The May 2 fight between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao will go down as one of the most anticipated bouts of all time. If we were just going on money, this fight that is expected to generate $1 billion dollars over that weekend would top the list. However, not every fight had the benefit of television, the internet and inflation so there are a few more factors to weigh.
The biggest bouts always have three key components. The first is that each fighter represents opposing ideals. Sometimes they are political and sometimes they are personal. If they cover both, then you have a magnificent combination. The second is that the fighters are near the top of their game or perceived to be. The final and most important component is that the fight transcends boxing fans with people willing to pay money – lots of it – to see it.
There are dozens of fights that fit this mold over the years. In whittling the list down to the top ten, I had to pass over many of them, including the Thrilla in Manila, Mike Tyson vs. Lennox Lewis, Gerry Cooney vs. Larry Holmes, Oscar De La Hoya vs. Felix Trinidad and both of Gene Tunney’s and Jack Dempsey’s bouts. Nevertheless, these ten top the list.
10. Jack Dempsey vs. Georges Carpentier – Jersey City, N.J., July 2, 1921
This list is not complete without the first “Million Dollar Gate.” After signing Dempsey and the French light heavyweight champion Carpentier, promoter Tex Rickard erected a 91,000-seat stadium to accommodate fans. The largest gate prior had been less $500,000 so a million dollar gate seemed unfathomable. Dempsey knocked Carpentier out in the fourth round and the final gate was a little less than $1.8 million. Although the Dempsey/Tunney bouts would break that record, this fight launched a new era in boxing.
9. Michael Spinks vs. Mike Tyson – Atlantic City, N.J., June 27, 1988
Mike Tyson was 34-0 and on the cusp of obliterating the heavyweight division. The only person standing in his way was Michael Spinks, who was 31-0 and had taken Larry Holmes’ IBF Heavyweight title three years earlier. Spinks had his belt stripped when he chose to defend it against Gerry Cooney instead of Tony Tucker and fans were clamoring for showdown with Tyson. What they got was a 91 second knockout and the question of whether a pay-per-view was worth the cost.
8. Manny Pacquaio vs. Floyd Mayweather – Las Vegas, Nev., May 2, 2015
This fight will always be remembered for its unprecedented grandiosity in promotion and cost. That being said, the seven fights above it would have surpassed it with today’s mediums and inflation.
7. Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Marvin Hagler – Las Vegas, Nev., April 6, 1987
Despite having been out of the ring for nearly three years, Leonard came back to face the seemingly unstoppable Hagler, who had been pursuing a fight with him for years. The two were perfect foils: Leonard was the slick baby-faced Olympic Gold Medalist who had been a star since his first fight; Hagler was the hard-nosed puncher who earned $50 for his first bout and had to fight for seven years before winning the middleweight title. The controversial split decision in favor of Leonard has kept this match on the forefront of boxing fans’ memories for nearly 30 years.
6. Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman – Kinshasha, Zaire (Now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), October 30, 1974
A dictator agrees to the largest payout ever (at the time) to host the fight in his country in the era of closed-circuit fights. The two opponents are a seemingly unstoppable heavyweight champion with devastating power and the most charismatic athlete of the 20th Century. It is given the nickname the “Rumble in the Jungle” and is the talk of boxing for the six months leading up to the fight. In the end, Ali defeats Foreman by using the champion’s greatest asset – his strength – against him.
5. Thomas Hearns vs. Sugar Ray Leonard I – Las Vegas, Nev., September 16, 1981
At the time, this was the largest payout for a non-heavyweight fight. Hearns was unbeaten and held the WBA Welterweight title. Leonard held the WBC Welterweight title and had avenged his only loss to Roberto Duran the year before. An outdoor arena was built at Caesar’s Palace and held 25,000 spectators on fight night. Those in attendance and the millions who ordered the pay-per-view witnessed one of the greatest fights in history, as Leonard stopped Hearns in the 14th round.
4. Mike Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield II – Las Vegas, Nev., June 28, 1997
Holyfield had shocked the world when he knocked out Tyson in November of 1996. Their rematch, billed as “The Sound and the Fury” set a record at the time for pay-per-view buys. Fans tuned in expecting a war. Instead, two million Americans turned to their houseguests in the third round and asked, “Did he just bite his ear?”
3. James J. Jeffries vs. Jack Johnson – Reno, Nev., July 4, 1910
The anticipation of this fight represents America at its worst. Johnson was the first African-American heavyweight champion and vilified throughout most of the United States. Jeffries was the retired and undefeated former heavyweight champion who answered the call of white supremacists to return to the ring after being dormant for more the five years to face Johnson. The two met in a constructed outdoor venue and Johnson had his way with Jeffries before knocking him out in the 15th round. News of the fight’s outcome ignited race riots across the country.
2. Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier I – New York, N.Y., March 8, 1971
This is the one true “Fight of the Century.” Ali’s heavyweight title had been stripped in 1967 for his refusal to be drafted in the military during the Vietnam War and Frazier had beaten all challengers to claim it. With a Supreme Court decision looming on whether he would have to go to jail too, Ali was granted a boxing license in Atlanta, then New York. After beating Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena, Ali signed to face Frazier in Madison Square Garden. It was the first time two undefeated heavyweight champions met in the ring and thanks to Ali and the media, both fighters were also painted to represent the opposing ideals of black America. The fight lived up to its hype and Frazier won a decision. No fight since then has been bigger.
1. Max Schmeling vs. Joe Louis II – New York, N.Y., June 22, 1938
Louis was the first universally accepted African-American heavyweight champion. The German Schmeling was the former heavyweight champion who had beaten Louis two years earlier. The two met in front of a sold-out crowd at Yankee Stadium to determine if the heavyweight title would remain in the United States or go to Nazi Germany. Americans across the country breathed a sigh of relief when Louis knocked out Schmeling in the first round. Let’s hope no other fight ever matches the anticipation of this one.