AUSTRALIA’s Alex Leapai will be a implausible underdog when he fights Wladimir Klitschko for his four heavyweight world title belts. The great Klitschko holds the IBF, WBO, WBA Super and IBO belts and has not been beaten in a decade, while Leapai is a former footballer from Queensland who drives a delivery van.
The equation is impossible for Leapai – he is given no chance at all within the boxing world, and is quoted at mocking odds by all respected bookmakers. Common sense says Leapai can’t win, but history shows that common sense has no place in heavyweight boxing.
In no particular order here is a selection of five of the greatest upsets in the history of the division.
Douglas vs. Tyson – “Rocky Lives!”
This is the result against which all sporting upsets are now measured.
James ‘Buster’ Douglas was a 40/1 outsider against the invincible animal that was an undefeated Mike Tyson, when the pair met in Tokyo in 1990. Tyson held the IBF, WBC and WBA titles and was considered the world’s best boxer, pound for pound. Douglas was a journeyman heavyweight who had been stopped by Tony Tucker during his only previous world title contest a few years earlier.
Tyson’s professional record was 37-0 with 33 knockouts, and he was proclaimed, “the baddest man on the planet.”
The one area in which Douglas did possess an advantage in this bout, however, was motivation. Just three weeks before the fight Douglas’ mother had passed away and he dedicated his performance to her. Douglas was fearless and dominant. He jabbed Tyson and outworked him, scoring the better shots in their exchanges.
The comical over-confidence of Tyson’s corner became evident as their fighter’s eye began to swell from the constant right hands. Without the traditional equipment they used a surgical glove filled with icy water to treat the eye.
Tyson mustered his ample aggression to knock Douglas down in the ninth round, but as the underdog clambered back to his feet at the count of “nine” Tyson’s chances evaporated. Douglas resumed control and destroyed Tyson’s aura in the tenth round. The shot of Tyson on the canvas for the first time in his career, fumbling with his mouthpiece as he is counted out, has become the enduring image of this incredible upset.
Clay vs. Liston – “Eat Your Words!”
Held in Miami Beach in 1964, this was the fight that launched the legend. In the immediate aftermath of the bout Cassius Clay became Cassius X, and then Muhammad Ali.
He was 22 years old and unbeaten, but had appeared fragile in his previous two fights – scoring a controversial points win over Doug Jones, and being forced to climb off the canvas to stop Henry Cooper.
In the other corner, the daunting Sonny Liston was anything but fragile. He had lost just one fight in 35 and that was a split decision early in his career, when he fought with a broken jaw.
His two fights ahead of the Clay bout were first round demolitions of the great Floyd Patterson. Liston was one of the most intimidating heavyweights ever and widely considered to be one of the greatest of all time when stepped into the ring to defend his world title against the brash Clay.
Clay was a 7/1 underdog, while of the 46 boxing writers at ringside 43 tipped Liston to win – the other three would have been considered quite mad. Clay’s antics at the weigh-in had most convinced that he was scared, and he later admitted that fact, but he had the advantage of facing an ageing and lazy Liston who had slashed his usual training regime ahead of this ‘easy’ fight.
From the opening bell it was clear that Clay was significantly faster than Liston and the first round of the fight was possibly the worst of Liston’s career. Clay picked him off with jabs and combinations, and settled his own nerves.
Clay continued to dominate until the fourth round, when he experienced a burning sensation in his eyes. The story goes that this was from a substance Liston intentionally rubbed from his gloves. In the fifth round Clay feared he was going blind, and he ran from Liston, successfully. By the sixth his eyes were clear and he took control again, while a shoulder injury Liston had taken into the fight flared.
The beaten champion quit on his stool at the end the sixth round, while Clay raced to the ring ropes to tell the boxing writers, “eat your words.”
Ali vs. Foreman – “Rope-A-Dope”
Ten years after he beat Liston as Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali attempted to tame another seemingly unbeatable foe in the form of George Foreman in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’. It had been an eventful decade for Ali who was forced out of the ring for three years after refusing to serve in the US Army.
Ahead of the Foreman fight he had not held a world title for three years, since being defeated in a unified title fight with Joe Frazier in 1971.
Foreman was the new monster in the heavyweight division. He was 40-0 with 37 knockouts and a year earlier had knocked Frazier down six times in two rounds to claim the WBC and WBA titles. He followed that performance with title defences against Jose Roman (who he stopped in the first round) and the world class Ken Norton (who went down three times in a two brutal rounds).
The footage of those fights had many fearing for Ali’s safety against the rippling Foreman when the pair met in the African city of Kinshasa in one of the most dramatic sporting events of all time.
From the outset Ali’s tactics were both utterly baffling and stunningly successful. He picked off Foreman with constant lead right hands, then adopted the ‘rope-a-dope’ – leaning back over the ropes as Foreman swung wildly at him, tiring himself out. Ali called him on and wore the blows on his arms until Foreman could punch no more. The underdog pounced and finished the fight in the eighth round, before once again declaring himself “the greatest.”
Rahman vs. Lewis – “A Puncher’s Chance”
In 2001, as the boxing world waited for Lennox Lewis to fight Mike Tyson, Lewis took a ‘warm-up’ bout with obscure American Hasim Rahman in South Africa.
The Englishman’s IBF, WBC and IBO titles were being contested but in his first genuine world title fight Rahman was given little hope. Lewis was an international superstar and spent part of his build-up for the bout filming his role in the Ocean’s Eleven film in the US. Rahman was no movie star, and reporters didn’t even recognise him when his plane landed in South Africa.
They knew him by the time he left.
While Lewis treated himself to a soft preparation, Rahman spent extra time adjusting to fighting at altitude. He was a 20/1 underdog but after the opening rounds of the bout, it was clear that while he was not the better of the two fighters he was the better prepared. Lewis walked him down, but couldn’t close the show early, as he needed to. More concerningly, Lewis was fighting without his usual style, and was clearly coasting in the bout.
The champ was quoted as saying of Rahman ahead of the fight, “he is just a piece of meat for me to play with,” but the piece of meat was fighting back. Lewis tired quickly and his hands dropped, and then in the fifth round the rest of his body joined them. The right hand that finished the bout came as Lewis flashed a grin of false bravado and arrogance. It landed on the point of Lewis’ chin and, for a while, threw the division into chaos.
An unknown had destroyed a champion, making the most of his ‘puncher’s chance’.
Braddock vs. Baer – “Cinderella Man”
A sporting upset so emotional they made a film about it. James J Braddock captured America’s heart as he battled through ‘The Depression’ and emerged as an unlikely world heavyweight champion.
The docks worker was a journeyman boxer who had lost as many bouts as he won in the years before his defining moment. He won through to the title shot with a number of upsets, just as his unremarkable career appeared to be at its end. In 1935 results and circumstances conspired to get Braddock the fight, as Baer had no interest in taking on such a lowly opponent.
Baer was a huge man and a devastating puncher. Tragically he had killed a man in the ring early in his career, while in his fights before the Braddock bout he stopped Max Schmeling and dropped the massive Primo Carnera no less than ten times. The fight was held at the Madison Square Garden Bowl and Baer clowned for much of the 15 rounds – clearly believing that the contest was beneath him. He was the younger, taller, bigger and stronger man but Braddock tucked himself in, kept himself tight and wore the punches that were delivered. He boxed smart and refused to be hurt.
Again it was a lack of preparation that cost the favourite in this legendary bout. Baer’s focus was on different fights and other elements in his life, while was the moment of Braddock’s life. Near destitute just years earlier the 10/1 outsider punched his way to the most unlikely of unanimous decision victories. It was an upset that still echoes around the boxing world 80 years later.
Words: Ben Damon