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Usyk-Joshua II: A look at immediate heavyweight title rematches

Usyk Joshua

So Anthony Joshua is going straight back in again with Oleksandr Usyk. The rematch clause in the contract will be activated. AJ got his revenge over Andy Ruiz Jr in an immediate rematch (neither man having had an intervening fight or fights). But AJ was assisted by the fact that Ruiz came in grossly overweight. We know that absolutely won’t be the case with Usyk. But can Joshua learn any lessons from what history tells us about immediate heavyweight title rematches?

Let’s look at some examples.

Floyd Patterson vs Ingemar Johansson

Perhaps a bit too casual and not really fearing what Johansson brought to the proceedings, Patterson got caught and stopped in the first meeting. It was a different Patterson who stepped into the ring for the rematch, much more focused and fight-ready. Johansson, meanwhile, seemed to have little respect for Patterson going into the rematch. He even appeared as a mystery guest on the What’s My Line? panel-game show at 10:30pm the night before the big fight. Patterson became the first man in history to regain the heavyweight title when he knocked out Johansson in the fifth round.

Sonny Liston vs Floyd Patterson

Liston knocked out Patterson in two minutes, six seconds in the first fight and took four seconds longer to crush him in the rematch. The smaller, lighter Patterson never had the chance to use his speed advantage in either fight. He looked apprehensive and intimidated in both fights. Boxing insiders who felt that Floyd could move around the ring and frustrate Liston got it all wrong. Patterson’s style was essentially to bob and weave and look to fire off quick punches from out of his peek-a-boo style. When he tried to fight from a distance in the first meeting with Johansson it was “a disastrous mistake” according to the UPI news agency. But whatever style Patterson employed against Liston likely wouldn’t have worked. He just wasn’t elusive enough to keep out of trouble against the bigger, more powerful man.

Evander Holyfield vs Mike Tyson

Sometimes one man just seems to have the other man’s number. That was the case with Holyfield and Tyson. Even though Tyson fought well for two rounds in the rematch, he wasn’t comfortable with Holyfield’s pressure. Many will believe that Tyson wanted to get out of the fight when the ear-biting outrage brought about his disqualification.

Lennox Lewis vs Hasim Rahman

Rahman’s KO win over Lewis in South Africa always seemed something of a fluke result. Lewis, clearly the more skilled boxer, arrived on site without much time to get used to the high altitude due to filming his cameo role in the Ocean’s Eleven remake in Las Vegas. “Could this possibly be a repeat of the biggest upset in boxing history when, a decade ago, an overweight, out-of-shape, disinterested Tyson was knocked out by Buster Douglas in Tokyo?” Steve Springer asked in the Los Angeles Times. Yes, it could. But a lighter, sharper Lewis bombed out Rahman in the rematch in Las Vegas seven months later.

Muhammad Ali vs Leon Spinks

Spinks, in only his eighth pro fight, was too young, too busy and too determined for Ali in the first fight. Ali was an easy winner in the rematch but Spinks hadn’t exactly been living a disciplined life in his reign as champion and showed nothing like the fire and enthusiasm he had exhibited first time around.

Rocky Marciano vs Jersey Joe Walcott

The first fight between Rocky and Jersey Joe was a classic, with Marciano down in the first round, behind on points, and then scoring a dramatic knockout victory in the 13th round. However, the rematch proved a major disappointment. Marciano dropped Walcott with a right uppercut before the fight had really started and the 39-year-old former champion got up just too late to beat the count after two minutes, 25 seconds (erroneously announced as 1:25). There was speculation that, after getting knocked out in the first fight, the ageing Walcott just didn’t fancy the prospect of another tough fight with probably a similar ending. 

Muhammad Ali vs Sonny Liston

There were shades of Marciano-Walcott II when Liston went down from what many observers considered a fairly innocuous right hand in the first round of his rematch with Ali. Having been outboxed and  embarrassed in the first fight with Ali (then Cassius Clay) it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that Liston didn’t want to risk taking another pasting at the hands of the younger, faster and supremely confident champion. Ali clearly thought Liston was faking it, gesturing to the fallen ex-champ to get up and continue the contest.

Joe Louis vs Jersey Joe Walcott

After winning a controversial split decision over Walcott in a fight that saw him dropped twice, a clearly faded Louis won on an 11th-round knockout in the rematch. But it was a struggling performance, with Louis suffering a flash knockdown and trailing on the judges’ scorecards. It was mostly a dull fight for the first 10 rounds. Louis announced his retirement afterwards.

Rocky Marciano vs Ezzard Charles

The first fight between Marciano and ex-champ Charles was a gruelling, thrilling 15-rounder with Marciano coming on strongly in the later rounds to win a unanimous decision. In the return fight three months later Marciano suffered a severely cut nose but won in the eighth round when Charles jumped up just a fraction too late to beat the count after being dropped for the second time in the round. As with other immediate heavyweight rematches, the way Marciano vs Charles II ended raised the possibility that the first fight had taken something out of the loser. “It was the same way Walcott had done it in his own rematch with Marciano, and it made you think there had to be something special about Marciano that he made good, strong proud fighters like Walcott and Charles essentially quit in rematches,” William Detloff wrote in his Charles’ biography: Ezzard Charles: A Boxing Life.

Tyson Fury vs Deontay Wilder

You just don’t know what you’re going to get in a heavyweight championship immediate rematch. Wilder dropped Fury twice, and indeed almost had him out in the last round, in their 12-round draw. But in the rematch Fury went right after Wilder instead of boxing and moving and simply bullied and bludgeoned the smaller man to defeat in seven rounds. A third instalment – immediately after their second confrontation – is coming up in less than two weeks.

Do these immediate rematches tell us anything? Well, a fighter underprepared and overconfident the first time can turn the tables in spectacular fashion in the rematch. This much we know. But the lingering memory of what happened in the first go-round can affect the losing boxer’s psyche in the return bout. (Which is why some trainers like the beaten man to have a fight or two before the rematch, to make sure his confidence is fully restored.) 

Additionally, a complete change of tactics can yield excellent results in the encore (Fury vs Wilder II). And sometimes one man simply has it all over his opponent and would probably win convincingly every time they met (Liston vs Patterson). 

It’s now up to the boxing public to decide if any of the above is likely to apply when AJ and Usyk renew rivalry in the new year.

Main image: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing.