Super Fights – In Part Two I’ll provide thoughts and insight on The Super Fights circa 1975-85, such as Ali-Frazier III, Leonard-Duran I, Ali-Holmes, Duran-Leonard II, Leonard-Hearns I, Holmes-Cooney and Hagler-Hearns.
Boxing was a mainstream sport at this time and major fights were on network TV almost every weekend. By the late 1970’s the Ali era was coming to a close. Roberto Duran, who had been lightweight champ since 1972, was still going strong and up coming future greats Sugar Ray Leonard, Larry Holmes, Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler were emerging. With that wealth of great fighters it was easier to expand from hardcore boxing fans to mainstream viewers. This the step needed to elevate an important fight to Super Fight status.
Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier Frazier III (October 1, 1975) Ali 48-2 (34) was at the height of his popularity and fame during this time and was clearly one of the most recognized persons in the world. With Foreman in retirement after losing to The Greatest, Muhammad was looking for a big pay day and a place to go away with his new girlfriend and eventual third wife, Veronica Porsche. Frazier 32-2 (27) stopped Jimmy Ellis in his last fight five months earlier and was obsessed with getting one more shot at Ali. So much so that he began showing up at everyone of Ali’s title defenses, challenging him to fight again. In Ali’s last title defense versus Joe Bugner in Kuala Lumpur, Frazier was ringside and taunted Ali while Don Dunphy was broadcasting the fight over closed circuit TV. Ali heard Joe’s taunts and leaned over the ropes and looked down at Frazier before the start of one of the later rounds and said, “Don’t worry chump, you’re next.” Aside from a rematch with Foreman, Frazier was the biggest money fight out there for Ali, so he agreed to make another Frazier fight shortly after beating Bugner. Being that this was the rubber match between them and both knew that the winner would be regarded as the greater fighter historically, both promised their fans that he would be the winner.
ODDS: On the day of the fight Ali was an 8-5 favorite.
Pre-fight Thoughts: As was the case going into their second fight, Ali was more active than Joe, fighting four times compared to Frazier only having two bouts in between their second and third bouts. However, Frazier said countless times to the Philadelphia media that he wanted Ali so bad that he’d fight him for nothing just so he could get him in the ring again. As the fight drew near Ali’s antics and admonishment of Frazier–like calling him a Gorill–along with rumors of the trouble he was having with his wife Belinda and girlfriend Veronica peaked interest in the fight. At this time Ali was so confident in his ability and toughness that he really thought he was invincible. But inside he knew Frazier was the one fighter who he couldn’t intimidate and that Joe had supreme confidence in that he was the greater fighter of the two. On the day of the fight I picked Ali to win because I thought he had a littler more left in the tank than Joe. But even at that I knew it wouldn’t be easy and a Frazier win shouldn’t be viewed as an upset.
Result: Ali called the fight “The Thrilla In Manila” and it sure was. After the bout he called it the closest thing to dying he’d ever experienced in his life. Ali-Frazier III was the most fiercely contested heavyweight championship bout in boxing history. It was actually three great fights in one. Ali dominated the first four or five rounds, rocking Frazier with hard lefts and rights and almost dropped him at least twice. Joe started to smoke somewhere around the mid part of the fifth round. From rounds six through 11 Frazier worked Ali over to the head and body so much so that you started to think Ali couldn’t turn the fight around and he might not finish on his feet. Somehow in the 12th round Ali got his fifth or sixth wind and really started peppering Frazier as he tried to get inside. At the bell to end round 14 Frazier walked slowly back to his corner with both eyes nearly swollen shut. Once Joe was on his stool trainer Eddie Futch said to him that he was stopping the fight because he was getting hit with punches he couldn’t see. He also told Joe that no one will ever forget what you did here tonight, and no one has. When Ali saw that Frazier wasn’t coming out for the last round, he stood up from his stool and raised his arm in a victory salute, then sat down on the canvas due to exhaustion. Ali would go into the record books as the winner via TKO 14. At the time of the stoppage Ali led (66-60, 66-62 and 67-62) and the AP had it 63-63. This fight sapped whatever greatness Muhammad and Joe had left as fighters and neither of them were ever great in the ring again. They should’ve retired in a joint celebration together a couple months later.
Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Roberto Duran (June 20, 1980) In the late seventies going into 1980, Roberto Duran 71-1 (55) was the biggest star in boxing, aside from Muhammad Ali. Then media darling and Olympic Gold medal winner Sugar Ray Leonard 27-0 (19) arrived on the boxing scene. Leonard stole a lot of Duran’s thunder because of his charm and personality, and actually overshadowed Roberto when he fought. By the time Duran relinquished his lightweight title and was fighting as a welterweight, Leonard was about to fight for the WBC title vs. Wilfred Benitez. Leonard beat Benitez for the title and that paved the way for him to defend it against the surging Duran seven months later. Throughout the promotion Leonard was hyped as the good guy and he relished that. On the other hand Duran was more than happy to wear the black hat and be viewed as the bad guy and bully.
ODDS: On the day of the fight Leonard was a 9-5 favorite.
Pre-fight Thoughts: At the time Leonard and Duran were two of the best pound for pound fighters in boxing. Like Joe Frazier viewed Muhammad Ali, Duran seethed at all the attention Leonard received and was on a mission to give him his first defeat and capture his second world title at a higher weight. In his last few fights before fighting Leonard, Duran looked so-so fighting the gate keepers at welterweight. As for Leonard, he scored the most brutal knockout of his career to date with a perfect left hook to the chin of British champ Dave “Boy” Green in his last bout before meeting Duran. On fight night I thought Leonard was too much of a natural welterweight and also thought Duran lacked the punching power to really hurt or bother Leonard. I was confident that he would beat Duran up and perhaps even stop him.
Result: In what was called “The Brawl In Montreal” Leonard and Duran went at it as if they wanted to end the others career with every punch. Leonard, who was a great boxer, was lured into fighting Duran toe-to-toe which was Duran’s kind of fight. Duran almost dropped Leonard and hurt him bad in the second round with a left hook. Leonard survived the round and gave as good as he took but from that point on he was bulled to the ropes and had to fight Duran off of him instead of boxing him. The fight was an all out war and what became apparent was Roberto Duran was a better and smarter boxer than Leonard or anyone else thought. And the flip side of that was, Leonard was a better puncher and tougher than Duran or anyone else thought. The fight was close on a rounds basis, but after 15 rounds you had to give it to Duran because he forced the fight and landed the biggest punches of the bout. For the record books, Duran won the WBC welterweight title via a 15 round unanimous decision. The official scoring saw it (145-144, 148-147 and 146-144) Duran. The AP had it 144-141 Duran.
Muhammad Ali vs. Larry Holmes (October 2, 1980) Muhammad Ali 56-3 (37) was three months shy of his 39th birthday and hadn’t fought in 25 months and really hadn’t looked like a world beater in five years. Larry Holmes, 30, was two years into his title tenure and was looking better in every fight. Ali’s legacy and personality overshadowed Holmes 35-0 (26) and Larry couldn’t gain the acceptance of the public. Holmes was a dominant champ at the time and won all seven of his title defenses by stoppage but still paled in the eyes of the public to Muhammad Ali. Ali’s bravado and the perception that he could do whatever he wanted to if he got in great shape really helped sell the fight. Muhammad was out to win the title for a record fourth time and viewed Holmes as a stepping stone to history. Larry was focused on removing the shadow of Ali from stealing his spotlight. Holmes said, “To me Ali is not God, but godless. Not Superman. Not a miracle worker. He’s a human being, just like you and me. He got his weight down, and he thinks that will make him young again. Well, it won’t. Ali can’t turn back the clock; no one can.”
ODDS: Holmes opened as a 3-1 favorite but the odds dropped with every pound Ali lost and by the day of the bout Holmes was down to an 8-5 favorite.
Pre-fight Thoughts: I saw Ali fool Howard Cosell and a lot of the media because he lost 47 pounds getting ready for the fight. But there was never a doubt in my mind that Holmes was going to beat Ali because at that time Larry could do everything that Ali could do only faster and better. In addition to that Holmes worked with Ali as a sparring partner in 1974-75 and held his own with him and never saw Ali as being immortal. The way I saw it was Ali didn’t have a single tool to beat Larry with in 1980 other than a con game which Holmes wasn’t the least bit vulnerable to. In late 1980 I wasn’t sure Ali could’ve beaten any contender in the top-10 let alone Holmes, who was absolutely the best fighter and class of the division then.
Result: Ali looked like an empty package and took a beating from Larry for 10 straight rounds without winning a single one and only landed 10 punches during the fight. Holmes hit Ali cleanly to the head and face more than any other fighter did in 10 fights combined. Luckily for Ali, his trainer Angelo Dundee stopped the fight after the tenth round. In my opinion this fight contributed to Ali’s poor health more than any other fight of his career. He was hit to the head more times than in any other bout and at a time when he was older and afflicted physically. Holmes eliminated Ali’s ghost that over shadowed him but his true greatness and respect that he longed for as heavyweight champion didn’t come immediately.
Roberto Duran vs. Sugar Ray Leonard II (November 25, 1980) Duran 72-1 (55) was on top of the world after beating Leonard five months earlier. He partied day and night in the weeks and months after their fight and reportedly ballooned up to over 200 pounds. Leonard 27-1 (19), now had the zeal to beat Duran the way Roberto had it for him before their first fight. Duran was incensed that Leonard made more than five times as much money as he did for their first fight. Once Duran worked the deal where he would be paid a million dollars more than Leonard, the fight was set. And Duran never gave it a second thought as to whether or not he had enough time to get in great shape for the rematch.
ODDS: On the day of the fight Leonard was a 3-2 favorite.
Pre-fight thoughts: After the first fight, I wasn’t sure if Leonard was strong enough to box Duran. But I didn’t believe Duran could be as great in the rematch as he was in their first bout. I also felt that if Leonard lost the rematch his career would be over and he’d retire. But something inside told me that that’s not how Leonard’s career was gonna end. So with my mind saying to me that Leonard will find a way to win, I picked him to win because I thought that’s how it’s supposed to go and they’d most likely end up fighting a rubber match in 1981.
Result: From the time Leonard took off his robe you could see he was jacked up for the fight and would hard to beat on this night, whereas Duran didn’t look like he was on the mission he was the first time. Leonard moved and boxed this time and mocked Duran who couldn’t really get going or find his rhythm. For the first six rounds Leonard moved and boxed and kept Duran from bulling him to the ropes the way he did in their first bout. After six rounds Leonard was ahead, but it was still a close fight. In round seven Leonard began to taunt Duran and wound up his right hand and suckered him with a straight left to the face that landed flush, (the infamous bolo punch). After seven rounds I had it 4-3 Leonard but thought the fight was a long way from being settled. In the closing seconds of the eighth round Duran turned his back and quit waving his glove in a sign of surrender and said “No Mas” to the referee. Afterward he said he had stomach cramps that started in the 5th round. He said he lost too much weight too fast and then over ate after the morning weigh-in. For the record Leonard regained the WBC welterweight title via a TKO in eight rounds. The officials saw the fight (68-66, 68-66 and 67-66) Leonard at the time of the stoppage. The UPI had it 69-65 Leonard.
Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Thomas Hearns (September 16, 1981) This is no doubt the most widely anticipated welterweight championship bout in history. And both Leonard and Hearns are regarded today as among the five greatest welterweights ever. Leonard 30-1 (21) was the WBC champ for the second time and on top of the boxing world after regaining the title back from Roberto Duran 10 months earlier. Hearns 32-0 (30) was a 6’1″ destroyer who had knocked out Pipino Cuevas to win the WBA welterweight title and had made three successful defenses of it. Hearns was a scary fighter and there were a lot of Leonard fans at the time who worried that Hearns might be too much for him. These two were clearly the class of the welterweight division. Leonard was a polished boxer with blindingly fast hands who could really fight – Hearns had the height, reach and power of a light heavyweight and he too could box and really punch.
ODDS: On the day of the fight Hearns was a 7-5 favorite.
Pre-fight thoughts: I thought Leonard’s movement and underrated punching power could likely neutralize Hearns reach and outside power. I just wasn’t sure Hearns would allow Leonard to use his skill being that Tommy would be pumping his long jab at Ray’s face and chest to keep him at bay. Which turned out to be the case for the first five rounds of the fight. Having watched tough Randy Shields live 12 rounds with Hearns five months earlier, and figuring due to his fight with Benitez and two fights with Duran, I viewed Leonard as the more battle tested and ready for the big moment and picked him to win.
Result: For the first five rounds Hearns stalked Leonard and his long reach prevented Ray from getting inside where he could land anything of consequence. In the sixth round Leonard slipped inside and hurt Hearns with an uppercut. From that point on Hearns used his legs and boxed Leonard who was now fighting as the predator. Leonard had his moments and enjoyed bullying Hearns, but Hearns won rounds nine through twelve on all three scorecards by boxing and moving. After 13 rounds Hearns was winning the fight and Leonard’s eye was closing. In the fourteenth round Leonard came out to end the fight and emptied his wagon on Hearns. He staggered him with an overhand right and then unleashed a furious assault of lefts and rights prompting referee Davey Pearl to stop the fight with less than two minutes left in the round. It would be recorded as 14th round TKO win for Leonard and he was the undisputed welterweight champion. At the time of the stoppage Hearns led on all three scorecards (125-122, 125-121 and 124-122). The AP had it 126-122 Leonard.
Larry Holmes vs. Gerry Cooney (June 11, 1982) Don King turned the fight between the undefeated Holmes and undefeated Cooney into a fight between the races. King hyped Cooney 25-0 (21) as the great white hope since there hadn’t been a white heavyweight champ in 22 years. Cooney was knocking everybody out on his way to the title, and some actually wanted Holmes to lose because he beat Ali. King turned Holmes 39-0 (29) into the bad guy for the promotion and many fools bought into it. The soft talking hard hitting white guy against the bitter nasty black guy was a can’t miss marketing campaign. Holmes even had some of his property vandalized before the fight and the KKK staged rallies backing Cooney. Leading up to the fight it was the challenger Cooney, who was featured on the cover of Time magazine and SportsIllustrated. Another slight to Holmes who won the title a year after Conney turned pro. On the night of the bout snipers were posted on rooftops over looking the outdoor ring.
ODDS: Holmes was an 8-5 favorite on the day of the fight.
Pre-fight thoughts: I knew Conney’s power was no joke, but he went from fighting sophomores in high school to fighting a University professor in Holmes. On top of that, Cooney was treated as if he were the champion and Holmes the challenger by the media and sports shows. If that weren’t enough to set Holmes off, how about the fact that Cooney was getting purse parity earning 10 million dollars for the fight. Cooney hadn’t beaten one top contender with the exception of an old Jimmy Young on his way to the title. And in that fight Young was holding more than his own until he endured a nasty gash above his eye. Holmes was the reigning champ for four years and Cooney gets purse parity and equal billing? I thought believed that would provide all the motivation he needed. I thought Cooney would be dangerous from beginning to end but Holmes was the overall better fighter/technician and would win the fight going away.
Result: Holmes fought the most complete and purposeful fight of his career. I don’t think he was ever better. Holmes dropped Cooney in the second round with a right to the jaw, but Gerry fought back and rocked Holmes in the subsequent rounds. As the fight progressed the difference in skill and experience that Holmes owned began to take over. Larry’s jab was the dominant punch in the fight and it was part and parcel to his offense and defense. It kept Cooney from really getting close enough to land his vaunted left-hook the way he needed to in order to have a chance to win the fight. Cooney had his moments right up until the end but it wasn’t enough to turn the fight in his favor. By the 13th round Cooney was spent and Holmes was pot-shotting him at will. Cooney’s trainer Victor Valle saw that Gerry was at the point of no return and jumped into the ring and stopped the fight with eight seconds remaining in the round. For the record Holmes was the winner via TKO 13. At the time of the stoppage Holmes led on all three scorecards (113-111, 113-111 and 115-109). The AP had it 116-109 Holmes..
Marvin Hagler vs. Thomas Hearns (April 15, 1985) This was a battle between the two biggest non heavyweight stars in boxing. With Sugar Ray Leonard retired, both Hagler 60-2-2 (50) and Hearns 40-1 (34) were jockeying for Leonard’s baton regarding big fights and paydays. Since it looked like Hagler was never gonna get a chance to fight Leonard, beating Hearns more convincingly than Leonard did would have to make due. In the build up to the fight Hagler and Hearns went at it in the press. Hearns called Hagler a midget and Hagler responded back calling Hearns a freak. The opponent everybody used as the measuring stick to compare them was Roberto Duran. In 1983 Duran went the distance with Hagler for the middleweight title, but was knocked out for the only time in his career by Hearns in the second round of their junior middleweight title bout seven months later. This led many to believe that the matured Hearns would be too much for Hagler. By the time Hagler defended his undisputed middleweight title against Hearns he’d already defended it 10 times successfully knocking out every challenger except Duran. HBO analyst Larry Merchant: “Hagler is the strongest fighter Hearns has ever fought. Hearns is the best fighter Hagler has ever fought. We’re here to get the answers”.
ODDS: Hagler opened as a 13-10 favorite but a lot of late Detroit money came in and by the day of the fight Hagler was a 6-5 favorite.
Pre-fight thoughts: I was a little late accepting Hagler’s greatness but eventually came around and saw that he really was a beast. When he destroyed the tough Mustafa Hamsho in three rounds in their rematch prior to fighting Hearns, I was beginning think of Hagler as one of the great middleweights in history. Hearns seemed so confident and sure of himself before the fight and that caused me to go back and forth on who I thought would win. Then on the morning of the fight I saw Hagler on Good Morning America via a satellite feed. Right before he signed off, he said, “see these belts (and he held up his three title belts) there’s no way in the world Tommy is leaving the ring with these tonight.” At that point something clicked inside that told me Hagler was right about who was gonna win. When I got to the office, I bet my boss, who was a huge Hearns fan, $500.00 that Hagler was going to beat Hearns tonight.
Result: Hagler proclaimed the fight War, and it sure was. The first round of Hagler-Hearns very well may be the best and most exciting round in boxing history. Hagler and Hearns nearly killed each other during it. The pace resumed in the second round with Hagler looking a little stronger at the end of the round. In the third round Hagler was cut and went after Hearns as if living meant knocking him out and dying would be having the fight stopped because of his cut and losing. Hagler went after Hearns and unloaded everything he had and knocked him out at 1:52 of the third round. This was Hagler’s most impressive showing as a pro and had some observers saying Sugar Who?
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com