When boxing fans are treated to a magnificent bout between two warriors they’re usually rewarded with a rematch. If the loser of the first contest should happen to avenge the defeat then a rubber match is typically held to decide who’s best. In some cases the combatants may even fight for a fourth, fifth or sixth time. For example, Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta went at it half a dozen times with Robinson winning the rivalry 5-1.
In fact, trilogies and multiple-fight series were actually quite common up until the 1960s, but they then lost their lustre. They were more or less revived in the 1970s when Muhammad Ali returned from three years of exile and took on Smokin Joe Frazier in a trilogy before doing the same with Ken Norton. This list consists of the 12 best trilogies-plus in boxing history. Ten of the rivalries were true trilogies while the other two consisted of four bouts.
12. Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Roberto Duran
The Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Roberto Duran trilogy peaked with the ‘Brawl in Montreal’ in June, 1980 with WBC Welterweight Champ and Olympic gold medalist Leonard losing for the first time as a pro. The two went toe-to-toe with “The Hands of Stone” winning a close 15-round unanimous decision in front over over 45,000 fans. After quite a bit of trash talking the rematch took place five months later at the Superdome in New Orleans, with Leonard changing his tactics.
The young American decided to box instead of slug it out and frustrated the Duran with his skills to the point he reportedly cried out “No Mas” and quit during the eighth round. Leonard was up by two, two and one point at the time Duran packed it in. The finale didn’t take place until 1989 when there wasn’t really any public interest in the bout and Leonard defended his WBC Super Middleweight Title by a wide unanimous decision at Caesars Palace.
11. Esteban De Jesus vs. Roberto Duran
Before facing Leonard, Roberto Duran had already fought a trilogy with Puerto Rico’s Esteban De Jesus. The two first met in a non-title match in 1972 when De Jesus dropped Duran in the first round and handed the WBA Lightweight Champ his first loss via a 10-round unanimous decision at Madison Square Garden. A rematch took place two years later in Panama City in a lightweight title fight. It was deja vu all over again when Duran was floored in the opening round for the second straight time by De Jesus. However, this just ticked the champion off and he knocked De Jesus out in the 11th.
The rubber match took place in 1978 with De Jesus hitting the deck this time in the first round. Duran then stopped him in the 12th at Caesars Palace to retain the WBA and WBC Lightweight Crowns. De Jesus gave Duran tons of problems in their 33 rounds of action and proved the Panamanian wasn’t invincible as many thought he was.
10. Jimmy McLarnin vs. Barney Ross
Jimmy McLarnin and Barney Ross battled it out for 45 rounds within a year and there wasn’t much between the two, as they were just that evenly matched. The two first met in May, 1934 with Ross of New York City as the reigning Lightweight and Junior Welterweight Champion and McLarnin of Northern Ireland as the Welterweight titleholder. Ross took the welterweight belt with a 15-round split decision in New York. The rematch took place at the same venue four months later with McLarnin regaining his title via split decision.
The tiebreaker went down in May, 1935 once again in New York, with Ross taking the trilogy and the welterweight title back with a close unanimous decision. The three fights pulled in 155,000 fans total and they were treated to McLarnin’s power vs. Ross’ speed in three give-and-take bouts.
9. Manny Pacquiao vs. Erik Morales
Manny Pacquiao’s first of three trilogies was completed against Mexican warrior Erik Morales. The vacant IBA and WBC International Super Featherweight Titles were on the line when they first clashed in Las Vegas in 2005. Morales took those belts home with a close 12-round unanimous decision in a thrilling fight to end the Filipino’s six-year winning streak.
Pacquiao got his revenge in the rematch in January 2006 in Vegas, when he stopped Morales in the 10th round of another highly entertaining contest. It was the first time Morales had ever been stopped. The trilogy came to a sudden and violent end just 10 months later at the same venue when Pacquiao knocked the Hall of Famer Morales out in the third round to claim his superiority and make a name for himself on the world stage.
8. Floyd Patterson vs. Ingemar Johansson
Three fights, 13 knockdowns, and three knockouts! Welcome to the Floyd Patterson vs. Ingemar Johansson trilogy, which lasted just 14 brutal rounds in total. Patterson of Waco, North Carolina was the reigning World Heavyweight Champion and Johansson of Sweden was a 1952 Olympic silver medalist. The two met at Yankee Stadium in June 1959 with Johansson decking Patterson a total of seven times in the third round to take the title by TKO.
The rematch was held at the Polo Grounds in New York a year later, with Patterson becoming the first man to regain the heavyweight title. He did so by knocking Johansson out cold with a tremendous left hook in the fifth round in Ring Magazine‘s Fight of the Year. The decider took place in Miami Beach nine months later with Patterson going down twice and Johansson once in the first round alone. Patterson then took his opponent out in the sixth to take the trilogy. The defeats to Patterson were the only losses in Johansson’s pro career.
7. Manny Pacquiao vs. Juan Manuel Marquez
Trilogy fans got 33.3 percent more than they bargained for, since Manny Pacquiao and Mexico’s Juan Manuel Marquez went toe-to-toe four times And other than the fourth fight, they were all controversial. They first met in May 2004 with Pacquiao retaining his WBA Super Featherweight Title by 12 round split decision draw. He decked Marquez three times in the first round, but couldn’t finish him off. A rematch was held March 2008 when Pacquiao won a split decision to retain his WBC Crown in close fashion.
A third match was held in November 2011 with Pacquiao once again getting the nod in a slugfest, this time by majority decision to keep his WBO Welterweight Title. The fourth exciting battle came 13 months later with Pacquiao down in the third round and Marquez down in the fifth. However, PacMan was knocked unconscious as he fell face first to the ring in the sixth when Marquez connected with a thunderous right hand.
6. Tony Zale vs. Rocky Graziano
The Tony Zale vs. Rocky Graziano NBA World Middleweight Title bouts saw tremendous ebbs and flows as both Americans took control for periods of time. Graziano looked to be in the driver’s seat in the first bout in September 1946, but Zale fought back and knocked Graziano out in the sixth round. The rematch was held in July 1947 and Graziano’s eyes were swelling shut after just a few savage rounds.
He looked to be in a hopeless position as the Ring Magazine Fight of the Year may soon be stopped, but he started throwing bombs and dropped Zale in the sixth round. When Zale rose he was met with an onslaught of punches and the fight was stopped as he almost went through the ropes. The third fight was held June 1948 with Zale avenging his knockout by stopping Graziano in the third round after decking him in the first.
5. Riddick Bowe vs. Evander Holyfield
The contrasting styles of unbeaten American heavyweights Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield made for three fantastic fights, complete with plenty of fireworks. Holyfield was more of a puncher who liked to get inside, while Bowe preferred to box from the outside — but they could both slug and move in the ring. They traded bombs each fight, starting with their first meeting in November 1992. Holyfield was the undisputed champ at the time, but “Big Daddy” Bowe was 30 pounds heavier and took the titles by unanimous decision in Ring Magazine‘s Fight of the Year.
They met a year later outdoors in Las Vegas, the fight with the infamous FanMan interruption (when a man parachuted into the ring in the seventh round). After a 21-minute delay Holyfield regained the IBF and WBA Titles by majority decision. Bowe was down in the sixth round, but decked Holyfield twice in the eighth of the non-title rubber match in November 1995 before stopping him. All bouts were action packed with the 10th round of the first fight being one of the best stanzas in heavyweight history.
4. Rafael Marquez vs. Israel Vazquez
Israel Vazquez and fellow Mexican slugger Rafael Marquez took part in four fascinating bouts with the second and third contests being named Ring Magazine‘s Fight of the Year for 2007 and 2008. Vazquez was the WBC World Super Bantamweight Champ when they met in March 2007, but was stopped at the end of seven exhausting rounds. The rematch was held four months later with Vazquez regaining his title via a sixth-round TKO.
They were back in the ring seven months later for the rubber match. This was 12 rounds of non-stop action with Marquez losing a point for low blows in the 10th round and being dropped in the 12th to secure a split decision for Vazquez. The fourth fight was held in May 2010, so both boxers had time to heal — Vazquez underwent three operations on his damaged eye. Vazquez’s eyes were badly cut early though and he was stopped in the third round. They never had a fifth fight to break the deadlock though due to the severe punishment that was dished out in their four brawls.
3. Marco Antonio Barrera vs. Erik Morales
Another great all-Mexican rivalry took place between Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales. This trilogy featured intense action right from the get-go in the first fight in February 2000, which was Ring Magazine‘s Fight of the Year. Morales was the WBC Super Bantamweight Champ and Barrera the WBO titleholder. After a dozen breathtaking rounds, Morales won by controversial split decision.
The rematch came in June 2002 with Morales now the WBC Featherweight Champion. Barrera got his revenge in another classic as he was awarded a close unanimous decision even though he was dropped in the seventh round. It was two years later when the series was decided, with Morales now the WBC Super Featherweight Titleholder. This meant all three fights were held in different weight divisions. Barrera took the trilogy with a razor-thin majority decision in 2004’s Fight of the Year.
2. Micky Ward vs. Arturo Gatti
For all-out action, the most exciting trilogy was probably the one between former Italian-born WBC World Super Lightweight Champion Arturo “Thunder” Gatti and journeyman “Irish” Micky Ward of Lowell, Massachusetts. These guys put on three straight classic brawls within a span of just 13 months. The only problem was all three wars were just 10-rounders instead of 12. The first and third bouts were named as Fight of the Year for 2002 and 2003, as they featured all-out offense, heart and determination combined with little in the way of defense.
The fights took place in May and November 2002 and June of 2003. Ward took the first fight by majority decision after dropping Gatti in the ninth round with wicked body shots. Gatti then rebounded to win the last two by unanimous decisions after decking Ward in the rematch and getting up from the canvas in the finale. The pair became great friends with Ward retiring after the third pulsating contest and helping train Gatti.
1. Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier
The Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier battles featured a little bit of everything. This included two unbeaten heavyweight champs, Grade A trash talking, historical significance, and 41 rounds of pure drama and excitement. In addition, the first and third bouts were named Fight of the Year by Ring Magazine (and everybody else who saw them). The third outing, the “Thrilla in Manila,” is regarded as one of the most punishing heavyweight duels ever witnessed.
To recap these classics; Frazier dropped Ali in the 15th and final round at Madison Square Garden in 1971 with a perfect leaping left hook to win a unanimous decision in the “Fight of the Century” and retain the WBA and WBC Titles. Ali took the rematch at the same venue in January 1974 via a 12 round unanimous decision in a non-title bout. Ali also won the finale in Manila when a bloodied and bruised Frazier wasn’t allowed out for the 15th round by trainer Eddie Futch. Ali retained the WBA and WBC Titles with the win and was ahead by four, five, and six points on the scorecards with a round to go.