The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, Magic Johnson in the NBA Finals during his rookie season and Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver. Almost every star or athlete has the one breakthrough moment in their career. It may not be their best or defining moment, but it is the one where they allow the world to know they have arrived. This performance shows that they are not just good but are in fact great.
Following is a list of the top breakthrough fights of all-time great boxers. These fights propelled them into the limelight and showed that, however good we thought they were prior, we had been underestimating them. For some boxers, this was their first step up in competition, their first title fight or their first mega fight. For others, this match occurred after years of toiling in the shadows of their contemporaries. Whenever it occurred, these are the matches set the path for the rest of these boxer’s careers.
Rarely does a fighter have a breakout moment in a bout that ends in a draw. However, when, as per Wikipedia.com, Sports Illustrated refers to draw as Whitaker being “ROBBED” it changes everything. The highly debated draw came against Julio Cesar Chavez who was widely considered the best fighter in the sport at the time. Whitaker out slicked the aggressive Chavez over 12 rounds gaining massive respect for his skills. That the fight was controversially ruled a draw earned Whitaker sympathy points from a boxing public that felt he won.
Slick, light punching boxers such as Whitaker's rarely gain much of a following. In that sense, the questionable ruling benefited Whitaker. Whitaker’s skill and the publicity the decision garnered helped to propel Whitaker into both celebrity status and to the top of the pound-for-pound rankings.
Shane Mosley was already considered a great fighter in the lightweight division. Despite the lofty praise he was receiving, the boxing world was still minimizing his ability and would be until he decisioned Oscar de la Hoya in a welterweight title fight.
It was not just that Mosley was able to beat de la Hoya, it was how he did it. The fight was still up for grabs going into the 12th and final round when the seemingly smaller Mosley stood toe-to-toe and out-willed and outfought de la Hoya. Going into the fight, people knew that Mosley was fast and talented. They now knew he was brave and strong. Winning the fight, Mosley would move into the conversation as to who was the best fighter on earth and become a household name.
Sugar Ray Leonard was as much of a sure thing in boxing as possible. He had a tremendous amateur background, solid skills and a winning smile that was a promoter’s dream. The only thing missing was a marquee victory. As many boxing fans know, when someone seems too good to be true, they usually are and will be shortly found out. History has a long list of seemingly manufactured champions who are destroyed in their first test.
When Leonard fought Wilfred Benitez, it was time to find out if he was real or not. Benitez was a dynamic fighter with a long resume and a nearly unrivaled boxing intellect. Leonard started fast, but the talented Benitez adjusted and survived. Leonard adjusted again and took control to beat the talented champion by TKO in the final round. Leonard proved to a skeptical boxing world that he was as good as they had hoped.
When a young Lennox Lewis fought Donovan Ruddock, he did so under the shadow of Mike Tyson who was serving a prison sentence for rape at the time. Tyson had left such an impression on the boxing world that the HBO announcers pointed out that Ruddock was considered the uncrowned heavyweight champion by virtue of having given Tyson two hard fights in losing efforts. That is correct. Ruddock was deemed the best in the world by having lost twice.
Lewis had an Olympic gold medal by having knocked out Riddick Bowe but was lightly regarded due to his British heritage. At that time, British heavyweights were often found lying horizontal in boxing rings and not holding championship belts. At the end of the first round, everything changed with a punch that would become a signature of Lewis’. Lewis severely damaged Ruddock with a monstrous right hand and finished him off in a second round that was little more than a formality. Suddenly, British boxing fans had a reason to be proud, and the heavyweight division made its first steps towards moving past Tyson.
The fight would be higher on the list if it was not for the bizarre and immediate regressing of Lewis’ skill following the match. A few years later, Lewis would find a new trainer in Emmanuel Seward and would make good on the promise he showed against Ruddock.
The heavyweight division was in a painful lull when a young Mike Tyson fought Trevor Berbick. Many of the top fighters were some combination of unskilled, fat or unfocused. Suddenly, a brutal shot from Tyson sent Berbick crashing down in the second round of their championship match. Berbick would try repeatedly to get to his feet only to fall down each time. With that knockout, the heavyweights were revived, Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion ever, and a star was born. In that moment, Tyson became the most feared man since George Foreman.
Boxing loves to pit two top young talents in a ring together. This is especially true of fighters with clashing styles such as Ray Leonard vs. Tommy Hearns or Ray Robinson vs. Jake LaMotta. When the Floyd Mayweather Jr. fought Diego Corrales, everyone looked forward to a tightly contested fight between a highly skilled boxer and a power-punching monster.
Instead of a nip and tuck battle of wills, the boxing world was treated to an artistic masterpiece. Corrales looked as though he was punching at smoke as Mayweather bent and slid around the fists of Corrales. Counter punch after counter punch repeatedly deposited a befuddled Corrales on the mat. Corrales, widely known for his heart, continued to search for the knockout punch, but it never came as Mayweather never appeared in any danger. When the fight was finally stopped, the boxing world had a new top talent and budding star in Mayweather.
Marco Antonio Barrera is one of the best fighters to every fight in the lighter weight divisions. Barrera, at the time he met Manny Pacquiao, had faced every type of fighter imaginable and almost always came out on top. This is why the world was so shocked when the smaller Pacquiao physically dominated the larger Barrera before stopping him late. Barrera tried everything he could against the whirling dervish known as Pacquiao, but nothing could stop the offensive onslaught.
Pacquiao was still nowhere near his peak as a fighter; that would come later in his career. However, against a legitimate all-time great, which still had a number of great fights yet to come, Pacquiao showed the physical abilities that would make him so special in years to come. This fight would come to mark the beginning of a trend in Pacquiao’s career of moving up in weight to dominate top boxers.
Fight fans knew that Rocky Marciano was strong and determined. Few people realized that his strength and determination could more than compensate for his unrefined style. Heavyweight champion Joe Walcott, on the other hand, was a veteran who had more than proven his skill over a lengthy career. For the majority of their match, Walcott used his superior skill to build a sizable points lead over Marciano before deciding to dance away the last portions of the fight.
It was during the last few rounds that the world learned two things about Marciano. First, that he does not quit. Second, that his power does not fade. Although in a deep hole in rounds lost, Marciano continued to press forward against Walcott until in Round 13, he threw what is perhaps the most famous right hand in boxing history as he separated Walcott from his senses and took the heavyweight crown.
Joe Frazier was well respected and held the heavyweight title. Muhammad Ali, however, the previous champion, had never been and lost his title due to being banned from boxing. When Ali returned to boxing, it seemed to immediately negate Frazier’s title reign. In one of the largest events in boxing history, Frazier confirmed his status as champion as he beat Ali in a hotly contested fight.
Unlike most of the fights on this list, the match was very close all the way through. Still, that this is a victory against Muhammad Ali, it stands out as amazing. Frazier battled through crisp hard shots to land his trademark left hook. A late-round knockdown secured the victory for Frazier who proved he was more than a mere placeholder champion.
It is rare that a boxer has to wait until they are in their mid-30s and in the middle of the longest reign in middleweight history to have their breakthrough moment. However, Bernard Hopkins is a rare fighter. When Hopkins was scheduled to face Felix Trinidad, he did so as an underdog.
Most fans and boxing writers agreed that Hopkins was a good fighter, but there was little he seemed spectacular at. In fact, Hopkins’ middleweight title and lengthy reign was seen more as a result of weak opposition. Trinidad, on the other hand, was a power-punching phenom who seemed to become stronger every round.
The night the two met Hopkins showed the world that while he did not posses any truly extraordinary boxing talent he possessed an extraordinary boxing brain. With a conditioning that defied his age, Hopkins controlled Trinidad on route to a 12th round knockout. Hopkins showed a little bit of all of his supreme skills—he jabbed and countered, roughed Trinidad up inside and outmuscled his younger foe. There was virtually nothing Hopkins could not do that night. Against Trinidad, Hopkins showed himself to be of the highest caliber talents in the world.
Few men in the history of boxing are as durable as Joe Frazier. Frazier fought three brutal fights against Muhammad Ali and was rarely even wobbled and never took a backward step. In a long and glorious Hall of Fame career, Frazier proved himself to be one of the toughest fighters of all time. So when a young George Forman battered Frazier around the ring like he was a small child, everyone knew they were witnessing arguably the hardest puncher of all time.
Highlighted by announcer Howard Cosell’s famous “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier call!” Foreman knocked Frazier down six times in two rounds. To repeat, because it is something that bears repeating; Foreman knocked down Frazier, a fighter with an all-time great chin, six times in two rounds. In one night, Foreman became one of the most intimidating fighters in heavyweight history.
Rarely does a fighter burst onto the scene with a performance the likes of which Roy Jones Jr. had against James Toney. Toney was widely considered amongst if not the best fighter pound-for-pound on the planet prior to meeting Jones. Jones was believed to be all flash and no substance. Jones had a standout amateur career but had drifted aimlessly with only a few notable wins since becoming a professional (Bernard Hopkins widely being ignored as a credible fighter at that time).
That Jones won was not a complete shock to anyone. That Jones won by dominating every second of a 12-round decision, was able to mock Toney in the ring and seemingly play with Toney, turned the collective heads of the boxing world. Even more surprising were the times during the fight when Jones eagerly agreed to stand toe-to toe-with Toney and showed himself to be the stronger of the two. This fight was the beginning of a decade long reign for Jones of being considered the best fighter in the world.
When Joe Louis met Max Schmelling for their rematch he was already the heavyweight champion of the world and highly regarded. Still Schmelling had knocked Louis out in their first match and seemed to know a thing or two regarding how to take advantage of Louis’ style. What made the event bigger was the time and nationalities. The time was right before an increasingly inevitable World War II and Louis was an American while Schmelling was a German.
The rematch showed numerous qualities in Joe Louis. The fight proved that Louis had the mental strength to handle a large match as the entire world was watching as the fight was looked on as a dress rehearsal to a war with Germany. It showed that Louis could come back from a tough loss and win a rematch. It also showed how frightening a completely motivated Louis could be as he battered and bruised Schmelling an entire fight’s worth in only one round.
The victory was a twofold breakthrough. The first was for Louis who instantly became the most popular boxer in the world as he destroyed a top challenger in a high-profile fight. The second was for race relations in America as Louis, a black man, became America’s representative leading into the war.
Jack Johnson had beaten numerous boxers that were more dangerous than Jim Jeffries. Jeffries had been retired for numerous years and was obviously aged when he entered the ring against Johnson. It is a sign of the prejudices of the day that this registers as a breakthrough fight.
Johnson was the first black heavyweight champion having won the title in 1908 after Jeffries vacated the title. Jeffries, a white man, had been one of the most popular boxers of all time. It did not matter to the legions of white fans that Johnson was at his physical prime, this was the fight where their champion Jeffries would put the white race back atop the sport of boxing.
Johnson showed every ounce of his considerable skill against Jeffries. For the first few rounds, Johnson used his defensive prowess to stifle Jeffries. Then Johnson began to slowly take Jeffries apart with crisp punches as he almost casually decimated his opponent. Finally, in the 15th round, Johnson mercifully knocked Jeffries out. The world at last had to accept that Johnson was in fact the greatest heavyweight on the planet of any color.
Cassius Clay (later to become Muhammad Ali of course) earned his match against Sonny Liston more with his mouth than his fists. While Clay did have a few notable wins and an Olympic gold medal, there were other fighters that probably deserved the match more. However, it was Clay’s, then known as the Louisville Lip, cocky attitude and loud mouth that had the fans clamoring for Liston to pummel the young fighter.
Everyone expected it to be a wipeout of a fight. Clay made numerous mistakes in the ring such as pulling straight back and fighting with his hands down around his waist. Liston was the hardened heavyweight champion, a former prison inmate, and was coming off two brutal knockouts of Floyd Patterson. The crowd was willing to pay for a mismatch if it meant that they would see the young Clay put in his place.
The fight itself was a mismatch. Showing that his hand and foot speed was such that it could handle even the strongest of champions, Clay utterly dominated the champion. From the second the first bell rang until Liston shockingly quit on his stool citing a shoulder injury. The fight shocked the world only because up until then nobody realized that Clay would grow to become one of the greatest boxers of all time.
This list is only meant to highlight moments where in a single fight the boxing world became aware of an athlete’s potential. Fighters such as Larry Holmes, Marvin Hagler or Ray Robinson who proved their greatness over time through tremendous wins and lack that early marquee victory are not to be disrespected. This list is not a representation of all-time great fighters but solely as the breakthrough moments of all-time great fighters.