The 10 Most Significant Fights in Boxing History
Fights take place across all corners of the globe most weeks throughout all 12 months of each year. But some bouts just mean more than others.
There are far more meaningful clashes that attract global attention, leave a lasting cultural and political impact on history. They redefine certain aspects of boxing itself, while also transcending the sport to a wider audience.
In chronological order, here are 10 of the most significant fights ever in boxing history.
1. James J. Corbett v John L. Sullivan (September 7, 1892)
The heavyweight battle between “The Boston Strong Boy” and “Gentleman Jim” signaled the end of the bare-knuckle era and ushered in modern boxing.
Corbett’s victory over the living legend, who had not fought for four years due to lack of worthy competition, through more technical methods see him considered as the pioneer for a disciplined ring approach known as “The Sweet Science”.
This was a clear turning point for the sport, which influenced fighters in subsequent years to follow the same ‘scientific’ and cerebral outlook in the squared-circle, such as Jack Johnson, Benny Leonard and Gene Tunney to name a few.
2. Jack Johnson v Tommy Burns (December 26, 1908)
A fight with truly monumental consequences in the aftermath of the historic result.
Johnson was at the peak of his powers and literally laughed in the face of white America as he taunted and knocked out Burns to become the first ever black heavyweight champion of the world.
Johnson had to overcome sickening racial discrimination to even land his shot at the heavyweight crown but ultimately claimed it in dominant fashion on Australian territory. The outcome caused riots as the police intervened to halt the one-sided beating.
The result holds a symbolic significance that transcended what occurred in the ring, with “The Galveston Giant” laying down an iconic marker and paving the way for future generations of African American pugilists.
3. Jack Johnson v James J. Jeffries (July 4, 1910)
Following Johnson’s triumph over Burns, The New York Herald reported that Jeffries must emerge from his retirement to “wipe the smile” off the new champion’s face, claiming “The White Man must be rescued.”
Jeffries had finished his career undefeated three years prior but eventually came back to take on the formidable Johnson. The latter had his way with the latest ‘white hope’ as he punished the former title holder for 15 rounds and forced his corner to throw in the towel.
It could be argued that no fight has ever held greater importance as Johnson prevailed over white supremacy, with his success leading to race riots all across America and the social backlash was felt for decades.
4. Jack Dempsey v Georges Carpentier (July 2, 1921)
Boxing’s first ever million-dollar gate and an enormous event in every possible way.
Dempsey’s heavyweight title knockout of Carpentier attracted a global interest, while 90,000 spectators packed into Boyle’s Thirty Acres in New Jersey to witness the action.
“The Manassa Mauler” is remembered as an American icon but he was cast as the villain against the dashing, media-friendly World War I hero Carpentier.
It was the bad guy on this occasion that prevailed with a fourth-round KO though, in a bout that’s undoubtedly had a lasting impact on the financial direction of the sport.
5. Joe Louis v Max Schmeling II (June 22, 1938)
There may not have been more pressure on any fighter in history than there was on the shoulders of a young heavyweight champion Louis ahead of one of the boxing’s biggest rematches with maiden conqueror Schmeling.
Two years earlier the German puncher had inflicted Louis’s first career defeat and had been heralded as a heavyweight hero in his native country, which was under Nazi regime (notably Schmeling distanced himself from the Nazi Party and was simply used as a poster boy during its rise to control).
The sickening backdrop for this huge showdown was therefore Adolf Hitler’s fascist regime and drive for a new World War.
But “The Brown Bomber’s” first-round annihilation of “The Black Uhlan of the Rhine” catapulted him to American superstardom and made him a cherished symbol of national pride.
6. Muhammad Ali v Joe Frazier I (March 8, 1971)
The real ‘Fight of the Century’ had it all in the build-up and across 15 dramatic rounds at Madison Square Garden.
It was the first time that two undefeated champions clashed for the undisputed world heavyweight title, with both Ali and Frazier being in their prime years.
While this was a dream match-up and a mammoth worldwide attraction, there were also high-profile political and cultural narratives that only added to the magnitude of the event. The lead up uncovered clear divisions over the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement before the opening bell.
Millions watched in hope of Ali regaining the title he never lost and had been unjustly taken from him, while as many wanted to witness his downfall in the most-watched sporting event in history to that point in time.
Incredibly, the bout lived up to all expectations as Frazier prevailed in one of the most amazing battles in the history of the sport.
7. Sugar Ray Leonard v Roberto Duran (June 20, 1980)
This highly-skilled clash rang in a new era of boxing as “The Four Kings” took centre stage, with the previously prestigious heavyweight division taking a backseat for the time being.
In a genuine ‘super-fight’, Duran and Leonard collided over 15 pulsating rounds which captured a global audience.
The performances from both men exceeded all expectations. Panama’s Duran in particular rocketed to prominence across Latin America and became their first mainstream boxing superstar, which would help draw in a now crucial spectatorship.
8. Larry Holmes v Gerry Cooney (June 11, 1982)
Sadly, even in the 1980s there was a racial overtone to this massive heavyweight clash between Holmes and Cooney. Notably, it was also the richest fight ever up to that point.
White America had desired a new “Great White Hope” and hailed Cooney as the man who could become a new mainstream star. The challenger was splashed across the covers of Time and Sports Illustrated, rather than the champion, and had a direct phoneline to the White House in his dressing room.
Holmes proved to be a dominant champion and completely outclassed Cooney, ending widespread hopes of a white title holder in a multi-cultural America.
9. Ray Mancini v Deuk-Koo Kim (November 13, 1982)
Truly tragic circumstances surround the fight between Mancini and Kim, with such sad consequences of the result seeing rules changed forever in boxing.
“Boom Boom” and Kim went toe to toe in a completely brutal encounter.
The latter Korean southpaw would not give up and was ultimately too tough for his own good. He was eventually stopped in the 14th round.
Kim went into a coma and died five days later.
The bout’s referee Richard Green committed suicide months later, as did Kim’s mother, while Mancini’s life was traumatised.
In light of the tragedy, title fights were reduced to 12 rounds and no 15-round bouts have ever taken place since.
10. Floyd Mayweather v Oscar De La Hoya (May 5, 2007)
Perhaps a surprise inclusion on the list but Mayweather’s high-profile light-middleweight showdown with De La Hoya has had lasting financial ramifications on the sport.
This was the coming out party for the “Money” man as he outscored fan favourite De La Hoya in what became the most lucrative bout in the sport’s history at the time, generating over $130 million in revenue.
With HBO producing an unprecedented ‘24/7’ insight series and all-time high fight purses and PPV buys involved, De La Hoya v Mayweather set a new financial standard for boxing in the modern era; for better or worse.
Other highly significant fights: Joe Gans v Battling Nelson (September 3, 1906), Cassius Clay v Sonny Liston (February 25, 1964), Gene Tunney v Jack Dempsey II (September 22, 1927), Muhammad Ali v George Foreman (October 30, 1974), Sugar Ray Robinson v Randy Turpin (September 12, 1951), Lazlo Papp v Mick Leahy (9 October, 1964), George Foreman v Michael Moorer (5 November, 1994), Mike Tyson v Evander Holyfield II (June 28, 1997).