Year-End Countdown: The Top 10 Most Anticipated Fights of All Time

Eric FleuryContributor IDecember 3, 2008

Anticipation is half the fun of a major sports event, particularly in boxing with its unmatched tendency for hyperbole and high drama. 

Every major fight brings along a blitz of speculation and hysteria from fans, promoters, and certainly the fighters themselves. 

This Saturday is a perfect example: The so-called "Dream Match" between Manny Pacquiao and Oscar De La Hoya, a seemingly ideal, or perhaps fantastical, meeting of champions past and present.

Whether or not the action measures up remains to be seen, but the swell of media attention calls for a look at the most anticipated bouts of the past century, and their tendency to match image with reality. 

10. Oscar De La Hoya vs. Floyd Mayweather, Jr.: "The Fight to Save Boxing," May 5, 2007

The Hype: HBO hoped to rejuvenate a flagging sport with this marquee matchup of the sport's biggest financial draw and its undisputed pound-for-pound king. (Sound familiar?)

Its promotion blitz was unprecedented with the first of the now common "24/7" specials and relentless advertisement. ESPN and Sports Illustrated followed suit with cover articles, rare for boxing.

The Fight: Mixed. The fight managed to be a huge financial success, setting a record with 2.4 million pay-per-view buys, and Mayweather was credited with single-handedly restoring the sport to relevance before his "retirement."

However, the fight itself was a rather plodding, tactical chess match between a quickly exhausted De La Hoya and a bored Mayweather, who only did enough to secure a thin margin of victory. 

9. Mike Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield I: "Finally," Nov. 9, 1996

The Hype: A matchup initially derailed by Tyson's stunning loss to Buster Douglas and subsequent rape conviction, the matchup proved no less intriguing six years later.  Tyson was seemingly restored to his terrifying heights, having recaptured several alphabet titles. Holyfield had lost his title twice. 

This was Tyson's first chance to face top-flight opposition after his comeback, and for Holyfield to prove that he was still strong after several painful defeats.  Who would be the dominant heavyweight of the '90s?

The Fight: Although still endowed with furious speed and power, Tyson proved once and for all that he may be the greatest fighter of all time—within four rounds. Holyfield proved his technical superiority and Tyson's impatience with a lack of quick results.

A surprising result at the time, given the shadow still cast by Tyson's menace, but history has proved Holyfield the far superior ring artist.  

8. Julio Cesar Chavez vs. Greg Haugen: Feb. 20, 1993

The Hype: This fight may not have meant much to the average American fan, but it was everything to Chavez's army of Mexican fans—the most boxing-mad people on Earth. 

Haugen, a respectable contender, unleashed a torrent of trash talk against Chavez, and Mexicans in general. Upwards of 136,000 fans poured into Azteca Stadium to watch their hero defend his personal and national honor, and he promised to "give him the worst beating of his life."

The Fight: Well, at least one fighter made an accurate prediction.  Chavez not only beat but also humiliated his clearly outmatched opponent, battering him with body shots to keep him on his feet until the ref had enough in the fifth. 

7. Floyd Patterson vs. Sonny Liston I: Sept. 25, 1962

The Hype: Patterson, one of the all-time "good guys" of boxing, took on Liston, the menacing, prison-trained challenger. John F. Kennedy openly hoped that good would prevail, but the NAACP panicked over the thuggish Liston winning the championship and providing a poor role model for black youth. 

The Fight: Sometimes nice guys do finish last. Liston made short work of the capable but gentle-hearted Patterson, knocking him out in 125 seconds, enjoying a brief moment of glory before his controversial bout against an obnoxious, scrawny youngster named Cassius Clay.

6. Marvelous Marvin Hagler vs. Thomas Hearns: "The Fight," April 15, 1985

The Hype: Promoters can only dream of matchups like this. By 1985, Hagler was the undisputed middleweight champ and Hearns was the divinely talented welterweight champion.

They were clearly the top-two fighters on earth, with Sugar Ray Leonard in semi-retirement, and Mike Tyson still a relatively unknown contender. Although promoters are often given to hyperbole, Bob Arum simply billed this as "The Fight."

The Fight: One hundred years from now, this will still be known as "The Fight." In eight minutes of fury, two champions waged war with an intensity that is still shocking with repeated viewings. No hype could ever anticipate the horror and glory of this all-time classic. 

5. George Foreman vs. Muhammad Ali: "The Rumble in the Jungle," Oct. 30, 1974

The Hype: One of Don King's earliest and most inventive gestures. Ali, no less beloved after losses to Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, flew to Zaire to face Foreman, a moody, unpopular, but utterly fearsome champion.

Against the backdrop of Mobutu Sese Seko's grandiose, if rather garish, testament to post-colonial black nationalism, third-world hero Ali faced off against a man he labeled a "white, Christian bitch" for proudly waving the American flag at the 1968 Olympics. Drama, anyone?

The Fight: The greatest upset of Ali's career, hands down. (The Liston bouts are far too marred by controversy.) Ali was somehow able to withstand Foreman's incredible punching power. Foreman tired in the push for a quick knockout and fell to Ali's renewed attack in the eighth.

This was Ali's last dominating victory over first-class opposition, and one of his most impressive. 

4. Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Roberto Duran I: "The Brawl in Montreal," June 20, 1980

The Hype: With Ali in decline, Leonard was boxing's ideal torchbearer, armed with fast hands, a big smile, and Olympic gold. And what better opponent for this popular ring artist than the savage, brawling Duran?

A fighter so mean even his wife talked trash leading up to the fight. With heavyweights in decline, this was the perfect fight to inaugurate a new decade.

The Fight: Nobody said it better than Red Smith: "The boy became a man, and the man became a legend." Duran brought every weapon in his mighty arsenal, but Leonard lost with spectacular courage that belied his pretty-boy image. 

3. Jack Johnson vs. Jim Jeffries: July 4, 1910

The Hype: A scenario nearly unthinkable in our day: Johnson was a seemingly unbeatable champion and the scourge of decent, white society—who loved every minute of it. 

Desperate for a "Great White Hope" to dethrone a black man who beat up on white men—and slept with white women—Jeffries came out of retirement to "prove that the white man is superior to the Negro."

The Fight: Jeffries was long past his prime—Johnson wasn't.  But the fight wasn't nearly as big as the aftermath—white rage and black joy clashed in nationwide riots that killed 25 people. Johnson was practically driven out of the country on trumped-up charges, simply to get rid of him.

And you thought sports were just entertainment.

2. Joe Louis vs. Max Schmelling II: June 22, 1938

The Hype: Hype is such a petty word in this case. As Germany and the United States were poised on the brink of war, Adolph Hitler promised his favorite fighter would confirm Aryan superiority by defeating Louis as he had in 1936.

Now, 25 years after Jack Johnson, America was ready to embrace a black man as the people's champion and defend American prestige.

The Fight: If only World War II had been so quick and decisive. Within 124 seconds, Louis, boxing's all-time great Terminator, stalked and annihilated Schmelling with haunting efficiency and detachment—the trademark of his astonishing reign. 

1. Joe Frazier vs. Muhammad Ali I: "The Fight of the Century," March 8, 1971

The Hype: You were expecting something else?  Hollywood could never hope to devise drama of this magnitude, this unrivalled clash of style and personality. Ali, back from his three-year suspension, was still the brash "People's Champion."

Frazier was the unassuming, workmanlike champion, who quietly seethed at Ali's vicious pre-fight insults. Then there was Ali's terrific speed, defense, and jab against the relentless freight train of Frazier's unstoppable offense. The world was watching, and nobody was neutral. 

The Fight: The most highly anticipated fight of all time is also the greatest. At the height of their powers, the two men clashed with every ounce of their skill and burning hatred for each other.

Ali, tired and frustrated after failing to slow down Frazier's onslaught, fell victim to the champ's mighty left hook a few too many times. Ali hit the canvas in the 15th and secured his first loss as a joyful Frazier strutted away. Who could know that the greatest rivalry in sports was only getting started?


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