The greatest boxing rivalries in history gave us more than a series of entertaining fights. Boxing is one of the most physically and mentally demanding sports, and the stakes are often high when the best of the best compete against each other.
Eleven Of The Most Memorable Rivalries In Boxing History
Boxing’s great rivalries gave us stories that captured the attention of even those who don’t follow the sport. The impact of these fights even shaped the way the world works today as they tore down barriers that seemed impossible to overcome at the time.
This article will explore some of the greatest rivalries in boxing history and provide insight into their stories.
1) Muhammad Ali Vs. Joe Frazier
There’s no question about it: these two gave us the greatest rivalries in boxing history. The two started as friends in the 1970s as Ali worked to get his boxing license reinstated after being stripped of it and his world titles for refusing to be drafted for the Vietnam War.
Frazier ended up being the beneficiary of Ali losing his title, and the rivalry was born when Ali, who had a 29-0 record at the time, set the stage to fight Frazier, who was 26-0 at the time, for the title. The anticipation couldn’t have been any higher as the two undefeated heavyweights prepared for their showdown.
The fight lived up to the hype, but Ali didn’t get the glorious return to boxing he was hoping for. Frazier knocked him out during the fifth round of their championship fight, retaining the WBC, WBA, and Ring heavyweight titles. Frazier defended his titles two more times before losing to George Forman.
Ali’s NABF title was on the line when the two collided inside the ring for the second time in 1974. The rematch wasn’t as memorable as the first fight, but Ali managed to avenge his loss, winning via unanimous decision. That set the stage for a rubber match that turned out to be one of the most memorable fights in boxing history.
Dubbed “The Thriller in Manilla,” Ali and Frazier brutalized each other from the opening bell until the fight was stopped. Ali used his range to box Frazier from the outside, but Frazier was able to trap him against the ropes and unleash heavy salvos on him. Both men were severely battered by the later rounds, and Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee needed to talk him into getting up for the 15th round. Frazier was just as battered up at that point, with both of his eyes swelling shut due to the damage he had taken. The fight was finally stopped during the 15th round when Frazier’s corner threw in the towel to save him from further punishment.
Throughout the years, Ali and Frazier had a complicated love-hate relationship that only made their fights much more intense. Their opposite personalities made them the perfect couple. Half of the boxing world rallied behind the smooth-talking “Louisville Lip,” while the other half related more with the stoic “Smoking Joe.”
2) Sugar Ray Robinson Vs. Jake LaMotta
These two boxing legends shared the ring six times during their careers, with each fight progressively more intense than the one before. Robinson and LaMotta were contemporaries who started their professional boxing careers within six months of each other, with huge expectations placed on their shoulders.
The first fight between these two wasn’t particularly memorable, with Robinson outboxing LaMotta with relative ease at Madison Square Garden. Robinson’s victory lap didn’t last long as LaMotta avenged the loss four months later, handing Robinson his first professional loss. The two fought again later that month, and Robinson survived a knockdown and won a decision.
The fourth fight between the two was another clear unanimous decision victory for Robinson. Robinson won the fifth fight in the series via split decision, but there was some controversy as many fans disputed the decision.
The sixth fight took place four years later after LaMotta won the middleweight title. LaMotta got off to a good start, but, in the end, Robinson’s technical prowess proved to be too much for him again.
3) Sam Langford Vs. Harry Wills
Our list would not be complete without the crazy rivalry between these two that didn’t even involve championship belts. Both African-American boxers were forbidden from competing for the heavyweight title because of their race, so they turned to each other and created one of the longest rivalries in boxing history, with at least 17 matches in the series.
Their fights were filled with action, knockdowns, blood, and stoppages. One of their most memorable fights took place in 1914 when Langford got up after getting knocked down four times in the first two rounds and went on to knock Wills out in the 14th round.
4) Manny Pacquiao Vs. Juan Manuel Marquez
The rivalry between these two is considered by many to be the most dramatic and competitive boxing rivalry in the modern era. Pacquaio’s Ring featherweight title was on the line when the two shared a ring for the first time in 2004.
Pacquiao got off to a good start, knocking Marquez down three times during the opening round, but the Mexican stayed composed and won enough rounds to earn a draw. Many boxing experts and fans even felt the decision should have gone Marquez’s way.
The second fight between these two occurred in 2008 when Pacquaio challenged Marquez for the WBC title. Pacquaio ended up winning a controversial split decision. Pacquaio’s WBO title was on the line for the third fight of their series. Pacquaio edged out a majority decision, but many felt it was a robbery.
The fact Pacquaio didn’t have a clean, clear win over Marquez set the stage for the fourth fight of their series. That turned out to be one of the most memorable fights in boxing history, with both men sending the other to the canvas multiple times during the fight.
Marquez scored one of the most impressive one-punch knockouts in boxing history during the sixth round when he caught Pacquaio with a hard cross that left him unconscious for minutes.
5) Sandy Saddler Vs. Willie Pep
This rivalry features two of the top featherweights in all of boxing history. All the fights in their series managed to garner mainstream coverage, which was extremely rare for the lighter-weight classes back then.
The fact both men seemed to have genuine animosity towards each other made their rivalry even more special. The first fight left boxing fans stunned as the younger, less experienced Saddler scored a knockout against Pep.
Pep wasn’t expected to perform much better during their second fight, but he used his technical defensive savvy to outpoint Saddler. Unfortunately, the third and fourth fights between these two were overshadowed by dirty tactics that forced Pep’s corner to throw in the towel.
6) Arturo Gatti Vs. Micky Ward
These two gave us one of the most brutal yet inspiring trilogies in boxing history. They started as bitter rivals and became close friends after they shared 30 rounds inside the ring, with lots of heavy punches thrown during those rounds.
Ward won the first fight via majority decision, but Gatti came back to win the second and third fights by decision. All three fights were entertaining from start to finish, with both men having to pay for their victories with blood.
7) Sugar Ray Robinson Vs. Gene Fullmer
These two middle champions weren’t fans of each other for very different reasons. Fullmer didn’t like the high self-regard Robinson had for himself and his demands for special treatment. On the other hand, Robinson didn’t think Fullmer was his equal as a boxer.
The disdain both men had for each other led to four action-packed fights. Fullmer knocked Robinson out of the ring during their first fight and went on to win a decision. Robinson scored a one-punch knockout during their second fight, the only knockout anyone ever scored against Fullmer during his career. The knockout is viewed by many as one of the best knockouts in boxing history.
The third fight ended in a draw, with Robinson putting on one of the most outstanding performances of his career.
8) Erik Morales Vs. Marco Antonio Barrera
Antonio Barrera was one of Erik Morales’s first rivals in his decorated boxing career. The rivalry started at the turn of the new millennium when Morales edged out a split decision against Barrera after an entertaining 12 rounds. Morales was sporting a 35-0 record at the time, and his WBC super-bantamweight title and Barrera’s WBO super-bantamweight title were on the line. The two also fought for the honor of being the best Mexican fighter in the division.
The close decision set the stage for a rematch that took place in 2002. Barrera got some sweet payback against his rival, handing Morales his first loss as a professional boxer via decision and taking his WBC featherweight title.
The title would again be on the line when the two collided for a rubber match in 2004. Barrera once again emerged the victor, bringing their entertaining Rivalry to an end.
9) Manny Pacquiao Vs. Erik Morales
Morales and Pacquiao were two of the most entertaining boxers around when the two squared up for the WBC international featherweight title. Morales was coming off his second loss to Marco Antonio Barrera, so he needed to make a considerable statement to remind boxing fans he was still one of the best featherweights in the world.
Pacquiao was on a 13-fight winning streak heading into their first fight, and oddsmakers expected him to dominate the action. “El Terrible” lived up to his moniker during the fight, pressuring Pacquaio with relentless barrages that led to one of the most entertaining fights ever. Morales won the fight by unanimous decision, setting the stage for a rematch that took place in 2006.
Pacquaio did much better during their second showdown, scoring a tenth-round knockout to even out the series. The third fight occurred ten months later, with Pacquiao scoring a third-round knockout to end the rivalry. The victory also earned him the WBC international super featherweight title.
10) Israel Vazquez Vs. Rafael Marquez
The rivalry between Vazquez and Marquez gave us four of the most entertaining fights in boxing history. It earned both men back-to-back Fight of the Year awards in 2007 and 2008. Marquez won the first fight between these two, breaking Vazquez’s nose in the process and claiming the Ring and WBC super-bantamweight titles.
The entertaining contests between these two set the stage for the second fight four months later. Vazquez got some revenge for his broken nose and reclaimed his titles. The two collided again nine months later, with Vazquez edging out a split-decision victory this time around.
Boxing rivalries are typically concluded once a fighter wins the rubber match, but that wasn’t the case for this rivalry. After three entertaining fights, it still wasn’t clear who was the better fighter. That set the stage for the fourth fight in 2010. It was another entertaining fight, but Marquez scored the first and only knockout in the series, putting Vasquez away in the third round, evening out the series.
A fifth fight could have decided who the better boxer was, but both men took so much damage during the series many fans couldn’t stomach watching these two go after each other anymore. Vasquez was encouraged to retire due to how faded he looked during the fourth fight, and he took the advice and walked away from the sport. Marquez went on to have several more fights, but he was never the same fighter after the series.
11) Roberto Duran Vs. Sugar Ray Leonard
Duran handed Leonard his first loss as a professional boxer when the two collided in 1980. Leonard was the WBC and Ring welterweight champion heading into the contest and sporting a 27-0 record. The two met again before the year ended, with Leonard avenging the loss and reclaiming his title via an eight-round stoppage.
With the series even, a rubber match was inevitable. Both men moved up to the super-middleweight division for the rubber match. Leonard dominated the fight with his smooth defense and accurate punches, winning the series between the two boxing legends.
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