Commentary

Nothing is a given in the boxing ring

Sure it's unlikely, but think a Steve Forbes' win is out of the question? Think again. Graham Houston looks at 10 of boxing's biggest upsets.

Originally Published: May 1, 2008
By Graham Houston | Special to ESPN.com

Buster Douglas vs. Mike TysonReuters/CorbisBuster Douglas, left, is living proof that anything can happen in a boxing ring.
When Oscar De La Hoya meets Steve Forbes on Saturday, an upset is considered unthinkable.

Of course, people in boxing have thought along these lines before, many times, and the unthinkable has happened.

Here is a look at 10 upsets -- not necessarily the most historically important -- and the generally overlooked pointers to their cause.

10. Nate Campbell W12 Juan Diaz

This recent upset surprised a lot of people. Although Nate Campbell entered the fight as a respected veteran, unbeaten lightweight champ "Baby Bull" Diaz looked like an unstoppable force with his high-energy, constant punching style. Campbell, though, was well-prepared, and although 36 wasn't young in boxing terms, he didn't take up the sport until he was 24. His manager and longtime friend, Terry Trekas, told anyone prepared to listen that Campbell was ready physically and mentally to put up the performance of his life. Meanwhile, Diaz had been in dispute with promoter Don King, who released him from his contract shortly before the fight, an unsettling backdrop for the young champion.

[+] EnlargeNate Cambell and Juan Diaz
LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty ImagesNate Campbell, left, put his wealth of experience to good use in defeating the favored Juan Diaz.
Campbell previously had upset the odds against an unbeaten fighter when he outclassed and destroyed Almazbek Raiymkulov. He sounded utterly convincing in his assertions that he would take Diaz to school.

Come fight night, he was too tough and seasoned for the younger man. Speaking over the phone from his home in Jacksonville, Fla., several weeks after becoming champion, Campbell said: "I knew I would win that fight. I've got something you can't buy, something he didn't have -- experience."

9. Bernard Hopkins TKO12 Felix Trinidad

Felix Trinidad was looking unstoppable leading up to his middleweight title fight with Bernard Hopkins. A champion in three weight classes, he had just dramatically blown away William Joppy in five rounds as part of an elimination tournament; Hopkins had been merely workmanlike in a unanimous decision win over southpaw Keith Holmes.

[+] EnlargeBernard Hopkins and Felix Trinidad
Al Bello/Getty ImagesFoiled! Bernard Hopkins, left, derailed Felix Trinidad's march toward a mega showdown with Roy Jones by stopping the Puerto Rican icon in Round 12.
Cunning Hopkins immediately began a campaign of psychological warfare, including the incident in San Juan when he threw a Puerto Rican flag to the ground and made as if to stomp on it, enraging not just Trinidad but the assembled onlookers.

When the Sept. 11 tragedy caused a two-week postponement of the fight at Madison Square Garden. Hopkins simply went home to Philadelphia to await the new date. Trinidad stayed in New York. That might have had a bearing on the fight, too, because Hopkins was in his comfort zone and Trinidad surely would have found it hard not to be emotionally affected by the sights and sounds of a great city recovering from a grievous wound.

On the night of the fight, it was as if Trinidad was a ghost of the fighter who had destroyed Joppy just four months earlier -- or maybe it was simply a case of Hopkins' being far superior. Trinidad was a beaten man long before referee Steve Smoger intervened after 78 seconds of the final round. As I reported from ringside for Boxing Monthly: "The odds of 3-1 on Trinidad were made to look ridiculous."

8. Carlos Quintana W12 Paul Williams

Paul Williams was an 8-1 favorite over Carlos Quintana, for good reason. The towering, unbeaten welterweight champion had just beaten the so-called most feared fighter in the business, Antonio Margarito, and Miguel Cotto had crushed Quintana in five rounds.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Quintana
Craig Bennett/FightWireImages.com Carlos Quintana, left, overcame a significant size disadvantage to topple Paul Williams.
How, then, was Quintana going to hold off the 6-foot-1 punching machine for 12 rounds?

What many of us had not taken into account was the "styles make fights" aspect of the contest. Cagey, counterpunching Quintana was a different sort entirely from straight-ahead Margarito. On the night, Quintana's style was simply "wrong" for Williams.

In a sequent phone interview, I asked Williams if he had taken Quintana lightly but he said that this was not the case.

"I was just too relaxed, and I couldn't get my punches off," he said. "I didn't underestimate the guy, I just didn't have my usual intensity. It will be different next time."

Next time will be on June 7, with TV coverage on Showtime.

7. George Foreman TKO2 Joe Frazier

When George Foreman blasted Smokin' Joe Frazier to the canvas six times in four minutes, 35 seconds of totally one-sided fighting, it took the boxing world by surprise. Columnist Arthur Daley reported in The New York Times that ringsiders in Kingston, Jamaica, were "blinking in incredulity" at the ridiculous ease with which Foreman handled the heavyweight champion who 22 months earlier had defeated Muhammad Ali in an epic battle.

[+] EnlargeJoe Frazier and George Foreman
AP PhotoGeorge Foreman's bludgeoning of the favored Joe Frazier, left, left ringside observers in awe.
In his report in the Times, famed writer Red Smith called Foreman's victory "one of the most startling upsets in two-and-a-half centuries of heavyweight title matches."

Almost everyone had overlooked the obvious. Frazier, with his coming-at-you style, was always likely to get hit, and he was meeting a big, strong, young challenger who could really punch.

Probably the only reporter who picked Foreman was Walter Bartleman of London's Evening Standard. Watching Foreman's hammer blows put dents in the heavy bag in the gym, he later told me in London that he could picture Frazier walking disastrously into a big punch. But, he said, he sat looking at the sheet of paper in his typewriter long and hard before he could bring himself to type the words in which he predicted the upset.

6. Max Schmeling KO12 Joe Louis

Joe Louis was looked upon as almost unbeatable when he faced ex-champ Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium in June 1936. The veteran German was considered just another step in Louis' march to the heavyweight title. Schmeling was a much more experienced fighter, though, and there was no mistaking his confidence. He maintained from the start that he knew how to beat Louis, hence his famous "I see something" prefight comment.

[+] EnlargeMax Schmeling and Joe Louis
AP PhotoMax Schemling, right, swung for the fences and landed home on Joe Louis time and time again with his right during their first fight in Yankee Stadium.
What Schmeling saw was that Louis tended to drop his left hand after jabbing and could be hit by right hands if they were thrown with perfect timing. Indeed, Schmeling landed the right hand time and again in his stunning 12th-round knockout victory.

Schmeling was an 8-1 underdog, and James P. Dawson reported in The New York Times: "Bettors were offering even money he wouldn't come up for the fifth round." Yet it was Louis who almost was stopped early. Dropped and almost out of the fight in the fourth round, Louis struggled thereafter.

Louis did damage and Schmeling's left eye was almost shut by the end of the fight, but the left side of Louis' face was severely swollen. Louis was hit after the bell in the fifth, but the Brown Bomber was cautioned twice for low blows. Experience and tactical shrewdness were big factors in Schmeling's victory, but his mental strength was of huge importance. As reporter Dawson put it, Schmeling "refused to believe that Louis was a superman of the ring."

5. Michael Spinks W15 Larry Holmes

Undefeated heavyweight champion Larry Holmes seemed to be on course to beating Rocky Marciano's mark of 49 successive wins, but Michael Spinks spoiled things.

Holmes had a record of 48-0 going into the fight and was considered simply too big for Spinks, the light heavyweight champion who had been talking about a fight with middleweight champ Marvin Hagler before signing the contract to meet Holmes. Spinks, however, built up his body by training with conditioning master Mackie Shilstone and came in at 200 pounds.

Some wondered whether the challenger had packed on too much poundage, but Shilstone said Spinks had only 7.2 percent body fat at the heavier weight.

In the ring, outdoors at the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Spinks often befuddled Holmes with awkward defensive maneuvers on his way to a close but unanimous decision.

There had been signs that Holmes, 35, might have been slipping when he had a grueling struggle with far less experienced Carl Williams in his last fight before meeting Spinks. However, as Richard Hoffer wrote in the Los Angeles Times, Spinks' victory was "entirely unexpected." Even Spinks said afterward: "I never saw myself winning this fight."

4. Randolph Turpin W15 Sugar Ray Robinson

Randolph Turpin's points victory over Sugar Ray Robinson at Earls Court Arena in London in 1951 was possibly the greatest victory ever by a British boxer. Robinson had lost just once in 130 fights. Turpin, awkward but strong and heavy hitting, was thought to have no chance of outboxing Robinson. The British writers were unanimous that his only hope was in landing a big punch in the early rounds, before the superb American fighting machine could get into his stride.

[+] EnlargeSugar Ray Robinson and Randolph Turpin
Central Press/Getty ImagesRandolph Turpin's dramatic upset over Sugar Ray Robinson, left, is considered one of the greatest victories ever by a British boxer.
Bernard McElwaine of the long-gone Sunday Pictorial feared a mismatch, writing: "The fight should be the most exciting ever staged in this country. Exciting, like a train wreck, an earthquake, a cattle stampede, or any disaster."

Turpin, though, rose to the occasion magnificently, taking the fight to Robinson, beating him to the punch with a jarring left jab, mauling him in the clinches. Legendary British sportswriter Peter Wilson informed readers of The Daily Express that when Turpin was announced as the winner, the crowd of 18,000 sang "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" "until even the walls of the mighty arena seemed to shake like Jericho's."

Robinson went into the fight after a tiring European tour, and it is generally accepted that he was jaded physically and mentally when he faced Turpin. Although accounts of Turpin's victory in the British press were understandably euphoric, reporter Clifford Webb did note in the Daily Mail: "Robinson was well below the standard most people had been led to expect from him, and my guess is that he was not at the peak of physical fitness."

3. Frankie Randall W12 Julio Cesar Chavez

Julio Cesar Chavez was a 15-1 favorite when he faced Frankie Randall in a 140-pound championship defense at the MGM Grand in January 1994 -- the main event on the Las Vegas casino resort's first boxing show. The fight was seen as a formality for the great Mexican, a champion in three weight divisions and undefeated in 90 fights.

Randall, however, had come to win, and he fought the fight of his life to pull out a split decision victory.

[+] EnlargeFrankie Randall and Julio Cesar Chavez
Al Bello /Getty ImagesThat "O" has got to go! Frankie Randall, left, used rapid-fire combinations to become the first fighter to defeat Julio Cesar Chavez.
I reported from ringside for Boxing Monthly: "The fight was so intense, so fiercely contested, that the rounds seemed to flash by."

Chavez had two points deducted for low blows and was dropped by a right hand in the 11th round, but it was still desperately close, with Chavez winning 114-113 on one judge's card while the other two judges scored in favor of Randall, 114-113 and 116-111.

Perhaps what had been overlooked most about Randall was his hand speed. It was his bursts of combination punching that kept him in the fight whenever Chavez appeared on the verge of breaking him down with pressure and body blows. Randall showed what a well-schooled, fast, intelligent, boxer-puncher with self-belief could do when he got the chance of a lifetime.

Randall said afterward that he would not have argued if the decision had gone the other way. "I'm not the judge, I'm just a fighter," he told the postfight news conference. "I was proud to be able to withstand what he dished out. I was prepared to fight my heart out, and that's what I did."

2. Cassius Clay TKO end of 6 Sonny Liston

"I shocked the world," the then Cassius Clay proclaimed after his win over Sonny Liston, who astonishingly retired in his corner after six rounds at Miami Beach, Fla., in February 1964. So he had.

Officially, Liston's surrender was because of an injured left shoulder, but he was cut under the left eye and looked bewildered and weary as the fast, flashy challenger peppered him with combinations.

[+] EnlargeMuhammad Ali and Sonny Liston
Alan Band/Keystone/Getty ImagesCassius Clay, left, "shocked the world" by beating Sonny Liston.
Liston, undefeated in almost a decade, was the 7-1 betting favorite. Clay had been dropped by Henry Cooper in London in his last fight and was considered too inexperienced and too outgunned to overcome the formidable heavyweight champion who had almost contemptuously swatted Floyd Patterson aside in consecutive one-round knockouts.

"Clay seems too handsome, whimsical and bright to stand up to The Brute," Robert Lipsyte wrote in The New York Times. Yet Clay's speed and left jab immediately troubled the much slower Liston, and the only time Clay was in trouble was when he got something in his eyes in the fifth round -- perhaps liniment from Liston's body or gloves -- and backed away until his vision cleared.

The many who predicted Clay's early destruction had perhaps failed to take into account how his speed and youth might come into play if Liston -- who had been in the ring for just three rounds in the past three years -- failed to score another quick knockout.

1. Buster Douglas KO10 Mike Tyson

If any upset could be called the biggest of all time, it surely would be Buster Douglas' amazing victory over unbeaten and seemingly unbeatable Mike Tyson.

Although a big, competent boxer with an excellent jab, Douglas was thought likely to fold as soon as Tyson started to put pressure on him. Douglas seemed to have a sense of mission, though, after the recent death of his mother, as if the fight was to honor her memory.

[+] EnlargeJames
AP PHOTO/Tsugufumi MatsumotoBuster Douglas' amazing victory over Mike Tyson is considered the mother of all upsets.
Meanwhile, there was discord on the Tyson front. His marriage to actress Robin Givens had collapsed, and there were worrying reports of sluggish sparring sessions: Sparmate Greg Page actually dropped him.

There also had been telltale signs of declining discipline after Tyson's break from original manager Bill Cayton and trainer Kevin Rooney in 1988, what Newsday columnist Wallace Matthews described as "various car accidents, street fights and nightclub incidents."

The Mirage casino hotel in Las Vegas was the only sportsbook to post odds on the fight, with Tyson a 35-1 favorite. The Mirage sportsbook manager at the time, Russ Culver, evoked the image of a great racehorse when he told The Associated Press: "This was like Secretariat running against a Clydesdale." Yet, people were still betting on Tyson.

"They just thought we were giving money away," Culver said. "A lot of people bet because, even at those odds, they figured they could make 3 percent interest on their money in just a day or two." One player wagered $100,000 on Tyson. By fight time, the odds on Tyson had soared to 42-1.

Tyson, however, struggled from the start. Earl Gustkey reported in the Los Angeles Times: "From the midway of the fourth to the finish, Tyson was on unsteady legs and the old aggressiveness was slowly fading from the 23-year-old champion."

Briefly, it looked as if Tyson was on the verge of saving the deteriorating situation when he knocked down Douglas with a right uppercut in the eighth round, but he was unable to finish the fight and suffered a heavy pounding in the ninth and 10th rounds.

Afterward, Douglas told reporters: "I wasn't afraid of Mike Tyson; I'm only afraid of God."

Graham Houston is the American editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for FightWriter.com.

Graham Houston is the American editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for FightWriter.com.