Volume 3, Number 5
These are lean times indeed for fight fans. Just look around. The reigning heavyweight champ is a former (gasp!) cruiser weight, the big money fights all go to a nearly-50-something preacher with a food fetish, the best fighter of the decade is banned from the sport altogether, and the best show in town is a guy named "Butterbean".
Remember the good old days when Ali went to war with guys like Frazier, Foreman, Norton, Shavers, et al, et al, et al? For a period of seven years in the early-to-mid seventies Ring Magazine's fight of the year featured either Ali, Foreman, or Frazier, and most times both. I don't care what crusty old-timers with funny hats and cheap cigars say about Joe Louis or Rocky Marciano, the seventies were the golden age of professional boxing. The names read like a hall of fame roster: Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, George Foreman, Ron Lyle, Gerry Quarry, Ernie Shavers, Jimmy Young. Any one of which would have run roughshod over the heavyweight division of the past twenty years. With all due respect to Evander Holyfield, champion of champions that he is, only a young Mike Tyson, in his prime, with the upper body movement and the lightning-quick hands that sliced opponents to bits could have held his own with that class of fighters. And recent history would seem to indicate that Tyson, for all his considerable skills, would have lacked the mental toughness to survive in that era. Face it, if Evander Holyfield can get inside your head, Ali would have moved in and redecorated.
But let us not dwell overly much on the past, however delightful it might be. Though the talent pool may have been a bit shallow, boxing has still blessed us with a few memorable gems the past two decades, though we must turn to the lighter divisions to find them. Marvelous Marvin Hagler may well have been the best all-around fighter of the eighties, while Julio Ceasar-Chavez laid claim to that title in the nineties. Tommy Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard, and the ageless Roberto Duran dominated the sport before giving way to the likes of Chavez and Pernell Whittaker. Ah, yes. The little men have come up big in the past two decades.
So it is in this spirit that I have decided to provide you with my own person list of the top ten fights of the past two decades. These may not rate on the same historical scale as the "Rumble in the Jungle" or the "Thrilla in Manilla", but they were all damn fine fights which I had the good fortune to view personally, if not in person.
10) Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Tommy "The Hit Man" Hearns (1981)
The money was evenly split between the smooth, quick-fisted Leonard and the rangy, hard-punching Hearns. The one thing everyone agreed on was that if Hearns were to win it would have to be with a knockout while Leonard's only hope was to go the full 15 rounds and win a decision. As it turns out, everyone was wrong. Hearns was ahead on all three judges scorecards when Leonard knocked him out in the 14th round.
9) John Tate vs. Mike Weaver (1980)
The first "great" fight of the post-Ali era. Tate and Weaver were fighting for the vacated WBA title and a shot at Larry Holmes' WBC belt. Tate dictated the fight over the smaller Weaver and held a comfortable lead on all three judges cards heading into the final round. Weaver, knowing he needed a knockout came out blazing while Tate backpedaled and counted down the final seconds. With time winding down, Weaver finally managed to back Tate up against the ropes and unloaded a looping right hand that put the big man to sleep. Tate was unconscious before he hit the canvas and Weaver was the new heavyweight Champ.
8) Mike Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield (1997)
After literally years of anticipation, Tyson and Holyfield finally found themselves in a ring together and they did not disappoint. Though scarcely given a chance by most experts, Holyfield did what no one thought possible, he stood toe-to-toe with Tyson and not only survived, but battered Tyson into submission.
7) Ray "Boom-Boom" Mancini vs. Do Ku Kim (1984)
Mancini entered the fight a champion in his prime. Kim was a relative unknown from Korea making his first appearance in front of an American audience. Shockingly, Kim dominated Mancini with a devastating jab that Mancini just could not seem to solve. But just as Kim seemed on the verge of notching one of boxing's all-time upsets, the roof fell in. Mancini finally managed to find a hole in Kim's defense and landed a combination that rocked the challenger and sent him reeling toward the ropes. Seeing his opportunity to end the fight, Mancini pressed the attack, launching a straight right hand that caught Kim flush on the chin and sent him straight to the canvas. Sadly, the last blow proved to be a fatal one, as Kim never regained consciousness and later died on the way to the hospital.
6) Marvelous Marvin Hagler vs. Tommy "The Hit Man" Hearns (1985)
Everyone thought that Hearns had lost his mind, moving up from Welterweight to Middleweight to fight the man who was then being called pound-for-pound the best fighter in the world. Though the outcome was very much what everyone expected, Hagler knocking out Hearns in the third round, what fight fans saw that night was easily the most furious three rounds of fighting since George Foreman knocked out Ron Lyle in four rounds more than a decade earlier. Both men came out smoking and tore into each other like pit bulls. Slamming away at each other with combination after combination of wickedly brutal shots that had each fighter taking turns reeling and recovering, reeling and recovering. When the smoke cleared, Hagler was the one still standing but he clearly had no interest in scheduling up a rematch.
5) Iran "The Blade" Barkley vs. Roberto Duran (1989)
Duran was in the midst of one of his many comebacks when these two met in 1989. Barkley was quickly building a name for himself as he tore a swath through the middleweight division. Duran, on the other hand, was an old man well past his prime. Most pundits expected Barkley to be the last stop on the Duran comeback trail. Duran proved them wrong as he rolled back the clock and showed that he still had one of the strongest hearts in boxing. Duran fought Barkley to a standstill through twelve rounds and was rewarded with a decision.
4,3, and 2) Greg Haugen vs. Vinny Pazienza (1987-88)
In three of the greatest fights of all time, Haugen and Pazienza fought like wild dogs each time they got in the ring. Both were brash, trash-talking scrappers with granite chins and iron wills. More importantly, each man genuinely harbored a genuine dislike for the other which grew with each meeting and quickly evolved into genuine hatred. This hatred they brought into the ring with them all three times, with Haugen winning twice in three of the most bloodthirsty, exciting brawls in the history of boxing.
1) Mike Tyson vs. James "Buster" Douglas (1990)
This fight would belong here for sheer upset value alone, but it was also a tremendous fight in its own right. Tyson was at the pinnacle of his career. Undefeated, undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. He didn't just knock people out, he knocked them the f%&k out! Former champions literally trembled before him when the opening bell rang. He not only had never been beaten, not only had never been knocked down, but no one could even remember a time that he had even been rattled by a punch! If ever there was a foregone conclusion in boxing, it was that when Mike Tyson fought, Mike Tyson won. Such was the confidence in this theory that Vegas odds makers were not even taking bets on the fight. Many believed that had there been a betting line, it would have started at 50-1 and gone up!
These then, were the greatest fights of the past twenty years. At least, in my humble opinion.