The Ten Greatest Heavyweight Fights of All Time - Part One
15.06.07 - By Scott Crouse: We’ve recently been reminded once again of the abysmal and dreadfully dull state of today’s heavyweight division. It’s become a painfully monotonous pattern that after every heavyweight fight we are left disappointed, frustrated, and yearning for heavyweights who fight like they actually give a damn.
Article posted on 16.06.2007
Whether the future will deliver such fighters only time--and a great deal of patience--will tell. In the meantime, while we obsess over such a future we can remember the past, enjoying the fights and fighters who took pride in their ring-performances and understood their role as warriors and entertainers, and much like the ancient gladiators fought in such a way as to “win the crowd,” not put them to sleep.
The following is my top ten list of those crowd-winning fights--the greatest heavyweight fights of all time. Throughout this article I use the term ‘greatest’ to mean primarily ‘most entertaining‘. I don’t mean the most significant or most celebrated so there’s no Louis vs. Schmeling, or Dempsey vs. Tunney. My focus is on those fights that were so brutally unforgettable that they registered a permanent impression on those who watched them and left no fan feeling empty and unsatisfied. Also, please remember these are merely my opinions based upon the fights I’ve seen and/or read about.
Every boxing fan sees a particular fight through his own eyes and forms his own opinion, so I expect some disagreement with some of the fights I’ve chosen or where I’ve ranked them. Argument is better than apathy, so your comments are welcome.
10. Floyd Patterson KO6 Ingemar Johansson: March 13, 1961.
This thrilling ring-war was the rubber match between these two, each of whom owned a knockout victory over the other. Johansson had won their first meeting in 1959 by lowering “The Hammer of Thor”--otherwise known as his right hand--upon the head of Patterson, knocking him down seven times in the third round, forcing referee Ruby Goldstein to stop the one-sided “hammering.”
Their second fight took place almost one year later and this time Patterson, humiliated by his defeat at the fists of the Swede the first time around, turned the tables in a manner that couldn’t have been more definitive. A titanic and perfectly timed left hook left Johansson lying on the canvas in round five, his leg twitching uncontrollably in a chilling display of power and personal vengeance. This victory gave Patterson two impressive records: not only had he been the youngest heavyweight champion in history, but now he had become the only former heavyweight champ to regain his title. With history already attained the third fight was simply to settle a score.
Not since the grudge fight between Tony Zale and Rocky Graziano thirteen years before had the hype prior to a fight been so full of violent expectations. Given that the first two fights were loaded with action and concluded with devastating knockouts it was only logical to expect the third to be as evenly fought and dramatically concluded--the only question was, who would have his hand raised when the fury ended?
Those who hoped for fireworks got their wish almost immediately in round one as they witnessed one of the most exciting rounds in heavyweight history. Johansson knocked Patterson flat on his back with, what else, his right hand, painfully reminding Floyd of the damage “Toonder” inflicted in their first fight. Patterson got up quickly but was just as quickly floored again, this time by Johansson’s overlooked and often underused left hand set up by another thunderous right. The fight was looking very much like their first encounter when Floyd suddenly unleashed hell in the form of a left hook dropping Johansson and sending him--and everyone watching--the message that all similarities to their first fight were now over.
Although the rest of the fight couldn’t match the explosiveness of the first round it was still savagely fought, both men throwing punches designed to give the ringside judges an early night off. By the end of the third round these punches had opened cuts over the left eyes of both fighters. Entering the sixth it was still anybody’s fight until a left from Patterson followed by a well-placed right hit Johansson high on the side of his head. It didn’t look as powerful as the other punches Johansson had taken for five-and-a-half rounds, but it landed in the perfect spot and Ingo’s legs were gone. He struggled to stand up, but couldn’t beat the referee’s count giving Patterson the fight and the knockout victory in the best fight of their classic trilogy.
9. Larry Holmes W15 Ken Norton: June 8, 1978.
It’s a travesty this ring classic was overshadowed at the time by Muhammad Ali’s two fights with Leon Spinks because it was far better than either of them and one of the most exciting heavyweight fights of all time.
Ken Norton was almost thirty-five years old and a true ring veteran having fought for over ten years against the very best of a heavyweight division considered by historians as the greatest ever. After Leon Spinks upset Ali for his title he refused to give Norton a shot, opting instead for a more lucrative rematch with Ali. The WBC, in one of their earliest moves of imbecility, stripped Spinks of their version of the heavyweight title. They awarded it to Norton and mandated that he make his first defense against a promising and undefeated heavyweight from Easton, PA.
Larry Holmes, a former sparring partner of Ali, earned his title fight with Norton when he surprised many by soundly outpointing the powerfully built and menacing Ernie Shavers over twelve rounds. His victory set the stage for a fight which, although underrated at the time, gave the boxing world one of its greatest battles.
Holmes controlled the early rounds with his rapier-like left jab and deadly accurate right hands. He built an early lead but Norton was just getting warmed up. In the middle rounds the man who broke Ali’s jaw and knocked out Duane Bobick in less than one (the same Bobick who ended Holmes’ Olympic dreams in the 1972 Olympic Box-Offs) began to find the range with his overhand right to Holmes’ jaw bloodying his mouth and rudely welcoming Holmes to his first championship fight.
The fight had the makings of a classic throughout, but it was the fifteenth round that earned it a place as one of history’s greatest. Going into the final round the fight was even on all three judges’ scorecards. Fourteen hard-fought rounds had now, appropriately, come down to just one. Holmes landed monstrous rights and uppercuts, while Norton battered Holmes with his left hook and overhand right. They stood toe-to-toe trading punches in what would be considered fake if seen in a Hollywood movie. In the end, Holmes edged Norton on two of the judges’ scorecards and earned a split decision along with the title. Although the title had been villainously stripped from Spinks it was valiantly earned by Holmes in this classic fight.
8. Rocky Marciano KO13 Jersey Joe Walcott: September 23, 1952.
To say that Jersey Joe Walcott was a ring veteran would be like saying Sugar Ray Robinson had a pretty good career. He had been fighting for twenty-two years and had finally won the heavyweight championship in his fifth attempt against Ezzard Charles on July 18, 1951. In a foreboding of how he would ultimately lose the title he knocked Charles out with one devastating left hand in the seventh round--“live by the sword, die by the sword,” it’s been said.
To Walcott’s thirty-eight years, Marciano was merely a pup at twenty-nine. With an impressive record of 42-0, and 37 kayos, Marciano lacked Walcott’s vast experience but possessed something Walcott had long lost--invulnerability. Marciano had never tasted defeat and would spend the rest of his career battling savagely to keep it that way.
On September 23, 1952, at Municipal Stadium, Philadelphia, over forty thousand fans filled the arena in anticipation of a good fight. What they saw was downright spectacular. Giving away two inches in height, twelve inches in weight, and nothing in heart, Rocky went after Walcott right at the opening bell. But if he thought he might catch the champion off guard it was Marciano who was surprised as Walcott gave as furiously as he received. Less than a minute into the round Jersey Joe hit the onrushing Marciano with a clean left hook, sending his challenger to the seat of his trunks for the first time in his career. More embarrassed than hurt, Rocky got back up and went again at Walcott displaying the iron-will and imperviousness to pain which would be the trademark of his soon-to-begin title reign.
The champion dominated the middle rounds, rocking Rocky on numerous occasions and drawing blood from his scalp and the bridge of his nose. Marciano never stopped moving forward, throwing and landing punches to whatever part of the body he could--the arms, shoulders, and midsection--eventually cutting Walcott around his left eye and ensuring that the blood being spilled on the canvas wasn’t just his own.
After twelve merciless and unyielding rounds, the champ had a comfortable lead on all three judges’ scorecards. If Marciano was to win the title he would have to knock the champion out--a champion who up to this point was fighting one of the best fights of his seventy-fight career.
The thirteenth round began with Marciano stalking Walcott as he had for most of the fight, but now with a greater sense of urgency. At the forty-three second mark of the round as Walcott’s back touched the ropes, he tried to throw his patented sneaky left hook, but all the arm and body punches he had taken slowed him down just enough for Rocky to beat him to the punch and detonate a perfectly-timed straight right hand to his chin. It was called by the Associated Press, “the hardest punch ever thrown in world championship boxing” and it was beautiful even in its brutality. The now ex-champ slumped to the canvas, his left arm draped over the ropes and his head touching the floor almost in a symbolic position of obeisance, bowing to his mighty conqueror and the new king of the division.
The punch that ended the fight was one of the most explosive in ring history. It was what Marciano called his “Suzy Q,” although I’m sure Walcott had a few other names for it, none of them printable. It was one of the most dramatic endings to one of the most entertaining fights in history in any weight class.
7. James J. Corbett KO27 Joe Choynski: June 5, 1889.
Don’t let the nickname “Gentleman” Jim fool you; he was anything but a gentleman in the ring, especially when it came to battling perennial contender and perpetual thorn-in-the-side Joe Choynski. When they fought their twenty-seven round war in the second of their three “grudge” fights--for the rancor between them was so great that every time they met in the ring it was considered a grudge fight--it was behavior anything but befitting a gentleman.
Corbett and Choynski had but a handful of fights between them when they first met on May 30, 1889, in a barn near Fairfax, California. The bout was stopped in the fourth round by the local sheriff but resumed six days later on a barge anchored off Benicia in the San Francisco Bay. Although technically a resumption of their first encounter it was recognized as their second fight and became famously known as “the battle on the barge.”
The action was fast and furious from the very beginning as Choynski went right at Corbett with the intention of hurting his rival from the outset. Joe was aware that Corbett had seriously injured his right thumb in their abbreviated fight in the barn a week ago and fought in a way that might take advantage of the injury. Corbett responded by using his left repeatedly to bloody Choynski’s face over the first two rounds.
Undeterred, Joe kept coming forward. The fight turned temporarily in his favor when Corbett broke his left hand in the third round and re-injured his right thumb in the fourth. In addition to this, Choynski was wearing buckskin gloves which had three heavy seams going down the back of each. Every time he hit Corbett he left three red welts on his face and body which soon opened up and left him a bloody mess.
In the fourteenth round, Choynski rocked Corbett with a tremendous left that caused his right eye and cheekbone to swell and momentarily had him out on his feet to the degree that Corbett’s brother, Harry, ran to the other side of the barge and proceeded to cry over what he believed to be his vanquished sibling.
But “Gentleman” Jim was not vanquished, nor would he be on this day. Choynski was exhausted and Corbett took advantage bloodying the face of his opponent so badly that they both were slipping around the deck in the blood. By the middle of the fight several spectators had to turn away, visibly nauseous from the gore and the referee on more than one occasion asked the fighters to quit and accept a draw. But this rivalry was so intense and full of malice that both fighters professed a desire to die rather than give in.
Although Choynski appeared outwardly the worse of the two, it was anybody’s fight up until the moment it ended in the twenty-seventh round when Corbett, himself virtually out on his feet and unable to raise either hand, let a left hook fly with every ounce of energy he had left. The punch, thrown almost blindly and in desperation, landed precisely on Choynski’s jaw and floored him for the count of ten.
Corbett could hardly believe what had happened and, due to his extreme fatigue, had to ask his manager, Billy Delaney, what had just taken place. “You knocked him out, Jim,” Delaney responded. Delaney, who would also manage heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries, would later declare that this fight was the hardest he had ever seen. Corbett himself described the fight as “agony…almost beyond human endurance.”
Choynski would go on to fight many of the top heavyweights of the day, including Bob Fitzsimmons, Tom Sharkey, Jim Jeffries, and future champ Jack Johnson in 1901, whom he knocked out in three rounds. Corbett went on to even greater things becoming the first and only man to defeat the legendary John L. Sullivan and winning the heavyweight championship of the world in 1892. But even that accomplishment pales compared to the magnificently brutal “battle on the barge.”
6. Joe Frazier W15 Muhammad Ali: March 8, 1971.
If this list were about the most enthusiastically hyped heavyweight fights the first Ali-Frazier battle would be number one. Never in the history of boxing has a fight been as eagerly anticipated by fans and as profoundly and immediately rewarding to those fans as this classic. Billed as “The Fight of the Century,” it more than lived up to it.
The fight was scheduled for March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden and was a boxing fan’s dream. You had two vastly talented and undefeated heavyweights both claiming to be the rightful champion. This fight would finally determine who was the best heavyweight in the world and clear up once and for all the confusing heavyweight title picture left a mess when Ali was deposed for refusing induction into the military.
The arena was filled with over twenty-thousand screaming, ravenous fans and celebrities. The atmosphere was electrically charged with the apprehension of something breath-taking and earth-shattering about to happen. The feverish crowd got its money’s worth as soon as the bell rang as Frazier went right at his man throwing his lethal left hooks with deadly determination and backing Ali with his constant pressure. For his part, Ali scored well in the early rounds hitting Frazier with combinations and throwing his punches flat-footed, straining to put every ounce of his career high 215 pounds into them. Frazier, at a trim 205 pounds, was undaunted even with a face that was rapidly swelling from Ali’s lightning-quick barrages.
Frazier’s tidal wave-like relentlessness and bull-like aggressiveness were taking their toll on Ali, although he tried to hide it by smiling, talking, posturing and shaking his head every time the champ hit him cleanly--which was often. Going into the later rounds it was a fairly even fight, with Frazier landing big left hooks to Ali’s head and body, the power of which had destroyed twenty-three of twenty-six prior opponents, and Ali responding with solid two, three, and four-punch combinations to Frazier’s head which would have stopped a less determined foe. But on this particular night Smokin’ Joe was unstoppable and he finally rocked Ali in the eleventh with a monstrous left hook, followed by several other damaging blows, which had the former champ reeling and unsteady on his feet.
Although Ali fought back bravely, Frazier had the momentum now and solidified his impressive victory with a smashing left hook in the fifteenth which put Ali on his back with over two-and-a-half minutes remaining in the round. The crowd went into a frenzy as Frazier viciously and unsympathetically tried to finish Ali for good. But Ali, jaw broken and grotesquely swollen, would demonstrate that beneath the playful exterior was a heart of solid steel. He not only finished the fight on his feet, but was throwing punches up until the final bell.
Joe Frazier won the unanimous decision and became the universally recognized heavyweight champion of the world. This incredible fight would be the highlight of Joe’s career and the night which cemented his all-time status as one of history’s greatest heavyweights. It would also be remembered as one of those rare occasions in boxing history where the action in the ring surpassed the pre-fight hysteria and gave the fans a reason to believe they had witnessed something extraordinary and utterly unforgettable.
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