Manny Pacquiao vs Erik Morales and the 15 Greatest Boxing Trilogies of All Time
Throughout time, boxing has produced some great human stories. From triumphs over age, disability and poverty to comebacks and revenge, boxing is a cinematic sport. The most cinematic and beautiful stories that boxing has to tell are its trilogies.
When a boxer is defeated and avenges his defeat, we as fans want to see a final showdown between the two warriors. Until we get our third "rubber match" to determine the better fighter, we will wonder if either victory is a fluke.
Did he really win or did he just receive a "gift decision" or a lucky punch? When two brave boxers decide to answer that question with a third battle, you have to stand up and give them nothing but respect. Here are the 15 greatest boxing trilogies of all time.
Honorable Mention: Antonio Tarver vs. Roy Jones Jr.
Everything seemed great for Roy Jones' career at the start of 2003. He had just become the first middleweight (160 lbs) to become the heavyweight champion since 1896.
On November 8, 2003, Jones set out to win back the light heavyweight (175 lbs) title he had won on his way up to heavyweight. This would fully replicate the feat Bob Fitzsimmons accomplished in 1896.
Unfortunately for Jones, he lost a lot of muscle in getting down to 175 to fight WBC light heavyweight world champion Antonio Tarver.
Tarver gave Jones fits all night. Jones was a tad slower than usual and his reflexes diminished a great deal. Many remarked that Jones was hit more in this fight than in his whole career.
After 12 rounds, Jones was rewarded the majority decision, but many noticed Tarver was very close to upsetting the popular champion.
Jones gave Tarver a rematch on March 15, 2004. Though Jones became more aggressive, Tarver still got the better of their exchanges and ended the fight early with a second-round counter left that sent Jones to the canvas.
Jones got up at the count of nine, but the ref waved the fight as Jones stumbled to another corner.
Jones fought Tarver a third time in October 1, 2005. Jones improved upon his first two performances only to come up short on the scorecards, losing by unanimous decision.
This trilogy came with a lot of feints and misses, not much action. This trilogy is important because it chronicles the rise of Tarver and the fall of Jones.
15. Barney Ross vs. Jimmy McLarnin
Barney Ross, a great slick junior welterweight (140 lbs) moved up to face the welterweight (147 lbs) world champion, Jimmy McLarnin.
What resulted was a big win for Ross in an even bigger battle. Just under four months later, McLarnin clutched his title via split decision in another rough battle.
Ross had slick boxing and a strong chin to match McLarnin's huge punching power and fearsome determination.
On May 28, 1935, almost a year after their first fight together, Ross and Larnin met in the squared circle one last time.
Ross would walk away with a hard-fought unanimous decision victory and the world welterweight championship.
14. Tony Zale vs. Rocky Graziano
Tony Zale and Rocky Graziano were two great middleweights battling in the 1940's.
Zale was coming off a four-year layoff thanks to serving in World War II. The 33-year-old veteran fought a few contenders in his return to the ring before facing the 25-year-old Graziano.
Graziano was on a knockout streak of eight KO's and was ready to make Zale number nine.
The first match took place September 27, 1946 in Yankee Stadium. Graziano was destroying Zale by the accounts of journalists and radio announcers at the time (the fight was not filmed).
But then in the sixth round, Zale made a sudden comeback and knocked Gaziano out.
In their inevitable rematch, the exact opposite happened.
On July 16, 1947, Graziano was being pummeled by Zale until the sixth round, where Graziano rallied a stoppage against Zale. Again, this fight wasn't filmed.
The only fight filmed in their trilogy is their final and shortest outing. The third clash between Zale and Graziano lasted only three rounds, but was very vicious.
Zale dominated Graziano, knocking him down in the first round and then knocking him out in the third.
With this last dominating match being the only recorded footage of the two fighters going at it, we don't get to see the back and forth of the first two matchups.
I'm more of a "see it to believe it" kind of boxing fan. My reason for this is because boxing writers and fans embellish the accomplishments of their favorite athletes more than any other sport.
Every generation has a new athlete seemingly better than any other who came before him, or every old athlete is glorified beyond human to the status of "Boxing God" that cannot be removed unless something truly uncanny is accomplished in the ring.
For this reason, I have to be cautious in believing the hype of sports writers and rate this trilogy lower than most would rate it.
13. Humberto Gonzalez vs. Michael Carbajal
This is not your average fight. Humberto Gonzalez (35-1) and Michael Carbajal (27-0) were the first junior flyweights (108 lbs) to participate in a million-dollar fight and headline a pay-per-view.
Their first fight on March 13, 1993 was the stuff of legend. A very back-and-forth momentum persisted throughout, and Gonzalez gave Carbajal all he could handle.
Gonzalez knocked Carbajal down with a straight in the second round. Then again in the fifth round. It looked desperate for Carbajal, but his accuracy and persistence kept him in the game.
Then in a miraculous seventh round, he stumbled Gonzalez back against the ropes. Gonzalez momentarily regained control only to came crashing down after an amazing assault from Carbajal.
Gonzalez laid on his back, blood in his eyes, not worrying about the fact that referee Mills Lane was counting him out. Gonzalez was hurt and unable to recall where he was, let alone that he needed to get up.
Two more fights in the trilogy occurred, bringing decision victories to a more cautious Gonzalez. Both Gonzalez and Carbajal were elected to the 2006 class of the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
12. Muhammad Ali vs. Ken Norton
Ali was expected to plow through Ken Norton on his way to George Foreman or a Joe Frazier rematch...he didn't.
Norton was in financial need and lacking recognition in boxing, despite only losing once in his first 30 fights. When Ali gave him the opportunity to fight for a world title, he didn't waste it.
He gave Ali three of the hardest fights of his career. The first one was a major split decision upset over Ali who suffered a broken jaw yet continued to battle through the pain for fear of losing the fight.
Ali would get his vengeance in a split decision and unanimous decision victory in the second and third bouts respectively.
To this day, many dispute whether Ali truly won those fights or not. They were so close, it's impossible to decipher a clear victor.
And that's part of what makes this a successful trilogy.
11. Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Roberto Duran
Sugar Ray Leonard was undefeated when he put his welterweight (147 lbs) world championship on the line against Roberto Duran in what was billed as the "Brawl in Montreal."
Prior to this fight, it was expected that Leonard would try to beat Duran's rough brawling style with flashy technique, jabs and evasiveness.
To the surprise of fans in attendance, Leonard stood and traded while Duran outboxed Leonard out of his "0" as well as his championship belt.
Leonard made a mistake by going toe to toe instead of the "stick-and-move" song and dance he's most known for.
In the second fight, that all changed. Leonard danced and embarrassed Duran so bad, he quit and a new catchphrase was born, "No mas," meaning "no more" in Spanish.
A third fight came in 1989 when both men were FAR past their better years.
What they gave in the ring in the first two bouts more than makes up for the slight drag of the final fight, which Leonard won by way of a nap-inducing decision.
10. Joe Gans vs. Battling Nelson
Normally as in the Graziano vs. Zale trilogy, I'd be skeptical of a trilogy in which most of the footage is lost, but I made an exception in this fight only because of the great human story at the heart of it.
Joe Gans became the first black world champion, winning the lightweight (135 lbs) world championship by first-round knockout of Frank Erne in 1900.
Oscar "Battling" Nelson was hyped to be the man to beat him. The two met on September 3, 1906. After 42 rounds, Gans won by disqualification when Nelson low-blowed him.
The two would meet twice more. Nelson knocked a tuberculous-stricken Gans out in the 17th and 21st rounds of their second and third matches respectively.
Joe Gans died August 10, 1910 at the age of 35.
Despite everything against him, his race and sickness, he overcame Nelson in their original fight and gave him hell in the next two bouts of their tragic trilogy.
Had there been a 15- or 12-round cap on fights at the time, Gans would likely have won the trilogy.
9. Evander Holyfield vs. Riddick Bowe
Holyfield and Bowe were two undefeated young world-class heavyweights fighting in their prime, a rarity in today's era.
Holyfield had recently come up in weight from the cruiserweight (200 lbs) division and beat Buster Douglas for the world championship after Douglas upset the world by beating Mike Tyson.
After being deprived of such a great superfight in Holyfield vs. Tyson, we got Holyfield vs. Bowe and forgot who Tyson was for the duration of the first match.
An epic battle in which Holyfield tried to make his presence known to the 30-pound heavier Bowe ensued. Bowe ultimately won by unanimous decision, but Holyfield gained much respect for his courage shown in suffering his first loss.
Holyfield re-fought Bowe and gave the world champ his first loss in a weird fight that was momentarily interrupted by a parachuter flying down into the ring.
After the "Fan Man," as the parachuter was called, was physically removed, Holyfield proceeded to beat Bowe by majority decision, effectively winning back his world championship and handing Bowe his first loss.
Their trilogy came to a dramatic conclusion. Holyfield knocked Bowe down in the fifth round. Coming back in a massive way, Bowe knocked Holyfield out in the eighth round to avenge his only career defeat.
8. Manny Pacquiao vs. Erik Morales
Manny Pacquiao, the pride of the Philippines, vs. Erik Morales, the pride of Mexico.
Pacquiao and Morales met in 2005 for the super featherweight (130 lbs) world title. Morales won by unanimous decision, clearly outboxing the Filipino warrior.
Two rematches came in 2006. These two fights, only 10 months apart, were all Pacquiao.
Pacquiao knocked Morales out in the 10th round of the rematch in January of that year and third round of the rubber match that November.
Morales had never been knocked out, and Pacquiao hadn't lost a fight in six years before they faced each other.
Morales left with another classic trilogy under his belt. Pacquiao left with a launchpad to a long streak of success in the sport of boxing.
7. Jeff Harding vs. Dennis Andries
Jeff Harding (14-0, 11 KO's) is the 24-year-old Australian challenger for the WBC light heavyweight world championship (175 lbs).
The year is 1989 on June 24. The venue is the Convention Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
The WBC light heavyweight world champion is 35-year-old Guyana-born British warrior Dennis Andries (34-7-2, 21 KO's). Andries had previously knocked out undefeated Tony Wills to reattain the world title he lost at the hands of the legendary Tommy Hearns.
When the two stepped into the ring, they laid everything on the line. Their hearts and chins were tested to an extreme rarely seen in boxing.
Both men threw like death was promised the next morning to whoever lost the fight.
Andries threw haymakers like they were going out of style.
Harding ignited unexpected flurries the moment he saw Andries let up on his parade of haymakers.
Blood poured from both men's faces, but in the end someone lost. Harding came back with a flurry from hell that sent a tired Andries to the canvas twice in the 12th and final round.
When Harding let loose another flurry that threatened to put Andries to the canvas a third time, the ref stepped in to save the battered fighter. Harding became the first Australian light heavyweight world champion.
In the rematch, Andries jabbed and moved more. Though Harding gave a spirited effort, he eventually fell in the seventh round to Andries' hard-to-watch haymaker assault. Harding got up, but he was not fit by the ref's standards.
I don't know how Andries could do a full-front flip in celebration after throwing as many obviously energy-draining shots as he did, but he flipped in his famous gold shorts, celebrating the retrieval of his title the night of July 28, 1990.
The third match came in 1991. Both men landed some of the hardest shots of their careers, but neither was willing to succumb to punishment. Instead, the judges finally got to do their job.
Jeff Harding won by split decision in what is a very close fight to finish a very impressive trilogy.
6. Roberto Duran vs. Esteban Dejesus
Roberto Duran is known as one of the greatest lightweight fighters of all time. That brings up an interesting question: What makes a great fighter?
The answer: a great opponent.
Esteban Dejesus is that great opponent, handing Duran his first loss in a wild technical brawl that rivals the Hispanic showdown of Barrera vs/ Morales.
No worries, Duran survived, learned and came back with two amazing knockout victories over the Puerto Rican warrior Dejesus.
If you want an abbreviated look at what makes Duran one of the greatest fighters of all time, watch his trilogy with Esteban Dejesus.
5. Floyd Patterson vs. Ingemar Johansson
Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson gave a wonderful trio of knockdowns and knockouts.
One of the best trilogies of all time. Why?
These two knocked each other out so quick, all three of their fights together lasted a total of 14 rounds.
First Patterson lost the world championship to the young undefeated Johansson via TKO in the third round. Patterson was not deterred.
Almost a year later, Patterson knocked Johansson out in round five.
The rubber match gave birth ninth months later, ending in Patterson's picture-perfect six-round knockout of Johansson.
If you want to see beauty, blood and balls: these fights are as brilliant as ballsy knockout battles get in the sport of boxing.
4. Emile Griffith vs. Benny Paret
Two powerful welterweights, one ring, a lot of passion and a controversial tragic ending is what makes this trilogy special.
Emile Griffith is the first fighter born in the U.S. Virgin Islands to become a world champion. Benny "The Kid" Paret was a Cuban boxer adored for his toughness and willingness to get hit and land big shots.
Unfortunately for Paret, he wasn't nearly as big a puncher as Griffith. Griffith knocked him out in the 13th round of their first fight.
Paret got revenge via split decision six months later.
Then came March 24, 1962. This day was infamous because it would become the day the national television audience saw its first in-ring death.
Griffith began pummeling Paret against the ropes in the 12th round of their fight. Twenty unanswered punches landed on Paret, many of them after he lost consciousness.
The referee had stopped the fight too late or Griffith just lost himself in the moment or maybe Paret's body gave out after sustaining beating after beating in the ring previously.
Some say the beating was sparked by Paret calling Griffith a maricon at a weigh-in. Maricon is a Spanish equivalent for the term "faggot."
Their respective cultures consider the questioning of a man's sexuality the highest form of disrespect. (Click here to read more about the controversial fight.)
Whatever the reason, his death sparked a debate about fighting's practicality as a sport.
Boxing went off the air until a decade later. The referee lost his job. Griffith never got passed the death of Paret, blaming himself, still suffering nightmares 40 years later.
3. Arturo Gatti vs. Mickey Ward
This is a truly epic trilogy made from the blood and sweat of men not considered great because of their skills, but because of their heart and determination to not give in willingly to the other man.
Arturo Gatti is a fighter loved for his ability to change the course of any fight with one punch. He's the guy you see being pummeled by a fighter until he lands the perfect punch to knock the other guy out.
Comeback king? Yes indeed.
Mickey Ward is a very similar fighter in that he gets beat throughout an entire fight only to bodyshot his way to a knockout victory very often in his career.
When you put the two together, everyone expected sparks to fly. They just didn't realize those sparks would fly to the moon and then circle the sun before returning to their eyes the most dazzling displays of heart and courage to plaster a television or computer screen.
Ward and Gatti fought a close first fight, but Ward pulled a majority decision victory thanks to a ninth-round knockdown of Gatti.
Gatti avenged his defeat with an unanimous decision victory over Ward thanks to a third-round knockdown of Ward. According to Sports Illustrated, Gatti told Ward after the fight, "I used to wonder what would happen if I fought my twin. Now I know."
Gatti won another unanimous decision in their third and final fight. Both men were sent to trauma units for care.
Ward retired, opening his own gym and hockey rink. He now has a movie based on his life and boxing career called, The Fighter.
Gatti would continue to fight until retiring in 2007. He was found dead in a hotel in 2009. Though it has been ruled a suicide, investigators originally believed it to be a homicide. Some still involved in the case still believe it to be a homicide.
2. Marcos Antonio Barrera vs. Erik Morales
Three Great Battles.
Two great warriors.
One great country.
Mexico has produced some of the greatest boxers of all time, so when we as boxing lovers are privileged to see two Mexican living legends square off, we should bow and thank the boxing gods.
But when we are privileged to see those same two Mexican legends face off in three highly competitive and epic wars, we should feel grateful to the very souls that made such an event possible, Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera.
All three matches were fights where defense was left at home for a stand and trade every minute of every round affair. The fireworks produced have inspired us ever since.
The following trilogies are just as amazing, if not more so, than the fights on my list, but have more than three fights in their series, and therefore cannot be entered into my exclusively three-fight countdown:
Sandy Saddler vs. Willie Pep: Saddler defeated Pep in three of four wonderful matches between the two.
Israel Vazquez vs. Rafael Marquez: The first three fights are astounding. The fourth and final match shouldn't exist.
Sugar Ray Robinson vs. Jake LaMotta: LaMotta was tough and gave Robinson the fights of his life. Despite this, Robinson won five of their six fights together.
The following trilogies are not yet trilogies because they need one more fight to become a trilogy. The reason I mention them is because of their potential to become full-fledged trilogies:
Sergio Martinez vs. Paul Williams: Williams won a controversial unanimous decision in their first middleweight bout in December 2009.
Then Martinez knocked Williams out in the second round of their November 2010 rematch.
A third fight between the two would likely come if Williams can muster up a few good comeback victories.
Manny Pacquiao vs. Juan Manuel Marquez: The first time they met was in the featherweight division in 2004. The result was a draw.
The second time was in 2008 at the super featherweight division and resulted in a split decision win for Pacquiao.
Both matches were so close that fans debate who actually won to this day.
Pacquiao has since become a welterweight megastar and Marquez a lightweight legend.
The weight disparity may keep the fighters apart, but the demand of the fans speaks volumes and could speak high volumes and dollar signs that could "inspire" this wish to come true.
Miguel Cotto vs. Antonio Margarito: Their second match hasn't taken place yet; a third match between the two junior middleweights is highly probable if Cotto avenges his initial loss to Margarito in a highly competitive matchup.
Margarito defeated Cotto for the welterweight championship in July 2008. Margarito has since been caught with plaster in his gloves, bringing his knockout win over Cotto under question.
Many suspect that between Margarito's injured eye from a beating he took from Pacquiao last November to Cotto's new legendary trainer Emanuel Steward, he's likely to pull off a great victory over the Mexican brawler.
If the greatness of their initial battle and its big financial reward are repeated in this second fight planned for the summer, a third fight is almost guaranteed to take place.
1. Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier
This is the grand epic trilogy to define and measure all trilogies before and after it.
Ali-Frazier, two names inseparable in the history books thanks to their highly competitive and exhausting yet inspiring efforts in the ring against each other.
Muhammad Ali lost his undefeated record to Joe Frazier in the first fight of their epic trilogy.
Unfortunately Ali would not get the chance to return the favor. George Foreman took Frazier's "0" first. But Ali came back and avenged his defeat afterwards.
After Ali brilliantly dealt with Foreman, he returned his sights to Frazier.
The two had unfinished business, and they settled it in possibly the greatest fight of all time, "The Thriller In Manila." Don King sure knows how to name them.
King gave that epic fight its name, and Ali and Frazier gave that fight and their trilogy its immortality.