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Gloves up, here are some of the best boxing matches of all time

Boxing has a lengthy history of incredible bouts — here are some of the best ever witnessed

Roberto Duran II Sugar Ray Leonard 1980
“The Brawl in Montreal” pitting Roberto Duran II (left) and “Sugar” Ray Leonard in 1980. Focus On Sport / Getty Images

What is it about boxing? There’s just something about two fighters in the ring, dueling it out. It’s a sport that combines quickness, stamina, and sheer ability. The sport dates back to ancient Greece and continues to be a big draw, as the many prizefights in Las Vegas and beyond attest to.

Sure, we love a good fighting movie, and Bruce Lee films are legendary. But it’s tough to beat the unscripted glory of a boxing contest. The following matches stand out within the sport, involving everything from lightning-fast knockouts and ear-biting to what’s largely considered the greatest single sporting event of the last century.

Here are the best boxing matches of all time. Ding, ding.

Our picks for the 12 best boxing matches of all time

Two men boxing.
Hermes Rivera / Unsplash

Now, we’re sure that some of you may disagree with some of our picks here and will be wondering why your personal favorite isn’t on the list, but that’s the beauty of making a best-of sports list; there are so many correct answers! Now, on with our lists of the best fights of all time.

James J. Corbett vs. John L. Sullivan (1892)

Legendary Champions - John L Sullivan, James J Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons etc

“Boston Strong Boy” James J. Corbett was the last bare-knuckle champion in boxing (although he fought gloved most of the time). His fall from grace concluded the bare-knuckle era once and for all when challenger John L. Sullivan landed a KO in the 21st round. Yeah, a lot was different back then, and a fight wasn’t the traditional 12 rounds we’re used to today. Corbett vs. Sullivan will remain an iconic fight for its bridging of old-school and modern boxing. I mean, bare-knuckle boxing would be a bloodshed today.

Andy Bowen vs. Jack Burke (1893)

Andy Bowen vs. Jack Burke rendering
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Close your eyes and imagine fighting a professional boxer for 110 rounds. That’s 7 hours and 19 minutes of boxing, the longest boxing match on record, only to have the referee call the finish a “no contest.” There’s no  YouTube video for that one. Lightweight fighters Andy Bowen and Jack Burke were stumbling out of their corners and had purportedly lost 10 pounds each during the fight. If there’s any fight that shows the won’t-quit nature of boxing, it’s Bowen vs. Burke.

Ray Robinson vs. Jake LaMotta (1951)

1951-2-14 Jake LaMotta vs Ray Robinson VI

“This fight is dubbed the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre as it took place on February 14, 1951,” said Lauren Keenan, boxer and trainer at EverybodyFights. “I love this fight because it showcases the heart of a champion, even in defeat. This fight put two of the greats head-to-head in a classic bout. Ray Robinson is widely considered to be, pound-for-pound, the greatest fighter of all time, and Jake LaMotta also fought his way into the Hall of Fame. While Robinson won, LaMotta never hit the mat and took a barrage of punches. The fight had to be stopped even though LaMotta was still standing. He even went on to say, ‘If the referee had held up another 30 more seconds, Sugar Ray [Robinson] would have collapsed from hitting me.’”

Rocky Marciano vs. Joe Walcott (1952)

Rocky Marciano vs Jersey Joe Walcott 1 // Highlights (The Ring Fight of the Year)

Yes, that Rocky. This is the first installment of a great series of fights. The two took to the ring again a year later for another incredible match but the first meeting is the better bout. It’s quite the story, with the undersized Rocky taking down the heavyweight champion after 13 laborious rounds. It’s considered one of the best comebacks in boxing, seeing Rocky come to life after Jersey Joe Walcott came out of the gates fists-blazing. Rocky remains the only heavyweight champ to have finished his career without a single loss.

Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier (1974)

Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier II - Jan 28, 1974 - Entire fight - Rounds 1 - 12 & Interviews

“I think the Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier fight is one of the most iconic,” said Tommy Neff, the boxing director and trainer for the Bartender Boxing Organization.“Ali was [returning to boxing] after 3 1/2 years for avoiding the draft, and he was going up against the man who won the championship while he was in exile. Both fighters were undefeated, the first time that has ever happened for a heavyweight championship match. It doesn’t get much more dramatic than that.”

George Foreman vs. Muhammad Ali (1974)

George Foreman vs Muhammad Ali - Oct. 30, 1974 - Entire fight - Rounds 1 - 8 & Interview

Do the words “The Rumble in the Jungle” ring any pop culture bells? Whether you know anything about boxing or not, you probably know this phrase, used to describe the fight held in Zaire in October 1974 that saw two of the most powerful and iconic boxers of the time (and the sport’s history) face off in a bout that has been considered by some as the greatest sporting event of the 20th century. That’s because Ali, who won by KO in the eighth round, came in as a 4-1 underdog with Foreman never being beaten. Ali was also a decade older. It’s estimated that 1 billion people watched the fight. In 1996, an award-winning documentary was made on this fight alone.

“Sugar” Ray Leonard vs. Roberto Durán II (1980)

Sugar Ray Leonard vs Roberto Duran 2 Full Fight

This match is technically two back-to-back fights. “It started well before the gloves were put on when Roberto Durán threw numerous insults towards ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard, which got under his skin and in his head,” said Ben Eld, the director of marketing for EverybodyFights, who named this as one of his all-time favorite fights. “Usually a savvy and collected fighter, Leonard opted to abandon his game plan and stand toe-to-toe against Durán, which didn’t fare well.” The “Hands of Stone” bested Leonard and Durán took the welterweight championship. This fight is ironically dubbed “The Brawl in Montreal.”

Then they fought again in another landmark bout.

“Sugar Ray reverted back to his signature style and used his superior speed and footwork to confuse Durán. Leonard even faked the bolo-punch by winding up his right hand and then fired off a left jab and caught Durán square in the face. In the eighth round, a frustrated and exhausted Durán turned his back to Leonard, waved his glove, and quit. Rumors are that he said, ‘No más’ which translates to ‘no more’ in Spanish, which Durán denies to this day.”

Evander Holyfield vs. Mike Tyson II (1997)

HOLYFIELD v TYSON II (BITE FIGHT) JUNE 28th 1997 LIVE

This is “the bite fight.” In June 1997, Mike Tyson sealed his boxing legacy in one of the most insane fights ever by biting off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear. The two heavyweights were sparring for the championship when Tyson went full-on zombie in the third round. He was disqualified and lost his boxing license.

Arturo Gatti vs. Micky Ward (2002)

Arturo Gatti vs Micky Ward Highlights (Trilogy)

Among boxing experts, this trilogy of fights between Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward is considered the three greatest fights the sport of boxing has ever seen. “It was the most competitive, back-and-forth, brutal fight I’ve ever seen,” said Neff. “Neither guy was signed to a big promotion or manager, so they were literally fighting to put food on their table — and they did not disappoint. After the fight, they shared a hospital room.”

Keenen agreed with that assessment. “These fighters went to war with each other three times. These fights are famous for being brutal but also showcasing their heart and spirit. It also showcased the mutual admiration and respect for each other. Round nine, in particular, of the first fight, is what encompasses all that is great in boxing. While they did terrible things to each other in the ring, they remained friends outside of it,” she said.

Floyd Mayweather, Jr. vs. Manny Pacquiao (2015)

Floyd Mayweather vs Manny Pacquiao Full Fight Highlights

You probably remember the build-up to this fight more than the fight itself. What was marketed as the “Fight of the Century” between champion Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao did, in fact, become the highest-grossing fight of the century (and history), generating an insane $400 million and 4.6 million pay-per-view buys. Hopes were high. Delivery was low. This fight is a lesson in the power of hype and how a lot of modern boxing relies on build-up.

Zolani Tete vs. Siboniso Gonya (2017)

WORLD RECORD KO! Zolani Tete destroys Siboniso Gonya and calls out Ryan Burnett

A small portion of the boxing world saw history be made in November 2017 when South African bantamweight boxer Zolani Tete performed the easiest win the sport has ever seen. It took Tete exactly 11 seconds to knock out fellow South African Siboniso Gonya. That was the right hand to end right hands. Previously, the shortest KO in a title bout was held by Puerto Rican boxer Daniel “The Cobra” Jimenez during his takedown of Austrian Herald Geier, which lasted 17 seconds.

Deontay Wilder vs. Tyson Fury (2018 and 2020)

Wilder vs Fury 1 FULL FIGHT: PBC on Showtime - December 1, 2018

“Deontay Wilder defended his heavyweight championship against Tyson Fury in an epic fight in late 2018,” said Eld. “Wilder, known for his absurd knockout power that goes viral on social media, takes on Fury, who is living a well-documented comeback story battling depression, alcohol use, and weight gain after winning a heavyweight title for himself. Both fighters own their own unique styles of fighting; Wilder poses possibly the most devastating right hand in the history of the sport, while Fury moves incredibly well for a fighter of his stature.

“Fury won many of the rounds by moving around, landing punches, and avoiding Wilder’s wild right hand. In the ninth round, Wilder finally landed and dropped Fury with a short left hook. Fury was able to survive the round and got back to work in the tenth and eleventh rounds. In the twelfth round, however, Wilder landed a strong right-left combination which dropped Fury again. Everyone in the arena, including Wilder, thought the fight was over, but Fury got up yet again and began fighting until the end of the fight. While the fight ended in a draw, it brought endless drama, excitement, and courage, capturing the attention of sports fans worldwide.”

This nail-biting draw was followed up with a rematch in February 2020. Fury’s eventual victory is now being hailed as one of the best comeback stories in the boxing world. If you haven’t seen it yet, this fight has everything, including a walk-in outfit that looks like a superhero costume:

Wilder vs Fury 2 FULL FIGHT: February 22, 2020

You don’t have to be a boxer to appreciate the best boxing matches of all time. In fact, you don’t want to get into the ring with any of these people anyway. Just sit back and enjoy the very best the sport has to offer, from the safety of your couch.

The best fictional fight of all time

Rocky working out outside
Entertainment Pictures / Alamy

How could we have a list of the best fights of all time without the “Italian Stallion” Rocky Balboa? Sure, he’s a fictional character, but he has played a major role in the sport of boxing through a series of movies spanning nearly 50 years. So we’re putting him on the list.

Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed II (1979)

Rocky II (1979) Trailer | MGM Studios

Sure, 1976’s Rocky won the Oscar for Best Picture, and it ends with an epic showdown between Rocky and the champion Apollo Creed, but (spoiler alert for a five-decade-old movie) even though he takes the champ the distance, Rocky loses the fight! For our money, the better matchup is the one at the end of 1979’s Rocky II. It’s got everything: the high drama as Rocky’s training is interrupted when his wife Adrian slips into a coma after delivering their son. Rocky’s struggles with the fame the first fight brought him, and Creed’s determination to destroy Rocky to prove the first fight was a fluke.

The fight itself is high drama (of course it is, it’s Hollywood), but the ending is the most memorable part. After both fighters fall to the canvas in the 15th round, it becomes a struggle to see who can get to their feet first. Apollo gets halfway up, then slips back down, and Rocky wins the title! And if that’s not enough, the end of the fight gives us one of the classic movie lines of all time: “Yo Adrian, I did it!” What more do you want from a fight?

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Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
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