When The Good Little Man Beat a Good Big Man

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As Mikey Garcia prepares to face IBF World Welterweight Champion Errol Spence Jr. this Saturday on FOX PPV, we examine four notable examples of boxers moving up and defeating world champions.

Mikey Garcia’s mission might seem impossible.

Good small men aren’t supposed to beat good big men in boxing, which is what Garcia (39-0, 30 KO) will be up against when he challenges IBF welterweight titleholder Errol Spence Jr. (24-0, 21 KOs) Saturday, March 16. The historic event headlines the first PBC on FOX PPV (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT), live from AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.  

Garcia has bowled over opponent after opponent from 126 to 140 pounds with a lethal combination of skill, power and resilience. The problem for him? Spence is also building a strong resume, has a similar skill set and is bigger than Garcia, who currently holds a 135-pound title and has never fought at 147.

That’s why many believe the brave challenger is doomed.

But is he? If nothing else, history says that his mission might better be described as “improbable” because other high-profile fighters in his position have stunned the boxing world by beating the odds and bigger opponents.

Here are four notable examples of good small men who have moved up at least one division and, without a single warmup fight at the higher weight, did the improbable:

September 21, 1985, Riviera Hotel, Las Vegas

Records: Spinks (27-0, 19 KOs), Holmes (48-0, 34 KOs)

Result: Spinks UD 15

The Lead-up: Holmes, the 35-year-old IBF heavyweight champ, would tie Rocky Marciano’s 49-0 record with a win over Spinks. He had already begun to decline, as a harder-than-expected 15-round decision over Carl “The Truth” Williams in his previous fight demonstrated. But he was still regarded as the best in boxing’s glamour division.

Meanwhile, Spinks, the 29-year-old 1976 Olympic gold medalist, had established himself as one of the best light heavyweights of his generation. With this fight, he hoped to become the first 175-pound titleholder to win the heavyweight championship. He hired now-famous nutritionist Mackie Shilstone, whose diet and training regimen allowed Spinks to add almost 25 pounds to lean frame. Still, a 175-pounder moving up to face the great Holmes? Seemed like a bad idea.

The Fight: Spinks simply outworked Holmes, never hurting the bigger man (by at least 21 pounds) but landing punches consistently enough to win a close, unanimous decision and do what 175-pound greats Billy Conn, Archie Moore and Bob Foster couldn’t do: Win the heavyweight championship.

“I saw no signs that he was in trouble,” Spinks was quoted as saying by The New York Times. “But I was getting to him, frustrating him. I think I did more than Larry did. I was hitting him more than he hit me.”

Holmes was so angry afterward that he lashed out at the late Marciano, a regrettable ending to a regrettable night.

The Aftermath: Remarkably, the younger Spinks fought only four more times. He duplicated his victory over Holmes in a rematch, stopped Steffen Tangstad and Gerry Cooney, and then met the hot young titleholder Mike Tyson in June 1988. Spinks lasted only 91 seconds against Tyson and retired for good. Holmes fought 26 more times, including two failed world title shots, and never completely lost his craftiness. He was 52 when he fought for the last time.

April 6, 1987, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas

Records: Leonard (33-1, 24 KOs), Hagler 62-2-2 (52 KOs)

Result: Leonard SD 12

The Lead-up: Leonard’s decision to challenge the indestructible middleweight champion was greeted in many circles by a single word: lunacy.

“Sugar” Ray had retired in 1982 because of a detached retina, returned to beat Kevin Howard in May 1984 but looked horrible in the process and retired again. He appeared finished. Meanwhile, Hagler was building his reputation as one of the best 160-pounders of all time. He had destroyed Thomas Hearns in three historic rounds in April 1985 and then stopped John “The Beast” Mugabi the following March, extending his unbeaten streak to 37 fights over a decade. How could a washed-up welterweight, even one as great as Leonard, possibly think he could move up in weight and beat a monster like the Marvelous one after a three-year layoff?

The Fight: Leonard, still quick and athletic, outboxed and outworked Hagler in the first third of the fight to build a lead, survived a rally and punishing body shots in the middle rounds and then stuck and moved his way to the final bell of a surprisingly competitive fight that could’ve gone either way. That was reflected in two of the three scorecards, which read 115-113 for Hagler and 115-113 and 118-110 for Leonard, giving the challenger the historic upset.

A crushed Hagler suggested politics might’ve played a role. “I beat him and he knows it, everybody knows. I knew if it was too close … I told you about Las Vegas. ... Aw, geez.”

Leonard rejoiced. “I’m a nonconformist,” he said. “I made a comeback. They said I couldn’t do it, they didn’t want me to. This is the greatest accomplishment of my life.”

The Aftermath: Hagler lobbied for a rematch that never came, which prompted him to hang up his gloves without fighting again. He is remembered as an all-time great but the bitter setback in his final fight is still what he’s asked about most. Leonard fought on and off for another decade but never had another important victory. In effect, he punctuated his great career with arguably his greatest performance.

June 10, 2006, Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, New Jersey

Records: Hopkins 46-4-1 (32 KOs), Tarver 24-3 (18 KOs)

Result: Hopkins UD 12

The Lead-up: Hopkins’ record run of middleweight title defenses ended at 20 when Jermain Taylor defeated him by a split – and controversial – decision in July 2005. The rematch that December provided no satisfaction. Taylor won by close unanimous decision, which prompted the 40-year-old Hopkins to consider retirement.

Meanwhile, Tarver was on a roll. He became the first to stop the great Roy Jones Jr. in 2004, lost a split decision to the tough and crafty Glen Johnson but avenged the setback in his next fight and then beat Jones again, this time by a wide decision. Thus, Hopkins’ decision to skip over the super middleweight division at 41 and take on Tarver seemed foolhardy.

The Fight: Hopkins served up a masterpiece, using his sublime boxing skills to become an elusive target, land the cleaner punches – one of which put Tarver down in the fifth round – and win a lopsided decision.

Tarver barely touched Hopkins. And when he did, it had no effect. He reportedly had to lose 43 pounds after gaining weight for his role in the film “Rocky Balboa,” which might’ve left him lethargic. But he offered no excuses afterward. He knew that this was Hopkins’ night.

The Aftermath: Little did anyone know that, with the victory, Hopkins was embarking on one of the greatest post-40 careers in boxing history. He became a three-time 175-pound champion, unifying two of those titles when he was 49, and fought until he was 51. Tarver bounced back to regain a light heavyweight title at 39 but back-to-back losses to Chad Dawson and other setbacks led to the end of his career.

December 6, 2008, MGM Grand, Las Vegas

Records: Pacquiao 47-3-2 (35 KOs), De La Hoya (39-5, 30 KOs)

Result: Pacquiao TKO 8

The Lead-up: The 35-year-old De La Hoya was past his peak, as a so-so performance against Steve Forbes that May underscored. But he was naturally much bigger than Pacquiao, who had fought at 130-pounds only nine months earlier.

No wonder De La Hoya was a significant favorite even though the younger Pacquiao was an emerging star then. However, Oscar hadn’t fought at 147 pounds since 2001. And going down in weight, especially in one’s mid-30s or older, usually doesn’t work out well.

The Fight: Freddie Roach, Pacquiao’s trainer, predicted his fighter would win in part because De La Hoya “couldn’t pull the trigger on his punches” any longer. Well, Pacquiao really didn’t give him a chance to do so. The cat-quick Filipino was in and out before De La Hoya could react—in to inflict damage with shots from all angles and out to avoid anything the bigger man might throw in return. The shell-shocked and battered De La Hoya wisely decided it would be suicidal to come out for the ninth. 

The Aftermath: Pacquiao would go on to knock out Ricky Hatton and Miguel Cotto in his next two fights to complete his rise to superstardom and draw comparisons to the greatest fighters of all time. De La Hoya never fought again.

For a closer look at Spence vs Garcia, check out our fight night page. 

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