35. Jeff Harding Vs Dennis Andries I
June 24, 1989
Atlantic City, New Jersey
Venue: Trump Plaza
If ever two fighters were made to fight each, Dennis Andries and Jeff Harding were those fighters. Both men stood in the pocket and used no lateral movement whatsoever. The Guyanese born Andries was first seen nationally in March of 1987 losing his WBC Light Heavyweight title to Thomas Hearns. Hearns gave Andries a shellacking, knocking him down eight times before knocking him out in the 10th round and relieving him of his WBC title. Andries was a raw fighter with pure power. Hearns’ trainer, the legendary Emanuel Steward, saw so much potential in Andries that he became his trainer after the Hearns fight, despite the fact that the Guyanese fighter was 33 years old. Andries style of punching increased dramatically. His left jab and right cross became even more potent and he regained the WBC title by knocking out Tony Willis on February 21, 1989. The fight with Harding would be his first defense of his second reign as champion.
Harding was an Australian fight with a steel chin, a ton of heart, and heavy hands. He was undefeated in 14 fights but fought no one near the level of Andries. The first four rounds of this fight proved that point as Harding had no answer in avoiding Andries’ hammer of a right cross. In rounds one, two and four, Andries hurt Harding badly with his right cross. The fourth round was the most one-sided as Andries battered Harding with several brutal right crosses and uppercuts. Harding landed his fair share of punches, but he had yet to faze the champion. It looked like it was just a matter of time before Andries would finish him off.
Andries continued to punish Harding in round five and even scored a knockdown as referee Joe Cortez erroneously called a Harding slip a knockdown. The next four rounds was nonstop infighting. This is where Harding made his comeback. Harding landed several hard hooks to Andries body, which was key because Andries was 35 years old and 11 years older than the tough Australian. By round eight, the same right hands that almost knocked Harding out earlier were just bouncing off his chin like soft mosquitoes. Going into the last three rounds of the fight, Andries was still handily winning, but fatigue had set in. Harding, on the other hand, was still as fresh as he was in the first round.
Round 10 continued with the same pace as the previous four rounds. Round 11 was an incredible round as both men landed one vicious power punch after another. The difference were Harding’s body punches which had weakened Andries immensely. Harding finally staggered the Guyanese champion late in the round with a sizzling right cross of his own. Andries went back to his corner at the conclusion of the round completely exhausted and hurt. Going into the 12th and final round, Harding still needed a knockout to win as he was behind on all three judges scorecards.
The final round began with Harding staggering Andries incredibly with a double left jab. Andries had no legs left. Quickly after hurting Andries, Harding jumped on the champion, landing a five punch combination that knocked the champion down for the first time in the fight. Andries got up at eight, but the writing was on the wall. Andries quickly went down again from another combination. He got up again, but after absorbing a few more punches, referee Cortez stopped the fight. Jeff Harding was the new champion in an intense display of guts, heart and determination.
A year later, Andries would knock out Harding in their first rematch and regain the WBC title for the third and last time. Their third and deciding matchup occurred on September 11, 1991. It was another war that went the distance. Harding won an unanimous decision, but the trilogy had taken a physical toll on each other. Andries was a shell of his former self as he fought five more years before finally retiring at the age of 43, but not after losing five fights to opponents who were never as good as he was in his prime. Harding held the title until July of 1994, when he lost the title to Jamaican great Mike McCallum. Harding retired after the McCallum fight. He retired only losing twice; to Andries and McCallum. The Harding-Andries trilogy was one of the greatest rivalries in terms of action in the history of boxing.
34. Nigel Benn Vs Gerald McClellan
February 25, 1995
Venue: London Hall
My mother never could understand why my father and I loved boxing with so much passion. She always considered the sport barbaric, not unlike lambs being brought to slaughter. She cringed every time my father and I would be in front of the television watching the sport we loved. After the end of the Nigel Benn-Gerald McClellan fight, I began wondering if my mother was right. It was only a temporary thought but anyone who ever saw this fight would describe it in one word — barbaric.
Going into that fateful night, McClellan was on a huge roll. As WBC World Middleweight Champion, he had knocked out his last three opponents in the first round. He moved up to face the WBC Super Middleweight Champion Nigel Benn. Despite only losing twice and having successfully defend his title six times, Benn was a huge underdog. A little over 30 seconds into the fight, it almost became McClellan’s fourth consecutive first round knockout.
McClellan came out smoking in the first, immediately staggering and knocking Benn out of the ring with an impressive eight punch combination. With over two minutes left in the round, I was sure this fight was all but over. Benn, while being cheered on by his hometown British fans, somehow survived a very turbulent first round. Inexplicably, McClellan began moving and boxing in round two. McClellan was a seek and destroy fighter. Why he changed his style after such an explosive start was a mystery. Benn, now completely recovered, landed a few big right uppercuts and crosses to dominate round two. Rounds three through seven saw both fighters land one big power shot after another. When McClellan attacked, he dominated. However, he tried moving too much in these rounds and even turned southpaw. Benn could never fight going backwards. McClellan did him a huge favor by attempting to box from the outside.
Late in the eighth round, McClellan attacked Benn near the ropes and landed three explosive right crosses that dropped Benn for a second time. Benn fought like a desperate warrior and was able to survive the round. The very next round was when an ugly incident became the turning point of the fight. McClellan came out for the kill and landed three battering rams of a right hand. Benn showed incredible heart in surviving this assault. Then, midway through the round, Benn lunged at McClellan with a right cross followed with a battering ram of a head butt right in between McClellan’s eyes. McClellan began blinking both eyes and took a knee hoping that referee Alfred Asaro would give him time to recuperate after Benn committed the foul. Not only did Asaro not give McClellan time to recuperate, he never admonished Benn for the foul or recognized that a foul had occurred. McClellan was in serious trouble and had to move and hold for the rest of the round. In the 10th round, McClellan became noticeably worse. Benn capitalized by landing several bombs and knocking McClellan down twice. The second knockdown saw McClellan on one knee looking at the referee while blinking non stop. Referee Asaro counted to 10 and Benn won by knockout. Showtime color commentator Dr. Ferdie Pacheco criticized McClellan for not getting up and quitting. Just as he was blasting McClellan over the air, McClellan collapsed in the corner. McClellan was rushed to the hospital and was diagnosed as having a life threatening blood clot in his brain. As a result, he spent two moths in a coma and suffered severe brain damage, paralysis and blindness. At the age of 27, not only was McClellan’s fight career over, he was faced with spending the rest of his life as a vegetable. The fact that he’s still alive today is a testament to his fighter’s heart. One of the single, most tragic situations ever to happen to an incredibly talented fighter.
Benn was never the same after this fight as he took an immense amount of punishment. I’ve always felt that the fight should’ve been ruled a no contest on the grounds that Benn gained a lucky victory due to the illegal head butt that turned the fight around for him. No other boxing historian or expert expounds on this fact. Benn would lose his title a year later and his last three fights before retiring at the age of 32.
32. James Toney Vs Mike McCallum I
December 13, 1991
Atlantic City, New Jersey
Venue: Convention Hall
Not every great fight has to be one in which two fighters are slugging it out and looking to knock each other out. There are also the classic matchups between all-time great skilled fighters at the peak of their skills. A perfect example of this kind of fight was the first fight between two of the most skilled fighters of their era: James Toney and Mike McCallum.
Both Toney and McCallum came into their first fight with a share of the Middleweight World title. Toney was the IBF champ and McCallum was the WBA champ. Unfortunately, McCallum was stripped of his WBA title before entering the ring that evening. Despite this ridiculous act by the WBA, the two best 160-pound fighters in the world were going to put their unparalleled skills and combined 70 wins with only one defeat against each other. They both put on a boxing clinic.
The first six rounds showed both fighters displaying their plethora of skills. Both men landed their wicked left jabs and stinging right crosses. Toney masterly used his feints and shoulders as defensive tools. McCallum, one of the greatest body punchers in boxing history, also utilized this important tool of his. I couldn’t believe my eyes at how these two fighters were flowing against each other. Such masters at the sport, putting on an incredible fight and without going toe-to-toe in brutal exchanges. Both fighters were landing and making each other miss by keeping their distance in the middle of the ring.
Both fighters stepped it up a notch in the next two rounds. They began fighting inside and both landed their signature money punches; Toney’s crackling right cross and McCallum’s paralyzing hooks to the body. Even though they were exchanging more, it was both calculated and in control. Both men were still trying to defeat each other by applying their skills to the fullest without a hint of desperation.
Rounds nine through eleven saw for the first time in the fight, one of the fighters take control. Entering the fight, Toney was 23 and McCallum had just turned 35. That seemed to be a huge factor in Toney having fresh legs and McCallum being noticeably tired throughout the final third of the fight. Toney landed several neck snapping combinations and McCallum was unable to avoid those shots. McCallum also missed many shots as Toney’s defense was even better due to McCallum’s fatigue setting in. The first eight rounds were extremely hard to score. The next three were all Toney.
The 12th and final round saw Toney hurt McCallum for the first time with a ripping left hook. McCallum was seriously hurt and completely exhausted. Toney battered McCallum throughout the rest of the round and was on the verge of a knockout when the final bell sounded. Oddly enough, the fight was scored a draw. I know the first eight rounds were very difficult to score, but the last four rounds were all Toney. The horrible decision was the only thing that marred an incredible display of boxing skills by both fighters. Toney would handily outbox McCallum in the rematch eight months later.
McCallum moved up to 175 pounds and at the age of 37, defeated Jeff Harding to win the WBC Light Heavyweight title. He would lose the title a year later. He then lost his last two fights to Roy Jones, Jr. and once again to Toney before finally retiring at the age of 40. McCallum was a great boxer-puncher who was an even greater man outside the ring. I will have more on Toney later.
32. Ivan Robinson Vs Arturo Gatti I
August 22, 1998
Atlantic City, New Jersey
In the 40 years that I’ve followed boxing, no man absorbed more punishment or had more action packed fights than Arturo Gatti. Gatti was a severely flawed fighter. He had no defensive skills whatsoever. He relied on tremendous punching power, an incredible chin and a heart as big as a mountain lion. His first fight with Ivan Robinson is the first of three fights of Gatti’s that I will detail in this series.
Ivan Robinson was a 27-year-old slick boxer from Philadelphia who wasn’t considered a big puncher or a threat to defeat Gatti. In his previous fight, the then 26-year-old Gatti was stopped in eight rounds by Angel Manfredy. Gatti and his camp figured Robinson was what the doctor ordered to get his career back on the winning track. They should’ve gotten a second opinion.
The first three rounds was a titanic display of toe-to-toe action. Robinson abandoned his usual movement and traded with Gatti in three action packed rounds. Robinson took all of Gatti’s thunderous punches and landed even more power punches than Gatti. Robinson won the first three rounds because he couldn’t miss Gatti at all. It seemed like every one of Robinson’s right crosses and uppercuts landed flush on Gatti’s chin. Gatti’s left eye was all but shut. Gatti rebounded and scored a flash knockdown in the fourth round with a right cross to the top of Robinson’s head. The fifth round was the same as the first three rounds with Robinson landing more effective punches than Gatti.
Towards the middle of the sixth round, Robinson staggered Gatti with a sizzling multi-punch combination that had Gatti out on his feet. In going for the kill, Robinson left himself wide open and walked into a sizzling right cross. Gatti seized the opportunity and rained several devastating shots to Robinson’s head and body before the bell ending the round saved Robinson. Rounds seven and eight reverted back to the previous rounds won by Robinson.
Towards the middle of the ninth round, Robinson badly hurt Gatti with a left uppercut. This time he fought wisely and didn’t leave himself open for a return. Gatti survived the round with his left eye completely shut. The 10th and final round was your typical Gatti all-out, close the show barn burner. For the first two minutes Robinson battered Gatti by landing several rights to Gatti’s blind eye. Then out of desperation, Gatti landed an almost miraculous left hook that buckled Robinson’s knees. Then with less than 20 seconds left, Gatti landed another left hook that buckled his knees a second time. Unfortunately for Gatti, time ran out and Robinson held on to win a split decision. An unbelievable finish to an unbelievable fight.
Three months later the two combatants engaged in a rematch that was a virtual carbon copy of their first fight. Once again Robinson won a close decision. These two wins would be the highlight of Robinson’s career as both fights took a lot physically out of him. He would only win six of his last 16 fights before retiring at the age of 37. There will be more written about Gatti later on in the series.
31. Matthew Franklin Vs Marvin Johnson II
April 22, 1979
Market Square Arena
The story of Matthew Saad Muhammad is one of the most fascinating in the history of boxing. As a five year old boy, he was abandoned in the streets of Philadelphia by his family. His mother had died and his aunt couldn’t afford to raise him. He was discovered by a couple of nuns. They asked him what was his name. Apparently traumatized by being abandoned, he was unable to enunciate his name verbally. All he could muster was a “maaaah” sound. The result was the nuns guessing that his name was Matthew and they gave him the last name Franklin. Franklin stood for Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the street they found him on. To survive such an ordeal made his wars in the ring a walk in the park. If he was able to overcome being abandoned by his family, then he could overcome any obstacles he might face as a boxer.
One of the obstacles Franklin had to overcome on a couple of occasions was Indiana Light Heavyweight Marvin Johnson. On July 26, 1977, the two fighters engaged in one of the best fights ever held in Franklin’s hometown of Philadelphia. Franklin scored a dramatic, come from behind knockout in the 12th and final round. Despite the win, it was Johnson who received a world title shot first. Johnson stopped reigning WBC Light Heavyweight Champion Mate Pavlov to win the championship. Johnson gladly gave Franklin his long, overdue title shot because Johnson wanted to avenge his loss from their first meeting. Incredibly, their second fight would be even better than their first fight.
The 24-year-old Franklin controlled the first round by staying outside and neutralizing the 25-year-old Johnson with his left jab. Johnson, a southpaw, didn’t have much of a jab. His entire game plan relied on his punching power. He had equal power in both hands and was able to lure Franklin into several exchanges in the next three rounds. Johnson staggered Franklin several times with jarring uppercuts. Franklin would quickly recover and was able to stun Johnson a few times himself with his signature right cross. Franklin had wonderful boxing skills and great power in both hands. Despite his great skills, Franklin had a warrior mentality that would ignite whenever he was hurt. Maybe it came from being abandoned as a child, but he never ran from a fighter once that fighter hurt him. After four rounds, Johnson had gotten the better of him so far. Franklin was just getting started.
Franklin started off the fifth round boxing efficiently like he did in the first round. Then late in the round, Johnson was able to lure him into another firefight. This time, Franklin got the better of the exchanges, landing several hard shots to both the head and body. He continued his momentum in the sixth round, out-punching Johnson once again with a variety of power shots to the head and body. Johnson was fighting in his hometown of Indianapolis and the crowd had quieted down after having so much to cheer for in the opening rounds. They sensed as well as I did watching the fight in my living room, that the pendulum had swung in the Philadelphia challenger’s favor.
Franklin’s momentum continued in round seven as he went back to controlling the fight from the outside and late in the round, he caught Johnson coming in with a right cross that made Johnson’s knees buckle. Franklin jumped on him and landed several hard shots before the round ended. The next round began with a wounded Johnson coming right after Franklin and landing several vicious left crosses and uppercuts. This resulted in Franklin’s right eye to begin bleeding profusely. Franklin, seemingly smelling his own blood, then came back and starting firing punches nonstop. He was a man possessed as no matter what Johnson threw at him, Franklin was landing one bomb after another. After hurting Johnson and trapping him against the ropes, Franklin landed another barrage of punches that finally knocked Johnson down. Johnson got up at the count of nine but was in no condition to continue. Referee George DeFabis stopped the fight. Matthew Franklin was the new WBC World Light Heavyweight Champion of the World.
Immediately after the fight, Franklin converted to Islam and changed his name to Matthew Saad Muhammad. Johnson would win versions of the Light Heavyweight Championship of the World twice more before retiring at the age of 33 in 1987. I will discuss more about the now Saad Muhammad later on in the series.