A short history of one round KOs

IBHOF inductee Graham Houston looks back at notable one-round knockouts including upsets, surprise capitulations and memorable performances that finished in quick time.

Felix Verdejo looked good blasting out Will Madera last week. It was just the sort of win he needed after his career seemed to be running out of steam. 

While Verdejo is never likely to reach the heights of a Miguel Cotto or a Felix Trinidad, his quick finish of Madera will surely have encouraged optimism among Puerto Rican boxing fans that the island’s 2012 Olympic representative might yet fulfil expectations. And Verdejo has certainly made himself a player in the lightweight division.

Madera had looked like a tough fighter and he had never lost, but the harsh critics will say that he never figured to be in Verdejo’s league. There is something else to consider. One-round finishes such as this can be misleading. 

A fighter can get caught cold. It’s possible that a boxer who gets caught and stopped in the first round might have been better able to absorb the same blows later in a bout, when in full flow. Put another way, a boxer can get hit before he is ready to get hit.

Sometimes the better fighter can get nailed in the first round, before the fight has really got started. Take the case of heavyweight Eddie Machen, a superb craftsman, who got blown out in the first round by Ingemar Johansson in Sweden in 1958. Johansson had the big right hand, but Machen, undefeated going into the bout, surely possessed the superior all-around boxing ability.

The grainy black-and-white video shows Machen initially moving in behind the jab, looking poised and confident. Then Johansson suddenly landed a fast right hand that almost seemed to have a mind of it own. Almost unbelievably, Machen hit the canvas, flat on his back. A great roar erupted from the huge crowd in Gothenburg

Machen scrambled to his feet and moved forward again after taking the eight count, only to get caught and dropped for the second knockdown of the round. No escape this time. Johansson jumped right on him, and Machen was allowed to take a series of bludgeoning blows before he crumpled to the canvas for a third time, his body ending up on the ring apron, under the bottom rope. The referee went through the formality of counting Machen out even as the unconscious boxer was being attended to by his handlers.

That one right hand, from out of the blue, took Machen out of the fight even though two further knockdowns followed. Machen had never shown any sign of a chin problem. Indeed, Machen subsequently went the full 12 rounds with Sonny Liston — and this was when Liston was at his fearsome peak. And it was to be another eight years after the shocker in Sweden before Machen again lost inside the distance. That was when Joe Frazier, then a rising star in the heavyweight division, knocked out a fading Machen in the 10th and final round.

All credit to Johansson. He landed the right hand, and after dropping Machen he didn’t allow him to recover. But Johansson, although obviously a very good puncher, had actually only scored one first-round KO in a 20-0 (12 KOs) career. So it seemed little short of astonishing that he was able to demolish Machen in the opening round.

Johansson stuns the usually sturdy Machen in Sweden in 1958.

Another heavyweight fight where arguably the better fighter lost came when Wales’ Dick Richardson knocked out Karl Mildenberger in the first round in a European title bout in Dortmund in February 1962. The southpaw Mildenberger was on a 19-bout winning run. A contemporary account noted that the that 18,000 crowd was stunned into silence as Mildenberger went down, the back of his head hitting the ring floor, after Richardson landed a right hand that the German boxer never saw coming.

After the Richardson KO defeat, Mildenberger went on a 22-bout undefeated run before his courageous showing against Muhammad Ali, when the fight was stopped in the 12th round.

Some one-round finishes seem almost flukes. Take Michael Nunn’s first round knockout win over Sumbu Kalambay in a middleweight title fight in Las Vegas in March 1989. Nunn was 32-0 going into the bout and the clear favourite. However, Kalambay, born in Zaire but an Italian resident, had lost only one fight in the last four years before meeting Nunn, and that was a split decision loss to the former 154lbs champion Ayub Kalule. Kalambay had defeated Herol Graham — the so-slick southpaw who was 38-0 at the time —  in London. He had won 15-round decisions over the outstanding technician Mike McCallum and the always tough Iran Barkley.

Despite Nunn’s glittering record, some in the American fight fraternity had reservations about him. Angelo Dundee was among them. The great trainer doubted Nunn’s mental toughness and his ability to come back from adversity. “If he licks Kalambay, I’ll be convinced,” Dundee told the Los Angeles Times. “One thing I know that’s going to happen, Saturday night is that Nunn is going to get hit.” Actually, no. Kalambay didn’t land a punch of any consequence in the 88 seconds the bout lasted.

This one-round finish was truly shocking.

Nunn blasts out the usually resilient Kalambay in 1989.

Kalambay had never been stopped and although Nunn had stopped 22 opponents he was known more for overwhelming opponents with hand speed than for one-punch stopping power. Yet Nunn almost nonchalantly fired in a left hand from his southpaw stance and Kalambay went down, the back of his head hitting the canvas. Referee Richard Steele completed the 10 count as Kalambay struggled to his feet. Kalambay’s legs gave way and referee Steele had to catch him in his arms to prevent the stricken fighter from toppling back to the floor.

“By anyone’s account — even Nunn’s — this was a stunning result,” Earl Gustkey reported in the Los Angeles Times. The impact of Nunn’s punch could be heard in the ringside rows, Gustkey added. He wasn’t exaggerating. “It sounded like someone had slammed a bat against a side of beef,” Pat Putnam reported in Sports Illustrated.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of punch. Nunn had scored one-round wins before and he would do so again before his career was over, but never anything like this, against this calibre of opponent.

Obviously, many one-round fights are out-and-out mismatches: Mike Tyson against Peter McNeeley, say, or George Foreman against Joe ‘King’ Roman or Joe Frazier against Dave Zyglewicz. A one-round finish was predictable in these and many such quick finishes. 

In many others, though, one feels that it might have been a different fight if the recipient of the KO blow had managed to avoid an opening-round disaster.

Think of four flyweight title fights between Thailand’s Pongsaklek and Daisuke Naito, of Japan.

In the first meeting, in April 2002, Pongsaklek knocked out Naito in 34 seconds. It was the fastest one-round finish in flyweight title history. In a rematch three years later, Pongsaklek won by technical decision in seven rounds, with Naito cut from a clash of heads. “Naito fought well by showing his heart, and it lasted longer than 34 seconds,” Joe Koizumi reported for the Fightnews website.

Pongsaklek’s surprise blowout of Naito. Two tougher fights were to follow.

In two subsequent fights, Pongsaklek had all he could handle with the gutsy, free-swinging Naito, winning a unanimous 12-round decision in 2007 and then barely keeping his flyweight title with a 12-round draw in the fourth bout between the two.

But perhaps the two flyweight title fights between Thailand’s Pone Kingpetch and Japan’s Hiroyuki Ebihara give the best illustration of how a one-round finish can be misleading. The big-punching southpaw Ebihara knocked out Kingpetch in the first round to win the title in Tokyo in September 1963, but the following year the Thai regained the title with a split decision win in Bangkok.

For the winner in a one-round fight, the feeling is one of elation. The loser, meanwhile, could be forgiven for thinking that it just isn’t fair — to be out of the fight before he’s even got into it.

Main image: Verdejo blows out Madera. Mikey Williams/Top Rank.