The Pugil List: 10 Greatest Trilogies

Photo by the Otto Bettmann Archive/Corbis

Photo by the Otto Bettmann Archive/Corbis


The disappointing rubber match between Brandon Rios and Mike Alvarado further proves how difficult it is for two boxers to produce three great fights in succession. Their last bout was anticlimactic to say the least, ruined by Alvarado’s unprofessionalism, showing the sporting public it takes two committed athletes to create something historic. That is how their third meeting was promoted to the public, with Top Rank Promotions President Todd duBoef a victim of his own hyperbole in hindsight: “Their first two fights were barnburners and arguably ‘Fights of the Year.’ Alvarado and Rios know what is at stake. Fans can expect to see a finale that will rival, if not surpass, the legendary [Erik] Morales -[Marco Antonio] Barrera and [Manny] Pacquiao-[Juan Manuel] Marquez wars.” Lumping Rios and Alvarado with those four Hall-of-Famers was a stretch even if the third fight met expectations.


We should learn through mistakes and disappointments however, so I found this unsatisfactory fight a good reason to reflect on some real all-time great trilogies. I appreciate what Alvarado and Rios did in their first two bouts but even if they had another great battle, they still wouldn’t have made the grade when over a century’s worth of fights is taken into account. So the following is my estimation of the greatest trilogies ever, going back as far back as 1906 and up until 2004.


Now, before you email me, rankings like these are subjective, a matter of preference, so every fan reading this comes from a different perspective and biases, making it impossible to find universal agreement.


Other classic rivalries that were considered: Michael Carbajal-Humberto Gonzalez, Yoshio Shirai-Pascual Perez, Emile Griffith-Benny Paret, Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran, Muhammad Ali-Ken Norton, Antonio Tarver-Roy Jones, Manny Pacquiao-Erik Morales, Jeff Harding-Denis Andries, Paul Pender-Terry Downes, Joel Casamayor-Diego Corrales, Ruben Olivares-Bobby Chacon, Carlos Ortiz-Ismael Laguna, Vinny Pazienza-Greg Haugen, James Toney-Mike McCallum, Jimmy McLarnin-Billy Petrolle, Beau Jack-Bob Montgomery, Gaspar Ortega-Tony DeMarco and Carmen Basilio-Johnny Saxton.


10. Dick Tiger vs. Gene Fullmer – I may get the most pushback for this pairing, not least because Fullmer did not win any of the contests. Perhaps because both men were past their primes, these fights devolved into battles of attrition and despite Fullmer’s failure to win, they were far from one-sided. In their first meeting, neither was a champion, boxing for the title Sugar Ray Robinson vacated and Tiger was true to his name, outpunching a Fullmer who wilted in the final rounds because of blood loss and badly swollen eyes. The second fight was a draw, which the UPI news agency captured perfectly. “Dick Tiger and Gene Fullmer went 15 blood-drenched rounds last night as Tiger retained his world middleweight championship. Fullmer turned Fancy Dan and, darting in and out to land a single blow at a time, piled up an early lead. But Tiger finally caught up in the final two rounds to earn the draw.” The rubber match was held in Tiger’s native Nigeria (the first world title fight in Africa), with Tiger forcing Fullmer on his back foot more than in the first two encounters, convincing Fullmer’s manager to rescue his boxer from further punishment in the seventh round. A trilogy that lands in the “battle of wills” category since the men were mirror images of one another, thus unable to separate themselves because of parallel skill sets.


9. Roberto Duran vs. Esteban De Jesus – Beats Duran’s trilogy with Sugar Ray Leonard because both men were at their best fighting weights. Plus, all three fights where great, whereas bouts two and three of the Leonard bouts were inconsistent. The same way Ken Norton’s style dogged Muhammad Ali, so De Jesus was for Duran, who had a way of countering and timing Duran at every turn. So much so that De Jesus handed Duran his first loss, destroying the Panamanian’s myth of invincibility at lightweight. A win aided by a first round knockdown, a left hook and the fact that De Jesus could push his advantage, knowing it was only a 10-round non-title bout instead of a 15-rounder. A vengeful Duran showed up for the second meeting but again had to rise from a first round knockdown and battle his way back to finally stop De Jesus in the 11th round. The third round was spectacular; both men made stands that let the other know they refused to back down or let the other take over. A third encounter was the most one-sided, with Duran knocking De Jesus down in the first and 12th rounds but again, needed to survive rough patches in which De Jesus punished Duran with expertly-timed potshots. The fights bonded the men and as De Jesus lay dying from AIDS (from a shared heroin needle with his older brother), Duran visited his erstwhile foe a final time, giving the outcast De Jesus a consoling hug and kiss before he passed away.


8. Riddick Bowe vs. Evander Holyfield – For the most part, the boxing axiom that “a good big man beats a good little man” held true but the unrestrained belief and heart Holyfield displayed led him to beat the rule once and put Bowe (who outweighed him by 30 pounds) on the edge of defeat in parts of the other two bouts. There was also the whole ‘Fan Man’ thing in the second fight that gave the series a bizarre air. Given the obvious size mismatch, the high level of boxing was somewhat overshadowed since it was easier to write about Holyfield fighting back from the precipice of defeat in pivotal rounds (round 10 of the first fight is time capsule-worthy) than relay the intrinsic quality of the boxing. However, that line is hard to argue against since everyone loves an underdog story. This became the storyline in the third fight when neither man held a title. Their first meeting was one of the best heavyweight title fights ever, a rematch boasted a circus atmosphere with Holyfield overcoming the odds to regain his title. The third is least appreciated since it followed the script of the larger man dominating and stopping Holyfield in eight rounds despite Bowe needing to rise from a sixth round knockdown. Ironically, despite Bowe winning the three-fight series, many historians may rate Holyfield higher, weighing the entirety of both careers.


7. Battling Nelson vs. Joe Gans – This series could make the list for one reason alone: in terms of style divergence, there is no more stark comparison than that of the smooth boxing Gans…and, well…his caveman opponent. If you called Nelson a caveman to his face, he would not have taken it as an insult, though I am harshly describing him thusly but he was a fighter who traded on endurance and toughness. Their first meeting lasted 42 rounds with Gans finally emerging victorious after a frustrated Nelson was disqualified for low blows after suffering multiple knockdowns. Logic would dictate the same result in the next two fights but it did not turn out that way with Nelson winning the rematches. Both fights went past 15 rounds – 17 and 21 respectively – but perhaps there should be asterisks next to those results since Gans (the first African-American boxing champion) was probably suffering from tuberculosis at the time of the fights. Most newspaper reports had Gans winning at the time of both stoppages but he could not hold off a determined Nelson and his Kamikaze-infused style.


6. Floyd Patterson vs. Ingemar Johansson – For brutal endings, this series tops the list, which accounts for the trilogy only consisting of 14 rounds – but featuring 13 knockdowns! Johansson spectacularly won the title in the first meeting, knocking Patterson down seven times in the third round to take the crown. In the rematch, Patterson became the first heavyweight to regain the world title and it was deemed “Fight of the Year” by The Ring magazine. The leaping left hook that knocked Johansson out is considered one of the most destructive ever thrown. It is the mark of how good a man Patterson was that he did not wildly celebrate the viciousness of the hook but rather knelt next to Johansson to see if he would emerge from an unconsciousness state uninjured. Patterson triumphed in the rubber match; it was also their longest, lasting six rounds and, all things considered, the best of the trilogy. The first round qualifies as one of the best ever in a heavyweight title fight, with Patterson knocked down twice by right hands before he dropped Johansson just before the bell sounded. Patterson had superior recuperative skills and got the better of exchanges over the next three rounds, unleashing a right hand that sent Johansson down for the count in the sixth round. Huge punches and delicate chins make for great fights, as this pair proved three times over.


5. Arturo Gatti vs. Micky Ward – This series proved two things: The first is that a world title need not be on the line to merit a great trilogy. Secondly, the boxers can like each other and become friends to the point in which Ward went on to train Gatti for subsequent fights. The three fights were emotional since this duo traded on the joy of fighting and defying odds, neither willing to give ground to the other unless it was a necessity or one was hurt. Superficially, the fights looked to be about the pain threshold and which boxer could absorb more but it came down to endurance in all three fights with the man who learned more and prepared better emerging victorious. The three fights took place back-to-back-to-back over a span of 11 months. The public’s demand for more dictating ever higher purses that both men earned with their courage and blood. Sports Illustrated captured the best line, quoting Gatti telling Ward after the fight, “I used to wonder what would happen if I fought my twin. Now I know.” In terms of all-time great talents, neither boxer makes the grade but that is why they say, ‘You can’t measure heart’ or calculate the will of an athlete.


4. Barney Ross vs. Jimmy McLarnin – If you combine or mix up all 45 rounds, this may be the most even series and they managed pack all three fights within the span of 365 days. Ethnic rivalries were the norm in 1930s-era boxing, adding fuel and storylines to this already passionate trilogy between boxers of Jewish and Irish ancestry. The first two fights where split decision affairs, held at Madison Square Garden, each drawing over 60,000 spectators with the defending champion losing his title on both occasions. The second fight had the added drama of McLarnin fighting through a grotesquely swollen eye to win and held true to the logic of the day dictating the bout to be one pitting Ross’ speed against McLarnin’s power. The slick-boxing Ross won the rubbermatch by unanimous decision, helping him rise above McLarnin in most all-time rankings, though this McLarnin was nearing the end of his career but entering the three-bout series, he was considered by many the best pound-for-pound boxer of the time.


3. Tony Zale vs. Rocky Graziano – If shifts in momentum are what you enjoy, then this is your series. Their second fight may be one of the 10 greatest events staged for the enjoyment of an audience. No one thought their second fight could match the intensity of the first, in which Graziano hammered Zale mercilessly, only to see Zale stage a comeback for the ages and win via sixth round kayo. This time it was Graziano who played the role of…well, Rocky. Graziano had one other obstacle which Zale did not have in their first meeting: Graziano could hardly see from eyes that were slits on the verge of swelling shut. In the first round, Graziano was cut over the left eye and by the start of the third round, his right eye was swollen shut. Behind on points and with the possibility of a stoppage looming, Graziano lands a huge right late in the fifth round but Zale escapes via the bell. Graziano followed up his advantage in the sixth and scored the first knockdown of the fight. After Zale stumbles to his feet, Graziano literally tries to pound Zale through the ropes with a barrage of punches. Referee Johnny Behr wisely stepped in to stop the fight with Zale glassy-eyed and unable to respond. In his autobiography, Graziano wrote of the second fight, “This was no boxing match. It was a war and if there wasn’t a referee, one of the two of us would have wound up dead.” Their third meeting was anticlimactic but probably only because they beat the life out of each other in the first two fights!


2. Marco Antonio Barrera vs. Erik Morales – The Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier of Mexico? It features the same intense action inside the ring and the pair despised each other with Morales disparaging Barrera for his middle-class upbringing among other things. When the pair first met, Barrera was considered a bit of a spent force but the valiant and controversial way in which Barrera lost the split decision reignited his career. It is also a unique series of fights because each took place at different weight classes and none of the fights resembled the other (the first was simply brutal, the second more tactical and the third mixed the first two) because the two men were talented enough to adapt different strategies to try and win the ensuing bout. All three bouts went the distance, as if both men wanted it this way in order to inflict the most damage possible. For sustained action combined with skill, this may be the most all encompassing trilogy for fans.


1. Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier – The three-bout rivalry by which all others are measured; it transcended the sporting arena, spilling into societal circles making it likely to remain the most celebrated trilogy ever, given boxing’s decline in the sporting hierarchy. At this time, the heavyweight championship was still the most prestigious title in sports, ensuring Ali and Frazier would be inexorably linked to each other despite their obvious dislike for one another. It is hard to add anything unique in terms of describing the three bouts since countless articles and a multitude of books have been devoted to Ali and Frazier both as a pair and individually. Sure, the second fight was a dud but only when compared to the other two. In terms of average heavyweight title fights, their second meeting still stands above most and its build-up surpassed nearly all. The “Thrilla in Manila” rubber match featured the pair at their athletic nadir but the duo still brought out the best in each other to ensure drama and a level of brutality rarely matched since. Their initial encounter (the first between two undefeated heavyweight champions) was decided by a 15th round knockdown scored by Frazier and rightfully dubbed “The Fight of the Century”…enough said!



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