They come along in fits and starts and sometimes years can pass before they’re ever seen from again, but when they happen, they inspire millions and bring fresh life-blood to a sport that is forever in dire need of it. Prizefighting, it seems, is always teetering on the edge of relevancy, threatening to remain nothing more than “the red-light district” of professional sports. But then a match-up emerges at the right time, a pairing of unique and special talents, and suddenly everyone, not just fight fans, can’t wait to see the two stars collide. Just like that, boxing goes from a sideshow for the unwashed masses to an attraction bringing together every stratum of society, as a glittering line-up of red-carpet celebrities waves to the camera at ringside.
Consider, for example, the scene in Chicago on the night of the second championship fight between Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey. In addition to numerous politicians, captains of industry and assorted Astors, Rockefellers, and Vanderbilts, to be found ringside was John Barrymore, Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Douglas Fairbanks, Al Jolson, Irving Berlin, Joseph Pulitzer and Ty Cobb, just to name a few. As promoter Tex Rickard boasted to a journalist that night, “I’ve got in those ten rows all the world’s wealth, all the world’s big men, all the world’s brains and production talent. Just in them ten rows.”
Superfights. The term was coined in the 1970s, inspired by the legendary warriors whose first historic clash happened 45 years ago today. Ali vs Frazier I was so big, so much in demand, it needed almost no promotion. The organizers didn’t bother coming up with a catchy slogan or title because the match transcended all hype. They just called it “The Fight” and it became a global phenomenon.
It was the first ever match between two undefeated boxers who both held legit claims to the heavyweight championship of the world and who both happened to be Olympic gold medalists. Ali had won the title in 1964 by defeating Sonny Liston, but then a few years later had lost both his championship and boxing license after he refused to be drafted into the U.S. military. As his legal case wound through the courts, he officially retired so a new champion could be crowned. Joe Frazier pounded out a series of knockout wins over the top fighters in the division and became the new king. Then Ali finally emerged from his exile and the moment he did, the world couldn’t wait to see these two duke it out.
It proved to be the most watched sporting event in world history up to that point, with both champions taking home record pay-cheques, unheard of sums for professional athletes, as millions of people put down their money to watch the biggest fight in boxing history. Thankfully, after all that build-up, the match more than lived up to the hype; Ali and Frazier battled with astonishing ferocity and produced a 15 round classic. Smokin’ Joe may have got the judges’ decision, but the real winners were boxing fans, who witnessed two extraordinary performances and one of the truly great showdowns in the sport’s history.
But if Ali vs Frazier was perhaps the most magnificent “superfight” of them all, it is hardly alone in terms of big money boxing matches which captured the public’s imagination. High profile clashes have been around since the sport’s beginnings, but how do we define a superfight and separate it from the merely “big” fights in boxing history? And which ones are the best?
The first criteria is the match-up itself. As in romance, for real fireworks to happen, there has to be chemistry, that certain volatile mix involving the contrasting personalities or ring styles of the two fighters. Often this is helped along by a creative promoter who finds the perfect angle by which to create interest and entice the public. No one was better at this than Rickard, the man behind the biggest fights of the ‘Roaring Twenties,’ including the first ever million dollar gate which happened in 1921 when genuine war hero and light heavyweight champion Georges Carpentier clashed with known “slacker” Jack Dempsey.
Or sometimes the irresistible match-up involves an inspiring underdog story, such as when light heavyweight Billy Conn challenged dominant heavyweight king Joe Louis, or when Muhammad Ali journeyed to Africa to battle George Foreman. Or it can simply be a case of two champions whose talent and standing is such that absolutely no one can say with any degree of certainty who should be favored to win. In the end, a superfight is always the answer to a hugely compelling question.
A second characteristic of the biggest superfights in boxing history is they often involve some form of emerging technology. The Dempsey vs Carpentier clash was the first major sporting event to be broadcast on radio. Thirty years later, the final battle between Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta was one of the first big fights to take advantage of home television. The Ali vs Frazier matches of the ’70s maximized the potential of closed-circuit television, while the huge Mike Tyson vs Michael Spinks fight cemented pay-per-view as the new way to earn even bigger paydays for all involved. In every case, the sheer popularity of a particular match-up made it the perfect vehicle to introduce new technologies to the world and bring boxing to an even wider audience.
But if the anticipation of a perfect match-up inspires massive audiences, in the end the contest itself must live up to the billing if it is to be regarded as a true ‘superfight.’ This doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be as tightly contested and thrillingly dramatic as Ali vs Frazier I most certainly was; a dominant knockout such as Dempsey served to Carpentier offers its own kind of thrills, as it turns a great champion into something larger than life.
But it must not be a disappointment, a letdown which provides nothing in the way of excitement or a satisfying conclusion. Sadly, Exhibit A for this species of events must now be the phenomenon which came to be known as #MayPac, last year’s long-awaited showdown between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. In terms of money and anticipation, this match will go down in history as one of the biggest events of its kind in sports history, but as a “superfight” it takes its place alongside such other busts as De La Hoya vs Trinidad, Ali vs Holmes and “the bite fight,” Holyfield vs Tyson II.
But let us not dwell on such unhappy memories. In honor of the anniversary of Ali vs Frazier I, perhaps the greatest “superfight” of them all, we’re going to stick with a selection of the best, and for the next seven days take a shamelessly nostalgic look at only the most anticipated and thrilling of boxing’s big money battles. These are the fights which inspired not only huge crowds and massive paydays, but also tremendous performances and exhilarating action, and brought new fans to “The Sweet Science.”
Welcome to Seven Days Of Superfights.