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In sifting through what is a disappointingly limited number of boxing trilogies, we considered even more than just the quality of the fights and fighters to produce ESPN.com's list of best all-time threesomes.
These trilogies feature many "Fights of the Year," "Fighters of the Year," and all-time great rounds and punches thrown. There are also great upsets in these rivalries.
Many boxers here are considered among the best ever in their divisions, such as Tony Zale, Jimmy McLarnin, and Roberto Duran; while others, Muhammad Ali, Ray Leonard, Emile Griffith and Joe Gans, are believed to stand at the very summit of the sport itself, regardless of weight class. And all of them had hearts that wouldn't quit. (Well, maybe not Duran.)
But a few of these trilogies also transcend boxing, indeed the world of sports. Those fights and fighters had significance that crossed cultural and social boundaries. They continue to rivet and inspire, sometimes even a century after punches were thrown, bells rung and bruises healed.
In other words, this list of the best of boxing's triptychs is about more than entertainment value and the visibility of certain fighters and divisions. Some of these man-on-man clashes have become woven into the very fabric of our American experience, and stand as vivid and violent metaphors for their time.
If you want to keep it simple, though, here's a list of thrill-a-minute knock-down, drag-outs that have kept fight fans more than satisfied for nearly 100 years.
A note on what didn't make the list. As with any top-10 collection, something famous or interesting is inevitably forgotten or kicked to the curb. So, our honorable-mention short list gives a quick nod of approval to the 1959-61 battles between heavyweights Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson as well as the 1987-90 lightweight go-rounds of Greg Haugen and Vinny Pazienza. Both troikas deserve praise, but ultimately were edged out of the limelight by the quality of their competition.
And a wealth of competition it's been:
|The Zale-Graziano rivalry was notable for its gore.|
|More than 40 years after his fatal fight with Paret, Griffith (foreground) and his story still intrigue.|
The rubber match between the two, who were just entering their primes as all-time great fighters, began on a sour note when Paret called Griffith a Spanish homosexual slur at their weigh-in. Griffith, the subject of the recent documentary "Ring Of Fire," never has acknowledged that his pounding of Paret was because of his rage over Paret's taunting. But the stage was set for a heated battle in the third fight.
Though Paret decked Griffith in the sixth, the challenger dominated afterward. In the 12th, Griffith unleashed an attack that tangled Paret in the ropes, where the Cuban suffered 18 unanswered blows before the ref stopped the fight. Paret was carried out on a stretcher and died 10 days later of injuries sustained in the ring. Televised before a national audience, the brutal end of the fight and the resulting death led to boxing's absence from TV until the 1970s.
|Barrera, left, did enough to win a unanimous decision over Morales in 2002.|
The rematch reversed their roles, and though "El Terrible" pressed the action, his battered face told another tale. Barrera, who'd fought a more technical bout this time, now wore the WBC featherweight crown. Again critics howled at the decision. In 2004, the sworn enemies tangled a third time in a go-for-broke 12-rounder aptly titled "Once and For All," which captured another FOY honor. The breathtaking rage of the fighters kept them center-ring, chin to chin, firing barrages of punishing shots until the very last second. Barrera won a majority decision, as one judge called the fight a draw and the others scored it 113-115 and 114-115. With both fighters still active -- and their mutual hatred unrelenting, this rivalry has a shot to move into the Top 10 foursomes of all time.
|Arturo Gatti, left, and Micky Ward clearly brought out the best in each other.|
Gatti vs. Ward II was more of the same, though the old-school scrapper Ward found it harder to draw Gatti out of his jab-n-move style this time, and dropped the decision. Their rubber match in June 2003, though not as evenly fought, earned the year's FOY nod nonetheless. Gatti, his hand broken in Round 4, still took the fight to what looked to be a wearied Ward -- and again won the decision. Ward retired after the bout, making the last three fights of his career one of the best trilogies ever.
|The Fan Man added a touch of the surreal to the Bowe-Holyfield trilogy.|
Their rematch pitted a heavier "Big Daddy" against a more determined challenger, and Holyfield took a majority decision for the IBF and WBA belts. Bowe vs. Holyfield II also memorably featured an absurdist Shakespearian brawl-within-a-brawl in Round 7. Just when Holyfield had Bowe pinned on the ropes, pummeling away at the big man, the crowd roared in a way that distracted the aggressor.
Holyfield stopped his attack, looked up, then invited Bowe to join him. Parachuting into the ring was James Miller, aka The Fan Man, who tripped in the ropes in Bowe's corner and instantly was pounced on and beaten senseless by the champ's entourage. Following a 20-minute uproar, the title bout resumed, and Holyfield captured the second of his four world championships.
The pair fought a fierce rubber match in 1995 without a title at stake, and though Holyfield floored Bowe in the sixth, he fell victim to a thundering Bowe side-swipe in the eighth that stopped the fight. Exhausted and dehydrated in the last two rounds, Holyfield had not yet revealed that he'd been suffering from hepatitis.
Their rematch six months later, though the outcome was disputed by many, showed Ali's greater respect for his challenger, as he boxed his way to a split decision. Ali vs. Norton III at Yankee Stadium was just as fiercely and closely contested, with Norton again the more productive fighter and pressing the action. Though the unanimous decision for Ali was widely debated at the time, Norton's sizzling aggression and production distracted critics from what the judges saw: Ali, not yet in his dotage, taking seven of the fight's 12 rounds and snatching points for a superior final-round showing.
|"Hands of Stone" met "Sugar Ray" in the "No Mas" fight.|
The pair's rematch at New Orleans' Superdome stands out not for how it raised the standard of trilogy bouts, but for its transcendent moment of the bizarre. The Panamanian tried again to lure Leonard into a street fight, but the challenger wouldn't be tempted. Leonard teased Duran, clinching and retreating, using every inch of the squared circle to run from a down-n-dirty slugfest that favored his opponent. Frustrated by the futility of chasing Leonard into the eighth round, Duran finally just turned his back to the American at the end of the round, twice uttering boxing's most infamous two words, "No mas, no mas," as he quit the fight.
Leonard vs. Duran III, nine years and several "retirements" later, featured two older and decidedly worn warriors contesting Leonard's WBC super middleweight title. Again, Leonard took the cautious -- and, to many fight fans, boring -- route, and grabbed a lopsided decision, dancing away as Duran gave chase.
On Labor Day 1906, Gans entered the ring to defend his title in what would become the longest gloved championship bout under Marquis of Queensbury rules; a 2-hour, 50-minute battle royale that pitted him against the Chicago-transplanted Dane who would become his nemesis. Gans took the fight to his white opponent, breaking his hand in the 33rd round. But Gans closed Nelson's left eye and caused him to bleed from his ears, mouth, nose and the cuts on his face. In Round 42, Nelson floored Gans with a low blow, and Gans retained his title by disqualification.
But the fight took its toll on the victor. Gans, reputedly a natural 140-pounder, was forced into an agreement by Nelson's manager that required him to weigh in three times on fight day at 133 pounds. The combination of Gans' weight loss and his slugging through 42 rounds in the hot Nevada sun are thought to have contributed to his contracting tuberculosis.
Gans vs. Nelson II in 1908 saw the former champ suffering the effects of TB, as newspaper accounts from the time described him as ashen and "shivering" in the ring. Though Gans was game early, staggering Nelson in the second and drawing blood in the third, the fatigue associated with TB set in all too quickly, and Nelson scored a 17th-round KO to take Gans' title. A short two months later, Gans challenged for his old belt and dominated in the early rounds, but again succumbed to exhaustion and was counted out in round 21.
"The Old Master" boxed only once more, in 1909, then died of TB the following year, weighing only 84 pounds. Fighting under today's limited-rounds rules, Gans might have finished this trilogy as the champion he entered it as, but nothing could make his performances against Nelson and legacy to boxing more awesome.
The host of Sportscolumn.com's "Weekly NFL Picks" podcast, Teri Berg is a freelance writer for Maxboxing.com and a variety of online publications. She can be reached through her blog, Berg At Bat, or you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.