Boxing

Ranking the Top 10 Boxing Fights of the 1990s

Lyle FitzsimmonsFeatured ColumnistDecember 13, 2013

Ranking the Top 10 Boxing Fights of the 1990s

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    Within minutes, you just know.

    Whether it's the intensity of the first exchange, the way a guy who gets dropped immediately rallies or the times when the level of the competition equals (or surpasses) the significance of the event, it's clear that what you're watching is a fight you'll always remember.

    Each decade has its classics. The 1970s had Ali and Frazier. The 1980s had Hagler and Hearns. And the 2000s had Corrales and Castillo. Meantime, in the 1990s, there were quite a few good ones as well.

    We've gone back to the old tapes (thanks, YouTube) and put together a list of our 10 favorites from the decade that brought us Bill Clinton, Pearl Jam and the O.J. trial. Take a look and enjoy the memories, and feel free to drop some opinions of your own in the comments. 

10. Naseem Hamed vs. Kevin Kelley

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    The Date: Dec. 19, 1997, New York City

    The Stakes: WBO Featherweight Title

    The Fight: All you need to know about this one was summed up by HBO's Larry Merchant.

    "What we just saw was the Hagler-Hearns of featherweight fighting."

    The United States debut of Hamed, an Englishman of Yemeni heritage, coincided with his ninth defense of the WBO title he'd won two years earlier in his home country. The 23-year-old was riddled with shots from Kelley, himself a former world champion, and was dropped three times while scoring three knockdowns of his own. The final one came in the late stages of the fourth round, when he laid Kelley out with a chopping counter left hand that ultimately drew a 10-count from referee Benjy Esteves Jr.

9. Saman Sorjaturong vs. Humberto Gonzalez

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    The Date: July 15, 1995, Inglewood, Calif.

    The Stakes: IBF/WBC Junior Flyweight Titles

    The Fight: Every now and then, a run-of-the-mill title defense becomes something more.

    In this case, it occurred in Round 2 for Gonzalez, a solid favorite, when he was dropped with a right hand. He rallied back in the third and fourth, scored knockdowns of his own in the fifth and sixth and appeared on the verge of making it a night as the seventh began. Instead, it'd be his final round as world champion. Sorjaturong dumped his foe again with a desperation right hand, then followed up with a barrage that forced the hand of referee Lou Filippo.

    Sorjaturong held onto one belt or another for four years in a distinguished run as titleholder. Gonzalez never fought again.

8. Buster Douglas vs. Mike Tyson

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    The Date: Feb. 11, 1990, Tokyo

    The Stakes: IBF/WBA/WBC Heavyweight Titles

    The Fight: Though he'd been involved in one previous world title fight, Douglas registered as little more than the latest installment of Tyson's modern-day "Bum of the Month Club" when it came time for his 10th championship defense. But it was apparent by the end of Round 1 that this guy had a bit more to offer.

    Whether fueled by the death of his mother just weeks before, or the perfect style antidote for Tyson regardless of circumstance, Douglas laid a whipping on the then-unbeaten champion far unlike anything he'd ever experienced in a boxing ring. The Columbus, Ohio native proved his mettle by rising from an eighth-round knockdown, then proceeded to batter Tyson across the ring in the ninth before delivering a hellacious combination that left "Iron Mike" memorably groping for his mouthpiece.

    It was a high watermark for "Buster," who lost the belts just eight months later. Tyson regained a sliver of his past glory and was involved in several more big events, including one later in the countdown.

7. Nigel Benn vs. Gerald McClellan

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    The Date: Feb. 25, 1995, London

    The Stakes: WBC Super Middleweight Title

    The Fight: Sometimes a great fight results in a great tragedy.

    Such was the case with the 168-pound fight between Benn and McClellan, a reigning champion at middleweight who suffered life-altering damage after 10 rounds of intensely competitive violence in London.

    McClellan dropped Benn in the first round and again in the eighth, but the "Dark Destroyer" rallied and scored a knockdown of his own in the 10th, when McClellan went to one knee. He rose, but went to his knee against moments later and was counted out by referee Alfred Asaro. He returned to the corner and collapsed and was immediately taken to a hospital. He was in a coma for 11 days and emerged with significant brain damage and lost his eyesight. He's spent the subsequent 18 years under 24-hour care.

6. Arturo Gatti vs. Gabriel Ruelas

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    The Date: Oct. 4, 1997, Atlantic City, N.J.

    The Stakes: IBF Junior Lightweight Title

    The Fight: Gatti's third defense of his 130-pound kingdom was one of the foundational pieces to what became a reputation as the greatest action fighter of a generation.

    "Thunder" was hurt badly in the fourth round by an uppercut from Ruelas, a former world champion in the weight class, and was on the receiving end of a barrage of 15 punches before escaping the round thanks to a timely bell. In true Gatti style, he recovered and uncorked a left hand of his own that dropped Ruelas and essentially ended the fight at 2:22 of Round 5.

    Ruelas went 5-3 for the remainder of his career and was finished by 2003. Gatti went to a world title at 140 pounds before stalling at welterweight and retiring after a stoppage lose to Alfonso Gomez in 2007.

5. Michael Carbajal vs. Humberto Gonzalez I

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    The Date: March 13, 1993, Las Vegas

    The Stakes: IBF/WBC Junior Flyweight Titles

    The Fight: The pay-per-view spotlight found the little guys 20 years ago in the desert, when ex-U.S. Olympic hero Carbajal aimed to add the WBC championship to the IBF crown he already owned.

    Carbajal was dropped in Rounds 2 and 5 and was bleeding profusely from a cut over his right eye before turning the tide with a single right hand in Round 7. A follow-up right drove the Mexican champion to the canvas for the first time, and he was unable to beat the count of referee Mills Lane with one second remaining in the round. 

    Two rematches followed in 1994, both won by Gonzalez via narrow decisions. Carbajal fought on for five more years and was again a world champion before ending his career in 1999. Gonzalez was beaten by a seventh-round TKO against Saman Sorjaturong (No. 9 on this list) two fights after the rubber match and never fought again.

4. Ivan Robinson vs. Arturo Gatti I

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    The Date: Aug. 22, 1998, Atlantic City, N.J.

    The Stakes: No titles at stake

    The Fight: Though he was exciting in many fights, Gatti didn't actually win them all.

    He encountered Robinson, a 5-1 underdog, in his second fight as a full-fledged lightweight and just seven months after he'd been stopped on cuts by Angel Manfredy in the debut at 135. Robinson started strong and battered Gatti early but was dropped by a right hand in the fourth round. The match went to classic level in the sixth, when Gatti was on the verge of unconsciousness before rallying with a right hand near the end of the session.

    The pitched battle repeated itself in the ninth, and Robinson was able to escape a round later with a split decision, then made it two straight with a unanimous decision seven months later. He finished his career on a 5-10-2 stretch before wrapping up for good in 2008.

3. Evander Holyfield vs. Mike Tyson I

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    The Date: Nov. 9, 1996, Las Vegas

    The Stakes: WBA Heavyweight Title

    The Fight: The two former multiple-time heavyweight champions fought twice. This was the one without the ear-biting incident.

    Instead, Holyfield was a 7-1 underdog and came out with a game plan from the outset in which he initiated exchanges and never missed a chance to give Tyson a shove or some other gesture indicating both his strength and refusal to be intimidated. Tyson was dropped by a left hand in the sixth round and hurt by a headbutt in the seventh, then battered across the ring in the 10th. He emerged for the 11th but was in no shape to compete, taking a few quick shots from Holyfield before Mitch Halpern intervened 37 seconds in.

    They met again seven months later, when Holyfield won again, but Tyson took his pound of cartilage.

2. Riddick Bowe vs. Evander Holyfield I

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    The Date: Nov. 13, 1992, Las Vegas

    The Stakes: IBF/WBA/WBC Heavyweight Titles

    The Fight: The fourth straight fight in the countdown that served as the first of a pair or trilogy, the initial go-round between Bowe and Holyfield is widely considered one of the best fights in heavyweight history.

    Holyfield was a 7-5 favorite against an unbeaten, but untested Bowe, but the challenger was both active and sharp, landing more than 50 percent of his shots while also outpunching his foe by a significant margin. He had Holyfield on the verge of a stoppage loss in the 10th before the champion rallied and rocked Bowe, giving the fight its best round and solidifying its historical place.

    The challenger earned the title belts by unanimous decision and managed two title defenses before losing the laurels back to Holyfield in the second match just a week shy of a year later.

1. Julio Cesar Chavez vs. Meldrick Taylor I

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    The Date: March 17, 1990, Las Vegas

    The Stakes: IBF/WBC Junior Welterweight Titles

    The Fight: Maybe next summer, when he's part of the 25th induction class at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., people will finally forgive referee Richard Steele for the controversial decision he rendered at the end of the decade's finest boxing match.

    Had it gone on two more seconds, Taylor would have emerged as a unified champion and taken another giant step toward becoming a full-fledged 140-pound superstar. Instead, Steele intervened after Taylor rose from a knockdown but was unresponsive to a pair of questions from the referee.

    He made the correct call. Check the video and see for yourself.

    And when he discussed the fight with the Los Angeles Times, he made his case.

    "When they get hurt, it's just not in their nature to quit. That's where a referee comes in, knowing when a fighter has had enough. In the case of Taylor, when I looked into his eyes, I didn't like what I saw there. I didn't care how much time was left, who was winning the fight or how much money was at stake--that has nothing to do with my job. I decided Taylor wasn't going to take one more punch."

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