The Five Greatest "Passing of the Torch” Bouts

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A look back at the five greatest "passing of the torch" pass bouts as WBA World Welterweight Champion Yordenis Ugas seeks to shock the world against Manny Pacquiao Saturday night on pay-per-view.

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Pacquiao vs Ugas PREVIEW: August 21, 2021 on Pay-Per-View

At my age, in this still hierarchical time, people often ask me if I’m “passing the torch.” I explain that I’m keeping my torch, thank you very much—and I’m using it to light the torches of others. - Gloria Steinem

Boxing fans lost what looked like the event of 2021 when a torn retina forced unified welterweight titlist Errol Spence Jr. to withdraw from his anticipated defense against Manny Pacquiao (62-7-2, 39 KO). It stings. Big events are the connective tissue between regular fight fans and the larger sporting world and they can’t be easily replaced.

This glass is half full. Pacquiao challenging Yordenis Ugas (26-4, 12 KO) for Ugas’ WBA World Welterweight title, a belt Pacquiao never lost in the ring, might not have the same cache as a showdown with Spence. It’s still one hell of a fight. Pacquiao and Ugas will square off this Saturday, August 21, from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, live on YouTube pay-per-view and FOX Sports pay-per-view (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT)

One of the elements of intrigue around Spence-Pacquiao was the chance boxing would see the welterweight torch of the Mayweather/Pacquiao era passed for good. The intrigue remains in a clash with Ugas. 

Eventually, yesterday’s heroes run out of tomorrows. Their torches still burn but the time arrives when they are forced to light another. It is part of the ritual of boxing, younger men ushering their elders violently into retirement. Sometimes, those nights are sad, quiet, and off-Broadway. Under bright lights, they can be defining for the future of the sport.

We won’t know until much later what the reverberations of Ugas, rather than Spence, defeating Pacquiao might have, if either can defeat Pacquiao at all. While we wait to find out, here’s a look at the five greatest torch passing fights of all time.  

5 Oscar De La Hoya vs. Floyd Mayweather/Manny Pacquiao

Date: May 5, 2007/December 6, 2008

Location: MGM Grand, Las Vegas

At stake: WBC World Super Welterweight Championship/Non-Title

Records: Oscar De La Hoya (38-4, 30 KO; 39-5, 30 KO), Floyd Mayweather (37-0, 24 KO), Manny Pacquiao (47-3-2, 35 KO)

Result: Mayweather SD12 De La Hoya, Pacquiao RTD8 De La Hoya        

Summary: In the pay-per view television era, there are rarely more than one or two guys who truly carry the banner of the sport. Their closing losses can cement new faces. It doesn’t equal replacing them. From lightweight to super welterweight for more than a decade, there was one true megastar. Oscar De La Hoya’s last two defeats launched two stars to new heights as they ultimately became even bigger than De La Hoya was. Grizzled fans scoffed at the label given Mayweather-De La Hoya as the ‘fight to save boxing,’ and were skeptical of the size difference in Pacquiao-De La Hoya, but the difference in box office before and after both defeated him carried the sport for years afterwards. It was also a critical bridge to the most lucrative boxing event in boxing history, Mayweather-Pacquiao. 

4 Larry Holmes vs. Muhammad Ali

Date: October 02, 1980

Location: Caesars Palace, Las Vegas

At stake: Lineal/WBC World Heavyweight Championship

Records: Holmes (35-0, 26 KO), Ali (56-3, 37 KO) 

Result: Holmes RTD10 Ali

Summary: This was boxing as tragedy. Ali had no business in the ring with Larry Holmes but he still believed. Boxing fans still wanted to believe with him. Ali could mount little offense but bravely, proudly stepped out round after round. After ten, Ali’s corner halted what little contest there had been. Holmes would go on to be in plenty of big fights but never became the star Ali was. Who could? Regardless, it remains significant as the last heavyweight championship fight of perhaps the most famous athlete the world ever knew. 

3 Lennox Lewis vs. Evander Holyfield II

Date: November 13, 1999

Location: Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas

At stake: The Undisputed Heavyweight Championship

Records: Lewis (34-1-1, 27 KO), Holyfield (36-3-1, 25 KO)

Result: Lewis UD12 Holyfield

Summary: It was a torch passing in two parts and unique in the torch it passed. Lewis decisively defeated Holyfield in March 1999 and then the judges weighed in. A draw verdict resulted in an immediate rematch. Lewis held the WBC and lineal thrones, Holyfield the WBA and IBF belts. What made this one unique? Both were veterans after all; this wasn’t the rising lion versus the aging one. No, this was about the passing of an era. US heavyweights dominated the twentieth century. The UK’s Lewis ushered in what has been a global twenty-first century at heavyweight. Only one US fighter, Hasim Rahman, has held the lineal heavyweight throne since Lewis-Holyfield II. Just a handful more (Chris Byrd, Lamon Brewster, Deontay Wilder) have won major titles. It is a shift that changed the landscape and economics of the sport.

2 Jack Johnson vs. James Jeffries

Date: July 4, 1910

Location: Reno, Nevada

At stake: World Heavyweight

Records: Johnson (49-5-10, 23 KO), Jeffries (19-0-2, 16 KO)

Result: Johnson TKO15 Jeffries

Summary: On America’s birthday, Johnson laid waste to the “Great White Hope.” Author Jack London’s infamous call for Jeffries, who retired as the undefeated heavyweight king six years earlier, to wrest the title from the first African-American heavyweight king ended badly for Jeffries. Johnson toyed with him from bell to bell. The cultural and legal fallout extended for years. Federal law on the showing of fight film, federal action against Johnson, and a lack of title opportunities throughout the sport for other African-Americans trailed this fight for more than a decade but progress couldn’t be denied forever. On the way there, Johnson made a statement that stands the test of time.

1 Rocky Marciano vs. Joe Louis

Date: October 26, 1951

Location: Madison Square Garden, New York

At stake: Non-title

Records: Marciano (37-0, 32 KO), Louis (66-2, 52 KO)

Result: Marciano TKO8 Louis

Summary: They were still talking about it almost forty years later in the barbershop scene in “Coming to America.” It’s still talked about now. The ultimate torch passing fight checks more boxes than any other. The sad sight of a balding Louis slipping from the ring remains one of boxing’s most poignant. Marciano was on his way up, Louis was hanging on by a thread, and it set up Marciano as a superstar similarly to De La Hoya’s losses to Mayweather and Pacquiao. Marciano-Louis was also a significant television event in the early days of the medium that changed the world. This was a live experience more visceral than any newspaper headline, film reel, or radio broadcast could provide; a watershed moment for a nation to weep simultaneously.

Who wouldn’t weep for the end of Joe Louis?  

If Johnson made a statement, Louis opened doors. Louis was arguably the most significant figure in the integration of US sports. Could there have been a Jackie Robinson in 1947 without Louis? Robinson didn’t think so. The heavyweight title reign of Joe Louis, its longevity, dominance, and crossover with Louis’s service in World War II, helped to redefine what heroism could look like in US popular culture. Louis was the greatest champion the sport has ever known with a still record 25 consecutive defenses in boxing’s flagship class, across a still record eleven years and eight months, with over thirty career wins against the top ten opponents of his day...and it could have been more without the lost years of the war. When the man who did all that passes the torch, nothing else really comes close.

For a closer look at Pacquiao vs Ugas, check out our fight night page. 

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