By Neil Coote
James ‘Buster’ Douglas, Andy Ruiz Jnr, James Braddock, there are certain names that permeate pathways and scupper the reigns of Champions who could comfortably fit the title of ‘underdog’. However, there are many angles to the term ‘underdog’ that take some unpacking to provide context.
‘I was an underdog my whole career, but i knew I had the ability to compete with those guys’
(James ‘Buster Douglas)
In an era where pathways are carefully led and egos are gently patted, the underdog still manages to have its day. In recent times, lockdown has provided a stage for upsets through a proliferation of contenders prepared to take on crowdless venues and risk it all. Take the example of the Mexican ‘Mauricio Lara’ and his subsequent scalping of Josh Warrington. Was he truly an underdog, or did the media do a great job of disguising his pedigree? After all he was unbeaten in eleven contests and is of Mexican descent.
Do the unexpected become underdogs when they disrupt the run of a champion?
Perhaps a more fitting example may have been the case of one Oliver McCall, the contender who dethroned Lennox Lewis in September of 1994. The unexpected second round win caused McCall to perform a jumping splits manoeuvre whilst Lennox’s legs were separated from his torso.
Was it the fact that Lennox was unbeatable or was it the nature of the win that was unexpected? McCall was dubbed the underdog at the time and some bookmakers had him as 30/1 outsider! However, ‘The Atomic Bull’ was rated number one challenger by the WBC, WBA and IBF and had a tough reputation through sparring world champions.
So perhaps the term underdog should be replaced with the more apt term of ‘unexpected’. Like it or not, since the days of managers and sanctioning bodies boxing has become a business. The business of carefully managing a path to the big money fights whilst minimising losses along the way. The problem here though is that fighters of any pedigree are rarely losers. They all strive to beat the best and to prove their worth; this provides those unexpected moments that are often afforded ‘underdog’ status.
When John Ruiz Jnr knocked out Anthony Joshua the world was shocked. I am pretty sure that most of the boxing fraternity knew of Joshua’s frailties going into the fight. Joshua is a beautifully marketed, media trained commodity whose track was disrupted by a live opponent.
However, it was no secret that he has limited amateur experience and was learning on the job under the tutelage of Rob McCracken. Again, Ruiz Jnr was no mug, he had been in with Dimitrenko, Leakhovic and Kevin Johnson, losing only once to Joseph Parker. The personality of Ruiz Jnr lapsed wonderfully into the underdog status and he relished in the media deals and status of world champion for a short time.
Is the underdog a media creation or an overlooked contender?
Every boxer is ‘live’ going into a contest, regardless of bookies retirement funds and the back pockets of the respective sanctioning bodies (and even some officials). Just making it into a position of contender is defeating the odds for many fighters, the sport is littered with tales of ‘making it.’ These are the true underdogs of the game and can be seen as such due to their not so elevated beginnings.
Take the rise of the great Jack Johnson, a real underdog of societal persecution who was never meant to attain the position of heavyweight champion of the world. It surely is one of the finest ‘against all odds’ stories of an era, defeating James Jeffries in the ‘Fight of the Century.’ A true underdog of his generation who played on his position, detracting credence to the era of ‘great white hopes’ who were lined up to try to retain the mantle.
The role of the underdog in boxing is one of the unexpected contenders. It is also encapsulated by any overlooked fighter who has ever upset the bookmaker’s prices. A snapshot of any single moment which has caught the media framed modernists red handed, or an historic moment of achievements ‘against all odds.’
One thing is for sure though: Without the underdog this great sport would be bereft of the drama and the stories that uphold it as the theatre that it has become. The great moments that belong to the unexpected and allow characters to become immortalised are essential for the persistence of the noble art.
‘Boxing is made for film – there is corruption,violence, tragedy and the chance that the underdog can catch the champion with one lucky punch’