Pacquiao-Mayweather. The names have been the center of dialogue between boxing fans and casual sports fans since 2009, when Mayweather returned from retirement. The fight has been delayed for half a decade by promoters, drug testing policies, purse totals, even a lawsuit. In February, as if the sports gods were looking down — or the fighters were holding out for the most money possible — the fight was officially announced for May 2, 2015, in Las Vegas. It will go down as one of the greatest spectacles in boxing history. However, if you think this is the most anticipated fight ever, take a look at some previous matches where a title belt wasn’t the only thing at stake.
July 4, 1910: Jack Johnson vs. James J. Jeffries – Reno, Nevada
Boxing and American society were much different in 1910 when Jack Johnson took on James J. Jeffries in Reno, Nevada. The first black heavyweight champion, Johnson epitomized the superstar figure we’re accustomed to today — he drove fast cars and was frequently seen with multiple women. Jeffries had retired as champion six years earlier and took up the life of an alfalfa farmer. White boxing fans at the time were angry with a black champion, and a brash, extremely talented champion at that. Jeffries was eventually convinced to return from retirement for the fight and was deemed the “Great White Hope” by a racially divided America.
Jeffries, who had to lose 100 pounds to return to his fighting weight, was no match for one of the greatest boxers in his prime. Johnson, considered the greatest defensive boxer to strap on gloves, pummeled Jeffries early and often. As Johnson knocked down Jeffries for the second time in the 15th round, the fight was called. The result ended the myth of athletic white supremacy but with Jim Crow laws in full force, racial tension was high. Riots followed the fight and Johnson was never respected by white fans. As history unfolded, his rightful legacy took shape.
June 22, 1938: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling II – New York City, New York
Nearly 30 years after the Johnson and Jeffries bout, America was in a far different place. Racial tension was still present but a common foe was rising to power: Nazi Germany. Many recall German boxer Max Schmeling as the poster boy for the Nazis and the Aryan nation. Whereas 20,000 spectators took in Johnson vs. Jeffries, an estimated 70 million people listened to the Louis-Schmeling fight on radio. The match was a rematch of the 1936 fight where Schmeling scored an upset victory. The looming war (among other factors) meant the political and societal implications were high as the two fighters entered the ring at Yankee Stadium.
Great anticipation doesn’t always equal a great fight. Joe Louis pummeled Schmeling, knocking him down three times before the fight was called after a mere 2 minutes, 4 seconds. Americans took pride in the victory. Louis retained the title for 11 years and set a record with 25 consecutive title defenses. Louis and Schmeling developed a friendship later in life which inspired the 2002 motion picture, “Joe and Max.”
March 8, 1971: Ali vs. Frazier I – New York City, New York
Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay in 1942, just four years after Louis vs. Schmeling II. He developed into one of the greatest athletes of all time and spearheaded the golden era of boxing. He began training at age 12 and earned the heavyweight title at age 22. Ali had a full career of highly anticipated fights, often building the hype himself with legendary trash talk melded with charisma. His most famous bouts are victories over George Foreman in “The Rumble in the Jungle” in Africa and the “Thrilla in Manilla” knockout over Joe Frazier in 1975. But the most anticipated fight of Ali’s career resulted in defeat.
On April 28, 1967, an undefeated Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title after refusing to join the Vietnam War, citing religious beliefs. Over four years later the conviction was reversed by the Supreme Court and Ali returned to boxing. A heavyweight championship bout was established between Ali and “Smokin” Joe Frazier. Once again, societal and political implications were tense. Many fans sided with Frazier but anti-war fans appreciated Ali’s firm stance.
This Madison Square Garden battle lived up to the hype. Each fighter gave it their all round after round as they went into the 15th and final round. Frazier’s signature left hook caught Ali and the unanimous decision was clear. History would be on Ali’s side as he won 24 of his next 25 matches including two victories over Frazier.
June 28, 1997: Tyson vs. Holyfield II – Las Vegas, Nevada
Iron Mike was the most exciting fighter since Ali. His legendary knockouts earned him a huge following, despite character and legal issues. The rematch with Evander Holyfield brought in over two million Pay-Per-View viewers. Tyson wanted to avenge his previous loss to Holyfield and earn the heavyweight title for the second time.
The fight went down as one of the most bizarre moments in boxing history. A struggling Tyson bit Holyfield’s ear in the third round and spit a chunk of cartilage to the ring floor. Tyson was deducted points and the fight continued until Tyson bit Holyfield a second time. The aftermath saw an angry and disqualified Tyson swinging at the crew protecting Holyfield during a chaotic scene. Tyson’s legacy would continue to grow even after his boxing career but he will always be remembered for the “bite fight.”