Ranking the Top 10 Boxing Fights of the 1980s
Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran all make multiple appearances in this ranking of the top fights of the 1980s. That quarter of Hall of Famers made the decade one of the best in the sport's history.
It's not a coincidence that George Kimball titled his terrific 2009 history of the era, Four Kings.
But boxing in the 1980s was filled with major stars and sensational fights. There are tons of classics that I left off due to space constraints, though, I do feel my top three are indisputable, even if the order might be quibbled over.
10. Michael Spinks Defeats Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, UD, Round 15
The early 1980s was a golden age for the light heavyweight division. Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Marvin Johnson, Yaqui Lopez and Matthew Saad Muhammad all participated in terrific, action-packed fights that had world-title implications.
Michael Spinks was a member of the legendary 1976 Olympic Boxing team, a gold medalist along with his older brother, Leon. Leon became history's most unlikely heavyweight champion when he upset Muhammad Ali just 10 fights into his career in 1978.
Leon shot to the very top more quickly, but it was ultimately Michael who had the far more impressive career. As a light heavyweight, he's in the conversation for top five of all time.
He captured the WBA title in July 1981 in a non-stop slugfest with Eddie Mustafa Muhammad. Spinks was a monster puncher at 175 and Mustafa Muhammad had one of the division's most durable chins. His ability to survive Round 12 and finish the fight, in an era of 15-round bouts, was astonishing.
9. Roberto Duran Defeats Iran Barkley, SD, Round 12
Roberto Duran had long ago solidified his status as a boxing legend when he challenged WBC middleweight world champion Iran Barkley in February 1989.
During the 1970s, he had ruled as arguably the most dominant lightweight world champion of all time. He'd gone up to welterweight and won the world title from Ray Leonard, the biggest star of the era.
He later added a world title at 154 and then gave Marvin Hagler one of his toughest battles when challenging for the world title at middleweight.
But by the time he faced Barkley in 1989, he was 38. Barkley had just knocked out Thomas Hearns, the one man who had thoroughly demolished Duran earlier in his career.
This ended up being the last great performance by an all time master, as Duran dragged Barkley into a phone booth where he managed to out-brawl the younger and larger man.
8. Marvin Hagler Defeats John Mugabi, KO, Round 11
By the time John Mugabi challenged Marvin Hagler for the undisputed middleweight championship of the world in March 1986, the Uganda native had won his first 25 professional fights by stoppage.
But Marvin Hagler was the biggest name in the sport and was already being spoken of as potentially the greatest middleweight ever. Few expected "The Beast" to have enough skill to contend with the Marvelous One.
But what the challenger lacked in technical refinement, he was able to overcome with almost super-natural durability and endurance. His endless ability to absorb punishment allowed him to wade into position to land his own share of blows.
Hagler ended up taking significant damage by the time he managed to finally knock Mugabi out in Round 11.
7. Jose Luis Ramirez Defeats Edwin Rosario, TKO, Round 4
Edwin Rosario was the undefeated WBC lightweight champion, a belt he had won by unanimous decision against Jose Luis Ramirez. He was a huge puncher, and when he faced Ramirez in a rematch in November 1984, he jumped all over the challenger in a hurry.
Ramirez was able to sustain a tremendous barrage of punishment in the first two rounds, and it seemed unlikely he would make it through the fight. But he hung on and was somehow able to turn things around with a big hook in the third.
From then on, Ramirez assumed the role of the stalker. The referee had to step in to save Rosario in the fourth, as he slumped against the ring corner, out on his feet and back turned to Ramirez.
6. Evander Holyfield Defeats Dwight Muhammad Qawi, SD, Round 15
Evander Holyfield became the first member of the great 1984 Olympic boxing team to capture a world title as a professional when he took the WBA cruiserweight title from Dwight Muhammad Qawi in December 1986, in one of history's last great 15-round wars.
This fight was a lot like a cruiserweight version of the Thrilla in Manila, with Holyfield playing Muhammad Ali and Qawi doing his best Joe Frazier. Qawi applied relentless pressure to Holyfield for the entire fight, but Holyfied was consistently able to stay on the outside and beat Qawi to the punch with thudding combinations.
This was probably the greatest fight in the history of the cruiserweight division.
5. Steve Cruz Defeats Barry McGuigan, UD, Round 15
Barry McGuigan was the WBC featherweight champion and a rising star in the sport when he faced the relatively unknown Steve Nelson in June 1986. McGuigan's father even performed as a nightclub act in Las Vegas during the week prior to the fight.
But Steve Cruz didn't show up to be anybody's opponent. In the brutal desert heat, the two fighters battled at a frantic pace, each running from his stool at the start of every round.
By the start of Round 15, it appeared as if McGuigan had a narrow, yet comfortable lead. But in a thrilling final frame, Cruz rallied to knock McGuigan down twice, to turn what would have been a split-decision loss into a unanimous decision win.
4. Roberto Duran Defeats Ray Leonard, UD, Round 15
Roberto Duran's legendary performance to capture the welterweight title from Ray Leonard in June 1980 was perhaps the greatest act of pure will ever accomplished in the boxing ring. Duran stepped up in weight and forced the quicker, younger and bigger Leonard to fight on his terms.
Duran pulled Leonard into a street fight, and Leonard proved to be pretty good brawler after all. As the champion fell behind, he dug in and had his best rounds against Duran late.
But once he was in the lead, "Hands of Stone" continued to hang tough and even mocked Leonard in the closing seconds of the fight.
3. Ray Leonard Defeats Thomas Hearns, TKO, Round 14
Ray Leonard was fresh off avenging his first career loss to Roberto Duran and reclaiming his WBC welterweight title when he headed into this unification showdown against undefeated WBA champion Thomas Hearns in September 1981.
Leonard was the golden boy of the era, an Olympic gold medalist, and Hearns was "The Hitman." The conventional wisdom heading into this fight was that Leonard would rely on his boxing while Hearns attempted to stalk him down to deliver the monster right hand.
Instead Hearns showed he could box with anybody, taking an early lead against Leonard. Leonard took control of the middle part of the fight, but Hearns then reasserted himself and built on his lead.
Going into the championship rounds, Leonard's face was bruised badly and he needed a knockout to win the fight.
In Round 13 Leonard landed big shots on Hearns, dropping him for the first time in his career. Hearns came out for Round 14 on shaky legs and Leonard hammered away at his body.
As Hearns began to crumble further, Leonard zeroed in on him upstairs and the referee was forced to stop the fight with 1:15 left in the round.
2. Aaron Pryor Defeats Alexis Arguello TKO, Round 14
Aaron "The Hawk" Pryor was a buzz-saw fighter and among the most exciting champions of the 1980s.
"The Explosive Thin Man," Alexis Arguello, was a ferocious body puncher, and for much of their first meeting in November 1982, Arguello was able to exploit his reach advantage on Pryor and inflict a heavy amount of damage.
But Pryor never stopped coming forward, and the fight settled into a brutal war of attrition. Finally, in Round 14, Pryor managed to land a series of left hooks and overhand rights that left Arguello unable to continue intelligently defending himself.
In the video included here, Pryor's trainer, Panama Lewis, can clearly be heard before the final round asking for "Give me the other bottle, the one I mixed." The controversy over what might have been "mixed" in that bottle has lingered over the fight, though, the contents were never checked and Lewis and Pryor always maintained it had held nothing illegal.
1. Marvin Hagler Defeats Thomas Hearns, TKO, Round 3
Nearly 30 years after it took place, Marvin Hagler's April 1985 defense of the undisputed middleweight championship of the world against Thomas Hearns remains the greatest short fight in history. The opening round is perhaps the greatest round in the history of the middleweight division.
Hearns was a crafty boxer but also among the hardest pound-for-pound sluggers of all time. Hagler was an extremely powerful and skilled boxer-puncher.
Hagler stalked Hearns aggressively as the fight began, but Hearns landed a huge right hand about a minute into the round that opened a gruesome cut on Hagler's forehead. Still, by the end of the round, Hagler had Hearns trapped, and he rocked him with a brutal combination at the very end of the round.
It turned out that Hearns had broken his hand in the first round, and he tried to jab and move in Round 2, as Hagler continued to swarm. Early in Round 3, referee Richard Steele stopped the action so Hagler's cut could be assessed.
With the fight at risk, Hagler ratcheted up the intensity. He hit Hearns with a thunderous combination that left the challenger flat on his back.
Somehow Hearns actually made it back to his feet, but Steele could see he was clearly detached from his consciousness and actually had to support him to prevent him from falling back down after the fight was stopped.