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The 10 Most Iconic Bouts in Boxing History

The 10 most iconic boxing matches of all time is not the same as a roll call of the 10 greatest. Some of the fights on this list were not even particularly good, let alone great. But they were all perfectly iconic and emblematic of the sport during their era, and often symbolic of the era during which they occurred beyond boxing. Which boxing bout took you off your seat?
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The 10 most iconic boxing matches of all time is not the same as a roll call of the 10 greatest. Some of the fights on this list were not even particularly good, let alone great. 

But they were all perfectly iconic and emblematic of the sport during their era, and often symbolic of the era during which they occurred beyond boxing. 

Which boxing bout took you off your seat?
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With his stunning, come-from-behind knockout of the fearsome George Foreman, Muhammad Ali proved to the world that he was, indeed, the greatest. The fight echoed Ali's stoppage of Sonny Liston a decade earlier, as Ali once again defeated a heavyweight champion widely viewed as unbeatable.

As an event, the Ali-Foreman clash resonated far beyond sports. In his debut as a major boxing promoter, Don King built an entire cultural festival around the big fight, featuring the Godfather of Soul James Brown and blues legend B.B. King, among others.

The fight's location itself was iconic, as it took place in a soccer stadium in Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo). An international hero, Ali was the favorite of the local fans, who famously chanted "Ali, Bomaye!" ("Ali, Kill Him!") throughout the fight. 
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Muhammad Ali KO 8 George Foreman, October 30, 1974

With his stunning, come-from-behind knockout of the fearsome George Foreman, Muhammad Ali proved to the world that he was, indeed, the greatest. The fight echoed Ali's stoppage of Sonny Liston a decade earlier, as Ali once again defeated a heavyweight champion widely viewed as unbeatable.

As an event, the Ali-Foreman clash resonated far beyond sports. In his debut as a major boxing promoter, Don King built an entire cultural festival around the big fight, featuring the Godfather of Soul James Brown and blues legend B.B. King, among others.

The fight's location itself was iconic, as it took place in a soccer stadium in Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo). An international hero, Ali was the favorite of the local fans, who famously chanted "Ali, Bomaye!" ("Ali, Kill Him!") throughout the fight. 

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After a half-decade of delay, this so-called "Fight of the Century" was much more of a dud than a bang. 

Still, it was the most-watched and lucrative boxing match in history, and for better or worse, it's emblematic of this current era of the "1 percent" vs. "the 99." 

In Las Vegas, the private jets of the rich and famous packed McCarran International Airport. Inside the MGM Grand, an endless stream of celebrities filed past the cameras.

Meanwhile in the Philippines, the poor crowded close together to watch the satellite feed on outdoor screens. 

And even if the fight itself lacked drama, the pageantry surrounding it was clearly iconic. For younger fans, it was a moment of edification, and for older fans, it was a welcome reminder that no other cultural event can rival a big-time prizefight when it comes to making the entire world stop and pay attention. 

For the first time in a generation, the Mayweather-Pacquiao clash raised the Sweet Science back to the glamour it deserves. 
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Floyd Mayweather Jr. UD 12 Manny Pacquiao, May 2, 2015

After a half-decade of delay, this so-called "Fight of the Century" was much more of a dud than a bang. 

Still, it was the most-watched and lucrative boxing match in history, and for better or worse, it's emblematic of this current era of the "1 percent" vs. "the 99." 

In Las Vegas, the private jets of the rich and famous packed McCarran International Airport. Inside the MGM Grand, an endless stream of celebrities filed past the cameras.

Meanwhile in the Philippines, the poor crowded close together to watch the satellite feed on outdoor screens. 

And even if the fight itself lacked drama, the pageantry surrounding it was clearly iconic. For younger fans, it was a moment of edification, and for older fans, it was a welcome reminder that no other cultural event can rival a big-time prizefight when it comes to making the entire world stop and pay attention. 

For the first time in a generation, the Mayweather-Pacquiao clash raised the Sweet Science back to the glamour it deserves. 

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No sporting event in history has had the kind of anticipatory buildup, popular culture significance and lasting iconic resonance that the first fight between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali generated. This was a clash between two dominant and undefeated heavyweight champions.

Beyond that, each fighter was assigned an emblematic role representing opposing sides in the political and cultural conflicts tearing apart the nation.

Ali had spent the 1960s transforming himself from an Olympic hero to a controversial symbol for the most radical elements of the civil rights and anti-war movements. In 1967, he was stripped of the heavyweight title for refusing induction into the United States Army.
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Joe Frazier UD 15 Muhammad Ali, March 8, 1971

No sporting event in history has had the kind of anticipatory buildup, popular culture significance and lasting iconic resonance that the first fight between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali generated. This was a clash between two dominant and undefeated heavyweight champions.

Beyond that, each fighter was assigned an emblematic role representing opposing sides in the political and cultural conflicts tearing apart the nation.

Ali had spent the 1960s transforming himself from an Olympic hero to a controversial symbol for the most radical elements of the civil rights and anti-war movements. In 1967, he was stripped of the heavyweight title for refusing induction into the United States Army.

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This was another iconic international heavyweight clash during the 1970s, as Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier traveled to the Philippines for the rubber match of their classic, three-fight rivalry. 

Compared to the first bout between Ali and Frazier, or Ali's challenge of George Foreman the previous year, this fight was somewhat under the radar. Frazier had been smashed in just two rounds by Foreman in 1973, and the second fight between Ali and Frazier, in 1974, had lacked the grand drama of their first meeting, in 1971. 

But once the bell rang, Ali and Frazier combined to turn in the greatest heavyweight fight in history. They set a record for punches thrown in a heavyweight bout and both pushed themselves well beyond the limits of endurance for normal men. 
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Muhammad Ali TKO 14 Joe Frazier, October 1, 1975

This was another iconic international heavyweight clash during the 1970s, as Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier traveled to the Philippines for the rubber match of their classic, three-fight rivalry. 

Compared to the first bout between Ali and Frazier, or Ali's challenge of George Foreman the previous year, this fight was somewhat under the radar. Frazier had been smashed in just two rounds by Foreman in 1973, and the second fight between Ali and Frazier, in 1974, had lacked the grand drama of their first meeting, in 1971. 

But once the bell rang, Ali and Frazier combined to turn in the greatest heavyweight fight in history. They set a record for punches thrown in a heavyweight bout and both pushed themselves well beyond the limits of endurance for normal men. 

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This was the fight that kicked off one of boxing's greatest eras, the age of "The Four Kings," the nickname collectively assigned to Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Marvelous Marvin Hagler by sports writer George Kimball, in his book of the same name. 

Leonard was sport's emerging golden child, taking over for the retired Muhammad Ali as the face of boxing. He even shared Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee. After establishing himself as a household name by winning gold in the 1976 Olympics, Leonard had cruised through the professional ranks, winning the WBC welterweight belt from the great Wilfred Benitez in 1979.

Duran was already a living legend when he moved up in weight to challenge Leonard. Throughout the 1970s, he had compiled a record of 71-1 and established himself as arguably the greatest lightweight in history.
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Roberto Duran UD 15 Sugar Ray Leonard, June 20, 1980:

This was the fight that kicked off one of boxing's greatest eras, the age of "The Four Kings," the nickname collectively assigned to Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Marvelous Marvin Hagler by sports writer George Kimball, in his book of the same name. 

Leonard was sport's emerging golden child, taking over for the retired Muhammad Ali as the face of boxing. He even shared Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee. After establishing himself as a household name by winning gold in the 1976 Olympics, Leonard had cruised through the professional ranks, winning the WBC welterweight belt from the great Wilfred Benitez in 1979.

Duran was already a living legend when he moved up in weight to challenge Leonard. Throughout the 1970s, he had compiled a record of 71-1 and established himself as arguably the greatest lightweight in history.

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While the Jack Johnson-James Jeffries fight was emblematic of an era marred by racial oppression, Joe Louis' 1938 demolition of Max Schmeling was an iconic moment in the country's movement toward becoming a genuine melting pot. 

Louis exploded onto the heavyweight scene in the mid 1930s. Under the tutelage of former lightweight contender Jack Blackburn, his raw physical gifts were transformed into a near-perfect heavyweight boxer. 

In 1935, he had knocked out former heavyweight champions Primo Carnera and Max Baer. In his first meeting with Schmeling in 1936, he was expected to add a third former champion to his list of victims. 
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Joe Louis KO 1 Max Schmeling, June 22, 1938

While the Jack Johnson-James Jeffries fight was emblematic of an era marred by racial oppression, Joe Louis' 1938 demolition of Max Schmeling was an iconic moment in the country's movement toward becoming a genuine melting pot. 

Louis exploded onto the heavyweight scene in the mid 1930s. Under the tutelage of former lightweight contender Jack Blackburn, his raw physical gifts were transformed into a near-perfect heavyweight boxer. 

In 1935, he had knocked out former heavyweight champions Primo Carnera and Max Baer. In his first meeting with Schmeling in 1936, he was expected to add a third former champion to his list of victims. 

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More than 30 years after he exploded onto the scene as a teenage wrecking ball, Mike Tyson is still one of the most high-profile boxing figures in the world, appearing in movies and starring in his own one-man show on Broadway. 

Tyson's campaign to become the youngest heavyweight champion in history remains one of the most exciting times in the history of the sport. In the late 1980s, Iron Mike's swath of destruction in the ring made him a mainstream star. 
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Mike Tyson KO 1 Michael Spinks, June 27, 1988

More than 30 years after he exploded onto the scene as a teenage wrecking ball, Mike Tyson is still one of the most high-profile boxing figures in the world, appearing in movies and starring in his own one-man show on Broadway. 

Tyson's campaign to become the youngest heavyweight champion in history remains one of the most exciting times in the history of the sport. In the late 1980s, Iron Mike's swath of destruction in the ring made him a mainstream star. 

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Few champions in history have known the kind of adulation Jack Dempsey enjoyed. The Manassa Mauler won the heavyweight belt from the Jess Willard in 1919, a giant of more than 6'6 ½", who Dempsey dropped seven times in the first round. 

That title win by Dempsey launched the first "Golden Age" of the sport. Dempsey was rivaled only by Babe Ruth in terms of mainstream popularity during the 1920s.
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Gene Tunney UD 10 Jack Dempsey, September 22, 1927

Few champions in history have known the kind of adulation Jack Dempsey enjoyed. The Manassa Mauler won the heavyweight belt from the Jess Willard in 1919, a giant of more than 6'6 ½", who Dempsey dropped seven times in the first round. 

That title win by Dempsey launched the first "Golden Age" of the sport. Dempsey was rivaled only by Babe Ruth in terms of mainstream popularity during the 1920s.

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This classic prizefight between Jack Johnson and James Jeffries was perfectly emblematic of the sorry state of race relations at the turn of the 20th century, within the living memory of slavery.

Johnson was the first man of African heritage to win the heavyweight championship of the world, when he thoroughly outclassed Tommy Burns in 1908. White America reacted to his ascendancy with horror, and the bold Johnson did nothing to placate their fears. He was a proud and exceptionally intelligent man who took pleasure in poking at the angry wound felt by racist America. 
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Jack Johnson KO 15 James Jeffries, July 4, 1910

This classic prizefight between Jack Johnson and James Jeffries was perfectly emblematic of the sorry state of race relations at the turn of the 20th century, within the living memory of slavery.

Johnson was the first man of African heritage to win the heavyweight championship of the world, when he thoroughly outclassed Tommy Burns in 1908. White America reacted to his ascendancy with horror, and the bold Johnson did nothing to placate their fears. He was a proud and exceptionally intelligent man who took pleasure in poking at the angry wound felt by racist America. 

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The first heavyweight championship fight of the gloved era, this battle between James J. Corbett and John L. Sullivan perfectly fit the archetype of the legendary, but aging, warrior vs. the hungry young challenger.

During the 1880s, Sullivan had become America's first sports superstar and its first pop culture icon. He was an explosively powerful athlete who demolished the toughest men in the world with ease. After capturing the bare-knuckle championship of the world from Paddy Ryan, he traveled the country, offering $500 to any man who could last four rounds with him in gloved exhibitions. 
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James J. Corbett KO 21 John L. Sullivan, September 7, 1892

The first heavyweight championship fight of the gloved era, this battle between James J. Corbett and John L. Sullivan perfectly fit the archetype of the legendary, but aging, warrior vs. the hungry young challenger.

During the 1880s, Sullivan had become America's first sports superstar and its first pop culture icon. He was an explosively powerful athlete who demolished the toughest men in the world with ease. After capturing the bare-knuckle championship of the world from Paddy Ryan, he traveled the country, offering $500 to any man who could last four rounds with him in gloved exhibitions.