There are of course many high-profile clashes in boxing history which intrigue fight fans and bring out big crowds, but then there are the truly monumental showdowns which transcend pugilism, attracting keen interest from the general public before going on to have a lasting cultural impact. Here are the twelve match-ups which galvanized the general public and, years or decades later, still fascinate us as much for their political and cultural context as for how they defined, or re-defined, their combatants.
12. June 20, 1980: Roberto Duran W15 Sugar Ray Leonard. The match which ushered in a new era in boxing, “The Four Kings,” and proved that global interest and big money was not restricted to the heavyweights. A true “superfight,” Leonard vs Duran became a huge attraction, not just for boxing, but for sports fans worldwide. Over forty thousand attended the event in Montreal and the closed-circuit telecast sold-out major arenas such as Madison Square Garden. Amazingly, the bout lived up to the hype, the performances of both fighters exceeding all expectations. The biggest closed-circuit broadcast in boxing history to that point, it afforded Leonard a record payday, as the public response confirmed the now crucial importance of Latin America for boxing with Panama’s Duran, who spoke no English, becoming its first mainstream star.
11. Sept. 7, 1892: James J. Corbett KO21 John L. Sullivan. The conclusive end of the bare-knuckle era and the beginning of modern boxing. Sullivan vs Corbett was a major event drawing widespread interest as it was the legendary Sullivan’s first fight in over four years. During that time no one had posed enough of a threat to draw him back to the ring as few could conceive of anyone defeating the mythical “Boston Strong Boy,” the champion being a true living legend. Corbett’s upset knockout win marked a turning point for the sport as a more disciplined ring technique soon became preeminent.
10. Sept. 3, 1906: Joe Gans DQ42 Battling Nelson. One of the last “fight to the finish” contests and the longest gloved title match under Marquis of Queensbury rules. An historic bout which advanced boxing technique as early ring sophisticate Gans, aka “The Old Master,” the first black American to hold a world title, dominated Nelson before the Dane was disqualified for landing a powerful blow below the belt. George “Tex” Rickard brought the big fight to Goldfield, Nevada to help the money interests there promote their new boom town and it was the first of many blockbusters staged by the famous promoter. The match also highlights the shameful treatment at that time of Black fighters as Gans, the defending champion, was forced to make weight literally minutes before the opening bell and while wearing his boxing equipment.
9. Feb. 25, 1964: Cassius Clay RTD6 Sonny Liston. The contest which signaled a sea change, not just for boxing, but for all professional sports and for American society. A huge underdog, not to mention a brash and cocky black man the likes of which white America had rarely seen on the public stage before, Clay proved too quick and too powerful for big Sonny, the champion quitting after round six. Soon after Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali and nothing would ever be the same.
8. Sept. 22, 1927: Gene Tunney W10 Jack Dempsey. The second Dempsey vs Tunney fight, and the famous “Battle of the Long Count,” marked the end of the Dempsey era as well as a climax to “The Roaring Twenties.” A learned man and a socialite, the enigmatic Tunney, in contrast to the rugged “Manassa Mauler,” reflected much that was changing in an increasingly industrialized America. The fight attracted a massive crowd of over a hundred thousand spectators to Soldier Field in Chicago and all saw the popular challenger pound Gene to the canvas in round seven, only for Jack to hesitate before retreating to a neutral corner. Thus Tunney was on the floor for some fourteen seconds before he rose. When he did, he resumed coolly out-boxing the ex-champion and he won a wide decision, but the “long count” made this one of boxing’s most controversial fights, destined to be argued about for decades.
7. June 11, 1982: Larry Holmes TKO13 Gerry Cooney. The richest fight ever up to that point, this contest was made massive by its overtly racial (or should that be “racist”?) elements. White America cheered for a new “Great White Hope” while hoping for that very rare thing: a white world heavyweight champion. The untested Cooney had the chance to become bigger than boxing as it was his face, not the champion’s, on the cover of Time and Sports Illustrated and it was Cooney’s dressing room that had a direct phone line to the White House. But Holmes took his challenger to boxing school, putting to rest all dreams of a great white champion in an increasingly diverse and multi-cultural America.
6. Dec. 26, 1908: Jack Johnson TKO14 Tommy Burns. A match whose outcome shocked and dismayed — and delighted — millions, as the irrepressible Jack Johnson — ever smiling, laughing and taunting white America — dominated Burns with ease to become the first Black heavyweight champion of the world.
5. Oct. 30, 1974: Muhammad Ali KO8 George Foreman. The astonishing return of Muhammad Ali as heavyweight king, a great upset vindicating the man who had been reviled and banned from boxing, but who was now a hero to millions and a global superstar. The event also reflected wider political and cultural changes as two black men fought for boxing’s biggest prize in a newly independent African nation and as part of an event staged by boxing’s first black promoter. The fight, and the victory, was bigger than boxing as it was the perfect conclusion to the story of Ali’s defiance of the American government and it is no exaggeration to say it made “The Greatest” a living legend.
4. July 2, 1921: Jack Dempsey KO4 Georges Carpentier. Boxing’s first million dollar gate and a massive event in every way. Worldwide interest attended this match, the results of which were next morning’s front page news. A classic good vs evil narrative — with brutish, slacker Dempsey the bad guy and World War I hero Carpentier the white knight — captured the imaginations of millions. A special stadium to accommodate a mob of ninety thousand promptly sold out and during the match thousands gathered in New York and Paris just to hear announcements of telegraphed updates.
3. June 22, 1938: Joe Louis KO1 Max Schmeling. It was Germany’s Max Schmeling who had inflicted Louis’ first defeat two years earlier and as the young heavyweight titlist himself put it, “I ain’t no champion ’till I beat Schmeling.” But in the interim, “The Black Uhlan of the Rhine” had been adopted by his home country’s Nazi regime as a national hero. Thus the backdrop for this match was nothing less than the fascist regime of Adolf Hitler and his resolute drive towards a new world war. “The Brown Bomber’s” vicious two minute annihilation of the now reviled German elevated him to the status of national hero and made him a living symbol of America’s growing confidence.
2. March 8, 1971: Joe Frazier W15 Muhammad Ali. Never before had two undefeated champions clashed for the undisputed world heavyweight title. Both boxers were in their primes and thus, strictly from a competitive standpoint, it was a dream fight and a huge attraction. But the political and cultural story-lines could not be ignored. The build-up exposed and enflamed serious divisions in the American public over the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, and what was already an irresistible contest between two elite fighters became an event of colossal magnitude. Millions rooted for Ali to regain the title that had been unjustly taken from him, while at least as many yearned for his defeat. The most watched sporting event in history up to that point, the fifteen round battle which followed, amazingly, lived up to the hype.
1. July 4, 1910: Jack Johnson TKO15 James J. Jeffries. Arguably no boxing match has ever held greater significance than the first so-called “Fight of the Century,” an ugly affair which drew the attention of millions not for sporting reasons, but because this contest was, first and foremost, about the supposed superiority of the white race. Jeffries initially had no interest in coming out of retirement to face Johnson but many viewed it as his social duty to put “The Galveston Giant” in his proper place. Eventually the former champion bowed to public pressure and the much anticipated clash took place in a specially built stadium where Jeffries, the expected victor, was completely dominated. To the deep dismay of the crowd, Johnson toyed with his opponent before the one-sided battering was finally stopped. The result led to race riots in virtually every major American city and the social repercussions were felt for decades.