For the purposes of this list, a great victory is one secured in the face of an overwhelming disadvantage, or taken at the expense of a truly all-time great fighter, with no mitigating factors (ie. poor conditioning, injury, etc.) influencing the outcome. Naturally, a host of bouts fulfill this criteria, but these are the most extraordinary and consequential. In every instance, a remarkable performance was required to secure a victory against a true great, or to overcome a significant stumbling block, or both. Selected with the input of expert boxing analyst Lee Wylie, here are pugilism’s all-time greatest victories.
12. Feb. 23, 1900: Joe Walcott TKO7 Joe Choynski. Some called Choynski the best heavyweight contender to never win the title as he competed favorably with such luminaries as Corbett and Fitzsimmons and handed the great Jack Johnson a rare knockout loss. Amazingly, “The Barbados Demon,” fully thirty-six pounds lighter and a full foot shorter, knocked Choynski down five times in the opening round and went on to batter him into submission with relative ease.
11. March 6, 1976: Wilfred Benitez W15 Antonio Cervantes. Cervantes, aka the great “Kid Pambele,” had been a world champ for over four years, successfully defending his title against the likes of Hector Thompson and Esteban De Jesus. And yet somehow a kid who was just 17-years-old — 17 years, 5 months, and 23 days to be precise — outclassed him over fifteen rounds to become the youngest world champion in boxing history.
10. March 17, 1897: Bob Fitzsimmons KO14 James J. Corbett. Needless to say, middleweights don’t often jump up to heavyweight and win the world title, but that’s exactly what Fitzsimmons did, stopping the skilled Corbett with a paralyzing left hook to the body on his way to becoming boxing’s first triple crown king.
9. Feb. 5, 1943: Jake LaMotta W10 Sugar Ray Robinson. Only one man defeated Sugar Ray in the first decade of his amazing career and that single win has to be considered one of the great ones. LaMotta broke the undefeated streak of “The Prince Of Harlem” with an inspired rally in their second meeting, knocking the great Sugar Ray out of the ring in the process. It would prove to be the only defeat suffered by Robinson while he was still in his prime.
8. Feb. 11, 1949: Willie Pep W15 Sandy Saddler. The first time around Saddler shocked Pep and the boxing world by scoring a clean knockout over one of the greatest defensive boxers of all-time. Few thought the “Will o’ the Wisp” could rebound against his bigger, more powerful foe, but in the rematch Pep gave perhaps his most extraordinary performance, out-boxing fellow great Saddler to take a one-sided decision.
7. Dec. 8, 1903: Sam Langford W15 Joe Gans. Gans, aka “The Old Master,” was the Michael Jordan of boxing at this time and the lightweight world champ. “The Boston Bonecrusher,” who would go on to establish himself as both an all-time great and the greatest boxer to never win a world title, was only 17-years-old when he got the better of him. The fact Gans had competed just one night before does not detract from Langford’s astonishing accomplishment, but, unfortunately for Sam, Joe’s title was not on the line.
6. Jan. 21, 1944: Eddie Booker TKO8 Archie Moore. A clash between one of boxing’s most avoided boxers and one of its most prolific. Considering that Archie, boxing’s all-time knockout king, was in his prime and had yet to be stopped is enough to make this a truly great win. The fact Booker fought with impaired vision makes it extraordinary.
5. Ezzard Charles W10 Charley Burley, May 25, 1942. Few boxers have been as avoided as the legendary Charley Burley. Even such greats as Billy Conn and Ray Robinson were protected from facing him, such was his talent. Which makes Charles’ dominant win in 1942 truly astounding as the 20-year-old “Cincinnati Cobra,” coming in as a late substitute no less, knocked a prime Burley down and almost stopped him. Burley fared little better in the immediate rematch.
4. Oct. 30, 1974: Muhammad Ali KO8 George Foreman. Ali, 32-years-old, had suffered defeat to both Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, the two men Foreman had demolished to assume supremacy. How could he possibly overcome a champion who was bigger, stronger, younger and far more powerful? A stunning display of boxing skill allowed Ali to once again shake up the world and regain the title.
3. March 19, 1943: Sammy Angott W10 Willie Pep. No one disputes Pep’s standing as one of the all-time greats and perhaps the best defensive fighter ever. He reeled off 62 straight wins before dropping a close decision to Angott in Madison Square Garden, after which he went undefeated for another 72 fights. Angott is the only boxer to defeat Pep when the “Will o’ the Wisp” was at his best.
2. June 20, 1980: Roberto Duran W15 Sugar Ray Leonard. The new “Sugar Ray” had been on an impressive winning streak, in the process establishing himself as the best welterweight, and the best active fighter, pound-for-pound, in the world. Many thought Duran, moving up from lightweight and with the wear and tear of 72 pro fights, was biting off more than he could chew, but “Manos de Piedra” gave a performance for the ages in an absolutely sensational fight to win by close, but unanimous, decision.
1. March 8, 1971: Joe Frazier W15 Muhammad Ali. This monumental battle, a clash between two undefeated heavyweight champions that brought the whole world to a stand-still, will forever be one of the most significant fights of all-time and one of the most thrilling heavyweight wars ever, featuring as it does one of the greatest performances in all of boxing history.
The smaller Frazier set the pace and, despite absorbing tremendous punishment, relentlessly took the fight to Ali, punctuating his comprehensive win with a dramatic, final round knockdown. No other boxer ever defeated as strong a version of Ali, who many, if not most, rank as the best heavyweight of all-time. And it took everything Smokin’ Joe had to triumph in arguably the biggest, most keenly anticipated match in pugilistic history. Joe was never the same ever after, a fact reflecting what it took to beat “The Greatest” when Ali was still truly great.