IBHOF inductee Graham Houston reflects on some rousing fightbacks in 2020, where boxers in trouble or on the verge of defeat turned the tables to seize victory.

Every so often you’re likely to hear that boxing could be seen as a metaphor for life. There is actually some truth in that. Boxing teaches us that if you hang in there and, figuratively speaking, keep punching, you can prevail even if all looks lost.

Several fights this year had the “metaphor for life” feel about them. These were fights when things looked not just bleak but where a successful outcome appeared to be almost impossible for the ultimate winner.

First up, the fight between unbeaten featherweights Aram Avagyan of Armenia and Dagoberto Aguero of the Dominican Republic, which took place in Minnesota on March 13.

It was an eight-rounder, and Avagyan had just about the worst start imaginable, knocked down in the first round, dropped again in the second round. So, coming out for the third round, Avagyan was down by four points. He needed to win the next six rounds to win the fight. And Avagyan did just that. He took the fight to the hard-hitting Aguero, crowded him to the ropes and kept the punches flowing.

I don’t think Aguero believed Avagyan had it in him to fight so fiercely after getting dropped twice. The Dominican boxer seemed to give way a bit mentally, and Avagyan kept winning the rounds to pull out a majority decision.

Japanese lightweight Masayoshi Nakatani was another who survived two knockdowns and came from behind to win. Nakatani was down in the first round against Puerto Rico’s Felix Verdejo, down again in the fourth of the December 12 bout at the MGM Grand “bubble” in Las Vegas. After five rounds, Verdejo was up 50-44 on all three judges’ cards in a scheduled 10-rounder. Verdejo was boxing and moving as well as he has ever done, and he seemed able to land his right hand without difficulty. The chances of Nakatani turning things around looked remote. 

This image seemed unlikely after five rounds, but Nakatani pulled out the victory.
Photo: Mikey Williams/Top Rank.

Yet Nakatani stayed with it and kept taking the fight to Verdejo, and in the seventh round the Puerto Rican boxer just seemed to run out of gas, eerily similar to when he lost on a 10th-round TKO against Antonio Lozada two years earlier. 

By the eighth, Verdejo was running on fumes and Nakatani knocked him down twice in the ninth round to pull out one of the year’s most dramatic upsets.

Then we had unbeaten Queensland lightweight Jacob Ng (pronounced En-Gee) surviving a “fight over” type of knockdown to overwhelm Aussie rival Hunter Ioane in the fifth of a scheduled 10-rounder in Canberra on December 11.

Ng is tall and rangy. He calls himself “Flamingo” and he dances into the ring wearing a pink, feathered cape (you can find video of his ring entrance on YouTube). He is what you could call a “fun” fighter. Ng is confident to the point of arrogance and he has a relaxed, almost loose, style of fighting: He takes risks.

This risk-taking almost cost him the fight when the shorter, less skilled but heavy-handed Ioane caught him with a big right hand in the first round. Ng went down hard. In its way it was reminiscent of Tyson Fury getting dropped in the last round against Deontay Wilder.  It was one of those “He’ll never get up from that!” knockdowns.

But, just like Tyson Fury, Ng got up, and he somehow got through the first round, albeit on unsteady legs, as Ioane swung wildly. By the second round, Ng had gathered himself and he dropped Ioane twice in this round. After this it was all Ng, with the referee rescuing a worn-down Ioane in the fifth round.

Juan Francisco Estrada was another who had to dig himself out of a hole. Things started badly for Estrada in his WBC 115-pound title defence against fellow-Mexican Carlos Cuadras in Mexico City on October 23. Estrada suffered a knockdown in the third round and just couldn’t seem to get into his stride. Cuadras won the first three rounds on all three judges’ cards and was in front 30-26 across the board coming out for the fourth round. 

Estrada, however, showed the grit and resolve of a true champion as he gradually took command with pressure and body punching. He wore Cuadras down before stopping him with two knockdowns in the 11th round.

Estrada (left) digs deep to down Cuadras.
Photo: Ed Mulholland/Matchroom Boxing USA.

Xavier Martinez, the undefeated Sacramento 130-pounder, had to survive an eighth round from hell against the Dominican Republic’s dangerous southpaw Claudio Marrero in their WBA title eliminator at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut on October 24. Martinez was down twice in the eighth and the fight seemed to have swung completely in favour of the more seasoned Marrero. But Martinez stayed calm in the eye of the storm. He came back with sound, steady boxing in the last four rounds to take a unanimous 12-round decision.

Carlos Gongora, the Ecuador Olympic representative, rallied when all looked lost to stop Kazakhstan’s Ali Akhmedov in the 12th and final round in a clash of unbeaten boxers for the vacant IBO 168-pound title at Hollywood, Florida on December 18.

Akhmedov looked too strong, too insistent, in the early rounds. He had Gongora looking almost out on his feet in the second round. One judge had this a 10-8 round in Akhmedov’s favour even though Gongora didn’t go down. Akhmedov swept the first six rounds on the judges’ cards.

However, Gongora gradually fought his way back into the bout as he inflicted damage with left hands, left uppercuts and right hooks from out of his southpaw stance. By the 12th, Akhmedov was cut under the right eye and looking the worse for wear. But Akhmedov was in front on all three judges’ cards. If Akhmedov could have stayed on his feet in the last round he would have won the fight. But Gongora timed his left uppercut to perfection, knocking down Akhmedov twice to score a spectacular last-round KO (fight waved off at the count of “seven” with Akhmedov clearly not going to get up inside 10 seconds).

But of all the victories achieved in a seemingly hopeless situation, nothing could top Alexander Povetkin’s fifth-round knockout over Dillian Whyte for the WBC’s interim heavyweight title at Matchroom Fight Camp in Essex on August 22.

The fight really did look as good as won for Whyte when he knocked down his Russian opponent twice in the fourth round. “He’s doing a job here on Alexander Povetkin,” Adam Smith informed Sky Box Office viewers. 

But, with the fifth round barely underway, Povetkin slid into firing range and absolutely flattened Whyte with a left uppercut. It was a KO blow that seemed to come out of nowhere. 

Povetkin’s left uppercut flipped the script in August.
Photo: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing.

“That is extraordinary! Un-believable!” an astonished Adam Smith exclaimed. “That was one of the biggest shocks — the way the fight was going — you will ever see!” 

Who could disagree?

Main image: Nakatani (right) stuns Verdejo. Mikey Williams/Top Rank.