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Boxing’s great rivalries, quartets, and trilogies: where have they gone?

Juan Manuel Marquez Manny PacquiaoBy Sizzle JKD: The ‘80s is known to be arguably the greatest decade in the sport of boxing. We saw the end of Muhammad Ali’s reign and the rise of Mike Tyson. We witnessed the greatness of Julio Cesar Chavez Sr., who was 68-0 when the decade ended and went undefeated in 90 fights until finally losing to Frankie Randall in 1994. We saw one of the greatest junior welterweights of all time, Aaron Pryor, who dominated his division from 1980-1985.

Most of all, the 1980’s typified what is great about boxing – unparalleled rivalries in the lower weight divisions that paved the way for the superstars to follow. While the sport had heavyweights Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Ken Norton all battling each other in the decade that preceded it, the ‘80s saw Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler, and Tommy Hearns each take turns beating and battering each other across three weight divisions to prove who reigned supreme.

Looking back at the last four decades, it’s hard to find a quartet of elite fighters that all took turns fighting wars against each other that compares to Ali-Frazier-Foreman-Norton and Leonard-Duran-Hagler-Hearns. The closest that comes to mind was during the 2000s, when Manny Pacquiao, Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, and Juan Manual Marquez all battled each other primarily in the featherweight divisions. The only knock on their rivalries was that we never saw Morales and Marquez get it on because of promotional, financial, and egotistical differences.

Similarly, Norton and Frazier never fought each other in the ‘70s because they had the same trainer, Eddie Futch, but insiders used to say that both Norton and Frazier had numerous heated sparring sessions with both getting the best of each other.

While it’s difficult to compare the greatness of fighters from different eras – most would say Leonard, Duran, Hagler, and Hearns are clearly held in higher regard than Pacquiao, Barrera, Morales, and Marquez – we can, however, see similarities in the epic battles between the four featherweights although the wars between Leonard, Duran, Hagler, and Hearns are more memorable and probably more significant in the eyes of boxing fans.

Leonard-Hearns 1, Hagler-Hearns, and Leonard-Hagler were all named Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year. Leonard-Duran 1, which Duran won, was an epic 15-round battle that saw both fighters go back-and-forth with no regard for human life much in the same way Leonard-Hearns 1 was. Of course, I’ll never forget Hagler knocking out Hearns in 1985 after only three rounds while watching the fight in closed circuit. The simple fact that every second of every round saw both fighters trying to rip each other’s head off made it an instant classic albeit it was short-lived.

And who can forget the toughness, grit, and greatness of Duran, who is best known for being the greatest lightweight ever but never shied away from the challenge of moving up in weight to fight the best fighters in the welterweight and middleweight divisions.

Although he was only 1-4 against the Leonard, Hagler, and Hearns, the much smaller Duran gave all three fighters a serious run for their money. He was the only fighter to ever take Hagler to a full fifteen rounds during Hagler’s decade long reign as middleweight champion. Hagler is known as arguably the greatest middleweight in the last 35 years. Duran’s second round KO loss to Hearns notwithstanding, Duran is named by numerous publications as a top-ten all time fighter.

The trilogy between Morales and Barrera is arguably the greatest trilogy of all-time, along with the Mickey Ward vs. Arturo Gatti epic series and of course, Ali vs Frazier. In fact, the first fight between Morales and Barrera in 2000 (won by Morales) was named Ring Magazine Fight of the Year and Best Fight of All Time. Their third fight four years later (won by Barrera) was another instant classic and also named Fight of the Year. In the end, Barrera took two out of three fights versus Morales.

Prime Pacquiao also had numerous memorable fights against Morales, Barrera, and Marquez. Known as “The Mexicutioner,” Pacquiao compiled an impressive 7-2-1 record against the three future Hall-of-Famers. If not for the classic between Diego Corrales and Jose Louis Castillo in 2005, Pacquiao’s first fight against Morales would have easily been named Fight of the Year.

Pacquiao’s improbable and unexpected TKO victory over Barrera in their first fight marked Pacquiao’s ascension into the sport as a rising star and fan favorite. Pacquiao’s four wars against Marquez that spanned eight years continues to be heavily debated because many people believe Marquez won at least three out of the four fights. Marquez said recently he believes he won all four bouts which, of course, is nonsense. Officially, Pacquiao is 3-1-1 against the Mexican legend.

As we enter the second decade of the new millennium, boxing fans continue to thirst for classic trilogies between elite fighters and classic wars between champions of the same division.

The sport has changed, and ever since pay-per-view took its course and the proliferation of high profile boxing promoters emerged to control the sport, the game has become more about business and less about competition, with increased focus spent on money, money, and more money.

No longer are we seeing the best fights with the best fighters in each division taking turns year after year knocking each other off their throne. Today, champions safeguard their records (Andre Ward, Mayweather), protect their brand (Canelo Alvarez, Mayweather), and cherry-pick (Pacquiao) their way to unfulfilled and half-hearted legacies.

In addition, with each of the sanctioning bodies in boxing offering numerous belts within each division, the elements that produce unforgettable rivalries, create intense competition, and the struggle to attain undeniable glory are all stripped.

The notion that boxing is no longer a prime television attraction has clouded the sport so immeasurably that it can no longer compete with other mainstream entities such as the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NASCAR. We no longer get unified championship bouts with regularity like we used to, and this glaring reality is another factor why mixed martial arts is at the forefront of organized fighting sports today.

Boxing fans are yearning for classics. They’re longing for the days of yesteryear when prize fighters fought for the glory first and the money second. True boxing fans watch the sport because they want to see warriors fight the best of the best. What fans don’t want to pay for is Pacquiao-Rios, Pacquiao-Algieri, Mayweather-Guerrero, and Mayweather-Ortiz.

Moreover, if you are satisfied in seeing double doses of Mayweather-Maidana and Pacquiao-Bradley, then you either have a short memory or weren’t around in the ‘70s or ‘80s to witness what greatness in this sport is all about.
At this point you can either go to YouTube right now and re-live the glory days, or pray and hope that Mayweather vs. Pacquiao turns into a classic trilogy that we’ll still be talking about 20 years later.

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