Unbeaten no more

IBHOF inductee Graham Houston looks at the surprising number of undefeated fighters who have been derailed this year.

It’s not just my imagination. Unbeaten fighters have been losing their “O” with astonishing frequency in 2021. 

Sometimes this happened in contests in which two unbeaten boxers faced each other, and there have been quite a few of those match-ups this year, such as Raeese Aleem vs Vic Pasillas, Michael McKinson vs Chris Kongo, Troy Williamson vs Kieran Smith, Stephen Fulton Jr. vs Angelo Leo, Brandon Figueroa vs Luis Nery and, of course, Josh Taylor vs Jose Ramirez. 

But, leaving out unbeaten vs unbeaten bouts, more than 20 boxers have lost their “O” so far this year. We had two more last weekend, with Matt Windle outpointing 5-0 Neil McCubbin in a spirited Commonwealth light-flyweight title eliminator and Jose Pedraza winning on a TKO in eight rounds against 21-0 Julian Rodriguez.

At first glance, an unbeaten record isn’t what it used to be, not if you go purely by results in the past six months. But maybe it’s just that promoters are matching their fighters in tougher bouts. The days when it was almost an imperative to protect an unbeaten record seem to be behind us. This is a good thing. For instance, it doesn’t matter to followers of MMA if fighters have a loss or two, or more, on their records. The MMA fans just want to see competitive contests. I won’t go so far as to say that boxing is learning from MMA, but I do think promoters have taken note of the MMA model.

Years ago, it wasn’t particularly important for a fighter to have a perfect record. Yes, fighters built up long winning streaks. But even the great ones lost.

And a loss isn’t such a terrible thing, in the long view. A defeat can, of course, actually improve a boxer. The fighter can analyse what went wrong — “go back to the drawing board”, as they say. 

Maybe corners were cut in training. Perhaps the boxer got over confident. Or a fighter could say: “If only I’d started sooner” or, conversely, “I started too fast and didn’t leave enough in the tank for the later rounds” or, simply “I had the fight won but I got careless.” And so on.

The good fighters work on correcting mistakes and in many cases they come back better.

That said, no fighter with ambition wants to lose. But it can happen and, again, it’s not necessarily such a terrible thing.

Last weekend we saw Matt Windle (now 6-3-1) use his greater experience and ring maturity to defeat the aggressive McCubbin.  Later on Saturday in Las Vegas, two-weight world champion Pedraza basically took Rodriguez to school, although the judges actually had this a very close bout before “Hammer Hands” retired in his corner after eight rounds due to a swollen eye.

Pedraza vs Rodriguez was a classic example of the undefeated boxer losing in a step-up fight. Rodriguez, 26, was a national Golden Gloves champion in the amateurs and he’d stopped four of his last five opponents going into the bout with Pedraza.  

Bob Arum’s Top Rank organisation promoted both fighters. I think the Top Rank matchmakers looked at Rodriguez and decided: “Let’s see what we’ve got.” So Rodriguez was matched in a fight where, for the first time, he was in with an opponent who could beat him. Could he rise to the occasion? As it turned out, no, he couldn’t. 

There was a red flag when Rodriguez missed weight by one and a quarter pounds. That shouldn’t have happened. And, despite the closeness of the scorecards, Rodriguez never really looked comfortable in the contest. He just couldn’t seem to get rolling. It didn’t help Rodriguez that his eye began to give him problems quite early in the proceedings but, even as early as the opening round, Pedraza had the look of a winner. 

Rodriguez was the betting favourite against Pedraza and you can’t rap the oddsmaker for that, because with an unbeaten boxer you just don’t know how good he is until he faces that first big test — the acid test, if you will. “You don’t know how good an unbeaten fighter is until he loses,” is how the late, great manager David Wolf put it.

Josh Kelly was another undefeated boxer (10-0-1) who came up short in his big test this year. David Avanesyan was just too strong and too seasoned for Kelly in their scheduled 12-round welterweight bout. I think it’s fair to say that there were Kelly doubters in the British fight fraternity, those who considered him more flash than substance. Judging purely by the Avanesyan fight, maybe they weren’t too far off the mark. Kelly started off impressively but unravelled surprisingly quickly as his Russian opponent piled on the pressure.

Belfast’s 11-0 Sean McComb was another who couldn’t stand the heat. He lost in seven rounds to Wales’ gritty and determined Gavin Gwynne. McComb, like Kelly, started fast. Gwynne, in the manner of Avanesyan, didn’t give his touted opponent room to breathe. McComb just seemed to lack physical strength in his debut at lightweight after previously boxing at 140 pounds. He couldn’t keep Gwynne off him.

Gwynne’s sheer toughness and strong will were factors against a flashier boxer. The same thing applied when Birmingham’s Lennox Clarke walked down and overpowered the 13-0 former amateur star Willy Hutchinson. Here again, it was a similar scenario. Scotland’s tall, talented Hutchinson started off just fine, punching crisply and making classy moves, but Clarke kept coming at him, dogged and insistent, and another prospect was found wanting. (Hutchinson was a huge favourite, too, at 1/10.)

And so it goes on. Boxers considered rising stars have lost surprisingly, even shockingly in the first six months of this year. Seemingly blue-chip prospects such as Elvis Rodriguez and Vito Mielnicki Jr, world amateur champion Mahammadrasul Majidov, even an undefeated world champion in 30-0 Josh Warrington, all tasted defeat for the first time.

For all these fighters, it is a time to regroup and rebuild — if they have it in them to do so.

It’s not going to be easy. 

Coming back from defeat, especially an overwhelming one, is a severe test of character. But elite-level boxers, even the great ones, have done it.

And, in all of this, one thing seems clear to me: That “O” on a boxer’s record looks good, but in the white heat of a truly competitive contest it really doesn’t mean a lot.

Main image: Pedraza (right) schools Rodriguez. Photo: Mikey Williams/Top Rank.