The 1980s were a monumental decade in politics, pop music and, of course, in boxing. Indeed, the eighties stand out for the sheer volume of exciting battles, not to mention the high number of “superfights” which became huge crossover attractions. This was the era of the legendary “Four Kings” — Hagler, Duran, Hearns and Leonard — of Larry Holmes and Aaron Pryor, of prime Mike Tyson, of the indomitable Bobby Chacon, and of such warriors as Alexis Arguello, Salvador Sanchez, Azumah Nelson, Michael Spinks, Jeff Fenech and Julio Cesar Chavez. Living up to the standards set in the 1970s, a golden decade for heavyweight superfights, was no mean feat, but the ring wars of the eighties hold their own in comparison to the glory days of Ali, Frazier, Norton and Foreman.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the current Omicron wave present us with the perfect excuse to delve into boxing’s back catalogue and discover, or rediscover, the most memorable, dramatic and action-packed clashes from that crazy decade. This is not a ranking and the bouts are listed here in random order. They run the gamut, from violent slugfests, to shocking knockouts, to tragic battles, to exhibitions of great skill and talent. Some were “superfights,” some were contested in front of a few thousand and barely get mentioned now, while others have only grown in stature in the years since. The list is not intended to be definitive or exhaustive, but if you find a better one, do let us know! Note: the links take you either directly to a video of the fight, or to a post that has the video embedded. Enjoy! And hang on for Part Two tomorrow.
Roberto Duran vs Sugar Ray Leonard I: With just one loss between them in 99 fights, Duran vs Leonard was destined to be one of the decade’s most iconic fights. A showdown between modern greats whose legends would only grow in the years that followed, “The Brawl in Montreal” was fifteen rounds of ferocious yet highly skilled combat, with the tireless Panamanian putting on the performance of a lifetime and handing Sugar Ray his first defeat.
Sean O’Grady vs Hilmer Kenty: The first world champion from Detroit’s legendary Kronk Gym was being groomed for stardom by network television but he had to get past “The Bubblegum Kid,” and that proved very difficult. An action-packed battle saw O’Grady score a knockdown and outwork Kenty in the late rounds to take a unanimous fifteen round decision.
Salvador Sanchez vs Danny Lopez I: Most tuning in to the CBS Sports broadcast were expecting to see Danny Lopez notch yet another dramatic KO win on national television. Instead, they saw a generational talent announce himself, as the gifted “Chava” masterfully dominated “Little Red,” stopping him in round thirteen of an entertaining if one-sided bout.
Mike Weaver vs John Tate: A major upset and one of the most dramatic knockout wins in boxing history. Also a damn good heavyweight fight.
Shigeo Nakajima vs Sung-Jun Kim: Japan’s Nakajima set a torrid pace to take his Korean rival’s world title by unanimous decision in a fifteen round firefight. It was a bloody, action-packed brawl, both men cut and bleeding, and the action didn’t let up until the final bell.
Eusebio Pedroza vs Rocky Lockridge I: It was youth vs experience, not to mention Panama vs America on live national television. The young Lockridge impressed everyone with his bravery and hustle, including Pedroza, but the veteran champ came on strong in the late rounds to eke out a close points win.
Matthew Saad Muhammad vs Yaqui Lopez II: Arguably the most thrilling fight in light heavyweight history, Saad Muhammad and Lopez wrung every last ounce of energy out of themselves in this rematch. Despite suffering a barrage of some thirty unanswered haymakers in a jaw-dropping eighth round, Muhammad regrouped to send Lopez crashing to the floor four times in round fourteen.
Randall Cobb vs Earnie Shavers: On the undercard of Thomas Hearns vs Pipino Cuevas, Cobb did his best Matthew Saad Muhammad impersonation, eating tons of brutal shots, somehow surviving, and then coming back to win in a grueling big man brawl. Considering that Shavers is arguably the hardest puncher in division history, this was no small feat. Great heavyweight slugfest.
Mike Weaver vs Gerrie Coetzee: Between bouts of clinching and mauling, Weaver vs Coetzee delivered plenty of fireworks, with both big men unloading megaton punches with bad intentions. After dominating the early rounds, Coetzee ran out of steam before being iced with a blistering counter right hand in round thirteen.
Lupe Pintor vs Johnny Owen: Given his advantages in height and reach, many expected Welshman Owen to try and box the defending bantamweight champ who clearly had the edge in raw power. But “The Merthyr Matchstick” bravely took the fight to the Mexican and the result was an exciting, two-way battle until Owen began to tire and the stronger Pintor took over. The brave challenger went down for the count in round twelve and had to be carried from the ring on a stretcher. He never regained consciousness and died six weeks later.
Bobby Chacon vs Rafael Limon III: It may now be overshadowed by their fourth battle, but Chacon vs Limon III was awesome in its own right: one of those hot-blooded Inglewood Forum brawls that lingers long in the memory of those who witnessed it. Both warriors were hurt in a torrid fourth, but after ten tight rounds, Chacon was given a split decision to avenge his 1975 defeat in their first meeting.
Leo Randolph vs Ricardo Cardona: An absolute war made only more exciting for the fact it was waged in front of Randolph’s home state fans in Seattle and on national television. Defending champ Cardona figured to have the edge with his greater experience, but it was the Colombian who found himself in deep water in the late rounds as gold medalist Randolph joined his 1976 Olympic brethren with his own world title win.
Lupe Pintor vs Albert Davila II: Broadcast live as a supporting act for the tape-delay broadcast of Leonard vs Duran II, Pintor successfully defended his bantamweight title but not before Davila gave him all he could handle over fifteen spirited rounds.
Sugar Ray Leonard vs Ayub Kalule: Fight fans couldn’t wait to see Sugar Ray take on fellow welterweight champ “Hit Man” Hearns but that’s exactly what they had to do as Leonard opted to challenge Kalule for his 154 pound belt. Most anticipated an easy win for boxing’s newest and biggest star, but instead they got an engrossing shoot-out as Ray elected to stand his ground and trade with the experienced African before his big guns decided the match in round nine.
Cornelius Boza-Edwards vs Rafael Limon: “Bazooka” Limon loses the title belt he had won just three months before with a TKO win over Idelfonso Bethelmy as Boza-Edwards is the more effective fighter in a hellacious fifteen round war, one of the all-time greatest southpaw vs southpaw fights.
William “Caveman” Lee vs John LoCicero: Caveman Lee’s ferocious Detroit dust-up with John LoCicero saw neither warrior give inch nor quarter, each trading in the pocket for the entire fight. Round five saw LoCicero rise at nine from a heavy knockdown, badly hurt Lee, then get wiped out with a short left hook.
Salvador Sanchez vs Wilfredo Gomez: The Battle of the Little Giants is perhaps the standard bearer for Mexico vs Puerto Rico grudge matches. KO machine Gomez planned to blast Sanchez into orbit, but despite pressing continually, he couldn’t match the versatile champion who picked him off en route to an electrifying eighth round TKO.
Ray Mancini vs Alexis Arguello: Jumping in with a three-weight world champion and modern great is one thing. Doing so at the tender age of twenty, with just twenty bouts behind you, is another. Mancini’s improbable bid for glory on national television finally came to an end in round fourteen after a remarkable and bloody encounter.
Sugar Ray Leonard vs Thomas Hearns I: A much-hyped unification match between welterweight supremos, Leonard vs Hearns I had everything: momentum shifts, passages of slick boxing, power punches and a dramatic comeback finale. By turning the tide and stopping his adversary in round 14, Sugar Ray – who at times had been outboxed and outfought – cemented his greatness.
Rafael Pedroza vs Gustavo Ballas: An under-the-radar war that deserved to be in the running for Fight Of The Year for 1981. Pedroza and Ballas battled non-stop at a furious pace for fifteen rounds in Panama City. The close decision went to Pedroza, but this was a glorious, back-and-forth donnybrook and a credit to both proud warriors.
Aaron Pryor vs DuJuan Johnson: Pryor’s death-or-glory title defense against unbeaten Kronk fighter DuJuan Johnson was sensational. It started oddly though, with Pryor dancing Ali-style round the ring. Then Johnson dropped him with a flush right, Pryor popped up, did the Ali shuffle and immediately went to war. After arguably losing the first five, “Hawk” proved his class and pounded Johnson into submission in the seventh.
Cornelius Boza-Edwards vs Bobby Chacon I: “The Schoolboy” sought to regain the title he had lost to Alexis Arguello, but Boza-Edwards was too good on this night. Chacon had his moments though, rocking his man in the first and ninth and generally being a nuisance until fatigue, a bad gash and his opponent’s relentless assaults prompted his corner to call it off after round thirteen.
Alexis Arguello vs Andy Ganigan: Challenger Ganigan, aka “The Hawaiian Punch,” could crack and he proved it when he rocked champion Alexis and decked him in round one. But Arguello stormed back to overwhelm his dangerous foe and stop him in the sixth.
Rolando Navarette vs Chung-Il Choi: WBC super featherweight champ Navarette defended his title against Korea’s Chung-Il Choi and the outcome was another “Thrilla in Manila,” a non-stop war with multiple knockdowns before the Filipino finally triumphed in round eleven and both men lay on the canvas in exhaustion.
Salvador Sanchez vs Azumah Nelson: It’s fitting that the final stand of Salvador Sanchez generously showcased his skill and bravery. A month before his untimely death aged 23, the master boxer-puncher turned back African wildcard Nelson in a thrilling brawl, surviving multiple heavy raids to stop the boxer who would later be called “The Professor,” not to mention Africa’s greatest fighter, in round fourteen.
Frank Fletcher vs Clint Jackson: One in a series of action-packed slugfests involving Frank “The Animal” Fletcher on national television. The irrepressible Fletcher initiated an intense donnybrook from the opening bell and Jackson was more than happy to respond in kind. Fight fans got twelve action-packed rounds of glorious back-and-forth slugging and Philadelphia’s Fletcher got the decision.
Aaron Pryor vs Alexis Arguello I: A great fight and a great story, Aaron Pryor vs Alexis Arguello must undoubtedly be added to any eighties boxing time capsule. Seeking to be the first boxer to win titles in four weight divisions, the Nicaraguan’s ring-craft and measured boxing were eventually outmatched by Pryor’s energy, strength and ruthlessness.
Wilfredo Gomez vs Lupe Pintor: Not only did Pintor and Gomez extend the never-ending Mexico vs Puerto Rico turf war, they took it to new heights. A macho showdown between reigning world champions, this epic battle was replete with attritional exchanges, Pintor combining sharp boxing with outright slugging before Gomez’s thunderous power proved the ace card.
Rafael Limon vs Rolando Navarette: This clash of southpaw power punchers was broadcast on free national television because that’s how they rolled in the eighties, folks. Put together a great fight; put it on free TV; make more boxing fans. Anyway, Limon and Navarette did not disappoint as they put on a rough and tumble affair before Limon got back the title he had lost to Cornelius Boza Edwards with a clean KO in round twelve.
Frank Fletcher vs Tony Braxton: “There’s no such thing as an easy fight for Frank,” said promoter J. Russell Peltz and truer words were never spoken. Philadelphia’s Fletcher out-worked and out-lasted Braxton to get a unanimous decision in a crowd-pleasing brawl, but easy it definitely was not.
Larry Holmes vs Gerry Cooney: One of the biggest showdowns in boxing history to that point, Holmes vs Cooney generated a live gate of seven million dollars and a total haul of over forty million. As for the fight, it was competitive and theatrical, Cooney gallantly surviving a knockdown in the second and giving Holmes all he could handle before succumbing in the late stages.
Ray Mancini vs Duk Koo Kim: Watching this pivotal slugfest again, a match which had a profound impact on the sport, provokes uncomfortable emotions, but Ray Mancini’s fatal rumble with South Korean challenger Duk Koo Kim was unforgettable. An incandescent war between lightweights on live national television, it ended tragically in round fourteen when Kim collapsed and had to be carried from the ring on a stretcher. He never regained consciousness.
Bobby Chacon vs Rafael Limon IV: The fourth meeting between sluggers Bobby Chacon and Rafael Limon was a real-life Rocky fight. No surprise given their shared history, but this one eclipsed all that had come before. After recovering from knockdowns in the third and tenth, Chacon heavily dropped his rival in the final round to win a close unanimous decision. Some reckon it was the greatest fight of all time.
Milton McCrory vs Colin Jones I: Sugar Ray Leonard had retired and so the WBC had Welshman Jones and Detroit’s McCrory battle for their vacant title. The result was a highly competitive battle with McCrory taking the early rounds and Jones winning the late ones and the judges tabbing it a draw. The rematch five months later saw McCrory score an opening round knockdown and eke out a split decision win.
Lenny LaPaglia vs John Collins: A throwback, crosstown rivalry fight between undefeated Chicago prospects. As in days of yore, the ethnic factions turned up in big numbers to back their man, with the Irish cheering for Collins and the Italians rooting for LaPaglia. The result was an action-packed battle in front of a sell-out crowd and Collins getting the decision.
Marvelous Marvin Hagler vs Roberto Duran: Few expected the middleweight incarnation of Duran to pose Hagler many problems, even if he’d looked great in his preceding bouts with Davey Moore and Pipino Cuevas. Then “Hands of Stone” turned in a vintage showing, utilizing his smarts and counter punching to great effect before the bigger man found his groove and pulled away down the stretch.
Larry Holmes vs Tim Witherspoon: Few sporting spectacles are as big as an open-air heavyweight title fight. Larry Holmes eked out a points win over talented challenger Tim Witherspoon, who almost managed to pull off a famous upset. Though Holmes was busier, “Terrible Tim” hurt the champ early and late and felt aggrieved by the verdict.
Aaron Pryor vs Alexis Arguello II: The bit between his teeth, Arguello fought fire with fire in this spectacular rematch, unloading heavy straight rights and body shots in a bid to deter the irrepressible Pryor and avenge his defeat from the year before. While Alexis staggered “Hawk” more than once, the man from Cincinnati’s power and pace yielded three knockdowns and a career-defining tenth round knockout win.
Rocky Lockridge vs Cornelius Boza-Edwards: Coming off his Fight Of The Year with Bobby Chacon a few months previous, Boza-Edwards started brightly here, bowling Lockridge over with a right hook in round one. But the smaller, busier man roared back and landed most of the telling blows in a close but clear decision victory.
Frank Cedeno vs Charlie Magri: In his first title defense, Britain’s Magri was expected to give his hometown fans in Wembley Arena plenty to cheer about but, in a violent brawl, he tasted the canvas three times before the bout was stopped in round six.
Bobby Chacon vs Cornelius Boza-Edwards II: Bobby Chacon scored a second consecutive Fight of the Year victory with this rip-roaring revenge win over Cornelius Boza-Edwards in Vegas. A twelve round dog fight containing multiple knockdowns, bad cuts and a stirring finale, it cemented Chacon’s status as the ultimate never-say-die warrior.
Need more 80’s awesomeness? Don’t fret: the rest of this excellent list will be right here tomorrow! — Ronnie McCluskey