The Five Greatest Fights Of The 1980s

By James Slater - 04/15/2023 - Comments

The 1980s sure gave fight fans, boxing fans (MMA not yet a thing) some truly great action. Indeed, though older boxing fans will point to the 1950s as the true golden age, with less old fans pointing to the 1970s in naming that decade as the one that gave the sport its greatest and finest fights, for many fans the 1980s was it.

Back then, we sure had some genuine superstars as well as some special fighters who would have been a force in ANY era: Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Aaron Pryor, Alexis Arguello, Evander Holyfield, Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Julio Cesar Chavez, Michael Spinks, Azumah Nelson, Mike McCallum….. and more.

But what were the greatest fights of the 1980s? To try and answer such a question is to merely put forth an opinion, of course, and no two fight fans will agree on things. But here, on the 38th anniversary of the fight that just might top the list – this the eight-minute explosion that was Hagler-Hearns – is a Top-5 greatest fights of the 1980s list that you may care to glance at.

In reverse order:

5: Roberto Duran W12 Iran Barkley. February, 1989.

“Steel Vs. Stone.”

37 year old Duran was at this stage in his career seen by almost everyone as a faded force of a fighter, certainly not a man who was capable of defeating the huge for the weight, heavy-handed Barkley. Barkley was of course coming off a stunning knockout win over Thomas Hearns, and it was felt here that he would add the name of another legend to his resume. Even Duran’s many millions of admirers back home in Panama did not want him to take this far too dangerous fight.

But Duran rolled back the years and, with Barkley almost matching him punch for punch, round after round, “Hands of Stone” gave us his final classic. It was a fight full of drama, of action, of trading, and of skill and craftiness on the part of Duran. Punctuating his victory with an 11th round knockdown, Duran won via split decision. Some 17 years after he had won his first world title, this down at lightweight, Duran was the WBC middleweight king.

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4: Roberto Duran W15 Sugar Ray Leonard. June, 1980.

“The Brawl in Montreal.”

Duran, who had cleaned out the lightweight division, was challenging the new darling of the sport. Leonard had beaten Wilfredo Benitez to become WBC welterweight champ, and against the fearsome Panamanian he was making the second defence of the title. The two men did not get along in the lead-up to the fight, the snarling Duran managing to get under Leonard’s skin by insulting both him and his wife. Sugar Ray bit and, angry and determined to make Duran pay, he fought Duran’s fight on the night.

Duran, in the best shape of his entire career, set a red-hot pace and Leonard, abandoning his usual box and move style, went toe-to-toe with him for 15 at times brutal rounds. Duran staggered Leonard early and he never took his foot off the gas. It was very close and both men elevated themselves with their efforts. But Duran had done enough and he was awarded a unanimous decision win. Even after 45 minutes of intense warfare, Duran was still smouldering, shoving away Leonard’s attempt at a post-fight handshake.

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3: Sugar Ray Leonard TKO14 Thomas Hearns. September, 1981.

“The Showdown.”

Leonard, the reigning WBC welterweight champion, against Hearns, the WBA champion. This unification was a fight everyone wanted to see – indeed demanded to see. Hearns had ripped the belt from the feared Pipino Cuevas, and his long reach, height and withering punching power convinced many people he was unbeatable. Leonard, who had learnt plenty in his loss to Duran and who had then humiliated Duran into quitting in the return, with Leonard regaining his title, had to dig deeper than at any other point in his career in order to defeat Hearns.

The fight lived up to all the hype. Hearns came out stalking, Leonard boxing and moving. But then, in round six, his left eye swelling as a result of the jabs Hearns had hit Leonard with, Sugar Ray hurt Hearns the the two reversed roles. Now it was Hearns who was the boxer, Leonard in pursuit. Hearns, however, was piling up the points, he was winning the rounds. After some famous, soon to be celebrated words of advice/inspiration from his trainer, the great Angelo Dundee – “You’re blowing it, son. You’re blowing it” – Leonard reached inside and managed to pull out a 13th round knockdown. Hearns, exhausted, was then stopped, whilst still on his feet, in round 14. At the time of his sensational turnaround, Sugar Ray was behind on all three score cards.

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2: Evander Holyfield W15 Dwight Muhammad Qawi. July, 1986.


23 year old Holyfield had won bronze at the 1984 Olympics and now, after just 11 pro fights, he was challenging the hugely experienced and ring savvy Qawi for his WBA cruiserweight title (called junior heavyweight at the time). Qawi, a former light heavyweight champ who had fought numerous big fights, these against greats such as Matthew Saad Muhammad and Michael Spinks, was convinced the man who was ten years his junior did not belong in the ring with him. Qawi, who was short for the weight at a little over 5’6,” was nevertheless able to take the heat right to Holyfield, the defending champion blasting away with both hands to head and body.

Holyfield was more than willing to trade with Qawi and pretty soon we had a slugfest, one of the greatest ever seen. For 15 non-stop rounds, with scarcely a clinch in sight, these two rocked and rolled. It was sensational stuff. Something had to give, the thinking was. But nothing did give. Both guy’s gas tanks failed to empty, the two slugging it out to the final bell. Holyfield had found his third wind, maybe his fourth. Qawi was still snarling at the final bell. It was wide on two cards, these favouring Holyfield, while the third judge had it close for Qawi. The punch-stats for this fight were through the roof. Holyfield gave so much, he lost a reported 14 pounds in fluids and he was hospitalised after the fight.

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1: Marvelous Marvin Hagler TKO3 Thomas Hearns. April, 1985.

“The War.”

38 years old today, the three rounds of utter mayhem Hagler and Hearns gave the world will never, ever be forgotten. All these years later, and this fight still gives any fight fan a major rush when they watch it. The opening round is THE greatest in history, the two at their peak greats tearing at one another in frightening, the hell with any thought for defence, fashion. It was a minefield that night in Las Vegas and both warriors were potentially a second or so away from being blasted to defeat.

Hearns scored first blood, literally. Hearns rocked Hagler with his vaunted right hand and soon Hagler’s face was pouring blood. But Hagler, possessor of perhaps the hardest chin in 160 pound history, took all that came his way and he fired back in kind. Hearns went back to his corner after the opening round explosion nursing a broken right hand.

Hagler poured it on, seeing how Hearns’ legs were now rubbery. The war raged, with neither man willing to change tactics – that or they were unable to do so. Time was called in the third, the doctor inspecting Hagler’s cut. Now Hagler knew he was on borrowed time and he went for the ending he was desperate for. A big overhand right crashed into Hearn’s skull and “The Hitman” was hurt, with the challenger trying to grin that he wasn’t. Hagler ran at his rival and chucked in the fight-ending shots. Hearns went down, he somehow managed to clamber back up, and he was then saved by referee Richard Steele.

It took even hardened ring observers many minutes to get their breath back and begin to fully comprehend what they had just witnessed. What those fans at Caesars Palace had seen was a fight worthy of being called the greatest fight of the 1980s.

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