Every fan of “the sweet science” has his or her favorite boxing matches—the fights that have become legendary due to the historical significance surrounding them, the high drama between the contenders, and the technical artistry displayed.
While the following aren’t the only iconic contests by any means, they top many fans’ and sports journalists’ lists of the all-time greatest.
Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle”
On October 30, 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), “The Greatest” met “Big George” in the ring. Ali, with his characteristic blustering poetic sense, dubbed the fight “the Rumble in the Jungle.”
Both fighters were former Olympic gold medalists, but Foreman was the favorite going in. He was younger than Ali by seven years, bigger and more physically powerful, and by most accounts in better shape. He was also the reigning world heavyweight champion, having beaten Joe Frazier the previous year.
The 32-year-old Ali had only made his come-back in 1970, after being criminally indicted and exiled from professional competition for his refusal to be drafted into the armed forces during the Vietnam War. Foreman’s recent notable wins included not only Frazier, but the formidable Ken Norton as well.
But Ali used his famous “rope-a-dope” strategy—pioneered by the great Archie Moore—in which he leaned back into the ropes and allowed his opponent to wear himself out delivering punch after punch. In the eighth round, Ali struck. His hard right resulted in his KO of Foreman, a victory celebrated by his fans around the world.
Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier in the “Fight of the Century”
Turning the clock back a few years, we’re at March 8, 1971, when Ali and Frazier battled for the heavyweight crown in “The Fight of the Century” in New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Ali’s endurance was lower, his reflexes were dulled, and his rhythms were off, due to his only recently returning to the ring. The match-up with Frazier would be his third come-back bout, after his victories against Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena.
Frazier, who had gained the heavyweight title in Ali’s absence, ended up winning in a 15-round decision, after both men brutally pounded on each other. Frazier floored Ali with a vicious left hook, Ali got up again, and Frazier won on points, in a unanimous decision.
Historians provide us with some additional context. Ali had by then become a leading icon of the civil rights struggle, for his vocal refusal to go to war on behalf of a country that treated African Americans like second-class citizens. In 1964, shortly after defeating Sonny Liston to win his first heavyweight championship, Ali renounced his birth name, Cassius Clay, and joined the Nation of Islam with his new name, Muhammad Ali.
Frazier, through circumstances that had little to do with who he was as an individual, became the “establishment” contender simply by being a “workaday” boxer who steered clear of public identification with politics. Their match-up stood in for the political and cultural battles that were searing the country in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
Manny Pacquiao vs. Juan Manuel Márquez in “The Fight of the Year 2012”
These two fighters developed one of the greatest rivalries in modern memory before the culmination of their feud on December 8, 2012, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The contenders dealt each other five rounds of brutal slugging, before Márquez, sporting a broken and blood-soaked nose, KO’d Pacquiao with his right to put a finish to the sixth round, just before the 3-minute mark.
The two men’s animosity had started at the featherweight stage, and ended at the 147-pound level. Márquez went into the match with plenty to prove, having lost two of his previous three encounters with Pacquiao, and finishing the third in a draw.
The Mexican-born Márquez retired from boxing in 2014. Pacquaio, nicknamed “PacMan,” announced his retirement from boxing in September 2021. Already serving as a senator in his native Philippines, he announced that he’d be running for president against the country’s strongman leader—and former Pacquaio political ally—President Rodrigo Duterte.
Micky Ward vs. Arturo Gatti in the “2002 Ring Magazine Fight of the Year”
American-born fighter “Irish” Micky Ward and the Italian-born Canadian Arturo Gatti sustained another of boxing’s most dramatic rivalries. On May 18, 2002, they faced each other at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut, each an accomplished fighter with a string of storied wins behind him. Sports writers have described this bout in exquisite prose, lingering often over its now-legendary Round 9. But the contest was also so punishing that both men needed trauma-level hospital treatment after it.
Gatti started off dominating the match, which then went back and forth. Ward found his power in Round 8. He pummeled Gatti in Round 9, whose power in rising back up before the bell and striking back with everything he had sealed his status as a warrior-hero. Ward used his famed left hook to full advantage. By the conclusion of Round 10, it was all in the hands of the judges, who narrowly declared Ward the victor.
Gatti died under mysterious circumstances in 2009. Ward retired in 2003. Tragically, he has been diagnosed, like so many in the sport, with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Fans still remember the pair’s succeeding matches, and how they developed a close friendship, with Gatti once saying that in Ward, he had found his “twin.”