In its greatest moments, the grandeur of boxing tends to rise above other sports. It's a roller coaster unlike anything else.
The moments of epic drama in boxing often transcend the regular highlights found in the various professional games. And at the same time, the low points of prize fighting often far outstrip other sports in terms of tragedy, shamelessness and pure disgrace.
If this was a list about most other sports, various performance-enhancing drugs scandals would dominate. Boxing has seen its share of these, too. But none of them have ever been viewed as significant enough to earn a place here.
As often as not, boxing has had even bigger image problems to worry about.
At the same time, boxing has always had the fights to fall back upon. This is a list dominated by outrageous behavior in the ring, tragedies outside of it, and corruption and incompetence behind the scenes.
But it is also a list dominated by some of the greatest fights of the past two decades.
In terms of pure, in-ring drama, this all-time showdown from 1994 really doesn't rise to the level of many great bouts I omitted to make room for it. It was a great boxing exhibition but ultimately not a very close, dramatically suspenseful fight.
In his move up to super middleweight to challenge for James Toney's IBF title, Roy Jones Jr. won a unanimous decision by wide margins. In his first professional loss, Toney was outclassed but hardly beaten up.
Still, in the past two decades, there have been few fights that have featured such elite talent, at such exciting points in their careers. Jones and Toney are two of the very top pound-for-pound fighters of the past 20 years, and on this night, they clashed when they were both at the top of their powers.
For Generation X, this was Sugar Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns, an historically important fight where all-time legacies were partially defined.
In boxing, the various alphabet soup promotional organizations are viewed with something less than respect and admiration at even their very finest moments. But by the late 1990s, things had gone so far off the tracks with the International Boxing Federation that federal judges stepped in to investigate to hand out subpoenas, as reported by The New York Times in January of 2000.
In the end, testimony about, and by, some of the biggest promoters in the sport established that the IBF had been operating a systematic shakedown program against fighters and managers, forcing them to pay to receive what should have been their rightful rankings.
I could see a case for ranking this scandal higher here, but I ultimately feel like the sanctioning organizations had already made themselves largely irrelevant by the late 1990s, anyway. It would have been a much bigger deal if the IBF's opinion had carried more weight than it actually did.
Ultimately IBF founder Robert W. Lee Sr. and three other officials were hit with a 39-count racketeering charge.
The three-fight rivalry between Mexican legends Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales was about something much more important than any alphabet soup trinkets. It was about establishing who was the greatest boxing star in Mexico.
All three fights were classics, but to me, the first installment remained the greatest. Entering their February 2000 meeting, Barrera held the WBO super bantamweight title and a 49-2 record, having lost only to American Junior Jones.
Morales, the WBA 122-pound champ, remained unbeaten in 35 fights. After a back-and-forth war, Morales emerged with a split-decision win.
Barrera would hand Morales the first loss of his career in a June 2002 rematch. Barrera also won the November 2004 rubber match by majority decision.
This Madison Square Garden heavyweight clash in July of 1996 was supposed to be a tune-up for Riddick Bowe—facing then-undefeated and largely unknown Andrew Golota of Poland—in preparation for a long-anticipated showdown with Lennox Lewis. Instead, Golota took control of the fight early and proceeded to beat Bowe up.
But instead of this developing into the emergence of a new force at heavyweight, it instead stands in the sport's history as the emergence of one of boxing's most unpredictable whack jobs.
Despite leading comfortably on the cards and being in no danger from Bowe, Golota continued to flagrantly foul Bowe with low blows, finally earning himself a disqualification in Round 7.
That's when things went from the merely unfortunate to the shamelessly embarrassing. Two members of Bowe's “professional security team” took it upon themselves to attack the already disqualified Golota in the ring, instigating a full-blown riot with their efforts.
As this contemporary report from the Chicago Tribune details, 74-year-old Lou Duva was knocked down and injured during the melee.
In the rematch, Bowe would again take a beating early, before Golota managed to once more get himself disqualified, again for flagrant low blows.
Like Roy Jones' victory over James Toney in 1994, this fight from September of 2001 earns inclusion more for historical importance than for drama in the ring. By handing the hard-hitting Puerto Rican superstar his first loss after 40 professional fights, Hopkins collected three of four alphabet soup belts and established himself as the dominant middleweight champion of his generation.
Hopkins entered the Madison Square Garden showdown the underdog, carrying a major chip on his shoulder.
Hopkins made no secret about feeling disrespected by the boxing media and his own promoter, and by anybody who had lacked the boxing IQ to notice what should have been nearly self-evident: that he, not Trinidad, was the true boxing great at 160 pounds.
This is the fight that probably punched Hopkins' ticket to Canastota once and for all. It was a boxing clinic and came as a revelation to many boxing fans at the time. It was the beginning of the end for Don King as a promoter.
Amazingly, it was still merely the beginning for the Executioner himself.
The true tragedy of the Edwin Valero story has nothing to do with what never happened in the ring. And the legacy Valero deserves does not include boxing bloggers speculating for his eternal glory over the potential superfights in which he might have participated.
But serious fans cannot help but be aware of many options, somewhere in the back of their minds, whenever his name comes up.
A former WBA super featherweight champion, and the WBC lightweight champion at the time of his death by suicide, the Venezuelan's record was a perfect 27-0 with 27 wins by stoppage.
As archived on Boxrec.com, in March of 2010, Valero's 24-year-old wife, Jennifer Carolina Viera de Valero, was hospitalized with cracked ribs and a punctured lungs. Valero was later arrested for harassing her at the hospital.
On April 18 of that year, Valero was arrested after his wife was found murdered in their hotel room. The next day he hung himself to death in his jail cell.
This is the most recent entry on this list. Juan Manuel Marquez's perfect right-hand counter put longtime rival Manny Pacquiao to sleep at the very end of Round 6, during their fourth clash, in December of last year.
It was a punch Marquez had been looking for over the previous 42 rounds fought between these two, and it for once brought a meeting between Marquez and Pacquiao to a definitive ending.
Pacquiao entered the fourth meeting holding a 2-0-1 lead over Marquez, but many boxing writers felt the scorecard should have read the other way around. Marquez, for his own part, had never made any secret of the fact that he felt the judges had cheated him in each of the first three fights.
This time around, he took it out of their hands.
Not only is this one of the most exciting and historically important knockouts of the past 20 years, it also put a pin once and for all into the years of endless speculation over a potential superfight between Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather.
Marquez's knockout forced the sport's media to move on at long last, whether it wanted to or not.
Hector “Macho” Camacho was among the most entertaining and exciting fighters of his generation. The Puerto Rican star was a three-division world champion and was among the most popular performers of the 1990s.
The boxing world was stunned in November of last year when news broke that Camacho had been shot in the face while sitting in a parked car in Puerto Rico. Camacho survived in the hospital for a few days, before being declared brain dead and removed from life support on November 24, 2012.
As reported by ABC News, Camacho was found with cocaine in his car. Despite the elements of scandal surrounding his death, Camacho was primarily remembered as an exciting ring warrior by fans.
Between March 2007 and 2008, Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez fought three straight times for the WBC super bantamweight title, producing one of the sport's all-time great rivalries in the process.
Marquez won the first battle by Round 7 stoppage and Vazquez returned the favor in the rematch, winning by Round 6 TKO. Both fights were action-packed wars.
In the rubber match, Marquez fought a brilliant technical fight, but a Round 12 knockdown by Vazquez provided the narrow margin of victory in a razor-close split decision.
Of the two great rivals, Vazquez has fallen off from his game more quickly. Marquez won a fourth fight by Round 3 TKO in May of 2010, and Vazquez has not fought since. Marquez was still fighting relevant fights last year.
In July of 2009 the boxing world was shocked to learn that former world champion Vernon Forrest had been murdered at 38. According to ESPN, Forrest had been putting air in his car at a gas station in Atlanta when he was robbed, then shot to death while chasing his assailant.
Forrest was at times a brilliant fighter. He beat Shane Mosley twice as a professional, though he was also overpowered twice by Ricardo Mayorga.
With so many fighters dying violently as a result of their own poor choices, Forrest's case is made all the more tragic, due to the fact that he was the victim of random violence. He was one of the sport's well-known good guys, a youth coach and volunteer with Special Olympics.
Manny Pacquiao fans who routinely try to argue for his rightful place in discussions about the greatest pound-for-pound fighters of all time based upon the fact that he won various world title belts in eight different weight classes are out of their depth.
For a variety of reasons, Pacman should not appear in any knowledgeable fan's pound-for-pound, top five of all time.
But there's no question Pacquiao's climb from teenage junior flyweight hopeful to welterweight superstar has been one of the sport's most amazing stories over the past two decades. The Filipino congressman—who began his professional career as an underfed, 108-pound boy—has grown to become the embodiment of explosive and exciting punching power during much of the current century.
Few sights in boxing history have captivated boxing fans so much as Pacquiao tearing like a buzz-saw through much larger opponents, such as Miguel Cotto, Oscar De La Hoya and Antonio Margarito.
It has become increasingly stylish in recent years to dismiss Pacquiao as having been overhyped and overrated in the past. No doubt this is partly true.
But Pacquiao's record still ranks among the best of his generation, and the manner in which he compiled it has earned him permanent popularity among even many casual boxing fans. The phenomena has been an important driver for the overall popularity of the sport.
I rank this as the worst decision of the past 20 years. I also rank Pernell Whitaker's performance against Julio Cesar Chavez in September of 1993 as the finest boxing performance of the past two decades.
If the judges hadn't robbed him, Sweat Pea would still be on this list, appearing on the other side of the ledger.
The cards turned in by judges Mickey Vann and Franz Marti that night, reading 115-115, have become the ultimate justification for every lazy, half-watched judging performance of the past generation.
I'm talking about the endless parade of blurry-eyed jokers who have claimed, “I scored that fight based on aggression,” even as they clearly didn't watch the fight closely enough to determine whether or not said aggression was remotely effective.
Even judge Jack Woodruff was out to lunch at only 115-113 for Whitaker. That fight has got to be 116-112 Whitaker at a minimum.
Whitaker completely neutralized the greatest offensive fighter to campaign below 160 pounds since Tommy Hearns and Roberto Duran. He gave JC Superstar what should have been the first loss in 88 professional fights.
Whitaker had the toughest luck with the judges of any major fighter I've watched during my lifetime. Seeing it happen to him once again—on what should have been the greatest night of his career—is among the lowest points in boxing for the past 20 years.
Fighting is a young man's game. It's always been that way. Many of the greatest fighters of all time have been past their prime by their very early 30s.
So the things Bernard Hopkins was doing in a boxing ring were already close to unprecedented a decade ago. Heck, heading into Hopkins' earlier mention on this list—his September 2001 TKO of Felix Trinidad—plenty of folks were already speculating that he might be on the downside of his career.
In May of 2011, Hopkins became the oldest world titleholder ever when he topped Jean Pascal for the WBC and lineal light heavyweight championship.
He broke his record for oldest belt holder last March when he captured the IBF belt from Tavoris Cloud at an astonishing 48.
Perhaps his finest post-40 moment came in October of 2008, when at age 43 he handed Kelly Pavlik a one-sided unanimous decision beatdown after many boxing writers had predicted Pavlik would give Hopkins the first knockout loss of his career.
At this point, Hopkins is in perfect position to transcend the sport as a kind of Jack Lalanne of boxing. In an age-obsessed culture like ours, the kind of accomplishments Hopkins continues to accumulate attracts attention from people who would not normally follow boxing.
While Hopkins has become a model for the transcendent accomplishments the human body can achieve through practicing the art and science of boxing, an honest assessment of the past 20 years demands equal time for tragic stories like Arturo Gatti and Alexis Arguello.
They were two of the sport's most beloved stars, who both shocked their fans by taking their own lives within nearly a year of each other in July of 2009 and 2010.
In the case of Gatti, it needs to be pointed out that a large amount of evidence points toward an actual homicide. Still, if a fighter with the heart and resilience of Gatti did ultimately take his own life—as improbable at it might seem to many fans—it is important to examine what role his well-documented history of head trauma may have played.
The connection between sustained head trauma and depression has already been demonstrated in football and among combat veterans. Gatti and Arguello were both noted ring warriors, willing to go through hell to earn victory and take many shots to the head.
For the long-term safety of fighters, it is important to develop the most accurate picture possible of the long-term damage sustained by some of our greatest boxing heroes.
For pure action and excitement, I would rank this fight from May of 2005 as the single greatest fight of the past 20 years. Both men knew they were going to do something special heading in. It was inevitable, given the type of warrior each man was.
Although he led on two of three cards when the fight was stopped near the end of Round 10, Diego Corrales had looked in danger of not making it out of the round, before turning things around suddenly and knocking Jose Luis Castillo out on his feet.
The stoppage was criticized by some as too quick, but referee Tony Weeks did a good job protecting Castillo when he was helpless to defend himself.
For most of Barack Obama's first term as president, the Congress remained frozen in partisan gridlock. And similarly, for most of President Obama's first term, the sport of boxing has seemed locked in unending gridlock over the potential for a superfight between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather.
It was a topic where conversation dragged on and on, regardless of any new and pertinent information ever emerging in the development of this fight that was never intended to be. For years fans clamored for it, writers never shut up about it and it never once came close to getting signed.
It was never going to happen because Mayweather was never going to do business with Bob Arum, and Arum was never going to risk his most valuable boxer on a chance that he would just end up making Floyd appear that much greater.
Looking back now, I can't even imagine how anybody ever thought this fight might happen. But somehow it became the never-ending soap opera that nobody shut up about for four straight years.
Thank God for Juan Manuel Marquez for eliminating any true demand for the fight, once and for all, in December of 2013.
Between May of 2002 and June of 2003, Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward fought three straight 10-round fights, a series that ranks among the most compelling of all time. It was a three-fight series that linked the names Gatti and Ward together for eternity in boxing lore.
Each man had engaged in historical wars against other opponents. But in each other they found perfect foils.
I've included Round 9 of their first fight here, regarded by many boxing historians as the most exciting round of all time.
Ward won the first fight by majority decision, with Gatti capturing both rematches by unanimous decision. All three fights were hotly contested wars. These were the type of fights that win fans to boxing.
In the years since his retirement, Micky Ward's life story has served as the inspiration for The Fighter starring Mark Wahlberg, one of the most serious treatments Hollywood has give boxing in recent years.
Although the heavyweight division did enjoy a minor resurgence in talent during the 1990s, boxing fans know they have been watching a steady decline in the sport's premier weight class over the past two decades.
I would actually date the very start of this trend to just before the start of the time covered by this list, to late 1992, when undisputed champion Riddick Bowe opted to toss the WBC third of the title into a trash can, rather than face Lennox Lewis.
I feel the Klitschko brothers go largely underappreciated and underrated by the American boxing public. But that can't disguise the fact that the rest of the talent of their generation has been below mediocre.
There hasn't been a single heavyweight who could threaten the brothers since Lewis retired in June of 2003. It's been a full decade now since a meaningful, anticipated fight was held in the heavyweight division.
The sport's health has suffered as a result.
By November of 1994, George Foreman's comeback story was already a nice one. After reigning as a dominant champion during the golden era of the 1970s, Foreman had mounted a comeback in the 1980s. He was in his late 30s and grossly overweight and few fans gave him a chance.
Big George had persevered, and in April of 1991, he had even managed a game title challenge against Evander Holyfield.
But by November of 1994, everybody thought his moment had finally passed. In June of the previous year, he'd failed in a second world title attempt against Tommy Morrison.
And for the entire fight against Moorer, Foreman once again was taking a beating. But this time, he managed to catch up the the younger champion with a punch for the ages in Round 10, stopping Moorer cold and making 45-year-old George Foreman the IBF, WBA and lineal heavyweight champion of the world for the second time in his career.
This is the win that cemented Foreman as the biggest superstar in the entire boxing world, aside from Muhammad Ali. This win for Foreman—coming within the past 20 years—marks the current generation's link to boxing's golden age.
When Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield met in June of 1997 in a rematch to Holyfield's Round 11 TKO from November of 1996, it was among the most highly anticipated heavyweight fights of the decade. It was thought by many boxing fans that Tyson had undertrained prior to Holyfield's upset win the previous fall.
The expectation was that he would come to meet Holyfield the second time at full strength.
Instead, fans witnessed one of the most bizarre nights in the history of the sport. In what he would later claim was retaliation for Holyfield's illegal use of headbutts, Tyson would bite Holyfield in the ear twice, before losing by DQ during Round 3.
Although it is remembered now primarily as a colorful piece of boxing lore, at the time the impact of Tyson's actions was horrific for boxing. In addition to making the entire sport appear more barbaric, Tyson's behavior cheated thousands of fans at the live venue—and millions more via pay-per-view—out of the high quality, heavyweight prizefight they had paid for.
There is no way to ever accurately determine how many paying fans the sport lost going forward as a direct result.