Ranking the 10 Biggest Upsets in the History of Heavyweight Boxing

Rob Lancaster@RobLancs79Featured ColumnistSeptember 24, 2015

Ranking the 10 Biggest Upsets in the History of Heavyweight Boxing

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    Holly Stein/Getty Images

    On September 24, 1994, Oliver McCall stunned not just Lennox Lewis but also the boxing world by becoming the new WBC heavyweight champion of the world.

    The American put an end to Lewis' unbeaten record with a sensational second-round stoppage at Wembley Arena in London.

    In recalling the fight, Matt Christie of Boxing News wrote:

    McCall was made a 5-1 underdog, with odds that were too long, but justifiable.

    Although he had beaten Francesco Damiani to earn the shot, and stunned previously unbeaten Bruce Seldon three years before, points losses to the likes of Tony Tucker, Buster Douglas, and Orlin Norris suggested McCall was lacking at the very top level.

    Does McCall's shock triumph merit a place in the top 10 greatest upsets in the history of the heavyweight division?

    Here Bleacher Report ranks the big men who pulled off the biggest surprises.

Honourable Mentions

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    Associated Press

    The beautiful thing about boxing, and heavyweights in particular, is that it only takes one punch to rip up the script.

    With that in mind, narrowing down the list of surprise results to just 10 was a tough task.

    So, therefore, here's a mention for those that missed out.

    Apologies to both Leon, who stunned Muhammad Ali in 1978, and Michael Spinks, who made history when he became the first light heavyweight champion to win a world title at heavyweight by beating Larry Holmes.

    Other shocks that were not quite shocking enough include Michael Bentt dethroning Tommy Morrison inside one round in 1993 and Lamon Brewster battering Wladimir Klitschko in 2004.

    Going back further into the history of the sport, James J. Corbett sent the great John L. Sullivan into retirement when he triumphed in the 21st round in 1892.

    Floyd Patterson suffered at the hands of Ingemar Johansson in their first meeting, while Jess Willard came out of nowhere to topple Jack Johnson.

    There are others not mentioned, but it's time to start the countdown.

10. Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston (February 1964)

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    It may seem hard to believe, considering what he went on to achieve, but Muhammad Ali—who went by the name of Cassius Clay at the time—was a huge underdog against Sonny Liston.

    The reigning world champion Liston was feared in the division, having flattened Floyd Patterson not once but twice.

    He had won 35 of his 36 professional contests, with his only defeat coming via split decision at the hands of Marty Marshall in 1954.

    A decade on and Clay—unbeaten at the time—was quick to talk the talk, yet few believed he could actually walk the walk against someone of Liston's ability.

    Yet The Louisville Lip proved too sharp for Liston, even coming through a tricky fourth round when his vision was badly impaired.

    His eyesight restored, Clay was quickly dominant again. The combinations sapped the life out of Liston, who retired on his stool before the start of the seventh round after complaining of a shoulder injury.

9. Gene Tunney vs. Jack Dempsey (September 1926)

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    Jack Dempsey was an icon in the United States during the 1920s.

    His style in the ring, plus a lethal left hook, helped build his popularity as he became heavyweight champion of the world.

    But by 1926 he had turned his focus away from boxing.

    He had not fought since defending his world title against Luis Angel Firpo in a brutal, albeit brief, bout three years earlier.

    While The Manassa Mauler was taking part in boxing exhibitions and making appearances in movies, Gene Tunney was building an impressive boxing CV.

    Still, Dempsey was a strong favourite to triumph when the two met in front of a crowd of 120,557 at Sesquicentennial Stadium in Philadelphia.

    Tunney—who had served in the United States Marine Corps—proved too sharp for the champion.

    He was awarded the win at the end of the 10-round contest, triumphed again in a rematch and then defended the belt one more time before retiring as a world champion.

8. Evander Holyfield vs. Mike Tyson (November 1996)

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    Patience paid off for Evander Holyfield when he finally met Mike Tyson in the ring in 1996.

    Tyson's shock defeat to James "Buster" Douglas and then the time he spent in prison had scuppered two previous planned bouts between the Americans.

    By the time they did go toe-to-toe, Holyfield had lost two of his last four bouts—the first of which, to Michael Moorer, briefly sent him into retirement—and was seen as washed up.

    Dan Rafael of ESPN recalled in 2013 that "so little was thought of Holyfield at the time, and there were such concerns over his health, that the Nevada State Athletic Commission asked him to go through a special battery of medical tests at the Mayo Clinic before he could be licensed."

    However, The Real Deal lived up to his nickname on November 9.

    Tyson had won four bouts inside eight rounds since his return to action, reclaiming the WBA and WBC titles in the process. He gave up the WBC version rather than defend it against Lennox Lewis.

    Holyfield then duly took the WBA belt away, dominating his compatriot.

    In the 11th he had Tyson in serious trouble, forcing referee Mitch Halpern to step in and wave the contest off.

7. Max Schmeling vs. Joe Louis (June 1936)

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    Max Schmeling proved that it is worth doing your homework when he stopped Joe Louis on June 19, 1936.

    The German was hardly a rank outsider—he had previously been world champion—but not many expected him to put an end to Louis' perfect professional record.

    The Brown Bomber seemed to be marching toward the title, having beaten former champions Max Baer and Primo Carnera the previous year.

    However, Schmeling had studied his rival's tactics and worked out a way to be successful.

    His right hand proved to be a major problem for Louis, who dropped to the canvas for the first time in his career in the fourth round at Yankee Stadium in New York.

    It took Schmeling until the 12th round to bring about a stoppage, with his right hand doing the damage again.

6. Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman (October 1974)

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    Muhammad Ali appears not once but twice on the list, which is a strange occurrence for a fighter who achieved so much in his career.

    However, his victory over George Foreman deserves to make the top 10, if for no other reason than the unusual method he used to stun the reigning world champion.

    The Rumble in the Jungle took place on October 30, 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire.

    Foreman, aged 25 at the time, was unbeaten going into the bout. He had already destroyed both Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, the only two men to have beaten Ali at the time.

    Yet the underdog came up with a strategy to wear Big George out.

    While he had the odd moment of success in attack, Ali instead spent many of the rounds with his back against the ropes, tempting Foreman in to throw wide, looping shots.

    The process—dubbed "rope-a-dope"—led to Foreman tiring himself out. Sensing his chance in the eighth, Ali landed repeatedly to send his opponent to the canvas.

    Foreman had nothing left in the tank—The Greatest was suddenly champion of the world again. 

5. George Foreman vs. Michael Moorer (November 1994)

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    George Foreman being crowned world champion was hardly a surprise. His power and size made him a difficult man to cope with during his prime years.

    However, Foreman being crowned world champion at the age of 45 certainly was a shock.

    Having made a return to the ring in 1987 after a decade in retirement, Big George lost world-title challenges against Evander Holyfield and Tommy Morrison.

    He had a chance to make it third time lucky in the second stage of his career when he signed to fight Michael Moorer, who had beaten Holyfield to become the southpaw to hold a major title in the division.

    The younger man dominated Foreman for nearly the entire bout at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

    But, knowing he was well behind on the scorecards, the challenger summoned a left-right combination that turned the fight completely on its head.

    The first punch was a jab that made little impact, yet it perfectly set up a right hand that laid Moorer out on the canvas.

    He never came close to beating the count, with the deeply religious Foreman sinking to his knees in the corner to say a prayer of thanks for his victory.

    Having been on the wrong end of an upset against Ali, Foreman deserves a place in the top five for triumphing in the latter stages of his career when the odds were heavily stacked against him.

4. Corrie Sanders vs. Wladimir Klitschko (March 2003)

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    Corrie Sanders was seen as nothing but a steppingstone for Wladimir Klitschko in 2003.

    The Ukrainian had held the WBO title since October 2000, while his opponent had only fought twice in the previous two years.

    However, the South African had made sure he was physically ready for the demands of facing a world champion.

    He also owned a left hand that seemingly couldn't miss the champion's chin.

    The southpaw used the punch to drop his rival twice in the opening round in Hannover, Germany, stunning the pro-Klitschko crowd.

    The minute in between rounds didn't prove long enough for Klitschko to recover either—Sanders knocked him down twice more early in the second, which led the referee to wave the contest off.

    Klitschko later admitted the defeat may have been a blessing, telling Eyewitness News radio [h/t ESPN.com]: "The loss against him changed a side of my character tremendously, it made me tougher and it made me better. Without my experience with Corrie I wouldn't be the same way."

    Sanders lost the title in his first defence—against a certain Vitali Klitschko, who had been working in his brother's corner the night he was shot down by The Sniper.

3. Hasim Rahman vs. Lennox Lewis (April 2001)

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    Oliver McCall wasn’t the only underdog to catch out Lennox Lewis during his stellar career.

    Hasim Rahman also managed the feat in April 2001, knocking out an underprepared Lewis in Gauteng, South Africa.

    The IBF and WBC champion was a 20-1 favorite to see off the American, with a win seemingly paving the way for him to go on and face Mike Tyson in a money-spinning bout later in the year.

    But the best-laid plans for Lewis and his team were undone when Rahman knocked him out in the fifth round.

    A right hand from the American caught his rival flush on the chin, sending Lewis sprawling to the canvas. He never came close to beating the count, with Rahman celebrating before the result was official.

    The British boxer said after the stunning loss, per the Associated Press (h/t BoxRec): "This is just what happens in heavyweight boxing. He hit me with a good shot. That's the situation when you get two big guys in there with right hands. He just threw a big right hand and caught me right on the chin."

    Rahman’s reign, however, proved a short one. Lewis gained revenge in the rematch, knocking out The Rock to regain his belts.

    However, his win in their first meeting is enough to get Rahman—rather than compatriot McCall—a place inside the top 10.

2. James Braddock vs. Max Baer (June 1935)

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    In June 1935, The Cinderella Man produced a story good enough to become a motion picture.

    James Braddock had failed in his bid to win the light heavyweight title in 1929, losing to Tommy Loughran on points.

    The defeat led to a downturn in his career. He suffered a string of defeats and even gave up boxing to find a job so he could provide for his family during the Great Depression.

    By the summer of 1935 he was seen as past his prime and something of an afterthought, even if he had fought his way into the position to challenge world heavyweight champion Max Baer.

    However, in the Madison Square Garden Bowl in New York, the underdog caught the unprepared Baer cold.

    Braddock's defensive abilities allowed him to gain the upper hand as the rounds ticked by, though he had to survive the odd scary moment in the closing stages of the contest.

    Still, he won via unanimous decision and would reign as champion for two years, albeit never making a defence during that time.

    When Braddock did eventually return to the ring in June 1937, Joe Louis knocked him out.

1. James "Buster" Douglas vs. Mike Tyson (February 1990)

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    When James “Buster” Douglas met Mike Tyson in 1990, no one expected anything other than an easy win for the latter.

    Iron Mike was 37-0, held the IBF, WBA and WBC belts and had built a fearsome reputation for knocking out opponents. He was known as the baddest man on the planet for a reason.

    However, Douglas—a 42-1 underdog—wasn't bothered about what had happened in the past.

    Inspired following the death of his mother just 23 days before the fight in Tokyo, he turned in a performance that would plant his name into the history books of the sport.

    Success nearly slipped from his grasp in the eighth round when, with his left eye badly swollen, Tyson floored his rival.

    Douglas, though, managed to clear his head and regain his composure. He went on to dominate the ninth round and then ended it in the 10th.

    He became the first man to knock down Tyson, who failed to beat the count as he became stuck on all fours while holding his dislodged mouthguard in one of his gloves.

    It was a stunning end and a sensational result. Even promoter Don King was surprised, per Dan Rafael of ESPN: "Everybody was shocked. So was I. It always kept me humble to know this can happen. It was like a soul-searching thing. It was unbelievable, but this is something that can happen. It is one of the biggest upsets in sports history."

    It was certainly a huge upset and deserves to be placed at the top of our list of heavyweight shocks.

    Do you agree with Buster Douglas ranked first? If not, have your say in the comments section.

    Alternatively, feel free to just reminisce about the greatest heavyweight shocks of all time.