Sunday, June 8, 2003

Great things come in threes


When it comes to sports trilogies, the sweet science has a monopoly

Junior welterweight boxer Arturo Gatti beat Micky Ward Saturday in Atlantic City, N.J., closing the final chapter of what was arguably the best trilogy the sweet science has seen since Ali-Frazier. Saturday's outcome ultimately didn't matter: Their first fight was enough to carry these two into boxing lore - a brutal, 10-round, fast-paced slugfest won by Ward.

It is considered by most boxing writers and historians as one of the best bouts in history, especially on the strength of its ninth round.

Today, Top of the Second takes a jab at ranking the top five boxing trilogies:

1. Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier

Series: Ali won 2-1.

Comment: An easy choice. The first fight at Madison Square Garden in 1971 is considered one of the biggest sporting events ever; the third bout in the Philippines four years later, fought with the temperature over 100 degrees, is considered one of the best fights ever. Ali summed it up best in 1975: "Without him I couldn't be who I am, and without me he couldn't be who he is. We've been a pretty good team."

2. Sugar Ray Robinson vs. Jake LaMotta

Series: Robinson won 5-1.

Comment: These guys pulled off a double trilogy between 1942-52, and for that they deserve to be ranked behind only Ali-Frazier. For boxing fans, this has always served as the ultimate clash in fighting styles: Robinson, the pound-for-pound best boxer of all time, vs. LaMotta, the pound-for-pound toughest guy of all time. Sugar Ray won every one but the second meeting in '43, but he was never able to knock out LaMotta. No one ever did. "I fought Sugar so many times," LaMotta said, "that I'm lucky I didn't get diabetes." LaMotta's life was immortalized in the film Raging Bull.

3. Tony Zale vs. Rocky Graziano

Series: Zale won 2-1.

Comment: The two middleweights fought only 15 rounds in three fights from 1946-48. But those 15 are considered some of the biggest tests of human will power in boxing history. Zale won the first and third meetings. The fights had a combined eight knockdowns, including Zale being knocked through the ropes in the second encounter and at one point walking to the wrong corner between rounds. It also had its share of injuries: a broken thumb, broken hand, broken ribs, broken nose, cut left eye and two bloody lips. Boxing historian Bert Sugar ranks each of their first two fights on his list of the 10 best of all time.

4. Arturo Gatti vs. Micky Ward

Series: Gatti won 2-1.

Comment: Pure old-school here. No title belts. No rap-song ring entrances. No singing careers on the side. Just hitting and being hit. The first encounter in May 2002, won by Ward on split decision, was so good that each man got a $1 million raise to fight again six months later. The rematch, won by Gatti on unanimous decision, was not as thrilling but was exciting enough to be ranked behind only two others as 2002's fight of the year.

The combined punch statistics from their first 20 rounds together illustrate the brilliance: 1,074 total punches landed, 2,747 thrown. Gatti landed an amazing 60 percent of his power punches (hooks, upper-cuts, crosses - basically, shots capable of knocking you out) in the first fight but somehow still lost. In the famous ninth round, the two combined to land 102 power shots in three minutes.

5. Evander Holyfield vs. Riddick Bowe

Series: Bowe won 2-1.

Comment: Holyfield always will be more famous as the guy who had his ear bitten off by Mike Tyson.

But before that, he was part of a memorable, and sometimes bizarre, trio of heavyweight title fights against Riddick Bowe from 1992-95. The bigger Bowe won the first meeting as the challenger, battering a courageous Holyfield and winning the decision in entertaining fashion.

Given no chance to win the rematch, Holyfield changed strategies, outboxing and outmoving Bowe for a decision win. Bowe took the rubber match in an eighth-round knockout.

The series also is remembered for the random paraglider who landed in the ring during the seventh round of the second fight, causing a 22-minute delay.

Honorable mention: Roberto Duran vs. Sugar Ray Leonard

The first fight (1980) was a classic 15-rounder that set the tone for boxing's glory days in the 80s. It was one of the closest decisions in boxing history. One judge scored 10 rounds even. Two other judges swung the decision to Duran by round scores of 6-5-4 and 6-4-5. A couple of months later, a frustrated and under-trained Duran was outboxed and quit in the eighth round of the rematch. The third bout in 1989 came after both fighters were past their prime. Barely anyone noticed Leonard winning a 12-round decision.

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E-mail mmudd@enquirer.com




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