The American Broadcasting Company (ABC) is best known for owning the broadcast rights to the Academy Awards and the Emmy Awards, but it also has a storied history in the combat sports world. ABC aired many infamous events throughout the 20th century, up until its final boxing card in June of 2000. Many of these events also aired under the Wide World of Sports banner, one of Time Magazine’s 100 best television programs of all time.
Today, ABC no longer airs boxing, however they have been dipping their toes into the world of mixed martial arts recently, with two UFC Fight Nights taking place on the network since January 2021. With MMA set to make its return to ABC with UFC Fight Night: Rodriguez vs. Ortega this Saturday, let’s take a look back at the biggest combat sports events held on ABC. The following list is in no particular order, but will highlight some of the greatest and most influential combat sports spectacles ever broadcast on ABC.
On February 25, 1964, the late great Cassius Clay competed in a boxing event aired on ABC. He challenged the then World Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston for his title in Miami Beach, where he would come away with a technical knockout victory after Liston failed to leave the stool for round seven. Clay had done the unthinkable, upsetting the Heavyweight champion who many considered to be unbeatable at the time. The win didn’t come without controversy however, and the two would rematch in May of the following year, also on ABC. The second meeting between the two Heavyweights would end as controversially as the first, with Clay, now known as Muhammed Ali, landing a quick counter shot that floored Liston less than two minutes into the first round. Ali would celebrate the knockdown as the referee frantically tried to send Ali to a neutral corner. While this was happening, Liston struggled to get back to his feet and by the time he had, the 10 count had been counted in full, meaning that Ali was the winner via first round knockout.
George Foreman and Joe Frazier would enter their first fight with a combined record of 66-0. Frazier had won 10 consecutive Heavyweight title fights while Foreman was ranked as the number one contender for the belts. The much-anticipated matchup lasted less than two rounds as Foreman dismantled the champion, scoring six knockdowns against Frazier. The fight was called off at 1:35 of the second round, meaning Foreman was the new undisputed Heavyweight champion. During the action, ABC’s Howard Cosell made the legendary call: “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!”, an iconic exclamation that encapsulated the result of the match.
In what is referred to as arguably the greatest sporting event of the 20th century, ABC broadcasted Muhammed Ali and George Foreman’s legendary bout to the public on October 30, 1974. Ali, who was an ABC regular, challenged Foreman for the undisputed Heavyweight title in front of 60,000 fans in Kinshasa, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo). Despite entering as a betting underdog, Ali won the fight by knockout in the eighth round while employing the now famous ‘rope-a-dope’ strategy, tiring Foreman out. Foreman’s power punching was expected to be too much for the faster Ali, but by the time of the stoppage in the eighth round, he was exhausted and unable to defend in a way that prevented Ali from landing. The bout is considered one of Muhammed Ali’s most famous fights alongside others broadcasted on ABC. The fight was also estimated to be watched by one billion people worldwide, a quarter of the Earth’s population at the time, making it the world’s most watched broadcast when it aired.
Fast forward to 1992, and Evander Holyfield was the reigning Heavyweight champion after capturing the title from Buster Douglas. In what would become known as one of the best Heavyweight boxing matches ever, Bowe would capture Holyfield’s crown via unanimous decision. With massive ebbs and flows, this fight would capture The Ring magazine’s Fight of the Year with round 10 also winning the magazine’s Round of the Year. If you haven’t seen the bout, at least go back and watch the infamous round 10 as it is truly one of the best you’ll ever see.
Despite broadcasting combat sports for decades, it was 2021 when ABC aired mixed martial arts for the first time on their network. The event was UFC on ABC 1, with Max Holloway and Calvin Katter squaring off in the main event. The event had 10 bouts on the card, three of which ended by stoppage, but it was the main event that would truly wow audiences. Max Holloway would put on one of, if not, the most dominant performance in MMA history, landing 445 significant strikes on Katter over the course of 25 minutes. It was a truly virtuoso performance as Holloway set the record for most strikes landed in a single fight. It was a great first main event for ABC to air as Holloway is one of the most beloved figures in the sport who also displayed tremendous skill for any new viewers of MMA.
The fight between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran billed as ‘The Super Fight’ and later known as the No Más Fight, took place on ABC in November of 1980. It was the second of three matchups between the two, with Durán taking the first matchup by decision earlier in 1980. Leonard would control the fight, using his speed and footwork to completely outbox Duran to the point where in the closing seconds of round 8, Durán would turn away from his opponent and retire, leaving Leonard the winner via TKO. The nickname for the fight, ‘No Más’ which translates to “No more” in Spanish, would stem from Duran allegedly saying the phrase to the referee as he asked him to stop the fight.
Shortly after Leonard’s fight with Duran, he would take on Thomas ‘The Hitman’ Hearns in September of 1981 on ABC. In a back and forth title bout, Leonard came away with the 14th round knockout win despite trailing on the scorecards to Hearns, who had done well to outpoint Leonard to that point. Hearns acted as the stalker, walking down Leonard while he boxed from a distance. By the midway point of the fight, Leonard had accrued damage to his eye and face and had to battle through adversity to hurt Hearns. After realizing he would need to do something miraculous to win, Leonard did just that, bludgeoning Hearns in round 13 and 14 until the referee was forced to stop the fight.
While it pales in comparison to some of the other bouts on this list in terms of weight, the UFC 276 Prelims airing on ABC was significant in its own right as it was the first time in history that a UFC pay-per-view preliminary card had been shown in primetime on ABC. This is a huge moment for the sport and promotion as the ABC primetime slot allowed many new viewers to enjoy what the sport has to offer for potentially the first time. Not only that, but there was a time when the UFC and MMA had to do everything in their power to get on free television, let alone the primetime slot on a Saturday night. The fighters who competed during the primetime slot delivered, as three of four fights didn’t need the judges’ scorecards. Jalin Turner submitted Brad Riddell with a guillotine choke in just 0:45, Ian Garry showed he is part of the next generation of prospects at 170 pounds, and Jim Miller submitted Donald Cerrone with Cerrone retiring following the stoppage. With the success of the prelims, there could be a whole lot more simulcasts in the future between the UFC and ABC.
In order for Amanda Serrano and Katie Taylor to headline Madison Square Garden, there had to be a first pair of women to compete on live network television. Yvonne Trevino and Brenda Rouse were that pair, as they became the first women to ever box on live TV in the United States in April of 1997. The event was broadcasted on ABC, a significant moment for women’s combat sports. In the end, Rouse would be no match for Trevino, as Yvonne finished the bout by knockout with a handful of seconds left in round one, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that this bout was the first of its kind for female athletes participating in combat sports.