By Stephen Campana: “Those whom the gods would destroy they first raise up.” —a variant of a famous quote from the Ancient Greek tragedian Euripides
Every generation has one. I am speaking about that fighter who the boxing Gods declare invincible. A while back, it was Vasily Lomachenko before some of the luster began to fade from his performances. His promoter Bob Arum went so far as to say he would have not only beaten the likes of Willie Pep, Sandy Saddler, and Alexis Arguello, he would have played with them. The reverential treatment that The Matrix has received got me thinking about some of the fighters over the past thirty years who have been perceived by the public as invincible. It occurred to me that they had two things in common: first, each of them had a particular performance that elevated them to invincible status and, secondly, each of them wound up getting beat in or near their primes in bouts that proved they were not be so invincible after all. That said, here are my recollections of six fighters and the performances that made them “invincible,” along with the subsequent performances that proved they weren’t.
George Foreman vs. Ken Norton, 3/26/74, for the WBA and WBC heavyweight championship. Fresh off his incredible two-round destruction of Joe Frazier, Foreman dived right back into the deep end of the heavyweight pool against the dangerous and talented Ken Norton. This fight would answer the question: Was the Frazier fight a fluke? After an even first round, Foreman hurt Norton about a minute into the second and went on to deck him three times, prompting the referee to stop the fight. It was an awesome performance. Foreman showed he could take on the best heavyweights in the world and slice through them like butter. After the Norton fight, the question was not so much whether anyone could beat Foreman as whether anyone could make it past the second round. Many believed the answer was no.
Then came Ali
Leading up to the Ali-Foreman bout, there were more than a few people who feared for Ali’s health. Ali wasn’t one of them. With his back to the ropes, Ali watched behind a high guard as Foreman punched himself out, then knocked him out in the eight-round, shattering his aura of invincibility and, in the process, his psyche.
Thomas Hearns vs. Pipino Cuevas, 8/2/80, for the WBA welterweight title
Hearns was undefeated in 28 fights, with 26 knockouts, when he challenged Cuevas for the title. It was no small undertaking. Cuevas had made 11 title defenses, winning ten of them by knockout, often breaking the jaws, orbital bones, and ribs of his opponents in the process. He wasn’t just good; he was fearsome. But then again, so was Hearns, which is why the fans who gathered for the fight at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit were expecting a war that would almost certainly end inside the distance.
From the start, it was obvious the shorter Cuevas, accustomed to moving forward, had no answers for Tommy’s size and reach, as the Hitman forced him back, measuring him with his jab and looking for the opportunity to lower the boom with his lethal right hand. His chance came in round two in the form of two huge right hands. The first turned the Mexican’s legs into rubber, and the second sent him crashing face down to the canvas, prompting his manager to run into the ring. Just like that, it was over. Hearns had beaten one of the most feared men in boxing and made it look easy. He looked so good that Ring magazine said he could collect titles from welter to light heavyweight by collecting white flags.
Then came Leonard
Strictly speaking, the aura of invincibility that surrounded Hearns had begun to fray before the Leonard fight, when he struggled to defeat a one-armed Randy Shields over 12 rounds in April of 1981. Leonard would tear it apart completely by outslugging the slugger on his way to a fourteenth-round stoppage.
Roy Jones Jr. vs. James Toney, 11/18/94, for the IBF super-middleweight title
After a brief reign as middleweight champ, Roy Jones set his sights on James Toney’s IBF super-middleweight title. This was no small undertaking, as Toney was considered one of the three or four best fighters in the world. Jones, however, was not impressed. Using his speed and combinations, Jones dominated the fight, even putting Toney on the deck at one point. By the end, there was no doubt who had won, and the lopsided scorecards (119–108, 118–109, and 117–111) reflected just how soundly Jones had thrashed one of boxing’s very best fighters. The performance was so amazing that it had observers comparing Jones to Sugar Ray Robinson. Yeah, he looked that good.
Then came Antonio Tarver
Although Jones-Tarver was a rematch of a bout Jones barely won, it was still hard for people to imagine him losing. Yes, the first fight was close, but Jones had just come down from heavyweight, where he added a fourth world title to his collection by beating John Ruiz, and folks just figured the weight loss had weakened him. Surely, he would win the rematch and resume his usual dominance. Unfortunately, Tarver had other ideas. After an uneventful first round, Tarver landed a perfect counter left on Jones’s chin. The world seemed to stop as Jones, who had never even been hurt as a professional, crashed to canvas, then struggled to beat the count. He did, but the referee stopped the fight, and just like that, in a matter of seconds, the aura of invincibility Jones had spent a decade creating had been shattered into a thousand pieces.
Manny Pacquiao vs. Ricky Hatton, 5/2/09, for the IBO super lightweight title. After eviscerating the great Oscar De La Hoya in eight rounds in a bout that sealed his status as the best fighter in the world, Manny Pacquiao could have been excused for seeking an easy touch in his next bout. Instead, he opted to take on the outstanding Ricky Hatton for the Irishman’s IBO super lightweight title. Like Pacquiao, Hatton was known for his mercurial work rate, powerful punches, and indomitable fighting spirit. The Filipino was favored, but the bout figured to be competitive.
It wasn’t. Pacquiao decked Hatton twice in the first, then knocked him unconscious in the second with a left. Hatton remained on the canvas for several minutes. It was a frightening ending to an equally frightening display of speed, skill, and power. Those skills, along with his swarming style and dazzling footwork, made Pacquiao seemed like an almost supernatural force of nature. Surely, no one this side of welterweight could beat him.
Then came Juan Manuel Marquez
Although Pacquiao had been slowing down, he was still the clear favorite going into his fourth fight with the great Mexican warrior Juan Manuel Marquez. The odds seemed justified when he had Marquez in trouble in the sixth. Then, as he moved in to press his advantage, Marquez landed the punch heard around the world—a monster right hand that sent Pacquiao crashing face first to the canvas, where he remained motionless for several minutes.
Mike Tyson vs. Michael Spinks, 6/27/88, for WBA, WBC, and IBF It was the richest fight in boxing history at the time. Mike Tyson was the WBA, WBC, and IBF champion, while Spinks, the man who beat the man (Larry Holmes), was the Ring magazine and lineal champ. Although a substantial underdog, Spinks was believed to have the skill and style to possibly give Tyson a run for his money. As it turned out, he didn’t.
Just a minute into the fight Spinks was down, courtesy of a right hand to the body. He beat the count, but a left-right combination put him down again, this time for good. The whole thing took 91 seconds. It also elevated Tyson to mythological status and made it all but impossible to imagine any mere mortal defeating him in a fair fight.
Then came Buster Douglas
Everyone knows the story by now. In one corner, the undefeated and undefeatable undisputed champion of the world, Iron Mike Tyson. In the other, unimpressive contender with no notable victories James Buster Douglas. If the fight went more than three rounds, it would have been a shock. Douglas had no chance, and everyone knew it. Everyone but Douglas, who consistently pummeled Tyson with jabs, crosses, and uppercuts before decking him with a combination in round 10. The world watched in disbelief as Tyson, crawling around on his knees, groped for his mouthpiece, as the referee counted him out.
Marvin Hagler vs. Thomas Hearns, 4/15/85, for undisputed middleweight title After ten title defenses, two decades in the sport, and innumerable victories over the best middleweights in the division, Marvin Hagler had yet to have a defining victory—the kind that forever enshrines a fighter in the highest echelon of pugilistic greatness. In his one chance to attain that stature – his bout with the great Roberto Duran – he squeaked by with a close decision after a strangely subdued performance. It was reminiscent of his first title shot against Vito Antuofermo, which ended in a draw in a fight most felt Hagler won. Even his title-winning knockout against Alan Minter, which was a great performance, ended in Hagler being pelted with garbage by British fans angry that the fight had been stopped. It was starting to seem like glory might forever elude the Marvelous one.
So, despite years of success at the highest levels, Hagler was a seething volcano of resentment. And on the night of April 4th, 1985, Hagler erupted in a way that few fighters ever have before on a big stage. His performance would become a synonym for savagery. His opponent, of course, was no stranger to savagery himself, having earned the bout with Hagler by pulverizing the iron-chinned Roberto Duran with a right hand that one writer described as being “so hard it strained comprehension.” Each man predicted a third-round knockout. One of them would be right.
Hagler came out of his corner as if shot by a cannon, throwing heavy artillery from the start. Although briefly stunned by a right hand, he just kept chugging forward, blasting away with both hands. Hearns returned the fire and the two combatants produced one of the greatest rounds in boxing history. But the pace took a toll on Hearns, and by the middle of the second round, he was floundering around the ring on rubbery legs. In the third, Hagler connected with a right hook that hurt Hearns. The Hitman smiled and stumbled around the ring as Hagler followed, catching him with a perfect right hand along the ropes. Hearns collapsed. Incredibly, he beat the count, but the referee stopped the fight. Hagler had his greatest victory. And at long last, glory. It was the glory of a victory that made Hagler look like the baddest man on the planet and virtually unbeatable.
Then came Leonard
For seven years, and through 12 title defenses, Hagler had established himself as one of the most dominant champions of all time. Time and time again, he took on the best fighters of an excellent middleweight division and made minced meat out of them: Mustafa Hamsho—ko 11, ko 3, Tony Sibson—ko 6, Wilford Scypion—ko 4, Thomas Hearns—ko 3, John Mugabi—ko 11. The man was a monster, pure and simple. So, when Ray Leonard announced he was coming out of a three-year hiatus to take on Hagler, not many gave him much of a chance, and more than a few worried about his health. Leonard, however, was not one of them. He firmly believed that he could beat Hagler. And for much of their 12-round bout at Ceasar’s Palace, he did exactly that, moving and boxing, landing flashy combinations, and frustrating the champion with his elusive style. When it was over, two of the three judges had Leonard winning. To this day, fans are split as to who won the fight, but one thing is for sure: Leonard did a whole lot better than he was supposed to and, in the process, he made Hagler, who had looked so invincible for so long, look merely human.