Fights of the decades: 100 years of boxing history

By Gavin Duthie - 07/20/2014 - Comments

dempsey453435By Gav Duthie: If as expected we miss out on the biggest fight of the current era between Floyd Mayweather Jr 46-0 (26) and Manny Pacquiao 56-5-2 (38) a part of my love of boxing will die.

Since the conception of the sport there have been so many great fight nights but there is always one fight in a generation that defines the era. I decided to have a look at the biggest bouts by decade in over 100 years of boxing history to convey what we are missing out on if Mayweather and Pacquiao never meet. 

Pound for Pound

The concept of pound for pound was created to compare boxers through the weight divisions. It isn’t very often two of the best p4p fighters actually occupy the same division. When it happens and they do fight it can define a generation. These aren’t always the best spectacles but they still live long in the memory. 

Jack Johnson 55-11-8 (35) v James J. Jeffries 19-1-2 (16) 
Johnson W KO 15
July 7 1910

For decades the heavyweight division was the heart and soul of boxing. During this era the world was a very different place. At 6″1 Jack Johnson was a giant of a man. He practically invented the counter punch. The original concept of boxing in the 1890’s with the likes of John L. Sullivan was to stand right in front of your opponent and trade until someone dropped sometimes 30+ rounds later.


During this era racism was rife in western society. A black world heavyweight champion was an outrage. Promoters tried everything to dethrone Johnson. In 1910 their latest plan was to orchestrate the return of the unbeaten Jim Jeffries after 6 years out of the sport. Johnson wasn’t just fighting for a world title he was battling the entire crowd and society in general. He would not be denied this night as he knocked Jeffries out in the 15th round.

When Johnson eventually lost his title it was many years later and well past his prime after 26 rounds against Jess Willard it was intimated that foul play and match fixing was involved. Johnson is still considered one of the most important people in African American sporting history. 

Jack Dempsey 55-6-9  (45) v Gene Tunney (2) 65-1-1 (48)
Gene Tunney W UD 10
Sep 22 1927

120,557 spectators crammed into the soldiers field Chicago to watch the rematch between Jack Dempsey ‘The Manassa Mauler’ and Gene Tunney. The exciting Dempsey’s popularity was immense. He was the Hollywood star of his time and he was brutal. 

Tunney was an incredible counter puncher and could bang also. Despite the nostalgia for Dempsey, Tunney originally a light heavyweight is one of the greatest ever. His only professional loss came to fellow p4p legend Harry Greb but in total they fought 5 times with Tunney winning 3 and drawing 1. 

The fight

This was a rematch after Tunney won the first. This fight is clouded in controversy. It is very similar to the ‘long count’ between Mike Tyson and Buster Douglas. Tunney was dominating the action but was pummeled to the canvas by Dempsey in round 7. This was one of the first bouts with the neutral corner. In the confusion it took over 5 seconds for the referee to back Dempsey away. Tunney was down for around 14 seconds in all but got up at the count of 9. With plenty of time to rest Tunney resumed his boxing and won a unanimous decision. 

Tunney is considered both one of he greatest light heavyweights and heavyweights of all time. 

Henry Armstrong 150-21-10 (101) v  Lou Ambers 91-8-7 (28) 
Armstrong SD 15
Aug 17 1938

Another notable win in this era was Joe Louis rematch victory over Max Schmeling. After being stopped in 12 rounds in their first fight Louis destroyed the German in just one round but what Henry Armstrong achieved in 1938 is and likely always will be the greatest achievement in boxing history. Homicide Hank (Armstrong) had been the undisputed featherweight champion for years. In his fight previous to the above he stepped up to Welterweight to beat great champion Barney Ross. To complete a hat rick he moved back down to lightweight to beat Lou Ambers by split decision. 

This meant Armstrong was a three weight champion simultaneously. In todays world with added weight divisions this would be the equivalent of being champion in 5 weight classes at the same time. 

Ray Robinson 173-19-6 (108) v Kid Gavilan 108-30-5 (28)
Robinson UD 15
Jul 11 1949

Robinson is considered the greatest of all time and boasts a win over an ageing Henry Armstrong and a legendary 6 fight series with ‘The Raging Bull’ Jake LaMotta. Probably the other most skilful fighter of his era was Kid Gavilan. 

Unfortunately this was a time dominated by mafia corruption and many of Gavilan’s defeats are attributed to match fixing. For those who think Sugar Ray Leonard invented the ‘Bolo Punch’ think again. This was Gavilan’s baby. The Kid was never stopped his entire career.

Robinson never experienced a more technical battle than in this rematch with Gavilan. After a good start by Kid, Robinson took over in the later rounds with his combinations and stamina. 

This win amongst many others confirms Sugar as the greater boxer who ever lived. 

Sandy Saddler 144-16-2 (103) v Willie Pep 229-11-1 (65) 
Saddler RTD 8
Sep 8 1950

I was close to going for the undefeated Rocky Marciano’s 49-0 (43) over Joe Louis in 1951. However its widely considered that despite an 8 win comeback Louis was well past his best. 

Saddler and Pep are both considered top ten of all time so its a rarity that they would fight in the same era and the same division. Pep is considered to be the best defensive fighter of all time but Saddler always found a way to beat him. Pep was only victorious in one of their four bouts. In this one Pep was knocked down and eventually retired with a dislocated shoulder. 

They fought again not long after this time Saddler stopped Pep in the 9th round. These guys were the first to really put featherweight boxing on the map and revolutionised the sport as an art and not just brutal punching. 

Muhammad Ali 56-5 (37) v Sonny Liston 50-4 (39)
Ali (a.k.a Cassius Clay) RTD 6
25 feb 1964

It is important to know how revered Sonny Liston was before this fight. He was considered invincible. Not only was he beating the main competition out there he was destroying them. He had knocked out Floyd Patterson twice in the first round, battered Cleveland Williams and was constantly in trouble with the law. His piston like jab was considered better than the great Joe Louis. 

Ali, then Cassius Clay was considered a 22 year old loud mouthed pretender who was going to get destroyed. He was nicknamed the Louisville Lip and had been knocked down twice against Sonny Banks and Henry Cooper. 

Clay surprised everyone embarrassing Liston with his crisp jab and lightning combinations. Liston retired with a shoulder injury. He had never fought anyone like this and Ali changed the shape of heavyweight boxing forever with this performance. 

Muhammad Ali 56-5 (37) v George Foreman 76-5 (68) 
Ali KO 8
30 Oct 1974

Fast forward ten years later. Ali is now 32 and considered past his prime. George Foreman is an undefeated killer who has destroyed closest competitors Ken Norton and Joe Frazier in only two rounds a piece. Ali had went the distance twice with those two and had one win and one loss against both. 

Ali not as light on his feet as before adopted the rope-a-dope strategy. He let George pummel him to the body for most of the rounds and stole the last 30 seconds with fast combinations. Tired and looking for one big shot Foreman was caught by a left right combination in the 8th round and didn’t beat he count. 

This was Foreman’s only stoppage defeat despite going on to win a world title 15 years later and also fighting the likes of Evander Holyfield in the 90’s. 

This win cemented Ali’s legendary status and he wouldn’t be up there without it.

Sugar Ray Leonard 36-3-1 (25) v Marvin Hagler 62-3-2 (52) 
Leonard W SD 12
6 apr 1987

For me the best era in boxing. The Fabulous Four, Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Tommy Hearns and Roberto Duran. The great thing about this was that they all fought each other giving us a definitive answer as to who was the best. 

Leonard wasn’t always on top of his game and he made more comebacks than Audley Harrison during his career but on the big nights he was class. His ‘No Mas’ performance against Roberto Duran was one of the best i’ve ever seen. Marvin Hagler campaigned his whole career at Middleweight whilst the others moved up to that weight over time.

Hagler was the favourite in this fight after stopping Hearns in 3 rounds and outpointing Roberto Duran. Leonard came back after a 3 year lay off for this fight but boxed a masterclass of defensive and counter attacking boxing.This victory cemented his place in the top 10 boxers of all time and king of the fabulous four.  

Pernell Whitaker 40-4-1 (17)  v Julio Cesar Chavez 107-6-2 (86)
SD Draw 12
10 sep 1993

For me this is the Mayweather-Pacquaio of the early 90s. If you think Mayweather’s 46-0 record is impressive Julio Cesar Chavez was 87-0 going into this fight. Pernell Whitaker is the most skilful defensive fighter i’ve ever seen. Some of his head movement was reminiscent of watching ‘The Matrix’. It was an outrage that this fight ended up a draw. Whitaker schooled Chavez most of the night and the Mexican hardly laid a glove on him. This was probably the best night in Sweet Pea Whitaker’s career and it was a shame he never got the Win to prove his superiority. One judge scored the bout in Pernell’s favour but the other two scored it a draw. 

Floyd Mayweather 46-0 (26) v Oscar De La Hoya 39-6 (30) 
Light Middleweight
Mayweather SD 12
5 may 2007

There are a few fights I could have picked for the Nineties era. The closest historical victory to that of Mayweather’s would have been Bernard ‘The Executioner’ Hopkins domination of Felix ‘Tito’ Trinidad who was 40-0 at the time. 

I went for Mayweather because when the notion of a fight between him and The Golden Boy was first mentioned it seemed far fetched. De La Hoya had fought as high as middleweight and Mayweather was mostly campaigning at 140-147. They met at 154 lbs with Floyd coming in at 150 for DLH’s world title. It was a captivating fight and very close. 

Mayweather’s split decision victory put him at the top of the p4p list from that moment until this day. 

Floyd Mayweather 46-0 (26) v Manny Pacquiao 56-5-2 (38)

It’s inconceivable that this fight doesn’t happen. These guys had been number 1 and 2 for about 5 years yet have never looked lose to agreeing terms. Granted in 2014 its not he fight it was a few years ago as Pacquiao has dropped to about number 4 p4p but he has avenged his controversial Bradley defeat and his loss to Marquez is less significant because he ‘s always had trouble with the Mexican counter puncher from fight one. The best of the rest out there Cotto, De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton etc have all been beaten by both fighters so they need to just get it on to prove who’s number one of this era. 

At the moment in a recent list I checked of top 50 boxers of all time there are only 3 current fighters who feature. Manny Pacquiao is rated #34, Floyd Mayweather #29 and the highest is Bernard Hopkins at #27. 


Love him or hate him Floyd Mayweather has a boxing IQ that may never be seen in the ring again. Manny Pacquiao is one of the most explosive fighters in history. At 37 Mayweather has traded his speed and power as a fighter at 130lbs for ring smarts as he has outclassed opponents through the weight divisions. Manny Pacquiao was knocked out twice as a Flyweight and then 11 years later he is beating up guys like Antonio Margarito 9 weight divisions above where he started. 

What these guys have achieved in the sport is frightening and if they don’t face each other it will be a real tragedy. If they do happen to fight then the winner can forget hovering around the top 30 mark of the worlds greatest boxers but probably top 15 or possibly even top 10 in my honest opinion.  

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