5 of the Best Heavyweight Boxing Matches of All Time

The heavyweight division is boxing’s most glamorous weight class. While middleweights may possess a more balanced mix of talent and skill, the sheer size and punching power of heavyweight fighters have long made the division the most intriguing to serious and casual boxing fans alike.

Occasionally, the right match-up between a pair of heavyweights has made for a legendary bout. Looking back on the history of the division, let’s take a look at five of the very best.

5. Larry Holmes-Ken Norton (June 9, 1978)

The legend of Muhammad Ali loomed large over this fight, which saw ex-marine Norton put his WBC belt on the line against Larry Holmes. Ali had previously lost to Norton, while Holmes was the all-time great’s former sparring partner. Adding to the intrigue was that the previous WBC champion, Leon Spinks, had forfeited his belt to take a rematch with Ali.

Norton and Holmes responded to the pressure with a back-and-forth battle that’s considered one the greatest fights in the history of boxing. While the younger Holmes controlled the action in the early rounds, the older champion roared back in the middle frames, rocking Holmes in the sixth and seven rounds. The momentum shifted again later in the fight, with Norton looking finished in round 13 before rallying in the 14th.

No discussion of the fight would be complete, however, without at least a mention of the epic final three minutes. Ranked seventh on The Ring’s “12 Most Exciting Rounds in Boxing History” list, the closing frame saw the two competitors push through their exhaustion to throw everything they could at each other. Holmes ultimately eked out the win, but as a testament to how evenly matched the two men were, only a single point separated them on each of the judge’s scorecards.

4. Jack Dempsey-Luis Firpo (September 14, 1923)

This 1923 brawl at the Polo Grounds lasted only four minutes. Given the action witnessed by the 80,000 in attendance, it’s safe to say no one walked away disappointed.

A staggering 11 knockdowns occurred over the brief contest, which saw Dempsey facing one of the toughest opponents of his career in Firpo, the “Wild Bull of the Pampas.” Firpo struck first, knocking down Dempsey with a right hand before “the Manassa Mauler” responded emphatically with seven consecutive knockdowns.

Unbelievably, Firpo rallied at the end of the first round, landing a punch so hard that Dempsey went flying through the ropes. It would be Firpo’s final stand, however. After returning to the ring and recovering between rounds, Dempsey put Firpo on the canvas again before finishing him for good with a two-punch combination to the jaw.

3. Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali (March 8, 1971)

The first bout in what proved to be perhaps the greatest trilogy in boxing history was advertised as “The Fight of the Century.” Unbelievably, it lived up to the hype.

A staggering 10 percent of the world’s population tuned in to see Ali return from his three-year banishment from the sport to face heavyweight champion Joe Frazier. Both men were undefeated, and each had reason to believe he was the best heavyweight on the planet.

Ali looked to have the stronger claim early on, as his speed and combination allowed him to control the fight over the first three rounds. Smokin’ Joe’s focus on his opponent’s body began to pay dividends as the bout progressed, however, and upon landing an 11th-round left hook that sent a dazed Ali into the ropes, it was clear the momentum had swung toward the champion. Another Frazier left hook, this one coming in the 15th round, put Ali on the canvas and left no doubt about who was the better boxer that night.

2. Joe Jeannette-Sam McVea (April 17, 1909)

This marathon affair took place at a time when a boxing match could end only one way: by knockout. It took a remarkable 48 rounds for the outcome to be determined, with as many as 38 knockdowns taking place along the way.

The contest pitted Sam McVea, a squat 220-pound American nicknamed the “Oxnard Cyclone,” against Joe Jeanette, a talented boxer from New Jersey. Taking place in Paris, the bout was for what was known at the time as the World Colored Heavyweight Championship.

Many of the details of the contest have been lost to history, but some sources say it was a brutal matchup that, by the end, saw both boxers bleeding profusely. McVea controlled the action for the first 30-something rounds, but Jeanette wouldn’t quit, and after three hours, he had inflicted so much punishment on his opponent that McVea’s eyes were swollen shut. Unable to see, McVea, or perhaps his corner, ended the fight.

1. Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier (October 1, 1975)

Ali had evened the score by defeating Smokin’ Joe in the pair’s 1972 rematch. It would be “The Thrilla in Manila,” then, that would decide which of the two all-time greats would have permanent bragging rights.

The fight, which took place in the sweltering heat of the Philippines, opened with Ali using his speed and reach advantage to pepper Frazier from the outside. Smokin’ Joe kept coming, however, and in the middle rounds of the fight, he mounted a vicious body attack that looked as though it would end the bout.

Unfortunately for Frazier, the relentless offensive wore him down. Ali took advantage, landing so many punches in the double-digit rounds that Smokin Joe’s eyes swelled shut. Despite fighting nearly blind, Frazier refused to quit, frustrating Ali to the point that the latter contemplated throwing in the towel himself. Smokin’ Joe mounted a brave final stand in the 14th round, but after Ali pounded him with punches in the final minute, Frazier’s trainer mercifully put a stop to the contest.

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Harvey Bell

Harvey Bell serves as a managing director, team leader, and senior portfolio manager with Morgan Stanley in West Orange, New Jersey.