On May 2, Floyd Mayweather vs Manny Pacquiao is about to enter the pantheon of boxing history as the biggest showdown of its time, and one of the biggest boxing matches ever.
In one major way, Mayweather vs Pacquiao shares what all of the other biggest boxing events have: a study in contrasts. Mayweather is playing the villain, as he does so well and so conscientiously, to Pacquiao’s philanthropic sportsman. If you look through this list of the biggest boxing matches for each decade, you’ll find the hero/villain dynamic plenty, but also contrasts in boxing styles and personalities that aren’t so much about good and evil.
In another major way, Mayweather vs Pacquiao is very different from most of the rest on the list: Neither man is a heavyweight.
Will Mayweather vs Pacquiao live up to the hype? Perhaps history will offer a guide. And because this is Awful Announcing, this survey includes who was behind the mic for the biggest matches of each decade, starting in the 1920s.
1910s: Jack Johnson-James Jeffries
Why it was anticipated: One word? Racism. Johnson, the black boxer later idolized by Muhammad Ali, was as hated a figure as any in America at the time, and rather than try to soften any hostility toward him, Johnson swerved into it, flamboyantly driving fast cars, dating white women and ignoring all repercussions. Jeffries had rebuffed Johnson’s challenges in his stint as heavyweight champion, saying he would never fight a black man while he he held the throne, but when Johnson later won the title overseas, white America demanded it be returned to their race, and the retired Jeffries assumed the responsibility.
Did it live up to the hype?: Suffering from a six-year layoff and facing a next-gen heavyweight who made speed, movement and defense as much (if not more) of a priority as knockout blows in a way that built on what Jim Corbett started, Jeffries was no match for Johnson.
On the call: N/A
1920s: Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney II
Why it was anticipated: Dempsey stood alongside sports giants like Babe Ruth in the 1920s, a heavyweight champ with a mighty punch and a gregarious personality. Tunney took the title from him, and they served as a study in opposites — Tunney moved around the ring and boxed, unlike “The Manassa Mauler,” and was intellectual, studious. Naturally, the boxing-mad public was very eager to see the do-over. A crowd of more than 100,000 people came to watch the bout in Chicago, generating a record gate that would take approximately 50 years to surpass.
Did it live up to the hype?: For most of the fight, Tunney was in control against a diminished version of Dempsey, but the moment he wasn’t would become famous — history knows Dempsey-Tunney II as “The Long Count Fight.” Dempsey decked Tunney with a left hook, then stood over him in his customary fashion to deck him again once he got up, contrary to a new rule that after scoring a knockdown a boxer must go to a neutral corner. By one estimate, Tunney got 13 seconds to recover as a result, rather than the usual 10. It was a one-sided fight, for the most part, but a memorable one.
On the call: Graham McNamee for NBC, the first professional radio announcer hired to cover a boxing match. “Tunney is down! From a barrage of left and rights to the face!” he said upon the knockdown. Some of what he said next was muffled by the blistering volume of the crowd, so it’s unclear if he noted the long count, but some have made him out saying: “The fight is going on… they are counting… Tunney is up… and they are at it again.” Accounts vary on the exact number, but several people are said to have died of heart attacks listening to the the broadcast, some in that famous 7th round.
1930s: Joe Louis-Max Schmeling II
Why it was anticipated: Many of the best fights are metaphors for something else. Louis-Schmeling II was a standoff between the Germans and the Americans over the Nazi view of racial superiority, over democratic ideals and autocratic ones, and a prelude to World War II, the fight before the war. In 1938, Hitler had already begun moving toward world conquest, and Schemling — against his will — had become one of his movement’s symbols, thanks in part to his victory over Louis in their first fight. Such was the U.S. animosity toward Hitler that prevalent racism was set aside to root for the black Louis. Louis even got a pep talk from President Franklin Roosevelt.
Did it live up to the hype?: For the United States, it could hardly have gone better. Louis demolished Schmeling, stopping him in the very first round with a withering barrage. That meant the fans didn’t get much of a fight at all, but the literal celebrations in the street suggested no one in America minded.
On the call: Clem McCarthy, for NBC Radio. An estimated 70 million people listened, and it might’ve been the largest radio broadcast in history at the time. McCarthy narrated quickly, with a sense of urgent enthusiasm in his growling voice. “I’ve never seen such excitement from the side of any ring,” he said on the broadcast after Louis won.
1940s: Joe Louis-Billy Conn II
Why it was anticipated: The first bout had plenty going for it. The slick Conn had sought to become the first light heavyweight champion to become the heavyweight king, and sought to do so against the thunderous punch of Louis. He nearly pulled it off, before getting carried away in a 13th round exchange and getting knocked out, afterward uttering the famous line, “What’s the point of being Irish if you can’t be thick?” The rematch would feature an even more famous boxing quote, from Louis: “He can run, but he can’t hide.” It would take five years from the first bout to the second, with each man serving in the military in the interim but Louis remaining heavyweight champ. In the meantime, the public’s hunger for the rematch only built.
Did it live up to the hype?: It was a widely panned result. The Associated Press named Conn’s performance “Flop of the Year,” although both men were clearly on the decline, making matters worse. Louis would win via 8th round knockout.
On the call: Don Dunphy and Bill Corum were the radio announcers; NBC, in the first heavyweight championship bout broadcast on TV, apparently did not use any play-by-play commentary.
1950s: Rocky Marciano-Archie Moore
Why it was anticipated: Marciano fought 49 times, and only six men escaped his knockout power. While popular generally and with Italian-Americans especially (he had an audience with Dwight Eisenhower, for instance), “None of his championship encounters had captured the public imagination,” as Thomas Hauser wrote. It took Archie Moore’s gift of gab to elevate a Marciano fight to the next level. Moore spoke often of the power of the mind in boxing, while Marciano fought with a feral quality.
Did it live up to the hype?: Yes. Moore dropped Marciano early, a rare thing indeed — when Marciano looked vulnerable, it was more commonly for having a mangled face. (To his last days, Moore objected to how the referee handled the count.) After, Marciano’s relentlessness caught up to Moore, who traded big punches for a while before succumbing in the 9th. Marciano would retire as the only undefeated heavyweight champion.
On the call: Bill Corum handled the commentating duties for the closed circuit broadcast, in a minimalist style, rarely getting excited by the drama in the ring.
1960s: Sonny Liston-Floyd Patterson I
Why it was anticipated: Liston was a grumpy, mob-connected fighter challenging for the heavyweight championship against Patterson, who won it at the earliest age (21) ever, a record that would stand until Mike Tyson came along. He also was the first man to ever win the heavyweight championship, lose it, then regain it. Patterson was the popular “good guy,” and an odd personality for the sport: He was gentle and sensitive outside the ring, completely insecure in his own skin. The NAACP didn’t even want Patterson to take the fight, worrying a Liston victory would be a setback for the civil rights movement.
Did it live up to the hype?: No. To be fair, Liston was the betting favorite, but he wrecked Patterson in one round. Anyone hoping for a competitive fight, at least, didn’t get it. It did birth Liston as a feared heavyweight champion who wouldn’t have been so important to making the myth of Muhammad Ali if he wasn’t so frightening. (In keeping with Patterson’s peculiarity, he left the building in disguise after the loss, wearing a fake beard and sunglasses.)
On the call: This writer could not confirm who was on the microphone for the live closed circuit broadcast although a follower appears to have the answer.
@awfulannouncing I have heard the original call of Liston-Patterson I. Lead announcer was Jack Drees.
— Sports Godfather (@sportsgodfather) April 27, 2015