Lee Groves

10: Notable Super Bowl week fights

Many notable prize fights have taken place the week or weekend of the Super Bowl, including some huge upsets, such as Julio Cesar Chavez’s first career loss against Frankie Randall in January of 1994. Photo / Carlos Shiebeck-AFP

 

In terms of worldwide reach, television viewership and moneymaking prowess, no annual sporting event comes close to the Super Bowl. The two-week buildup following the two conference championship games only heightens the anticipation and in America, “Super Bowl Sunday” has become an unofficial national holiday. Next to Thanksgiving, more food is consumed on game day than at any other time in a given year and it may well be the most robustly social occasion of the year with all the Super Bowl parties and the adrenaline charges they inspire.

Super Bowl XLV, which saw the Green Bay Packers beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25, became the most-watched television broadcast in American history as its 111 million viewers upended the final episode of “M*A*S*H,” which had held the top spot for 28 years. The only surprise was that it took the NFL so long to end the CBS show’s Joe Louis-like reign at the top.

The Super Bowl’s popularity is such that, from time to time, other sports attempt to grab a piece of reflected glory. Some schedule events for the afternoon of game day to give viewers something else to watch besides the endless pre-game chatter while others opt to stage contests the week of the game to enhance exposure without being overwhelmed.

Over the years boxing cards have been held during given Super Bowl weeks and from time to time “The Sweet Science” has been part of the host network’s sporting smorgasbord. That programming strategy makes sense because boxing and football thrive on violent impact and compelling one-on-one conflict. Sunday’s game between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers promise plenty of both while boxing’s fare this week will be topped by two world-class middleweight showdowns – Daniel Geale-Anthony Mundine and Felix Sturm-Sam Soliman – a Friday Night Fights card in Chicago headlined by Carlos Molina-Cory Spinks and a Fox Sports Net/Fox Deportes broadcast from Las Vegas.

Several notable fights have unfolded in close proximity to the big game and a select few were so special that they created their own legacy. The following is one man’s list of the 10 most notable fights ever held during Super Bowl week, and while some of the bouts chronicled here have direct ties to the game there are others whose only link is chronological. Still, they are contests that were “super” for one reason or another.

10. Jan. 29, 2000, Mike Tyson KO 2 Julius Francis – M.E.N. Arena, Manchester, England

The most magnetic story line surrounding Super Bowl XXXIV was the Cinderella-like rise of the St. Louis Rams collectively and of quarterback Kurt Warner specifically. Following a moribund 4-12 season in 1998 the Rams had reason to believe a turnaround was on the horizon when they signed quarterback Trent Green in the off-season. When Green suffered a season-ending knee injury in a pre-season game all seemed lost. But back-up Warner, who previously played in the Arena League and NFL Europe and once stocked grocery store shelves to make ends meet, took over the controls and led the “Greatest Show on Turf” to a 13-3 record and their first playoff appearance in 10 years.

Several thousand miles to the east of Atlanta’s Georgia Dome, the site of Super Bowl XXXIV, another journeyman was hoping to seize the brass ring. Julius Francis had overcome a 18-7 start to his professional career to capture the British and Commonwealth titles and in April 1999 he scored the biggest victory of his career by out-pointing the 15-0 Danny Williams over 12 rounds. Not only did the Williams win enable Francis to retain his belts, he also won the prestigious Lonsdale Belt outright. A 12-round win over Scott Welch two months later led to the most important assignment of his career thus far – a match with the iconic Mike Tyson.

The chaos that perpetually surrounded Tyson had reached a fever pitch. After losing by 11th round TKO to Evander Holyfield in a massive upset, he engaged in three consecutive fights that redefined the term “bizarre”: The ear-biting DQ over Holyfield in their rematch, a one-punch KO over Francois Botha that saw Tyson attempt to break the South African’s arm during multiple clinches and an injury-marred one-round no contest over Orlin Norris that arguably could have drawn another DQ loss. These incidents caused patience to wear out in America, so Tyson took his act to Europe for the first time.

The reaction was nothing short of rapturous, both in terms of approval at public events and at the box office. While Tyson-Norris failed to sell out the MGM Grand, more than 22,000 packed the M.E.N. arena to see what many thought was a massive mismatch. The London Daily Mirror even paid Francis to advertise on his shoes, figuring they’d get plenty of exposure.

In perhaps a nod to his unpredictable life, warning sirens heralded the beginning of Tyson’s ring walk. The normally bare-chested Tyson entered the ring wearing a hooded sweatshirt bearing the words “Be Real” while Francis, who had trained at a London Army base, was accompanied by a military band.

Francis surprisingly charged Tyson to open the fight and he soon paid the price for his pugnaciousness. Tyson dug hard to the body with both hands and a strong jab drove the 243 1/2-pound Francis backward. With less than a minute to go in the opening round Tyson hurt Francis with a double hook to the ribs and drove him to all fours with a right to the solar plexus. Up at nine, Francis tried to clinch away the rest of the round but a shotgun jab just before the bell registered the second knockdown.

Smelling blood, the shark-like Tyson bulled Francis to a neutral corner, sunk a hook to the ribs and powered a right to the jaw that decked Francis for the third time seconds into round two. A grimacing Francis got up at eight but was quickly dropped again with a right to the stomach. Struggling upright at seven, both Tyson and Francis knew the end was near – and both were right. A right uppercut to the chin ended matters 63 seconds into the second round. 

For Tyson it was just what the doctor ordered – an efficient destruction free of controversy. For Francis it was a journey marked by short-term fame and short-term pain. While Francis’ carriage turned into a pumpkin, Warner’s Cinderella-like run was just getting started. The day after Tyson destroyed Francis, Warner ended his magical season with a 23-16 win over the Tennessee Titans, a record 414 passing yards and the Super Bowl’s Most Valuable Player award to add to his regular season MVP honor. By the time he retired following the 2009 season, Warner was considered a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame.

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