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Southpaw surprises

Following Jason Cunningham’s shock European title win at the weekend, IBHOF inductee Graham Houston looks back at other notable instances of southpaws who pulled off the upset.

Jason Cunningham’s win over Gamal Yafai was a surprise to most people in the boxing fraternity. But maybe it shouldn’t have been a shock. A southpaw who can fight and has belief in himself, such as Cunningham, always has a chance.

The Cunningham fight got me thinking about other southpaw upsets. I was at ringside for one of them, when Winky Wright won a unanimous decision over Felix “Tito” Trinidad in a middleweight fight at the MGM Grand, Las Vegas, in May 2005.

Trinidad was a -200 (1/2) favourite. Although outclassed and halted by Bernard Hopkins, Trinidad had come back with two KO wins. Wright, a champion at 154lbs, was on a run of nine wins in a row, including two victories over Shane Mosley, but he was moving up in weight.

Wright’s trainer, Dan Birmingham was in no doubt that Winky would win. “We’re gonna box his ears off,” Birmingham told me over the phone before the fight. “Trinidad is great offensively, not very good defensively. Wink is a laser, pinpoint puncher. Tito’s never been hit every five, six, seven seconds like he’s gonna be in this fight.”

As for Trinidad being the bigger man, Birmingham said Wright would be coming down from 175lbs and had been struggling to make 154lbs for years. “We’re going to go right after him and make him fight every second. I’m extremely confident.”

As much as I respected Birmingham’s opinion, I went with Trinidad for my Boxing Monthly preview. I figured Tito’s superior firepower would be the difference. But I was wrong. Wright dominated the fight, his southpaw right jab slamming into Trinidad’s face for round after round, bloodying Tito’s nose. 

“I had expected a close, competitive fight. But after two rounds of the 12-rounder I settled back in my ringside seat to watch Wright administer a boxing lesson,” I reported for BM. Even at this early stage it was obvious there was only going to be one winner and it wasn’t going to be Tito.  “Wright not only beat him, he outclassed and humiliated him,” I reported. 

Another time an esteemed trainer imparted words of wisdom was when Emanuel Steward assured me that lefty Cory Spinks was a very live underdog indeed against heavy-handed slugger Ricardo Mayorga in their welterweight title fight at Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, in December 2003. 

Las Vegas oddsmaker Herb Lambeck made Mayorga a 5/1 (-500) favourite. The colourful Nicaraguan fighter had bombed out stylish Vernon Forrest to win the title and his aggressive style and clubbing blows took Mayorga to a decision win in their rematch. Spinks, meanwhile, was a champion in his own right, having outpointed Michelle Piccirillo in Italy to win the IBF version of the title. But Spinks seemed to be outgunned. He had scored just 11 stoppages in 33 fights.

Although Emanuel didn’t train Spinks, he’d known him for years. “He’s a tough kid,” Emanuel told me. “He isn’t the biggest puncher, but he’s got that street toughness in him. It won’t be easy for Mayorga to bully him. This is going to be a very difficult fight for Mayorga.”

And so it was. Spinks frustrated Mayorga with his slick moves and hit-and-get-away style. Mayorga was getting cautions as early as the opening round for holding with one hand and hitting with the other. 

Spinks popped away and picked up points while Mayorga swung and missed. But Spinks couldn’t dodge everything and it was a close fight on the scorecards, a majority decision. Mayorga would have escaped with a draw had referee Tony Orlando not instructed the judges to dock him two points for illegal tactics.

While Spinks befuddled Mayorga with crafty boxing, southpaw underdog Manny Pacquiao overwhelmed Marco Antonio Barrera with a fast-and-furious onslaught in their featherweight bout in San Antonio in November 2003. 

Barrera was a 1/4 (-400) favourite at the Mirage sportsbook in Las Vegas and the great Mexican fighter was on an eight-fight winning run that including decision wins over Naseem Hamed and Erik Morales and a fourth-round knockout of former featherweight champion Kevin Kelley, while Pacquiao was moving up from the 122lbs division. The general consensus was that Barrera would be too big, too strong. But Pacquiao swarmed all over him for an 11th-round TKO.

Cristian Mijares outscoring Jorge “Travieso” Arce in a 115lbs title fight between Mexican rivals in San Antonio in April 2007 was another case of a southpaw springing the surprise against a seemingly more powerful opponent. The popular, crowd-pleasing Arce had won 26 fights in a row, but Mijares outboxed and even outfought him.

“Mijares was respected as a quick, clever southpaw but he showed much-improved punching power,” I reported for Boxing Monthly. “Arce has been able to walk through a lot of fighters and break them down with attrition — not Mijares, though.” By the later stages Arce was cut on the bridge of the nose and over the left eye. The judges had Mijares winning widely.

In Britain in the 1970s, the southpaw awkwardness of Jack Bodell confounded Joe Bugner in a British heavyweight title upset while left-handed underdog Jimmy Revie outpointed world-class bantamweight Alan Rudkin in a British featherweight title bout, an outcome that surprised many in the boxing fraternity.

And going even farther back in time, one of the earliest upset results involving a southpaw came when Tiger Flowers defeated Harry Greb (favoured at 1/2, or -200) for the middleweight title on a 15-round split decision at Madison Square Garden in February 1926. At that time, it was unusual to have a southpaw contender. 

“Flowers has fought many of the leading men of the class and he has been fairly successful but experts expect Greb’s two-handed attack, one of the swiftest the ring has ever known, will cut down the tiger,” Associated Press reported. 

However, according to contemporary accounts, Greb was a diminished fighter, looking to land single right hands instead of using his usual “windmill” attack and Flowers rose to the occasion  to become the first person of colour to win the middleweight title. “Flowers, lashing out continually, gained the verdict for aggressiveness and a willingness to fight throughout,” AP reported.

There have been many southpaw shocks over the years. One came in amateur boxing when Liverpool’s skilled and hard-hitting John Conteh astonishingly lost to Austrian Richard Koleritsch in the 1971 European championships in Madrid. I covered that event.

Conteh, the future professional world champion, had been one of Britain’s gold medal hopes in Madrid. He looked a far superior physical specimen to the pudgy Koleritsch and was obviously much more talented. The British contingent felt that Conteh had drawn an easy opponent in his opening bout of the  championships. 

But it was as if Conteh couldn’t get started. And while Conteh waited for a perfect opening — and then waited some more — Koleritsch somehow fumbled his way to the decision. 

In most bouts where southpaws have upset the odds one can, with hindsight, see how an unexpected outcome perhaps shouldn’t have been such a surprise after all. But Conteh losing to Koleritsch, all those years ago in Madrid, was a surprise result that even now is hard to fathom. Had odds been offered Conteh would have been an off-the-charts favourite. Bearing in mind the obvious gulf in class between the two boxers, Koleritsch beating Conteh might have been biggest southpaw shocker in ring history.

Main image: Wright outfoxes Trinidad in May 2005. Photo: Alamy/Reuters.