When Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao signed on the dotted line to finally nail down the most anticipated boxing showdown of this century, it put an end to a series of sparring sessions that left fight fans exasperated. For more than five years, the two legends (and their respective handlers) sparred over drug testing. And purse percentages. And pay-per-view splits. And which cable network would get the rights to produce the pay-per-view. And which network would get the rights to air the replay first. They even argued over which fighter would get to announce via social media that the fight had been finalized and whether it would be promoted as Mayweather-Pacquiao or Pacquiao-Mayweather (Floyd won both tussles).
But there was one item of business that required zero negotiation: which city would host the fight. The winner and still undisputed champion was Las Vegas.
As much as neon lights and replica hotel-casinos and scorching summers and New Year’s Eve extravaganzas, this city is known as the epicenter of championship boxing. Quite simply, there is no other night like Fight Night in Las Vegas. And through the years, Vegas has been treated to dozens of epic battles between some of the sport’s most iconic fighters (and some fighters whose careers flamed out before fame could set in).
So in honor of the Mayweather-Pacquiao clash May 2 at MGM Grand Garden Arena, we took a stroll down memory lane and—with the help of retired Hall of Fame boxing writer Royce Feour, who covered the sport for the Las Vegas Review-Journal for decades—selected the seven most memorable fights ever staged in the Boxing Capital of the World.
If we’re lucky, Mayweather and Pacquiao will wage a war for the ages and knock one of these bouts off the next list. Until then, let the barstool debates begin …
7. Larry Holmes vs. Ken Norton
June 9, 1978 Caesars Palace Sports Pavilion
Before the opening bell rang, this heavyweight showdown was more notable for who was not involved. Muhammad Ali was the giant of the sporting world at the time, having wrapped up his historic trilogy with Joe Frazier and the “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman, and he cast a long shadow heading into this bout.
Ken Norton entered as the WBC heavyweight champion only because Leon Spinks was stripped of the title after opting for a rematch with Ali instead of a mandatory title defense against Norton. And Larry Holmes at the time was best known as one of Ali’s longtime sparring partners.
Soon after the fight began, however, “The Greatest” became an afterthought, as Holmes and Norton engaged in a 15-round brawl. Both sluggers had their moments through the first 14 rounds, resulting in an even 7-7 split on all three judges’ cards. With each fighter sensing that the championship was up for grabs, they emerged from their corners and staged one of the greatest final rounds in heavyweight history.
That round opened with the exhausted brawlers trading a flurry of blows in the center of the ring, with Norton grabbing the advantage when he landed an uppercut that knocked Holmes’ mouthpiece into orbit. Holmes was wobbled but recovered, turning the tables and landing a devastating combination in the final minute that staggered and nearly floored Norton.
Holmes’ late rally turned out to be the difference. He won the 15th round on two cards, and as a result gained a split-decision victory (143-142, 143-142, 142-143). With the win, Holmes improved to 28-0 and grabbed the heavyweight crown that he would retain for more than seven years, winning another 20 consecutive fights before losing a 15-round unanimous decision to Michael Spinks in September 1985 at the Riviera.
6. Riddick Bowe vs.Evander Holyfield II
Nov. 6, 1993 Caesars Palace Sports Pavilion
For whatever reason, boxing has long been synonymous with weirdness. There aren’t many other sports in which a highly anticipated championship rematch can be upstaged by a guy with a mechanized flying parachute contraption, but that’s what makes the sweet science such a spectacle. And such a perfect fit for Las Vegas.
Not that Bowe-Holyfield II needed any added excitement. The early 1990s version of Riddick Bowe was a thresher, a hulking 6-foot-5 specimen who had many predicting greatness. And Bowe delivered on that potential in his first bout with Holyfield, in which he used his 30-pound weight advantage to overpower the undefeated champ and win the undisputed heavyweight title at the Thomas & Mack Center.
A year later, Bowe and Holyfield were on their way to staging another classic. The rematch was even through six rounds when pure, uncut strangeness descended from the sky. James Miller—who would forever be known as the Fan Man—parachuted into Caesars Palace’s open-air stadium and tumbled into the ring when his lines got tangled in the overhead lighting rig.
The match was stopped for more than 20 minutes while security and arena personnel worked to clear the area, and Miller was dragged into the crowd and knocked unconscious before being detained by police. After the impromptu “halftime,” Holyfield edged ahead on the scorecards and narrowly regained his titles with a 115-113, 115-114, 114-114 majority decision.
The second half of the fight failed to live up to the first six rounds in terms of excitement, but it was a textbook Holyfield performance. And thanks to one crazy fan, the entire affair became an indelible moment in both Las Vegas and boxing history.
5. Mike Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield I
Nov. 9, 1996 MGM Grand Garden Arena
In February 1990, half a world away, an unknown heavyweight named James “Buster” Douglas crafted—and then executed—the perfect blueprint to take down the invincible Mike Tyson: He bullied the bully, stunning the boxing world by knocking out the self-proclaimed Baddest Man on the Planet.
More than six years later, though, the bully was back in business.
After serving three years of a six-year prison sentence following a rape conviction, Tyson obliterated his first four opponents—to use boxing parlance, all four were tomato cans—needing less than eight total rounds to do so. His next victim: Holyfield, a former heavyweight champion whose career was leaning heavily toward “washed up” rather than “in his prime.” In fact, Holyfield looked so shaky in his two previous fights—he was knocked out by Bowe in the finale of their trilogy in November 1995, then posted a lackluster victory over unheralded Bobby Czyz six months later—that the Nevada Athletic Commission refused to license Holyfield until he passed a battery of medical tests.
Well, Holyfield passed them, received his license and signed to fight Tyson nearly five years after their initial meeting had been postponed (because of a Tyson injury), then canceled (because of Tyson’s legal issues). Nevada oddsmakers immediately established the champ as a 25-to-1 favorite. What they clearly didn’t bank on was that the challenger would copy Buster Douglas’ blueprint to a T.
Holyfield pressed the action from the outset, and even though Tyson connected several times early on, Holyfield absorbed every blow—which surely raised both his self-confidence and Tyson’s self doubt. Midway through the fight, the pendulum swung in both directions: In the fifth round, Holyfield took a punch that nearly knocked him to the canvas; in the sixth, Tyson took a punch that actually did.
At the end of the 10th, Holyfield—who by this point was in complete control—rocked Tyson with a series of vicious shots that landed flush, with only the bell saving the champ. At the start of the 11th, Holyfield immediately went on the attack, finishing off Tyson with another flurry of punches that forced referee Mitch Halpern to step in and halt the bout 35 seconds into the round.
Before a single bead of sweat had dried on either fighter, the talk had begun: rematch.
4. Mike Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield II
June 28, 1997 MGM Grand Garden Arena
Some boxing matches become instant classics based purely on raw, intense action (see No. 1 on this list). Others become instant classics based purely on an unpredictable, unforgettable moment. See “No Mas” … and “Fan Man” … and “The Bite Fight.”
Nobody who watched Iron Mike morph into Hannibal the Cannibal in Round 3 of this rematch had any clue at the time that the seeds for one of the most bizarre moments in sports history were planted 7½ months earlier. It was in the sixth round of the initial clash—the same round in which Tyson got knocked down—that Holyfield’s head rammed into Tyson’s. The head-butt was ruled accidental. Tyson thought otherwise.
Fast-forward to the rematch: Early in Round 2, Holyfield cut Tyson over his right eye with another head-butt. Again, Tyson believed it was intentional. And again, the referee—in this case, Mills Lane—saw it differently. So, hungry for justice, Tyson late in the third round took matters into his own, uh, mouth. Not once, but twice.
The image of Tyson spitting out his mouthpiece and clamping down on Holyfield’s left ear—followed instantly by Holyfield grabbing his ear, jumping up and down, and spinning around in pain as though he’d been shot—will always be synonymous with Tyson-Holyfield II. So, too, will the post-fight chaos that ensued in the MGM Grand casino. Often forgotten, though, is the fact that Holyfield was well on his way to proving his first victory over Tyson was hardly a fluke.
Holyfield won the first two rounds on all three scorecards, again playing the role of aggressor, taking Tyson’s best blows, and countering with effective jabs and power shots. Rewatch the fight, and you’ll see the frustration building within Tyson as he realizes he can neither hurt nor figure out Holyfield.
The Baddest Man on the Planet knew he was in for another long night, and he wanted no part of it. So he resorted to a tactic that horrified the millions who saw it, and forever tarnished a once-legendary career.
3. Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Tommy Hearns I
Sept. 16, 1981 Caesars Palace Sports Pavilion
Midway through his match against undefeated welterweight mauler Tommy “The Hitman” Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard was in complete control. He rocked Hearns late in the sixth round—nearly flooring him—then continued his assault into the seventh. Yet he failed to finish the job, and by the end of the 12th round, Leonard’s left eye was swollen half shut, and a rejuvenated Hearns was leading big on all three judges’ cards.
Even worse for Leonard was that Hearns was showing no signs of slowing down. Essentially, Leonard would need a miracle to win. Even his legendary trainer knew it: Between the 12th and 13th rounds, TV cameras caught Angelo Dundee scolding Leonard, “You’re blowing it now, son—you’re blowing it!”
Spurred on by Dundee’s frank, Rocky-like pep talk, Leonard went out for the 13th gunning for a knockout. What followed was boxing nirvana: maybe the greatest pound-for-pound fighter the sport has ever seen, ascending to the highest plane of his pugilistic existence. Leonard went on the attack, knocking Hearns off-balance with lightning-quick punches and power combinations. Late in the round, Leonard pinned Hearns against the ropes, then nearly knocked him through them; Hearns recovered at the bell, but the momentum had clearly shifted.
Leonard continued his barrage in the 14th, again forcing Hearns against the ropes and raining down blows until referee Davey Pearl halted the fight at the 1:45 mark. Entering the 14th, Hearns was ahead 124-122, 125-122, 125-121—meaning had the bout gone the distance, Hearns would’ve been victorious.
The miracle comeback made Leonard—already a fan favorite and media darling—a superstar. It also forever marked him as a fighter not only with unparalleled skill, but with the heart to match. Which he would display again more than five years later.
2. Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Marvin Hagler
April 6, 1987 Caesars Palace Sports Pavilion
In the spring of 1987, the thought of this fight someday winding up on a list such as this would’ve been preposterous. After all, in one corner was the menacing Marvin Hagler, the reigning middleweight champ, one of the most devastating punchers in the sport and someone who hadn’t lost a fight in more than a decade. In the other corner was the charismatic Leonard, a former welterweight champ and one of the most skilled boxers of his era … a skilled boxer who hadn’t stepped foot in the ring in nearly three years. In fact, from his classic battle with Hearns in September 1981 to this fight against Hagler, Leonard had faced exactly two opponents: One scrub named Bruce Finch (February 1982) and another named Kevin Howard (May 1984).
In all, Leonard had boxed 12 rounds in 5½ years. So while there was tremendous hype and anticipation leading up to fight night—it was arguably the biggest fight of what was a glorious decade for boxing—few gave Leonard much of a chance to survive more than a handful of the 12 rounds, let alone actually win.
What the doubters didn’t account for was that, while Leonard’s body was rusty, his mind (always one of his biggest strengths) remained sharp. He fought a tactically impeccable fight, avoiding Hagler’s power by dancing around the ring—a ploy that frustrated the champ. (At one point, Leonard claims Hagler told him, “Slow down, you little bitch. Fight me like a man.”)
When Leonard did slow down and engage Hagler, it was almost exclusively in the final 30 seconds of the round—which was part of his prefight plan. Since most rounds were close, Leonard’s late flurries made an impression on both the crowd and the three ringside judges, even though only a portion of the punches actually landed.
From a standpoint of pure, awe-inspiring action, Leonard-Hagler doesn’t exactly rate with the other bouts on this list. Neither fighter was knocked down, and while Hagler landed the bigger shots, he never truly hurt Leonard—a sign, in retrospect, that Hagler’s power had diminished.
In the end of what was an extremely difficult fight to score, Leonard earned a highly controversial split decision—with much of that controversy tied to judge Jo Jo Guerra. While his two colleagues scored the bout 115-113 (one had it for Leonard, the other for Hagler), Guerra scored it 118-110 in favor of Leonard—outrageously giving the challenger 10 of the 12 rounds.
Whether incensed by the outcome, aware that his skills were declining or both, Hagler never fought again. And more than a quarter-century later, he continues to insist that Leonard didn’t beat him. “I know I won,” Hagler told Grantland.com in a fascinating 2013 oral history about the fight. “In my heart, that’s something you can’t take away. You can take my belt, but you can’t take the feelings, the pride.”
Countered Leonard in that oral history: “You know what? He’s a proud man. He’s an old-school guy, and he feels in his heart that he won the fight. If he’s not ready to let it go, then I can understand that.”
1. Marvin Hagler vs. Tommy Hearns
April 15, 1985 Caesars Palace Sports Pavilion
Eight minutes, one second. That’s how long the greatest fight in Las Vegas boxing history—and one of the greatest fights of all time, anywhere—lasted. Whether you were lucky enough to be one of the 15,008 fans at Caesars’ outdoor arena or you watched it from your sofa, you’ll remember Hagler-Hearns for as long as your memory is functioning. Pick an adjective: exhilarating, exhausting, delightful, disturbing, beautiful, barbaric, riveting, ruthless—those 481 seconds were all that, and then some.
Hagler and Hearns—who were originally supposed to square off in the fall of 1982—had built up a healthy disdain for one another during the pre-fight media barnstorming tour. And both fighters dragged that disdain into the ring, mauling each other from the opening bell. Two of the hardest punchers of their era, Hagler and Hearns traded vicious haymakers—including one to Hagler’s head that broke Hearns’ right hand—during what many historians consider the most action-packed opening round in modern boxing history. (After the bell, play-by-play man Al Michaels summed it up best when he said, “That was an entire fight accomplished in three minutes!”)
Although the pace waned just a bit in the second round (how could it not?), the action was still fierce. Then in the third, Hagler—affected by a cut on his forehead that sent blood streaming down his face—came out of his corner on a mission to end the fight on his terms, rather than the ringside doctor’s. Two right hands wobbled Hearns, and two more finished him off, his limp body violently crashing to the canvas. Although Hearns somehow beat the 10-count by a second, referee Richard Steele had seen enough. He propped up Hearns with one arm and waved the other in the air, signaling an end to the brutality.
In honor of the 30th anniversary of that epic war, Hagler recently granted an interview to CBSSports.com, and was asked how he felt after the victory: “The fight had so much feeling, so many emotions. I felt such intensity. If [Hearns had] got up, I probably would have tried to kill him. Even today when we talk about that fight, Tommy still says he thinks we should do that again. And I say, ‘Why? Because you don’t remember the first time I knocked you out?’”
Senior writer Mike Grimala talks boxing on 97.1 the Point. Listen to the broadcast below.