Where Would a Conor McGregor Win Rank Among Combat Sports' All-Time Upsets?
By any measure, Conor McGregor enters his Aug. 26 boxing match against Floyd Mayweather Jr. as a massive underdog.
As of this writing, Mayweather is a -500 favorite to McGregor's +375 (bet $500 to win $100 or bet $100 to win $375), but the line hardly reflects the actual odds at OddsShark. Oddsmakers opened Mayweather as a -2500 favorite; McGregor was a +1100 underdog.
But a historic level of wagering on McGregor has driven the price so low as to be almost unbelievable, especially if you consider Mayweather is a virtual lock.
Mayweather's average line over the past decade is roughly -600. That's the same as the current line against McGregor, of course, but you must remember that Mayweather averaged -600 while facing world-class boxers like Oscar De La Hoya, Canelo Alvarez and Manny Pacquiao.
Those boxers had long and storied careers before they stepped in the ring with Mayweather; McGregor has zero professional or amateur boxing bouts.
Make no mistake: This is one of the most lopsided fights in combat sports history. Even with the standard boxing practice of feeding cans to top prospects to build up their names, the idea of an undefeated, legendary boxer facing a debutant is unheard of.
In fact, if not for the greed of the Nevada State Athletic Commission—and its unique trait of bending over backward for Mayweather no matter the circumstance—this fight would not even be sanctioned. It's only happening because it's big money, and Nevada never turns down big money.
We've established that Mayweather vs. McGregor is a historically lopsided fight. What if McGregor wins? It would be the biggest upset in combat sports history, without question.
With that in mind, let's take a walk through the history books and look at some of the other biggest upsets in both boxing and MMA history.
Jess Willard d. Jack Johnson (April 5, 1915): Johnson, the world's first black heavyweight boxing champion, had been champion since 1908 despite boxing promoters lining up one "great white hope" after another in an attempt to dethrone him.
But in the two years preceding his title defense against Willard, he'd spent his time partying in France and was woefully out of shape when he stepped in the ring. He faded quickly but somehow managed to last 26 rounds before being knocked out, which is a good indicator of just how unlikely an upset this was.
Max Schmeling d. Joe Louis (June 19, 1936): Louis was undefeated and the top contender for the heavyweight championship when he faced a past-his-prime Schmeling.
Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) d. Sonny Liston (February 25, 1964): Clay was on the rise at this point but entered the Liston bout a 10-1 underdog.
Fabricio Werdum d. Fedor Emelianenko (June 26, 2010): Fedor was a mythical fighter by this point, and Werdum was a UFC washout. And then the unthinkable happened.
Gabriel Gonzaga d. Mirko Cro Cop (April 21, 2007): Gonzaga was little more than a pit stop on Cro Cop's way to a title fight with heavyweight champion Randy Couture. This fight remains a perfect example of the follies of trying to make long-term plans in combat sports.
T.J. Dillashaw d. Renan Barao (May 24, 2014): A look at how the careers of both men would go after this night might lead you to believe this wasn't a big upset. It was.
5. Holly Holm vs. Ronda Rousey (November 14, 2015)
Ronda Rousey was a damn good shadowboxer.
On film, and especially during the UFC's preview shows hyping her upcoming fights, Rousey looked like a lethal pugilist who'd been boxing since childhood. Which, I suppose, is why she went into her fight with Holly Holm as a massive -1650 favorite.
After all, Holm was a former professional boxer and world champion. If Rousey's hands were that good, and you mixed them with the grappling that helped her destroy opponent after opponent, what chance did Holm stand?
A good chance, it turned out.
Rousey's shadowboxing was a lie, perpetrated on her and the world by her hapless coach, Edmund Tarverdyan. Having had the good fortune of Rousey's walking through his gym door, Tarverdyan relentlessly praised and cajoled Rousey into believing she was as lethal a puncher as she was a grappler.
In reality, she was wholly out of her depth in all forms of striking, and it was first revealed in this fight. Holm negated Rousey's takedown attempts and outstruck her easily. Rousey was bloodied and battered before Holm mercifully finished her with a thudding kick to the jaw and neck.
When Rousey returned a year later, she was quickly and thoroughly beaten (with striking) by Amanda Nunes. This time, she is not expected to ever return.
4. Chris Weidman vs. Anderson Silva (July 6, 2013)
Chris Weidman was a big betting underdog to Anderson Silva leading up to their fight. But those in the know gave Weidman a much better chance of winning.
A few days prior, I was talking to UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby about the upcoming fights. I brought up Weidman vs. Silva, and I scoffed at Weidman's having any chance to win. I told Shelby I believed Silva was going to wreck Weidman. Easily.
Shelby looked at me like I was the biggest idiot in the world. He smirked and shook his head side to side, which is the point I should have taken a second look at my analysis of the matchup. Instead, I dismissed Shelby's take, which of course is the smart thing to do when discussing fights with a matchmaker who makes his livelihood by analyzing fights and fighters.
I was sitting cageside that night when Silva's leg broke on Weidman's shin. After suppressing the urge to vomit all over fellow journalist Kevin Iole sitting in front of me, I thought about Shelby and all the others who told me Weidman was no underdog. And of course, I dismissed them and chalked up the win to a fluke, because I am an idiot.
Looking back at the fight now, though, it's easy to see Weidman was far more of a match for Silva than I thought. He was the underdog, yes, but he was the most dangerous kind of underdog: the underdog who really isn't.
3. George Foreman vs. Michael Moorer (November 5, 1994)
George Foreman had added 100 pounds to his frame since retiring from boxing after a loss to Jimmy Young in 1977. As he wrote in his autobiography, By George, he'd undergone a dramatic transformation in the locker room after the fight, where he said he felt the hand of God reach down and touch him.
His trainer thought George was experiencing the usual heartache that comes along with losing a fight, but the next decade would illustrate Foreman's new lease on life. He became an ordained minister, speaking across the globe and heading up a children's center. Boxing was in the past.
But then, while speaking at an evangelical conference in Georgia, Foreman experienced another life-changing moment. The minister was asking the congregation for funds to help Foreman's community center for kids. Foreman wrote about the incident in his book.
"'We're going to raise some money for George,' he said. 'He's helping these kids, our kids.' I thought about becoming invisible. And it got worse. 'Come on,' he pleaded as the cash got passed forward. 'You can give more money than that. You help George, for our kids' sake.'
"They were looking at me, and I had to look back at them, and pretend I wasn't ashamed.' I vowed at that moment, sitting on a hard bench in front of those people, that as long as I lived I would never again be involved in a stunt like this. Yes, those kids needed me, and I wouldn't desert them. I'd just have to find another way to raise funds.
"And then the thought struck me: 'I know how to get money. I'm going to be heavyweight champ of the world. Again."
It was 1987, and Foreman was 38 years old. He was fat. And yet he experienced a late-career resurgence that mirrored the one by Randy Couture in mixed martial arts many years later. Foreman started winning fights, and winning more fights, until he found himself seven years later staring across the ring at the 26-year-old Michael Moorer, the world heavyweight champion.
Moorer was better than Foreman in every way, and he was much younger. He was undefeated, and the early rounds of the fight showed Foreman to be at a significant disadvantage. But then came the 10th round, where Foreman started to batter Moorer.
It was a right hand that did the trick, sending Moorer to the canvas for the count. George Foreman, 45 years old and two decades removed from his last world championship reign, was once again the heavyweight champion.
"You know, this was a 2-1 fight, but in my mind it was a gazillion-to-one that George Foreman could ever win the heavyweight championship again," HBO commentator Larry Merchant said. "This is a really remarkable achievement, and it has to stand on its own. We're in a show-and-tell medium, and show does it all."
2. Matt Serra vs. Georges St-Pierre (April 7, 2007)
I've covered close to 100 live MMA events over the past decade, yet prior to UFC 69, I'd never so much as attended one live. But the event was being held in Houston, and I'd just gotten out of the army and had money to spend, so I bought a ticket.
I was a casual fan at that point, with little knowledge outside of the top names in the sport. I'll be honest and tell you I didn't care who was fighting on the card. I just wanted to be there. I figured it would be a cool experience.
Ten years later, that night is etched in my brain forever. I'd never seen Matt Serra fight before that night and was only half paying attention as the main event unfolded. I knew Serra was a huge underdog. He was an afterthought. We were there for the experience, and Serra was background music.
But then Serra staggered St-Pierre, and suddenly the arena came alive. We all stood on our feet as Serra pursued the dominant welterweight champion, growing somehow more breathless and louder at the same time. And when the finish came, the arena came unglued.
Looking back, I can pinpoint that night as the turning point that led me to the career I've been lucky enough to pursue. There was just something about the plucky underdog vanquishing the unbeatable champion that spoke to me, and Serra was plucky and both loveable and hateable, often simultaneously.
He was the first and perhaps greatest example of the tired old catchphrase: Anything can happen in mixed martial arts.
1. Buster Douglas vs. Mike Tyson (February 11, 1990)
Ask a casual combat sports fan to name the biggest upset in boxing history, and it's likely this is the one they'll point to. And with good reason.
Tyson was heavyweight boxing in the 1980s, and he'd spent years tearing through one opponent after another with an unsettling level of brutality. Fans knew his fights would be over quickly, and they still purchased the pay-per-views in huge numbers.
Buster Douglas was just another hapless heavyweight for Tyson to feast on. After opening as a -2700 favorite, Tyson peaked at -4200, and nobody gave Douglas a chance. The best he could hope for was survival.
Because the fight took place in Tokyo, few North American fans were able to watch it live, but that was OK; the result was a foregone conclusion anyway. And so when North America woke up to the stunning news that Douglas had knocked Tyson out, it felt like a dream, or like we weren't quite awake just yet.
But it was no dream. Douglas, the nobody with no chance, had done the impossible.