Muhammad Ali and George Foreman

Biggest and best: Five all-time heavyweight blockbusters

Boxing’s heavyweight division is the sport’s marquee weight class - “the head of the monster” as training great Teddy Atlas so aptly put it only this week.

While the likes of Floyd MayweatherJr and ‘Canelo’ Alvarez have been boxing’s cash cows in recent years, few things come close to generating the excitement that the big men provide.

The news that Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua have signed a two-fight deal and will unify the world heavyweight titles puts heavyweight boxing right back at the forefront of the sport.

To mark the announcement, looks back at some of the epic heavyweight showdowns of yesteryear.

If Fury vs Joshua comes even close to matching these beauties, we are in for a treat...

Jack Dempsey v Luis Angel Firpo

One of the wildest fights in heavyweight history took place at the Polo Grounds in New York on September 14, 1923.

Promoter Tex Rickard always knew how to put on a show and officially 88,228 fans rammed into the Upper Manhattan site to see a quite remarkable contest.

Dempsey was the first great sporting anti-hero, a menacing and formidable individual who spent his early life fighting in bars and living in drifter camps.

ESPN Classic - Jack Dempsey vs. Luis Firpo - 1923 - One Crazy Fight!

Firpo meanwhile, the owner of one of the greatest nicknames in boxing history, ‘The Wild Bull of the Pampas’, was making history as the first Latin American fighter to box for the world title.

What followed was a barbaric, brutal affair with Dempsey, who was never the most diligent trainer and a fighter with a penchant for partying and bad living, dropped in the opening moments.

‘The Manassa Mauler’, who weighed just 192lbs (a cruiserweight if he was campaigning today), was more embarrassed than hurt and he quickly went looking for the challenger.

Firpo was dropped seven times thereafter but, showing exceptional pluck and bravery, somehow then managed to weather the storm and turn the tables again by knocking Dempsey out of the ring. It was a heavy fall and one the American was lucky to survive.

Yet survive he did and Dempsey finished the job in round two. In the space of just three minutes and 57 seconds, the champion and challenger had exchanged no fewer than 12 knockdowns in one of the most savage fights in heavyweight history. Dempsey had been champion since 1919, but this would be one of the defining fights of his incredible career.

Muhammad Ali v Joe Frazier I

It was billed as ‘The Fight of the Century’, and even that might have been underplaying things a tad.

The whole world stopped when unbeaten champions Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali clashed at New York’s Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971.

Literary giants such as Normal Mailer and Budd Schulberg were in the stands, while fabled crooner Frank Sinatra was ringside having somehow gained accreditation as a photographer for Life Magazine.

Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier I was the biggest fight of all time – Max Kellerman | Max on Boxing

For the first time in the sport’s history, the bout brought together two undefeated heavyweight champions fighting for the world championship. It was a seminal contest, fought against the backdrop of the Vietnam war and spiralling racial and political unrest in America.

The result was 15 epic rounds. One knockdown. One definitive winner.

Frazier, 205lbs of simmering indignation, was never better than on this night. He took the fight to Ali from the opening bell to come away with a breathtaking victory on the cards.

Quite how Ali got up from a bomb of a left hook that Frazier delivered to his chin in the 15th and final round is anyone’s guess. Yet this was the first time the world saw the true depths of Muhammad’s heart and tenacity.

In the 1960s he had been as close to the perfect heavyweight as you would ever see. Nimbly gliding around the ring like a rampaging Rudolf Nureyev. By the 1970s though, having been forced into a three-year exile for his stance on the Vietnam war, he was not as fleet of foot and forced to stand his ground more with Frazier, whose style of boxing was the polar opposite of a peak Ali.

Ali goes down on his way to defeat to Frazier

‘Smokin’ Joe’ liked to disrupt and dishearten opponents by thrusting the tip of his head into their chests or chin and then bang away. He could absorb punishment like few fighters before or since, and always kept his arms close to his body, like a menacing crab.

Like Ali, Frazier was also an Olympic champion and his signature shot was a lethal left hook delivered from hell.

It was a breathless encounter in New York, some 50 years ago now. To be truthful though in terms of boxing skill and intensity this fight was not as good as the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ the two warriors contested four years later.

It was though definitively the event of the century, and the pair took home $2.5million each, huge money back then and in real terms probably dwarfing what Messrs Fury and Joshua might take home later this year.

Muhammad Ali v George Foreman

‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ is perhaps the most celebrated, iconic fight in boxing history and up there with the greatest sporting events of the 20th Century. A mythical match-up which happened in Zaire, Africa on October 30, 1974. A heavyweight title fight which has yet to be surpassed for sheer drama and raw excitement.

It has since, of course, been immortalised in the incredible film ‘When We Were Kings’.

Ali went in as a clear betting underdog with odds as big as 4/1 during fight week. Such was Foreman’s menacing reputation, there were many who legitimately feared for Ali’s health going in.


Big George was a perfect 40-0 with wrecking-ball power. Less than a year previously in Jamaica, he had put a fearsome beating on Joe Frazier, hammering him around the ring like a child might handle a rubber toy. He simply annihilated one of the best heavyweights in history inside two, astonishing rounds (Frazier was down six times in all).

The 1968 Olympic champion was mean and moody, and a lot of respected writers and experts fancied him to steamroller an ageing Ali.

What happened next was astonishing. It was like Ali had turned the clock back a decade, taming an ogre all over again, just as he had against Sonny Liston in 1964.

Back then he was a heavyweight who moved like a middleweight. By 1974, Ali had lost some speed but was a more rounded, ring-savvy fighter and approaching gnarled veteran status at 32.

After a rough start Ali imposed his ferocious, indomitable will on Big George, chopping him to the canvas where he was then counted out with just two seconds remaining of round number eight.

Ali’s ‘rope-a-dope’ tactics had outfoxed Foreman, and the win meant he became just the second fighter to regain the heavyweight championship of the world.

It was an amazing, scarcely believable display of bravery and elevated Ali into the pantheon of heavyweight greats.

Only the stony-hearted could not have felt some sympathy for the oft-maligned, misunderstood yet menacing Foreman too, whose legacy was tainted by this reverse.

He would find redemption 20 years later when he knocked out Michael Moorer to regain the heavyweight championship on a surreal evening in Las Vegas.

Riddick Bowe vs Evander Holyfield I

Another fight between two unbeaten heavyweights for all the marbles which spawned an epic trilogy, this Las Vegas war fought on November 13, 1992 was an all-time classic.

The bout was fought at a frenetic pace with neither man prepared to take a backward step. Indeed virtually every second of all 12 rounds was hard-fought, with the smaller Holyfield getting inside against a much larger opponent as the pair traded heavy shots back and forth.

Both had plenty to prove. ‘Big Daddy’ Bowe was a fighter on the way up who had been fed the standard menu of veterans on the slide and solid journeymen going in.

Evander Holyfield delivers a blow to the body of Riddick Bowe

Holyfield had been undisputed cruiserweight champion but his form line as a heavyweight and title reign to that point was far from outstanding. A couple of laboured points wins over George Foreman and Larry Holmes sandwiched between a wild shootout against Bert Cooper meant the jury was still out.

However, he engaged in a good, old-fashioned heavyweight slugfest against Bowe, a man who outweighed him by 30lbs. It was a fantastic fight which ebbed and flowed, but the right man won as Bowe showed he could fight at a hot pace against elite fighters for 12 hard rounds. The 10th round was unforgettable as both men let it all hang out.

In the penultimate stanza Bowe dropped Holyfield and ‘The Real Deal’ did well to beat the count and tough out the remainder of the fight. When the scores were read out it was unanimous for Bowe, who became the undisputed world heavyweight champion.

Evander Holyfield v Mike Tyson I

Talk about courage under fire. These two modern legends had been destined to fight since 1990, but by the time the fight took place on November 9, 1996 many felt that Holyfield was so far over the hill that his long-term health was at risk.

Tyson, the ‘Baddest Man on the Planet’ was thought to be approaching somewhere near to his best form again and had vanquished Frank Bruno and Bruce Seldon earlier in the year.

The bookies made Holyfield a 25/1 outsider when the line opened, though these odds would finally settle at 5/1 before they met inside the ropes in Las Vegas.

Whatever, virtually nobody whose opinion mattered in the sport felt that Holyfield would last more than a couple of rounds. As Tyson’s eccentric promoter Don King liked to say: “He only had two chances. None and slim. But slim left town”.

Unlike Messrs Bruno or Seldon, there was no impression that Holyfield felt like a man walking to the gallows as he sang along proudly to his gospel ring walk music.

Tyson, as usual, looked all business as he menacingly made his way to the ring to face the ‘Mighty Man of War’. It was a memorable fight, not least for ‘Iron’ Mike repeatedly trying to flatten Holyfield in the first with a right hand. However ‘The Real Deal’ stood firm, and just by backing Tyson up in those early exchanges he won a significant mental battle.

In round two he did what no opponent had managed to do since Buster Douglas, forcing Tyson to the ropes and landing flush shots on the youngest heavyweight champion in history.

As the rounds went by it became clear that Holyfield was able to physically impose himself on an opponent he had studied for years. By keeping Tyson off balance, he was able to negate his power and throw hard combinations himself.

It didn’t hurt that Evander was au fait with the dark arts of pugilism, and wasn’t shy about leaving his head in when the opportunity arose. A clash of heads in the sixth opened a cut over Tyson’s eye and the Brownsville star became more ragged as he desperately tried to turn the tide.

At the end of the 10th a crackerjack punch from Holyfield sent Tyson staggering across the ring and the challenger followed up with a series of heavy shots. The bell saved Tyson but it would only be a momentary reprieve.

His corner somehow allowed a bedraggled, almost defenceless Tyson out for the 11th but another brutal salvo sent him careering into the ropes, and this time the ref had seen enough.

The Holy Man, like Buster Douglas before him, had refused to be overawed or scared and showed the world that the 1990s incarnation of Tyson was just a strong but one-dimensional brawler.

One far removed from the violent masterpiece created many years before by the perspicacious Cus D’Amato.

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