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Posted: Thursday July 9, 2009 10:18AM; Updated: Thursday July 9, 2009 1:08PM
Richard O'Brien Richard O'Brien >

Thrill List: Boxing

Story Highlights

Jack Dempsey came out of so-called hobo camps to become a champ

Roberto Duran was not only the greatest lighweight, he was also terrifying

Joe Louis' victory over Max Schmeling captured the attention of the world

Muhammad Ali shook up the world creating countless classics through two decades of fighting.
Phillip Leonian/SI

These lists are not mere compilations of all-time bests in their respective sports but all-time bests at quickening the pulse and evoking a visceral response from those fortunate enough to have witnessed their artistry.

10. Arturo Gatti

We're talking thrills, not necessarily skills, right? Blood, guts, heart and heartbreak, gallant last stands and electrifying comebacks (and did we mention blood?): No fighter in the recent television era has provided more spectacular (and sanguinary) action than the Montreal-born, New Jersey-adopted crowd favorite nicknamed Thunder. Let Gatti stand for all the fighters down through the years who have thrilled fans with their courage and determination.

9. Mike Tyson

Back in the late 1980s, before jail and his ensuing descent into bloated, tattooed self-caricature and irrelevance, Tyson was the youngest heavyweight champion in history and an astonishing offensive force -- more pyrotechnic than pugilistic -- as he racked up one-round KOs and terrified opponents. When the bell rang to start a Tyson fight in those days, your hair stood on end -- even if you weren't Don King.

8. Sugar Ray Robinson

He was, after all, the greatest fighter ever, pound-for-pound. Just about every move he made was thrilling in the way that every line drawn by Picasso was thrilling. The single, perfect left hook with which he knocked out Gene Fullmer in 1957 stands as a snapshot of what makes boxing beautiful. It was just one of countless such moments in Robinson's quarter-century career.

7. Willie Pep

Power isn't the only thing that thrills. Pure artistry can also pack a punch. The legendary featherweight champion of the 1940s and '50s, known as the Will o' the Wisp for his near supernatural boxing ability, once won a round on all three judges' scorecards without throwing a punch.

6. Sonny Liston

Unfortunately remembered these days mostly for his two ugly, troubling outings against Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay), Liston in his early 1960s prime was a figure of almost comic book-like menace. Glowering, implacable, absurdly powerful, he destroyed most of the best heavyweights of his era, including Floyd Patterson in one round -- twice. Even from outside the ropes, Liston was frightening.

5. Muhammad Ali

In his own words, he "shook up the world," again and again. Whether it was the floating, stinging young Adonis of the early 1960s carving up Sonny Liston and destroying Cleveland Williams, or the mature warrior of the 1970s, facing down the guns of Joe Frazier and George Foreman, Ali created countless moments of astonishing speed, grace, courage, drama, humor -- indeed, two decades' worth of thrills.

4. Joe Louis

Coached throughout his career to be humble and undemonstrative in public, Louis flattened foe after foe with displays of speed and power that were even more astounding given his deadpan demeanor. As only the second black heavyweight champion, he was a figure of towering significance to millions. His 1938 rematch with Germany's Max Schmeling galvanized not only sports fans, but the entire world. Then Louis went out and destroyed Schmeling in 2:38.

3. Roberto Duran

In his prime -- before "No mas," before he had become more Jelly of Belly than Hands of Stone -- Duran was the greatest lightweight ever, a ferocious attacking force who fought as if driven by his own internal rhythm. A joy to watch, he was also downright scary. Told after one KO win that his opponent had been taken to the hospital, Duran sneered, "I did not hit him quite right. If I had hit him right he would be in the morgue."

2. Stanley Ketchel

Contemporary accounts refer to Ketchel, the middleweight champion from 1908 until he was shot to death in 1910 by a jealous husband, as "savage," "reckless," "a demon of the roped square," "supremely confident," "a killer" and -- oh, yeah --"the greatest middleweight who ever lived." The last one may be a stretch (only slightly), but there was no exaggerating the intensity the larger-than-life Ketchel brought into the ring.

1. Jack Dempsey

The Manassa Mauler rode out of the hobo camps of the wild west to become heavyweight champion during the Roaring Twenties. Bobbing, weaving, forever coming forward, he was a tremendous puncher who chopped down opponents far bigger than he was and then (as permitted by the rules of the day) stood over them ready to attack again as soon as they rose. The bout that symbolized his ups and downs: Knocked clear out of the ring by the giant Luis Angel Firpo at the Polo Grounds in 1923, Dempsey climbed back in and KO'd Firpo in the next round.

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