Losing an unbeaten record

After Willy Hutchinson’s first test and loss at the weekend, IBHOF inductee Graham Houston looks at the art of preserving an unbeaten record and says hope remains for the young Scot following his unexpected setback.

The late manager Dave Wolf (who handled the affairs of Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini and Donnie Lalonde) came up with a saying that made a lot of sense to me: “With an unbeaten fighter, you don’t know how good he is until he loses.”

I was thinking of that I watched betting favourites Willy Hutchinson and Evgeny Tishchenko lose their unbeaten records last weekend.

Hutchinson was a world youth amateur champion. He showed class and punching power in compiling a 13-0 record. At only 22, he seemed destined for big things. But he was facing his biggest test in the rugged and gritty Lennox Clarke in their bout for the vacant British and Commonwealth 168-pound titles. 

After a bright start, Hutchinson found himself being bullied by a physically stronger and more seasoned fighter. Clarke was just too much for him, the referee waving the finish after Hutchinson had been knocked down in the fifth round.

Earlier in the day, over in Russia, it was as if the Olympic gold medallist Evgeny Tishchenko couldn’t get started at all against veteran Thabiso Mchunu in their cruiserweight fight. Mchunu was an easy winner. Tishchenko was 8-0 (6 KOs) going into the fight. But despite huge advantages in height and reach, Tischenko was tentative and even looked intimidated. 

Being wise after the event, Hutchinson and Tishchenko simply weren’t ready for their step-up fights. But we weren’t to know that before the fights.

And that brings us back to Dave Wolf’s remark. With unbeaten boxers, you can’t be sure how they will perform when faced with their stiffest test.

With Russia’s Tishchenko, we had a clue that he might not have the right stuff to make it all the way as a pro fighter when he gave a struggling performance against an aggressive opponent, Vassiliy Levit, of Kazakhstan, in the Rio Olympics gold-medal bout. It looked as if Levit had beaten him clearly.

However, Hutchinson looked the goods. “Tremendous hand speed, relaxation, going through the gears, from Hutchinson,” ex-champ Richie Woodhall told BT Sport viewers after Hutchinson’s first-round win over Jose Miguel Fandino, of Spain, last October. “Tremendous stuff. What a talent!”

So, it was easy to see why the fight fraternity was high on Hutchinson and also why the oddsmakers had him favourite last Saturday. The fight with Clarke was a contest that just about everyone, it seemed, believed Hutchinson was capable of winning as he moved forward in his career. Unfortunately for Hutchinson, Clarke hadn’t read the script. 

A common denominator in the pro careers of Tishchenko and Hutchinson is that neither had been obliged to fight through a rough passage. It had been smooth sailing all the way. So we couldn’t be sure how they would hold up mentally and physically if faced with adversity. “In the growth of any artist, an essential element is a correct dosage of calamity,” as AJ Liebling observed in The Sweet Science.

But neither Hutchinson nor Tishchenko had taken part in the sort of fight in which they were truly tested. In their first real test, each was found wanting. 

However, fans and critics tend to get a tad impatient when a prospect keeps racking up easy wins. “Let’s get them in with someone who can hit them back,” they say. 

So the promoter or matchmaker, at some stage, is obliged to roll the dice. “It’s time to see what we’ve got,” as veteran matchmaker Bruce Trampler would say.

And matching an up-and-coming fighter is something of an art. Even the savviest promoter or matchmaker isn’t going to get it right all the time.

Famously, the great Mickey Duff matched then-inexperienced Terry Downes with Dick Tiger, the Liverpool-based Nigerian, at Shoreditch Town Hall in London in only Downes’ third pro fight. Downes was the big favourite, the colourful Londoner who had won a US military championship while serving in the Marine Corps, but Tiger was too tough. 

No one realised at the time that Tiger was going to develop into a great fighter. It was a match-up of future world middleweight champions that Duff made for relative peanuts.

In Japan and to an extent in Russia it isn’t unusual for promising talent to be fast-tracked. In Japan, we see fighters going for world championships early in their careers. 

Just the other day in Russia, 168-pound prodigy Pavel Silyagin, in only his seventh pro fight, was put in with the strong and tough (and undefeated) Azizbek Abdugofurov, of Uzbekistan, in a 12-round bout. Silyagin had never been past seven rounds; Abdugofurov had fought the full 12 rounds three times in a 13-0 career. 

Silyagin rose to the occasion, switching between the orthodox and southpaw stances as he boxed and fought his way to a unanimous decision. But there was one round in there in which Abdugofurov came on strongly and Silyagin looked a bit tired. But Silyagin fought through the shaky spell and closed the fight strongly, almost stopping Abdugofurov in the final round.

That fight was probably a perfect example of the sort of contest that adds to a fighter’s ring education. Silyagin showed he could tough it out when faced with adversity.

Defeat itself, of course, can be educational if viewed as a learning experience. It’s not unusual for a fighter to say that, having come to terms with the sting of defeat, that losing was actually the best thing that happened to him. 

And, as we all know, protecting an unbeaten record is a comparatively recent development in boxing’s long history. Back in the day, a boxer’s record wasn’t announced to the crowd. Good fighters, including future world champions, lost fights on the way up. 

An undefeated record might look glossy but in reality it shouldn’t be all that important. It never used to be.

Willy Hutchinson is only 22. If he can look on the Lennox Clarke fight as part of his ring journey, and rededicate himself to making it to the top, all is not lost.

Main image: Queensberry Promotions.