Whether it’s a 12-round championship fight or a four-round pro debut, the first round is always the most dangerous. Fighters hit the mitts backstage, drumming up a sweat so they don’t walk into the squared circle "cold." The behind-the-scenes work helps prepare the body for the fight to come. It wakes up the reflexes so the boxer will be less susceptible to flash knockdowns early in a fight.
You see, it isn't easy to voluntarily walk into pain, and have no doubt about it, that's exactly what you’re signing up for when you step into a ring. The body and mind need time to adjust to the harsh reality of a fight. That's why most first rounds are slow and measured. Fighters usually take the first round to test the waters, to simultaneously size up their opponents, and to gauge how their own bodies feel now that the fight is actually upon them. But there are exceptions.
In the long history of boxing, there are wonderful and shocking aberrations to the usual pattern of first rounds. They stand out in history because of their force, because of the fighters involved, because of the significance of the night itself. Not all of the first rounds that made this list are knockouts. They couldn't be. If that’s all it took, this wouldn't be a real list at all. In a sport nearly 150 years old (counting from the use of the Marquess of Queensbury rules, not the bare-knuckle era that dates back to around the late 16th century), there are plenty of first-round knockouts. Too many to make the list on that alone. To make this list there must be more than a touch of the extraordinary in what happens after the first bell rings.
Without further ado, here are the greatest first rounds in boxing history, in order by date.
Benny Leonard vs. Richie Mitchell (January 14, 1921)
Known as the "The Ghetto Wizard," Leonard was a true magician in the ring, with smarts to outwit the best technicians and the guts to outslug the maulers. He retired for the first time in 1925, as undefeated lightweight champion of the world. The closest any man probably came to defeating him in his prime was Richie Mitchell. In 1921, Mitchell was knocked down three times in the opening round but recovered to knock down the champion with only seconds left on the clock. Leonard recovered but was still wobbly. Even in his stupor, he called for action, beckoning Mitchell to “come on.” Maybe that scarred the challenger, who by many accounts could have won the lightweight title had he actually taken up Leonard’s offer to press the action. Instead, the Wizard came back to knock out the challenger five rounds later. It was one of the greatest fights of one of the top 10 greatest fighters to ever live. Sadly, there was no video to capture the magic.
Jack Dempsey vs. Luis Angel Firpo (September 14, 1923)
There are a few heavyweight title bouts on this list but none like Dempsey-Firpo. This fight was special for many reasons beyond the feats that occurred on fight night. Dempsey, once referred to as a flame of pure fire, is credited with making boxing the most popular sport in America during the 1920s. After the fixed World Series in 1919, Americans flocked to the sweet science and the charisma of Dempsey, who embodied the roaring '20s.
Firpo, "The Wild Bull of The Pampas," was born in Argentina and was the first Latin American to ever challenge for the heavyweight crown. After the fight, he was forever immortalized by George Bellows, in what is widely considered the greatest painting in American sports.
What separates the first round of their epic meeting from any other in heavyweight championship history is the knockdowns. There were nine of the them! Dempsey tasted the canvass first and Firpo the next seven. The last knockdown is one of the most famous in boxing history: Firpo landed an overhand right from hell that knocked Dempsey clear out of the ring. Officially, Dempsey survived, but Firpo died believing he won the title that night because Dempsey received help getting back into the ring. Regardless, after the insane amount of leather that landed so forcefully on champ and challenger alike, it was a miracle that that no one died, much less avoided the knockout in the opening three minutes. But seeing is believing. Check out the video.
Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling II (June 22, 1938)
The heavyweight championship of the world has long held a special place in American cultural history and, perhaps, never a place of more significance than in 1938. The United States was still a year and a half away from entering World War II, but the rhetoric of Nazi Germany was already well-known. Max Schmeling was the physical embodiment of the philosophy behind the Third Reich and by 1938 had already once pummeled “The Brown Bomber,” Louis. Schemling, with lethal effect, had exposed and exploited Louis’ unfortunate bad habit of leaving his left hand low after a jab.
Leading up to their rematch, Schmeling was convinced that he'd destroy Louis a second time. What unfolded, however, is considered by many as the most patriotic victory in sports history. The black American knocked out the symbol of Aryan superiority in two minutes, ending the preluding salvo of the war to come with a victory for the allies and bringing black and white American boxing fans as close as they had ever been in history.
Archie Moore vs. Yvon Durelle I (December 10, 1958)
Before there was Bernard Hopkins, the ageless wonder, there was Archie Moore. Known as “The Old Mongoose,” Moore is considered by many as the greatest light heavyweight to ever live. He was not only a crafty boxer who passed on his teaching to the likes of Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, he was also a supreme technician in his own right and owner of boxing's all-time knockout record, with 131 KOs!
In 1958, however, the Mongoose was long in the tooth at 44 and pitted against a young, strong man who could bang. Moore recalled of their first fight: "The first time he [Durelle] put me down, I hit my head first, then my feet. I was laying there, and I thought, 'Wow, this guy can hit.'"
Moore tasted the canvass two more times in the first round.
How the old master survived the round is beyond comprehension. That he did so and eventually came back to knock out his determined challenger in the 11th makes this fight one of real-life legend.
Some believe the fight was won after the fifth round. Moore survived a fourth knockdown and made it to his stool, where his manager, the infamous Doc Kearns (imagine Don King but white), told Moore to waive across the ring to let his wife know he was okay. Moore’s wife was actually seated behind him, so instead it looked as if Moore was waiving at Durelle. Durelle was so shocked that Moore had the energy to mock him after a fourth knockdown that he became discouraged and certainly began to doubt whether he could hurt the old champion. That doubt eventually led to Duerelle's demise in the 11th.
Ali vs. Liston I (February 25, 1964)
This is not a typo. Ali-Liston I was more impressive than the rematch. Most lists talk about the return bout, the one that ended after Ali unveiled his famous “anchor punch” in the first round. It’s the fight that led to the most famous photograph of Ali’s career. But many have debated whether it was Ali’s anchor punch that ended the fight or if Liston took a dive. Because the punch doesn't look to be of unusual force and its effect is somewhat in question because of the allegations against Liston, this fight doesn’t make it onto my list and surely can’t equal the majesty that was round 1 of the first fight between Ali and Liston.
That fight made Ali champion for the first time, it gave birth to one of Ali's most famous sayings, “I shook up the world!” and it also had the prettiest round of heavyweight boxing ever.
This first round is the exact opposite of what happened in Demsey-Firpo. Where that round was ugly, mauling and unrestrained aggression, Ali showed rhythm, elegance and control in a way never seen in the heavyweight division (and never repeated). On that night, Ali was at the top of his game. He’d accomplished his goal of matching the dancing style of his idol, Sugar Ray Robinson, and then some. On that night, I venture to say that no heavyweight to ever live could have denied Ali's rise to greatness.
George Foreman vs. Joe Frazier (January 22, 1973)
This is the fight that put the fear of God into Ali’s supporters. Foreman’s complete demolition of Smokin’ Joe Frazier in two rounds made Foreman into the boogeyman of the heavyweight division and, by extension, of every division.
In the first round, Foreman knocked Frazier down three times in a fashion that boggled the mind. It was unimaginable that the man who had given Muhammad Ali his first loss, and his introduction to the canvass, could be so utterly destroyed. It was like watching a father deliver a zealous beating to a defenseless child.
It’s a credit to Frazier’s chin and resolve that he survived the first round. He wouldn't survive the next, however. After three more knockdowns, the referee mercifully stopped the fight.
It was this fight more than any other than convinced the world that in 1974, Ali had not chance in hell to beat Foreman. This fight, in conjunction with the two-round KO of Ken Norton, convinced Foreman and his people that there could only be one outcome in the Ali fight. In fact, some say Foreman and his handlers believed they were too dangerous, and so on the night of the Ali fight they prayed that they would not kill Ali in the ring.
Marvin Hagler vs. Thomas Hearns (April 15, 1985)
This may be the greatest eight minutes of boxing ever produced. Dubbed "The War," this fight easily has one of the greatest first rounds in boxing history.
Hagler, usually a slow starter, took no time to set his legs or establish his jab. Instead, at the sound of the bell, he ran to the middle of the ring and threw a right hook with enough thunder to knock out a heavyweight. With a first punch like that, there could be nothing else but fireworks in the round. It was going to be that type of fight.
Two all-time greats meeting in their prime, fueled by true animosity toward one another, and backed by superlative skill and heart: The fight had all the elements for historical significance and lived up to the billing and more.
Stop reading. Watch the clip. Don’t skip the buildup or Hagler’s heckling about Hearn’s wounded “pinky” finger. That helps build the character of the fighters and prepares you for a toe-to-toe face-off for the ages.
Mike Tyson vs. Michael Spinks (June 27, 1988)
By the time the Baddest Man on the Planet stepped into the ring with Michael Spinks, he was already the youngest heavyweight champion in boxing history. He’d already become the first man to unify the heavyweight titles. The legend of prowess had already started to balloon into the realm of myth. The Spinks fight solidified all of that in a visceral way that only Tyson seemed capable of doing.
Before the first punch was thrown, the fight had already been decided. It was written across Spinks’ face, who wore the most uneasy visage of a man walking toward a $13 million payday in the history of prize fighting. But in 1988, when Tyson’s stock seemed without a ceiling, when he was still moving his head and working behind a jab, and before the drugs consumed him, what sane man could have approached a fight with Tyson any other way?
Manny Pacquiao vs. Juan Manuel Marquez I (May 8, 2004)
This is where it all started, where the greatest rivalry of the last 20 years was born. The then-young rising Filipino star was known for an all-offense style that overwhelmed his opponents, while Marquez was the consummate counterpuncher struggling to come out from behind the shadow of the more popular Mexican fighters of the time, Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales.
The fight was an instant classic. It began with Marquez hitting the canvass three times in the opening round and a punch that broke the resilient Mexican’s nose. Despite the clear power and speed disparity, Marquez managed to survive the round and mounted one of the most memorable comebacks in featherweight history. Despite the knockdowns, Marquez fought his way back to a draw that many believe should have been a decision victory for Marquez. Regardless, the fans were the true victors that night.
Alfredo Angulo vs. James Kirkland (November 5, 2011)
This one probably comes as somewhat of a surprise to a few people. But those people probably didn't watch this fight live.
Leading up to this clash of junior middleweight pressure fighters, anyone who'd been following the fight game knew there was no way this fight could be boring or end up in the hands of the judges. El Perro Angelo was undefeated and trained by legendary Mexican boxing Nacho Beristain. Kirkland was the disciple of Ann Wolfe, who together employed without doubt the most intense and unique conditioning methods in boxing.
Alone, each of the fighters was can't miss TV. Together there were all the necessary ingredients for something truly special. And they delivered. Not since "The War" between Hagler and Hearns has there been a first round filled with such a high-paced battle of skill, guts and power punches.
A former college wrestler, Taekwondo black-belt, and wannabe boxer, Paul Navarro (aka Fight Like Sugar) is now a full-time lawyer, part-time fight scribe, and high school wrestling coach.