James Foley returns to Bad Left Hook today with a look at recent fights that would qualify for a possible return of the HBO series, Legendary Nights.
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In 2003, HBO produced the excellent, twelve-part series Legendary Nights. Each episode detailed one of the biggest, most memorable or most bizarre fights on the network from the previous thirty years. A common refrain amongst boxing fans has been a desire for a new batch of Legendary Nights episodes featuring some of the great or wacky fights of the past decade, or maybe revisiting some older fights that didn't make the cut the first time around. At the moment, the chances of HBO actually doing this are about the same as them replacing Larry Merchant with Bobby Czyz. But a man can dream. Forthcoming are the twelve fights I would nominate as the subjects.
There are a couple of very strong candidates I didn't choose because I felt like the stories have already been adequately covered on 24/7, namely Manny Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez 1 and 2 and Antonio Margarito-Miguel Cotto 1. Also, remember these are strictly HBO fights. No Diego Corrales-Jose Luis Castillo, Julio Cesar Chavez-Pernell Whitaker, Rafael Marquez-Israel Vasquez or Holyfield-Mike Tyson. But since Showtime has a Staredown for a Face-off, a Fight Camp 360 for 24/7 and a Giampa for a Lederman, maybe they can spin off a Marvelous Evenings to capture some of their epic material. Also, there was one episode on the first-run about the entire Riddick Bowe-Evander Holyfield trilogy. Though there were some great trilogies available, I limited myself to one fight per episode.
9/29/2001 Bernard Hopkins TKO12 Felix "Tito" Trinidad
It's been over eleven years since this fight and it's not a reach to say we haven't seen a fight with two fighters this good, in their respective primes, since that night. Trinidad was undefeated, beloved, and respected. He had beaten the #1 ranked welterweight Oscar De La Hoya in 1999, albeit controversially. He put the #1 junior-middleweight, Fernando Vargas, on the canvas five times in one of 2000s best fights. And upon moving to 160, Trinidad absolutely obliterated the #2 ranked middleweight William Joppy in a TKO5 to gain the WBA strap. Hopkins, the long-time IBF middleweight belt-holder and #1 ranked middleweight for years, was on a run of twelve straight title defenses. Yet it was Trinidad, the pound-for-pound darling and Puerto Rican icon, who found himself a 3-1 favorite going into the fight despite having fought only once in the division.
The fight began slowly, with Trinidad stalking and Hopkins boxing in an uneventful first round. In the second, Hopkins worked the jab, moving around Trinidad and staying out of range from Tito's vaunted power. With just seconds remaining in the round, having appeared disinterested in throwing any kind of power shot to that point, Hopkins uncorked a big right hand over the top that caught Trinidad flush on the chin. Tito held and ended the round on his feet, but he was hurt.
For the rest of the evening, Hopkins executed a brilliant game-plan centered around tight defense, movement, a measuring stick jab, and hard right hands to the head when he found openings. When Trinidad got more aggressive in the middle rounds, Hopkins traded with him and pushed him back with superior combination punching. The clinic was turning into a beating going into the final round, but Trinidad valiantly forged ahead. Hopkins landed another big right that snapped Tito's chin and put him on the canvas. He barely beat the count on unsteady legs and bloodthirsty referee Steve Smoger was willing to let the fight go on, but Trinidad's father mercifully threw in the towel from the corner.
Pre-fight subplots: Hopkins threw a Puerto Rican flag to the ground at a press conference in San Juan, nearly inciting a riot. The fight was at Madison Square Garden just a few weeks after September 11, 2001 and there was very much an element of American pride in people getting together to celebrate a great event in the aftermath of a tragedy, making the emotions in the stadium run a bit higher than the norm.
Post-fight implications: Effectively marked the end of Felix Trinidad as an elite fighter and became the cornerstone of Hopkins' argument as one of the greats of his era.
HBO bits: Commentator George Foreman ludicrously resisted the fact that Hopkins was dominating the fight, pretty much refusing to give Hopkins any credit until Trinidad was on a plane back to his hacienda. After the fight, Foreman quipped: "Can somebody find my words....so I can eat them?"
5/18/2002 Micky Ward MD (95-93, 94-93, 94-94) Arturo Gatti
Throw boxing skill out the window, for pure unmitigated violence between two all-action warriors this is the fight. The ninth round was something out of a Rocky movie, surreal exchanges as the combatants swapped massive shots to the body and head. There was the indelible image of Gatti, looking like he was sleepwalking, blindly slugging away, his incredible courage on its' most righteous display as he appeared on the verge of collapse yet rallied back to stun Ward in the middle of the round. By the end of the round, it was Ward delivering the heavy blows. Gatti probably didn't know where the hell he was but that didn't mean he was done fighting. Incredibly they made it through another round and to the final bell, where Ward eked a close decision, clearly the better man over the second half of the fight.
Pre-fight subplots: Gatti had the action-star credentials going in, a multiple fight-of-the-year winner for his crazy bloodbaths with Gabriel Ruelas and Ivan Robinson. Gatti began his career all the way down at 130 lbs, a quick young fighter with great power for the weight and actually a pretty good boxer. As he moved up in class and weight, he showed himself to be a man who wasn't afraid of a firefight; in fact he seemed to like it. And so he would usually abandon form and end up standing in front of a man trading bombs, routinely finding himself badly hurt only to rally back and stagger his tormentor at some point. He won some and lost some but there were always fireworks in a Gatti fight. Prior to this fight with Ward, a devastating TKO5 loss to Oscar De La Hoya really illustrated the massive gulf between Gatti and the best in the sport. But matched correctly and a Gatti fight could be glorious. Enter Micky Ward, entirely adept at going toe-to-toe as proven by his terrific battle with Emanuel Augustus, the Ring Magazine fight of the year for 2001.
Post-fight implications: The two men spent the night in the hospital together and actually became quite friendly. A respectful trilogy was born. The second fight was good, the third another classic war. Gatti won both by decision and took the series. The three Gatti fights were the last three fights of Ward's career. In 2010, Micky was the subject of an Oscar nominated film, The Fighter, where he was portrayed by Mark Wahlberg in maybe his finest performance since Dirk Diggler. The year before, 2009, Gatti died under mysterious circumstances in Brazil. There's plenty of territory for HBO to mine on these two guys.
HBO bits: The cartoonishly violent ninth round featured probably my favorite Emanuel Steward call of all time: "You dream of fights like this, but very seldom do they live up to expectations.....this is MORE THAN YOU CAN DREAM OF!!!"
6/21/2003 Lennox Lewis TKO6 Vitali Klitschko
Probably the last great "significant" heavyweight fight, this 2003 affair was the final professional bout of Lewis' career. The champion looked out of shape and winded early on, appearing to have underestimated the 6'7 technician across the ring. Klitschko went jab, jab, jab, big right hand, repeat. Lewis was wobbled a few times in the opening rounds. In the third, Lewis found a home for a monster overhand right and opened a "horrid gash" (Jim Lampley's characterization) on Klitschko's eye-lid. Vitali bravely fought on and continued to out-box Lewis but before too long the blood was flowing like the River Ganges, and Vitali's vision and morale were both taking a hit.
In the fifth round, Lewis landed a couple of devastating uppercuts on the inside, shots that would have put most mere mortals to sleep. Klitschko's head snapped back but he plodded forward, face and upper body drenched in blood. Klitschko had been criticized harshly years before for walking away from a big lead against Chris Byrd with a shoulder injury and just three rounds to go. He was determined to prove his mettle this time around, but the gaping wound was out of control by the end of the sixth. Vitali vehemently protested as the ringside physician refused to let him continue, and Lewis had another signature win to add to his legacy. As for Klitschko, any questions about his heart were dispelled. Any questions about his chin, which had never been tested like this, were resoundingly answered.
Pre-fight subplots: Lewis was winding down a hall of fame career, coming off a career-best payday from his knockout win over a faded Mike Tyson. Klitschko appeared to be nothing more than a competent challenger, if that. Klitschko's best known moment at that point was also his most infamous, the retirement against Byrd. Lewis weighed in heavier than ever before at 256.5 pounds. The only other time he had tipped 250 he had been knocked out in his first fight with Hasim Rahman.
Post-fight implications: Many people called for a rematch, considering Klitschko had been very successful in the early rounds before getting cut in one of the worst possible spots. Lewis called it a career. Vitali has gone 12-0 (9 KO) since this fight, cementing his own legacy and making the win for Lewis look better and better by the day.
HBO bits: Don't remember anything too huge from the broadcast team, but Klitschko's bellows of "NOOO! NOOO! NOOO!" in the ensuing moments after the stoppage were legendary.
5/15/2004 Antonio Tarver TKO2 Roy Jones Jr.
When the unexpected happens, there are always those who will go back and say we should have seen it coming. There were warning signs. I'm not sure anyone could have predicted what unfolded on this night. Jones was the best fighter on the planet in the twilight of his career. Tarver was a good fighter who had given Jones his closest, and most disputed, fight just six months earlier. Jones-Tarver I was a competitive and entertaining fight, both rarities for Roy because of how dominant and unhittable he usually was. Against Tarver, he was able to use his speed and awkward punching angles to win the battle in the center of the ring but when he found himself back to the ropes, Tarver pounded on him and probably hurt him more than anyone ever had.
Tarver's bursts were showy and dramatic but infrequent, and Jones banked a lot of rounds, ultimately winning a majority decision I can't really find fault with. Winning aside, it was anything but the dominant performance people expected out of the pound-for-pound king. Jones got hit a lot and seemed more vulnerable than ever before. It would have surprised no one if Tarver picked up the pace and outpointed him in the rematch. Jones blamed his performance on the significant weight loss he had underwent before the fight, coming down 25 pounds from a foray in the heavyweight division. Before the opening bell of the sequel, with a bewildered Jay Nady wrapping up instructions, Tarver taunted Jones with the classic "You got any excuses tonight, Roy?"
The first round showed little hint of what was to come. Jones boxed, circled around Tarver and threw flashy punches, winning the round on all three cards. About two minutes into the second round, the southpaw Tarver connected with an overhand left counter that perfectly crunched Jones' chin, knocked him unconscious and reeling to the canvas. Somehow Jones came to his senses and made it to his feet but he stumbled forward clearly unable to continue and Nady waved it off. Tarver had knocked out the invincible superman, Roy Jones Jr.
This is the perfect kind of fight for "Legendary Nights", the end of an era for the greatest fighter of his generation, a night filled with stark images and genuine sadness.
Pre-fight subplots: Tarver had been chasing Jones for a while and talked a ridiculous game leading up to the first fight. Some, and first and foremost on that list was Antonio Tarver, were convinced he had won the first fight. As Larry Merchant noted, Jones found himself in the position of having to "avenge a win".
Post-fight subplots: Roy Jones was done as a world-class fighter. His last great performance was in the first fight with Tarver, a fight where he battled against conditioning and summoned up the heart to gut things out against a determined opponent. After being brutally extinguished, Jones hinted that he would never fight again, which sadly turned out to be untrue.
HBO bits: The cameras found Jones in his locker room after the fight, putting on a brave face but clearly hurting on the inside. He mumbled about not having the desire to keep fighting, a proud, once-phenomenal athlete desperate to convince himself he was mentally not there, rather than admit to his very real physical decline and limitations.
11/27/2004 Marco Antonio Barrera MD (115-113, 115-114, 114-114) Erik Morales
Barrera and Morales waged the best trilogy of the 2000s and one of those fights has to be represented. Picking which one is tough. The first and third (as often seems to be the case with trilogies) were clearly better than the second, which only picked up after six rounds of pretty straight-forward boxing. I chose the third, thinking it would offer the best storylines and something close to a definitive resolution. I actually think the original was the best fight but the third would make a better episode, for what it's worth.
Barrera had been destroyed by Manny Pacquiao a year before the third fight, speed being the major factor in his demise. Barrera's many ring wars seemed to have finally caught up with him. Morales had only lost once in his career, in the second fight with Barrera. A lot of people had Morales winning that fight, but many, including myself, felt even more strongly that Barrera had been jobbed when Morales eked a tight decision in the first fight. It was poetic justice.
The series was dead even. Morales was favored, thought to be the fresher man not having suffered the type of beating Barrera had. Very quickly the notion of a favorite went out the window. When Marco Antonio Barrera fights Erik Morales, both men are going to hell and back. They may both end up standing, indeed they did in all three fights, but they'll take more punishment than most men take in ten fights. In the end, the winner doesn't really matter to anyone but them. These fights were about pride and the bitterness that flowed from Morales at the end of the night, when Barrera offered a consolation and was rudely rebuffed, showed the level of enmity and intensity at least one of the participants felt. Morales hated Barrera because he hated to lose. Barrera hated Morales because he thought he was a punk. In the eyes of boxing fans, and I should say non-partisan boxing fans, it didn't matter who won: what they created together was so incredible, riveting and memorable, both of these guys became legends, and they only have their worst ring enemy to thank for that. Whether they like it or not, Barrera and Morales will always be intertwined, each man's story ultimately defined by the beautiful music they made together.
Pre-fight subplots: I think I covered that: hated each other, already fought two classics, that whole thing.
Post-fight implications: Barrera basked in the win and deservedly so, but he never again rose to these heights as a fighter. Morales came back to etch what will probably end up the biggest win of his career when he beat Manny Pacquiao in one of the best fights of the decade in 2005. He is the only man to have defeated a prime Manny Pacquiao.
HBO bits: Jim Lampley sounding orgasmic in the last minute: "A RAGING PASSION from both fighters!!!! ....They SAVAGELY TRADE until the final bell!!!....MY GOD! WHAT A FIGHT!!.....What these two guys have given to the sport can't be quantified!"
Agreed on all counts!
Since this is turning into a Russian novel, I'm going to condense my last seven fights. There's plenty of other worthy picks, and undoubtedly better fights, but that's why it's called "personal choices".
6/7/1997 Ike Ibeabuchi UD (117-111, 116-113, 115-114) David Tua
This was a modern mini-classic of the heavyweight division with both men combining to throw about 50,000 punches and also an opportunity for a portrait of the enigmatic Ike, one of the sport's most fascinating and disturbing subjects.
12/19/1997 Naseem Hamed KO4 Kevin Kelley
This late 90s classic featured epic pre-fight trash talk from two interesting, compelling characters, a preposterously lavish, insane ring entrance from Hamed and both guys hitting the deck multiple times in a four-round barnburner.
12/2/2000 Felix Trinidad TKO12 Fernando Vargas
The pairing of two undefeated fighters, a Puerto Rican and a Mexican (Mexican-American in this case, but I think the Aztec warrior entrance and mariachi band spoke for themselves), and two power punchers at that, set the recipe for an explosive night. From the chilling ring entrances to the wild action, with Vargas staggered and down twice in the first to come back and put Trinidad on his ass in the fourth, this fight delivered on all cylinders, and remains a crowning moment in the great career of Felix "Tito" Trinidad.
3/19/2005 Erik Morales UD (115-113, 115-113, 115-113) Manny Pacquiao
Pacquiao showed more in this loss than 98% of fighters do in wins, relentlessly coming forward with his dazzling speed and lightning-quick combinations despite taking a ton of abuse for his troubles, but it was Morales whose beacon shined just a little brighter as he consistently controlled the ring and timed Pacquiao with pinpoint counters all night. Lampley's head almost exploded in the closing minute and Merchant got off one of his all-time classics: "Erik Morales is an orchid born in a ghetto...Manny Pacquiao is an orchid born in a rice paddy....and they're tough as weeds".
4/8/2006 Floyd Mayweather UD (119-109, 117-111, 116-112) Zab Judah
This bizarre entry featured the epic ring skirmish between trainers and relatives of the fighters, Yoel Judah and Roger Mayweather, but also saw Mayweather adjusting in what began as a tough fight against a quick, sharp southpaw, showing the gap in class between a good and a great fighter.
1/24/2009 Shane Mosley TKO9 Antonio Margarito
It would be very interesting to go back and examine all of the locker room footage from before this fight, when Margarito was discovered with a plaster-like substance in the hand-wraps he intended to use. The original Legendary Nights feasted on scandal and this fight fits right in with that.
5/2/2009 Manny Pacquiao KO2 Ricky Hatton
Pacquiao has never looked as downright terrifying as the night he absolutely obliterated the popular, lineal junior-welterweight champion in two one-sided rounds, retiring the charismatic Hatton in the process.