Ronda Rousey Returns After “Biggest Upset in Combat Sports History”? Not By a Long Way
By: Matt O’Brien
Friday night sees the long-awaited comeback of“Rowdy” Ronda Rousey following her shocking defeat to Holly Holm last November, in a result infamously described by UFC commentator Joe Rogan as, “the biggest upset in combat sports history”. Prior to her defeat,Rousey had demolished a string of 12 opponentswith only one of them making it out of the first round – a devastating record by any standard, and there’s no doubt that Holm’s knockout was a truly enormous upset, with the challenger overcoming odds of up to 12-1 against her.
That being said, it takes two people to make a fight, and the bookies’ published odds are not the only ingredient that goes into a big upset – the wider context of the underdog’s role is also vital. Ronda’s record was indeed formidable, but keen observers had noted that it could be a far more difficult task than anything she had faced before, with Holm being a former world-boxing champion and arguably the first bona fide world-class striker “Rowdy” had faced off against.
So while Rogan’s assertion that it was the “biggest upset of all time” might be right as far as UFC or even MMA history goes, once we include the sweet science the scale of Ronda’s defeat falls a few rungs down the list of “greatest ever upsets”. Here are five of my favourite shocks in boxing history that eclipse Holly Holm’s upset victory over Ronda Rousey:
1. James Douglas KO10 Mike Tyson, Undisputed World Heavyweight Championship, February 1990
This is the grand-daddy of upsets: not just the biggest upset in the history of boxing; not even the biggest upset in the history of combat sports. This one is arguably the biggest upset in the history of sports, period.
The reason for the scale of Douglas’ shock was twofold: firstly, “Iron” Mike was a destructive force the like of which had rarely, if ever, been witnessed before. Carrying an undefeated 37-fight record, all but four of Tyson’s victims had been knocked out, 17 of them in the first round. Tyson made a habit of making accomplished world-class boxers look like bunny rabbits caught in the headlights of a freight train. Secondly, Tyson’s awesome aura was set against Douglas’ far less-than-fearful persona. A competent yet unspectacular heavyweight, Douglas’ physique was rippled rather than ripped andhis style plodding rather than punishing.
Weeks before the contest though, Douglas’ mother had died, providing him with the kind of motivation and discipline he’d previously lacked. Meanwhile Tyson had fallen into the age-old trap of believing his own hype; his preparations consisted largely of hosting Japanese women in his hotel room and he was knocked down in sparring by Greg Page.
Even so, a listless Tyson was able to floor the challenger and almost pulled off a knockout victory in the eighth round. Douglas beat the count and continued to pummel the champion with a solid jab and powerful right hand. In the tenth, “Buster” unloaded a vicious combination punctuated by a huge right uppercut that sent Tyson sprawling. As he scrambled to put the gumshield back into his mouth, referee Octavio Meyran waved the finish and signaled the greatest upset in history, as the 42-1 outsider stunned the world.
*To his credit, Joe Rogan later admitted that this was actually a bigger upset than Rousey-Holm.
2. Evander Holyfield TKO11 Mike Tyson, WBA Heavyweight Championship, November 1996
It is a testament to Tyson’s fearsome aura and the magnetic grip he held on the public consciousness that six years after the Douglas defeat and following three years of incarceration, he was yet again considered invincible – despite Douglas’ evidence to the contrary. Tyson had demolished four challengers in just eight rounds since his release from prison, though he had yet to face anyone offeringmuch resistance. Frank Bruno looked scared stiff as he walked to the ring and Bruce Seldon put forward probably the meekest capitulation in the history of heavyweight championship boxing, surrendering in just 109 seconds. Evander Holyfield was a different proposition altogether, though few credited him with this distinction at the time.
Once again, the monumental scale of Holyfield’s upset was not just a measure of how highly Tyson was regarded – it also came from a foolish under-estimation of what “The Real Deal” had left to offer. A glut in recent performances in the ring, including a KO defeat to arch nemesis Riddick Bowe and a health scare regarding a heart condition had effectively erased memories of Holyfield’s fighting skills and warrior spirit.Many pundits argued that Holyfield was not just going to lose, but that he was in danger of being seriously injured.
The former champ opened as a 25-1 underdog, but his ironclad self-belief, granite chin and counter-punching strategy troubled “Iron” Mike from the outset. When Holyfield took Tyson’s vaunted power punches, retained his composure and kept firing back, it soon became evident that “the Baddest Man on the Planet” had no back-up plan. They say a picture tells a thousand words, but when Tyson was lifted off his feet by a left uppercut in the sixth round, far less than that were needed to describe the look on his face. Holyfield proceeded to administer a beat down until a dejected Tyson was finally rescued by referee Mitch Halpern in the eleventh round.
3. Hasim Rahman KO5 Lennox Lewis, WBC/IBF/Lineal World Heavyweight Championship, April 2001
Lennox Lewis had been knocked out before, but going into his fight with Hasim Rahman he was in the process of establishing himself as one of the most dominant heavyweight champions in history. He’d already made 12 defences over two reigns as WBC championand was making the fourth defence of the lineal and unified title he won against Evander Holyfield. He had also cut a swathe through potential heirs to the throne, blasting Michael Grant in two rounds and thoroughly outboxing dangerous New Zealander David Tua.
Unfortunately, Lewis had also spent time during preparation for his title defense schmoozing on the Hollywood film set of Ocean’s Eleven, while unheralded challenger Hasim “The Rock” Rahman grafted in the intense heat and high-altitude of a South African boxing gym.But while Rahman was a motivated and respectable contender, he’d done little in his career to indicate he posed a serious threat. Indeed, two years prior he had been brutally knocked out by Oleg Maskaev.
In the ring though, the difference in each man’s preparation showed, as a complacent Lewis blew heavily and struggled to assert himself. In the early rounds, there were warning signs that Rahman’s overhand right posed danger, but even so the end came suddenly and unexpectedly in the fifth round, as Lewis backed against the ropes and the 20-1 outsider unleashed a haymaker that landed flush on the jaw. The champion crumpled into a heap and minutes later was still in disbelief about what had occurred. To his credit, Lewis returned the favour when properly focused for the immediate rematch, knocking out Rahman in the fourth round to reclaim his title.
4. Muhammad Ali KO8 George Foreman, World Heavyweight Championship, October 1974
The 4-1 odds on Ali for this fight really don’t do justice to the monumental scale of the task he overcame on this momentous night. Foreman – much like Tyson years later – was considered to be an unstoppable force that had brutally manhandled some of the most dangerous heavyweights in the world. Joe Frazier, the undefeated heavyweight champion, conqueror of Muhammad Ali and one of the finest fighters the division had ever seen, was bounced around the ring like a rag doll and brutally stopped in two rounds.Ken Norton, a fighter who’d also taken Ali to the wire on two occasions (going 1-1 with The Greatest) was similarly dispatched by Foreman in less than 6 minutes.
In contrast, Ali was 10 years removed from his initial title-winning effort against Sonny Liston, had barely squeezed by Norton in their second fight, and looked sluggish in a dull rematch victory over Frazier.
A 32-year-old Ali offered his usual, charismatic, confident predictions before the bout, but few took him seriously, and even his own camp appeared to fear the worst. Norman Mailer described the atmosphere in Ali’s dressing room as, “like a corner in a hospital where relatives wait for word of the operation.” The dark mood failed to stop the irrepressible Ali, who boxed one of the most brilliant, bold fights ever witnessed to recapture the Heavyweight Championship and cement in his place in history with a truly unbelievable upset of epic proportions.
5. Ray Leonard W12 Marvin Hagler, WBC Middleweight Championship, April 1987
In 1982 “Sugar” Ray had retired following surgery to repair a detached retina, returning to the ring in 1984 in what should have been a routine victory over Kevin Howard, but announced his retirement again following the fight after suffering his first ever career-knockdown. Now, having only boxed once in five years, Leonard was moving up two weight classes from his favoured welterweight division to take on one of the greatest middleweight champions of all-time. It looked liked Mission Impossible on Viagra.
“Marvelous” Marvin Hagler hadn’t lost a boxing match since dropping a majority decision to Bobby Watts over a decade earlier, had won 13 consecutive middleweight title matches, and was ranked as the No.1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world by KOMagazine. It’s therefore a testament to Leonard’s star power that he opened only as a 4-1 underdog, and had even shortened these odds to 3-1 by the time of the fight. Among the “experts”, few gave the challenger a chance though, with 18 in a poll of 21 writers picking Hagler to prevail.
The eventual split decision in Sugar Ray’s favour is still bitterly disputed to this day. While there is a strong argument that Hagler did enough to win, there is no denying the success of Leonard’s psychological games, and the fact that he pulled one of the greatest examples of mind over matter in the history of boxing.
The fights above comprise my personal favourite selection of huge boxing upsets greater than Holm’s defeat of Ronda Rousey, though there’s arguably a host of others than should make the cut. Here’s a brief selection of the best of the rest…
Randy Turpin W15 Ray Robinson, World Middleweight Championship, July 1951
Englishman Turpin probably caught the original “Sugar” Ray at the perfect time, as he came to the end of a busy European tour. Still, defeating arguably the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of all time was a stunning achievement.
Cassius Clay TKO7 Sonny Liston, World Heavyweight Championship, February 1964
On paper the 8-1 odds were even steeper than when the older version of Clay [Ali] defeated George Foreman, as the Greatest “Shook up the World” for the first time in his amazing career.
Frankie Randall W12 Julio Cesar Chavez, WBC Super Lightweight Championship, January 1994
Chavez was lucky to escape with a draw against Pernell Whitaker four months earlier, but was still officially undefeated after 90 fights, 27 of them for world titles, and he entered the fight as a massive 18-1 favourite.
Max Schmeling KO12 Joe Louis, June 1936
The young, undefeated “Brown Bomber” was widely perceived as unbeatable, but the German had studied his style and exploited his weaknesses to great effect. A more experienced Louis destroyed Schmeling in a single round in their famous rematch two years later.
Lloyd Honeyghan TKO6 Donald Curry, Undisputed Welterweight Championship, September 1986
Curry was considered one of the elite fighters in the sport and was being groomed for super-stardom, but he was struggling desperately to make the weight limit. Meanwhile Honeyghan paid short shrift to the champion’s undefeated record and bet $5,000 on himself at odds of 5-1, shocking the bookies and the boxing world in the process.