The Greatest Boxing Upset Of All Time, Part One

It's been 20 years this month since the greatest upset in Boxing history

My introduction to boxing came, ironically enough, with one of the biggest upsets ever in the sport — but it’s not the one I’m thinking of for today’s piece.   It was February of 1978 when former Olympic Gold Medalist Leon Spinks — unbeaten but inexperienced (with only 7 professional bouts at the time) — faced off with the legendary Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight crown.  Ali was acknowledged as one of the greatest boxers in the history of the sport, but as it does to even the greatest practitioners of the sweet science, Father Time had caught up to the champion, leaving him little more than a shell of the fleet-footed, quick-handed master who had dazzled the sporting world in numerous victories over the years.  Ali came into the Spinks fight unprepared, and the younger challenger outhustled his opponent to win the decision (a loss that Ali would avenger later in the year to recapture the title, in what would be his last victory in the ring).

Boxing pundits called it one of the greatest upsets in the history of the sport;  at the time, I wasn’t impacted by its magnitude nearly as much, since I had never seen Ali fight until that night.  It wasn’t until later, watching film of Ali in his prime, that I could appreciate how shocking the result was.  But at the same time, Ali was old and admittedly, washed up.  When fighters reach that point in their careers, they lose to other men who would never have been able to compete with them if the skills had been equal.  Which is why the result, while one of the sport’s biggest shocks ever, still doesn’t compare to what would take place in Tokyo, Japan almost twelve years later to the day, when Mike Tyson defended his heavyweight title against an unheralded challenger named Buster Douglas.

Mike Tyson was exactly what boxing needed at the time -- a dominant champion

If you followed the sport as closely as I did then, Mike Tyson seemingly was as close to the epitome of the perfect fighting machine as had ever stepped into the ring.  Unbeaten in his first 37 career fights, Tyson had entered the public consciousness at a time when the popularity of the sports had been waning, and interest in the sport’s marquee division was at one of his lowest ebbs.  A combination of mediocre fighters and no clear recognized champion, thanks to the destructive tendencies of boxing’s inept sanctioning bodies, had left the division a muddled mess before Tyson came along.  No less than a dozen other men had claimed some share of some organization’s title over the decade since Ali had retired, and other than Larry Holmes — who had by now lost his championship to Leon’s far more-accomplished brother, Michael — none had distinguished themselves, all remaining only blips on even boxing’s ever-obscure landscape.  The heavyweight division was badly in need of a fighter who could establish themselves as the best and reignite public interest in the sport.

Along came Tyson.  Making his debut in March of 1985, Tyson quickly proved himself to be everything that the fighters surrounding him in the division were not: he was active (15 fights in his first year along), and he was exciting (19 knockouts in a row to begin his career, and 26 knockouts in his first 28 fights, 16 of them coming in the 1st round).  While most heavyweights threatened to put their audiences to sleep with slow punching and lots of grabbing and clinching, Tyson forced you to glue your eyes to the screen, anxious with the anticipation of the flurry of punches that would separate his opponent from his senses and end the fight.

I had never seen anyone like Tyson before — and at least in the heavyweight division, I’ve never seen anyone like him since.  His hands were lightning fast, and he was economical in his movements.  No effort was wasted, no punch was thrown without purpose or an intent to dismantle his opponent.  In a division populated by out-of-shape, lazy fighters, Tyson was a man among boys, even though his tender age as one of the division’s youngest competitors meant the exact opposite was true.  As Tyson systematically began to dismantle the division’s best, he not only captivated the attention of hardcore boxing fans, but also that of the general public, many of whom had never followed the sport before, but who now found themselves tuning into the next Tyson fight the way they might have the Super Bowl, or a World Series game.

Tyson separating Trevor Berbick from his senses

Tyson knocked out Trevor Berbick  in 2 rounds to win the WBC title in November 1986, making him the youngest fighter to ever win a share of the heavyweight title (breaking a mark set by Floyd Patterson).  The KO was a textbook show of power by the new champion;  the second and last knockdown of the round saw Berbick crushed to the canvas, and when he tried to get up, he would fall down twice more — the image of Berbick stumbling and staggering around the ring was replayed countless times on the airwaves, evidence to all that we were watching something special in the ring.

Crushing knockout victories over Pinklon Thomas (an underrated boxer of this time), Olympian Tyrell Biggs, and a comebacking Larry Holmes would follow.  Decisions over Bonecrusher Smith and Tony Tucker would gain him the WBA and IBF titles, making Tyson the undisputed king of his division — at least as far as the governing bodies were concerned.  Still out there, however, was the unbeaten Michael Spinks, Holmes’ conquerer and the man acknowledged by those who followed the sport closely as the true Heavyweight Champion (as he had never lost his title in the ring).

Tyson standing over Michael Spinks as the King of the Heavyweight division

When Tyson met Spinks in a mammoth event to determine the unidsputed Heavyweight Champion, I remember thinking that if anyone could stop Tyson’s reign of terror in the division, it was Spinks, who was as skilled a boxer as there was in the sport.  That thinking looked utterly foolish as Tyson disposed of Spinks with no more effort than you or I would use in swatting a cockroach — Spinks, who had never been knocked down in his career up until that point, was left draped under the bottom rope and knocked out halfway through the 1st round.

There looked to be nothing that could stop Tyson from putting himself in the company of the sport’s all-time elite.  He was young — only 22 years old — in his prime, and with seemingly a decade or so ahead of him to cement his legacy as one of the greatest — if not the greatest — Heavyweight Champion of them all.  Tyson was a wrecking machine in the truest sense of the word, and after the destruction of Spinks, I was sure that I was witnessing a fighter who could not be beaten anytime in the future — certainly not by anyone sharing the heavyweight division with Tyson.  Possibly Evander Holyfield, the former World Cruiserweight Champion who was positioning himself as Tyson’s next major threat, might be able to stay stay competitive for a while — but actually win?  Not likely.  Tyson, it seemed, would be on top of the heavyweight division forever.

Little did any of us know at the time, though, that the end would be only three fights away.

Part 2 of The Greatest Boxing Upset Of All Time is now up here.

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2 Responses to “The Greatest Boxing Upset Of All Time, Part One”

  1. […] The Greatest Boxing Upset Of All Time, Part Two If you missed Part One, you can find it here. […]

  2. […] Upset Of All Time, Part Three If you missed either Part One or Part Two, they can be found here and […]

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