Commentary

Honoring the greatest upsets of all time

Originally Published: February 11, 2010
By Kieran Mulvaney | Special to ESPN.com

In Las Vegas, it's almost always the same.

Once the final bell is rung and Michael Buffer has announced the winner, the arena empties, its temporary residents spilling through the doors and onto the casino floor until, seemingly within minutes, the only ones left are the journalists on deadline and the workers breaking down the ring.

I can count on one hand the times the majority of the assembled fandom lingered long after the echoes of the final bell had dissipated.

• Ricky Hatton's traveling army of supporters continuing to sing and drink long after their man had been rendered senseless by, consecutively, Floyd Mayweather Jr. (in 2007) and Manny Pacquiao (in 2009).

• Pacquiao and Miguel Cotto fans enthusiastically and good-naturedly applauding the postfight interviews of both boxers after their bout last year.

• The night in May 2004 when Antonio Tarver knocked out Roy Jones Jr.

It had been little more than a year since Jones seemed to have secured his place in the pantheon of boxing's greatest with a dominating performance against John Ruiz to claim a portion of the heavyweight crown. In November 2003, he returned to light heavyweight and struggled against Tarver, digging deep to earn a decision in a subpar performance that many, including he, ascribed to the strain of losing the muscle he had gained to bulk up and fight Ruiz.

It was plausible. After all, Jones had barely been touched in the ring before. In the rematch with Tarver, surely he would return to glory. And in the first round, he was dominant, seemingly cruising to victory.

Then, in the second, a huge left hand from Tarver sent Jones crashing to the canvas in the corner. He rolled over onto his hands and knees, toppled onto his face and struggled to his feet, only for referee Jay Nady to wave off the fight.

The immediate roar was followed by a stunned silence. Journalists and spectators alike just stood, shocked, staring at the ring as if the hologram would disappear and reality would return. Thousands of cell phones lit up as the news spread around the globe. Long after the official announcements had been made, there was little movement, the implausibility of what had unfolded taking its time to seep into the collective consciousness.

It is one of the great beauties of boxing: There is nothing quite so dramatic and exciting as the major upset, when a great fighter either grows old overnight or doesn't take his opponent seriously, or said opponent catches lightning in a bottle and delivers the fight of his life. The upset can unfold steadily, as when Evander Holyfield beat up Mike Tyson in 1996, or with shocking suddenness, as when Tarver knocked out Jones. Either way, the drama is of the seemingly unthinkable unfolding before your eyes and the realization that in years to come you can say, "I was there."

In honor of the 20th anniversary of the greatest shocker of them all, when an unheralded heavyweight from Columbus, Ohio, defeated the universally recognized Baddest Man on the Planet, ESPN.com presents 20 of the greatest upsets in boxing history.

James J. Corbett KO21 John L. Sullivan
Sept. 7, 1892, Olympic Club, New Orleans

Sullivan was the last of the bare-knuckle champions and the first heavyweight champion under the Marquess of Queensbury rules for boxing. He was the sportís first superstar, he outweighed his challenger by 25 pounds and he advanced out of his corner looking to dispatch Corbett with one big right hand. Corbett retreated, dodging Sullivan's blows and not landing a punch until the third. Slowly but surely, his footwork and lateral movement befuddled the defending champion, and his jabs and right hands took their toll until, in the 21st round, a succession of blows pitched Sullivan onto his face. The heavyweight championship had changed hands for the first time.

Jess Willard KO26 Jack Johnson
April 5, 1915, Vedado Racetrack, Havana, Cuba

A succession of "white hopes" had been lined up to try to defeat Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, who had held his title since 1908. All of them had failed, and Willard hardly seemed the most likely candidate to reverse that trend. At 34 years old, he had been a professional for less than five years, and his skills were crude. But he was huge -- 6-foot-6½, 230 pounds, with an 83-inch reach -- and he had undergone extensive endurance training. Johnson, by contrast, had been living in exile in France for two years and had spent more of that time partying than fighting. The defending champion started strongly, however, and after 15 rounds was well ahead. But slowly, he began to wilt under the Havana sun and Willard's heavy blows. In the 26th round, a right hand dropped Johnson to the canvas, and he was counted out on his back. Johnson later claimed he threw the fight.

Gene Tunney W10 Jack Dempsey
Sept. 23, 1926, Sesquicentennial Stadium, Philadelphia

Dempsey had delivered Willard a frightful beating to win the heavyweight crown in 1919, and with his all-action style, complete with signature left hook, he had become a hugely popular champion. After a thrilling brawl with Argentine challenger Luis Firpo in 1923 -- during which Dempsey knocked Firpo 10 down times en route to a second-round KO but was floored twice himself and even knocked through the ropes -- the "Manassa Mauler" eschewed defending his title in favor of making movies and boxing in exhibitions. Eventually, he returned to the ring to defend against underdog Tunney, but he had lost his former sharpness and ferocity, and a shocked crowd in excess of 120,000 watched as Tunney easily boxed his way to victory.

James J. Braddock W15 Max Baer
June 13, 1935, Madison Square Garden Bowl, Long Island City, New York

Braddock had challenged for the light heavyweight title in 1929, but after breaking his right hand in a losing effort against Tommy Loughran, his career hit the skids. He lost more than he won, and with his family in poverty during the Great Depression, he supplemented his boxing purses with work as a longshoreman. Despite scoring a trio of upset victories to earn a title shot, he was considered no match for Baer. But the 10-1 underdog comprehensively outboxed the champion to lift the title and earn himself the sobriquet "Cinderella Man."

Max Schmeling KO12 Joe Louis
June 19, 1936, Yankee Stadium, New York City

Louis was 27-0, the No. 1 contender for the heavyweight title and a star in the making. Schmeling, a former champion, was considered past his prime and no threat to derail the American's inevitable march to the top. But Schmeling had studied Louis intently and had noticed that Louis dropped his left hand after delivering a jab. Each time Louis threw that punch, Schmeling responded with a straight right. He dropped Louis for the first time in his career in the fourth, battering him for eight more rounds and dropping him for the count in the 12th. In the rematch, Louis knocked out Schmeling within a round.

Fritzie Zivic W15 Henry Armstrong
Oct. 4, 1940, Madison Square Garden, New York City

During the preceding four years, Armstrong had fought 65 times, going 62-2-1, winning the featherweight, lightweight and welterweight crowns, and becoming the first and only man in boxing history to hold titles in three weight divisions simultaneously. He had made 18 defenses of the welterweight crown when he ran into Zivic, a rugged fighter whose tactics sometimes showed only a nodding acquaintance with the rules. In a tough and frequently dirty affair, Zivic dropped Armstrong as the bell rang to end the fight, winning a unanimous decision. Armstrong never held a world title again.

Randy Turpin W15 Sugar Ray Robinson
July 10, 1951, Earls Court Arena, London

Robinson, the former welterweight and reigning middleweight champion, entered the contest against the unheralded Turpin with a career record of 128-1-2 and a 90-fight unbeaten streak. But Turpin, the British and European champion, took the fight to the man already widely regarded as the pound-for-pound greatest fighter of all time, rocking him in the eighth and 14th rounds and claiming a comfortable win. Two months later, Robinson stopped Turpin in the 10th to regain the middleweight crown.

Many were convinced Cassius Clay was terrified of Sonny Liston, and at the end of the fourth round, blinded by an unknown substance, Clay begged trainer Angelo Dundee to let him quit. Instead, Clay circled the onrushing Liston until his vision had cleared, then peppered him with jabs and straight rights until the champion stayed on his stool after the sixth.

Jersey Joe Walcott KO7 Ezzard Charles
July 18, 1951, Forbes Field, Pittsburgh

When heavyweight champion Charles announced he had signed to defend against Walcott, the media soon dubbed it the "Why?" fight. After all, Walcott had fought unsuccessfully for the title four times, losing twice to Joe Louis and twice to Charles -- the second time just four months previously. This time, however, Walcott came at Charles with aggressive intent, rocking him with left hooks and landing a concluding hook in the seventh that dropped Charles on his face. Walcott would win their fourth encounter as well before losing the title to Rocky Marciano.

Cassius Clay TKO6 Sonny Liston
Feb. 25, 1964, Convention Hall, Miami Beach, Fla.

Clay was undefeated but had been knocked down -- and nearly out -- by England's Henry Cooper in his previous bout, and was a 10-1 underdog against the seemingly invincible Liston. His loud taunting and high pulse rate before the bout convinced many that he was terrified of the champion, and at the end of the fourth round, blinded by an unknown substance, Clay begged trainer Angelo Dundee to let him quit. Instead, Clay circled the onrushing Liston until his vision had cleared, then peppered him with jabs and straight rights until the reigning champion stayed on his stool after the sixth, claiming an injured shoulder.

Muhammad Ali KO8 George Foreman
Oct. 30, 1974, Stade du 20 Mai, Kinshasa, Zaire

Ali (who changed his name from Cassius Clay after the Liston fight) had not worn the heavyweight crown since 1967, when he had been stripped for refusing induction into the armed services. His one tilt at the title since then had ended in defeat, to Joe Frazier, and just 18 months before meeting Foreman, he had lost on points to Ken Norton. Foreman, meanwhile, had demolished Frazier, knocking him down six times in two rounds to become champion. But a combination of stinging straight rights and his famous "rope-a-dope" routine gave Ali a shocking victory and his second reign as heavyweight champion.

Leon Spinks W15 Muhammad Ali
Feb. 15, 1978, Las Vegas Hilton, Las Vegas

Since "The Thrilla in Manila" fight between Ali and Frazier 28 months earlier, Ali's title reign had descended into an underwhelming series of defenses against hopelessly overmatched challengers. His greatest days had long since passed, but he was still expected to have more than enough for Spinks, who had had a total of seven professional contests, one of them a draw against Scott LeDoux. But Spinks outhustled an overconfident and underprepared Ali in the only time he would win a world title bout. Ali won the rematch, and Spinks lost by knockout in his two subsequent title shots.

Kirkland Laing W10 Roberto Duran
Sept. 4, 1982, Cobo Hall, Detroit

British welterweight Laing's nickname was "The Gifted One," but for all his natural talents, he could sometimes appear disinterested in the ring. Just two fights removed from defeat by 9-7-1 Reggie Ford, he seemed ripe for the taking by "Hands of Stone." But in the upset of the year, Laing outworked Duran for a points win. Laing returned to his mercurial form in his next bout, a KO defeat to unheralded Fred Hutchings.

Michael Spinks W15 Larry Holmes
Sept. 21, 1985, Riviera Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas

No light heavyweight had beaten a reigning heavyweight champion, let alone a heavyweight champion with a record of 48-0 and more title defenses than anyone not named Joe Louis. In his previous fight, Spinks had weighed a mere 170 pounds in successfully defending his light heavyweight crown; how could he possibly contend with a legitimate heavyweight? But Spinks bulked up to 200 pounds and attacked Holmes with combinations that did little damage but scored points; Holmes reeled him in as the fight went on, peppering the challenger with jabs, but not enough to win the fight on the official cards.

Lloyd Honeyghan TKO6 Donald Curry
Sept. 27, 1986, Caesars, Atlantic City

Curry had annihilated Milton McCrory to become the undisputed welterweight champion and was considered one of the best in the world, pound-for-pound. But he was no match for the relatively crude but relentless Honeyghan, who wobbled him in the second and tore into him in the fifth and sixth until the champion -- his nose broken, his lip split and his eyelid cut open -- elected not to answer the bell for the seventh.

Sugar Ray Leonard W12 "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler
April 6, 1987, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas

Since February 1982, Leonard had retired, come out of a retirement for a comeback fight in which he had been dropped for the first time in his career, re-retired; undergone corrective surgery on his eye and battled cocaine use. Hagler was unbeaten since 1976 and had been middleweight champion since 1980. The outcome seemed inevitable. Yet, incredibly, Leonard deployed rapid-fire combinations to keep Hagler off balance, steal rounds and score a split-decision victory that fans have debated ever since. A disappointed Hagler never fought again.

James "Buster" Douglas KO10 Mike Tyson
Feb. 11, 1990, Tokyo Dome, Tokyo

The mother of all upsets. Only one Las Vegas sports book would even offer odds on the fight, and those odds were 42-1 against Douglas, a talented but underachieving fighter whose previous crack at a heavyweight belt had ended in stoppage defeat to Tony Tucker. But on this night, motivated by the recent death of his mother, he was inspired, using his extra reach to pound Tyson every time the shorter champion shuffled his feet to square up and throw a punch. When Tyson dropped him in the eighth round, Douglas just came back even stronger, blasting him to the canvas in the 10th. The image of the intimidating Tyson groping on the canvas for his mouthpiece and placing it haphazardly between his teeth as he struggled to his feet has become iconic.

George Foreman KO10 Michael Moorer
Nov. 5, 1994, MGM Grand, Las Vegas

Twenty-one years after first winning the heavyweight title, Foreman did it again. But he did it the hard way: Moorer punished him for nine rounds until Foreman, his face swollen and bruised, landed a perfect short right hand to become, at 46 years old, the oldest heavyweight champion in history.

Evander Holyfield TKO11 Mike Tyson
Nov. 9, 1996, MGM Grand, Las Vegas

Tyson had begun his second reign as champion after being released from prison and appeared to be as ferocious as he was in his first incarnation. The loss to Douglas had been written off as a fluke, and more than a few observers expressed concern for the supposedly washed-up Holyfield's health. But Holyfield refused to be intimidated and took the fight to Tyson from the beginning, dropped him with a punch to the chest in the sixth round and dominated him down the stretch until referee Mitch Halpern waved off the fight.

Antonio Tarver KO2 Roy Jones Jr.
May 15, 2004, Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas

Jones had barely lost even a round during reigns as middleweight, super middleweight and light heavyweight champion. Fourteen months earlier, he had been peerless in dominating WBA heavyweight belt holder John Ruiz. He looked human for the first time when dropping back to 175 pounds to face Tarver the previous November, but he pulled out a majority decision. He had easily won the first round of the rematch until a Tarver left hand sent him crashing to the canvas and out. Jones was knocked out by Glen Johnson in his next bout and hasn't been the same fighter since.

Manny Pacquiao TKO8 Oscar De La Hoya
December 6, 2008, MGM Grand, Las Vegas

In hindsight, it doesn't seem such a shock, but at the time, many were calling it a mismatch. De La Hoya had fought much of the previous several years at junior middleweight, with a brief sojourn as high as 160 pounds, while Pacquiao had only once fought above 130. But the welterweight catchweight and the toll of a long career at the top had drained "The Golden Boy," who had no response as the Filipino buzz saw battered him for eight one-sided rounds until De La Hoya called it quits on the fight -- and his career.

Honorable mentions:
Ingemar Johansson-Floyd Patterson, George Foreman-Joe Frazier, John H. Stracey-Jose Napoles, Frankie Randall-Julio Cesar Chavez, Vince Phillips-Kostya Tszyu, Bernard Hopkins-Felix Trinidad, Hasim Rahman-Lennox Lewis, Kevin McBride-Mike Tyson, Nigel Benn-Gerald McClellan and Lamon Brewster-Wladimir Klitschko.

Kieran Mulvaney covers boxing for ESPN.com and Reuters.

Kieran Mulvaney covers boxing for ESPN.com, HBO.com and Reuters, and also blogs for Discovery Channel News.