The best boxing rivalries are about more than a series of fights. Great rivalries are stories, absorbing narratives that not only offer genuine intensity and riveting action, but also succeed in capturing the attention of legions of fans and leave their mark on the history of the fight game. Here we rank the most important and enthralling rivalries based on the following critera: at least three bouts; serious impact and significance; great action and exciting fights, and involving truly great pugilists. As our lengthy Honorable Mentions list attests, there’s no shortage of candidates, but these are our picks for the most consequential and exciting rivalries of all-time. Check ’em out and let the debate commence.
12. Ted “Kid” Lewis vs Jack Britton: It may sound odd, but what keeps Britton vs Lewis from ranking higher here is too much of a good thing. There’s no question Britton and Lewis are among the best boxers of their time and six of their 19 meetings (that’s right, 19) were for the world title. But a Britton vs Lewis scrap must have turned into a rather questionable affair after they were matched four times in a span of just 36 days in 1917. Speculation that at least some of the meetings were choreographed was prevalent enough to compel Britton’s manager, “Dumb” Dan Morgan, to address them by insisting there was no way two Irishmen (himself and Britton) could ever trust an Englishman.
There’s also the fact that more than half of the contests were “no decision” bouts, some scheduled for only six or eight rounds, while others dispensed with an official weigh-in. Clearly, 19 fights qualifies Lewis vs Britton as an historically significant rivalry, but the best duos offer more than mere plenitude.
11. Henry Armstrong vs Baby Arizmendi: Alberto “Baby” Arizmendi is both an underrated pugilist and one of the greatest of Mexican boxers. There’s also no doubt that the high-water mark of an extraordinary career, which includes clashes with Tony Canzoneri, Lou Ambers, Chalky Wright and Freddie Miller, is his series with legendary triple-crown champ Henry Armstrong, one of the greatest boxers who ever lived, pound-for-pound.
Both were brave and aggressive brawlers, popular for their all-action styles, and they locked-up five times, all distance fights, the first two in Mexico City at featherweight, and the latter three in Los Angeles. Arizmendi followed Armstrong as he moved up in weight and challenged Henry for the welterweight crown in their final fight. Their first duel is the great triumph of Baby’s career as he soundly defeated “Hammerin’ Hank,” despite injuring his right wrist in the second round. He repeated the feat a year later but the next three battles, while full of intense toe-to-toe exchanges, saw the great Armstrong impose his will and prevail with room to spare.
10. Cocoa Kid vs Holman Williams: Two of the rivalries on this list bring attention to the regrettable fact that at different points in the history of boxing some of the finest fighters in the sport were, because of their race, denied the opportunities they had otherwise earned. This gross injustice severely affected the members of the legendary “Murderers’ Row” group in the 1940s and 50s and forced such elite talents as Lloyd Marshall, Charley Burley, Herbert Hardwick (aka “Cocoa Kid”), Williams and Eddie Booker to face each other repeatedly.
Arguably the most significant rivalry among them was that between Hardwick and Williams, two exceptional talents, who threw down no fewer than 13 times. Both were ranked among the very best during their careers but neither ever received a chance for a world title. Instead they gave fight fans an amazing series of bouts between two highly skilled operators, with Cocoa Kid taking eight of the contests against three wins for Holman Williams and two draws.
9. Sugar Ray Robinson vs Gene Fullmer: The great Sugar Ray and the man they called “The Cyclone” were middleweight champions and a study in contrasts and, perhaps not surprisingly, they didn’t like each other very much. Robinson’s contempt for Fullmer was never carefully concealed, while Gene had nothing but scorn for Sugar Ray’s self-regard and demands for special treatment.
The result was four terrific clashes, all of them memorable, none lacking for action. Fullmer knocked Sugar Ray out of the ring before taking a decision in their first meeting, while Robinson’s one-punch KO of Fullmer in their second fight, the only time Gene ever took the ten count, is considered one of the greatest knockouts in boxing history. The aging Robinson’s showing in their third battle in 1960, a 15 round draw, is widely regarded as the last truly great performance of the Sugarman’s amazing career.
8. Stanley Ketchel vs Billy Papke: If the best rivalries are often the ones informed by genuine hatred and intensity, then Ketchel vs Papke stands out for being particularly vicious. These two greats of the middleweight division clashed four times in the span of just over one year and every meeting was a savage, no-holds-barred slugfest. The first of four meetings saw Ketchel win a ten round decision in June of 1908 but the fight was exciting enough and close enough to merit a return.
As the story goes, and it should be noted that most historians regard it as fiction, Ketchel tried to shake hands with Papke before the bell to start their rematch and got a right hand to the face for his trouble. What isn’t fiction is that Papke then dealt out a savage beating on Ketchel, securing a stoppage win in the 12th round and with it the world title. But the following December “The Michigan Assassin” paid “The Illinois Thunderbolt” back for that defeat, and with interest, pounding Papke into a bloody pulp and stopping him in round 11. The following year they battled once more and over the course of 20 action-packed rounds Ketchel, clearly one of the greatest of all middleweights, secured a decision win.
7. Tony Zale vs Rocky Graziano: In terms of sheer action, few rivalries can match Zale vs Graziano, though sadly the video evidence of this fact is not readily available. While their third meeting in 1948 was filmed, for reasons unknown the first two matches were not. Thus we have only a rather choppy and incomplete amateur video of the second clash to testify to the first-hand accounts which universally proclaimed their wars in ’46 and ’47 to be among the most thrilling, dramatic and action-packed bouts in the entire history of the sport.
Neither “The Man Of Steel” nor “The Rock” were exactly defensive geniuses, but they were both brave, tough, powerful and more than happy to brawl at close quarters. The result was fast-paced, non-stop action and slugfests that left even hardened fight scribes limp as the two warriors took turns blasting each other with their best shots. Zale seized victory in the first and third battles, while Graziano made an incredible comeback in the second fight to win the title before famously proclaiming that somebody up there liked him. Many who were ringside for their first brutal slugfest in Yankee Stadium, including long-time announcer Don Dunphy, called it the greatest fight they had ever seen.
6. Manny Pacquiao vs Juan Manuel Marquez: Four meetings between two of the very best boxers of their era, all of them competitive and dramatic, and the series capped by one of the greatest one-punch knockouts in all of boxing history. Need one say more?
Because their series concluded just a few short years ago, it’s easy to underestimate its historical significance, but given the standing of both boxers and the quality of the four fights, Pacquiao vs Marquez is, without question, a rivalry for the ages.
5. Barney Ross vs Jimmy McLarnin: Within the span of a single year, two all-time great champions gave fight fans three 15 round classics, each one desperately close and drawing huge crowds in New York City. In May of 1934, despite suffering the only knockdown of his long career, Ross won the first bout, the Fight Of The Year, by split decision, but all acknowledged the verdict could have gone either way.
Just 14 weeks later, a second highly competitive distance struggle this time was awarded to McLarnin, before the rubber match, the most punishing and exciting of the three, was won by Ross, though many thought “The Belfast Spider” deserved a better fate that night. Rarely have rivals offered three contests of such skill and competitiveness that the fights only enhanced the stature of both men. These were two ring legends, both greats of the welterweight division, both in their primes, attracting massive crowds and giving fans thrilling, razor-close donnybrooks.
4. Sandy Saddler vs Willie Pep: While two of the four bouts in this legendary rivalry are tarnished by egregious fouling and less than satisfactory conclusions, the fact remains Saddler and Pep are both universally ranked among the top five, all-time, in the featherweight division. And rarely have matches from the lighter weight classes attracted more attention from sports fans, all four of their fights garnering big league coverage and huge crowds.
Their first clash was a shocker as the underdog challenger scored a clean knockout over the crafty “Will o’ the Wisp.” Few thought the aging Pep could rebound against his bigger, younger and more powerful foe, but in the rematch the crafty defensive wizard gave perhaps the most extraordinary performance of his incredible career, out-boxing Saddler to take a one-sided decision and further cementing his ring greatness. Fights three and four, while fiercely contested, were marred by dirty tactics leading to injuries on the part of Pep that forced him to surrender in his corner in both bouts. The final Saddler vs Pep meeting is one of the dirtiest title matches in boxing history.
3. Sam Langford vs Harry Wills: No knowledgeable fight fan questions the status of Langford and Wills, two dangerous and prolific pugilists, who, because they happened to be black, never competed for the heavyweight title. There was talk of both facing Jack Dempsey and years later “The Manassa Mauler” admitted he was less than anxious to take on either, especially Langford, widely regarded as the greatest fighter in boxing history to never win a world championship. So instead of competing for the legit heavyweight title, Langford, aka “The Boston Bonecrusher” and Wills, aka “The Black Panther,” battled for the championship of each other, clashing, at minimum, an incredible 17 times; some sources claim they fought 22 times.
And these were no tame exhibitions or glorified sparring sessions, the contests featuring their share of blood, knockdowns and stoppages. Harry got the better of the series, though several matches were officially “no decision” bouts, but “The Boston Terror” scored at least two knockout wins of his own. For example, in November of 1914, Langford suffered four knockdowns in the first two rounds of a scheduled 20 rounder before he came back and put Harry down for the count in round 14. It must be noted that Wills enjoyed significant physical advantages over the smaller Langford, but despite this, and despite his facing a long list of terrific pugilists including Joe Jeannette, Jack Sharkey, Sam McVea and Kid Norfolk, Harry would later rate Langford as both the best boxer he ever fought and the hardest puncher.
2. Sugar Ray Robinson vs Jake LaMotta: Two all-time greats and a six fight series that only intensified as it unfolded like an epic novel over the course of nine years, before it climaxed with a famously violent showdown for the middleweight championship of the world. Jake and Sugar Ray were contemporaries, roughly the same age, their pro careers starting within six months of each other, and both were marked as special talents, champions in the making. Robinson outboxed “The Bronx Bull” with relative ease in their first tilt held in Madison Square Garden in 1942, but four months later LaMotta knocked Ray out of the ring and got his revenge.
Fight three saw Ray on the canvas again, though the decision went his way, and number four was smooth sailing for the gifted Sugarman, but the fifth match in 1945 was something else entirely, a grueling 12 round affair and a split decision for Robinson that was booed by the Chicago fans. Four years later LaMotta won the middleweight title and in 1951 Ray came looking for him. Everyone knew this would be the final battle and interest was high enough to put the match on the new medium of live national television. The bull stormed out of his corner in the early going but couldn’t get the knockout and instead it was Ray battering Jake all over the ring in rounds 12 and 13 before the famous massacre was finally stopped.
1. Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier: It is beyond all doubt that in the long history of pugilism no rivalry has had a bigger impact than that between Frazier and Ali. Their first fight will forever be one of the most anticipated sporting contests ever held, a clash between two undefeated claimants for the heavyweight championship that inspired global fascination. The bout itself somehow managed to live up to the hype, and if their second match was, by comparison, a level below in terms of ferocity and action, it was still a damn good heavyweight fight and a massive attraction. Their third and final struggle, the famous “Thrilla in Manila,” is universally acknowledged as one of the most brutal and hard-fought ever witnessed, arguably the greatest heavyweight slugfest of all-time.
Behind the scenes, Joe and Muhammad carried on a personal relationship that was as complex as it was acrimonious and which only served to make their battles in the ring that much more intense. But in the end, what sets Ali vs Frazier apart from all other rivalries is its wider significance, how it transcended not just boxing, but the entire sports world and influenced the broader culture. Simply put, no other rivalry in boxing history brought everything to a stand-still the way “Smokin’ Joe” vs “The Louisville Lip” did. Ali vs Frazier is, and always will be, the stuff of legend, a truly historic rivalry between genuine heavyweight titans which spilled out beyond boxing, transfixed millions, and shook the realms of religion, art, showbiz and politics.
Honourable Mentions: Joe Jeannette vs Sam McVea; Battling Levinsky vs Jack Dillon; Eddie Booker vs Archie Moore; Joe Gans vs Battling Nelson; Humberto Gonzalez vs Michael Carbajal; Lou Ambers vs Tony Canzoneri; Bobby Chacon vs Rafael Limon; Gene Tunney vs Harry Greb; Emile Griffith vs Luis Rodriguez; Beau Jack vs Ike Williams; Jimmy Carter vs Lauro Salas; Roberto Duran vs Esteban DeJesus; Erik Morales vs Marco Antonio Barrera; Tiger Flowers vs Harry Greb; Sam Langford vs Joe Jeannette; Ruben Olivares vs Chucho Castillo; Muhammad Ali vs Ken Norton; Micky Ward vs Arturo Gatti; Holman Williams vs Lloyd Marshall; Tony Canzoneri vs Jackie (Kid) Berg; Emile Griffith vs Benny Paret; Joey Giardello vs Dick Tiger; Betulio Gonzalez vs Shoji Oguma; Floyd Patterson vs Ingemar Johannson; Jersey Joe Walcott vs Ezzard Charles; Charley Burley vs Holman Williams; Sugar Ray Leonard vs Roberto Duran; Dick Tiger vs Gene Fullmer; Erik Morales vs Manny Pacquiao; Israel Vazquez vs Rafael Marquez; Harry Greb vs Tommy Gibbons; Beau Jack vs Bob Montgomery; Riddick Bowe vs Evander Holyfield; Ad Wolgast vs Battling Nelson; Greg Haugen vs Vinny Pazienza.