The date with destiny is rapidly approaching for Kell Brook, and if he’s to have any hope of toppling fearsome middleweight ruler Gennady Golovkin, he must live up to his moniker and pull something extra “Special” out of the bag.
The momentousness of the task facing Brook got me thinking of the biggest upsets in my lifetime involving a British boxer. I was born in 1988, so there’s a good 28 years worth of action to consider. Even so, if Brook were to do the unthinkable and punch a ‘1’ in Triple G’s loss column, he’d emulate every single Brit on this list. The only pugilist who could conceivably touch him in history would be Randy Turpin, who inflicted a second defeat on the great Sugar Ray Robinson in 1951.
Though come to think of it, there are a number of British giant killers in the annals of boxing history. For example, who would have given Kirkland Laing a shot at lasting the distance, let alone besting, Hands of Stone himself, Roberto Duran? Just two years before, the Panamanian had inflicted a maiden defeat on Sugar Ray Leonard. And less than a year later, he would bash up both Pipino Cuevas and Davey Moore. But the dogged Laing, who was born in Jamaica but grew up in Britain, didn’t care a lick for Duran’s reputation, out-hustling him at Detroit’s famous Cobo Hall.
Just four years later, another starry-eyed Brit, Lloyd Honeyghan, stunned the oddsmakers by dethroning undisputed welterweight champion Donald Curry. And, of course, there was the night in 1975 when John H. Stracey gloved up down Mexico City way and sent the legendary Jose Napoles spinning into retirement.
Those fights happened before I was born, but they’re part of boxing lore and I appreciate their significance. Still, there’s nothing quite like the shock of seeing an upset unfold live; it’s like watching a meticulously constructed tower unexpectedly collapse into its own footprint.
Here it is then, a rundown of some of British boxing’s biggest nights, 1995-2016, those battles in which my stout-hearted countryman ignored the naysayers to stun the world. Brook’s compatriots defied long odds to etch their names in the history books; can he do the same next month?
Nigel Benn KO10 McClellan Feb. 25, 1995: Few believed Benn could withstand the atomic assault of the G-Man. McClellan, a concussive hitter who called to mind a prime-years Tommy Hearns, was thought to be on a collision course with Roy Jones Jr, whom he’d already beaten as an amateur. Instead, the Dark Destroyer climbed out of the shallow grave McClellan dug for him in the opening round and doggedly clawed his way back into the contest. Tragically, McClellan sustained a bleed on the brain and never fully recovered. If you want to read more about this devastating clash and its aftermath, Kevin Mitchell’s War, Baby is excellent.
Danny Williams KO4 Mike Tyson July 30, 2004: Make no bones about it, Mike Tyson was a seriously faded force in 2004. But that didn’t preclude him from being a 9-to-1 favourite against jobbing Brixton heavyweight Danny Williams. Williams had lost a decision to previous Tyson victim Julius Francis a few years before, and though triangle theories are famously unreliable in boxing, many suspected the Londoner would go the way of his countryman and capitulate at the hands of Iron Mike. Instead, Williams absorbed the anticipated early firestorm before halting Tyson with an unforgiving 26-punch fusillade, a barrage that left the ex-champ sagging against the bottom rope like a drunkard. “I’m pretty embarrassed that I beat such a great fighter,” Williams said last year. “If he’d have been the best Tyson, I wouldn’t have lasted a round.”
Ricky Hatton TKO11 Kostya Tszyu June 4, 2005: Manchester’s own Hitman had amassed an army of fans with his swashbuckling style, but his bid to wrest the lineal light-welterweight title from Kostya Tszyu seemed like an absurdly ambitious leap of faith. Actually, it proved to be a masterstroke: the 35-year-old Tszyu had fought just twice in the previous three years, and Hatton – with his hyperactively mauling, brawling line of attack – showed the Russian-born Aussie where the hands had come to on the clock. It was a towering victory in front of one of the most raucous crowds to ever pack out a British arena, and with it, Hatton became a superstar.
Ricky Burns vs Roman Martinez Sept. 4, 2010: Every so often in boxing, a good fighter is thrown into the lion’s den. Because they are good fighters, they are expected to give brave accounts of themselves; but they are expected, ultimately, to provide sustenance for the lion. In September 2010, Ricky Burns was that good fighter – a capable lightweight with plenty of physical gifts, not a lot of power and a so-so resume. After wins against Michael Gomez, Kevin O’Hara and Youssef Al Hamidi, he was given an unexpected world title shot at forbidding Puerto Rican Roman ‘Rocky’ Martinez. The champ, unbeaten in 25 with 15 KOs, had the good grace to come to Scotland for the defence, but soon regretted the decision as Burns, summoning unexpected reserves of courage and determination, overcame a first round knockdown to pound out a memorable unanimous decision.
Carl Froch vs Lucian Bute May 26, 2012: It would be gilding the lily to say no-one expected Carl Froch to beat Lucian Bute; but after a grinding Super Six campaign culminating in a clear loss to Andre Ward, the Nottingham man was an obvious underdog against the unbeaten IBF champ. Aware that his back was against the wall, Froch entered the ring to the strains of ‘No Easy Way Out’ and produced a career-best performance, attacking the slick Bute from round one and never giving him a moment’s peace. The end came in the fifth, with Bute powerless to suppress a stirring Froch onslaught. In claiming the IBF title, “The Cobra” became a three-time world champion and entered the pantheon of British boxing greats.
Tyson Fury vs Wladimir Klitschko Nov. 28, 2015: A decade had passed since a British boxer had beaten a lineal champion, but Tyson Fury wasn’t fazed by the challenge. Entering the fight as a 4-to-1 outsider, he proved every bit as awkward as he vowed he would be, busting up and baffling the long-reigning title-holder to claim a convincing points win in Dusseldorf. Klitschko may have been 39, but he had not tasted defeat in 11 years, and Fury’s thunderbolt win sent shockwaves round the sporting world. A rematch is set for October 29.
Carl Frampton vs Leo Santa Cruz July 30, 2016: ‘The Jackal’ was very much a live dog in this recent battle of undefeated world champions, but most experts had written him off after lacklustre showings against Scott Quigg and Alejandro Gonzalez. To be fair, the fight writers had massively exaggerated just how lacklustre those performances were, and Frampton rubbed their noses in the dirt with a commanding display of artistic boxing to eke out a split decision. With the win, Frampton claimed his third world title on the bounce, his first as a featherweight.
There are many epic nights Brook can take inspiration from. Hell, he need only remember how the odds were stacked against him two years ago, when he ventured to Carson to unseat IBF welterweight boss Shawn Porter. Joe Calzaghe’s commanding win over Jeff Lacy was another high point for British boxing, as was David Haye’s defeat of Jean Marc Mormeck. Upsets happen and a fighter’s will should never be underestimated. That said, Gennady Golovkin appears a more formidable challenge than Lacy, Mormeck, or even Klitschko and Kostya Tszyu.
September 10 and all of the lights will be trained on the ring at London’s o2 Arena. Golovkin vs Brook. Will it be just another stepping stone for the Kazakh on his march to greatness? Or will the Britisher score a truly historic win? Upset or not, let’s hope we’re in for something special. — Ronnie McCluskey