Ranking the Greatest Trilogies in Boxing History
Boxing lore is woven together from great fights. And an extended rivalry between top fighters increases the chances that a fight will be great.
Fighters get to know each other intimately over the course of multiple engagements. They learn each other's tendencies, strengths and weaknesses.
And somehow, a trilogy seems particularly tidy. Three fights are usually enough to establish decisively who is the better man.
There have been some terrific two-fight rivalries, and some classics that stretched to four, five or even more fights. But a high percentage of the greatest rivalries in boxing history have been played out over a three-fight series.
Roberto Duran vs. Esteban De Jesus
By the time he moved up to welterweight to challenge Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980, Roberto Duran had already established himself as, arguably, the greatest lightweight champion of all time.
A big part of Manos de Piedre punching his ticket at 135 involved his three-fight series with Esteban De Jesus of Puerto Rico.
De Jesus was a definite notch or two below Duran in overall talent. But De Jesus was more than good enough to push Duran and provide him with an ideal foil to reveal his greatness at lightweight.
De Jesus handed Duran the first loss of his career in November 1972, by unanimous decision, in a non-title fight. Duran was five months removed from capturing the WBA crown from Ken Buchanan, and according to boxing journalists like George Kimball in Four Kings, his training for De Jesus was compromised by his celebratory partying after stopping Buchanan the previous spring.
Duran seems to have not taken De Jesus lightly again. In March 1974, Duran climbed off the canvas after a Round 1 knockdown to KO De Jesus in Round 11. In his last fight, as a lightweight, in January 1978, Duran beat De Jesus by Round 12 TKO.
Floyd Patterson vs. Ingemar Johansson
Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson are two of the more overlooked heavyweight champions, particularly the Swedish Johansson. But their three-fight series provided some of the division's greatest action in the era between Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali.
Patterson had won a gold medal at middleweight in the 1952 Olympics. Under the tutelage of Cus D'Amato, he developed the same "peekaboo" defensive style later showcased by Mike Tyson and became the youngest man to ever win the heavyweight crown when he captured the vacant belt against Archie Moore in November 1956, after Rocky Marciano had retired undefeated.
In June 1959, Johansson became the first European since Max Schmeling in 1933 to beat an American for the belt when he knocked down Patterson seven times over the first three rounds. In their rematch a year later, Patterson put Johansson to sleep for over five minutes with an explosive left hook.
Their rubber match was the best of the group. Both men hit the canvas before Patterson stopped the Swede in six.
Michael Carbajal vs. Humberto Gonzalez
Michael Carbajal and Humberto Gonzalez are both ranked as all time, top five junior flyweights by Teddy Atlas and Burt Sugar in their The Ultimate Book of Boxing Lists. In 1993 and 1994, Carbajal and Gonzalez fought three times, drawing a nearly unprecedented level of attention to the 108-pound division.
Gonzalez was a Mexican native and already a seasoned professional by the time Carbajal, a Phoenix native of Mexican descent, turned professional. In their thrilling first fight, an IBF and WBC unification bout, "Chiquita" looked to apply heavy pressure to his less experienced opponent and knocked him down twice in the first five rounds.
But Carbajal started to turn the tide in Round 6. In Round 7, he caught up to Gonzalez and knocked him out. Gonzalez won both rematches, by split decision in February 1994 and by majority decision in November 1994.
Riddick Bowe vs. Evander Holyfield
I'm not old enough to remember Ali before he lost to Leon Spinks, and Larry Holmes never really had a rival worthy of him after he beat Ken Norton and Earnie Shavers.
Holmes vs. Gerry Cooney was supposed to be the great heavyweight title fight of my childhood, my consolation for being too young to remember the glory days of the early 1970s. But it ended up being largely a disappointment.
The rise of Tyson was a wonder to behold, but his entire run was more like observing a miraculous force of nature in astonished awe than it was like savoring a classic heavyweight championship war.
So when Holyfield-Bowe fired up in the early 1990s, it was the heavyweight rivalry I had been waiting for my entire life.
Their first fight, won by unanimous decision by Bowe in November 1992, was among the best heavyweight title fights in history. Holyfield won the rematch seven months later by majority decision in another wild affair, made wilder by some idiot who interrupted the action in Round 7 by crashing the ring in a parachute.
Bowe won the rubber match decisively, by Round 8 TKO. Unfortunately, "Big Daddy" never fought Lennox Lewis and never really lived up to his tremendous potential.
Holyfield, on the other hand, stuck around long enough to beat up Mike Tyson in 1996 and is probably still looking for another fight today, at over 50 years of age.
Dick Tiger vs. Gene Fullmer
Gene Fullmer was the middleweight champion of the world when he faced Dick Tiger for the first time in October 1962. He was on a run that ranks among the best in the history of the division.
He had beat Benny Paret and Joey Giardello. He had gone 2-0 against Carmen Basilio, and he had gone 2-1-1 against Sugar Ray Robinson.
Dick Tiger was from Nigeria by way of England. He'd turned professional at 26 and lost his first four fights to professionals who all had over 20 fights each. In his fifth fight, Tiger knocked out a guy with over 20 fights.
By the time he fought Fullmer, Tiger was an accomplished world-class professional who had split fights with Giardello. In their first fight, Tiger beat and bloodied Fullmer to win the world title by unanimous decision.
They fought to a draw in Vegas the following February. In August 1963, Tiger staged the first world championship fight in history in Africa, in his native West Nigeria. This time, he pounded Fullmer en route to a Round 7 stoppage.
Emille Griffith vs. Benny Paret
This trilogy ended in one of boxing's most public tragedies, the death of Paret after he was punched into a coma by Griffith in their final fight. The rivalry between these two welterweight world champions was heated, with a tremendous amount of personal animosity.
Griffith captured the title from Paret in April 1961 by Round 13 KO, after 12 extremely competitive rounds. At the weigh in before their Madison Square Garden rematch five months later, Paret enraged Griffith by calling him a Spanish homophobic slur.
Paret won a hotly contested split decision. Between his second war with Griffith and their rematch, Paret stepped up to middleweight and challenged the champion, Gene Fullmer.
Fullmer pounded Paret for 10 rounds before stopping him. In Teddy Atlas and Burt Sugar's The Ultimate Book of Boxing Lists, Fullmer is quoted as saying "I never beat anybody like that in my life."
And Fullmer beat a lot of people up in his career.
Four months later, Paret was back down at welterweight to defend his belt against Griffith. Again, he insulted Griffith at the weigh in, with the same word.
The fight was another war. Griffith generally outworked Paret, but Paret dropped Griffith with a hook in Round 6.
In Round 10, Griffith captured Paret in the corner and pounded him with over 30 unanswered punches. Paret was unconscious and slumped against the ropes before the referee finally intervened. He would never gain consciousness.
The fight was broadcast on live television and seemed to have a lasting impact on Griffith, who continued to be a world-class fighter, but truly seemed to knock out less people than he could have for the rest of his career.
Micky Ward vs. Arturo Gatti
This trilogy was less meaningful than any of the others on this list in terms of world-title significance. But in terms of pure drama and excitement, it still has to rate among the best.
And in terms of significance for boxing, these fights were pretty important for enhancing the visibility of the sport and winning fans in an era when the sport was down in popularity.
I know casual boxing fans, the kind who buy the occasional pay-per-view, who became casual fans for the first time because of Gatti-Ward.
Their first fight in Atlantic City in May 2002 was a terrific fight from start to finish and featured, perhaps, the most ferocious three minutes in the history of boxing: Round 9. Ward came away with a majority decision.
Gatti won the rematch six months later, another all-out war. A rubber match was set for June 2003. In terms of fight-long drama, it was probably the best fight of the series.
Gatti fought most of the fight with a broken hand and overcame a knockdown to earn a decision.
Muhammad Ali vs. Ken Norton
Ken Norton did not start boxing until he was in the Marines, but the natural athlete picked up the sport quickly, and after an apprenticeship as a sparring partner to Joe Frazier, he emerged as a heavyweight contender in his own right.
Norton developed into an intelligent pressure fighter who was able to capitalize on his athleticism to cut off the ring. He was something like kryptonite to Ali.
In March 1973, Norton broke Ali's jaw and gave him the second loss of his career via split decision. Ali won the rematch in September by split decision.
They fought again at Yankee stadium in September 1976. Ali prevailed by an extremely close unanimous decision that many observers disagreed with.
There are intelligent boxing fans out there who sincerely believe Norton went 3-0 against Ali.
RIP Ken Norton: Marine, world champion, and an athlete so great, the State of Illinois had to invent a rule to prevent him from winning track meets all by himself.
Tony Zale vs. Rocky Graziano
Tony Zale vs. Rocky Graziano was your grandfather's version of Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns. Only in those days, they did it three times.
In their first fight in September 1946, in Yankee Stadium, Zale beat Graziano in front of Graziano's hometown crowd, by Round 6 KO. But it was not until after he had absorbed more than his share of the punishment in the previous five rounds of non-stop brawling.
In the rematch six months later, in Chicago, Graziano won by Round 6 KO, but not before suffering a bad cut on his eye. Zale starched Graziano by Round 3 KO in the rubber match in June 1948.
Battling Nelson vs. Joe Gans
This was a three-fight series, but these early 20th century legends fought 80 total rounds over these three fights.
Gans won the first fight, in 1906, in Goldfield, Nev., by DQ after 42 rounds. In The Ultimate Boxing List, Burt Sugar reports that Gans had knocked Nelson down multiple times.
Nelson won both rematches, by knockout in Rounds 17 and 21, respectively. In those days, fights were fought in three-minute rounds, but often until a stoppage, no matter how many rounds were required.
Marco Antonio Barrera vs. Erik Morales
In the early years of this century, Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera were the two premiere boxing champions emerging from Mexico.
When Morales and Barrera fought, there was always the sense that, for each man, proving he was the greatest fighter from Mexico was just as important as whatever piece of hardware was up for grabs. Their fights were emotionally charged, heroic affairs and helped make them major stars to boxing fans around the world.
All three fights were non-stop wars. Barrera and Morales were elite boxers, but in these fights, both men opened up and welcomed a macho war of attrition.
Morales won the first fight in December 2000 by split decision. Barrera gave Morales the first and second losses of his career, both by majority decision in June 2002 and November 2004.
Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier
The rivalry between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier is not just the greatest trilogy in the history of boxing. It is the greatest rivalry in the history of sports.
At a time when the heavyweight championship was still the biggest title in sports, the rivalry between Ali and Frazier achieved genuine cultural-icon status around the globe.
Ali and Frazier faced each other for the first time in March 1971. Ali had been stripped of the heavyweight title four years prior, when he had refused to be inducted into the draft. He'd served a four-year suspension from the sport and developed into a hero among the anti-war youth of the late 1960s.
Frazier had emerged during Ali's layoff as the interim world champion. He was a short, but explosive, heavyweight, a supremely conditioned fighter who attacked like a very clever pit bull.
Even without the social-political background to Ali and Frazier's fight, the stylistic clash and the fact that both men were undefeated champions would have made it a major fight.
In the ring, it lived up to everybody's expectations. Frazier used his dangerous left hook in Round 15 to drop Ali and seal the decision victory.
Ali won the rematch in 1974. It was an exciting fight, but the least memorable of the three. In October 1975, they faced off for a third time, in Manila.
A high percentage of boxing fans and historians consider this fight the greatest heavyweight title fight in history. Ali used his jab and straight right to build up a fairly substantial points lead and pound away at Frazier's eyes. But Frazier attacked ferociously all fight long and consistently scored punishing attacks on Ali.
By the end of Round 14, Frazier was fighting blind, and his trainer Eddie Futch refused to let him continue. Ali was almost too exhausted to rise from his stool and acknowledge his victory.