What Makes A Great Fight?

20.08.05 - By Kevin Kincade: My friend and East Side writer, Lee Hayes, or “Raven” as many posters know him, wrote a great little piece earlier this week about nurturing two new boxing fans. It was basically his account of showing these two “newbies” several different fights and gauging their reactions to them. The whole concept of introducing new fans to the sport we love is something the sport needs as much as we, the hardliners do. Nothing feels quite as good as sharing an experience of a great fight with someone who’s closest relevant point would be the NBA finals or the Super Bowl or the World Series or The Daytona 500… get the idea. In truth, nothing really compares to a great fight. There are many great moments in sports for a variety of fans; but only boxing can have multiple moments in the same year. So, what defines a great fight?

I know this seems like a no-brainer; but it’s really not. On the surface, a great fight is easy to define; but there are great action fights, great hyped fights, and great fights of historic significance.

The action fights, such as Corrales-Castillo, are easy to point out; but consider that Wright-Trinidad took place one week later and was sold to be of greater significance even though there was no title at stake. One was on pay-per-view, one was not. One was a knock-down drag out with a highly dramatic ending, while the other was a white wash, one-sided affair. So, the lesson to be learned is: “don’t believe the hype, believe the fight.”

However, there are more ingredients into a super-fight, or a fight of historical significance. Hype is going to precede a match-up depending on the reputations of the fighters as much as on the salesmanship of the promoter. Leonard-Hearns I was a clash between two promising young men of different personalities and different backgrounds who each held a piece of the Welterweight Championship. The world couldn’t wait for these two young pugilists to stare across the ring at each other; and they did not disappoint when the moment came. In fact, they exceeded all expectations and gave us more thrills, plot-twists, and drama than a five-star movie. Leonard-Hearns I was indeed a Super-Fight.

Then, nearly twenty years later two similar young men, Oscar De La Hoya, Olympian Gold Medalist, handsome, marketable, another Golden Boy like Sugar Ray Leonard squared off against long reigning, undefeated pride de Puerto Rico, Felix “Tito” Trinidad, Hearns’ counterpart. Tito was a puncher, Hearns was a puncher, Tito was widely loved in his native Puerto Rico; but not that well known outside of the small isle despite his impressive record. Hearns was worshiped in Detroit and respected among those in the know; but public appeal sided with Leonard as it would decades later with De La Hoya. The fight between the Trinidad and De La Hoya should be as excitingly breathtaking as the clash between the previous Golden Boy and the Motor City Cobra, right? Wrong. While Oscar and Felix had all the right ingredients of a Super-Fight, not even a Great Fight ensued. Why?

The answer is a variety of reasons. Skill limitations on Trinidad’s part, desire limitations on De La Hoya’s part; it really matters not. It boils down to the personality of the two fighters and how well their skills can act on that desire. Tommy and Ray had the right combination of the two, Oscar and Felix did not; they were too much “The Odd Couple”. *Sorry, I couldn’t resist!* Or, to put it another way, Styles make fights….especially when one considers a fighter’s style is often an extension of his personality.

If you want to introduce new fans to the sport, always pick the fights that give you that feeling in your gut; you know the kind. The kind of fight that you can remember pacing the floor waiting for while the under card progressed; and didn’t let you down once the bell rang. I’m referring to the kind of fight that caused you to act like a fool while you were watching it because you couldn’t contain your emotion. The kind of fight that you didn’t expect to be good at all; but then surprised the hell out of you, a true battle of wills, skills, and heart. Fights like Corales-Castillo, Holmes-Norton, Hagler-Hearns, Bowe-Holyfield I, and Carbajal-Gonzalez I are what to feed those would-be boxing fans. Whet their appetites and then hit them with the hard stuff. After a newbie has fallen in love with the heart of the sport, you can introduce them to the skill aspect of it; the Jones-Toneys, the Whittaker-Nelsons, the Mayweather-Gattis and so forth and so on.

So, what is the Greatest Fight of All Time? Ooooo, I can hear the gray matter throbbing at that one. Well, truth is, I don't know. It depends on what criteria are used. Are we talking action, historical significance, largest public appeal, there are any number of defining attributes one can ascribe to a fight. Personally, I prefer a combination of traits, action, drama, historical significance, public demand, etc.; in other words, I like the fights that were bigger than the sport of boxing, itself. My personal Big 5, in chronological order, are Johnson-Jeffries, Louis-Schmeling II, Frazier-Ali I, Holmes-Cooney, and Douglas-Tyson.

Yes, I know they are all heavyweight battles and that's not to say smaller fighters haven't fought greater fights, surely many have; but, as I've said, I prefer fights that are bigger than boxing, fights that reach out to the masses and make them notice our sport. For much of the world, whether right or wrong, the Heavyweight Division is the one most non-boxing fans are the most familiar with and the division that can get attention where the other divisions cannot; thus, the division with more fights of overall historical significance outside of the sport, itself.

Now, Why These Fights?

Johnson-Jeffries: While admittedly not an exciting affair, the historical significance of this match-up is mind boggling. Granted, Jack Johnson had already gained recognition as the first African American to fight for and win the Heavyweight Championship of the World when he defeated Tommy Burns in 1908; but it wasn't until July 4th, 1910 that all of White America had to accept the Heavyweight Champion of the World was "colored" and that race played no part in who was superior in the squared circle. While little Tommy Burns losing to Johnson stung a little, seeing the Great James J. Jeffries, who had lost to no man when he retired in 1905,, not lose, completely humiliated and beaten up before being knocked down for the first time in his career and stopped in the 15th round by This uppity Black man was completely devastating to Racist White America's ego.

Riots ensued with death on both sides of the color bar. A law was passed forbidding the transportation of fight films across state lines for fear of the violence growing. An unofficial campaign was launched to bring Johnson down, either in the ring or by legal means. Eventually, they got him, unjustly, on the Mann Act; and Jack fled the country and lived in exile until a couple of years after he lost his title to Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba.

Even though Jack Johnson was only in it for Jack Johnson, his fight with James J. Jeffries changed forever how Blacks were perceived in sports, even if it was a trickle-down effect. Jack Johnson unwittingly kicked open the door for other African American athletes, though it wasn’t until twenty years had passed that another un-Johnson-like Black, by the name of Joe Louis got a crack at the biggest title in sports again. Still, Jack Johnson started it all and the match in Reno with “The Boiler Maker” was the spark.

Louis-Schmeling II: On June 22, 1938 we were on the cusp of world war against the evil empire of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. While Max Schmeling was no Nazi, he was guilty by association in the public view. This fight had more patriotic overtones than any boxing match in history. Going into his rematch with the only man to defeat him during his professional career, U.S. President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, felt of Joe’s biceps and said, “These are the kind of muscles we’re going to need to beat Germany.” If ever a man has been under more pressure to win a fight, I don’t know of it. In their previous match in 1936, the 30 year old Schmeling had soundly beaten up the younger, overconfident Louis over eleven rounds before finally stopping the “Brown Bomber” in the twelfth.

On the question of whether or not he would be timid facing the only man to ever defeat him, Joe said, “Why should I go into the fight gun-shy when he’s two years older and I’m two years smarter in boxing?” As it turned out, Louis didn’t go in gun-shy and in the most precise hard-punching display of his career, he finished off Max in just over two minutes, fracturing Schmeling’s back in the assault. Years later, Max told Joseph Louis Barrow Jr., Joe’s son, “No one could have beaten your father on that night.”

For one night, instead of two countries going to war, two men did and Louis’s victory, strangely enough, proved to be inspirational to several Holocaust survivors who took his victory as a sign that Germany would lose and said it helped them endure the horrors of concentration camp life until such a time as they were freed. Very few fights capture the entire world’s attention; this one did. It also made Joe Louis a certifiable American Hero.

Frazier-Ali I: They called it, simply, “The Fight” and it was the first time two undefeated heavyweights, both with legitimate claims to the title, contested for the Undisputed Heavyweight Championship of the World. During his exile, Ali had become a cult figure among America’s anti-Vietnam youth and going into this fight, the hippies and most of the Black youth were pulling for Ali, who they felt represented them while the pro-Vietnam, anti-Hippie contingent were pulling for Joe, whether Frazier wanted them to or not. Joe was a workman-like champion whose left hook could separate you from your senses in a heartbeat, while Ali was a flashy dancer with more than just a gift for gab. The match-up had been building for months, thanks to both Ali and Frazier wanting it to happen.

Ali even moved into Joe’s hometown of Philadelphia to hype the proposed match before he even had his license reinstated. After Georgia gave Ali a license to fight Jerry Quarry in October of 1970, the wheels began rolling. Next, it was Oscar Bonavena in New York in December, and finally, the dream fight with Frazier was signed at the end of the year. However, Ali’s skills had eroded during his 3 ½ year layoff and most of the knowledgeable boxing fans felt he was taking on Joe too soon in his comeback to win; but the court was closing in on a decision as to whether or not Ali would be doing prison time for refusing to be inducted into the Army, so he had to fight Joe before the verdict came back.

So, on March 8th, 1971 the world stood still. Even two warring factions of the IRA called a temporary truce for the purpose of watching what is still called, “The Fight of the Century.” Everyone who was anyone was in Madison Square Garden on March 8th of ’71. The whole atmosphere of the fight was one never before felt by anyone whose account I’ve ever read. Burt Lancaster was the color commentator alongside the great Don Dunphey’s blow by blow call on the Close Circuit Broadcast, Archie Moore was the analyst. Celebrities filled The Garden; “Ole Blue Eyes”, Frank Sinatra was there as ringside photographer for Life Magazine. The whole scene was surreal.

Muhammad started off fast tattooing Joe’s face with jabs and straight rights; but Frazier starting catching up by the fourth round when Ali’s tank started emptying. Also, Frazier’s bob and weave style lured Ali into throwing uppercuts, which left him open for Frazier’s vaunted left hook. Back and forth the action went; now it was Ali, now it was Frazier, now Ali, now Frazier. The tiring Ali began spending more time on the ropes than in ring center as Frazier’s lead kept building. Finally in the 11th, thunder landed. Ali motioned Joe into a corner and after slipping a couple of punches, and Joe’s left got through. For the remainder of the round the crowd was on there feet as “The Greatest” stumbled around the ring.

Even though Joe had an insurmountable lead on the score cards entering the 15th and final round, the general feeling was that it was anyone’s fight. According to Frazier, Ali popped off and some point in the fight, “Don’t you know I’m God?” to which Joe replied, “Well God, you’re gonna get knocked on your ass tonight!” In the 15th, Joe Frazier landed about the most picture perfect left hook of his career, sitting Ali on the seat of his pants for a count of 2, or as Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee put it, "Ali was out when he got hit; but he was up when his ass hit the floor." This dramatic battle of polar opposites was Frazier’s high water mark. Frazier-Ali I truly was “The Fight of the Century.”

Holmes-Cooney: This fight made the list for all the wrong reasons; but, none the less, it needed to be mentioned. The pre-fight publicity surrounding Holmes-Cooney was as ugly as conceivable. The sad thing is Gerry was a real nice guy and a hell of a puncher. Black vs. White was the ultimate theme in 1982 when the experienced champion met the incomplete challenger. Gentleman Gerry was referred to as the Great White Hope, much to his dissatisfaction, and Larry made a point to point out that there was no way Cooney would have been getting parity with the champion if he hadn’t had the right complexion and the right connections.

Despite the fact that Gerry Cooney had destroyed Ken Norton in one round the year before, the same man whom Homes beat over 15 rounds for his belt, the race card seemed to be the only one anyone noticed. Death threats ran rampant against both Holmes and Cooney to the point that police snipers were on the roofs of neighboring hotels, just in case. The night of the fight, for the first time in memory, the Champion, Larry Holmes, was introduced first and Cooney, the challenger, second, so as to milk all the applause from Cooney’s supporters; a slap in the face to tradition and to Larry Holmes.

What needs to be remembered about this fight is not the racism it was steeped in as much as the valiant performances and heart displayed by both participants. Before the opening bell, during the pre-fight instructions, Larry shook Gerry’s hand and said, “Let’s give ‘em a good fight.” They did. Gerry Cooney, while not as technically as sound as the veteran Holmes, had the heart of a champion and used all of it.

After Holmes dropped him in the second with a swift, accurate 1- 2, Gerry fought harder in the third and kept the fight even until the later rounds. Larry, on the other hand, fought one of the most professional fights of his long career; gradually widening the gap between the two as the fight wore on. By the beginning of the 13th round, Gerry had nothing left; but kept trying. Unfortunately for him, Holmes smelled blood and began opening up more, smashing right after right into Gerry’s face.

Finally, as Gerry began to slump into and slide down the ropes, his trainer, Victor Valle could stand it no more and climbed into the ring to cradle his beaten fighter and prevent him from suffering further punishment. Gerry Cooney was never quite the same after that fight, feeling he had let down all of his fans; but what he didn’t realize was that so many fans had let boxing down and had done him and injustice by rooting for him for all the wrong reasons. This fight saw the best of Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney; but the worst in human nature since July 4th, 1910.

Douglas-Tyson: This fight made the list based on the sheer improbability of the outcome. Hindsight may be 20/20; but no one on February 10th, 1990 foresaw what would transpire in Tokyo with the possible exception of James “Buster” Douglas. This was the fight movie scripts are made of, though, to my knowledge, no one has penned "The Buster Douglas Story" just yet. Going into this fight, Tyson was the most feared fighter in history. Now, we can look back and see evidence of his decline; but at the time, no one had a clue. Douglas, on the other hand, was a classic underachiever who always came up short in the big ones.

In his previous title shot against Tony Tucker for the vacant IBF crown, Douglas was in control of the bout, entering the late stage; but was tiring badly and quit in the 10th after Tucker stunned him with a slow-motion barrage. So, surely, the Tokyo bout wouldn't amount to much more than a little fast food sushi for Iron Mike, to steal a line from Larry Merchant. Douglas’s mother died two weeks before the fight, the mother of his son was in the hospital with a life-threatening ailment, and James had been fighting the flue the week before his showdown with the 37-0 (33) Tyson. No wonder Vegas odds makers slated him as a 42-1 underdog.

However, despite personal tragedy and experts’ predictions, somehow Douglas began dominating the twenty-three year old undefeated juggernaut from the outset. Round after round went by with Douglas slamming home a telephone pole-like jab into Mike’s puss and tying up Tyson every time Mike got close enough to unload. With the exception of a careless moment in round 8 when Douglas was dropped by a hellacious uppercut, it was all Douglas. And despite the history that was being forged before their very eyes the Japanese audience sat there in stony silence.

After a dominant display of power punching in round 9, Douglas finally put an end to matters in the 10th with a hellacious uppercut of his own and follow up flurry that sent Mike sprawling to the mat with such a thud that his mouth piece shot out onto the blue canvas next to him. The world stood, mouths agape, as Octavio Meran waved the fight over and declared the unlikeliest of fighters, James “Buster” Douglas, the New Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World. Surely the story of Douglas-Tyson is as heart warming as any in the history of the sport. Even if Douglas would return to his inconsistency for the rest of his career, for one night, February 10th, 1990, he was indeed "Great" and became one of the few fighters in history to ever really “Shock The World.”

Well, there you have it; my 5 greatest fights of all time. Honorable mentions: Demsey-Carpantier (first million dollar gate), Braddock-Baer (biggest upset of the time and spoke to All victims of The Great Depression), Ali-Foreman (the whole world's attention was on this fight that immortalized Ali), Foreman-Moorer (oldest man to ever win the title), and Lewis-Holyfield II ( first time in 100 year a Bristish fighter won the undisputed title).

Of course there are better action fights out there than those listed; but I can think of none with more historical significance. Leonard-Hagler, Nelson-Wolgast, Zale-Graziano, Williams-Jack, Duran-DeJesus, Pyor-Arguello; there are such a variety of reasons why a fight should be considered great, action is undoubtedly one of the more popular reasons, as it should be. So, is there a "Greatest Fight of All Time?"

What’s your pick?

Questions or Comments:

Article posted on 20.08.2005

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