A Brief History
On October 30, 1974, the unlikely venue of Kishasa, Zaire (Zaire is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) was the scene of one of the most memorable fights of all time. Muhammad Ali squared off against Big George Foreman in a fight billed as “The Rumble in the Jungle.” Today we honor those fighters brave enough to face the best and give as well as take with the hardest punchers in the world.
1. Ali-Foreman, October 30, 1974.
Known as “The Rumble in the Jungle,” the match pitted 25 year old reigning Heavyweight Champion “Big George” Foreman, a perfect 40-0, seemingly unstoppable, against a 32 year old Muhammad Ali, then with a record of 44-2. Foreman seemed bigger than life, but in reality both fighters were 6 foot 3 inches and Foreman only outweighed Ali by 4 pounds (220 to 216). Ali’s knockout of Foreman in the 8th round shocked the live audience and the boxing world, resulting in pandemonium in the ring after the referee’s stoppage. Ali, famed for his surgical strikes from arm’s length, and Foreman, famed for big haymaker punches, were both thought to fight best from a distance where they could throw their best punches. If anything, the thought was that Ali would try to avoid close in fighting where the presumably bigger and stronger Foreman would have the advantage. At first, that was the case, with Ali keeping out of Foreman’s range, although both fighters landed telling punches. The Ali went to his “secret weapon,” a technique he called “rope-a-dope” where he allowed Foreman to back him against the ropes and pummel Ali at close range, with Ali taking the shots on his arms, twisting and turning to make the blows glance off without serious damage. As a frustrated Foreman tired himself against this tactic, Ali sprang to life and delivered serious punches of his own, resulting in the stunning knockout. The fighters never had a rematch, and later became friends. Foreman later won back the Heavyweight Championship at the age of 45 in another of boxing’s greatest upsets.
2. Dempsey-Tunney, September 22, 1927.
Known as the “Long Count” fight, this Heavyweight Title match was conducted under the new rules that when a fighter was knocked down, his opponent was required to retire to a neutral corner before the 10 count would commence. Dempsey had lost his Title to Tunney 364 days prior to this fight, with Tunney winning convincingly. In spite of being heavily favored in the first fight and losing, Dempsey was again heavily favored in the rematch. Former Champion Jack Dempsey knocked down Champion Gene Tunney (former US Marine) in the 7th round, after Tunney had dominated the fight with his superior speed and footwork. When Dempsey corralled Tunney against the ropes and unloaded with mighty punches, Tunney went down, but Dempsey loomed over his downed opponent instead of going to a neutral corner, thus delaying the start of the 10 count by several seconds. Tunney used all 9 of the available seconds counted out by the referee, got up and resumed the fight, knocking down Dempsey in the 8th round. Tunney went on to a unanimous decision victory and retained his Championship Belt. The fight ended Jack Dempsey’s legendary career, and Tunney would fight only once more. Tunney’s gloves from the Long Count Fight are in the Smithsonian Institution.
3. Ali-Frazier III, October 1, 1975.
“Smokin’ Joe” Frazier won their first fight, Muhamad Ali won their second fight, and the epic rubber match was to be known as “The Thrilla in Manila,” held in that Philippine capital. Assuredly the 2 best heavyweight boxers of their era, Ali and Frazier were the Mutt and Jeff of boxing. Ali, 6 foot 3 inches and 224 pounds was loud and flamboyant, while the 5 foot 11 inch 215 pound Frazier was courteous and soft spoken. Ali bragged before the fight that the fight would be, “A killa and a thrilla and a chilla when I get that gorilla in Manila.” Ali called Frazier a “gorilla” and even used a small rubber gorilla to symbolize what he thought of Frazier. The fight was such a slugfest between 2 great fighters, that both men were pounded into hulks by the time the 15th round was to start. Ali was ready to quit, having suffered physical damage like no other fight of his career to that point. In fact, Ali told his cornermen to cut his gloves off, ceding the fight, but his trainer refused and insisted Ali go out for the last round. Frazier, who had limited vision in his left eye from a 1965 incident in training, could not see out of his swollen right eye, and his trainer announced the battered fighter would not come out for the 15th round. The Thrilla in Manila left the 2 great champions mutually damaged as had seldom ever occurred, and although the ringside judges had Ali ahead, reporters scoring the fight had it even, 7 rounds apiece. The fight was the first ever Pay-Per-View fight, making history in that regard as well.
4. Schmeling-Louis, June 19, 1936.
In the United States of the 1930’s, an African American man such as Joe Louis had to fight serious racial prejudice outside of the ring as well as big, tough men in it. Louis was tough, and fought his way to a 27-1 record, demolishing opponents and taking on the visage of an unstoppable force in heavyweight boxing. Max Schmeling had become the first heavyweight to win the championship via disqualification of the champ in 1930, but then lost his title in 1932 in a controversial decision. Meanwhile, James Braddock was the reigning Heavyweight Champion and Schmeling was considered the #2 Contender for the title. Louis believed and was believed to be on his way to an inevitable championship, and Max was seen as a mere ticket to punch on the way to glory. At almost 31 years old, Schmeling was seen as declining by fight fans, while Louis at 22 years old was seen as the up and comer. Louis was heavily favored, but Max used speed and great technique to baffle the “Brown Bomber,” knocking Joe down for the first time in his career in the 4th round. In the 12th round, Schmeling finished the job with the first knockout of Joe Louis and the last until Rocky Marciano knocked out an over the hill Louis 15 years later. The stunning upset left African Americans heartbroken as Schmeling, a German citizen in a blatantly racist country, had knocked out the man many African Americans looked up to. The racial overtones of the fight were tremendous, but privately Max and Joe became good friends, and race was never an issue to Schmeling. (In fact Schmeling had a Jewish manager, a real rarity in 1938 Germany!) Louis went on to win the rematch in 1938, pummeling an almost defenseless Schmeling and knocking the German out in the first round.
5. Mayweather-Pacquiao, May 2, 2015.
Billed as “The Fight of the Century” or “The Battle for Greatness,” the fight itself disappointed many boxing fans for its lack of spectacular results, but it was a fight that went the distance between the #1 Ranked Pound for Pound Fighter (Mayweather) against the #3 Pound for Pound Fighter (Pacquiao). Floyd Mayeather, Jr. went into the fight with a perfect 47 and 0 record, and was the favorite to win the match. Floyd was a 5 time world champ and the current Super Welterweight and Light-Middleweight champ. Manny “Pac-Man” Pacquiao boasted a 57-5-2 record and was an 8 division champion, the current Welterweight champ. Held in Las Vegas, Floyd “Money” Mayweather won the 12 round unanimous decision, earning his nickname once again when the fight grossed a record $410 million in Pay Per View television revenue in the United States alone! The mega fight grossed about $600 million overall. Mayweather was paid around $200-300 million for his 36 minutes of fighting, while Pacquiao made $100-180 million. (Certainly the richest fight of all time has to be included on the list.) Pacquiao later admitted to a right shoulder injury during training before the fight and later had surgery on that shoulder.
6. Mayweather-MacGregor, August 26, 2017.
A sort of novelty fight at first glance, this battle pitted the 49-0 Mayweather (tied for the most wins without a loss in boxing history with Rocky Marciano) against the 21-3 mixed martial arts (MMA) champion, Conor MacGregor. Mayweather would put his perfect record on the line in an effort to surpass Marciano as the winningest boxer of all time without a loss, while MacGregor, a 2 division UFC MMA champion was upholding the legitimacy of MMA fighting and his own excellence. Mayweather was heavily favored, and won the scheduled 12 round fight by TKO in the 10th round. Fans were impressed with the skill and determination shown by MacGregor, who had never boxed professionally, against arguably the greatest boxer in history. Another enormous money maker for Mayweather, who earned at least $300 million and MacGregor made out ok for himself, pulling down a cool $100 million or more. Gross revenue was probably right around the $600 million or so that the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight grossed.
7. Spinks-Ali, February 15, 1978.
Leon Spinks, the brother of the then less famous Michael Spinks, had only 8 pro fights on his record when he became the only man to ever take a Championship Title away from Muhammad Ali in the ring. The fight matched the 1976 Olympic Light Heavyweight Boxing Champ, Spinks, against the 1960 Olympic Light Heavyweight Boxing Champ, Ali. Ali, with a record of 55-2, was heavily favored (10-1) over the 2 inches shorter Spinks, but Spinks managed to gut out a tough fight that went the distance (15 rounds, as Championship fights were at that time) and won a split decision, one of the great upsets in boxing history. Ali won the rematch only 7 months later. Spinks followed Gene Tunney and Ken Norton as former US Marines that have won the Heavyweight Championship. (Michael Spinks also was a Heavyweight Boxing Champion, and won the Olympic Middleweight Boxing Championship in 1976 while Leon took Gold at Light Heavyweight.)
8. Rousy-Holm, November 15, 2015.
Yes, we know this fight was technically an MMA fight, but the actual fight was conducted almost as a stand up boxing affair. Women’s 18 time World Boxing Champion Holly Holm switched to mixed martial arts to fight the reigning queen of the octagon, Ronda Rousy, a mega-celebrity and a bantam weight fighter believed by many to be unbeatable. So highly regarded was Rousy, talk of her fighting male boxers or MMA fighters circulated the rumor mill. Despite Rousy’s success with quickly using her Olympic (Bronze Medal) Judo skills to finish opponents, Holm with her boxing skills punched the Champion Rousy like a baby seal getting pounded at the fur harvest, never giving Rousy a chance to take the fight to the ground. Holm won by TKO in the 2nd round, only the 2nd fighter to take Rousy past the 1st round. Rousy had been heavily favored and the fight stunned the MMA world, but Holm lost her first title defense only 4 months later (to Meisha Tate).
9. Klitschko-Joshua, April 29, 2017.
Wladimir Klitschko, the big (6 feet 6 inches) Ukrainian who is arguably the greatest heavyweight fighter of all time (held all the major heavyweight titles for almost 10 years, second only to Joe Louis, except Klitschko fought ALL the best contenders every time, no “Bum of the Month” for him!) went into the fight with Anthony Joshua record of 64 wins and 4 losses, coming off a title losing effort against Tyson Fury in November of 2015. (I watched the fight and it certainly appeared something was wrong with Klitschko, especially his right hand which he would not throw, though he denied an injury.) Joshua was a perfect 18-0 with every fight ending in a knocked out opponent. The 6 foot 6 inch Joshua weighed in at 250 pounds, while Klitschko came in at 240 pounds, making this a battle of titans. Since Tyson Fury had abdicated his title due to bizarre mental problems and drug use, the fight would be for the Heavyweight Championship. In a brawl characterized by both fighters fighting to win, not just out point the other guy or merely survive, the slugfest became one of the classic fights in heavyweight boxing history. Klitschko (born in 1976), 13 years older than Joshua (born in 1989) redeemed his reputation by fighting an aggressive and hard fought fight, taking massive blows and returning massive blows, until finally in the 11th round the referee stopped the fight, giving Joshua a TKO win and the Heavyweight Title. Klitschko retired from boxing at the age of 41, while Joshua is scheduled to make his first title defense on October 28, 2017 (results not yet in as this article is written). Update: Joshua won by TKO in the 10th round.
10. Corbett-Sullivan, September 7, 1892.
John L. Sullivan, with a record of 40-0-2 had bridged the era of bare-knuckle boxing into the era of gloved boxing, transitioning from the bare-knuckle champ to the first gloved boxing Heavyweight Champion. Sullivan had not fought or defended his title for 3 years when he met “Gentleman Jim” Corbett in San Francisco for the Heavyweight Title. Corbett, 26 years old to Sullivan’s 34 years, had a record of 8-0-2 going into his chance for a Title. In those days, fights went on as many rounds as they had to, as long as the fighters could still fight. This classic battle lasted 21 rounds until Corbett knocked out Sullivan, changing boxing forever with Corbett’s “scientific” boxing technique, a totally different way of boxing that we would recognize today. For his scientific approach to boxing and the innovative techniques he employed, Corbett is known as “The Father of Modern Boxing,” although he only had 2 successful defenses of his title and a draw after those 2 wins, later losing 4 of his last 5 fights.
Question for students (and subscribers): We listed 10 of these epic battles, and now invite you to nominate other fights you think should be included. Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Multi, dir. 45 Fantastic Fights Of The Century. Tango Entertainment, 2006. DVD.