Azad Championship Report
To kick off Manny Pacquiao-Tim Bradley week in a positive fashion, I thought it a good idea to review the 10 greatest welterweight title clashes ever and to see what the duo has to live up to. Anytime Manny Pacquiao enters a ring, there is the possibility of having a “Fight of the Year” on our hands and of the 10 fights I chose, four were voted The Ring magazine “Fight of the Year.” Bradley seems the type of dance partner to provide enough heart and guts- though his style is problematic- to push Pacquiao into a spectacular give-and-take brawl. We will see how their fight plays out but for them to crack this top 10, the pair will have to deliver a thrilling bout in view of the strong competition. For them to do so would be a huge accomplishment, considering there is 124 years worth of history covering over 100 champions.
I had hundreds of world title bouts to select from, the most recent dated to 2011 while the earliest took place in 1915. Welterweight has been a traditionally strong weight class, only suffering in terms of talent in the early-1900s, early-1940s and perhaps late-1980s. Pairing it down to 10 bouts was no easy task but certainly worth the effort considering the 10 fights that managed to stand out above the others in an exceptionally deep and rich division, historically. Only two of the fights do not include a surefire Hall of Fame entrant participating and just one occurred within the last 20 years. With any luck, I will have to consider adding another to this list after Saturday.
10. Ted Lewis W 12 Jack Britton II (August 31, 1915) - There is no film of this classic but plenty of ink was devoted to the contest of Hall-of-Famers who had over 300 bouts between them. These two had a legendary series of fights, real grudge matches that spanned 20 mean-spirited bouts over five years. They exchanged the world title between themselves four times and their second fight stands out as a particularly entertaining affair which was the genesis of their rivalry. It is their first meeting with the world title on the line and blood flowed freely. Lewis proved the faster but surprised Britton by forsaking his punch in favor of pinpoint accuracy. Lewis was, in essence, playing Britton’s game and proving more efficient with the exception of a first round knockdown. Lewis’ larger upper body enabled him to get the better (bumping with his shoulder or following through with an elbow) of Britton in tight quarters and sealed the win with an 11th round knockdown. In a rare moment of sportsmanship between the two, Britton told Lewis, “I guess you knew too much for me tonight. Maybe we’ll meet some other time.” Talk about an understatement; they would do it 18 more times.
9. Carmen Basilio TKO 9 Johnny Saxton II (September 12, 1956) – This clash fittingly took place at the War Memorial Auditorium. It is also a rematch with the first fight going to Saxton via a disputed 15-round decision. You knew Basilio was getting the better of this fight because it featured brawling instead of smooth and calculated counterpunching. Basilio marched forward behind his dependable left hook, this time managing to force the slicker Saxton to engage him. Give Saxton credit; for five rounds, he stood toe to toe with the stronger man before rethinking an obviously flawed plan of engaging the slugger. Basilio’s early body attack served its purpose and he was able to cut off the ring as Saxton tried to dance out of danger. Saxton paid for the early miscalculation in style, wilting under the pressure but still fighting back. In the seventh, more body work obviously hurts the champion, who is fading fast but landing some well-timed counterpunches. By the ninth round, referee Al Berl had seen enough, calling a halt to the beating although Saxton was still on his feet at the time of the stoppage.
8. Victor Ortiz W 12 Andre Berto (April 16, 2011) – This was an up-and-down affair with both men scoring knockdowns that would have left other champions on the canvas. Berto was seen as a gifted but pampered champion yet to face the best while Ortiz moved up from junior welterweight, trying to escape a notorious loss to Marcos Maidana. Ortiz proved he had heart, depositing Berto on the canvas in the first round, but Berto returned the favor in the next round as Ortiz tried scoring an early stoppage. The drama escalated in the sixth round when both boxers were knocked down, though Ortiz looked the more damaged. The pair figured out they could be hurt by each other and both took a more cautious approach in the second half of the fight without relenting in terms of punch output or passion. The supposedly smaller Ortiz bullied the fight late, pounding his opponent inside with hard shots to his ribs and landing punches to the head of a Berto seemingly glued to the ropes to help him stay up. Though deducted a point for hitting behind the head in the 10th, Ortiz won by unanimous decision in a fight whose rematch was scuttled by Berto testing positive for a steroid.
7. Simon Brown TKO 10 Maurice Blocker (March 18, 1991) - Best friends should not treat each other this way! The duo grew up together in Washington DC area gyms, each going on to claim a world title and decided to unify the titles with fantastic results. At the time of the stoppage, Blocker was ahead on the scorecards by one and two points while the hard-charging Brown closed the points gap by diminishing their distance. Brown was surprised by Blocker’s willingness to engage him early, not able to press the advantage of styles that favored him. The long-armed Blocker got off punches faster and his straighter punches were landing before Brown’s looping hooks. The rail-thin Blocker began to weaken under a persistent body attack, trying with less and less success to maintain distance. It was a race against time that Blocker lost by six minutes. With Blocker’s stamina gone, Brown landed a left hook that sent down a fatigued Blocker. The champ courageously got up but a follow-up flurry forced referee Mills Lane to stop a stream of uninterrupted hooks.
6. Carmen Basilio TKO 12 Tony DeMarco I (June 10, 1955) – This duo combined to put forth two of the most historically overlooked classics in all of boxing. Perhaps some of the drama is taken away because Basilio won both bouts, but the action these two provided certainly merits more attention. In their initial classic, these two left hook masters drove punches into each other at a frightening rate. It became obvious early that the winner was going to be man who could absorb more punishment instead of who could dole out more. Each was cut and swollen by the fourth round but the telling difference was the body work Basilio put in. With these two hard heads, it made all the difference and paid dividends for Basilio when he put an eroding DeMarco down twice in the 10th. In the 12th, Basilio scores another knockdown and this time, the fight was taken out of DeMarco…until the rematch, that is!
5. Barney Ross W 15 Jimmy McLarnin (May 28, 1934) - Two legends meet for the first time in a closely contested trilogy. It was an era of ethnic rivalries and the Irish McLarnin had a way of besting Jewish boxers of the time. It was left to Ross to turn the tide, producing the type of result legends are made of. Ross surprises McLarnin by boxing instead of coming forward behind his usual avalanche of punches. McLarnin was the larger man but could not match the hand speed of Ross in the first four rounds. As it progressed, the bout evened with McLarnin timing his challenger’s punches. The SportsCenter highlight comes in the ninth round when both boxers taste the canvas. Stamina, and perhaps McLarnin’s brittle hands, tells over the stretch run as Ross lands the heavier blows. It was in the championship rounds when Ross separated himself, sweeping the final three stanzas to win a split decision. The duo split their next two fights; never reaching the heights that this mix of intelligent boxing, momentum swings and flashes of fury create.
4. Carmen Basilio TKO 12 Tony DeMarco II (November 30, 1955) - This bout did their epic first encounter two seconds better, another way of saying DeMarco lasted two more seconds this time. The fight was a carbon copy of their classic first encounter but ranks above it on the strength of one left hook by DeMarco. In the seventh round, DeMarco landed a blow that would have kayoed any life form not named Basilio. After absorbing the punch, Basilio was effectively fighting on instinct, clearly hurt and out on his feet. Basilio clinched, fell into and tried his best to throw punches that would keep the swarming DeMarco off him. Still hurt in the eighth, Basilio, the walking definition of slugger, tries his best to get on the balls of his feet and move until his wits returned. Instead, he absorbs more blows...but survives. In the 10th, Basilio found his legs and senses and proceeds to go after DeMarco with malice. By the 12th, DeMarco was a spent force, his one big change wasted, and is twice sent to canvas by hooks. Basilio had shown the better finishing touch and killer instinct.
3. Kid Gavilan W 15 Carmen Basilio (September 18, 1953) – This time, Basilio proves to be as exciting in defeat as he was in victory. It is Basilio’s first world title fight and the unknown upstart is rightly installed as a four-to-one underdog. Basilio shocks everyone, flooring Gavilan in the second round (only the second time in Gavilan’s 111 fights) and continues to push his strength advantage through six rounds. In today’s game of 12-round title fights, Basilio might have taken the title but Gavilan was a wonder of endurance and fortitude. Instead of relying on his usual volume punching, Gavilan uses a sharp jab and counter right hand to create the distance he needs. Whenever Basilio gets close, Gavilan fires a fast hook and clinches, not pretty but surely effective. The jab was telling, closing Basilio’s left eye and stopping his forward momentum. Even though the fight was held in Basilio’s hometown, the judges rule against him 8-6-1, 7-6-2, and 5-7-3.
2. Roberto Duran W 15 Sugar Ray Leonard I (June 20, 1980) – Memo to Sugar Ray Leonard’s ego: You don’t fight Duran’s fight, no matter how great you are. Leonard got away with that mistake against Thomas Hearns but Duran was another matter. This was a case of a master boxer goaded into a brawl by the brashness of his indomitable challenger. Over 46,000 fans filled a chilly Montreal stadium to watch a fight that would determine who the pound-for-pound champion would be. If you didn’t know Leonard was losing the first half of the fight, a tip-off was the fainting of his wife, Juanita, in the eighth round. Credit must given to Leonard for planting his feet and flurrying in the face of Duran’s assaults. More and more, it became obvious to the judges that Duran was in charge of the pace of the fight and cutting off the ring masterfully. The bout featured high-class counters and intelligent leads by both men, a classic for boxing purists as well as gore junkies. Uncharacteristically, Duran coasted and gave away the last two rounds that made the scoring closer at 146-144, 145-144, and 148-147. Does anyone else assume that Duran was thinking about the post-fight party in the 15th round while Ray Leonard was thinking rematch?
1. Sugar Ray Leonard KO 14 Thomas Hearns (September 16, 1981) - This fight is remembered for a reversal of styles as Leonard turned stalker while Hearns unveiled his previously underrated boxing acumen. Some still question the stoppage, where Leonard threw flurries but failed to connect on the majority at Hearn’s wobbling head. Controversies cannot overshadow great fights and this is the case here as well. Leonard overcame the early deficit and a badly swollen left eye to start a dramatic comeback beginning in the sixth round. Leonard staggered Hearns several times as Hearns was clearly faltering in the stamina department- something Hearns fans would come to expect in later years. No doubt, Hearns was still dangerous but he was telegraphing punches more as the rounds ratcheted up with the drama. Leonard saw this and capitalized, using his speed to potshot the leg-weary challenger. A classic fight between two champions in their primes, not to be duplicated until Julio Cesar Chavez and Meldrick Taylor teamed up nine years later…but that is a story for another day.