Ranking the 10 Greatest Comebacks in Boxing History

Briggs SeekinsFeatured ColumnistAugust 22, 2014

Ranking the 10 Greatest Comebacks in Boxing History

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    Boxing fans love a great comeback story. Muhammad Ali's early career prior to being stripped of his titles in 1967 was impressive enough to earn him a mention with the great heavyweight champions of all time.

    But it was his remarkable achievements after his return from exile in the 1970s that made him the most beloved sports figure of his era.

    Still, successful comebacks are rare. Even most elite fighters have trouble returning to their prior form after a long layoff. Competition at the top is so fierce, even a minor diminishment in timing and other physical abilities can spell the difference between victory and defeat.

    In compiling this list I've tried to balance the improbability of the comeback with the quality of opponents beaten during the comeback.

    So Floyd Mayweather isn't included. Although he officially retired for 21 months, it was at the height of his powers, when very few boxers in the sport were even considered credible opponents for him. Nobody was surprised that he picked up exactly where he left off.  

10. Erik Morales

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    Erik Morales was one of the top pound-for-pound stars of the late 1990s and early 2000s. His three-fight series with Marco Antonio Barrera is among the greatest trilogies in the history of the sport.

    But after beating Manny Pacquiao in 2005, Morales' career came off track. He lost to Zahir Raheem in 2005 and was then stopped by Pacquiao in back-to-back fights. After losing a very close fight to David Diaz in 2007, Morales hung up his gloves.

    When he returned to action as a paunchy light welterweight in 2010, few fans expected much from him. He won three fights that year, but what really got people back on the Morales bandwagon was his majority-decision loss to Marcos Maidana in 2011.

    Fighting against a much younger and larger man, Morales showed flashes of the old "El Terrible." In September of 2011 he put a beating on the undefeated Pablo Cesar Cano to capture the vacant WBC 140-pound crown, becoming Mexico's first four-division world champion.

9. Vitali Klitschko

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    By the end of 2004, Vitali Klitschko had already assembled an impressive professional record. The WBC heavyweight champion was 35-2 with 34 KOs. His only two losses had come when he was unable to continue due to a shoulder injury in a fight he was dominating against Chris Byrd and by TKO due to cuts against Hall of Famer Lennox Lewis in an exciting war that Klitschko was winning.

    After pounding Danny Williams and winning by Round 8 TKO in December 2004, Klitschko retired, citing a variety of physical ailments. For a 33-year-old man of his size, with a boxing career stretching back to his teens, it wasn't viewed as a premature retirement.

    But after nearly four full years, Klitschko returned to action in October 2008 and recaptured the WBC belt by forcing Sam Peter to quit in his corner. Klitschko went on to fight another five years, comping a 10-0 record with seven KOs. He retired again last December.

    Klitschko barely lost a round in his second run on the top. However, as impressive as it is for a prizefighter to return successfully at 37 after such a long break, Klitschko's gigantic size and skill have allowed him to coast in an inferior era for the division.

    Aside from Peter, the best fighters he's faced in his second run are Shannon Briggs, Albert Sosnowski and former light heavyweight and cruiserweight Tomasz Adamek. Klitschko hasn't exactly fought world-beaters.

8. Larry Holmes

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    Larry Holmes captured the vacant heavyweight championship via split decision over Ken Norton in 1978. It was among the greatest heavyweight title fights ever.

    Holmes then proceeded to go on one of the longest and most dominant runs in the history of the division. After seven years, he had run his record to a perfect 48-0, putting him only one victory behind Rocky Marciano.

    Holmes then lost back-to-back fights against former light heavyweight champion Michael Spinks. I don't think he lost either fight and the second was particularly egregious. Holmes walked away from the sport in disgust.

    He returned to face the young Mike Tyson in 1988 but looked like a rusty shadow of his former self, going down by TKO in 4. After that, Holmes went back into retirement.

    When Holmes announced his comeback in 1991, few paid attention. But he turned in a remarkable performance to beat Ray Mercer in February 1992. He lost a title shot to Evander Holyfield in June of that year but once more looked extremely impressive.

    Holmes fought for another decade after losing to Holyfied, until past age 50, compiling a record of 15-2.

7. Mike Tyson

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    After launching his comeback in 1995, Mike Tyson was never again the same dominating force of nature he had been in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But he did come back from a four-year layoff and prison sentence to become one of the most important fighters in the heavyweight division during one of the division's most competitive decades.

    After returning to action in 1995, Tyson knocked out Frank Bruno in three rounds to capture the WBC title. He followed that by smashing Bruce Seldon in the first round in September 1996 to win the WBA belt.

    Two months later Tyson faced Evander Holyfield, in a bout fans had been waiting over five years for. Holyfield broke the fierce Tyson down and stopped him in Round 11.

    After that, Tyson really was a shadow of himself. He famously bit a chunk out of Holyfield's ear to get himself disqualified in the rematch. He remained a contender and won fights over Francois Botha and Brian Nielson, among others, but the only really significant fight he had again was a Round 8 KO loss to Lennox Lewis in 2002.

6. Evander Holyfield

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    In 1994 Evander Holyfield lost his heavyweight title to Michael Moorer. After the fight it was announced that he suffered from a heart condition and would be retiring. 

    By this point, Holyfield had already lost and reclaimed the title against Riddick Bowe in two of the best championship fights in the division's history. In 1986 he had won a 15-round split decision over Dwight Muhammad Qawi in what is almost certainly the greatest cruiserweight fight of all time. 

    So by 1994, Holyfield had been through wars. If he was suffering from heart problems, it made sense for him to walk away. 

    But a little over a year later, he was back. He won a decision over Ray Mercer, and then lost by Round 8 TKO to Bowe in a rubbermatch. 

    Then, in November 1996, Holyfield faced Mike Tyson in a fight fans had been waiting five years to see. The relentless Holyfield broke down the ferocious Tyson, stopping him in Round 11. It made him the only three-time heavyweight champion besides Muhammad Ali. 

    In 2000, Holyfield beat John Ruiz to become history's first four-time heavyweight champ. Instead of being a guy who had to walk away in his prime, he became a guy who wouldn't go away. 

    Holyfield fought throughout the first decade in this century, until well past 40. In 2008 he dropped a majority decision to Nikolay Valuev. 

    It was a nearly unwatchable fight, but I do think Holyfield should have won. It would have made him a five-time champ. 

5. Eder Jofre

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    Eder Jofre's name has to be mentioned in any conversation about the greatest bantamweight fighters of all time. He's also the finest boxer to ever come out of Brazil.

    In May 1965, Jofre was the undefeated and reigning bantamweight champion when he suffered the first loss of his career to Fighting Harada by split decision in Japan. In a rematch fought a year later, Jofre lost again, by unanimous decision. After the fight he retired.

    Jofre stayed inactive for three years before returning to action in 1969. Despite the layoff, he appeared to have lost almost nothing and in May 1973, seven years after his first retirement, he captured the featherweight title from Jose Legra.

    In addition to beating Legra, highlights of Jofre's second run include a Round 4 KO of former bantamweight champion Vicente Saldivar. Jofre stayed active until 1976, never losing once in his second career and running his record to 75-2-4 with 50 KOs.  

4. George Foreman

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    I suspect a lot of people would list George Foreman at the very top of this list. And in terms of pure improbability, they would be right. The three fighters I have above Big George are there solely based on strength of resume.

    Not that Foreman's second career wasn't impressive. After a break of almost exactly a decade, the former champion returned to the ring in March 1987. 

    Foreman's return was a major sports story. In the 1970s, he had reigned as one of the most fearsome heavyweight champions in the sport's history. His quick demolitions of fellow greats Joe Frazier and Ken Norton had been stunning.   

    In his first retirement, Foreman had become a preacher and a fast-food junkie, eating himself up to over 300 pounds. Still, motivated by the desire to raise funds for his youth ministry, he trained himself down into fighting condition and kept winning fights.

    Finally, in 1991, Foreman got his first title shot. He didn't win, but he did impress, going 12 rounds with Evander Holyfield. He continued to campaign and lost a second title fight to Tommy Morrison in 1994.

    The third time was a charm for Foreman, as he weathered 10 tough rounds against Michael Moorer in 1994 before landing a perfect straight right to knock the champion out. Foreman was 45 and at the time was the oldest man to ever win a world championship.

    His last fight was a majority decision loss to Shannon Briggs in 1997. In my opinion, Big George got robbed in that one.

    Foreman's comeback was amazing not just for the way he succeeded in the ring, but even more so for the way he transformed himself as a public figure. In his first career he had largely come across as a brooding, menacing figure.

    In his comeback, Foreman emerged as a lovable celebrity and an inspiration for people who normally wouldn't have paid any attention at all to boxing. Due to his second career, he is legitimately one of the most popular fighters of all time.  

3. Sugar Ray Leonard

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    When Ray Leonard retired in 1982 as the reigning, undisputed welterweight champion, he was just 26 but had already done enough to earn mention as one of the sport's all-time greats. Between 1979 and 1981 he had beaten Wilfred Benitez, Thomas Hearns and Ayub Kalule and split in two fights with Roberto Duran. The combined record of those four fighters at the time Leonard faced them was 177-1-1.

    But after suffering a detached retina, Leonard walked away from the sport. He got his eye fixed and attempted a quick comeback in May 1984 but looked less than spectacular while TKOing the mediocre Kevin Howard.

    Then, in April 1987, Leonard returned to the ring to face Marvelous Marvin Hagler. This is a fight the fans had been desperate to see five years earlier, but by 1987, few gave Leonard even a remote chance. While Leonard had been in retirement for half a decade, Hagler had established himself as the sport's most ferocious fighter and pound-for-pound king.

    Leonard shocked everybody by capturing the undisputed middleweight title with a split-decision victory. It's a decision still debated to this day, but a remarkable achievement for Leonard just the same, after being inactive for so long.

    Leonard followed the victory by capturing the WBC's super middleweight and light heavyweight titles by beating Donny Lalonde in November 1988. In 1989 he drew in a rematch with Hearns and beat Roberto Duran in a rubbermatch.

    Leonard would lose badly to rising star Terry Norris in 1991 and retire again. An ill-advised comeback in 1997 saw him lose to Hector Camacho by Round 5 TKO.   

2. Sugar Ray Robinson

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    When Sugar Ray Robinson retired the first time in 1952, he was already the greatest pound-for-pound fighter who had ever lived. His career record was 131-3-2.

    He had reigned as the welterweight champion and moved up to hold the belt at middleweight. While fighting for the light heavyweight title against Joey Maxim, he had been far ahead on the cards before collapsing from exhaustion in the summer heat of Yankee Stadium.

    After losing to Maxim, Robinson had retired to pursue a career in show business. But in 1955 he came back.

    His comeback did not get off to a great start. In his second fight back he lost by decision to Tiger Jones. But back-to-back stoppages of Bobo Olson helped position him for a title fight with Gene Fullmer in January 1957.

    Robinson lost that fight but won a rematch by Round 5 KO in May, to regain the world title. He dropped the title by split decision to Carmen Basilio in a war in September 1957, then won it back in another classic in March 1958.

    In 1960, Robinson lost the belt by split decision to Paul Pender and lost the rematch by split decision as well. He was 39 and would never again hold the world title, though he remained near the top of the division for several more years, drawing and losing another decision with Gene Fullmer.

    He continued to fight and win until 1965, when he dropped a decision in his last fight to rising contender Joey Archer.  

1. Muhammad Ali

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    In 1967, Muhammad Ali refused to allow himself to be drafted into the United States Army, in protest of the Vietnam War and the state of racial oppression in the United States. At the time he was the undefeated heavyweight champion, but as he was plunged into a lengthy legal battle, the various athletic commissions in the country refused him licences to fight and forced him into retirement. 

    If he had never returned, he would have gone down as among the best champions in the history of the division. But what he did after finally being able to return in 1970 made him the popular choice for the best big man of all time and the most popular professional athlete of the late 20th century. 

    The heavyweight division in the 1970s was the most competitive it has ever been. Ali's first two fights after his three-year break were stoppages of Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena, contenders who could have been champions in other eras. 

    This set up "The Fight of the Century" between Ali and the undefeated champion Joe Frazier in March 1971. Frazier dropped Ali with a beautiful lead hook in Round 15 and won by unanimous decision.

    Ali remained among the top fighters in the heavyweight division, but by 1973, it began to look unlikely that he would ever regain the crown. In February of that year, he got his jaw broken and lost by split decision to Ken Norton.

    While Ali won a rematch later in the year, 1973 was the year that Big George Foreman emerged. In January of that year he destroyed Joe Frazier in two rounds to claim the heavyweight belt.

    Ali won a rematch with Frazier in January 1974, to set up his shot at Foreman. The fight was held in Zaire in October 1974 and was the center of a multi-day music festival. It was a huge international event that boxing could only dream of today.

    Fighting a bigger, younger man who was thought to be unbeatable, Ali used guile, heart and psychology to break Foreman and knock him out in Round 8.

    Ali lost the title to upstart Leon Spinks in 1978 then won it back in an immediate rematch, to become the first three-time heavyweight champion in history. He then retired but launched two more unfortunate comebacks, getting pounded by Larry Holmes in 1980 and losing via unanimous decision to Trevor Berbick in 1981.