The 5 greatest boxing rivalries
1| Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier
There’s rarely a ‘greatest’ list in boxing that doesn’t include the Louisville Lip, and this one’s no different. Ali’s rivalry with Joe Frazier is the stuff of legend. Politically charged, it captured the zeitgeist of an country in turmoil and their rivalry, particularly during the first bout in 1971 ultimately transcended boxing itself.
There were three fights between these two greats, it was billed as being Ali’s artistry against Frazier’s frighteningly potent left hook. The first was quite possibly the most anticipated fight in the history of boxing. Ali had seen his license stripped in 1967 for refusing to fight in Vietnam. In the meantime, Frazier had taken the role of world champion. When Ali’s ban was finally recinded, the Fight of the Century was officially on. The hottest ticket in town, even Frank Sinatra couldn’t get a seat – he made it in there by taking photos for Life magazine. Burt Lancaster was co-commentator.
As Ali unofficially represented left-wing anti-establishment America and Frazier being pro-war and government meant that distinct lines were drawn and Ali would taunt Frazier mercilessly about it by calling him an Uncle Tom. The fight itself lived up to the billing, with Frazier ultimately inflicting the first defeat of Ali’s career (above).
The second fight, three years later in 1974 wasn’t quite as dramatic (how could it be?), but was noteworthy because of an Ali victory on points and a brawl between the two fighters on live TV ahead of the fight.
The final fight, one year later, The Thrilla in Manila saw more mind games from Ali (remember the ugly Manila Gorilla?) and finally, a famous victory for him in the searing heat. It was one that certainly came at a price though, as Ali remembered. “Joe Frazier, I’ll tell the world right now, brings out the best in me. I’m gonna tell ya, that’s one helluva man, and God bless him. He is the greatest fighter of all times, next to me.”
2| Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta
The longest running battle in boxing was probably also the most one-sided, despite the fact it was contested between two greats. Sugar Ray Robinson was a superstar welterweight with a record of 35-0. The problem was that nobody would fight him, so he was forced to move up to middleweight in order to get more fights under his belt.
Jake LaMotta was undoubtedly a fearsome middleweight but the lightening fast feet and hands of Robinson crushed him in fight one of six. The second saw a markedly different strategy from La Motta. He cut off the ring, limited Robinson’s movements and even inflicted his first ever knock down, smashing him through the ropes before winning a close call on points.
Their third fight amazingly took place just three weeks later and LaMotta again put Robinson on his backside. However Robinson went on to win that and the remaining bouts between the two. The final fight, known as the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, saw LaMotta’s biggest beating but he famously stayed on his feet, a record he maintained his entire career and which was famously immortalised by Robert De Niro in the Oscar winning movie, Raging Bull.
3 | Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns
Aptly named The War by promoter Bob Arum, Hagler had dominated the middleweight division for five years, since winning the title in 1980. Known for his conditioning and durability Hagler was famously only knocked down once in his entire career – by Juan Domingo Roldan – and even that he claims was a slip. His ability to take a punch would be severely tested by Hearns however, who was a knockout specialist that had won 30 of his first 32 fights by KO.
Normally a slow starter, Hagler stormed into the first round, although he was caught a few times by Hearns’ nasty left hook. “He [Hearns] definitely tried to put the bomb on me,” he would later claim. By round two Hearns’ legs had gone – his trainer later claimed it was down to a massage he’d received prior to the fight, something he never normally did. In the third Hearns looked spent, but a cut on Hagler’s forehead was opening up and bleeding profusely. Fearing a stoppage, the champ launched a brutal onslaught, chopping down Hearns before the bell, for what was possibly the most exciting eight minutes in boxing history.
4| Tony Zale and Rocky Graziano
These two enjoyed a brutal three-fight rivalry between 1946 and 1948. Graziano had something of a troubled upbringing, spent time in prison and correctional facilities – a place where he met childhood friend and future world middleweight champion Jake LaMotta.
Known as one the most brutal punchers in boxing history, Graziano would knock many fighters out with a single punch, which was handy as he could never really be bothered to train for fights and so was never really in great condition.
The middleweight clashes with Tony Zale are among some of the most absorbing fights ever seen. The first saw Zale hand out a beating in a sixth round knockout at Yankee Stadium. The second looked to be heading the same way until Graziano, with one eye closed, forced a TKO in the sixth. The final fight was revenge for Zale with a third round knockout.
Graziano’s life was eventually made into the Oscar winning movie, Somebody Up There Likes Me – a reference to a quote he gave after beating Zale. Graziano was played by Paul Newman and Zale was due to play himself until he knocked out Newman after the actor had gotten a little rough while sparring.
Years later, Graziano would claim that he was still haunted by their fights, and would wake up in a cold sweat during the night believing he was still in the ring with Zale.
5 |Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran
Sugar Ray had no more greater rivalry than with Roberto Duran, a vicious opponent who’d earned the nickname “Hands of Stone” due to numerous knockouts and their fight was hotly anticipated.
The first of three, in 1980 became known as the Brawl in Montreal and was an absolute slugfest. Despite Angelo Dundee’s advice to Leonard of moving side-to-side and fighting Duran on the ropes, Leonard went toe-to-toe, playing into the Panamanian’s hands – the hands that then tore into Leonard and gave him the first defeat of his career.
Revenge was extracted in the re-match as Leonard – evoking Muhammad Ali – employed mind games, taunted (pictured) and laughed at Duran, forcing him to miss wildly, much to the delight of the crowd. By the end of the seventh round, Duran quit with a cry of “no mas” [no more].
The decider, in 1989, ended with a12-round decision to Leonard.