Outside the Ring: Boxing's Best Confrontations and Street Fights
Boxing is meant to be contained in a carefully measured ring, with a referee and a bevy of officials keeping a watchful eye over the proceedings. Otherwise, things can get ugly quickly. When it's not properly contained, when the violence spills to the street, the result can be terrifying, funny or illuminating. As you'll see, it's often all three at once.
Join me in a journey through history and a look at 10 occasions, including incidents with megastars like Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali, when the ring wasn't nearly enough to suppress the chaos. Remember another wild confrontation? Let me know in the comments.
Larry Holmes vs. Trevor Berbick (1991)
Nobody seemed that impressed with Larry Holmes after a 1991 comeback fight against the lightly regarded Tim "Doc" Anderson at the Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood, Florida. After all, Holmes was once the heir to Muhammad Ali himself. He was supposed to beat a guy like Anderson via first-round knockout.
It was a night destined to be forgotten—until fellow heavyweight Trevor Berbick started running Holmes down in front of reporters after the post-fight press conference. Holmes, who had beaten Berbick in 1981, refused a rematch, telling the press he didn't respect him. In response, Berbick let loose on Holmes with an epic verbal tirade. When word got back to big Larry, trouble soon followed.
"Larry Holmes came rushing out," Victor Stephenson, a valet parking employee for the hotel told The New York Times. "He kicked and punched Berbick and Berbick ran out onto the street. Larry Holmes kept kicking and punching him."
From there, trouble escalated. While Berbick was explaining to police exactly what happened, Holmes lept off the top of a parked car with a flying kick. Caught on video tape it immediately replaced any of his boxing achievements as Holmes's most memorable moment.
Amazingly, Holmes escaped arrest, despite officers being present for the assault. I guess sometimes a man has it coming.
Harry Greb vs. Mickey Walker (1925)
Some would make the case that Harry Greb is the best middleweight of all time. Nicknamed "the human windmill" for his hard charging style, at the very least he was one of the most willing.
Greb fought and won the world championship as a middleweight, but the economics of boxing at the time demanded he compete with larger light heavyweights and even heavyweights as well. Greb would step in with any man, even giving the great Gene Tunney all he could handle in five tough fights. When his career was over and the math done, it was determined that he fought a staggering 299 times in 14 years, an average of more than 21 times per annum.
And that doesn't include a second fight with Mickey Walker in 1925.
After a tough 15-round decision over Walker, the welterweight champion whom gamely faced down one of boxing's best and nearly walked away with a decision, Greb's night was still far from over.
Harry's carousing was a thing of legend. He fought hard and lived fast, rarely training, preferring drinking and fast cars to the boxing gym. So it was no surprise when he showed up later that night at Manhattan's Silver Spoon nightclub with a beautiful woman on his arm.
As chance would have it, however, Walker was there too, his own dame in tow. Author Peter Heller, after talking with Walker, picked up the story there:
According to Walker, he and Greb enjoyed some drinks and left together, sans female companionship. Once outside, Walker teased Greb about his less-than-sportsmanlike style. Greb offered to pick up Round 16 right there in the street.
So he started to take his coat off, and when he had his coat down around both his elbows so he couldn't move his arms, I wound up with my best punch and hit him on the chin, said Walker. Just then, a cop named Pat Casey happened to walk by and separate them.
And nobody was around, Walker said. Only Pat Casey, to see that I won the second fight. They say I licked Greb the second time.
Many have questioned the story's validity, including Greb's biographer James Fair, who called it a fiction. Greb himself never got an opportunity to address it. Within a year, one of sport's free spirits had passed away. No man could stop him, but a 1926 surgery to repair a battered face extinguished his shining light. He was just 32 years old.
Joe Frazier vs. Muhammad Ali (1974)
I wouldn't say, as The New York Times columnist Dave Anderson famously did, that it was Howard Cosell's fault the two legendary rivals scuffled at a 1974 television taping to promote their second classic fight. But you have to think Cosell wasn't displeased at the result of him sitting to the left of both men, rather than between the two fighters.
Had Cosell been in the middle, things might not have gone as they did. The two men, watching their epic first fight together, soon started engaging in a war of words. When Ali called Frazier "ignorant," something snapped in the proud former champion, who jumped up, fire in his eyes.
"Why you think I'm ignorant," he asked Ali. "Stand up man."
Their two camps moved to separate the fighters, including Ali's brother Rahman. As Frazier turned to ask the younger Ali, "You in this too?" Muhammad sprang to his feet and grabbed Frazier in a bear hug. The two tumbled to the ground but were soon separated.
For Frazier, the interview was over. He would do the rest of his talking in the ring. Ali stayed on set with Cosell, the consummate showman. But he was more shaken than he appeared.
"His eyes meant it," Ali would later say, explaining why he had gotten physical. "When he was standing over me, I didn't know what he was going to do."
Mike Tyson vs. Mitch 'Blood' Green (1988)
Mike Tyson was supposed to fight Frank Bruno in the fall of 1988 for a cash prize of $5 million. Instead, he smacked down Mitch "Blood" Green for nothing but pride at Dapper Dan's Boutique in Harlem. Sports Illustrated's Pat Putnam explains:
Like just about all of Mike Tyson's fistfights, the one early last week was quick. Gunfighter quick. One punch, they say, a right uppercut to former contender Mitch Green's left eye, which swelled and closed beside a nose suddenly in need of five stitches. The novelty was that the fight took place at 4:30 a.m. on a Harlem street—not exactly the hour at which one would expect to find the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world scuffling.
Tyson claimed he acted in self defense, terrified, he said, of what Green, ranting and raving about Don King owing him money, would do:
Green hit me in the chest. He was upset. I guess I hit him over the eye. I was nervous. I hadn't had a street fight in seven years. I was scared.
It wasn't the first time the two had squared off. The first time was more typical—a professional prize fight that Tyson won by decision over 10 rounds in 1986. It wasn't a close fight, but Green became just the second man to go the distance with "Kid Dynamite."
Green pursued a rematch and a lawsuit. Neither worked out. In the end, he was awarded just $45,000 on his $25 million claim. Fourteen years later, dead broke and approached by ESPN, Green was still looking for his third shot at Tyson.
"Tyson's a punk. That boy is scared to death of me," Green said. "It's a damn shame Tyson's scared of me like that. We could make a lot of money. Aw, man!
Yankee Sullivan vs. Tom Hyer (1848, 1849)
On February 7, 1849, Yankee Sullivan and Tom Hyer went to a lot of trouble to duke it out on Maryland's Eastern shore. At stake was $10,000, the American heavyweight boxing championship and both men's freedom.
More than 100 police officers were dispatched by the state of Maryland to stop the bout, one officials called a "disgusting exhibition." The fight was scheduled for Pooles Island, so the officers all gathered in a steamer to give chase.
After a series of hijinks, including arresting the wrong men while the fighters nonchalantly walked free, the police ended up stuck on a sandbar in the middle of the Potomac River. The fight took place in front of a small gathering of gamblers while the police awaited rescue.
Not fighting was out of the question. It was a legitimate grudge match started by Sullivan, a pipsqueak Irishman, who, despite weighing just 155 pounds, couldn't stand the idea any man might have been tougher.
Fired up at claims the American Hyer was the best boxer in New York, he took at shot at Hyer in a Manhattan oyster bar. Hyer knocked him silly in minutes, but that only increased the hype for an official prizefight.
In a hastily built ring, Hyer battered Sullivan in 16 fierce minutes. The bout ended when the larger Hyer fell on top of Sullivan, who couldn't continue. But, according to the New York Herald, Hyer wasn't quite done fighting:
As soon as Sullivan left the ring, Hyer walked over to one of Sullivan’s seconds and struck him a blow on the head; but a revolver being presented to his head, he desisted from further aggression. The parties, as soon as possible, returned to their respective vessels, got on board, and made for the safest place to avoid arrest, all hands being apprehensive of the event.
Bernard Hopkins vs. Felix Trinidad (2001)
Boxing has a long history of playing up ethnic tensions, promoting not just fights, but showdowns between cultures and countries. So when Don King positioned a middleweight title scrap between Bernard Hopkins and Felix Trinidad as a battle between the United States and Puerto Rico, he was in line with boxing's rich tradition of similar contests.
There was an edge to this one, though, a tension that simmered. When Hopkins threw the Puerto Rican flag to the ground at New York's Madison Square Garden, the Trinidad camp was enraged. When he did it again in San Juan, Puerto Rico, he was lucky to escape with his life. But Hopkins, who loved to tell reporters "I didn't go to Harvard, I went to jail," told boxing writer Thomas Hauser that he had no regrets:
There's ten thousand people shouting and waving flags. And Trinidad tried to test my heart...getting in my face and all that stuff. I've seen that before. That's penitentiary stuff. And then Don starts waving a flag in my face. So either I do it again or I back down. And if I back down I'll be running every day until the fight.
Then terrorists attacked New York on September 11, 2001 and everything changed. According to Sports Illustrated's Richard Hoffer:
By fight time, however, both men were affecting so much sensitivity that any previous ugliness was forgotten. They either wore or held aloft NYPD and FDNY hats and helmets and behaved as if they had suddenly attained a sense of proportion. They hadn't, of course; they were still too immersed in their own do-or-die struggle to begin to think globally. Still, it was nice that they made an effort.
Hopkins, a great fighter who had never gotten a chance to really shine on the national stage, knocked out Trinidad in the final round to unify the middleweight title. At 36, many pundits thought this would cap a career nearing the end. Twelve years later, the ageless wonder is still going strong.
Chief Baby Miller vs. Chino Alvarez (1936)
Why Evelio Hernandez went by the name "Chief Baby Miller" in the ring has been lost to history. The chief part was easy—Hernandez was part Seminole and the 1930s were not a politically correct time.
But Baby Miller?
The reasoning behind that particular pseudonym remains a mystery. It was, however, a name that went well with the glorious appellations of the fighters Miller competed with in the ring. Dixie Kid, Mutt Griffin, Moon Mullins and Tootsie Bashara were among his opponents. You couldn't invent four better fighter names. I dare you to try.
Chino Alvarez, however, despite a normal name, was most likely the fighter he dreamed of at night. The two met three times in the ring, each man winning a 10-round decision after first fighting to a no-contest.
In that bout, Alvarez knocked Miller out after the bell had already tolled in Round 3. Miller was originally awarded the contest on a foul, until a protest from the Alvarez camp led to an official declaration of a no-contest. Suffice to say, Miller was not amused. It was that fight that led to a fourth unsanctioned bout in the streets of Ybor City, Florida.
According to The Evening Independent, Miller challenged Alvarez in the Latin district of Tampa Bay two days after the fight. Alvarez preferred to save it for a rematch in the ring. That's when things went a little haywire:
Their supporters staged a riot. Knives flashed and one Alvarez man pulled a gun and fired at Miller. The bullet missed Miller as he charged in on the gunman and kayoed him.
Police answered a riot call and dispersed the mob. Miller escaped by running into a lunch room and out the back door.and Alvarez was spirited away by one of his managers.
For Miller it was one wild night in a career of controversies. By the time he finished fighting he had been suspended for life by the Virginia commission for allegedly throwing a fight and had once participated in a bout that saw both fighters disqualified for repeated fouls. His career ended with a record of 90-23-6.
Thanks to John Nash for the assist.
Daniel Mendoza vs. Richard Humphreys (1787)
Growing up a Jew in gentile England, Daniel Mendoza learned to fight early and often. But, standing just 5'7" and weighing just 160 pounds, the prevailing methods of fisticuffs weren't designed to work in his favor.
At the time, boxers essentially stood in front of each other and wailed away. It was Mendoza, often called "the father of scientific boxing," who popularized the use of angles, side steps and a crafty defense to accomplish what he couldn't with mere force.
It's ironic then that this young man, later to win the patronage of the King of England himself, came to the attention of the nation with a good old fashioned grudge match.
After splitting with his mentor, "the Gentleman Boxer" Richard Humphreys, Mendoza learned firsthand that Humphreys was no gentleman. Humphreys, trying to egg his young protege into a fight after the two parted ways over sponsors and ego, ripped his collar and called him "scurrilous" names. Mendoza bided his time.
The next time Humphreys confronted him, Mendoza writes in his autobiography, the two decided to step outside the Cock Tavern, surrounded by a boisterous crowd made up of both men's friends and admirers, to settle the score:
A ring being therefore instantly formed, we set to, and after exchanging a few blows, I succeeded in closing one of my opponents eyes, and almost immediately afterwards gave him a severe bruise over the other, when we were interrupted by a party consisting of peace officers...
The news of the fight spread through the country like wildfire. When they finally met in a official contest on a rainy day in January, 1788, more than 60,000 people were there to see the bout. After 28 minutes Menodza badly injured his ankle on a wet plank of wood. Humphreys later exclaimed, "I have done the Jew" and called Mendoza a coward for quitting.
The two would meet twice more, with Mendoza taking the rematch and rubber match with relative ease. The third fight marked the first occasion that spectators were charged an admission fee to see a boxing match, a sign of just how popular Mendoza and the art he was spawning had become.
Dereck Chisora vs. David Haye (2012)
It started as a verbal spat and ended with the threat of gun violence and an arrest. Things, they can escalate quickly when fighters get their blood up.
And Dereck Chisora? His blood, it seems, is always up.
It was a tough week for Chisora. First he slapped Vitali Klitschko in the face as the two weighed in for a WBC title fight, costing himself a portion of his purse and a lot of respect.
"He hit me, not like a boxer but like a woman," Klitschko told the media.
Undaunted, with no lessons learned, Chisora caused mayhem before and after the fight, first spitting water at Team Klitschko as the fight began and again getting in Klitschko's face after losing a one-sided decision.
Amazingly, none of that is why he made this list. That happened after the fight when fellow boxer David Haye, looking to return to the ring, engaged both Chisora and the Klitschko camp in playful banter from the back of the room at the press conference. Chisora, however, was not amused, especially when Haye called him a loser.
"Tell that to my face," Chisora screamed, via Daily Mail. "I’m coming down, tell that to my face."
What followed can only be described as a donnybrook. Glass bottles, tripods and fists flew. A distraught Chisora was ready to take things even further.
"He glassed me. I swear to God, David, I am going to shoot you," he yelled. "I am going to shoot you. I am going to physically shoot David Haye."
As Chisora was led from the building, Haye got the last word, refrencing his rival's three consecutive losses in the ring.
"That's four in a row now!"
Five months later, Haye would again have the last word, this time in the ring, knocking Chisora out in five. The two then ended their feud with a handshake and a hug.
All's well, I guess, that ends well.
Mike Tyson vs. Lennox Lewis (2002)
You can forgive Anthony Pitts for panicking. His job, after all, was to protect heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis. An easy job you'd imagine, at least most days. What would Lewis need protection from anyway, short of small arms fire or a grizzly bear?
Apparently, to Pitts, the answer to that question was "Mike Tyson." The former champion, dressed in menacing all black, strode angrily towards Lewis in the opening moments of a press conference to promote a potential fight between the men. Pitts reached out to stop him.
That was a mistake.
A Tyson left dropped him and the brawl was on.
"My motivation for approaching Lennox was to stage a faceoff, which I was told both camps had agreed to," Tyson told CNN/SI. "It was Lennox's bodyguard who panicked and shoved me. Lennox then threw a right."
For once, it seems Tyson was not to blame for chaos. But even when Iron Mike didn't create chaos, he sure had a gift for escalating it. According to The New York Times, the Lewis camp accused Tyson of biting the champion:
Tyson then bit Lewis on the leg, Adrian Ogun, Lewis's business manager, and Harold Knight, an assistant trainer for Lewis, told Bloomberg News. Another member of the Lewis camp, who declined to be identified, described the bite as ''an open strawberry, not huge, just below his right knee.''
He bit right through the fabric, the person from the Lewis camp said, adding that Lewis was planning to get a tetanus shot from a local doctor.
Shelly Finkel, Tyson's manager, said he knew nothing of the alleged bite. As far as I know, there's no truth to it, he said.
The fight, somehow, survived this debacle. Nevada, originally scheduled as home to the bout, passed, refusing to license Tyson in a hearing the week after the brawl. Memphis was there to pick up the pieces and the fight was eventually held at The Pyramid, where Lewis knocked Tyson out in eight rounds.