Lee Groves

10: Most historically significant upsets


The sport of boxing is at its best when any of three things occur: Compelling matches between the best available fighters, adrenaline-pumping knockouts and earth-shaking upsets.

In 2012 few results convulsed the sports world more than Timothy Bradley’s split decision over pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao, the Filipino’s first setback in 16 fights. The surprising verdict – and the subsequent firestorm – caused boxing to be thrust into the spotlight for the next several days, and not just in the sports media. It provided conversational grist around countless water coolers and people who normally wouldn’t give two hoots about “The Sweet Science” became instant experts.

On Saturday, Bradley will bring his “Desert Storm” to the ring for the first time since his historic victory over the Filipino icon when he faces once-beaten Ruslan Provodnikov. With all due respect to the Russian slugger, Provodnikov wasn’t the opponent Bradley had hoped to fight, for there was a rematch clause in the event Bradley pulled off the surprise against Pacquiao. Despite holding up his end of the bargain Bradley was denied the potentially huge payday when Team Pacquiao decided to go in a different direction – a fourth match with Juan Manuel Marquez. And for the second straight fight, Pacquiao was on the wrong end of a mammoth upset – as well as a beautifully timed right to the jaw.

That single blow sent a sonic wave that instantly traveled worldwide. Within minutes social media was ablaze with messages and manufactured photos. Once again boxing was the topic of conversation and there’s nothing like a shocking result to light the fuse.

Boxing history is replete with incredible upsets but a select few have caused the world to stop on its axis. In honor of Bradley’s reappearance in the ring after his contribution to ring lore, the following list will rank 10 of the most historically significant upsets the sport has ever known.

10. James J. Corbett KO 21 John L. Sullivan: Sept. 7, 1892, Olympic Club, New Orleans, Louisiana

Corbett’s victory over Sullivan may well have been the first world-scale upset of the gloved era because of Sullivan’s exalted place in the sporting hierarchy. Sullivan was the bridge between the bare-knuckle era governed by the London Prize Ring Rules devised by Jack Broughton in 1743 and the Marquess of Queensberry Rules that ushered boxing into the modern age. Sullivan’s preference for wearing gloves was largely responsible for making the transition acceptable to the public at large and that’s because his hard-charging, hard-drinking, robust fighting man’s persona made him the most beloved figure of his era.

Entering the Corbett fight Sullivan had been champion for more than 10 years – his ninth round knockout over Paddy Ryan on Feb. 7, 1882 won him the world bare knuckles title – and, according to the 1985 Ring Record book, he added the Queensberry title by decisioning Dominick McCaffrey in August 1885.

Sullivan was one month away from his 34th birthday by the time he met Corbett and going in he sported an intimidating 38-0-1 (32) record. The only blemish took place three fights earlier when he fought a six-round draw with the 22-0-6 (10) Patsy Cardiff in Minneapolis. Sullivan, however, had a valid explanation – he finished the fight with a left arm that had been broken since round one. Although Sullivan’s conditioning and skills were waning and despite not having fought an official contest in nearly three years, Sullivan was still installed as a 4-to-1 favorite.

Corbett, who turned 26 five days before facing Sullivan, was the champion’s opposite in every conceivable way. He was billed as “Gentleman Jim,” a full-time bank clerk and a part-time actor who preferred wearing suits and slicking back his thick brown hair. He also was an exponent of “scientific boxing” where speed, mobility and smart punch selection trumped the brute strength that embodied Sullivan’s era. But make no mistake: Behind his “dandy” look was a rugged fighting man. Sixteen months before meeting Sullivan, Corbett broke the color line by meeting Peter Jackson, with whom he fought a brutal 61-round draw.

Corbett had even more reason to feel good about his chances. While Sullivan didn’t log any official bouts for quite a while, he fought several exhibitions – one of which was against Corbett. On June 26, 1891 in Corbett’s hometown of San Francisco the pair fought four rounds while wearing formal attire. While the action was casual Corbett was able to gather valuable reconnaissance; not only did he own faster hands and feet, he learned that the clumsier Sullivan was easily fooled by his array of head, shoulder and foot fakes. With the battle plan already formulated Corbett strode confidently toward the annals of history.

According to Bert Randolph Sugar’s excellent book “The Great Fights,” Corbett broke tradition during the final instructions by asking a question. “Do you mean,” he asked, pressing his forearm against Sullivan’s throat, “that this is a foul?” After the referee, Professor John Duffy, said yes, Corbett nodded while Sullivan seethed. It wouldn’t be the last flash of frustration Sullivan would experience this day.

An article written by Kelsey McCarson of TheSweetScience.com revealed that Corbett employed a 19th century version of the “rope-a-dope” during the first two rounds to lull the confident Sullivan into an even deeper state of complacency.

“Now, I knew that the most dangerous thing I could do was to let Sullivan work me into a corner when I was a little tired or dazed,” Corbett wrote. “So I made up my mind that I would let him do this while I was still fresh. Then I could find out what he intended doing when he got me there. In a fight, you know, when a man has you where he wants you, he is going to deliver the best goods he has.”

As a result, Corbett worked out all of the potential punching angles Sullivan could produce, after which he wheeled out to ring center and began to assert full control of the contest. When Sullivan cornered him again in round six Corbett let loose with a powerful straight left that broke Sullivan’s nose.

Though Sullivan courageously continued to charge the challenger, Corbett’s razor-sharp jabs, neat footwork and supreme generalship ruled the day. By the seventh, Corbett’s command was such that the in-progress odds swung to 100-to-1 against Sullivan. Corbett kept his cool throughout, striking only after Sullivan awkwardly lunged in. In round 20, Corbett finally felt the time was ripe to let loose his full arsenal. The barrage bloodied Sullivan’s mouth, closed one of his eyes and left him badly dazed. What had been deemed impossible beforehand now looked inevitable.

Two hard rights early in the 21st stunned Sullivan and a final right to the jaw caused the exhausted champion to fall to the ground and roll onto his stomach. At 1:30 of round 21, the world had a new heavyweight champion, a piece of news that left sports fans reeling in wonder, shock and exhilaration.

(Click on the NEXT button at the lower right to read Nos. 9 through 1.) 

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