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When Pro Debuts backfire

IBHOF inductee Graham Houston looks at when the debuts of touted fighters backfire following the successful pro bows of blue-chip prospects Galal Yafai, Cheavon Clarke and Kurt Walker last weekend.

It was quite a weekend for pro debuts. Olympic gold medallist Galal Yafai launched his pro career in a scheduled 10-round fight while former amateur standouts Kurt Walker, Cheavon Clarke, Kieran Molloy and Scott Forrest all got off to predictable winning starts.

Not every pro debut is a success though. Bernard Hopkins lost his first pro fight. So did Juan Manuel Marquez (by DQ).  One of the greatest boxers of all time, Henry Armstrong, was knocked out in his pro debut.

Now, Hopkins, Marquez and Armstrong were basically unknowns when they started out. It’s rare for a lauded amateur star to lose his first pro fight. But it can happen, as we saw when Olympic gold medallist Robeisy Ramirez blew a decision to a gutsy battler from Denver named Adan Gonzales. 

It was a shocking result. Gonzales steamed into Ramirez and just kept throwing punches. However, Ramirez quickly steadied the ship with a series of wins, including an easy decision over Gonzales in a rematch, just to set the record straight. 

When Ramirez stopped Eric Donovan in Glasgow last weekend he looked the fighter we had expected to see in his debut. What happened in that initial pro fight? One surmises that Ramirez was simply over confident, didn’t expect to encounter much resistance, and before he knew it the four-round fight was over.

Another case of a pro debut not working out came when a teenaged  Joe Bugner got knocked out in the third round by a trial horse named  Paul Brown back in December 1967.

The Bugner vs Brown fight took place at the members-only Anglo-American Sporting Club at London’s Hilton Hotel. Bugner had reached the semi-finals of the London amateur championships in April of that year when, he lost on points to Billy Wells, a much more experienced opponent who went on to represent Britain in the Mexico City Olympics.

Although young, Bugner was big (6ft 4ins) and the manager and trainer Andy Smith saw huge potential in him. The idea was that Bugner would be eased into pro boxing against a safe opponent. Paul Brown looked safe enough. He had a 1-3 record. All three of his defeats were by KO. In his last fight, Brown had been stopped in the first round by Terry Daly, a hard hitting but rather fragile London heavyweight.

There was a warning sign, though. Brown’s only win had been by KO, so obviously, if nothing else, at least he could punch a bit. He hit Bugner on the chin and the prospect hit the canvas.

The immediate assumption was that Bugner couldn’t take a punch. But these quick takes can be wrong. Bugner, of course, went on to win the British and European heavyweight titles, twice went the distance with Muhammad Ali and fought a gritty 12-round battle against Joe Frazier. And Bugner got revenge over Brown, twice in fact, with a fourth-round TKO and then a third-round stoppage.

Brown never won another fight after his upset win over Bugner. He retired with a 2-11 record. Eight of his losses were inside the distance.

Bugner wasn’t the only British heavyweight to lose his pro debut yet go on to big things. Back in 1954 the Welsh heavyweight Dick Richardson lost on points to Henry Cooper’s twin bother, Jim Cooper, in a bout between two boxers making their debut. (Henry won a first-round knockout that night in his first pro bout.) While Jim Cooper never got very far as a boxer, Richardson became European champion and figured in some of Britain and Europe’s biggest heavyweight fights in the 1950s and ’60s.

Then there was the night at London’s Royal Albert Hall in October 1966 when two crowd-pleasing amateur champions failed to win their pro starts. 

Mark Rowe, the Commonwealth Games gold medallist, lost on points to Hugh Lynch, a Trinidad-born southpaw from Brixton in South London, in a six-round middleweight bout, while British amateur champ Johnny Clark could only manage a draw against a Scottish boxer named Tommy Connor in another six-rounder.

Both Rowe and Clark went on to win British titles, Rowe at middleweight, Clark at bantamweight.

Clark won 26 fights in a row after the debut draw, including a setting-it-straight seventh-round stoppage of Tommy Connor. British ring great Alan Rudkin twice turned back Clark in British title challenges, but when Rudkin retired Clark won the vacant title and was also became European champion.

I always thought that Hugh Lynch was a strange choice of opponent for Rowe’s first fight. Lynch was a southpaw for a start, and he was awkward — what the US fight trade would call a “tough out”. 

Even though Lynch had a so-so record of 3-3-1, two of his wins were by stoppage. It was a fight that practically no one thought Rowe could lose, but as I recall he never got started until too late in the fight. At the time the British Boxing Board used a scoring system where rounds were decided by quarter-point margins, and Rowe lost by a quarter of a point. (I worked it out at 3-2-1 in rounds for Lynch.)

The two met again in an eight-round main event at a packed Manor Place Baths in Walworth, South London, and Rowe won a hard-fought points victory. 

Rowe lost the British title in his first defence but he took part in some thrilling fights in London. I always remembered Mark as a strong pressure fighter with an excellent left hook to the body, but he could be quite hittable. Bunny Sterling, who took the British title from him, had a fast-moving style that was all wrong for the heavier-handed but more methodical Rowe.

Oh, yes, Sterling, too, lost his first pro fight. Sterling actually lost his first three bouts. But Jamaican-born Londoner Sterling persevered, started winning consistently and won the British and European middleweight titles as well as defending the Commonwealth title successfully in Australia and Canada. He was also the first immigrant from a Commonwealth country to win a British title. 

Winning a pro start is always preferable, obviously, but, as the above examples show, a disappointing debut doesn’t necessarily define a fighter’s career.

Main image: Gonzales (left) stuns Ramirez in 2019. Photo: Mikey Williams/Top Rank.