If there’s one sport which truly lives up to the cliché, “It’s never over until it’s over” it’s definitely boxing. Boxers are never out of a fight until the final bell rings and no matter if they’ve been knocked around the ring all night long and are trailing big-time on the judges’ scorecards, they can turn things around in a split second with a single punch. They don’t have to slowly climb back into a contest they trail by adding points to a scoreboard, they can simply win it in a split second. The uniqueness of boxing had led to some shocking upsets throughout the decades, but not all of them have been achieved by dramatic knockouts. Many of them have come by stunning performances in which the underdogs outboxed and outworked their opponents to win by decision.
Below we have the top 15 most shocking upsets in boxing history. However, there are different levels to an upset. For instance, when Muhammad Ali stopped George Foreman in 1974 it was more or less a case of two champions battling it out. Therefore, the upset wasn’t quite as shocking as a journeyman knocking out a world champion. In addition, what makes some of these upsets even more incredible is the way some of the underdogs careers unfolded after their moment of glory. Some of these boxers boxed the fight of their lives to make this list and then struggled for the rest of their careers. Therefore, when looking back, their achievement was even more incredible. The list also considers the status and records of the combatants when they met in the ring.
There have been numerous other boxing upsets throughout the years with all of these deserving honorable mention: Hasim Rahman over Lennox Lewis, Max Schmeling over Joe Louis, Evander Holyfield and Kevin McBride over Mike Tyson, Gene Tunney over Jack Dempsey, Kirkland Laing over Roberto Duran, Lloyd Honeyghan over Donald Curry, Sugar Ray Leonard over Marvin Hagler, Antonio Tarver over Roy Jones Jr., Ingemar Johansson over Floyd Patterson, John H. Stracey over Jose Napoles, Bernard Hopkins over Felix Trinidad, Chris Byrd over Vitali Klitschko and Lamon Brewster over Wladimir Klitschko.
15 Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman (1974)
Ali went into his fight with heavyweight champion George Foreman as quite an underdog back on October 30, 1974 in Kinshasha, Zaire. Ali was believed to be declining at the age of 33 and the 25-year-old Foreman was destroying everybody who stood in his way, including Joe Frazier and Ken Norton; who he stopped in two rounds each. Foreman was bigger, stronger, slightly heavier and had a hell of a punch, but he wasn’t quicker nor smarter than Ali. Foreman was 40-0 at the time with 37 KOs and a knockout ratio of 92.5 per cent with 24 straight stoppages under his belt. Ali had been decisioned by both Frazier and Norton by this time. However, Ali stunned the world again by coming out as fast as possible in the first round and then slowly reverting to his "rope-a-dope" tactic. Foreman had punched himself out by the eighth round and Ali knocked the exhausted champion out with a perfect right hand to become the first man to regain the heavyweight crown.
14 Danny Williams vs. Mike Tyson (2004)
‘Iron’ Mike Tyson was no longer considered the baddest man on the planet back on July 30, 2004 since he’d already been knocked out by Buster Douglas, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis. He was still 50-4 though with most of his wins coming by stoppage and still considered one of the most dangerous punchers on the planet. His opponent that night in Louisville, Kentucky was 265 lb. Danny Williams of England who had a record of 30-3 with 25 KOs. Williams had fought most of his bouts in his homeland with his most recognizable victim being Kali Meehan. Tyson may have been on the decline, but nobody expected Williams to stop Tyson before the end of the fourth round. The result was even more shocking considering Williams has lost 22 fights since then and was knocked out in six of them.
13 Corrie Sanders vs. Wladimir Klitschko (2003)
WBO Heavyweight Champ Wladimir Klitschko of Ukraine was heading into his sixth title defence when he squared off against South African southpaw Corrie Sanders in Germany on March 8, 2003. The big favourite with a record of 40-1 didn’t have it on this night though as he was dropped in the first minute of the fight and had hit the deck twice by the time the first round had ended. The minute rest between rounds didn’t help at all as Klitschko had to pick himself up from the canvas again in the second round when he was sent down for a third time. He wasn’t able to rise after a fourth knockdown though and he was face-first on the mat when the referee halted the contest at the 27-second mark of the round.
The win raised Sanders’ record to 39-2 as he would try to take the WBC crown from Klitschko’s brother Vitali in his next outing a year later, but was stopped the eighth round. Wladimir was also stopped a year later by Lamon Brewster, but hasn’t lost in the past 11 years and is still the reigning IBA, IBO, WBA and WBO champ. Unfortunately, Sanders was shot to death in his homeland in 2012. He had retired in 2008 with a record of 42-4 with 31 Kos.
12 James J. Braddock vs. Max Baer (1935)
Max Baer Jr. was known as country bumpkin Jethro Bodine on the Beverly Hillbillies, but his dad was more famous as the Heavyweight Champion of the world when he stepped into the ring at Madison Square Garden on June 13, 1935. Baer’s opponent was light heavyweight prospect James Braddock who had 27 wins and three draws in his first 30 contests, but went downhill from their due to injuries and out-of-ring struggles. When the New Yorker met Baer he was 44-23-4 while the champion was 40-7 with 30 KOs and on a 14-fight winning streak.
Baer was a feared puncher since one of his opponents, Frankie Campbell, had died after being knocked out by him. Baer had also dropped former champion Primo Carnera 11 times in 11 rounds to win the title. Braddock earned the nickname ‘The Cinderella Man" on this night though as he boxed his way to a 15-round unanimous decision and the heavyweight title. Baer was knocked out by Joe Louis in his next bout and while he enjoyed a fine career until 1941 he never received another title shot. Braddock lost his title when Louis knocked him out in his first defense two years later and fought just once more before retiring.
11 Fritzie Zivic vs. Henry Armstrong (1940)
Henry Armstrong was the first man to hold titles in three different weight classes at the same time as he captured the Featherweight, Lightweight and Welterweight Championships. His record stood at 111-12-7 when he took on fellow American, Fritzie Zivic at Madison Square Garden on April 10, 1940 and had lost just twice in his previous 62 fights. Zivic entered the ring with a mark of 100-24-4. This was supposed to be Armstrong’s 19th successful title defence in the welterweight division, but he wasn’t prepared for Zivic’s roughhouse tactics that night.
Zivic didn’t shy away from throwing low blows and other rule-bending tactics and walked out of the ring with a unanimous decision as well as Armstrong’s title. He also put an exclamation point on the triumph by decking Armstrong at the final bell. In addition, Zivic knocked Armstrong out in the 12th round just three months later in their rematch at the same venue. Armstrong avenged his defeats somewhat by taking a 10-round unanimous decision over Zivic two years later in San Francisco. Zivic went on to lose 65 fights in his career with 41 of them coming after his first upset over Armstrong.
10 Wilfredo Benitez vs. Antonio Cervantes (1976)
Hall of Famer Wilfredo Benitez retired with a record of 53-8-1 with 31 KOs and four of his losses coming in his last eight bouts. Back on March 6, 1976 he was already 25-0, but the Puerto Rican youngster was still a teenager at just 17 years old and had yet to face a serious top-10 contender. He stepped into the ring in San Juan against veteran WBA Junior Welterweight Champion Antonio Cervantes of Colombia who had a record of 74-9-3 at the time. Cervantes had won the title four years earlier and was defending it for the 11th time against the inexperienced teenager. However, Benitez gave him a boxing lesson to take the crown by split decision. With the win, Benitez became the youngest-ever world boxing champion and it’s a record that will likely never be broken. He then went on to win world titles as a welterweight and junior middleweight and became one of history’s greatest-ever boxers. There’s no confirming the rumour that Benitez took the title belt to school with him for show and tell the next day though.
9 Iran Barkley vs. Thomas Hearns (1988)
Only two men had ever beaten Tommy "Hitman" Hearns when he stepped into the ring against Iran Barkley at the Las Vegas Hilton on June 6, 1988 and they were fellow World Champions Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler. Hearns was the reigning WBC Middleweight Champion and had beaten the likes of Wilfredo Benitez, Roberton Duran, Bruce Curry, Clyde Gray, Juan Roldan and Pipino Cuevas. He had also won world titles as a welterweight, junior middleweight and light heavyweight and had a 45-2 record with 40 KOs. Barkley, on the other hand, was 24-4 with 15 KOs and was considered more of a journeyman than a top-contender. However, he had Hearns’ number and stopped him in the third round. Barkley then lost his next three fights before rebounding with three wins and then beat Hearns again, this time by split decision in their 12-round rematch in 1992. Hearns ended up in the Hall of Fame and Barkley retired seven years later after losing six consecutive bouts with a record of 42-19-1 with 27 KOs.
8 Kirkland Laing vs. Roberto Duran (1982)
English welterweight Kirkland Laing shocked the great Roberto Duran of Panama at Detroit’s Cobo Hall on September 4, 1982. He was meeting the legendary "Hands of Stone" just two fights after losing to Reggie Ford, who had a record of 9-7-1 when he beat Laing. The Jamaican-born Briton was understandably a huge underdog as his record stood at 23-3-1 while Duran’s was 74-3 as he was a multiple World Champion. Everything went right for Laing this night though as he won a 10-round split decision in a junior middleweight tilt. The two never met again and Laing was stopped in his very next fight by a journeyman named Fred Hutchings. Laing, who wasn’t really known outside of the UK, went on to lose seven more times before hanging up his gloves in 1994 while Duran went on to win two more world titles.
7 Randy Turpin vs. Sugar Ray Robinson (1951)
Earls Court Arena in London, England was the site of the World Middleweight Championship clash between Sugar Ray Robinson and hometown hero Randy Turpin on July 10, 1951. Robinson, the 30-year-old champ, was considered the best pound-for-pound boxer of all time back then and had a record of 128-1-2 with 84 Kos. Turpin was a natural middleweight with a record of 40-2-1 with 29 KOs and had won 21 fights in a row. Still, the 23-year-old was a huge underdog. Turpin, who had never gone more than eight rounds as a pro, proceeded to outbox the champ and upset him on points over 15 rounds. Turpin became the first Briton to win the middleweight crown in 60 years. However, he lost the title just 64 days later when Robinson stopped him in the 10th round of their rematch at the Polo Grounds in New York City.
6 Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston (1964)
Twenty-two-year-old former Olympic Light Heavyweight Champion, Cassius Clay of Louisville, Kentucky did indeed shake up the world back on February 25, 1964 in Miami Beach, Florida. This is the night Clay took on heavyweight champion Sonny Liston and made him quit on his stool after six rounds. Clay, who of course soon changed his name to Muhammad Ali, became the youngest-ever Heavyweight Champ with the win. That record would be broken a couple of decades later when Mike Tyson stopped Trevor Berbick to take the crown as a 20-year-old. Liston was feared by all as he was an ex-con with a mean streak and an 84-inch reach. He had won the title by flattening Floyd Patterson in just 125 seconds two years earlier and then stopped him in 129 seconds in their rematch after decking him three times.
The champion was 35-1 entering the fight with Clay with 25 KOs while the challenger had won 13 of his previous 14 bouts by knockout and had 28 wins in a row with 23 stoppages. Clay seemed to be in over his head as 43 of the 46 ringside reporters picked Liston to win, with most of them predicting a knockout. Clay proved to be much quicker and mobile and busted Liston up en route to victory. Liston claimed to have torn his shoulder in the fight, but Ali, as he was then known as, stopped him in the first round of their rematch 15 months later.
5 Frankie Randall vs. Julio Cesar Chavez (1994)
Most boxing fans didn’t know who Frankie Randall was when he stepped into the ring with Mexican legend Julio Cesar Chavez in January of 1994. In fact he wasn’t even a household name in his own household and opened as an 18-1 underdog. That all changed at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on the venue’s opening night when Randall shocked the boxing world with a 12-round unanimous decision over Chavez. The undefeated WBC Super Lightweight Champion entered the match with a remarkable record of 89 wins and a draw while the career undercard fighter Randall was 48-2-1. Chavez was decked for the first time in his career during the 11th round and lost two points on low blows to lose a split decision.
Randall’s 15 minutes of fame actually lasted four months until he lost the title via a technical decision to Chavez in a rematch. The two also met for a third time in May of 2004 with Chavez winning a 10-round unanimous decision. Randall went on to win the WBA title, but his win over Chavez was the pinnacle of his career. Randall lost 16 of his last 21 fights and was stopped a dozen times during his career. Chavez retired at 107-6-2 with 86 KOs.
4 Michael Spinks vs. Larry Holmes (1985)
Even though several Light Heavyweight Champions had tried in the past, none of them were able to defeat a reigning heavyweight titleholder. However, that all changed on September 21, 1985 at Las Vegas’ Riviera Hotel and Casino. Larry Holmes was the heavyweight king and at 48-0 was just one victory away from tying Rocky Marciano’s undefeated record of 49-0. He also had the second-most defences next to Joe Louis. Spinks was the current Light-Heavyweight Champ at 27-0 with 21 KOs and had weighed just 170 lbs in his previous contest. He entered the ring against Holmes at 200 lbs and basically outboxed the champion to a controversial 15-round unanimous decision. He didn’t hurt the natural heavyweight, but racked up the points on the judges’ scorecards. Holmes and Spinks went at it again just seven months later and it was almost déjà vu all over again, only this time Spinks won the bout by a controversial split decision.
3 Leon Spinks vs. Muhammad Ali (1978)
Ali was the World Champion back in 1978 when he met 1976 Olympic light heavyweight gold-medal winner Leon Spinks at the Hilton in Las Vegas. Like Ali was 14 years earlier against Sonny Liston, Spinks was a big underdog who made a name for himself as an amateur. Ali should have known better since he beat Liston for the title in the same situation. Spinks had just eight pro fights and 31 rounds to his name and Ali took him way too lightly. Ali entered the ring at 55-2 with 37 KOs along with a total of 19 title defenses while Spinks was 7-0-1 with 5 KOs.
Spinks’ style was expected to be tailor made for Ali since he waded in with fists blazing and experts assumed the 36-year-old Ali would pick the smaller man off as soon as he got within firing range. It didn’t happen though as Spinks outworked and outpunched the champ as he built up a lead and hung on for a split decision in Ring Magazine’s fight of the year. Ali easily won the rematch by 15-round unanimous decision seven months later in New Orleans and then fought just twice more before retiring three years later. Spinks went on to lose 17 times in his 46-bout career, but will never be forgotten for his effort against Ali.
2 George Foreman vs. Michael Moorer (1994)
After former Heavyweight Champ George Foreman lost to Muhammad Ali and then Jimmy Young the slugger decided to leave boxing for 10 years in 1977 and become a preacher. Foreman decided to make his comeback at the age of 38 and seven years later made history by becoming the oldest champion in history at the age of 45. While Foreman is still the oldest to ever own the heavyweight crown, Bernard Hopkins now holds the record for being the oldest world titleholder in any division. Foreman achieved his goal of regaining the title on Nov. 5, 1994 when he stopped Michael Moorer in the 10th round at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
Foreman had a shot at Evander Holyfield for a belt when he was 40, but lost by decision. He then had a second shot at a the vacant WBO belt and dropped a decision to Tommy Morrison. In the meantime, the 26-year-old Moorer beat Holyfield and Foreman talked his way into a bout with him for Moorer’s first defence. Foreman wore the same trunks he sported in his knockout loss to Ali and was easily outboxed for the first nine and a half rounds. He was behind on all three scorecards when he landed a short right hand on the button that decked the champ. The 35-0 Moorer couldn’t beat the count and it was all over with Foreman once again being a World Heavyweight Champion with the WBA and IBF belts.
1 Buster Douglas vs. Mike Tyson (1990)
James "Buster" Douglas gave Undisputed Heavyweight Champion Mike Tyson a thorough beating and boxing lesson in Tokyo on February 10, 1990. Douglas, who had a record of 30-4-1 with 20 KOs went into the fight as a 42-1 underdog with the only Las Vegas casino that would offer odds on the fight. The undefeated Tyson climbed through the ring ropes with a perfect mark of 38-0 with 34 KOs. He was just 24 years old and had already defended his title nine times. Tyson was hoping to eventually beat Joe Louis’ record of 25 title defenses, but it all came to a crushing end when Douglas knocked him senseless in the 10th round.
Douglas fought with a heavy heart since his mother had passed away just three weeks before the fight. The challenger had a crack at Tony Tucker earlier for the vacant IBF title, but was knocked out in the 10th round even though he appeared to be in control of the bout. Most fans felt Douglas didn’t have the heart to stand up to Tyson’s barrage, but he entered the fight in excellent condition and was the much bigger man at just over 6-feet-3-inches tall. Douglas took control early with his excellent jab, right hands and fast combinations. However, his domination looked like it was all for naught when he was dropped at the end of round eight. Douglas just managed to beat the count and instead of crumbling, got stronger.
The challenger hammered Tyson with an uppercut and straight left hand in the 10th round to send him to the canvas. Most fans remember Tyson on his hands and knees trying to put his mouthpiece back in as he was busted up and counted out. Incredibly, even though he took Tyson to school, just one judge had Douglas ahead after nine rounds while one had the fight a draw and the other had Tyson ahead by a point. This was boxing’s greatest upset due to the manner in which Douglas won the fight.