Yesterday we marked the anniversary of “The Thrilla In Manila,” and this week we’re slated to witness Tyson Fury vs Deontay Wilder III, so seems like a more than fitting occasion to spend some time with this stellar ranking of the all-time greatest, most thrilling, violent and hellacious heavyweight battles in the long history of the fight game, compiled with the erudite help of Patrick Connor. Plus, an extensive list of Honorable Mentions. Check ’em out:
12. Michael Moorer TKO5 Bert Cooper — May 15, 1992: This match was for the WBO heavyweight title, but no one took the WBO seriously and in the end the belt mattered far less than the incredible action resulting from this collision of big punchers with less-than-shockproof chins, always a recipe for excitement. Moorer was caught with a series of punches and sunk into the ropes less than a minute into the bout, but seconds later a counter right hand followed by a left sent Cooper sprawling. The slugfest stayed on the ropes and in the corners and in the third Moorer went down from a barrage, but his counters off the ropes kept him alive. It was Cooper’s penchant for wading forward into danger behind his cross-armed guard that opened him up for a half-dozen hard, flush punches that decided matters in round five.
11. Riddick Bowe UD12 Evander Holyfield — Nov. 13, 1992 : In another changing of the guard at heavyweight, Bowe and Holyfield fought for the first of three times in 1992. Bowe, undefeated at 31-0, enjoyed a 30 pound weight advantage over the former cruiserweight champion and had cultivated a serious temper as a professional, likely due to being labeled a quitter after his loss in the 1988 Olympics to Lennox Lewis. “I told him you are going to live with that tag until you reach the throne room,” said Bowe’s trainer Eddie Futch. And getting there was no picnic. The first nine rounds saw plenty of back-and-forth action and then came round ten, an absolute classic. “No heavyweight champion and challenger have ever fought a more heroic round,” wrote the late Pat Putnam for Sports Illustrated. A spirited effort from Holyfield in round eleven was turned away when Bowe floored him to seal a points win.
10. Evander Holyfield TKO10 Michael Dokes — March 11, 1989: “No one, in any lifetime, should be asked to summon that much courage, that much heart, short of wartime combat,” said Earl Gustkey of The Los Angeles Times after watching this donnybrook. It seemed unlikely that Holyfield, undefeated and opening as a 9-to-1 favorite, would have much trouble with a Dokes that was on the second leg of his career and had a history of drug abuse. The odds, even in narrowing to 3-to-1 by fight time, were wrong. The two men traded low blows in round one and proceeded to literally stand toe-to-toe and swap power punches. Round three saw Holyfield backed off by head shots, and in the fifth Dokes sent Evander to the ropes with a right hand, but the torrid pace couldn’t last. Holyfield’s body work was taking its toll. Just when it seemed the bigger man was fading, round eight produced more brutal exchanges, but it was Dokes’ final push. In round ten a left hook lowered Dokes’ guard and took his balance and seconds later the referee wisely halted a tremendous war.
9. Floyd Patterson KO6 Ingemar Johansson III — March 13, 1961: As heavyweight champions go, Patterson became known for being one that was particularly easy to hit and hurt. Johansson found Patterson’s chin plenty the first time they met in 1959, felling him seven times and scoring a massive upset. But Patterson got revenge with a left hook KO in their rematch the following year and was favored to retain the title in the rubber match. Odds went out the window as Patterson was cracked with a right hand and sent down hard in round one. He was given a mandatory eight count, a first in a heavyweight title bout, before another right hand sent him down moments later. Johansson sensed a chance to end the bout and attacked, but ran into a left hook that floored him. Needless to say, these two were made for each other. In round six Johansson doubled down with his right hand and landed it, but Patterson responded with a huge hook that connected on the Swede’s forehead and left him vulnerable to a series of right hands that sent him down for the count.
8. James Jeffries PTS25 Tom Sharkey — Nov. 3, 1899: In the words of Jeffries, “If ever there was a game and desperate fighter, Sharkey was the man.” He had to know; this was the second violent meeting between the two big men, their first for the title held by “The Boilermaker.” The “Irish Terror” hit the deck in round two but, true to form, Sharkey bounced up and took the fight back to the champion. The New York Tribune reported from ringside: “Sharkey forced the fighting, and was at his man with both hands unceasingly.” The difference between the two was Jeffries’ 20-pound advantage and the extra force in his punches as he rocked Sharkey badly in the 22nd round, but Sharkey roared back, his cauliflower ear wobbling and his eye squirting blood. It was a brutal affair, leaving both with various injuries including broken ribs for Sharkey who was inconsolable after the decision went to Jeffries. For decades this was widely considered the greatest fight in the history of the heavyweight championship.
7. Rocky Marciano KO13 Jersey Joe Walcott — Sept. 23, 1952: At 42-0 with 37 knockouts what Marciano brought to the ring against Walcott, the heavyweight champion in 1952, wasn’t a mystery. 60 years on and “The Brockton Blockbuster” is still pointed to as the ultimate example of a heavyweight brawler. In this bout, their first of two, Walcott met Marciano’s pushing and shoving in the opening round with several right hands and finally a short, quick left hook that sent Rocky down for the first time in his career. “I lost him. I should have finished it but he got away from me,” muttered a distraught Walcott after the fight. He almost had it and more hooks greeted Marciano when he got up, bloodying his mouth. But Rocky upped the pressure in rounds three and four and in the sixth he cut Walcott over the left eye and rattled him with his own hooks. Soon Walcott began using his legs, old as they were, and Marciano, bleeding from a cut atop his head and one between the eyes, had no answers and was rocked again in rounds 11 and 12. Round 13 came and desperation set in; when Walcott backed to the ropes, a gut wrenching right hand bomb exploded on the champion’s face and put him to sleep.
6. Larry Holmes SD15 Ken Norton — June 9, 1978: Holmes vs Norton is the tale of several fights all rolled into one with a hearty side order of boxing politics as Ken Norton was gifted the WBC belt after new champion Leon Spinks ignored that organization’s edict to face Norton or risk losing his belt. Spinks instead took a rematch with Muhammad Ali, while Norton was ordered to face the winner of a so-called “eliminator” fight between Larry Holmes and Earnie Shavers. The bottom line was a champion who had never won a championship fight defended his title against a legit top contender and the result was an unforgettable 15 round war. Holmes jabbed and flurried his way to a commanding lead through the first few rounds before Norton came alive, stunning the younger man in rounds six and seven with huge shots. It wasn’t until the late rounds that Holmes got his jab working again and by then it had very little pepper on it, but he took round 13 with a series of right hand bombs. Norton rallied in the next round and the stage was set for an unforgettable finish. A mixture of exhaustion and determination kept Holmes and Norton firing at one another in round 15, a three minute stanza The Ring would slot at number seven on their list of “The 12 Most Exciting Rounds in Boxing History.”
5. Joe Jeannette RTD49 Sam McVea — April 17, 1909: “Poor old fellow,” McVea said while visiting Napoleon Bonaparte’s tomb. “He fought once too often.” With boxing drawing the attention of Paris’ wealthiest and stateliest families, the sport caught on something fierce in the early 20th century. And the first non-French superstar was Sam McVea, who at under six-feet-tall weighed more than 220 pounds. McVea had defeated the talented Jeannette in February of 1909, but there was speculation the outcome had been fixed. The lax regulation on the French scene made it plausible and the two signed to meet again. What transpired two months later is virtually mythological. A number of sources later claimed the match included 38 knockdowns though this has never been convincingly verified. While firsthand accounts don’t mention McVea going down, Jeannette indeed was sent lateral numerous times and was kept in the fight by the oxygen his corner gave him in balloons between rounds. The bout was described by some as scientific and lacking in ferocity, but by the end the opposing corners were drowned in crimson. After 48 full rounds, McVea’s corner threw in the sponge as their warrior’s eyes were closed and he had no more left to give.
4. George Foreman KO5 Ron Lyle — Jan. 24, 1976: “The thing about Lyle was he was completely unafraid and challenged me at ring center,” Foreman stated in a 2014 interview with RingTV. “Nobody, other than Sonny Liston in sparring, stood and punched it out with me with any success.” A clash of truly big men with big power, this was a slugfest from the opening bell. Lyle rocked Foreman with a right hand in the opening round, but the second saw Foreman return the favor before the timekeeper rang the bell a minute early. Foreman pinned Lyle to the ropes in the third, hammering away with his wide, heavy shots, but a right hand crumbled Foreman to the canvas in the fourth. George rose to send Lyle’s mouthpiece sailing with his own right hand before discarding him under the bottom rope with a left. Up and still feisty, Lyle put the ex-champion down once more in the round’s closing seconds. The fifth and final round was a true war of attrition on its own, with both fighters putting all their energy into any punch they could land. Lyle found himself trapped in a corner and pummeled relentlessly until he went down for the last time. The victory stood as Foreman’s brutish answer to media criticism of his heart and will.
3. Joe Frazier UD15 Muhammad Ali I — March 8, 1971: It was “The Fight of the Century,” producing what was unquestionably one of the best wins in boxing history. It was too hot a ticket for Frank Sinatra, and it helped bring down prolific heroin dealer Frank Lucas. One of every 10 people on the face of the planet watched the fight live in 1971 as Ali, exiled champion and political pawn, returned to try and snatch his title out of the grasp of Frazier, who he demonized as a sellout. In truth, Frazier had lent Ali money and support, even going so far as to appeal to President Nixon to reinstate Ali’s license. Now Ali would pay the price for his betrayal. Though he demonstrated blinding speed with his combinations in the opening rounds, Ali couldn’t keep Frazier at bay and the latter bobbed low to lessen the impact on Ali’s punches. The action was truly back and forth with neither man dominating. Finally in round 11 a hook caught Ali and he fell into the ropes, clearly shaken. Beaten up but not beaten, Ali settled down in rounds 12 through 14 and regained some of his early momentum. Then Joe unleashed an unholy left hook that crashed Ali to the canvas and sealed the win. That night Joe Frazier became a legend.
2. Jack Dempsey KO2 Luis Firpo — Sept. 24, 1923: The ferocity displayed in this wild brawl is, even today, almost startling. The constant wrestling and jockeying for position is foreign to contemporary fans, but to “The Manassa Mauler” it was heaven, and exactly where he wanted to be. Through 65 contests, few fighters were able to contain Dempsey’s rage, but Firpo, “The Wild Bull of the Pampas,” met the aggression head-on. Such folly was Firpo’s undoing, but it made for one of the most electrifying clashes in heavyweight history. Seven times the Argentinian was down, but nearing the end of the round a right hand pushed Dempsey through the ropes and just about onto his head outside of the ring. Members of the ringside press helped Dempsey climb back through the ropes and resume his attack. As round two began Dempsey landed a series of punches that had Firpo drooping to the canvas. Loathe to make the same mistake again, Dempsey descended upon Firpo when he rose, landing a combination capped off by a left and right to the jaw that put his lights out.
1. Muhammad Ali RTD14 Joe Frazier — Oct. 1, 1975: Not only was the “Thrilla in Manila” voted “Fight of the Year” by The Ring in 1975, but in the 40 years since this epic clash has been pointed to as a shining example of everything wrong and right with boxing. The action was glorious, but only because both men had deteriorated after being strained through an amazingly deep heavyweight division, and that included an unheralded rematch between them. Frazier couldn’t move as much to avoid Ali’s combinations, and Ali fought more stationary than in their great first meeting though the character of the fight developed the same way. Ali was proactive and took advantage of Frazier’s slow start, scoring with combinations while on his front foot. But the champion couldn’t keep the pace at his age and Frazier’s body work was two times a monster when coupled with the oppressive heat. Ali appeared done, but then Frazier, human after all, punched himself out. When the rounds reached the double digits Ali took control and Frazier’s eyes swelled grotesquely, but Joe wouldn’t quit. So unreal was Frazier’s resolve that Ali contemplated quitting himself despite landing his right hand repeatedly. After a 14th round of mutual punishment, Frazier’s trainer Eddie Futch made the call to save his fighter. It was later revealed Frazier fought literally blind in one eye for several rounds. Ali famously later said, “It was like death. The closest thing to dying that I know of.” What better way to confirm greatness than against each other?
Honorable Mentions: James J. Jeffries vs Robert Fitzsimmons II; Mike Weaver vs Gerrie Coetzee; Ron Lyle vs Earnie Shavers; Evander Holyfield vs Bert Cooper; David Tua vs Ike Ibeabuchi; Muhammad Ali vs Leon Spinks I; Lennox Lewis vs Vitali Klitschko; Rocky Marciano vs Archie Moore; Mike Weaver vs Michael Dokes II; Joe Louis vs Tommy Farr; Jersey Joe Walcott vs Ezzard Charles III; Derrick Jefferson vs Maurice Harris; Muhammad Ali vs George Foreman; Michael Moorer vs Alex Stewart; Sam Langford vs Harry Wills II; Randall Cobb vs Earnie Shavers; Bert Cooper vs Henry Tillman; Rocky Marciano vs Ezzard Charles II; Floyd Patterson vs George Chuvalo; Lamon Brewster vs Serguei Lyakhovich; Evander Holyfield vs Mike Tyson I; Tommy Morrison vs Razor Ruddock; Alex Stewart vs Ezra Sellers; Ken Norton vs Scott LeDoux; Dillon Carman vs Eric Martel Bahoeli; Evander Holyfield vs Michael Moorer II; Ray Mercer vs Bert Cooper; Joe Frazier vs Jerry Quarry I; Andrew Golota vs Corey Sanders; Chris Arreola vs Travis Walker; James Douglas vs Mike Tyson.