When HBO Sports churned out a series of 30-minute documentaries on twelve of the best fights broadcast on their airwaves, we watched. In 2003, HBO took us inside twelve different rivalries, giving us certain insights that you wouldn't have known unless you were an insider when the fights took place. For some of these fights, there were no message boards. In 2003, there was no YouTube.
But thankfully, with the excellent narrating skills of Liev Schreiber and studio work of Jim Lampley (a much better Lampley than we are seeing on “The Fight Game”), old fans were able to relive, and new fans were introduced to, these twelve matchups: Larry Holmes-Gerry Cooney, Aaron Pryor-Alexis Arguello, Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler-Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler-Ray Leonard, Julio Cesar Chavez-Meldrick Taylor, Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas, Evander Holyfield-Riddick Bowe, Riddick Bowe-Andrew Golota, Michael Moorer-George Foreman, Oscar De La Hoya-Felix Trinidad and Lennox Lewis-Mike Tyson.
As a burgeoning fight fan in 2003, the production value and format of these documentaries helped my interest grow even larger. It made me want to go back and read work from some of the veteran sportswriters that were featured, like the Boston Globe's Ron Borges or Tim Kawakami (then of the Philadelphia Daily News). It made me want to gain access to the footage of these fights, which in 2003 was a ton more difficult than it is today.
There are many moments from these documentaries that have stuck with me ever since I first saw them:
The post-fight interview Buster Douglas did after knocking out Mike Tyson, just weeks after his mother passed away. Larry Merchant, in the way only Merchant can, saying how Marvin Hagler proclaimed he “never put on a pair of gloves, in a gym or anywhere else, after that fight,” in reference to the controversial Ray Leonard decision. The sad sight of Meldrick Taylor lying on a couch watching the footage from his fight with Julio Cesar Chavez on a television that had to have been made in the '70s.
“Meldrick was the guy driving the Jaguar,” said Borges of that fight. “Chavez pulled up in an SUV. But then he might run over your Jaguar in an SUV.”
Interestingly, the two episodes based on the two more recent fights, Lewis-Tyson and De La Hoya-Trinidad, were perhaps the least entertaining of the series. Still, they offered value.
Next year will mark ten years since HBO did the Legendary Nights, and one might wonder why they moved away from it after earning high praise from boxing and sports documentary fans alike?
For one, it caused a huge headache for the network. One of the many problems with our sport is it is difficult to sometimes determine who owns the rights to what. I've been told before that the network often owns the rights for a limited time, and really only “own” their graphics and commentary. The promoters often hold those rights after this, which is why you've seen Showtime show clips from Andre Berto-Victor Ortiz but with Gus Johnson calling rather than the late Emanuel Steward's “OHHH-MY-GAWWWWD”. Sometimes, even the venue has a say on the rights in some capacity.
Anyway, HBO apparently didn't own the rights to several of the fights they used highlights from. Because of this, they were in a tight spot and had to work something out with the promoters by giving them guaranteed dates on their network.
You can see why HBO wouldn't want to be portrayed as beholden to promoters, who obviously have their own interests to worry about. But maybe if something is worked out ahead of time, we could still see another series. Wouldn't promoters also have an interest in pumping up boxing's profile? With HBO's new partnership with ESPN, why couldn't the Legendary Nights series take shape under the “ESPN 30 for 30” umbrella, or just get aired at some hour on ESPN Classic?
At least twice before it has been put out there that HBO was moving forward with a reboot on the series. Both times, we never saw production or a list of what fights they planned to pursue. HBO has indicated to TQBR that there are no imminent plans to bring back the Legendary Nights series, but that plans can change.
James Foley of Bad Left Hook put together a list earlier this year on some fights he believes deserve the Legendary Nights treatment if it is rebooted. It is definitely worth a read. On many of the fights I agree with Mr. Foley, but I also have a few different selections. Below is a list of ten fights I believe would make for excellent editions of the series.
Danny Romero vs. Johnny Tapia
Of all the fight on the list, this one maybe featured the least action. But the story behind it was great. Two fighters with solid followings, both out of New Mexico, of all places, and a long-standing rivalry. The fight was so big that it wasn't able to be held in New Mexico because of fears of violence, so it took place in Las Vegas. It really was Tapia's coming out party on the national stage, but it also convinced many that the really small guys were compelling enough to sell a major fight. One of my favorite moments in boxing was when Tapia trainer Jesse Reid said before the 4th round, “You look good out there!” and Tapia responded, “WE look good, not just me, US!” Also Eddie Futch in the corner shouting instructions was nice to see. Tapia talking to the HBO cameras in between rounds was something special too. It doesn't hurt that the atmosphere was unbelievable, better than some of today's big fights.
Naseem Hamed vs. Kevin Kelley
This was not necessarily a megafight but it was an important chapter in the career of one of the sport's flashiest characters; Hamed's United States debut in the famous Madison Square Garden against a New Yorker. The epic entrance to the ring by Hamed that took at least three hours, the pre-fight staredown and smacktalk that made you know it was going to be a ridiculous fight when the bell rang. Both guys on the canvas multiple times with Hamed coming away with a brutal KO win.
Felix Trinidad vs. Fernando Vargas
You could argue this wasn't even the biggest fight of either guy's career, perhaps both their fights against Oscar De La Hoya were more important. But this was a classic matchup, where it was black and white as far as who you were rooting for. Sides were very divided on this fight, and it featured tons of drama. Vargas tasted the canvas for the first time in his career in the opening round, and bounced back from it the way you like to see a young champion do. Trinidad was hurt but blasted Vargas in the nuts in order to regain himself. You could argue that this fight was the beginning of the end for Vargas, who was being groomed to be the future.
Erik Morales vs. Marco Antonio Barrera
When two guys are friends, it's said that you often get a bad fight. But when two guys hate each other's guts the way these two Mexican counterparts did, there is no possible result but war. The first fight remains one of the best 122 pound title fights to ever take place in a division that has produced more than its fair share of Fights of the Year. Barrera sucker punched Morales at a press conference in the leadup and Morales has proclaimed Barrera a motherfucker many a times. Though time has blunted the edges of this rivalry, you know that there will always be a bit of animosity between the two given their totally different upbringings: Morales is from the streets of Tijuana and Barrera from the upper middle class of Mexico City. Morales getting a win over Barrera's conqueror Manny Pacquiao gave his career a jump, while Barrera carried on as one of the better fighters pound-for-pound in the world for a number of years after beating Morales in the third bout. These two can also be given a lot of credit for putting the smaller guys on the big stage, though they both had to bulk up in order to headline high-selling PPVs.
Bernard Hopkins vs. Felix Trinidad
This was the first fight mentioned on Mr. Foley's list at Bad Left Hook, and for great reason. There are few fights in modern history that take on the importance, in terms of what was going on at the time in the U.S., of this one. September 11th had occurred just a few weeks prior and this was one of the first major sporting events in New York afterward, taking place at Madison Square Garden. It was also the end of the middleweight tournament organized by Don King, one of the last times until recently a box-off was organized with any success. Trinidad was a good-sized favorite despite Hopkins being the natural 160 pounder and Hopkins proved his dominance, battering Trinidad to a stoppage victory which started his rise as a top draw in the sport. Many of the dollars Hopkins has made in his career can still be traced to that victory. It effectively ended Trinidad's career as a full-time fighter. Hopkins' antics in the buildup were also pretty memorable, including tossing the Puerto Rican flag to the ground. Don't forget Bouie Fischer making Trinidad rewrap because of all the gauze and tape that was used, an often forgotten part of the fight.
Arturo Gatti vs. Micky Ward
In 2003, when Legendary Nights first aired, these two warriors had just completed their epic trilogy, so it was obviously premature to pump one of these out. Since their first epic encounter in May of 2002, the story has only gotten more interesting, largely because it ended tragically. An episode on this should really focus on the first encounter, particularly the epic round nine, and touch briefly on the second and third fights, a la the Bowe-Holyfield episode. It should definitely reference the third fight, where Gatti broke his right hand but immediately told trainer Buddy McGirt that he was going to keep going when asked what he should do. The two becoming friends and Ward serving as Gatti's trainer for the Alfonso Gomez fight make it a good story as well. Obviously, mention of the terrible circumstances in which Gatti's life ended would need to be made. But really, these three fights have more to do with most of today's boxing fans aged 25-40 than many probably think.
Lennox Lewis vs. Vitali Klitschko
The last heavyweight fight I can really remember being discussed after the fact by casual observers for longer than a day or two. In a gutsy showing, Klitschko redeemed himself from quitting against Chris Byrd after a shoulder injury in a fight he was winning. Klitschko was also a late replacement and Lewis didn't take his preparation as seriously as he had previously. Lewis was getting outfought for the majority of the early going but opened one of the nastiest cuts I've ever seen, making Klitschko look like Terminator. The fight was halted with Klitschko shouting, “No!” Lewis retiring and never fighting again adds another element, a proud champion getting out when he knew it was the right time.
Manny Pacquiao vs. Juan Manuel Marquez
Though they fight for a fourth time next month and it would still be a bit fresh in most people's minds, there have been few rivalries that match the intensity of Pacquiao-Marquez. The first two fights were also tremendous in their own way, and the story is pretty compelling. Remember that Pacquiao only got a draw with Marquez in the first fight instead of a win because one judge scored the three-knockdown opening salvo 10-7 instead of the usual 10-6 in favor of Pacquiao. Contrast that with the controversy of their next two fights, as well as Marquez's gamble after the first fight to go to Indonesia and face Chris John for a tiny purse rather than a guaranteed payday in the rematch, and you've got something. Marquez has carried a chip on his shoulder since losing a decision to Pacquiao in the second fight, producing everything from t-shirts to an autobiography titled “Yes, I Beat You Pacquiao”. That isn't a joke. Mr. Foley argued that due to the massive exposure thanks to the 24/7s for the recent two, maybe it shouldn't make it. But the ferocity of the first two encounters and the stories behind them are worth telling.
Erik Morales vs. Manny Pacquiao
The first fight was Morales' last stand as a great fighter, and really this fight should credited with Freddie Roach building Pacquiao's right hand. Morales completely neutralized Pacquiao's Manila Ice. Also, the controversy behind the fight: Morales chose the gloves because a contract that was signed by Murad Muhammad on Pacquiao's behalf. Morales chose the non-punchers gloves. The twelfth round of the fight where Morales switches southpaw is one of the ballsiest things ever seen in a boxing ring. The second and third fights need only to be touched on for a brief moment.
Shane Mosley vs. Antonio Margarito
Obviously, the fight was a bit overshadowed by all the surrounding controversy regarding the attempted illegal use of tampered handwraps by the team of Margarito, who was freshly coming off the biggest win of his career where he bludgeoned Miguel Cotto to his first defeat. But Mosley's performance was too memorable, and it was the late surge his career needed in order to earn eventual big money fights with Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao. Mosley was forever treated like a B-side to the bigger names, but never ducked anyone, eventually giving Vernon Forrest and Winky Wright opportunities to earn real money after beating him. Mosley's own scandal regarding BALCO and PED usage would also be worth touching on, though doesn't really relate to this fight.