The Ten Greatest Heavyweight Fights of All Time Part Two

foreman22.06.07 - By Scott Crouse:

10. Floyd Patterson KO6 Ingemar Johansson: March 13, 1961.
9. Larry Holmes W15 Ken Norton: June 8, 1978.
8. Rocky Marciano KO13 Jersey Joe Walcott:September 23,1952.
7. James J. Corbett KO27 Joe Choynski: June 5, 1889.
6. Joe Frazier W15 Muhammad Ali: March 8, 1971.

5. James J. Jeffries W25 Tom Sharkey: November 3, 1899.

Jeffries and Sharkey fought the last heavyweight championship fight of the nineteenth century--and what a fight! Their bloody and unbelievably brutal title fight ended the 1800’s, not with a bang, but with a nuclear detonation.

Tom Sharkey just might have been one of the toughest and most hard-nosed pugs of all time. Born Nov. 26, 1873 in Dundalk, Ireland, he ran away from home at an early age and went to sea as a cabin boy. He eventually enlisted in the U.S. Navy where he began his boxing career while stationed in Hawaii. His naval experience earned him the moniker “Sailor” Tom Sharkey, a nickname reinforced by the large tattoo of a battleship on his chest. He secured his fierce reputation as a straightforward, no-holds-barred brawler with wins over Joe Choynski and Bob Fitzsimmons, a draw with “Gentleman” Jim Corbett and a close decision loss in twenty rounds to Jeffries in 1898.

Meanwhile, James J. Jeffries had won the heavyweight championship of the world with an eleventh round knockout of Bob Fitzsimmons in Coney Island, New York. Jeffries was described by his contemporaries as “bear-like” due to his hairy upper body and burly chest and shoulders. He fought like a bear too--mauling and manhandling his opponents in an animalistic manner, all thirteen of them so far without a loss.

Jeffries’ first title defense was a rematch with Sharkey at Coney Island in a twenty-five round battle which was called by the New York Times, “the fiercest that the American fight-going public ever witnessed.” The action was intense from the very beginning as Sharkey was the aggressor rushing at the champ with a hell-bent determination. He paid for his recklessness in the second round as the thickly-built Jeffries countered with a left that dropped him for a count of six. Astonishingly, this would be the only knockdown of the fight.

The fight progressed as it had begun--Sharkey the aggressor and Jeffries countering his mad rushes with bludgeoning lefts and rights to both Sharkey’s head and midsection. By the eighth round Jeffries was already noticeably fatigued and Sharkey’s left eye was bleeding profusely, but these two noble warriors were just getting started.

By the fifteenth round Sharkey had split Jeffries’ nose wide open and the sight of his opponents’ blood drove Sharkey into a demonic frenzy. Jeffries withstood Sharkey’s fury with confidence and poise, countering with punches that would’ve felled a small building, or at the very least, a weaker opponent. In the eighteenth round “Sailor” Tom landed a left hook that shook the champ “from the top of his head to the soles of his feet.” But on this particular night the unstoppable force hit the immovable object and the immovable object won.

Beginning in the twenty-first round Jeffries began to take over the fight as Sharkey had given his all and come up empty. Two right uppercuts in the twenty-second round by Jeffries had Sharkey wobbling back to his corner at the end. Jeffries staggered his gallant challenger again in the twenty-third and had him almost out on his feet as the bell sounded to end the twenty-fifth round and the fight, at which point referee George Siler immediately raised Jeffries’ hand in triumph.

It had been a hellish journey in attrition and endurance--Jeffries had a broken nose, several cuts, and innumerable bruises over his entire torso from the body blows of Sharkey. Sharkey, for his part, had numerous cuts and several broken ribs, one of which was actually protruding from his body during the fight.

Another factor which made this fight so agonizing for the combatants was this was the first championship fight to be filmed for motion pictures. As a result, there were 400 arc lamps placed above the ring and close enough to the fighters that the heat they generated burned and blistered the tops of their heads. This truly was a spectacle of unbelievable courage and perseverance in the face of nightmarish conditions and violence that was utterly profound.

4. George Foreman KO5 Ron Lyle: January 24, 1976.

On February 4, 1976, an earthquake was recorded in Guatemala that registered 7.5 on the Richter scale. It was probably an aftershock from the Foreman-Lyle fight a week-and-a-half earlier in Las Vegas, Nevada. This heavyweight classic was as Howard Cosell put it when he called the fight, “utterly without boxing skills,” but what it did have was excitement, drama, and pure, exhilarating, almost apocalyptic punching power.

Heading into this fight both Foreman and Lyle had been recent kayo victims of Muhammad Ali. Both were seeking personal redemption as well as another opportunity to fight for the world title against their mutual conqueror. Foreman especially needed a confidence boost and an image overhaul as his invincibility had taken a fatal hit when he lost to Ali and it wasn’t restored in the least by the ridiculous, circus-like exhibition with the “frightful five” in Toronto. A win over a legitimate title-contender and prominent bad-ass like Lyle would accomplish all of the above.

If George Foreman had been intimidating, Ron Lyle was absolutely fearless. And why shouldn’t he be? After spending seven-and-a-half years in the Colorado State Penitentiary, where he was knifed in the abdomen and actually pronounced dead before a lengthy surgery saved his life, what could George Foreman do to him in the ring? Lyle had recently proven his fearlessness by getting in the ring with and knocking out Ernie Shavers, one of the most formidable and downright terrifying heavyweights in history. George Foreman was a teddy bear in comparison.

Trying to end the fight with his very first swing, Lyle rushed from his corner and missed wildly with a right hand intended, not merely to hurt his opponent, but decapitate him as well. And although this one missed, it was a sign of the thundering fusillade of punches to come. Lyle spent the remainder of the round circling to his left while Foreman kept a stiff jab in his face. Towards the end of the round, Lyle let fly another big right hand and this time it found its mark causing Foreman to stagger back to his corner when the bell mercifully rescued him.

Lyle began the second round as he had the first, missing with a wildly telegraphed right hand that fanned the first ten rows of spectators, but did little else. Foreman stuck to his jab and started throwing left-right combinations that stunned Lyle and backed him into a corner. More damage might have been inflicted by Foreman, but the round ended prematurely at the two-minute mark.

Round three was mostly uneventful--a calm before the storm of round four. Without a doubt the fourth round was one of the greatest and most highly dramatic rounds in heavyweight history. Lyle began the round by hurting Foreman with one of those right hands he had been itching to land from the very beginning and a follow-up flurry put Foreman down for the fight’s first knockdown--it would not be its last. Foreman, who wanted to prove that he could’ve gotten up and continued against Ali, struggled to his feet and within seconds was standing in the center of the ring throwing haymaker rights and lefts with such force that he appeared to be literally trying to shake the monkey of Zaire off of his enormous back. In the process he landed a right which put Lyle on the canvas. It was now Lyle’s turn to put his heart on display and fight back as Foreman pounded away at him as he leaned against the ropes. Showing why even a knife to the belly hadn’t killed him, he returned fire with a titanic left hook which shook Foreman and moved him to the middle of the ring where another wild exchange found Big George down again from Lyle’s favored right hand. Amazingly, Foreman got up and when the bell sounded both fighters knew they had just experienced something like hell on earth.

Both fighters were looking fatigued as round five began, but that didn’t prevent Lyle from unleashing more of his fury on a worn out Foreman. Two left hands landed and Foreman was teetering around the ring again, looking ringside at his trainer Gil Clancy for help--or maybe just some sympathy. Either he saw the answer written on Clancy’s face or figured he was all alone and had to do something to help himself, but right when he appeared to be out on his feet he fired back in desperation and landed several huge rights, followed by some monstrous lefts and suddenly Lyle was in the corner, hurt and probably thinking by this time that the penitentiary wasn’t such a tough place after all. Knowing his opponent was on the brink of disaster and not wanting to allow him another opportunity to fire back, Foreman poured everything he had on Lyle, landing an overwhelming barrage of rights and lefts until Lyle finally went down, face first and for good.

Neither fighter would get another shot at the title (at least in Foreman’s case, not for almost twenty years), but both showed tremendous courage and resolve and provided the boxing world with one of its most entertaining slugfests ever.

3. Joe Jeannette TKO50 Sam McVey: April 17, 1909.

If ever a heavyweight fight could be described as “Homeric” it was the epic encounter between Joe Jeannette and Sam McVey (also spelled McVea). They engaged in such an all-out battle that it made the fight between Hector and Achilles look like a slap fight between fifth-graders. And while the two aforementioned warriors of Greek literature fought for everlasting glory and a name that would never be forgotten, these two overlooked and frequently avoided fistic warriors of the early twentieth-century bravely fought for a mere taste of temporal glory and a name that might be recognized as more than just a great black fighter--but a great fighter, period.

Joe Jeannette and Sam McVey were two of the best fighters of their era--black, white, or other. Unfortunately, they fought at a time when African-American fighters were not given the same rights and privileges as white fighters, were rarely allowed to fight for a world title, and were forced to ply their trade against each other sometimes fighting the same fighters a dozen times or more. For example, Jeannette and McVey fought fellow outstanding black heavyweight Sam Langford an extraordinary thirty times between them!

Jeannette and McVey had only met twice before, but neither meeting provided a foretaste of the carnage that would be unleashed in their third fight. In fact, the reason they fought the third fight was because their second fight was so bad. On February 20, in Paris, France, they fought a twenty-round fight which was not only booed, but led to an assortment of objects being thrown into the ring. They were accused of not trying and treating the fight as an exhibition. Incidentally, McVey won a twenty-round decision.

The criticism and accusations from that fight bothered both combatants so much they agreed to a return match and a fight to the finish, also in Paris. Probably thinking another lackluster fight was going to take place, less than half the crowd of their previous fight attended. Those who came were fortunate enough to witness one of the greatest struggles in pugilistic history and what would go down in the record books as the longest boxing match of the twentieth century.

McVey wasted little time getting things started, scoring the first knockdown of the fight in the first round with a powerful left. Little did anyone know, the least of which was Joe Jeannette, that this was only the first of a staggering twenty-seven knockdowns he would have to endure over the next three-and-a-half hours and almost fifty rounds. In the sixteenth round, Jeannette threw an uppercut which McVey countered with a picture-perfect right hand that floored him yet again and probably would have knocked him out if he hadn’t been saved by the bell.

Receiving oxygen between rounds, Jeannette began to mount what had to be considered an absolutely impossible comeback. McVey had given everything humanly possible, but on this night Jeannette was something more than human. He hung on until McVey was utterly exhausted and more than likely discouraged and demoralized by his inability to put his durable opponent away for good.

Jeannette finally turned the tables and put McVey down in the thirty-ninth round. It was the beginning of the end for McVey. He went down seven times in the forty-second round and was taking a terrible beating. At the start of the fiftieth round and after a total of nineteen knockdowns (some accounts put the number at eleven), McVey was unable to rise from his stool and Jeannette was declared the winner by technical knockout in one of the most excruciatingly resilient performances and miraculous comebacks in boxing history.

According to the Chicago Tribune, McVey’s face at the end of the fight was “utterly dehumanized save for an expression of helpless agony that distorted what remained of his features.” No one could look at his face--a grim reminder of the total warfare he had just engaged in and endured--or in his eyes, and accuse him of not giving his all this time. Sadly, because of the racial injustice of the day, neither he nor his magnificent conqueror received opportunities to turn the results of this incredible battle into a world title shot. The only justice, regardless how small or unequal to what they deserved, is that their epic conflict and their unrelenting courage will never be forgotten.

2. Jack Dempsey KO2 Luis Angel Firpo: September 14, 1923.

If you took the Jeannette/McVey rumble and compressed it into two rounds, you would end up with the Dempsey/Firpo fight. While it obviously lacked the unbelievable endurance of the former, or even some of the other fights on this list, it was no less thrilling and even more dramatic. Never in the history of the heavyweight division has the action in a fight been as frenzied nor the audience as delirious with excitement. Easily the most furious four minutes in the history of boxing, this was a wild and turbulent rollercoaster ride that went immediately into ring lore. One reporter, recollecting the fight twenty years later, wrote: “Two wild men were tossed into the same ring, each with an intent to murder the other.”

Jack Dempsey had been heavyweight champion for slightly over four years, winning the title in brutal fashion from big Jess Willard on July 4, 1919, and defending it four times prior to meeting Firpo. He was coming off of the fiasco in Shelby, Montana, where he won a fifteen-round decision over Tommy Gibbons, but the town went bankrupt as the fight was poorly attended and a financial flop. The brawl with Firpo was just what was needed to eliminate the bad taste left from the Shelby disaster.

It takes two to turn a fight into a fistic free-for-all and Luis Angel Firpo was certainly one up to the task. Referred to as “the Wild Bull of the Pampas,” he was a brute from Buenos Aries, Argentina, who more than lived up to his colorful nickname. He had earned the fight with Dempsey by knocking out the come-backing former champ Jess Willard in eight rounds.

The fight took place at New York’s Polo Grounds in front of at least 85,000 enthusiastic and fired-up spectators who seemed to anticipate the melee that was about to occur in the ring. There was a gradual build-up in tension and the crowd was getting restless as the semi-final bout began.

It was between two local fighters named Bartley Madden and Leo Gates. They fought for twelve rounds and when the referee announced Madden the winner by decision not a person in the arena was aware of it, for during the final round first Firpo, then Dempsey, were escorted ringside to the rabid delight of all present who cheered wildly in feverish expectation of what was now only moments away. Bartley Madden never heard such applause in his life and probably wondered where he gained so many fans as his hand was raised before 85,000 screaming fans.

To say the fight began quickly would be like saying Jake Lamotta took a pretty good punch. As soon as referee Johnny Gallagher signaled the start of the contest Dempsey rushed at Firpo like a bullet from a gun, was immediately countered by a Firpo right hand and hit the deck for the first time in six-and-a-half years. The fight wasn’t ten seconds old.

Dempsey was up immediately and went again at Firpo putting him on the floor only twenty seconds later with a scorching left to the jaw. It’s almost impossible to fathom both fighters getting knocked down in the first thirty seconds of a major heavyweight championship fight, but things were only getting started.

Firpo would go down another six times in the very first round before creating one of the most dramatic moments in boxing history. Just as the crowd was thinking they might be witnessing another Jess Willard-like destruction by the champ, Firpo drove Dempsey to the ropes and unleashed a right hand to the champion’s jaw that sent him sprawling through the ropes and out of the ring! He was helped up and back into the ring by the ringside reporters he had just flattened and appeared to be microseconds away from becoming an ex-champ. It probably would have taken only one solid punch to relieve Dempsey of his title and change history, but Firpo failed to follow up his advantage before the bell rang and the biggest opportunity of his life was gone.
Dempsey’s manager, Jack Kearns, wasted no time in trying to revive him, throwing a bucket of ice water on him and frantically shouting at him in an effort to prepare him for more mayhem in the second round.

When the bell rang, there wasn’t a person in the entire arena in their seats. What they witnessed was the ferocity and killer instinct of the heavyweight champion befittingly known as the “Manassa Mauler.” Almost immediately he put his game, but overmatched, challenger on the canvas for a count of two. A right to the body followed by a left to the jaw put Firpo down again for a count of five. Dempsey, eyes ablaze and his bloodlust boiling, threw a left to Firpo’s jaw which sent him down, and as he was falling exploded a right to the head from which even the Wild Bull of the Pampas couldn’t recover. Firpo was counted out at fifty-seven seconds of the second round.

The fight hadn’t lasted four minutes, yet it earned a place in the annals of boxing history as one of the greatest ever, exceeding the highest expectations of those who were fortunate enough to have witnessed it.

1. Muhammad Ali TKO 14 Joe Frazier: October 1, 1975.

We come now to number one--the greatest heavyweight fight of all time. What makes this fight the best, in my opinion? Several factors. One, it was fought by two of the greatest heavyweights of all time. Two, it was the rubber match after two other outstanding and brutally entertaining fights. Three, it was fought under incredibly inhumane conditions, with the temperature 110 degrees or higher. Four, it was fought at a blistering pace, virtually non-stop, for fourteen rounds. And five, the punches delivered and taken by both fighters were extraordinarily vicious. With rarely a pause in the action, these two gladiators engaged in battle so savage and so sadistically primitive in nature, I’m in awe every time I watch it. These weren’t fresh, young fighters at the beginning of their careers. They were both aging veterans of the ring, who had already engaged in countless battles and who were approaching the twilight of their great profession. They weren’t necessarily old--Ali was thirty-three, while Frazier was just thirty-one--but they were old in ring years, which is far more important to a fighter than his actual age.

In fact, the reason Ali gave Frazier a shot at his title was because he thought “Smokin” Joe was washed up and no longer a dangerous opponent. He wasn’t wrong, he just didn’t figure on Frazier being able to summon the fire inside to “smoke” one final time in the ring. Of course, Muhammad Ali, Frazier’s arch-nemesis, was just the fighter to bring it out of him.

The fight took place in Quezon City, Philippines, at the Philippine Coliseum. It was seen by well over 750 million people worldwide via closed circuit television. What they saw when the fighters stepped into the ring was a contrast between two men who obviously had different notions of what was about to transpire. Ali was seemingly more jovial and playful than usual, a mood which totally betrayed the hellish reality he was about to endure. Frazier, on the other hand, was all business, evidently prepared to journey to hell and back if necessary. On this night, however, it would be more like a journey to hell, back, and to hell once again.

The fight unfolded in three parts. Rounds one through five comprised Part One and belonged to the champ. Ali tried for the early knockout, landing some of the hardest punches he’d ever thrown at another human being before, but Frazier, although rocked on more than one occasion, would not be moved. This early in the fight it was apparent that the way both men were standing up to the other’s punches, combined with the stifling heat, this would be a war of attrition, won by the fighter who could persevere the longest without utterly collapsing.

Part Two, rounds six through ten, was Frazier’s as he relentlessly pounded away at Ali’s body and landed some of his best left hooks of the night to Ali’s jaw. Ali tried the rope-a-dope that worked so well against Foreman in Zaire, but Frazier was no dope and would bang away at the champ’s midsection as long as he stayed against the ropes. The pace was torrid and the toe-to-toe exchanges were unbelievable considering these were heavyweights, not lightweights.

After ten rounds the fight appeared to be even and anybody’s fight, although Frazier currently had the momentum. Ali would later admit to wanting to quit after the tenth round, feeling like this was the closest thing to dying he had ever experienced. But the indomitable will to win that was probably the most underrated aspect of his career took over and he came out for the eleventh and probably most brutal round of the fight.

Thus began Part Three--the final four rounds. The eleventh round seemed to be the round that determined which fighter was going to persevere and conquer. Both gave as good as they received, but by the end of the round and the beginning of the twelfth, Frazier was visibly a beaten man. Still, he wouldn’t quit and continued to go after the champion with a resolve that was downright frightening. However, Ali’s resolve was commensurate and he rained a torrent of blows upon the head of Frazier that led to grotesque swelling on the left side of his face, his left eye nearly closed.

In rounds thirteen and fourteen Ali battered his determined foe around the ring, wobbling him several times, only to see him huffing and puffing towards him like an angry bull having been stuck repeatedly by the bullfighter and refusing to die, his only thought being to gore the bullfighter one last time. Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, in Ali’s corner, wrote years later: “There was a palpable sense that life and death were hanging in the air in that arena.”

Frazier was hurt and exhausted, but would not be stopped, would not go down, would not give ground, willing to fight to the death if called to. Mercifully, his trainer, Eddie Futch, would not allow that to happen and refused to let Joe come out for the fifteenth round, a round that very likely would’ve seen someone permanently injured if it had taken place. Both men were spent; both had reached the end. Ali was so weary, he could barely stand up when he was announced as the winner. Afterwards he collapsed on his stool, head down, trying to catch his breath, and probably thanking God it was over.

The “Thrilla in Manila,” as it was called and by which it will forever be known, was fought with unflinching courage, unyielding resolve, and unrelenting endurance. Both fighters showed remarkable perseverance, an inconceivable resistance to pain and fatigue, and an immeasurable desire to win at any cost. Eddie Futch told his beaten fighter in the corner after stopping the fight, “Nobody will ever forget what you did here today.” They haven’t, and they won’t.

Nat Loubet wrote in The Ring magazine after the fight: “The Thriller in Manila was just that--a classic that will go down in the record books as one of, if not the greatest, heavyweight title fight of all time.” He’ll get no argument from me!

The following are the great fights that didn’t quite make my top ten, but deserve to be mentioned:

11) Riddick Bowe W12 Evander Holyfield: November 13, 1992.
12) Jou Louis KO13 Billy Conn: June 18, 1941.
13) Rocky Marciano KO8 Ezzard Charles: September 17, 1954.
14) Ken Norton KO5 Jerry Quarry: March 24, 1975.
15) Michael Moorer KO5 Bert Cooper: May 15, 1992.

Article posted on 23.06.2007

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