It’s one of those great British boxing victories that everyone interested in boxing seems to know about. But last Thursday night was the first time I had watched John H. Stracey’s welterweight championship fight with Jose Napoles in its entirety. The European champion Stracey entered the ring in the Monumental Plaza in Mexico City with the odds stacked against him. Notwithstanding the fact that he was facing Napoles, who had eighty-one professional victories to his name and remains one of the greatest welterweights of all time, but all of the officials were from Mexico, where Napoles held dual nationality and to this day is a national sporting hero.
The first round saw the underdog Stracey put on the floor and take an eight count. At the end of the first round, having been outclassed and outwitted by the champion, the old boxing adage popped into my head: he was lucky to get through that round!
Following the disastrous first round, however, Stracey went on to give one of the best performances of any British world title challenger and achieved a technical knockout victory in the sixth round. After the defeat Napoles announced his retirement.
My reflection that Stracey was lucky to survive the first round provoked a broader question about boxing and boxing underdogs: how many of the great upsets in world championship boxing history can be put down to luck? Having looked into this question closely, I am of the same opinion now as I was when I first asked it, that being lucky plays a very minor role in the outcome of boxing matches. This may sound like a generalisation, but study the context of some of the biggest upsets in history, and you will see there was far more going on than just luck.
Ken Buchanan travelled to San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1970 to challenge for the WBA lightweight title against undisputed champion and future International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee Ismael Laguna. Laguna was a great champion but there was nothing lucky about Buchanan’s victory that September night at the Hiram Bithorn Stadium, or his unanimous points victory a year later at Madison Square Garden over Laguna. The underdog Buchanan went to Puerto Rico and gave a performance that has earned him the unofficial title of Scotland’s greatest ever boxer, and his victory was thoroughly deserved.
But when I think of underdog victories the first one that springs into my mind is Hasim Rahman’s fifth round knockout of Lennox Lewis in South Africa in April 2001. Lennox Lewis, the number one ranked heavyweight in the world at the time, was caught with a perfect shot to the jaw by Rahman and was sent to the canvass. I remember the press conference after the bout in which Lewis claimed that Rahman’s right cross was a lucky one and, having watched the footage again, he was probably wrong in that assertion. This is where luck, if it can be called that, swings in the favour of Rahman. Rather than give it the label of luck, I’d prefer to consider it a rare moment of unprofessionalism from Lewis, who was apparently undertrained due to filming his role in the Ocean’s Eleven film. Luck did not dictate when Rahman threw that right cross because he would have thrown the same shot in the same circumstances again.
The other major upset everyone who knows boxing will remember was when 45-1 outsider James ‘Buster’ Douglas inflicted Mike Tyson with his first defeat in 1990. There was nothing lucky about Douglas’s victory as he landed excellent shots, not just one lucky shot that just so happened to connect. It is difficult nowadays, what with the problems he has had outside of the ring, to emphasise just how feared and how good Mike Tyson was back then. If outside factors can be blamed for Lennox Lewis losing to Hasim Rahman, these external influences can be infinitely multiplied in the context of Mike Tyson. James Douglas was not lucky in claiming that famous victory in 1990, Mike Tyson was distracted and unprofessional.
In short, unprofessionalism and poor prior planning are the two main causes of boxing upsets.
In June 1989 Brit Dennis Andries, the WBC light-heavyweight champion, conceded defeat to Australian Jeff Harding in Atlantic City, in what was only Harding’s fifteenth professional bout. Referee Joe Cortez stopped the bout in the twelfth round after a combination from Harding put Andries on the floor twice. Harding took some heavy shots himself and had a cut above his left eye. But the underdog Harding deserved the victory, he was not lucky. He was only lucky to the extent that he was in the ring at all, and the fact that Andries, by his own admission, had very little idea of who Jeff Harding was and therefore couldn’t properly prepare himself for what his opponent would be bringing to the ring.
Three years earlier in Atlantic City British welterweight Lloyd Honeyghan caused a big upset by defeating Donald Curry. Honeyghan’s victory was not luck either as Curry, like so many fighters who suffer at the hands of an underdog, was underprepared and after a cut had opened over his left eye he didn’t come out of his corner for the seventh round. The fact that Curry lost in this way perhaps cheapens Honyeghan’s victory, which was Upset of the Year in 1986, but we should remember that Honeyghan was winning on all three scorecards and his victory, although unlikely to be his preferred method, was also thoroughly deserved.
So what separates a truly great underdog victory from a lucky victory?
None of the aforementioned boxers were lucky in their victories, and in my opinion luck plays the most minor of roles when it comes to winning boxing matches. It is for this reason that boxing is sometimes aptly referred to as a ‘science’. The fighter who is more prepared, more focused and has done his homework on his opponent is far more likely come out victorious. A fighter might be lucky insofar as their opponent is adversely affected by something external. In which case, it is not luck, as it is the responsibility of the boxer, and his team, to focus all of their energies, physical and mental, on the bout. Boxers who bring outside distractions into the ring with them will lose focus and ultimately the bout. Never has this been truer than in the career of Mike Tyson. The ability to stop and think about one thing for three months is what separates a great fighter from a legend – luck has nothing to do with it.
There is more justification, however, for arguing that some boxers have been genuinely unlucky…