Ranking the 10 Gutsiest Performances in Boxing History
Boxing is referred to as The Sweet Science for a reason. It's a highly technical sport, with skill and craft that can take years to master.
But it's still a fight. Boxers aren't trying to put a ball in a net or across a goal line. A boxer is trying to hurt the other guy more than the other guy hurts him. And courage has to play a big part.
Guts might not always be enough, but without guts there is ultimately a whole lot of nothing at all.
That makes writing a story like this one a little bit daunting. I know I have 10 great examples of incredibly gutsy performances in the ring.
But this is a case where I am excited to see who the readers think I left out.
Juan Manuel Marquez Comes Back from a 3 Knockdown First to Earn a Draw
The most celebrated boxing rivalry of recent times almost never happened. When Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez clashed for the IBF and WBA featherweight titles on May 8, 2004, Pacman almost closed the book on this epic in the opening frame.
Marquez, the consummate technician, made the classic mistake of allowing the southpaw Pacquiao to advance forward on him with his lead right foot on the outside of Marquez's own lead left. The result was Pacman getting the drop with his explosive straight left hand.
Marquez was sent crashing to the canvas. He made it up for the count, his eyes still alert and determined, but his countenance was distressed.
Smelling blood, Pacquiao attacked relentlessly. He proceeded to batter the man some consider the greatest Mexican champion of all time, knocking him down twice more before the round was over.
Somehow Marquez recovered quickly and proceeded to pitch a masterpiece against the hard-slugging Pacquiao. He dominated most of the rest of the fight and proved that he deserves to be regarded as among the most resilient fighters to ever lace them up.
Larry Holmes and Ken Norton Battle to the Final Bell
This fight in June of 1978 was for the Heavyweight Championship of the World, at a time when that title was still regarded as the biggest prize in all of sports. Beyond that, it was a fight to establish who would be the heir to Muhammad Ali.
For Ken Norton, who many fans felt had been treated unfairly by the judges in his second and third fights with Ali, this was one last chance to take his place at the very top of the sport. For Holmes, it was the opportunity to emerge from the background and grab the recognition he deserved.
So it shouldn't be surprising that this ended up being one of the greatest heavyweight title fights of all time.
Norton executed a near-perfect game plan, using his tremendous athletic abilities and raw guts to compensate for Holmes' technical advantages, at times out-jabbing the man who had perhaps the best jab in the history of the division.
Holmes proved once and for all that he was more than a stick-and-move boxer. Pressed hard in the middle rounds by the super-tough Norton, he dug in and accepted that the boxing match had become a dog fight.
When the 15th and final round began, both men struggled to leave their stools. With the fight hanging in the balance, each made his ferocious final stand. Norton carried most of the round, but Holmes landed some shuddering, unanswered punches inside the final half minute.
Holmes walked away with a split decision. It was the start of a championship reign that would last into the middle of the next decade.
Nigel Benn Climbs Back into the Ring to Stop Gerald McClellan in 10
Gerald McClellan and Nigel Benn were two of the biggest punchers in the middleweight division in the 1990s. When McClellan traveled to London to challenge for Benn's WBC super middleweight title in February of 1995, McClellan sported a 31-2 record, with 29 of his victories coming by way of stoppage.
In 1991 he had captured the WBO middleweight belt by TKOing John "The Beast" Mugabi in the first round, dropping him three times. He'd earned the WBC title in 1993 by stopping Julian Jackson in five, later knocking him out in Round 1 of their rematch.
At 39-2-1 with 32 stoppages, Benn was a hugely popular star among British boxing fans of the era, and the New London Arena was packed when he welcomed McClellan to town.
McClellan lived up to his wrecking-ball reputation in the first round. He pounded Benn brutally against the ropes, knocking him clean out of the ring. Somehow Benn made it back into the ring and onto his feet by the count of 10.
Benn recovered quickly and the fight proceeded to turn into a back-and-forth slugfest. Then McClellan dropped Benn in vicious style again in Round 8, once more appearing to have the fight all but ended.
As Round 9 began, Benn was almost too badly beaten and exhausted to remain upright of his own accord. On guts alone he dug deep and came back strong, rocking McClellan. He picked up where he left off in the 10th, and after a particularly nasty punch, McClellan took a knee.
He made it back up for a standing eight count, then resumed fighting. Almost immediately, he suffered more punishment and once more took a knee, this time remaining down for the count.
The fight deserves to be remembered, not just for Benn's comeback from adversity, but for being one of the sport's most high profile tragedies. Immediately after the fight, McClellan collapsed in his corner. He spent two weeks in a coma, suffering permanent brain damage.
His battle to adjust to life since has required a special kind of guts. This documentary from six years after the fight shows the risk professional prize fighters take to entertain the crowds and win their own glory in this life.
Warning: it is sobering. But it might make some fans think twice before they scream at a referee for being too quick to rule a stoppage—not that the referee of this fight did anything wrong.
Jake LaMotta Comes from Behind to KO Laurent Dauthuille in Round 15
Stories like the Gerald McClellan tragedy, or the death of Duk-Koo Kim in 1982, are why I accept the necessity of quicker stoppages and a reduction of championship fights from 15 to 12 rounds. But when you remember the old classics like this September of 1950 middleweight title fight between Jake LaMotta and Laurent Dauthuille, it's tough not to be a little nostalgic for the old days, when championship rounds meant 13, 14 and 15.
LaMotta took a beating for the first 11 rounds. Then, late in the fight, he began to turn things around. But Dauthuille remained far up on the cards as the final round began.
Instead of playing it safe, he chose to continue engaging with LaMotta. In this case, Dauthuille's guts cost him. LaMotta caught up to him for one of the most dramatic KO victories of Boxing's Golden Age.
LaMotta's very next fight was the famed Valentine's Day Massacre, when he suffered a brutal TKO loss to the great Sugar Ray Robinson. LaMotta remained standing to the bloody end, proving in dramatic fashion that sometimes guts can only get you so far.
Rocky Marciano KOs Jersey Joe Walcott in Round 13
Rocky Marciano retired with a record of 49-0, with 43 wins coming by way of stoppage. But on more than one occasion, the Rock came perilously close to losing, with only raw guts and his right hand to save him from looming defeat.
In September of 1952 he captured the heavyweight championship from Jersey Joe Walcott by KO in Round 13, after absorbing a terrible beating for the first 12 rounds of the fight.
Walcott dropped Marciano in the first round and punished him with a body attack all through the fight. Then, in Round 13, as Walcott was preparing to deliver a lead right, Marciano beat him to the punch, delivering one of the sport's most famous KOs.
Diego Corrales Stops Jose Luis Castillo in 10
When Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo clashed in this WBC/WBO lightweight unification title fight in May of 2005, everybody expected it to be terrific. But nobody could have predicted how great it would be.
It was a brutal war of attrition, and one that Corrales appeared to be in danger of losing, going into Round 10. Both of his eyes were already badly swollen when Castillo dropped him with a brutal body shot less than 30 seconds into the round.
Corrales made it back to his feet, and Castillo resumed the beat down. Corrales went down for a second time in the round, just past the two-minute mark. Corrales spit out his mouth piece and was docked another point, making the round 10-7 against him, even if he could survive it.
But with the round about half over, Corrales managed to stagger Castillo with a right hand, and then another, driving him back against the ropes. The two warriors traded brutal punches for another 30 seconds, before Castillo swayed back against the ropes, out on his feet.
Referee Tony Weeks made an alert decision, recognizing that Castillo's consciousness had left him and that he was now vulnerable to permanent damage.
Old Archie Moore Comes Back to Stop Yvon Durelle
Archie Moore was your grandfather's Bernard Hopkins, holding the light heavyweight title well into his 40s, while simultaneously chasing after the heavyweight belt. In December of 1958, the 42-year-old Moore faced Canadian champion Yvon Durelle.
Durelle caught Moore with a monster shot early in Round 1, appearing to knock him out. Moore made it back to his feet but was on rubbery legs as Durelle pushed hard to finish him off. In short order, Durelle dropped him a second time, and then almost immediately after that, a third.
But somehow Moore managed to bob and weave and control distance like the Old Mongoose he was, and make it through the round.
Still, Durelle kept coming, dropping him again in the fourth.
But as Moore continued to gut it out, he gradually began to turn the momentum of the fight. He knocked Durelle down in the seventh, and again in Round 10, with only the bell saving the Canadian.
Moore pressed to finish in Round 11, dropping Durelle a third time, then knocking him out cold with a punishing right.
Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti: First Fight
Ward and Gatti both had several performances that could earn inclusion on a list like this. But their names will always be linked together in boxing history. Round 9 of their first fight may be the greatest boxing round of all time.
So I will include them here together, based on their brutal first war, the only one of the three won by Ward.
Like Castillo and Corrales, the Ward and Gatti series was a rivalry without animosity. Over the course of their three-fight series, the two beat each other without mercy and still managed to become friends.
But so many of the ring warriors who end up on lists like this are fighters who battle with an almost eerie absence of rage. In boxing, the most brutal encounters are most often fueled by nothing more than honest competitive spirit and other-worldly guts.
Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier: The Thrilla in Manila
The third meeting between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier occurred in September of 1975, in Manila. Frazier had won their first fight at Madison Square Garden in 1972, knocking Ali down late to solidify his victory.
Ali had won the rematch, then gone to the Congo and captured the heavyweight belt from the seemingly unstoppable George Foreman by Round 8 KO. It was a performance that could very well have earned its own spot here.
The Ali-Frazier rubber match in the Philippines was destined to be another major international sporting event. This is at a point in American history when boxing not only mattered to the casual sports fan, it mattered more than almost anything else.
And it was on this stage that the two great rivals delivered not only the greatest fight of their legendary series, but perhaps the greatest fight of all time.
Ali won the majority of rounds with the judges, but the relentless Frazier was willing to absorb fully-extended, accurate punches from Ali in order to force his way into range to deliver his own damaging blows. It was a cruel strategy for a fighter to inflict upon himself, to be sure, but one that Frazier nearly rode to victory.
Ali was pushed past the point of physical exhaustion in this fight and kept going on will power alone. By the end of Round 14, Joe Frazier was fighting with his eyes swollen shut, taking thudding, flush punches from Ali again and again, still standing on guts alone.
When Frazier's trainer, Eddie Futch, threw in the towel before the start of the final round, Ali could barely stand up to acknowledge his victory.
Sam McVey and Joe Jeanette Fight to the Finish in Paris, 1909
The third Ali-Frazier fight was watched via satellite across the globe. When Joe Jeanette beat Sam McVey in Paris, France, in 1909, it was watched by approximately 2,000 people. Regrettably, not even a movie camera was on hand to capture this fight, which is often referred to by boxing historians as the greatest of all time.
There was no title on the line in this bout. There couldn't be. Because of their race, both Jeanette and McVey were denied any opportunity of fighting for the heavyweight crown.
Instead they were fighting for pride and personal glory, and the right to be billed as the Black Heavyweight Champion of the World.
For these two men, those intangibles were more than enough to motivate them to wage what may very well have been the most brutal prize fight of the twentieth century. It was a fight to the finish, without judges or scorecards, and in the end it lasted 49 rounds and 3.5 hours.
According to boxing historian Bert Sugar, quoted in the linked video, McVey hurt Jeanette badly in the first round and had knocked him down 21 times by Round 17.
Somehow Jeanette managed to turn the fight around starting in Round 19, knocking McVey down 17 times and ultimately forcing him to quit prior to Round 50. It was a fight from another era, an era boxing should never go back to.
But there can be no denying it was among the gutsiest boxing performances of all time.