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Change in fortune: Fighters who turned their careers around

After the surging Maxi Hughes’ win over Jovanni Straffon at the weekend, IBHOF inductee Graham Houston looks at fighters whose careers seemed to be going nowhere before they turned everything around.

Maxi Hughes’ triumph over Jovanni Straffon on the weekend was a reminder that sometimes defeats really can improve a boxer and make rather than break him. A reminder, too, that with the right attitude, determination and maybe a little good fortune, a boxer can turn around his career when it seems to be going nowhere.

Hughes’ career was at the win-some, lose-some, stage. Sam Bowen stopped him in the eighth round. There were losses to Martin J. Ward and Liam Walsh. At one point he was 3-3 in a six-bout stretch.

But Hughes dug down and made a quite astonishing career-surge with three upset wins and a British title victory. First, Hughes outscored Jono Carroll in an all-southpaw bout. It was very close, but Hughes just seemed to fight that bit harder than Carroll — he looked like the man who wanted it more.

Then Hughes travelled to Dubai to end the unbeaten record of Ukrainian prospect Viktor Kotochigov. 

Maxi was the betting favourite against Paul Hyland in their bout for the vacant British lightweight title and justified the odds with a dominant eighth-round KO win. 

And then came last weekend’s surprisingly one-sided triumph over Mexico’s Jovanni Straffon to win the IBO lightweight title. Hughes opened as the underdog (he was available at 2/1 in some spots) but by fight-time the odds had tightened to even money. There were Hughes believers out there and their belief was rewarded with a winning ticket. 

Hughes seems to have reached a new level under the guidance of trainer Sean O’Hagan. He boxed so well against Straffon that a big title fight against undefeated champ Devin Haney could happen. Two years ago that would have seemed the stuff of fantasy.

Over the years, many fighters have reached the heights after their careers seemed to have stalled. The most famous example, I suppose, is James J. Braddock, the “Cinderella Man” from New Jersey. In 1933 his fortunes were at a low ebb. He’d suffered injuries to his right hand and was on government assistance (or “welfare” as it’s called in the US).

Braddock, aged 29 and a father of three, got his big break in June 1934 when offered a fight at two days’ notice against a heavyweight from Georgia named Corn Griffin who had impressed as a sparring partner for the huge Primo Carnera. 

The contest took place at Madison Square Garden Bowl on Long Island, New York, on the undercard of the Max Baer vs Primo Carnera heavyweight title fight. Griffin knocked down Braddock in the second round. “Too proud, too stubborn, and too broke to be counted out, he gathered himself, waited for the count of nine, picked himself up off the canvas and waded straight into Griffin,” Jeremy Schaap related in his Braddock biography, Cinderella Man.

Braddock knocked out Griffin in the third round. And a year later he was heavyweight champion, having won a unanimous decision over Max Baer, who, while a dangerous puncher, was sadly lacking in the dedication department.

In the modern era, the name of Freddie Pendleton always comes to mind as a boxer with a so-so record who became champion. Heading into his lightweight title fight with Pernell Whitaker in Atlantic City in 1990, Pendleton had lost 16 times in 43 fights. But Philadelphian Pendleton put up a strong showing against the gifted southpaw. 

Whitaker deservedly won the unanimous decision but Pendleton seemed to draw inspiration from the way he performed in defeat. He went on an unbeaten run, and in January 1993 ‘Fearless Freddie’ captured the vacant IBF lightweight title with a unanimous 12-round decision over hard-hitting southpaw Tracy Spann. 

Then there’s Dick Tiger, who lost four fights in a row in the UK after arriving from Nigeria. He got his big break when Mickey Duff matched him with rising middleweight star Terry Downes at Shoreditch Town Hall in London in May 1957. Tiger won when a bloodied Downes was retired by his handlers after six rounds.

Big-time success didn’t come instantly but the Downes fight was the turning point in Tiger’s career and he went on to greatness by becoming middleweight and light-heavyweight champion.

While not a great middleweight, Boston’s Paul Pender achieved success after being pretty much written off. Pender was a clever stand-up boxer but had problems with an oft-injured right hand. He was stopped in the fifth round by a solid but unremarkable middleweight named Jimmy Beau, while future champion Gene Fullmer mauled him to a unanimous decision defeat.

Pender, however, persevered and started a winning sequence that led to an unlikely title chance at home in Boston against Sugar Ray Robinson, one of two middleweight champions at the time (the other was Gene Fullmer). 

Robinson, 39, said he wanted a knockout win, and the sooner the better. “I gotta do it quickly and impressively to prove that I’m still the real world champion,” the UPI news agency quoted Robinson as saying.

Sugar Ray was a 1/5 (-500) betting favourite. “Few give the rangy, dark-haired Irish challenger any chance,” UPI reported. But Pender won a split decision and had two reigns as middleweight champion, which included another split-decision win over Sugar Ray as well as going 2-1 in a three-fight series with Terry Downes.

Then we have Henry Cooper, who suffered a four-fight losing sequence that included KO defeats against Joe Bygraves and Ingemar Johansson in bouts for the British Empire and European heavyweight titles respectively. But Cooper regrouped and got his career back on track with a points victory over Hans Kalbfell in Germany. Cooper, of course, went on to become a British boxing legend, with his knockdown of Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) being the most memorable moment in a long career.

And while he didn’t win exactly set the world on fire, Juarez, Mexico’s Quirino Garcia deserves kudos for overcoming a distinctly unpromising beginning. Garcia, who boxed mostly in the 154 and 160lbs divisions, lost his first 18 bouts but just wouldn’t give up and went on to have a highly respectable career that included wins over former champions Jorge Vaca, Frankie Randall, Meldrick Taylor and Simon Brown, plus a decision victory over TV favourite Terrence Alli. He boxed from 1990 right through till 2009 and actually went out on a winning note with a KO win in a light-heavy appearance at home in Juarez.

I can’t leave out Yordenis Ugas, who appeared to have hit a career roadblock after back-to-back losses against Emanuel Robles and Amir Imam. But moving to Las Vegas and working with Cuban trainer Ismael Salas gave Ugas fresh momentum. 

Now Ugas holds a welterweight championship and his upset win over Manny Pacquiao has put him in the big-money league.

Yordenis Ugas, Maxi Hughes, are among present-day reminders that losses can be learning lessons, and that defeats don’t always mean the door to success is closed. They also remind us that there’s some truth in the old saying: You can’t keep a good man down.

Main image: Maxi Hughes. Photo: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing.