IBHOF inductee Graham Houston looks at occasions where a freak injury has suddenly derailed a fighter’s hopes of victory.

The hard-luck fighter of 2020 might well have been Matt Korobov, the Russian 168-pounder who now lives in Florida.

In December 2019, Korobov retired with a shoulder injury in the second round against Chris Eubank Jr. Back in action last month against Ronald Ellis, Korobov was winning on the scorecards only to suffer an Achilles injury to his ankle. Once again, he lost by retirement, this time after four rounds.

Korobov turned 38 this month. His career isn’t necessarily over but it’s as if his body is breaking down on him. For a fighter to lose consecutive contests due to injury is unusual as well as unlucky. But the London welterweight Eamonn Cole was the most injury-prone fighter I can remember.

Korobov’s injury jinx continued against Ellis (left) in December 2020.
Photo: Amanda Westcott/Showtime.

A former ABA (British amateur) champion boxing for Fitzroy Lodge club, the southpaw Cole lost four fights due to dislocating his left shoulder when throwing a punch, the first of these losses coming in the third round of his fight with a boxer named Pat Marshall at York Hall in London in 1969.

Cole stopped Marshall in a rematch but his shoulder gave out in three subsequent bouts and he retired in 1972 with a 12-4 (7 KOs) record. All his losses were due to the shoulder issue. He was only 22. It was all too sad.

Shoulder injuries have been responsible for some disappointing finishes, as when stylish East London featherweight Colin McMillan lost his first defence of the WBO featherweight title against an aggressive and confident Colombian challenger, Ruben Palacio, at London’s Olympia on September 26, 1992. 

McMillan was winning on the judges’ cards when he suffered a dislocated left shoulder in the eighth round 

While McMillan likely would have won had it not been for the injury, this was a much tougher fight for him than generally anticipated. “All the pundits — myself included, really — thought he could win this one in a breeze,” Reg Gutteridge noted in the ITV commentary as the eighth round opened.

Reg had hardly uttered those words when things went shockingly wrong for McMillan. It all happened in an instant. McMillan just seemed to fall apart after throwing a left hook. He retreated in disarray, his left arm dangling by his side. 

“McMillan’s looking kind of strange here, Reg,” ringside analyst Jim Watt noted with concern. McMillan’s trainer, ex-heavyweight Howard Rainey, threw in the towel.“What a sad way for McMillan to blow his championship,” Gutteridge said.

McMillan was never quite the same fighter after this, although he did win the British featherweight championship.

The great French middleweight Marcel Cerdan lost his world title due to injury to his left shoulder in his defence against Jake LaMotta in Detroit on June 16, 1949. Doctors who examined Cerdan in the dressing room said he had torn the supraspinatus muscle — one of the four rotator cuff muscles and known as the elevator muscle. It is believed the injury happened in the second round and Cerdan was retired by his corner after nine rounds. 

It was a hopeless struggle for basically a one-armed champion against a younger, stronger challenger although the New York Times reported that Cerdan “fought gallantly every inch of the way”.

Vitali Klitschko was roundly criticised for retiring with an injury to his left shoulder after nine rounds against Chris Byrd in Berlin in April 2001. It was a fight Klitschko was winning widely on points and he was still throwing the left hand in the ninth round, although not with much authority. Byrd was coming on strongly, landing left hands from his southpaw stance, and Klitschko looked tired.

“I can’t believe what I’ve just seen!” veteran ringside analyst Larry Merchant exclaimed when Klitschko’s trainer called over the referee to say the corner was stopping the fight.

Ahead on points, Vitali Klitschko suffered a freak shoulder injury against Chris Byrd in 2001.
Photo: Peer Grimm/DPA/PA Images.

Klitschko was labelled a quitter. “He doesn’t have the mentality of a champion,” Merchant asserted. “I’m speechless, really. All he had to do was stay in there for a few rounds, play defence, and win the fight!”

However, Klitschko told me when I interviewed him in Las Vegas two years later that he suffered blinding pain when ligaments were torn in his shoulder. “This was a lot of pain. I don’t see nothing with this pain. Physically, I can’t fight more,” he said.  

Klitschko seemed to realise he had let himself down. “I have so many critics about this fight,” he said. “I need to redeem that fight.” This he did with his courageous effort against Lennox Lewis a few months after I interviewed him.

Fight-ending injuries crop up from time to time over the years and are always disappointing for the crowd.

Mexico’s Jose Zepeda had to retire with a dislocated shoulder after just two rounds against Terry Flanagan, while Ryan Burnett suffered a freak back injury against Nonito Donaire. There was Nigel Benn injuring his ankle in the rematch with Steve Collins, Vyacheslav Glazkov suffering a knee injury against Charles Martin and Thomas Hearns breaking his ankle in a two-round defeat against limited but rugged Uriah Grant.

French boxer Rene Jacquot slipped and injured his ankle in the first round of a 154-pound title bout against John Mugabi. Sure, Jacquot would almost certainly have lost, probably by stoppage, against the much more powerful Mugabi. But to go out like that, in front of a French crowd, before the fight had really started, it was too bad.

Scottish bantamweight Peter Keenan was another who had wretched ill fortune. He was boxing well in his fight with Belgium’s Jean Sneyers for the European bantamweight title outdoors in Glasgow in May 1952 when Keenan’s right knee suddenly gave way on him in the fifth round and he collapsed to the canvas. “He can’t stand owing to a damaged cartilage,” the British Pathé  newsreel commentator informed British cinemagoers. Keenan was counted out by the Swedish referee. An apologetic Sneyers made an “It wasn’t my fault” gesture to the disappointed 30,000 crowd.

And these are just some of the odd finishes to fights over the years.

Larry Merchant coined the phrase that boxing is the “theatre of the unexpected”. One would have to say he got that right.

Main image: Korobov’s fight against Eubank is ended early by injury in December 2019. Photo: Stephanie Trapp/Showtime.