With the current boxing schedule decimated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and many of us confined to our homes as we obey the laws of social distancing and self-isolation, what better time to delve into the archives and revisit great fights of the past?
YouTube is like an opiate right now for boxing fans looking to get their pugilistic fix and as national lockdowns have begun over recent weeks, I’ve seen numerous recommendations across social media of classic fights people love watching and would urge others to check out.
So I thought I’d jump on the bandwagon and do something similar, settling on putting together a list of fights I’ve watched a number of times before but would be inclined to watch again if confined to being a prisoner in my own home. In order to narrow that down somewhat and define something of a criteria, I decided to only include fights from my lifetime, so nothing pre-1995 (around the time my earliest memories of boxing begin) is included here. In the interest of variety (and to avoid fangirling), I’ve also made sure to not include more than one fight featuring the same fighter.
These aren’t necessarily the best fights I’ve ever seen, but because they’re all somewhat iconic fights from my childhood/youth and each one made an impression on me, I tend to remember where I was the first time I saw them, evoking for me a sense of nostalgia that you may or not feel and likely amplifying my perception of how watchable the fight really is.
10) Manny Pacquiao vs. Miguel Cotto (Nov. 14th, 2009)
Social media (particularly Boxing Twitter) has in recent years grouped followers of the sport into two categories; “hardcore” fans and “casuals”. Though this binary system was less clearly defined back in 2009, my memory of the night Manny Pacquiao jumped to welterweight to fight Miguel Cotto is that I watched the bout with a group of friends who would freely admit to being casual, less frequent followers of the sport. The consensus opinion amongst this group was that Pacquiao – the man they had seen brutally demolish their beloved Ricky Hatton inside two rounds earlier that year – would surely be far too much for this Miguel Cotto guy, who ‘looked pretty tough’ but they had never heard of. Unable to resist coming across as a know-it-all, I explained to them how good Cotto was and that, at welterweight, Pacquiao may finally have bitten off more than he could chew.
Pacquiao, of course, produced what was arguably the finest performance of his career, inflicting a merciless beating on Cotto en-route to a 12th round stoppage and earning me some temporary ridicule from a room-full of newly-minted Pacquiao diehards. But despite the one-sided nature of the bout, it made for some great action and on re-watching it since, Cotto definitely had his moments of success, particularly in the early rounds. If nothing else, the fight is always worth revisiting purely as a reminder of how good Pacquiao was at his absolute apex, which I believe he was on this night.
9) Floyd Mayweather vs. Ricky Hatton (Dec. 8th, 2007)
This transatlantic mega-fight actually took place on my 19th birthday, making the fact that the main event wasn’t scheduled until 5 am UK time perfect as it allowed enough time for me and a handful of friends to stagger out of whatever nightclub we were in and get a taxi back to my house before it started.
I remember struggling to stay awake on the sofa as Jeff Lacy was on his way to what seemed like a pretty dull decision victory over Peter Manfredo Jr., and being woken up as Daniel Ponce de Leon’s hand was being raised at the end of his bout (Google tells me that was against Eduardo Escobedo).
But after that nap, I was wide awake. Mayweather might have been the consensus pound-for-pound number one, but my heart had been ruling my head throughout the enthralling build-up to the fight and, as Tom Jones bellowed out God Save the Queen, perhaps through patriotism I genuinely believed the unbeaten Hatton was going to bully his way to a historic victory over the ‘Pretty Boy’.
Hatton’s pressure did appear to cause Mayweather all kinds of problems in the early exchanges, but Floyd inevitably adjusted and began to pick the Hitman apart before scoring a 10th round TKO off the back of a peach of a check hook.
Watching through Hatton-tinted glasses on the night, it felt as though the Manchester native had been given a raw deal by referee Joe Cortez and we debated long into Sunday about how the officiating had denied Ricky from fighting on the inside and had, ultimately, cost him the fight.
After subsequent rewatches I realized that was probably just the drink talking, but Hatton did enough to make this a compelling battle nonetheless, with the atmosphere created by the Brits inside the MGM Grand among the best you’ll ever see.
8) Naseem Hamed vs. Kevin Kelley (Dec. 19th, 1997)
Prince Naseem Hamed is probably the reason I became a boxing fan. Growing up in the 90s and visiting my Dad (who had Sky TV) at weekends, my introduction to the sport came through watching the likes of Benn, Eubank, Calzaghe, Bruno and the post-prison version of Mike Tyson, but it was the showboating Sheffield southpaw that really caught my attention.
Naz went on an absolute tear throughout ‘96 and ‘97 as the WBO, and later IBF, featherweight titleholder, fighting nine times in less than two years and making knocking people out whilst showboating look like shooting fish in a barrel. By the time Hamed made his American debut against Kevin Kelley at Madison Square Garden in December ‘97, ‘staying up late to watch Naz’ had become a regular occurrence.
“Just don’t tell your mother,” my Dad said.
28-0 with 26 KOs, as Naz made Kelley wait through a five-minute ring entrance my 9-year-old mind didn’t think he could lose. By the end of the first round I learned that it was very possible, as Kelley floored an off-balance Hamed with a right hook. When the American came out swarming at the start of round two and scored a second knockdown, I was worried.
But Hamed would also put Kelley on the canvas twice during an explosive second stanza, the first one ruled a slip, but the second a legitimate knockdown off a straight right hand. In round four, both men would score knockdowns again. Kelley got off the canvas and survived a Hamed onslaught to force the Sheffield native to touch down with a counter right hook. Back in the ascendancy as Hamed took a standing 8 count, the American then went in for the kill but was caught by a hard left hook that left him unable to beat the count. The Prince had landed.
Six knockdowns, four thrilling rounds. One epic shootout. And many great memories.
7) Lennox Lewis vs. Hasim Rahman II (Nov. 17th, 2001)
Lennox Lewis really didn’t get the credit he deserved throughout most of the 90s, particularly in the UK. Maybe because Tyson and Holyfield took the limelight, though ultimately Lewis would end up toppling both. Maybe because the Bowe fight didn’t happen, though Big Daddy discarded his WBC title rather than seek to avenge his amateur defeat to the Brit. Maybe it was the knockout loss to Oliver McCall, though Lewis did avenge that one. Or maybe it was because Lewis had dismantled Britain’s beloved Frank Bruno. Frank was the people’s champion, so it would take a number of years for the British public to forgive Lennox for that.
Whatever it was, when Lewis bested Holyfield in their 1999 rematch to become the undisputed heavyweight champion, recognition finally came his way. Demolition jobs of Michael Grant and Frans Botha, followed by a dominant decision win over dangerous puncher David Tua further solidified Lewis’ standing as the premier heavyweight on the planet. And then a Hasim Rahman right hand one night in South Africa threatened to undo his hard-earned reputation.
Opting to enforce an immediate rematch was risky in that, if lightning were to strike twice and Rahman was to repeat, Lewis’ career would be over and his legacy would lie in tatters. But despite having that pressure on his shoulders, Lennox looked fired up and ready as he strode out to James Brown’s “The Big Payback” and, unlike the first bout, was completely dialed in for this one. Lewis dominated Rahman for the three-and-a-half rounds that this lasted before sealing victory with one of the most eye-catching knockouts in heavyweight history: a perfect left-right combination dropping the outgoing champion hard on his back.
Like many others, I came to appreciate Lennox more after his retirement and had to include one of his fights here, and this could just as easily have been Lewis vs. Vitali Kitschko (a better fight) or Lewis vs Holyfield or Tyson (more significant). But Lewis had a killer instinct in this bout that had rarely been seen before and that, coupled with the highlight reel KO, gives it the edge for me.
6) Joe Calzaghe vs. Jeff Lacy (Mar. 4th, 2006)
I’d never really been sure what to make of Calzaghe before this.
Sure, he’d held a WBO trinket for over eight years and had been required to beat Chris Eubank to earn it, but despite being 40-0 the resume looked pretty thin otherwise, the standout title defenses being a split-decision nod over Robin Reid and a shootout win over Byron Mitchell.
Maybe I was just bitter that Calzaghe had also ended the career of the most high-profile fighter to hail from my neck of the woods, Richie Woodhall.
It was a fairly widely held view however that Calzaghe remained something of an unproven entity. But that was to end when IBF champion Jeff Lacy came to the MEN Arena in Manchester. ‘Left Hook’ was also being billed as “the super middleweight Mike Tyson” and was a heavy betting favorite, largely expected to expose the Welshman.
Instead, it was the Floridian who was exposed, as Calzaghe dazzled and dished out a twelve-round boxing clinic, rendering Lacy’s face a bloody, swollen mess in a fight that was embarrassingly one-sided and perhaps should have been stopped. Calzaghe became an overnight sensation afterward and would go on to seal legacy-enhancing wins over Mikkel Kessler and Bernard Hopkins, before taking a lap of honor against a badly faded Roy Jones Jr.
The irony? Despite emphatically passing his litmus test, Calzaghe’s mollywhopping of Lacy has since become viewed as a somewhat overrated triumph. The muscle-bound American was never the same again after Calzaghe, in subsequent performances looking a shell of his former self in fact, inevitably leading many to claim that he was never all that to begin with.
But history is littered with fighters who never recovered from the psychological scars of such a comprehensive defeat. One of Calzaghe’s biggest detractors, Carl Froch, has his own defining victory over an unbeaten Lucian Bute who was damaged goods after the manner of his first loss. To take credit away from Calzaghe long after the event seems somewhat revisionist history.
So, great performance, or over-hyped? Watch The Italian Dragon pepper Lacy with blinding hand speed and combinations in this one and make up your own mind.
5) Roy Jones vs. Antonio Tarver II (May 15, 2004)
“You got any excuses tonight Roy?”
So of all the flawless Roy Jones Jr. performances I could have selected here (perhaps Ruiz, Toney, Hopkins, Richard Hall, or Virgil Hill) incredibly the fight I’ve probably rewatched most of Roy’s is this one. And yes, there is only a round-and-a-half of tentative action, but hear me out.
Shock factor. That’s what this fight epitomizes, as the man who was widely viewed as untouchable and headed into this bout with a 49-1 (for all intents and purposes 50-0) ledger was separated from his senses by a Tarver left hook and sent crashing to the canvas, leaving ringside spectators speechless as ‘Superman’ lay with his head beneath the bottom rope.
I can remember seeing the result the morning after and my mind struggling to fathom Jones losing, let alone conceive what Roy getting knocked out would look like. Unfortunately, it’s a sight that has become sadly familiar in the years that have followed.
I can only imagine what it must have felt like being ringside on the night, or even watching live at home, and to try and understand that is I think the reason I’ve watched this fight back so many times since.
4) Bernard Hopkins vs. Felix Trinidad (Sep. 29, 2001)
I love Hopkins. The virtual ‘B-Hop’ was already one of my favorites from the Fight Night games well before Sky Sports aired a replay of his fight with Antonio Tarver on a Sunday morning in June 2006, but, although I’d read and heard so much about The Executioner (and had taken him to numerous Playstation middleweight championships), I’ll admit I don’t think I’d ever actually seen him fight until then.
What Hopkins did to a pound-for-pound rated Tarver, jumping up two weight classes to win The Ring light heavyweight title in dominant fashion at the age of 41, immediately made me a fan. A similarly dominant performance as the underdog versus Kelly Pavlik two years later had me marveling at the man’s abilities to put a schooling on younger, more dangerous foes.
But it wasn’t until around that time, after the advent of YouTube, that I first watched Bernard’s virtuoso demolition of Felix Trinidad and, of all the vintage Hopkins nights that followed, it remains his finest hour.
The full HBO broadcast is available to stream online (including the build-up) and is well worth a watch, covering Hopkins cheating death at the Puerto Rican press conference for disrespecting the flag, an emotional 9/11 tribute (the fight took place less than 3 weeks later and had been postponed due to the tragedy) and a parade of great middleweight champions in the ring before the bout, including Jake LaMotta, Emile Griffith, and Roberto Duran.
A heavy betting underdog, Hopkins sold the advertising space on his back for $100,000 to online casino Golden Palace.com and then placed the entire amount on himself to win the fight, ultimately doing so in the 12th round after dropping an exhausted Trinidad on his back.
3) Evander Holyfield vs. Mike Tyson I (Nov. 9, 1996)
Perhaps due to the infamy of ‘The Bite Fight’, I think people forget just how good the first meeting between Holyfield and Tyson was.
Billed as ‘Finally’, a nod to the fight that was originally scheduled to take place in 1991 before being shelved when Iron Mike went to prison, the long-awaited clash between one-time amateur teammates was a mega-event in ‘96 and was expected to deliver Tyson’s first signature victory following his incarceration, perhaps his most notable since beating Michael Spinks in ‘88.
Tyson terrified me as a kid. He was the most menacing-looking man I’d ever seen. The fanfare that surrounded his comeback wins over McNeeley and Mathis Jr., his billing as ‘The Baddest Man on the Planet’ and the fact he’d just been released from prison had me worried for Frank Bruno leading into their rematch. My Dad bought the PPV and I remember watching the replay with awe on a Sunday morning as Tyson pulverized a petrified looking Bruno inside three rounds.
Later that year, I was allowed to stay up late to watch Tyson-Holyfield. I don’t think I knew who Holyfield was at the time, but it didn’t matter, he wasn’t going to beat Tyson. When Mike staggered Evander with the first meaningful shot he threw in the first round, I don’t think even the most experienced observers thought Holyfield was going to beat Tyson either.
But Evander weathered that storm and as the rounds wore on, the former cruiserweight champion not only began to outbox Tyson but also proved himself to be the stronger man. Punctuated by a knockdown in the sixth and a shot that sent a backpedaling Tyson into the ropes in the penultimate 10th round, it was Holyfield who scored the career-defining victory with an 11th round stoppage.
At the time I couldn’t believe it. But with age, wisdom, and the ability to go back through Holyfield’s archives, I now understand why they called him the ‘Real Deal’.
2) Nigel Benn vs. Gerald McClellan (Feb 25, 1995)
Nigel Benn was my dad’s favorite fighter, something all too evident by his reaction as we watched The Dark Destroyer’s body fall apart across his pair of career-ending fights with Steve Collins.
And the reason for my old man’s affinity for Benn was pretty easy to see. You generally knew what you’d be getting with Nigel: heart, guts, explosive power and yet occasional vulnerability. A Benn fight guaranteed violence. If I ever wanted to get out of something by changing the topic of conversation with my Dad, I’d mention Nigel Benn and he’d talk about the fights with Watson and Eubank, or when Benn went over to the States and demolished DeWitt and Barkley. He would also talk about Benn’s fight with Gerald McClellan, an epic battle but one that would end with tragic circumstances.
I’d heard plenty about the fight before the first time I ever watched it, which was probably a few years after the event, but if I go back and watch the fight now it has an almost magnetic appeal. Knowing what I know about McClellan now, he was a force, and at just twenty-seven when the Benn fight took place you can’t help but wonder how the ‘G-Man’ would have fared against some of the other mid-90s super middleweights. Watching the fight knowing that this is the final act of his career, having seen McClellan’s awesome middleweight destructions of John Mugabi and Julian Jackson, feels a little eerie.
And the fight – and McClellan’s career – might have been very different had the third man in the ring been someone other than Alfred Asaro, a man who spoke barely a word of English and was refereeing only his second world title bout. Asaro made a monumental hash of the first round in which it looked as though McClellan had scored a knockout victory with Benn lay sprawled across the bottom rope, but after a curiously long count, the Brit was able to survive the round. From the second round onwards until the fight’s infamous finish, the warrior in Benn kicked in and he fought valiantly in a fight that ebbed and flowed to compete with an opponent who had entered as a 1–3 favorite. Speaking of the finish, both the referee and McLellan’s cornerman, Stan Johnson, have received significant criticism for not acknowledging the warning signs in the fighter’s condition much sooner.
Controversy, brutal back and forth action and a tragic end. It’s almost as though the fight’s script was written by Shakespeare.
1) Diego Corrales vs. Jose Luis Castillo I (May 7, 2005)
With all due respect to Arturo Gatti and Mickey Ward and the battles that they shared, the greatest fight of my lifetime is, in my opinion, the lightweight unification bout that took place at the Mandalay Bay on May 7th, 2005.
The first installment of Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo’s would-be trilogy (had Castillo made weight for the third bout) is nine rounds of center-ring, brutal infighting that may as well have been staged in a phone booth, followed by arguably the single most dramatic round I’ve ever seen, particularly given the context of the two fighters and their perceived strengths and weaknesses.
If you’re reading this, I’d be surprised if you haven’t at the very least seen the 10th round of this fight, but in case you haven’t I’m not going to provide a breakdown or acknowledge the result here.
Be sure though to give this entire fight a watch, not just the final stanza!