A baying crowd lusting for blood is a characteristic of boxing that has stood throughout time. Yet, some crowds have been more privileged than others, witnessing a particularly iconic fight, and those that attended these five bouts live and in living colour can feel truly blessed.
Ali v Frazier III – Thrilla in Manila
Muhammad Ali could fill a list all by himself. Practically every one of his bouts, following the watershed knockout win against the ‘unbeatable’ Sonny Liston in February 1964, was a classic.
Two of Ali’s fights – Rumble in the Jungle and Thrilla in Manila – stand as defining fights of a golden generation, with the former seeing tactical cunning outmatch pure power in the shape of George Foreman. The latter bout, meanwhile, was a display of stamina in hellish humidity that no athlete has since surpassed, with opponent Joe Frazier close to bodily shutdown by the end.
Ali had made uncharacteristic efforts to go for an early knockout, and for once appeared out-psyched. Frazier timed his punches to great effect, besting Ali on the inside game, but still receiving blows in return which caused a gradual swelling in his eye.
By the fourteenth and penultimate round, Frazier was blind in one eye, and thus lacking the vital depth of vision he needed to box effectively. Trainer Eddie Futch withdrew him, knowing full well the potential consequences of failing to do so.
Soon after, heavyweight bouts were capped at twelve rounds, with this fight undoubtedly fuelling most of the argument in favour of such a development.
Ali v Wepner – The Fight that Birthed Rocky
Contrary to expectations of a quick knockout win for Ali, journeyman Chuck Wepner – little more than glove fodder ahead of Thrilla – beat Ali at his own game, and frustrating the ‘Louisville Lip’ with a disciplined, resolute defence. Against all odds, Wepner went the distance with Ali, gallantly losing on points, but gaining far more respect from that loss than any victory he had ever earned in his life.
Just a year later, the Rocky film franchise was born, and inspired by this event, ensured boxing’s definitive transition from the real world to the big screen.
Douglas v Tyson – The 42/1 shot
These days, Anthony Joshua is a popular pick for those that like to look at some emerging boxing markets ahead of potential bouts. That made his loss to Andy Ruiz Jr in June 2019 a huge shock, but it paled in comparison to this upset.
In an echo of Ali v Wepner fifteen years previously, this too was to be a mere warm-up for Tyson’s bout with the top contender Evander Holyfield. Simply put, this was to be the latest augmentation of Tyson’s 37-0 record, which had seen an endless chorus line of brutal, quickfire knockouts.
When Tyson fought in his prime, he was not in the ring – he was the ring. Opponents were often left with injuries that would be truly life-threatening to anyone other than a highly-trained pro boxer, and few predicted anything other than a meeting with the reaper for Douglas.
Then, at odds of 42/1 against – with the only bookmaker in town even taking bets for Douglas – this happened:
The result was more than just a title won and lost in the wider context, and it was also the end of the integrity of the heavyweight championship for a significant amount of time.
With Holyfield instead beating Douglas for the title several months later – and doing so with insulting ease – many viewed him as nothing more than a paper champion. There also followed a number of years where several heavyweight champions were recognised, but none had the ability to claim long-term ‘undisputed’ status like Tyson once did.
Even now, the sense of frustration at the lack of a ‘true’ champion is palpable, adding further vehemence to calls for a winner-takes-all Fury v Joshua showdown.
Ward v Gatti – The Fighting Irish
Like Ali v Wepner, this too was a tale of an unknown fighter versus a perfectly-tuned idol. So too did it inspire a film, namely 2010 hit The Fighter. This 2002 bout sparked an unforgettable trilogy, the first instalment of which saw Mickey Ward explode onto the scene with an accomplished beating of top lightweight contender Arturo Gatti.
Though Ward would eventually lose this ‘series’ 2-1, with Gatti eventually winning the WBC World Lightweight title. However, the Canadian fighter will never forget what his Irish opponent put him through over those three meetings.
Mayweather v Hatton – Undefeated No More
Back in December 2007, long prior to the current time of Britain locking out all of boxing’s heavyweight belts, Britain was still searching for a man who could truly conquer the United States. In Ricky Hatton, the British had a potential ground breaker.
Opponent Floyd Mayweather Jr undertook the fight of his life with aplomb, thoroughly dominating the majority of the fight after a shaky start. Though Hatton was the more aggressive, Mayweather adapted to great effect, reading Hatton’s style perfectly and countering to wear down the ‘Hitman’.
After nine rounds, Hatton cut an exhausted figure, and with superior stamina, Mayweather ended the matter with a jaw-shattering left hook which put Hatton on the canvas. There was no need for any count – Hatton’s corner knew he was beaten, and threw in the towel.
Hatton’s career would fade in the years after, while Mayweather would eventually beat Jack Dempsey’s long-standing 49-0 record in August 2017. Meanwhile, on a wider scale, the fight broke new ground in terms of ratings, with 850,000 domestic PPV buys and $47 million in TV revenue.