March 30, 2011

Whatever Happened to the Upset?

YESTERDAY was February 10th.

Twenty one years ago yesterday, Buster Douglas stunned Mike Tyson, boxing, and the entire sporting world with his dramatic 10th round knockout victory; winning the heavyweight championship of the world and staking claim to arguably the greatest upset in the history of sports.

At 42-1 odds, it most certainly stands as the greatest upset in boxing history, and in the intervening 21 years, no boxing upset has even come close in stature or significance.

Douglas KO10 Tyson stands as the benchmark by which all other upsets are measured, past or present. With few exceptions, the monumental upset has all but disappeared from our sport. As a recent trend, consider that the biggest upsets in the past few years have involved relatively unknown fighters and that it has been 10 years since an even remotely comparable upset took place when Hasim Rahman channeled the ghosts of Zaire and rumbled his way to a shocking upset KO victory over Lennox Lewis to win the heavyweight championship of the world.

If you are a boxing fan, the date February 10th takes its place right alongside December 7th, November 22nd, and September 11th, as the kind of instantly memorable dates that you will always recall where you were when "it" happened. Me? I was in the boxing town of Brockton, Massachusetts that day, unfortunately scheduled to work that night in the kitchen of a popular local restaurant. The fight was scheduled to air on HBO later that night and I was quite naturally upset (pun intended) that I would be missing it, not because I expected an historic upset or even a competitive fight for that matter but just because I was a huge Mike Tyson fan and a huge boxing fan in general. The heavyweight championship of the world was being fought for and I was was stuck in the heat of the kitchen, unknowingly destined to miss the greatest upset of all time.

Around 8 o'clock that night during the dinner rush, the desire to watch the fight live overcame me and I literally walked out on my job as a cook to go home to watch that fight. What I saw on HBO that night amazed me and overnight it changed the entire boxing landscape. Suddenly, walking out on my job the night before seemed like the only choice I could have ever made. It freed me to focus all of my time and energy into adjusting to this brave new world where Buster Douglas was the heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson was a mere mortal, and the Upset was King! It was an amazing time to be a boxing fan, and after that night anything seemed possible. Nobody was considered invincible anymore or ever would be again.

Big upsets in boxing were nothing new at this time. In the five years prior to the Douglas-Tyson upset, the inactive Sugar Ray Leonard had beaten Brockton native and reigning middleweight champion Marvin Hagler in a stunner, Michael Spinks had defeated Larry Holmes to become the first and only light heavyweight champion to dethrone a reigning heavyweight champion, Iran Barkley flattened Tommy Hears and pound for pound king Donald Curry had been embarrassed by the unknown Lloyd Honneyghan. The sport's history was rich with upsets and as a boxing fan, nothing was better than watching a fighter do in the ring what people outside the ring said he could never do.

So where have all the great upsets gone? Sure there have been some surprises since Douglas-Tyson but nothing on the order of what took place that night. The past two Ring Magazine Upset of the Year awards have been awarded to fights of minor significance involving fighters of minor notoriety, and that is putting it kindly. The year prior to that the award was given to Bernard Hopkins W12 Kelly Pavlik. Does anyone still really consider this to be an upset? Reverse the result, and there you have an upset worthy of an award! Carlos Baldomir over Zab Judah? Sure it was an upset but not a particularly surprising one given Judah's questionable dedication to his craft.

It takes the unexpected defeat of a big name top boxer to create the kind of upset buzz we all experienced when Buster Douglas poleaxed Mike Tyson 21 years ago yesterday. Boxing is running low on truly big names and the ones we do have don't lose against lesser opponents. At least not yet. Of course this could all change and that's the beauty of the upset, you never know when and where it will strike. Imagine the effect a Shane Mosley upset victory over Manny Pacquiao would have on the boxing world. Of all the potential big upsets in the current landscape of boxing, Mosley pulling off an upset victory over Pacquiao would be closest thing to the truly memorable and significant upsets of the past. Two big names fighting, one of them the pound for pound king, the other a former pound of pound king, both sure-fire Hall of Famers. Everyone saying the underdog has no chance to win. That's the recipe for a truly historic upset.

May 7th. That's the date Shane Mosley gets his chance to shake up the world and redefine the modern boxing upset as something special again. Here's hoping I'm not scheduled to work that night too because I'm not so sure I could get my job back as easily as I did 21 years ago. The economy has changed. Boxing has changed. In fact, everything has changed but when you put two boxers in the ring, anything can still happen; that recipe never changes.