THE upcoming showdown between Filipino Manny Pacquiao and American Floyd Mayweather Jr. has been dubbed ‘Fight of the Century,’ a rare tag given to a fight in pro boxing. The description connotes a showdown that whets the appetite of even the most casual boxing fan; a match that features two super nova stars with the accompanying suspense and grandeur.
Through the years, the punch-for-pay business has had its share of ‘Fights of the Century.’ Before the heavyweight division was invaded by gloved zombies from Europe, it was the repository of ‘Fights of the Century.’ It was not until the 1980s, when welterweight Sugar Ray Leonard emerged as a marquee player, that fighters in the lower weight divisions started taking part in fights of such magnitude.
The first fight to earn the label ‘Fight of the Century’ was the heavyweight showdown between Americans Jack Johnson and James Jeffries on July 4, 1910 in Reno, Nevada. On December 26, 1908, Johnson became the seventh and most controversial heavyweight champion in history when he hammered Tommy Burns in 14 rounds. Johnson became boxing’s first black heavyweight champion and his color, coupled by his arrogance and flirtation with white women, prompted a massive search for the ‘Great White Hope’ who could end his reign. When five white challengers were all dumped by Johnson, promoters turned to retired former champion Jeffries. Jeffries retired unbeaten (19-0, 16 knockouts) as heavyweight champion in 1904 and was persuaded to leave his farm to take on Johnson.
Jeffries, however, was already 35 years old and his weight had ballooned to almost 300 pounds after six years of inactivity. Still, the fight generated tons of attention with the fighters receiving a US$10,000 signing bonus and sharing a then unheard of combined purse of $101,000. So huge was the match that no less than United States President William Howard Taft was offered to act as the referee.
Jeffries was a 2-to-1 favorite, but Johnson dominated throughout. Johnson could have taken out Jeffries early but chose to take his time before finishing the latter for good in the 15th round. A black fan, who celebrated upon hearing news of Johnson’s win, ended up getting his throat slashed.
Pro boxing didn’t have another ‘Fight of the Century’ until June 1938, when Joe Louis defended the heavyweight crown against German Max Schmeling at the Yankee Stadium, New York. The political tension between the United States and Germany gave the fight a “win for your country” landscape. Schmeling was accompanied by a German publicist who dictated everything he said during the interviews with the media. Before the fight, US President Franklin Roosevelt told Louis that America needed his muscles to beat Germany. In the fight proper, Louis blasted Schmeling into smithereens in one round, sending him straight to the hospital with several crack vertebrae in his back.
The next ‘Fight of the Century’ took place in March 1971, when world heavyweight champ Joe Frazier defended the crown against a comebacking Muhammad Ali. The 15-round showdown featured the two best heavyweight boxers of the time, both Olympic gold medal winners, both undefeated (Ali was 31-0 while Frazier was 26-0) as professionals. The venue was Madison Square Garden in New York and the purse was a then unprecedented $2.5 million each. The fight created World Series-like attention with radio, television and print media running several stories about it. Hollywood celebrities showed up at ringside, with no less than Frank Sinatra serving as a photographer for Life magazine.
The fight lived up to expectations. Frazier fought the fight of his life and floored Ali in the 15th round with a spectacular left hook. Ali survived the ordeal but dropped a unanimous decision. Ali figured in two more ‘Fights of the Century’ thereafter, stopping George Foreman in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in 1974 and Frazier in the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ in 1975.
The last ‘Fight of the Century’ in the heavyweight class happened in June 1988, when unbeaten heavyweights Mike Tyson and Michael Spinks collided in New Jersey. It was the richest fight in boxing at the time, grossing in the vicinity of $70 million. Tyson, the defending champ, was guaranteed $20 million and Spinks $13.5 million. Negotiations for the fight took some time, with Tyson’s camp accusing Spinks of being scared stiff of ‘Iron Mike.’ The fight was dubbed ‘Once and for All’ in reference to the fact that Spinks was questioning Tyson’s claim to the title. Tyson erased all doubts by knocking out Spinks in just 91 seconds.
The heavyweight division plummeted into the doldrums after the Tyson era, allowing boxers in the lower weight divisions to earn ‘Fight of the Century’ attention. Welterweight Leonard got the ball rolling for the ‘little guys’ in 1981, when he scored a pulsating 14th round stoppage of Thomas ‘Hitman’ Hearns in their unification showdown. Six years later, in April 1987, Leonard returned from a three-year hiatus to beat Marvin Hagler by controversial decision in one of the biggest fights and upsets in boxing history.
Leonard’s success, coupled by the heavyweight division’s continued downhill trek, paved the way for the ideal arrival of Oscar De La Hoya. In 2007, De La Hoya battled Mayweather Jr. in what remains to this day as one of the richest and most publicized fights in boxing history. Mayweather Jr. won the fight, a feat he hopes to duplicate come May 2 when he figures in his second ‘Fight of the Century’ opposite our very own Pacquiao.