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Ranking the 10 Best "Boxer vs. Brawler" Matchups in History

Briggs SeekinsFeatured ColumnistDecember 16, 2013

Ranking the 10 Best "Boxer vs. Brawler" Matchups in History

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    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    Roberto Duran and Joe Frazier are two of the greatest boxers in history. It would be incorrect to ever classify either man as a mere brawler. 

    But both men's ferocious, swarming style and ability to brawl in the pocket elevated them and made them special. Ultimately, their brawling ability allowed them to fight on near-even terms with bigger and more talented boxers. 

    In a pure "boxer vs. brawler" matchup, the brawler is going to get taken to school every time. A fighter skilled in the sweet science is going to handle an unrefined street fighter with little trouble. 

    So everybody on this list knew how to box. But pure brawling ability allowed some of these fighters to push technical masters to the brink. 

10. Gene Tunney vs. Jack Dempsey II

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    Fought at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1927, this was the famous "long-count" fight, among the most celebrated tilts in heavyweight history.

    A year prior Gene Tunney had shocked sport's fans by handling Jack Dempsey and capturing his heavyweight crown. Known as "The Manasa Mauler," Dempsey was behind only Babe Ruth as the biggest sports star of the 1920s. He was an explosive, relentless whirlwind of violence with a brutal lead hook and a stunning overhand right.

    But Tunney was a brilliant technical boxer, and in their first fight, he won an easy decision. For the first six rounds of the rematch, he was in complete control, as well.  

    But in Round 7 Dempsey caught up to him and dropped him to the canvas. The referee delayed the count until Dempsey retired to a neutral corner, which was a new rule at the time. Whether or not the extra few seconds were critical to allowing Tunney time to regroup remains one of boxing's enduring controversies.

    Either way, Tunney got up and retook control of the fight to go 2-0 against the great Dempsey.  

9. Floyd Patterson vs. George Chuvalo

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    Floyd Patterson won the middleweight gold medal in the 1952 Olympics and went on to become the youngest man ever to capture the heavyweight belt, a record later broken by Mike Tyson. He lost the belt to Sonny Liston in 1962 but remained one of the division's top fighters for most of the rest of the decade.

    George Chuvalo was among the toughest fighters in history, a brutal body puncher with a granite chin. In 93 professional fights, he was never knocked off his feet.

    And Chuvalo fought from the late 1950s into the 1970s, the greatest era in the history of the division. He fought every top fighter of his time, including the big three of Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Joe Frazier.

    He pushed Patterson to the limit in a fight so good that it is a regular on ESPN Classics. Patterson prevailed by unanimous decision in 1965's Fight of the Year.  

8. Rocky Marciano vs. Joe Walcott I

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    Joe Walcott is one of the most underrated heavyweights in history, and prior to George Foreman, he was the oldest man to ever capture the heavyweight crown. 

    When he defended the belt against undefeated Rocky Marciano in 1952, he was able to use his technical prowess to hold the brutish and unrefined Marciano at bay for 12 rounds and build up a huge lead on the scorecards. But the relentless "Brockton Blockbuster" just kept coming. 

    Early in Round 13, Marciano finally managed to beat Walcott to the punch, landing his famed "Suzie Q" right hand. It remains one of the most exciting comeback knockouts in the sports history. Marciano would go on to become the only man to ever retire as the undefeated heavyweight champion. 

7. Timothy Bradley vs. Ruslan Provodnikov

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    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    Last October Timothy Bradley beat Juan Manuel Marquez, demonstrating that he is an elite technical boxer. But last March, he was lucky to survive the "Siberian Rocky," Ruslan Provodnikov.

    This fight was such a brutal war that both corners threatened their fighters with stopping the fight at different points. Provodnikov had Bradley almost out on his feet in both of the first two rounds.

    Bradley somehow recovered and took control of most of the rest of the fight, busting Provodnikov's face up. But Provodnikov rallied late, nearly ending the fight in the last round.

    This year has been one of the best in the history of the sport, full of tremendous fights. But Bradley vs. Provodnikov is my easy choice for fight of the year.  

6. Willie Pep vs. Sandy Saddler II

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    Willie Pep is one the very best defensive fighters of all time. Sandy Saddler, though a skilled boxer in his own right, is widely considered among the dirtiest fighters in history and one of the sport's biggest pound-for-pound punchers, as well.

    The four-fight series between these two is one of boxing's most celebrated rivalries. 

    Pep had already fought well over 100 fights and survived a plane crash when he defended the world featherweight title against Saddler in 1948. Saddler captured the belt by Round 4 KO. 

    Pep staged a brilliant tactical fight in their rematch in 1949, to recapture the belt by unanimous decision. It was Ring Magazine's Fight of the Year. 

    Saddler won both their third and fourth encounters. Their last fight was closer to a back-alley brawl than a boxing match and shows up on any list of the dirtiest fights of all time. 

5. Sugar Ray Robinson vs. Jake LaMotta VI

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    Sugar Ray Robinson is widely considered the greatest pound-for-pound boxer in history. The relentless pressure fighter, Jake LaMotta, was his greatest rival. 

    Although LaMotta won just one of their six meetings, nobody fought Sugar Ray on such even terms until much later in his career. LaMotta knocked him down in their first fight in October 1942 and won their second fight months later. Their fifth fight was a controversial split-decision victory for Robinson in 1945. 

    They faced off for the last time on Valentine's Day 1951. LaMotta controlled much of the first eight rounds, before he began to fade. Robinson stopped him with a brutal barrage of punches against the ropes in Round 13, earning the fight the nickname "The St. Valentine's Day Massacre."

4. Alexis Arguello vs. Aaron Pryor I

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    Aaron Pryor was a violent windmill of a fighter, the early 1980s equivalent of Henry Armstrong. Many historians view him as the best light welterweight in history. 

    Alexis Arguello was a dangerous boxer-puncher, known as "The Explosive Thin Man." In 1982 he set his lightweight title aside and moved up to 140 to challenge Pryor.

    The result was Ring Magazine's Fight of the Decade. Pryor rallied late, some claim with the help of a mysteriously "doctored" water bottle, and stopped Arguello in Round 14. 

3. Roberto Duran vs. Sugar Ray Leonard I

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    Roberto Duran is on the short list for the best lightweight in history. "Hands of Stone" was a brilliant technical boxer, but the former Panamanian street kid was always a brawler at heart. His exquisite boxing abilities just made him all the more dangerous. 

    In 1980 he moved up to welterweight to face the sport's reigning golden boy, former Olympic gold medalist and current 147-pound champion Sugar Ray Leonard. 

    Fighting a bigger, quicker opponent, Duran used pure tenacity to draw the younger man into a brawl. The result was the greatest performance of Duran's legendary career and Leonard's first loss. 

2. Joe Gans vs. Battling Nelson

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    Lightweight champion Joe Gans was an early pioneer in the craft of scientific boxing. Nicknamed "The Old Master" by his peers, he was the first African-American to capture a world championship.

    In the video included here, you can even see him employing the same tricky lead right that Floyd Mayweather uses today. 

    In 1906 he faced Battling Nelson in a "fight to the finish." Born in Denmark and raised on the streets of Chicago, Nelson was a notoriously tough customer, a relentless brawler with a granite chin. 

    Nelson and Gans fought for 42 grueling rounds before Gans escaped with a win by D.Q. 

1. Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier III

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    Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier is the greatest rivalry in boxing history, and you can make an argument for it as the greatest rivalry in the history of sports. The two were perfect foils for each other, inside the ring and out. 

    During the turbulent Vietnam era, Ali was the brash, outspoken hero of the young. The wry, quietly confident Frazier appealed to more traditional fans. 

    Frazier's relentless, pressure style was the near-perfect antidote to Ali's flashy, stick-and-move technique. When they met for the first time in 1971, it was billed as "The Fight of the Century." Frazier dropped Ali in Round 15 and handed "The Greatest" his first defeat. 

    Ali evened the score in their 1974 rematch, before going on to shock the world by recapturing the heavyweight title from George Foreman.

    Ali defended the belt against Frazier in their rubber match in 1975, in the Philippines. Dubbed "The Thrilla in Manila," the fight is viewed by many boxing historians as the greatest fight of all time. 

    It was a frightening war of attrition. Ali shot out to an early lead before Frazier began to slow him down with his relentless body attack and left hooks to the head. Ali revealed later that he had nearly quit on his stool late in the fight. 

    Frazier made a last desperate rally in Round 14. But by then his eyes were swollen so badly that he was nearly blind, and his trainer Eddie Futch threw in the towel and refused to let him go out to take more damage.

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