A week ago, Erik Morales lost a rousing fight to Marco Maidana. Due to his age, hard life, and brutal in ring wars, many people were shocked that Morales could even be competitive, much less almost beat the younger Maidana. In short; the loss has added to Morales’ legacy.
A fact that is often lost in modern boxing, which seems focused solely on wins and losses, is that a fighter can often win more by losing a daring fight than they can by winning an easy fight.
Following are the top 10 boxers to win by losing.
When Fernando Vargas fought Felix Trinidad in late 2000, he was already a rising boxing celebrity. Vargas already had a razor-thin decision against Ronald “Winky” Wright and a solid victor over Ike Quartey.
Those wins, combined with a pleasing style, charismatic personality, and a skill set which showed star potential, had a number of boxing fans eager to see where the young Vargas would go. It was the loss to Trinidad that endeared Vargas to numerous fans.
The fight itself was an all-action affair filled with ebb and flow. Vargas was knocked down twice in the first round against Trinidad and was hurt repeatedly in the second.
Somehow, Vargas managed to come back in the third and over the course of the next two rounds seemingly had Trinidad ready to go.
If not for veteran savvy, combined with numerous time-saving low blows, Vargas may have stopped Trinidad in the middle part of the bout. Trinidad would later come back to stop Vargas via three brutal knockdowns in Round 12.
What the fight accomplished for Vargas was to make him the quintessential never-say-die boxer. It also made him the anti-Oscar de la Hoya.
One year prior, a seemingly in-control de la Hoya decided to keep away from Trinidad during the last few rounds and lose a highly controversial fight. Many fight fans were let down by de la Hoya’s seeming lack of bravery.
Vargas endeared himself to fans by showing that under no circumstances would he stop fighting. This admiration made every Vargas fight from that point on a must see event and garnered Vargas millions in earnings.
This fight would rate higher on the list, except that the brutality of the fight seemed to forever damage Vargas.
Vargas would never be that good again in a boxing ring, and while the fight may have made him a crowd favorite with crossover appeal, it may have come too early in his career and cost him the chance to be truly great.
Prior to losing to Micky Ward, Arturo Gatti was seen as a once-promising talent who had won a world title but had lost his abilities to partying and numerous brutal boxing matches.
Gatti had been stopped by Angel Manfredy and lost two close decisions to Ivan Robinson before fighting a string of no-name opponents.
In 2001, Oscar de la Hoya had picked the smaller Gatti as a comeback fight and had battered the former champion over five rounds. At this point Gatti was seen as finished except as a possible gatekeeper.
When Gatti fought Ward in 2002, very little was on the line. Micky Ward had made a name for himself as a limited but exciting fighter headlining a number of memorable ESPN Friday Night Fights.
When the two fought it was not for a title, a pound for pound ranking, or even number one contender status. They fought only because their styles were such that fans knew the fight could be good. That was an understatement.
The fight was amongst the absolute best, not just of the year but of the decade. The back-and-forth action and almost surreal punishment that was doled out made the fight an instant classic and word of mouth spread like wildfire.
Immediately a rematch was planned and then a rubber match. Gatti had lost the first fight but would go on to win the next two in fights that suddenly had a world stage.
Gatti would parlay his newfound fame into a career resurgence: another title shot, a somewhat successful title run, and a highly profitable loss to Floyd Mayweather Jr.
The irony is that if Gatti had won the first fight, his career may have continued to stall. Although a fan favorite, Ward was limited and expected to lose the first fight. Had Gatti won, it would have taken away some of the underdog drama the match had.
A Gatti victory would have just been expected and likely would not have produced two rematches and a large amount of media and fan attention. By losing, Gatti became must-see television.
Marco Antonio Barrera had turned pro at a young age in Mexico. Armed with a vicious left hook to the body, Barrera epitomized the traditional Mexican brawler.
After a successful title run at super bantamweight, Barrera ran into Junior Jones. Jones knocked Barrera out in the first fight and went on to decision him in the rematch. At this point, Barrera was written off as a limited slugger who probably had burnt out quickly because of starting so young.
Barrera began a largely ignored comeback. When he was given the opportunity to fight Erik Morales in 2000, it was mostly because he was seen as an easy stepping stone for Morales in a fight that could be sold as a culture clash because Barrera was from Mexico City and Morales hailed from Tijuana.
What transpired was a fight which, like the Gatti vs. Ward matchup, is an easy contestant for fight of the decade. At the end of 12 blistering rounds Barrera lost a close, and still highly debated decision to Erik Morales.
Barrera showed that he was not washed up and that he had in fact been honing his skills since the loss to Jones. The fight immediately propelled Barrera to the top of the rankings in the lighter weights.
Further, as the decision was controversial, it also earned Barrera a sense of sympathy from fans who felt he had been robbed. This status would give Barrera the name and respect to get a career-defining fight against Naseem Hamed and begin a Hall of Fame-worthy second act to his career.
This fight would be higher ranked if so many people did not believe that Barrera had deserved the victory and the match was more cleanly seen as a loss.
Boxing fans are often suspicious of speedy, hard to hit fighters. They question their will to win and their heart, desire, and toughness. In 1971, when Muhammad Ali met Joe Frazier for the first of their three epic encounters, all of these questions existed about Ali. Beyond his in the ring tactics Ali had become one of the most controversial sporting figures of all time. He was black and outspoken during the Civil Rights Movement, he was a member of the Nation of Islam, and had refused to go to Vietnam. Loud mouthed, afraid to fight in a ring or on a battle field, and have a sense of entitlement were some of the more prevalent views on Ali prior to the first fight with Frazier.
Everything changed by virtue of his lone loss to Frazier. In a fight which was billed as the Fight of the Century and lived up to expectation Ali was taken to his physical limits. The fight was a brawl and in the fifteenth round Frazier hit Ali perfectly with his best punch, a leaping left hook. Ali was immediately sent crashing down to the canvas but also immediately rose to his feet to continue the fight.
Ali earned more respect with that loss than a victory would have garnered. He was now seen as tough, brave, and willing to back up his talk. He also gained a certain measure of sympathy by losing in two fashions. The first was that he seemed more human and relatable than he had during his younger, more physically imposing days. The second was that he had gained sympathy through attrition. Somehow losing to Frazier in such a brave fashion was payment any perceived transgressions in the eyes of many of his harshest critics.
Carmen Basilio was a poor onion farmer of Italian heritage in the 1950’s who became a welterweight and middleweight champion. He had limited in ring ability but was known for his exciting style and dogged determinedness. When he fought Sugar Ray Robinson, a man widely considered to be the greatest fighter of all time, he was considerable underdog. In a tremendous upset Basilio outfought and out willed the more talented Robinson over fifteen exciting rounds.
The first fight against Robinson may have been career defining but the loss in the rematch was legacy defining. Many boxing fans and writers had written off Basilio’s victory in the first fight as a fluke due to Robinson having underestimated his opponent. After all; how else to explain the victory by the awkward, limited Basilio? Very little was expected in the rematch except for a dominant Robinson knockout.
Early in the fight Robinson gruesomely closed one of Basilio’s eyes in what could have resulted in a technical stoppage. However, Basilio came back undeterred and gamely fought Robinson to a close, split decision loss. In this loss Basilio showed not only that his bravery had no bounds but that he deserved to be in the conversation as one of the best in the world.
When the boxing match between Erik Morales and Marcos Maidana was made many fight fans cried out not just because the fight was considered a mismatch but because many people actually feared for the safety of Morales (this writer included). The only conceivable outcome was that Maidana would punish and brutalize the significantly faded Morales. Maidana was in the prime of his career and a brutal knockout artist with frightening power who was known for sapping the will of his opponents. Morales had lost four fights in a row two of which had come via brutal knockouts at the hands of Manny Pacquiao before retiring and looking decidedly mediocre in his comeback.
There was more than just the faded look Morales that concerned fans. Morales had been in three physically grueling fights with Marco Antonio Barrera in addition to numerous other vicious fights with the likes of Injin Chi and the afore mentioned Pacquiao. It was difficult to imagine that Morales had not been lessened by those fights. Further, unlike other fights that were able to maintain success at an advanced age such as Bernard Hopkins and George Foreman, Morales was known for a partying lifestyle. The in and out of the ring demeanor of Morales meant it was unlikely to impossible he could beat Maidana.
When is losing a boxing match by stoppage to an aging, out of shape champ a good thing? When it gives you the opportunity to dispute having been branded a quitter.
Prior to Vitali Klitschko’s 2003 fight against Lennox Lewis Klitschko was widely considered a quitter. Three years prior he had quit on his stool against Chris Byrd at the end of round nine. Klitschko had injured his shoulder missing the elusive Byrd and was in too much pain to continue. While the injury was legitimate and Byrd was a world class boxer the image of Klitschko quitting against a fighter who was significantly smaller, did not posses one punch power, and who was trailing on all scorecards left an impression on boxing fans and writers. Klitschko seemed destine to be a mediocre fighter with no heart.
The fight between Klitschko and Lewis was more or less a fluke that it happened. The two were scheduled to fight on the same card but Lewis’ opponent, Kirk Johnson, pulled out of the fight at the last moment. Lewis agreed to fight Klitschko who was significantly more dangerous and a completely different style of fighter. Early in the fight Klitschko repeatedly wobbled the out of shape champ and appeared on his way to a knockout victory. Lewis gamely rebounded and opened a nasty cut on Klitschko’s eye. Sensing a way to victory Lewis repeatedly targeted the eye until Klitschko was a bloody mess and the match was stopped by the officials.
The way Klitschko responded to the cut turned the loss into a moral victory and gave his career new life. He insisted he could continue, never looked for a way out, and seemed genuinely angry the fight was stopped. The image of a brave fighter insisting he could continue despite such an obvious and shocking injury erased any previous memories of the Byrd fight. That this fight was also against the true heavyweight champion and that it was on regular HBO instead of pay per view also helped the fight to be witnessed by a large audience.
George Foreman was considered a vicious, power punching destroyer in his youth but seemed to completely lose all confidence and semblance of skill following his stunning upset at the hands of Muhammad Ali. A few years after the Ali loss Foreman would lose Jimmy Young and retire. Many viewed Foreman as one of many terrific punchers who faded away after finding a man they could not simply knock out. When a fatter Foreman made a financially driven comeback ten years later it was received as most such comebacks are; with a mix of sad skepticism and outright concern for the now significantly aged fighter.
After four years of fighting primarily marginal to flat out awful fighters Foreman had worked his way into a fight with respected champion Evander Holyfield. During his rise in contender status Foreman had worked almost as hard on being a pitchman as he did a fighter. When the fight was many people expected the fight to be another marketing ploy by Foreman. He would sell the fight with his mouth, lose meekly, and once again retire only this time with significantly more money. Now in his forties there was nobody who expected Foreman to have a chance against a young, skilled champion.
What actually transpired was a rousing fight with Foreman having multiple moments where he hurt the champion. The fight was not a joke, Foreman did not fight meekly, and Holyfield had to work hard to secure the victory. There were numerous dramatic moments late in the fight where Holyfield would viciously attack a seemingly ready to be dropped Foreman only to have Foreman comeback. In the end Holyfield earned his victory and Foreman earned respect. Further, by showing so much ability late in his career the idea that Foreman was a limited champion with a short career was shattered. By fighting so gamely Foreman kept himself in the contender picture and was able to win one of the biggest upset victories of three years later at age 45 by beating Holyfield conqueror Michael Moorer for the heavyweight championship.
Chuck Wepner was the type of fighter a top flight boxer fought when they needed to stay busy. He was nothing more and nothing left. By 1975 Wepner had numerous losses to boxers who ranged from great to mediocre, to bad. Muhammad fought Wepner simply to earn easy money and stay sharp following his victory over George Foreman and prior to fights against the dangerous Ron Lyle and Joe Frazier. Per Wikipedia “Ali was guaranteed $1.5 million and Wepner signed for $100,000”. This would be a career payday for Wepner.
There was little anticipation for the matchup aside from fans being eager to again see Ali in the ring. Wepner, who was given no chance, was an afterthought. Or at least he was until the fighter started. A man who was supposed to be nothing but cannon fodder for Ali took the champion to his limits. Over fifteen surprisingly close and hard fought rounds Wepner showed himself eager to rise the occasion. The fact that it took Ali fifteen rounds to defeat Wepner amazed viewers in and of itself. When Ali went was knocked down in the ninth round viewers were dumbfounded. Replays would later show that Wepner had stepped on Ali’s foot but the idea that Wepner could even get close enough to touch Ali was unthinkable considering his poor record and limited abilities.
Many people found the match inspirational. The most important of these people was a young Sylvester Stallone who used the match as inspiration for a movie script; Rocky.
Jack Dempsey is one of the most respected heavyweight champions of all time. His brutal knockout victories, particularly over the gargantuan Jess Willard are the stuff of legends. However, during his title reign his reputation was much less glorious than it is now. Despite his level of fame and respect Dempsey was not a good champion. After winning the title in 1919 he fought only sporadically often going a full year between title defenses until 1923 when he put the title on hold waiting a full three years before losing it to Gene Tunney. During these long stretches of inactivity Dempsey tried to use his championship status to break into acting or any of a number of other money making ventures.
Leading up to and even immediately after the first Tunney loss had squandered much of the good will sports fans had bestowed upon him during the earlier parts of his career. The rematch would change all of that by virtue of the infamous long count. Tunney was beating Dempsey handedly when, as per Wikipedia, he “when he knocked Tunney down with a left hook to the chin in the seventh round”. Dempsey, caught up in the moment, forgot to go to a neutral corner after the knockdown which was a new rule at that time. The referee stopped counting to remind Dempsey of the rule which gave Tunney more time to recover.
Although Tunney would immediately go back to dominating Dempsey many fans felt Dempsey was cheated of a knockout. The ruling was new and fans still viewed boxing as a fight as opposed to a sport of skill. Further, Tunney was not what boxing fans wanted in a champion; he was smart, well read, well written, and fought in a highly skilled manner. These attributes oddly worked as a negative against Tunney. That the brawling former champion lost seemingly on a technicality incensed fight fans who immediately gave Dempsey a sense of sympathy which restored him to his previous level of fame.
To the victor does not always go the spoils, losing big is better than winning small, and there are multiple pathes to imortality. Blown up undefeated records do not always show a boxer's true value. The following ten fighters earned their places in history by being willing to risk more and fight braver than most other winners ever do.