WITH the boxing world braced for another blockbuster year, I’ve pressed the recall button and replayed in my mind the most memorable world title fights I’ve covered for SunSport.
It could have run to dozens but here are my top ten in chronological order.
Smokin’ Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali, WBC, WBA world heavyweight title, Madison Square Garden, New York, March 8, 1971
For the first time two unbeaten world heavyweight champions fought each other and it couldn’t be called anything else but “Fight of the Century”.
Both men received $2.5million, a mind-boggling sum back then, and the atmosphere in the Garden on that magical Monday night was so intense two men dropped dead with heart failure before it even got started.
The excitement was at fever pitch as Ali and Frazier battled it out from first bell to last.
Relentlessly Joe never stopped throwing punches and Ali had to pick himself off the canvas after being caught with a murderous left hook in the last round.
Frazier deserved his points victory at the end of the pulsating 15-round battle – Ali having lost his unbeaten record had to go to hospital to make sure his heavily swollen jaw wasn’t broken.
Two things I’ll never forget. Frank Sinatra, with a photographers pass round his neck working ringside for Life Magazine and the 20,000 crowd giving Joe Louis a standing ovation as he made his way to his ringside seat.
Result: Frazier unanimous 15 round points win
George Foreman-Muhammad Ali, WBC,WBA world heavyweight title, Stade du 20 Mai, Kinshasa, Zaire, October 30, 1974
The Rumble in the Jungle is unquestionably the most famous fight in boxing history, estimated to have been watched by one billion people around the globe.
It was staged in this bizarre location at 4am for the benefit of American TV because Zaire President Mobutu, one of Africa’s most vicious dictators, had put up the £10m Foreman and Ali shared.
Ali at 32 was given little chance of winning back his world title. Unbeaten Foreman, a murderous puncher, had knocked out all but three of his 40 victims and many felt Ali was going to end up in hospital or even worse.
With 50,00 locals chanting “Ali Bomaye” – Ali kill him – The Greatest, employing what appeared to be suicidal tactics to be known as “Rope-a-Dope”, allowed Foreman to punch himself out on him.
By the eighth round round Big George was completely drained and Ali with a left-right combination sent him spinning to the canvas to be counted out.
Being the only British writer to predict an Ali victory I admit I behaved very unprofessionally at the end – leaping out of my press seat and punching the air with delight.
Result: Ali win by KO 2mins 58secs of round 8
Muhammad Ali-Smokin Joe Frazier, WBC,WBA world heavyweight title, Araneta Stadium, Manila, October 1,1975
The Thrilla in Manila was easily the most brutal world heavyweight championship fight I’ve seen and it’s probably the most vicious of all-time.
Both Ali and Frazier were way past their best and they simply couldn’t get out of the way of the blows. They literally punched each other to a standstill.
At the end of round the 14th round Frazier, his left eye closed, was out on his feet and had to be led back to his corner by referee Carlos Padilla.
As Joe slumped on his stool legendary trainer Eddie Futch took one look at him and despite Frazier’s heated protests called the fight off.
As Joe tried to get to his feet to go out for the final three minutes Futch told him “Sit down son, it’s over. But no one will ever forget what you did here today.”
An equally exhausted Ali said: “That’s the nearest I’ve been to death.”
When asked when he was going to watch a replay of the fight he winced and said “Who wants to go to hell twice?”
Result; Ali won when Frazier retired at end of round 14
Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran, WBC world welterweight title, Olympic Stadium, Montreal, June 20, 1980
It’s always a rarity to get two all-time greats fighting each other and Leonard and Duran, in their prime, put on a dazzling, mesmerising 15 round display of all that’s best in boxing.
It was a brilliant exhibition of non-stop action which ebbed and flowed with both men displaying all their skill, speed and courage.
There were no knockdowns and not a drop of blood was spilled. Yet I still rank this as the greatest fight I’ve seen in more than fifty years covering the sport – it should be shown in every amateur club on earth as an example to youngsters of what the Noble Art is all about.
Leonard made the mistake of trying to out-macho the macho man and he paid the penalty. Duran deservedly took Sugar Ray’s title but it was close.
British judge Harry Gibbs made him a one-point winner
Result: Duran scored a unanimous 15 round points win
Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas ‘Hitman’ Hearns, WBC, WBA unification world welterweight title, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, September 16, 1981
These two provided enough electricity to light up Vegas and they had the 23,000 crowd on the edge of their seats from start to finish.
Unbeaten Hearns, WBA champion, the 6ft 2in freak of nature with dynamite in his right hand, boxed beautifully behind his trombone left jab. Leonard, a brilliant all-round fighter, had no answer to it and was on his way to defeat.
Before the start of round 13 Leonard’s trainer and great motivating cornerman Angelo Dundee yelled at him: “You’re losing it baby – you’re losing it.. You gotta knock him out”.
Sugar Ray then showed what separates the great from the just good. He leapt at Hearns and bombarded him with accurate combination punches thrown at blinding speed. The explosive onslaught put Hearns down but he managed to survive to the bell.
But it was obvious as he came out for the 14th he hadn’t recovered. Leonard trapped him against the ropes and was about to finish him off when referee Davey Pearl leapt in to save him being knocked out.
Leonard was behind on the three judges’ scorecards.
Result Leonard by TKO 1min 45secs of round 14
Marvelous Marvin Hagler-Thomas ‘Hitman’ Hearns, WBC,WBA,IBF world middleweight title, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, April 15, 1985
The opening three minutes of this X-rated violence was considered the most ferocious first round since the 1922 Dempsey-Firpo fight.
I was working with Ian Darke for BBC radio doing the inter-round summaries and was watching what was happening with my mouth hanging open in disbelief.
When Darke asked me for my comment my mouth was so dry not a word came out.
Hagler and Hearns attacked each other with the kind of ferocity you only see in horror movies.
They went at it again in round two and as a result of an accidental clash of heads Hagler went back to his corner with blood spouting from a deep gash in his forehead.
It was still bleeding in the third and referee Richard Steele stopped the action to inspect the wound and asked Hagler: “Can you see”. Marvin replied: “I’m not missing him am I?”.
Fearing the fight might be stopped Hagler tore into Hearns and dropped him. Tommy beat the count but his legs couldn’t hold him up and he fell into Steele’s arms.
The action lasted less than seven minutes but all of us lucky enough to have been there will never forget one of the most compelling of all great tear-ups.
Result: Hagler TKO 1min 52secs of Round 3
Marvelous Marvin Hagler-Sugar Ray Leonard, WBC world middleweight title, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, April 6, 1987
Leonard had been out of the ring for three years because of a detached retina and he nearly gave his lawyer Mike Trainer a heart attack when he told him he was coming back to challenge Hagler, one of the all-time great middleweight champions.
Hagler was considered much too big and powerful for Leonard to cope with – particularly after such a long lay-off.
When I went to see Marvin at his Palm Springs training camp I asked him if he was concerned that one of his punches might blind Leonard.
His chilling response was: “I’d like to knock his eye out and watch it roll across the canvas.”
As it turned out Leonard put on a once-in-a-lifetime display of cunning and artistry.
If people who saw Anthony Joshua outpoint Andy Ruiz in 2019 thought they were watching a masterclass they should watch Leonard’s performance against Hagler – then they would know what a real one looks like.
He was far too clever for Hagler and that’s why I’ve always said Leonard, pound-for-pound, is the greatest fighter I’ve seen in the flesh.
I firmly believe he would have beaten Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Result: Leonard won a 12 round split points decision
Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas, WBC, WBA, IBF, world heavyweight title, Tokyo Dome, February 11, 1990
Iron Mike Tyson, the Baddest Man on the Planet, had steamrollered his way through 37 unbeaten fights and was using Douglas, a 42-1 chance, as a tune-up for a mega-fight with Evander Holyfield.
But Tyson was having severe out-of- the-ring problems – he was on the brink of an acrimonious divorce with Robin Givens and involved in major managerial conflicts.
There were rumours he had been less than diligent in training and Greg Page had floored him in a sparring session.
But no one was prepared for what we were about to see when Tyson squared off with Douglas in front of 40,000 polite Japanese.
Douglas – who promoter Don King had described as “a dog” – was certainly wagging his tail after outboxing and outfighting Tyson before knocking him out in the tenth round to end Iron Mike’s invincibility forever.
It is the greatest upset in boxing history. My over-riding memory is of the badly dazed Tyson, who didn’t know if he was in Tokyo or Timbuktu, trying desperately to stuff his gum shield back into his mouth as he was being counted out.
Result Douglas KO 1min 22secs of Round 10
Oliver McCall-Frank Bruno, WBC world heavyweight title, Wembley Stadium, September 2, 1995
I had watched in sorrow as Frank Bruno, a national institution, was knocked out by Tim Witherspoon, Tyson and Lennox Lewis, in his desire to win the richest prize in sport.
He was given a last chance against Oliver McCall, who had once been his sparring partner, in front of a 40,000 crowd chewing their nails off as they willed him to victory.
Bruno, boxing intelligently behind his jab, was delighting his fans and was well ahead on points with three rounds to go – but as he had done so frustratingly in the past he had begun to fade.
With McCall sensing he might still be able to save his crown, he came on strong and the tension was unbearable as Bruno desperately just about managed to hang on to the final bell.
There were tears inside and outside the ring as Frank’s hand was raised in victory and his fans joyfully belted out Land of Hope and Glory.
He had shown a true bulldog spirit to become heavyweight champion of the world at the fourth attempt.
And there couldn’t have been a household in Britain from Buckingham Palace to council homes who wasn’t delighted for him.
Result: Bruno won a unanimous 12 round points decision
Evander Holyfield-Mike Tyson II, WBA world heavyweight title, MGM Grand Arena, Las Vegas, June 28, 1997
I thought I had seen everything boxing had to offer – the good, the bad and the ugly – until that few minutes of mid-summer madness on the Vegas Strip.
Seeing Tyson chew off a piece of Holyfield’s right ear and spit it out on the canvas in that horrific third round was the most disgusting incident I’ve ever seen in the ring.
And Tyson tried to do the same thing with Holyfield’s other ear just before the bell sounded to leave referee Mills Lane no option but to disqualify him in what became known as The Bite Fight.
Tyson’s excuse was that he was retaliating for being constantly head-butted.
What’s much nearer the truth was Holyfield was about to repeat the beating he gave him seven months earlier when he stopped him in 11 rounds.
For his unspeakable behaviour Mike was fined $3million and suspended for twelve months. The one-time Baddest Man on the Planet had lost all respect and credibility.
Result:Tyson disqualified at end of Round 3