Beware of The Underdog Champion

Facebook Twitter Pinterest LinkedIn Email

As the PBC summer slate heats up with three blockbuster events, we look back at a similar period in boxing history--and how the outcomes shook up the fight world.

Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder face off at the kick-off press conference for Fury vs Wilder 3

Had you bet on Mario “El Azteca” Barrios against Gervonta “Tank” Davis before they fought last Saturday, you would have had reason for optimism entering the latter stages of their fight. Then, of course, Davis found another gear of greatness, stopping Barrios after cinematic prodding from his mentor, Floyd Mayweather. 

That the underdog Barrios performed admirably is not shocking in light of the two hallmarks that Davis-Barrios shares with classic bouts from a stirring moment in boxing history: world champion versus world champion (or, in one instance, ex-champion); and the oddsmakers installing one champ as a significant favorite (around 3-to-1) over the other. 

Those two traits are also shared by the three most tantalizing fights on boxing’s summer schedule: Jermell Charlo-Brian Castano on July 17, Tyson Fury-Deontay Wilder 3 on July 24, and Manny Pacquiao-Errol Spence Jr. on August 21

As we look forward to these high-wattage fights, fans would be wise to consider what happened over the course of several months in 2001 and January 2002: Four major bouts featuring champion vs. champion clashes where the three(ish)-to-one underdog champion won. Every time. Here's a look at those four, in chronological order. 


Date: April 7, 2001

Location: Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, Las Vegas

At stake: Hamed’s Lineal Featherweight Championship

Records: Hamed 35-0 (31 KOs), Barrera 52-3 (38 KOs) 

Result: Barrera W 12

Summary: Described by Sports Illustrated as boxing’s “King of Pop and Drop,” Hamed was known for theatrical ring walks, a daredevil fighting style and destructive power. He was also the second-highest paid boxing star of his era, behind only Oscar De La Hoya and substantially ahead of a talented, young champion campaigning one division north: Floyd Mayweather. 

Barrera was an accomplished champion in his own right. But with his aggressive style – coupled with a move up in weight – most figured he’d eventually walk into one of Hamed’s bombs. 

Instead, 3-1 underdog Barrera unveiled a new dimension against Hamed, fighting from the outside behind a stiff jab and countering him with punishing shots up and downstairs. Hamed and legendary trainer Emanuel Steward had no answers. Barrera cruised to an upset decision win. 


Date: September 29, 2001

Location: Madison Square Garden, New York

At stake: Undisputed Middleweight Championship

Records: Trinidad 40-0 (33 KOs), Hopkins 39-2-1 (28 KOs) 

Result: Hopkins TKO 12

Summary: WBA middleweight champ Trinidad was in the midst of a rare run heading into this bout. After unifying welterweight titles and compiling 15 defenses, Tito moved up to 154 in 2000 and earned Fight of the Year honors by dispatching titlists David Reid and Fernando Vargas. Then in 2001, he launched his assault on the middleweight division by entering HBO’s four-man tournament to determine the  undisputed middleweight champion. 

First, Trinidad blasted titlist William Joppy out in five rounds that May, sending the Madison Square Garden crowd into a frenzy and setting up a tournament finale against Hopkins. Tito was so sizzling hot that the conversation often included the former 147-pound champ ultimately challenging light heavyweight king Roy Jones Jr. 

Hopkins, the WBC and IBF champ—and one of the most overlooked fighters in the sport—had other plans. 

Like a bomb disposal technician, he executed a daring strategy to defuse Trinidad’s potent artillery, using his superlative size, discipline, and intellect to outmaneuver, out-physical and outfight Tito. He punched in the interstices of Trinidad’s patented three-punch combinations before Tito could unload the feared left hook. He also forced him to consistently shuffle his feet and re-set. All the while, Hopkins strafed Tito with a barrage of debilitating punches. 

Hopkins boxed crisply and viciously, raking Trinidad with lead rights, counters and wicked left hooks to the body. Tito made a gallant stand in round 10, but Hopkins wouldn’t be denied, punctuating his pristine performance with a jackhammer right in the 12th that floored the betting favorite. As Tito struggled to make it to his feet, Papa Trinidad entered the ring from the corner, waving the towel. 

If the world was shocked by Hopkins’ dominance, Hopkins wasn’t. He had been paid $100,000 to wear a back tattoo with the name of an online casino during the bout. Hopkins bet that amount on himself—the 3½-to-1 underdog—to win.


Date: November 3, 2001

Location: MGM Grand, Las Vegas

At stake: Undisputed Super Lightweight Championship

Records: Judah 27-0 (21 KOs), Tszyu 27-1-1 (22 KOs) 

Result: Tszyu TKO 2

Summary: Heading into the match for the undisputed 140-pound crown, the question for many was whether Judah’s fluidity and explosiveness would be too difficult a puzzle for the classic boxer-puncher Tszyu to solve. In the first round, the answer was a resounding "yes." IBF champion Judah rocked Tszyu with an uppercut from the southpaw stance then pounced, landing another left that snapped Tszyu’s head back.  

In the second round, WBA and WBC champ Tszyu, a 3-1 underdog, adjusted to Judah's speed. He controlled the ring geography and the action with a stiff jab, and then…BOOM! With less than ten seconds left in the round, the Aussie transplant detonated his “Thunder from Down Under” right hand off Judah's chin. Judah crashed to the canvas. He rose immediately—perhaps too soon. As Judah seemed to try to lecture referee Jay Nady, his legs betrayed him again and he began to fall—no walk…no wobble…yes fall, again; all aftershocks from Tszyu's thunderstrike. 

Upon the second crash to the canvas, Nady immediately—perhaps prematurely—waived off the fight. Tszyu would go on to reign for another four years.


Date: January 26, 2002

Location: Madison Square Garden Theater, New York 

At stake: Mosley’s WBC World Welterweight Title

Records: Mosley 38-0 (35 KOs), Forrest 33-0 (26 KOs) 

Result: Forrest W 12

Summary: Mosley had garnered near-universal acclaim as the sport’s best fighter, pound-for-pound. The undefeated Forrest was no slouch, having captured the IBF welterweight belt, a title he gave up for the opportunity to fight Mosley. Their combined records was an absurd 71-0 with 61 knockouts. 

Nevertheless, oddsmakers installed Mosley as a 5½-to-1 favorite—the kind of odds, the LA Times noted, “usually reserved for mismatches.” The idea that Mosley wouldn’t prevail in typical dazzling fashion was unfathomable to everyone—except Forrest and his team. 

From the opening bell, the action confirmed the wisdom of one of boxing’s best-known adages: styles make fights. Although 5-foot-9 Mosley held a reach advantage, Forrest’s lanky 6-foot frame allowed him to sharpshoot from the outside, landing long-range missiles. He was equally proficient in close quarters. 

In the second round, after a vicious clash of heads, Forrest connected with a textbook overhand right that wobbled Mosley. As Mosley sought refuge along the ropes, Forrest uncorked a picture-perfect uppercut that popped up Shane’s head long enough for a pile-driver right to chop him to the canvas. Later in that round, another right dropped Mosley again. 

Mosley demonstrated admirable fortitude and eventually made his way back into the fight. But Forrest was taller, stronger and, on this night at least, the more complete fighter. In the 10th, Forrest landed a vicious left hook to the body that, shockingly, elicited a loud yell from Mosley. “Sugar” Shane made it to the final bell, losing by unanimous decision in a bout that shook up the boxing world. They would meet again six months later with Forrest winning comfortably again.


As we contemplate this summer’s upcoming fights, we know it’s possible that on Saturday, July 17, the volume-punching style of Brian Castano might be the antidote for Jermell Charlo’s calculated, power-punching approach to each round. And if anyone has at least the proverbial “puncher’s chance,” it’s the former heavyweight champ Deontay Wilder, who has dropped every man who dared enter the ring with him and seeks revenge against Tyson Fury when the two throw down a third time on Saturday, July 24. 

We also know that that Senator Manny Pacquiao of the Philippines will give his all against Errol Spence Jr. on Saturday, August 21, fighting for the country he may lead one day—and for one of the most audacious legacies in the sport’s history.

In looking forward to the rest of this summer’s action and recalling a string of fights where a world champion faced similar odds against their counterpart, the famous admonition offered by Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich comes to mind. In defending their title from the prior year, the Rockets improbably battled back from a 3-1 deficit in a playoff series to go on to reach the pinnacle once more, leading Tomjanovich to remind all afterward: “Don’t EVER underestimate the heart of a champion!”

  • Topics
Subscribe to RSS