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June 2001

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OOOPS!

Lennox Lewis's shocking loss to Hasim Rahman wasn't the first big heavyweight surprise - Lewis himself had been through it before with Oliver McCall. Here, GRAHAM HOUSTON presents his five biggest upsets in matches for the world heavyweight championship


Photo shot

UNDERDOG: Douglas's stunning victory over the supposedly invincible Tyson in Tokyo is part of boxing legend - Get Big Pic

BUSTER DOUGLAS
KO10 MIKE TYSON
Tokyo, 11 February 1990

This one really was the biggest upset of them all. The only odds that were posted on the fight in Las Vegas were at the Mirage casino hotel, where Tyson was a 45-1 on favourite. Most people were talking about a two or three-round fight.

  But the 29-year-old challenger from Columbus, Ohio, drew strength from the loving memory of his mother, Lula, who had died from leukaemia at only 46 not long before Douglas had left for Tokyo.

  “I dedicate this fight and the rest of my life to my mother,” he said. “She always believed in me.”

  Douglas’s manager, John Johnson, admitted to British boxing writer Neil Allen, covering the fight for the London Evening Standard, that it had been difficult to motivate the challenger in the past. “He’d kinda loaf through training,” Johnson said. But not this time. This time, Douglas had trained intensely. He believed in himself, telling Allen that he believed his left jab could keep off the shorter Tyson and that his right hand could knock out the champion.

  “It’s all part of the dream,” he said. “You’d better believe it.” But, outside of his own camp, few did. There was the memory of Douglas running out of gas and virtually giving up in the 10th round against Tony Tucker three years earlier. His gameness was questioned.

  Tyson, it was thought, would walk right through him. The undefeated champion, with 33 KOs in his 37 consecutive wins, was already scheduled to meet Evander Holyfield in a blockbuster event at Atlantic City on 18 June. Douglas was seen as nothing more than an easy-money tune-up.

  But the 23-year-old champion was overconfident to the point of disdain. He simply was not taking Douglas seriously.

  There were reports that Tyson was dropped in sparring with former champ Greg Page in Tokyo, eerily reminiscent of stories coming out of Las Vegas that Lennox Lewis had been floored by sparmate Lamon Brewster while training for the fight with Hasim Rahman.

  Dave Anderson, a veteran sportswriter for the New York Times, was one who sensed that it might not be a formality for Tyson. Reports from Tokyo, he wrote, indicated that not only had Tyson been dropped by Page but that he had been looking sluggish in workouts.

  Kevin Rooney, fired as Tyson’s trainer to be replaced by the relatively untried Aaron Snowell, who would be working with Tyson for the first time in Tokyo, told Anderson: “I’m not really concerned by the knockdown and the sluggish workouts; by all rights Mike should take Douglas out within two rounds. But it shows Mike’s got a bunch of amateurs around him.”

  Tyson’s ex-manager, Bill Cayton, also told Anderson that the knockdown in sparring did not necessarily mean anything. Tyson had been dropped in training before, by Oliver McCall and Mike Williams (a big, muscled heavyweight from Texas), he said. But Cayton felt that the 6ft 4ins Douglas had the style and the left jab that could bother the five-inch shorter Tyson for perhaps six rounds.

  “Douglas has a reputation for never having trained very hard,” Cayton said. “But a well-trained Douglas could well be a different opponent.”

  And Douglas was indeed a different opponent. He was not intimidated, and from very early in the fight it was clear that his stiff left jab was proving to be a serious problem for Tyson.

  Although Tyson kept coming forward he was being punished and his left eye swelled alarmingly. In the corner, trainer Snowell ineffectually pushed what looked like a bag of icy water against the eye instead of using the cold-metal Enswell device. It looked as if Snowell and assistant Jay Bright — a longtime Tyson buddy — were out of their depth as things started to go badly wrong.

  Tyson seemed to be looking to land one big punch at a time, and in the eighth round he produced a right uppercut that floored Douglas. But Douglas got up and, instead of folding, he fought back, hammering Tyson in the ninth round. And in the 10th a tired, disorientated Tyson was beaten to the canvas by a series of punches and counted out by Mexican referee Octavio Meyran as he groped on the canvas for his fallen gum shield and dazedly pushed it partway back in his mouth where it stuck out almost comically.

  As had been the case with Sonny Liston against the-then Cassius Clay 26 years earlier, Tyson’s cloak of invincibility had been torn away.

  Tyson, wrote the late Phil Berger in the New York Times, “seemed a ghost of the forward marching, hard puncher he had been before. Technically and emotionally, he was not into the fight.”

  The stories began to surface just how ill-prepared Tyson was for the Douglas fight. The late Las Vegas gym owner Johnny Tocco told reporters how Tyson had been cut over the eye in a sparring session with Greg Page during the two weeks he trained at Tocco’s gym. Tocco had been dismayed at Tyson’s sloppy performances in the gym. “It was the worst I’ve seen him,” Tocco told Earl Gustkey of the Los Angeles Times. “He was having a rough time with Greg Page, he could do nothing with Trevor Berbick and even Oliver McCall gave him a bad time one day.”

  Las Vegas matchmaker Bruce Trampler said Berbick had called him from Tokyo to say that everyone was beating up Tyson in the gym.

  But still, the result seemed unbelievable.

  Tyson’s promoter at the time, Don King, tried to get the result voided because, he said, Octavio Meyran had given Douglas a “slow count” when the challenger went down in the eighth. He said the video showed that Douglas was on the floor for longer than 10 seconds.

  But while Meyran seemed to have picked up the count incorrectly from the timekeeper, the fact of the matter was that Douglas had done what he was supposed to do and beaten the count, getting up at nine, whereupon the round ended.

  Initially, WBC president Jose Sulaiman seemed quite prepared to go along with Don King’s “no contest” proposal. But the International Boxing Federation announced immediately that it considered Douglas to be the new champion. The World Boxing Association later announced it, too, would recognise Douglas. The WBC belatedly followed suit. It was learned that Sulaiman faced a withdrawal from the WBC by top U.S. commissions and the British Boxing Board, among others, if his organisation had failed to validate Douglas’s victory. Michael Marley of the New York Post wrote that Sulaiman reportedly told a confidant: “I made a mistake. I feel sick,” in reference to the WBC delay in recognising Buster as champ.

  But referee Meyran quietly faded from the scene.

  Initially, in Tokyo, Tyson had seemed all too willing to have his title restored on a technicality. But when Tyson returned to New York he said: “I had a pretty bad performance but I’m not going to make excuses. I’ve lost more than I’ve won in life, so believe me I’m pretty much understanding of the situation and I can deal with it. I can deal with adversity.”

  And Tyson was to be champ again, after his prison term for a rape conviction. Meanwhile, Douglas, back to his old, lazy ways, overweight and undermotivated, was to collapse in three rounds when Evander Holyfield clipped him with a right-hand counter punch just eight months after his seemingly impossible win over Tyson.

EVANDER HOLYFIELD
TKO11 MIKE TYSON
Las Vegas, 9 November 1996

There were those who feared for the safety of Evander Holyfield when he went into the ring to challenge Iron Mike Tyson in a fight that should have taken place six years earlier.

  Holyfield had been unimpressive in a five-round win over Bobby Czyz, a blown-up cruiserweight, in his last fight. And in the fight before that he had been knocked out by Riddick Bowe in their rubber match.

  How, then, could he survive against the crunching blows of Tyson?

  Iron Mike seemed to have rediscovered his zest for the game after his incarceration on a rape conviction, sweeping to four consecutive victories in a total of eight rounds, which included the third-round bludgeoning of Frank Bruno to win back the WBC title and a one-round blowout over a terrified Bruce Seldon to become WBA champion.

  Yet Holyfield seemed serenely confident, not only guaranteeing a victory but even suggesting that people who were down on their luck should bet on him. Tyson said coldly: “I’m going to have fun in this fight.”

  The oddsmakers installed Tyson as a 25-1 on favourite but money coming in for Holyfield brought the odds down to 16-1 by the day of the fight.

   But while there were, clearly, Holyfield believers out there, the vast majority of the fans and the writers saw this as an early night for Tyson. Hugh McIlvanney of the Sunday Times was one who thought that Holyfield might need protecting from his own bravery, writing: “It may be alarmist to suggest that his helpers will need more advanced medical skills than are usually called for in a boxer’s corner, but the general air of apprehension associated with this fight indicates that it will be stopped the moment Holyfield is seen to be in trouble.”

  Colin Hart wrote in The Sun: “I think Tyson will be more ferocious than ever, and I take him to blast Holyfield away in less than two rounds.”

  Another longtime boxing writer, Ken Jones of The Independent was of similar opinion. “Three rounds maximum, probably sooner,” he wrote.

  In a pre-fight media poll in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, 47 of 48 writers picked Tyson to win by knockout, with Wallace Matthews of the New York Post, James Lawton of The Express and Steve Springer of the Los Angeles Times all going for a first-round blowout.

  Only Ron Borges of the Boston Globe went for Holyfield, by ninth-round TKO. He felt that Holyfield would rise to the occasion and, by sheer determination and willingness to endure, would withstand Tyson’s early fury and come on to wear down and dishearten a champion who had not faced any serious retaliation in any of his comeback fights.

  The quiet words of confidence spoken by Holyfield in the build-up to the bout also impressed Borges.

  Holyfield, 34, had always believed that Tyson, 30, was not the same force when an opponent stood up to him and fought back. “A fighter who is considered great is tested through trials and tribulations,” he told Jon Saraceno of USA Today.

  “We’re not talking about personal life, we’re talking about boxing. How many trials has this man had? He had one, Buster Douglas. This man has been tested one time — and he lost.”

  And so to the fight itself. The packed 16,000 crowd and millions watching on worldwide pay-per-view television saw Holyfield give one of the greatest displays of boxing, fighting and indomitable will in heavyweight history.

  Covering the fight at ringside for Boxing Monthly, I wrote: “Instead of being able to impose his will, to dominate and bully an opponent, Tyson found himself being hit cleanly and crisply for the first time since coming out of confinement.”

  Holyfield dropped Tyson in the sixth, pounded him in the 10th and then overwhelmed him in the 11th, with the referee, the late Mitch Halpern, waving it off after 37 seconds of the round as the underdog landed a series of punches without reply.

  I wrote at the time: “It was a triumph of dedication, self-belief, the professional application of superior technical resources and, as Holyfield said afterwards, spiritual strength.”

JAMES J. BRADDOCK
W15 MAX BAER
New York, 13 June 1935

In a victory described by legendary New York sportswriter Edward J. Neil as “one of the most dramatic moments in the history of the prize ring”, unheralded challenger James J. Braddock was declared winner by unanimous decision over Max Baer to become heavyweight champion before a crowd of 30,000 at the Long Island Bowl outdoors in New York.

  Braddock, a 29-year-old father of three from New Jersey, had been an unemployed victim of the Depression. He had been on what the Americans called “relief” (public assistance) just a year earlier. But the so-called “Cinderella Man” gamely took the fight to the bronzed, big-punching Californian Baer, jabbing, trading punches when he had to do that, never backing down. And the huge crowd got behind him and seemed to be willing him to victory.

  Baer, a crude swinger but heavy-handed, had smashed former champion Max Schmeling into defeat on his way to the title and cruelly battered the huge Primo Carnera to become champion. He had been expected to blast Braddock out of the fight. But Baer, who was so confident he had told reporters he was afraid he might actually kill Braddock, was outboxed, outfought and outgamed.

  It was not a thrilling fight but it was an occasion of drama and poignancy, a victory against the odds for the common citizen of America. Edward J. Neil wrote that as Braddock methodically ploughed his way to victory “you could feel the tension increasing, feel breaths shortening, until the hair stood up on the back of your neck”.

  Braddock’s jabs flattened Baer’s nose, and the champion had three rounds taken away — for low blows and back-handing. He tried to intimidate Braddock by sneering and clowning, doing his famous rubber-legged routine, exaggeratedly adjusting his trunks — even waving to the crowd. But Braddock was steady and earnest, and he was scoring points while Baer posed.

  Afterwards, Braddock said: “I knew as early as the third round I was going to win. That’s when Baer hit me on the chin with his Sunday punch and I took it. I’m the happiest guy in the world. Nobody knew what that fight meant to me. Money, security, education for my children, financial aid for my parents. If ever a guy went into the ring with something to fight for, I was the guy.”

LEON SPINKS
W15 MUHAMMAD ALI
Las Vegas, 15 February 1978

“The only thing that makes this fight a big fight is his age and my age,” the 36-year-old Ali said before taking on the 24-year-old Spinks, the gap-toothed Olympic light-heavyweight gold medallist who had fought just seven times as a pro.

  The oddsmakers agreed. Ali was 10-1 on favourite for the fight at the Vegas Hilton.

  Ali was making his 11th defence of the title since regaining it from George Foreman. At 6ft 3ins he was one-and-a-half inches taller than Spinks and at 2241/4lbs (16st 01/4lbs) he outweighed the former marine by 27lbs.

  But while Ali had the size, the experience and the savvy, Spinks had the youth, the energy, the enthusiasm and the stamina. He simply swarmed all over Ali for much of the fight.

  It was clear from very early on that this was going to be a tough night for Ali. By the second round he had blood inside the mouth and Spinks, far from being overawed, grinned at the older man as he waded in and let his punches fly.

  Ali used his rope-a-dope tactic of covering up on the ropes and seemed to be hoping the younger man would punch himself out by punching arms and gloves. But Spinks just kept banging, hitting the champion when and where he could.

  There were times when Ali was able to jab and land the right cross, but Spinks was the busier fighter.

  In the 10th it looked as if Spinks might be wilting, and Ali landed several clean right hands. But Spinks rallied.

  After 12 rounds it was an even fight, with Ali in front on one judge’s scorecard, Spinks on another, while the third judge had the bout dead-level. But it was Ali who faded in the closing rounds.

  Spinks had a big 13th round, catching Ali with several hard shots to the head and wobbling him. The sellout crowd of 5,298 (among them Leon’s brother, Michael, who had won on the undercard and was cheering for Leon from ringside) sensed a huge upset was unfolding. And Spinks kept punching in the 14th.

  A weary Ali gamely tried to stage a big finish in the last round, in which each man seemed to rock the other. But Spinks would not be denied, and Ali looked older than his 36 years at the end.

  Judge Art Lurie had Spinks winning, 143-142, but the two other Las Vegas judges, Lou Tabat and Harold Buck, saw it in favour of Spinks by scores of 145-140 and 144-141 respectively.

CASSIUS CLAY
TKO end of 6 SONNY LISTON
Miami, 25 February 1964

Menacing ex-convict Sonny Liston was the 7-1 on favourite over flashy, cocky but relatively untested Cassius Clay — but the future Muhammad Ali, in his own words, shocked the world to win the heavyweight title.

  Most of the American writers thought that the 22-year-old Clay, the 1960 Olympic light-heavyweight gold medallist who had won all his 19 professional bouts — 15 inside the distance — boxed too much like an amateur, especially the way he held his hands low and pulled back from punches. And in his last bout before meeting Liston he had been dropped by a left hook from Henry Cooper in London, although he came back to stop a bloodied Cooper in the next round.

  Liston, meanwhile, had stopped 25 opponents in winning 35 of 36 fights and had twice crushed Floyd Patterson in the first round in championship bouts.

  Clay boasted: “I’m so fast that not even slow-motion pictures can catch me.” He said he would crawl across the ring and kiss Liston’s feet if the champion — the “Big Ugly Bear” as Clay called him — won the fight.

  But New York Times sportswriter Arthur Daley summed up the prevailing opinion in his fight preview: “This evening the loud mouth from Louisville is likely to have an awful lot of vainglorious boasts jammed down his throat by a ham-like fist belonging to Sonny Liston, the malefic destroyer who is the champion of the world. The irritatingly confident Cassius enters this bout with one trifling handicap. He can’t fight as well as he can talk.”

  Clay, though, proved the experts wrong. Not only younger and quicker he was also, at 6ft 3ins, two inches taller than Liston, although the champion was, at 218lbs, or 15st 8lbs, the heavier man by seven and a half pounds.

  In answer to critics who said he could not punch, Clay said: “It will be steady taps like drops of water and that’s been known to drive a man crazy. When I hit him like that, something’s gotta give.”

  And just as the “Louisville Lip” had predicted his speed, mobility and quick punches had the heavier-fisted champion looking slow and clumsy.

  Liston went forwards but wasn’t able to land any solid blows.

  In the third round Liston suffered a cut under the left eye, but then in the fifth it looked as if Clay was on the verge of bailing out as he retreated in confusion, blinking furiously. (He said something in his eyes had caused a burning sensation).

  But trainer Angelo Dundee sponged out Clay’s eyes at the end of the round, the crisis passed, and in the sixth he dominated a tired, dispirited Liston, hitting him with snappy, sharp punches to bring roars from the crowd of about 8,000.

  There were boos, though, when Liston stayed slumped on his stool as the bell rang for the seventh round. His corner said that the champion had hurt his left shoulder. The Florida commission was not so sure and withheld Liston’s purse until the shoulder was examined by doctors, who were satisfied there was an injury.

  Looking back we have the impression that Clay outclassed Liston but in fact the judges had it even after six rounds: one vote for Clay, one for Liston while the third judge had the fighters all-even. But Clay looked on target for the eight-round victory he had predicted, and Liston surely sensed that, too.

  Yet Clay admitted he was on the verge of quitting when he came back to his corner at the end of the fourth round with his eyes watering and his vision blurred. He believed Liston’s corner had tried underhand methods.

  “It was some kind of a trick they had planned,” he complained to the press after the fight. “It had to be. You can’t tell me they didn’t try something. It was some kind of liniment or grease off his gloves.”

  He said he told Angelo Dundee he wasn’t going out for the fifth round. “I told Dundee: ‘Cut my gloves off.’ The only reason I came back out was Angelo pushed me out,” he said.

  “I just didn’t want to go out and get knocked out. I’m human. I knew if he hit me he would knock me out. I’d rather quit and show the world why I quit.”

  But it didn’t come to that.

  Clay said all he could see was a blur of Liston in the fifth, but he kept moving and held the champion off with his left arm extended. Liston won the round with pressure and body punches but was unable to land a big punch to the head.

  “I held my hand out so I could feel him,” Clay said. “I knew as long as I could touch him I was all right.”

  In the immediate aftermath of his astonishing triumph, Clay had yelled at ringside reporters: “Eat your words.” And there was grudging acceptance that the young man just might be able to fight.

  Arthur Daley of the New York Times wrote: “At long range, the swift Clay kept moving away from the dread left hook. He jabbed with disturbing effect, keeping Sonny bothered and off balance. He moved in with rights and lefts that few thought he possessed. It was a highly competent performance.

  “Among other things he did — discounting the knockout finish — was to destroy the myth of Liston’s invincibility.”

  Clay shouted in the exultant moments following his victory: “I am the greatest.”

  It seemed preposterous at the time, but not in years to come.


Also available to read from issue:

Magazine Contents:
Full details of the June 2001 issue - the complete contents listing.

World Rankings:
See where the top fighters were rated when June 2001 went to press...

A-FORCE OR A FARCE?
Olympic super heavyweight champion Audley Harrison's long-awaited pro career kicked off with a quick win surrounded in controversy. GLYN LEACH reports

JORRIN, OH LUCKY MAN?
California's Willie Jorrin has won and defended the WBC super bantamweight title in fights that many believed he lost. GRAHAM HOUSTON finds a fighter who is looking to make amends in his postponed rematch with Manchester's Michael Brodie

OOOPS!
Lennox Lewis's shocking loss to Hasim Rahman wasn't the first big heavyweight surprise - Lewis himself had been through it before with Oliver McCall. Here, GRAHAM HOUSTON presents his five biggest upsets in matches for the world heavyweight championship


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