had broken, and his lip was bleeding so profusely that he lost nearly two pints of blood that night.

Photo by John Iacono for Sports Illustrated

The ending to their first bout was highly controversial. After falling to the canvas near the end of the 12th round, Taylor beat the count but didn’t respond to referee Richard Steele. With less than five seconds left in the final round, Steele called the fight as he deemed Taylor’s non-response as a sign that he was unable to continue. If Steele had not called the fight early and the outcome went to the scorecards, Taylor would’ve won by split decision.

Photo by John Iacono for Sports Illustrated


April 15, 1985 Las Vegas, Nev. (Caesars Palace, Outdoor Arena) WINNER: HAGLER / 3rd-round TKO

Marvin Hagler vs. Tommy Hearns

The brutal fight between Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns for the Undisputed Middleweight Championship will undoubtedly go down as having the most exhilirating three-round stretch in the history of boxing. More of a street fight than a boxing match, it was being billed as “The Fight” before it would go on to rightfully become known simply as “The War.”

Photo by Manny Millan for Sports Illustrated

The first round is considered by many to be the greatest in boxing history. Hagler, who was usually known for easing into a fight, set a quick pace as he went straight after Hearns throwing nothing but power shots. Hearns was happy to oblige Hagler by returning some haymakers of his own, and he stunned Hagler with a series of shots to Hagler’s head, eventually opening up a cut later in the round. While hurt, it certainly didn’t slow Hagler down.

Photo by The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

While not as fast-paced as the first round, Hagler continued to bring the fight to Hearns throughout the second as he attempted to close the distance so he could get inside and punish him. Hearns danced around and tried to box, doing everything he could to keep Hagler away. However, Hagler had no intention of boxing with him. In order to win Hagler knew he had to turn it into a street fight, and that’s just what he did.

Photo by Manny Millan for Sports Illustrated

The third round started the same as the two that preceded it. Hearns was clearly feeling the effects of Hagler’s savage blows, and his punches barely seemed to phase Hagler. Hearns would later reveal that he broke his right hand, which seemed to take the sting off of his most dangerous weapon. Sensing blood in the water, Hagler kept up his unyielding assault, and he caught Hearns with a powerful right that put him down onto the mat.

Photo by AP

Hagler swung for the fences on seemingly every punch that he threw, and Hearns could not stand up to the punishment. While Hearns was able to beat the count after being knocked down in the third, the judge called the fight and awarded Hagler with a TKO victory after a visibly shaken Hearns was unable to continue the fight. Hearns was hurt so badly after the fight that he had to be carried in someone’s arms to the locker room.

Photo by Manny Millan for Sports Illustrated


Sept. 14, 1923 New York, N.Y. (Polo Grounds) WINNER: DEMPSEY / 2nd-round KO

Jack Dempsey vs. Luis Firpo

After winning the heavyweight title with a brutal KO of Jess Willard in Toldeo on July 4, 1919 Dempsey had defended his crown only four times before entering the ring against the raw but explosive Argentine challenger known as the Wild Bull of the Pampas. The 82,000 spectators who filled the Polo Grounds produced boxing’s second million-dollar gate—and were treated to perhaps its most spectacular showdown.

Photo by The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

Trying to describe the first round is like trying to describe a series of explosions. Reporter James Crusinberry called it “the greatest round of battling seen since the Silurian Age.” At the bell, Dempsey came out in his patented crouch, and Firpo, planting his feet and swinging, caught Dempsey with a right and knocked him down. Jack jumped up without a count and went to work. Seven times he would drop the hulking Firpo, and seven times Firpo would get up.

Photo by AP

In the closing seconds of the round, Firpo drove Dempsey to the ropes and, with a tremendous, right hand, knocked the champion completely out of the ring. Call it the greatest moment in boxing. Go to the Whitney Museum and look at the painting by George Bellows. Or better yet, just marvel at the black and white footage. With a push from several members of Press Row, Dempsey regained the ring just in time. As Firpo charged wildly, Jack dived into a clinch and hung on until the round ended.

Photo by AP

Back in his corner a still-dazed Dempsey asked manager Doc Kearns what round he’d been knocked out in. “You son-of-a-bitch,” bellowed Kearns. “You weren’t knocked out. Get out there and box this guy carefully. Let him think you’re still groggy and look for an opening.” The ruse worked. Firpo charged and Dempsey exploded. A left hook dropped the challenger. One last time the game Firpo got up. Dempsey was ready. A crushing combination put Firpo down for the ninth and final time.

Photo by The Ring Magazine/Getty Images


Nov. 12, 1982 Miami, Fla. (Orange Bowl) WINNER: PRYOR / 14th-round TKO

Aaron Pryor vs. Alexis Arguello

Aaron Pryor was finally getting an opportunity in the spotlight against a marquee opponent in Alexis Arguello after his previously scheduled opponent, Sugar Ray Leonard, retired after suffering a detached retina. Arguello had already established his place in boxing history, and he was gunning for Pryor’s WBA junior welterweight belt, which would have given him world titles in four divisions—a record at the time.

Photo by Tony Triolo for Sports Illustrated

From the very outset the two waged an all-out war against one another, putting the full force of their power behind their punches in a fast-paced fight. Pryor was constantly in motion, trying to break down Arguello’s defenses as he moved around the ring throwing an endless stream of punches at blistering speed. Wary of his power, Arguello tried to keep his distance by using his jab in an attempt to hold him off.

Photo by Manny Millan for Sports Illustrated

The fight only grew more ferocious with each passing round. While Arguello landed some powerful blows, Pryor was unrelenting. He stalked Arguello around the ring for most of the fight, and Arguello was barely able to stave him off at times. Pryor took the very worst that Arguello could dish out, and he quickly bounced back every time. But fatigue would eventually settle in for both fighters as the fight neared the end.

Photo by Manny Millan for Sports Illustrated

Pryor led on two of the judges’ scorecards after 13 rounds. However, there was a lot of controversy over the mysterious black bottle of fluid that Pryor’s trainer, Panama Lewis, called for between the 13th and 14th rounds. It became even more suspicious as Pryor charged at Arguello at the start of the 14th with renewed vigor, and he gave Arguello a savage beating that would eventually lead to the referee stopping the fight.

Photo by Tony Triolo /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Arguello was down on the canvas for four minutes after the referee called the fight, and he even collapsed on his way to the dressing room. The fact that no urine test was administered after the fight caused even more controversy and cast doubt over Pryor’s victory following the fight due to the mysterious black bottle of fluid. However, Pryor would prove that his victory was no fluke in their rematch after he dominated Arguello in 10 rounds.

Photo by John Iacono for Sports Illustrated


March 8, 1971 New York, NY (Madison Square Garden) WINNER: FRAZIER / 15-round decision

Joe Frazier vs. Muhammad Ali

The start of one of the most legendary rivalries in all of sports, the first fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier set the stage for this unforgettable trilogy. Ali, having been stripped of the world heavyweight title after he denounced the Vietnam War and refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army in 1967, had his sights on reclaiming the belt from Frazier after a long layoff from the ring.

Photo by The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

With both fighers polishing undefeated records and legitimate claims for the title, the level of hype for the fight was unmatched at the time. A record $2.5 million purse was guaranteed to both fighters. Dubbed the “Fight of the Century,” battle lines were drawn as it split the nation in two. Ali was seen as a symbol for the left-wing, anti-war movement, while conservative, pro-war supporters naturally adopted Frazier as their champion.

Photo by Fred Morgan/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

A defiant Ali elected to trade with Frazier and not use the ring to his advantage early on, throwing jabs to keep Frazier at a distance while piling up points. Despite the layoff, Ali showed off impressive punching power. However, Frazier was unrelenting, constantly bobbing and weaving to get inside as he bullied Ali into the ropes every chance that he got. Ali barely even had space to breathe, as Frazier was rarely ever more than an arm’s length away from him.

Photo by Neil Leifer for Sports Illustrated

The two battled evenly through the first 10 rounds, but Frazier was able to take the decisive lead in the 11th when he rocked Ali with a left hook and nearly had sent him to the canvas. By some miracle, Ali managed to escape the round on his feet and he even managed to get his legs back underneath him. However, Frazier would land another telling blow in the 11th, knocking Ali down early in the 15th on his way to winning by a unanimous decision.

Photo by AP

While he still stung like a bee, the older, heavier Ali no longer floated like a butterfly. He was clearly fatigued midway through the fight from Frazier’s crippling body blows, and more often than not, he was battling Frazier off the ropes. Ali was able to go the distance, but Frazier’s strategy to go to work on his body to wear him down while using his crushing left hooks to the head led to the first professional defeat of Ali’s career.

Photo by Frank Hurley/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images
3.8.1971 / Remembering Joe Frazier


Sept. 16, 1981 Las Vegas, Nev. (Caesars Palace) WINNER: LEONARD / 14th-round TKO

Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Tommy Hearns

Of all the nine fights that took place between the four horsemen of boxing—Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns, Marvin Hagler and Roberto Duran—this would go down as the most memorable. Scheduled for 15 rounds, “The Showdown” was a unification title fight to settle who would become the welterweight champion of the world between a 25-year-old Leonard and an undefeated 22-year-old Hearns.

Photo by Manny Millan for Sports Illustrated

The tall, lanky Hearns established himself as the aggressor in the early rounds, bringing the fight to Leonard, as he used his long arms to pepper Leonard’s face with carefully-placed jabs. Hearns may have had a thin frame, but he had a surprising amount of power behind his punches. Leonard simply had no answers for Hearns and his long reach, and by the fifth round Leonard’s left eye was noticeably swollen.

Photo by AP

A pivotal moment, however, came in the sixth, when Leonard rocked Hearns and pummeled him to close that round and lead into the seventh. That’s when the two switched roles, as Leonard aggressively attacked Hearns, clearly going for the knockout, while “The Hitman” went on the defensive. Hearns appeared as if he was on his last legs. Yet, somehow he proved able to survive Leonard’s onslaught and even stage a rally at the end of the eighth.

Photo by Manny Millan for Sports Illustrated

In the ninth frame, Hearns began to turn the fight back in his favor by smartly boxing and using Leonard’s aggressiveness against him, once again using his reach to outpoint Leonard. With Hearns clearly ahead on the scorecards, the final turning point of the fight occurred when trainer Angelo Dundee uttered the famous words to Leonard in his corner after the 12th: “Ya got nine minutes. You’re blowin’ it now, son. You’re blowin’ it.”

Photo by AP

Hearns started the round by continuing to box while Leonard carefully waited for an opportunity to pounce. Despite his left eye nearly being swollen shut, a reinvigorated Leonard quickly went to work once he found his opening, punishing a fatigued Hearns. Leonard even went as far as to knock Hearns through the ropes. While the judge ruled it a slip, Leonard would follow it up by knocking him down to the ground in the final moments of the 13th round.

Photo by John Iacono for Sports Illustrated

By the time the 14th round rolled around, it was clear that Hearns simply did not have the energy or wherewithal to withstand Leonard’s barrage. Leonard even mocked Hearns by throwing his arms up in victory after staggering him with a big right midway through the round, and referee Davey Pearl put an end to the fight after it was clear that Hearns could no longer defend himself. Hearns was leading on all three scorecards when the fight was called.

Photo by Dick Halstead/Liaison/Getty Images
9.16.1981 / Sportsman Reflections: Sugar Ray Leonard


October 1, 1975 Manila, Philippines (Araneta Coliseum) WINNER: ALI / 14th-round TKO

Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier

The final fight in their trilogy, the third meeting between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier was nothing short of a masterpiece. In a name befitting only an Ali-headlined fight, the “Thrilla in Manila” took place in the capital city of the Philippines. The most hyped rubber match in boxing history, this fight would not only settle once and for all who the superior boxer was but also decide their legacies.

Photo by Mitsunori Chigita/AP

Mirroring their first fight, Ali controlled the early rounds by keeping Frazier at bay with his jab and scoring with precise shots aimed at his head. Any normal human being would have crumpled to the mat from the force of Ali’s punches, but Frazier was one of the toughest fighters to ever step into a ring. No matter what Ali hit him with, Frazier kept coming back for more. Even so, it appeared as if it was Ali’s fight to lose after the first four rounds.

Photo by Neil Leifer for Sports Illustrated

Frazier, undeterred, kept up his aggressive, hard-charging style. Almost as if on cue, Frazier flipped the script much like their first fight and turned the tide back in his favor as he went on to control the middle rounds by bullying Ali around the ring and hitting him with “punches that’d bring down the walls of a city”, as he would later say. He battled his way back to go up on the scorecards by the end of the 11th, and those rounds certainly took a toll on Ali.

Photo by Neil Leifer for Sports Illustrated

Ali won by decision against Frazier in their second fight, but that outcome had been disputed. On this occasion, Ali would not allow this fight to go to the scorecards, putting everything he had left in the tank into the 13th and 14th rounds, pummeling Frazier as if his life depended on it. Despite Frazier’s protests, his trainer, Eddie Futch, would call a halt to the bout. “Sit down, son,” Futch told him. “It’s all over. No one will ever forget what you did here today.”

Photo by Neil Leifer for Sports Illustrated

“I don’t think two big men ever fought fights like me and Joe Frazier. One fight, maybe. But three times; we were the only ones,” Ali once said. “Of all the men I fought, Sonny Liston was the scariest, George Foreman was the most powerful, Floyd Patterson was the most skilled as a boxer. But the roughest and toughest was Joe Frazier. He brought out the best in me, and the best fight we ever fought was in Manila.”

Photo by Neil Leifer for Sports Illustrated
10.1.1975 / Neil Leifer: The Thrilla in Manila