The Most Dramatic Trilogies in Boxing History
By Graham Houston
Special to ESPN.com
One win apiece; now for the decider. The rubber match has long been a part of boxing history, the fight meant to settle the question of supremacy after each boxer has beaten the other. We have such a fight on Saturday when Israel Vazquez faces Rafael Marquez.
Here are 10 other notable rubber-match trilogies.
10. Arturo Gatti-Micky Ward
The first fight between Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward at the Mohegan Sun on May 18, 2002, was so intensely exciting that the subsequent installments could never match it although both were excellent bouts. Gatti, down from left hooks to the body and almost stopped in Round 9, rallied to out-punch Ward in the 10th round of the astonishing initial meeting. The split decision in Ward's favor could have gone either way. There was no question about who won the next two fights, both at Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City -- unanimous decisions for Gatti each time. The Jersey City favorite dropped Ward in the second fight, but he had to get off the canvas to win the rubber match, which was the only fight between the well-matched junior welterweights in which the boxer who scored a knockdown ended up losing the fight.
9. Michael Carbajal-Humberto Gonzalez
Only the first fight between 108-pound champions Michael Carbajal and Humberto "Chiquita" Gonzalez truly lived up to expectations. It was the thriller everyone had hoped to see, with Carbajal surviving two knockdowns to knock out Gonzalez in the seventh round of a marvelous match at the Las Vegas Hilton on March 13, 1993. The switch-hitting (orthodox to southpaw and back again) Gonzalez fought an aggressive, power-and-pressure fight that night -- and got caught when seemingly on his way to winning.
In the two subsequent meetings, in Los Angeles and Mexico City, Gonzalez switched to a savvy, counter-punching strategy as constructed by his trainer Ignacio Beristain, to win close points verdicts over his hard-hitting rival from Phoenix, Ariz.
8. Riddick Bowe-Evander Holyfield
There is little doubt that the first fight between Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas on Nov. 13, 1992, was the greatest of the trilogy, a bruising battle that saw the smaller Holyfield hurt in the 10th and dropped in the 11th but continue to give and take punches to the bitter end.
The rematch at Caesars Palace a year later had the famous "fan man" incident when an attention-seeker with a propeller-apparatus strapped to his back parachuted into the crowd, interrupting the fight. After a 21-minute intermission, the bout resumed and Holyfield won a majority decision.
Their rubber match at Caesars Palace on Nov. 4, 1995, had its exciting moments as Bowe survived a heavy knockdown in the sixth round to knock out Holyfield in the eighth in a clash of ex-champs.
7. Muhammad Ali-Ken Norton
All three of Muhammad Ali's fights with Ken Norton were closely fought. Although Norton lost the series 2-1, he scored probably the most decisive victory, breaking Ali's jaw in an upset, split decision win at San Diego on March 31, 1973.
Ali finished strongly to eke out a split decision in the rematch at the Inglewood Forum, Los Angeles, on Sept. 10 of the same year.
The third fight, at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 28, 1976, was the only championship fight of the series, with Ali winning a unanimous but controversial decision. Norton was the aggressor and heavier hitter but Ali scored with jabs and combinations.
The BBC's Harry Carpenter informed the British viewing public after 14 rounds that "Norton's a long, long way ahead -- there can't be any doubt about that." At the final bell, Carpenter intoned: "We have a new heavyweight champion." The referee and two judges, though, all had Ali a narrow winner.
6. Floyd Patterson-Ingemar Johansson
Floyd Patterson, knocked down seven times in the third round of his first heavyweight championship fight with Ingemar Johansson at Yankee Stadium on June 29, 1959, trained with monk-like dedication for the rematch. He sensationally gained revenge with a fifth-round knockout victory at the Polo Grounds in New York on June 20, 1960.
The rubber match at Miami Beach on March 13, 1961, did not capture the imagination in quite the same way as the first two meetings but Arthur Daley of The New York Times described it as "the best fight of their annual series by far."
Patterson was down twice, Johansson once, in the wild opening round. In the sixth, Patterson put Johansson down with two successive chopping right hands. Johansson got up too late to beat the count, although, in the words of San Francisco Chronicle reporter Jack Fiske, the Swedish boxer "feebly protested he was ready to continue."
5. Emile Griffith-Benny Paret
Emile Griffith's welterweight championship series with Benny "Kid" Paret ended in tragedy after two well-matched contests.
Griffith won the first encounter by 13th round KO at Miami Beach on April 1, 1961 -- but Paret eked out a split decision in the rematch at Madison Square Garden on Sept. 30 of the same year.
Weigh-in taunts by Paret are thought to have provoked the unusually violent, vicious attack by Griffith in the 12th round of the rubber match at Madison Square Garden on March 24, 1962.
Paret, pinned in a corner, was pounded by a succession of right-hand smashes as referee Ruby Goldstein watched as if transfixed. Paret never recovered consciousness and died in hospital 10 days later.
4. Barney Ross-Jimmy McLarnin
Barney Ross and Jimmy McLarnin had a scorching three-fight series for the welterweight title in New York City in the 1930s, with the first two bouts ending in split verdicts but Ross winning the decider by unanimous decision.
Each bout attracted huge interest, in part due to the ethnic rivalry involved, with the Jewish Ross, from Chicago, meeting an Irish fighter who had defeated celebrated Jewish boxers such as Louis "Kid" Kaplan, Sid Terris, Ruby Goldstein, Al Singer and a sadly faded Benny Leonard.
Ross snatched victory by weathering a middle-rounds surge by McLarnin to finish strongly in the first meeting at Madison Square Garden Bowl, Long Island, on May 28, 1934.
McLarnin turned the tables in the rematch, again at the Long Island Bowl but ringside writers were divided.
The third fight, at the Polo Grounds, saw Ross get the unanimous decision -- but Jack Miley wrote in The New York Daily News that "the fight was closer than Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in a last-reel fade-out."
3. Marco Antonio Barrera-Erik Morales
All three title fights between Mexican rivals Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales took place in Las Vegas and spanned three weight classes: super bantam, featherweight and super featherweight.
Each time, the decision was disputed but especially the split verdict in favor of Morales in the first fight, at the Mandalay Bay resort casino on Feb. 19, 2000.
The rematch on June 22, 2002 at the MGM Grand saw Barrera score a unanimous decision victory -- but not everyone liked the careful, counter-punching style he used in the first half of the fight.
Even though the rubber match at the MGM Grand on Nov. 27, 2004 saw Barrera barely winning a majority decision on the scorecards, he probably gave his best showing of the series, as I reported from ringside for Boxing Monthly: "Morales, make no mistake, was the boxer who suffered the most in what truly could be called an epic 12-rounder between two of Mexico's greatest fighters of recent years."
2. Tony Zale-Rocky Graziano
Boxing historians consider the first two middleweight title fights between Tony Zale and Rocky Graziano to have been among the greatest in history, each man scoring a sixth-round victory.
In the first meeting at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 27, 1946, Graziano, the slugger from the East Side of New York, was the betting favorite over the older defending champion Zale, who had won six bouts after four years' service in the navy. Each man was dropped in the first two rounds, but Zale wore down Graziano with body blows.
The rematch at Chicago Stadium on July 16, 1947, was just as dramatic and thrilling. Graziano, cut over the left eye, right eye swollen and closing, rallied to overwhelm Zale in the sixth with what The New York Times described as a "thunderous shower of full-arm rights and lefts to the head, face and jaw."
Perhaps inevitably, the rubber match on June 10, 1948 at Newark, N.J., proved to be anticlimactic, with Zale knocking out Graziano in the third round -- it was as if Rocky had burned himself out in the first two wars.
1. Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier
The fierce heavyweight rivalry between Muhammad Ali and Smokin' Joe Frazier started and continued at Madison Square Garden and finished in the Philippines. In the much-anticipated initial counter on March 8, 1971, it was Frazier who almost certainly suffered the greater damage even though he pounded out a stirring victory. The rematch on Jan. 28, 1974, with no title at stake, was in some ways a disappointment, a tactical rather than truly exciting contest as Ali clinched and fought in spurts to win a decision.
Ironically, the third meeting on Oct. 1, 1975, the celebrated Thrilla in Manila, when each man was in decline, produced the greatest fight of the series in terms of back-and-forth action. Frazier could hardly see through bruised and swollen eyes when his trainer, Eddie Futch, retired him at the end of the 14th round. The New York Times' legendary columnist Red Smith noted: "It has been a series both men can remember with pride -- and pride has been the spur for both."
Graham Houston is the American editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for fightwriter.com.