Boxing is the height of brutality. It’s an art form of pure elite fitness and endurance. All there is are two fighters pitted against one another in a ring, covered in blood, sweat, exertion, and jeering crowds. These fierce and finely tuned athletes were once courted and showered with adulation for their endeavours in the ring. Some still are. Those at the apex of this sport receive numerous kudos, sponsorships, and prize money. Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather have so much money that if each jab they had thrown was a million bucks, it still wouldn’t equal their wealth (that may be an exaggeration).
Yet the world where Undisputed Heavyweight Champs like Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali were once revered has faded. The burgeoning success of sports such as UFC and MMA have chipped away at the majesty of this martial art. Such a fact fails to diminish how over the years, there have been memorable fights for the World Championship belts, with numerous contenders captivating audiences worldwide. The recent victory of Tyson Fury over Wladimir Klitschsko was a surprising upset to many in the pugilism world. The Ukrainian Klitschsko Brothers having dominated the heavyweight division for roughly a decade.
With this in mind, here is a comprehensive rundown of the outlandish upsets in the world of boxing and those warriors audacious enough to punch above their weight and win a title.
10. Hasim Rahman vs. Lennox Lewis (2001)
Perhaps this bout is a lesson in how the spoils of fame can sometimes be a dereliction of the very talent that made one famous in the first place. In other words: neglect your gifts at your peril. Lennox Lewis, the Canadian/British Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the time, faced off against Hasim Rahman in South Africa. Lewis had been preoccupied in Hollywood before the fight, having a guest role in the hit movie, Ocean’s Eleven and maybe paid less attention to his pre-match preparation than he should’ve. His filming duties delayed his arrival and this may have been key to his defeat, a knockout in the fifth round. Post bout, Lewis relayed his own shock at the loss and portioned the blame on the high altitude of the fight that he was ill prepared for. Yet the lofty peak has a mighty fall, as Lennox Lewis learned when the altitude of his movie star perch went to his head and lost him his belts.
9. Jack Johnson vs. James Jeffries (1910)
The boxing world more than a century ago was vastly different from the one we know today. It was a totally whitewashed. At the time, a person of color as a sporting champion’s belt was unheard of. Jack Johnson changed all of this. His victory over reigning champ Tommy Burns clinched the first title for a black man, a fact that enraged many people, including James Jeffries, a retired boxer. His indignation forced him out of retirement to challenge the black winner. Johnson had become Colored Heavyweight Champion of the World in 1903 and after defeating Jeffries (heavier by 20 pounds) by a TKO in round 15 of 45 (that’s how long boxing lasted back then!). Johnson’s victory horrified some to the extent that there were riots in certain parts of the US. Such a reaction is unthinkable today, when greats such as Ali and Tyson reached the summit of the sport, but thanks to Johnson, their names are rightfully enshrined in history and so, deservedly, is his own.
8. Wladimir Klitschko vs. Tyson Fury (2015)
A rather plodding fight that was a heavy slog between two mammoth heavyweights, the match between the recently dethroned Ukrainian Klitschko and the UK’s Tyson Fury was another fight that went the distance and went to a decision. The deliberating judges shocked the world by handing the decision to Tyson Fury, ending the domination of the Klitschko Brothers on the heavyweight title belts. Even being reduced by one point never diminished the domination of the Brit, when a punch to the back of the head in the eleventh round was deemed illegal. After this shocking defeat, there is some doubt as to whether the 39-year-old former champ Klitschko can mount a comeback and if he will challenge the newly crowned champ to a rematch.
7. James Braddock vs. Max Baer (1935)
This fight is another instance of a fighter that is considered by all to be a rank outsider, believed not to stand a chance of winning, in fact clinches the title to widespread astonishment. Max Baer, the champion, well-built, toned and athletic, was fit and ready to defend his belt against James Braddock, who had been neglecting his boxing for years. Of course, the world, and America in particular, was suffering the raw bite of the Great Depression and, like many, James Braddock had to work manual labor to make ends meet. So who would have thought that he would have a snowball’s chance in hell against the primed and ready Baer? Yet not only was he ready, James Braddock came out with raw might and fought bravely, brawling and taking the primed Baer down several pegs, to make a resounding and shocking defeat against the champ, winning the match by a unanimous decision from the judges.
6. Frankie Randall vs. Julio Cesar Chavez (1994)
Julio Cesar Chavez’s position was pretty indomitable prior to this bout against opponent Frankie Randall. He had an unbelievable record of 89 wins and only one draw to mar his perfect string of victories. Randall had spent many a year as an underdog on the books of promoter Don King and truly relished this opportunity to prove his worth against the champion. The fight took place in Las Vegas, coinciding with the opening night of the opulent MGM Grand casino. The fight was a monumental tussle, Randall downing Chavez for the first time in the champion’s career in the eleventh round. The bout went the distance and made it to a judges’ decision, resulting in a split on points. What swayed the match was Chavez’s two punches below the belt. He was docked two points, handing the shocking upset and victory to Frankie Randall and blighting the near perfection of Chavez’s undamaged record. That night was a valiant fight that sealed an unprecedented win and went down as one hell of an upset for the favourite.
5. Mike Tyson vs. Buster Douglas (1990)
“Iron” Mike Tyson was a giant of the ring, dominating the sport with power, athleticism and almost boundless natural flare. Succeeding Ali in the 80s, Tyson was the overlord of competitive boxing. Yet iron runs the risk of rusting. When he met Buster Douglas in the Tokyo Dome in 1990, after being dogged with troubles in his personal life, Douglas, at 42-1, roared out of his corner like a tsunami, surprising everyone and most of all, Tyson himself. Douglas downed Tyson in the eighth round but he rose after an eight count. The battle went on to round ten, where Douglas punched the mouth guard out of Tyson, proceeded by a combo that toppled Tyson, who fumbled around on the mat and unable to rise for the 10 count. Iron Mike’s Undisputed and undefeated reputation was left dazed and out for the count with him as Douglas took the title.
4. George Foreman vs. Michael Moorer (1994)
This epic match was a stunning example of how experience can often win out over raw exuberance and the energy of youth. Michael Moorer, heavyweight champ of the time, faced off against the 45-year-old, flabby looking and seemingly rather out of shape George Foreman. The older contender battled tirelessly against an opponent roughly the age Foreman was when he defied the odds and lost to Ali in the infamous Rumble in the Jungle. The advantage of many years up and down (literally) in the ring worked in Foreman’s favour and whilst the younger Moorer gave the older opponent a grilling (pardon the pun) for nine rounds. Foreman eventually swung a devastating right that downed his adversary and bestowed on the middle-aged boxer the world title he had lost nineteen years earlier. Nineteen years ironically (or perhaps aptly) being the age difference between the victor and the loser.
3. Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston (1964)
Sonny Liston was a formidable warrior and an unparalleled champion. His blistering record of 35 wins to 1 loss proved his worth and packed the punch that floored opponents and asserted his world domination. With 15 out of his 17 previous bouts resulting in a knockout, it’s no wonder that Liston reigned supreme. Enter the 22-year-old Olympian, Cassius Clay. After securing a gold medal, the youth had comprehensively proven that he could put up a fight and showed promise in spades. That said, Liston was still favored. The match itself dictated otherwise and the 7-1 outsider’s pace and flare made the champion appear merely ordinary. No one was more alarmed by this than Sonny Liston himself, who resorted to deceitful measures and cheating in the fourth round by putting liniment oil on his glove that temporarily robbed Clay of his sight. His underhand move was futile however and it never deterred the invincible Cassius Clay from his unerring eye on the prize. The fight lasted until the seventh round with Sonny Liston throwing in the towel, citing a shoulder injury and handing the title for the first time to the champ who styled himself (but is also considered by many) to be “The Greatest!”
2. Randolph Turpin vs. Sugar Ray Robinson (1951)
Sugar Ray Robinson, considered to be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world by numerous pundits, fans, and other fighters, faced off against the British Randolph Turpin in London’s Earl’s Court in 1951. The match was the culmination of seven fights in Robinson’s European tour and lasted a full, gruelling 15 rounds. The bout went to the deliberation of the sole judge, referee Eugene Henderson. Henderson handed the victory to the underdog Turpin, who remained champion for a total of 64 days until the rematch at the Polo Grounds in New York City. The rematch went to the tenth round, when the referee called it and Robinson became champion once again.
1. Michael Spinks vs Larry Holmes (1985)
All of these unforeseen victories are seen as being claimed by the underdog, but none more so than Michael Spinks. Having fought as a light heavyweight previously, the contender had since graduated to heavyweight. Going into the match, he was highly out of favour when facing the champion, Larry Holmes. The transition and perceived disadvantage presented no issues though for Michael Spinks and he warred through fifteen rounds toe-to-toe with Holmes. After going the distance, Spinks’ gamble remained in the hands of the judges, who after it was all said and done, voted for him. This triumph resulted in Michael Spinks becoming the first lineal champion (light heavyweight and heavyweight) in history as well as the first light heavyweight contender to have successfully moved up to a higher division as a heavyweight.