When the fighter beats the boxer…

It’s a widely held perception that the boxer usually prevails against the fighter in an even match. Yet that’s not always the case. IBHOF inductee Graham Houston looks back at some memorable occasions where the fighter emerged victorious.

A boxer vs fighter pairing has long been considered the ultimate match-up, a contest likely to produce compelling action. 

The theory goes, that in an evenly matched bout a boxer beats a fighter (or boxer beats puncher, for that matter).

This often holds true. But there is no hard and fast rule.

Obviously, many things can come into play. Fighter Joe Frazier beat boxer Muhammad Ali in their first fight, but Ali was having only his third bout after three-and-a-half years of inactivity. Jake LaMotta did win once against Sugar Ray Robinson, but the Bronx Bull had a hefty weight advantage. 

The old 15-round fights gave the fighter a better chance: More rounds in which to wear down the superior technician, more rounds to land a payoff punch (hence aggressor Rocky Marciano, behind on points, knocking out crafty Jersey Joe Walcott in the 13th round).

Broadly speaking, we think of the ‘fighter’ as the contestant who forces the action, who depends on pressure and imposing his will, looking to break down his opponent.

The term ‘boxer’ could apply to a solid ring mechanic, a counter puncher or a flashier type.

But the fighter doesn’t necessarily lack ring savvy and the boxer will sometimes dig in and fight, depending on the way a contest is unfolding.

What makes boxing endlessly fascinating is that we can never be quite sure what will happen when the first bell rings. Take Tyson Fury. He boxed a cagey, smart tactical fight against Wladimir Klitschko but was on the front foot and looking to damage in the rematch with Deontay Wilder.

And, look, if the boxer always beat the fighter sporting types would know who to bet on each and every time.   

Here’s a random sampling of boxer vs fighter meetings over the years when the competitor we’d consider the fighter prevailed.

Iran Barkley KO3, W12 Thomas Hearns: Barkley scored a stunning upset when, cut and bloodied, he sensationally stopped Hearns in the third round to win the middleweight title. In the rematch, this time with the light-heavy title at stake, Barkley knocked down Hearns in the fourth round and came on to grind out a split 12-round decision. Hearns was the more polished but Barkley fought as if his life depended on winning.

The brooding Iran Barkley upsets Thomas Hearns first time around.

Roberto Duran W15 Sugar Ray Leonard: Duran was the fighter in this clash of welterweight superstars and popular opinion has it that Leonard got drawn into Duran’s type of fight. But maybe Duran was such an irrepressible force that night in Montreal that Leonard had to stand and fight or be run out of the ring. (And Duran, of course, had ring intelligence as well as ferocity — he knew how to slip punches, close the distance and cut off the ring.)

Vito Antuofermo W15 Hugo Corro: The Argentinean Corro was the more artistic — “a brilliant boxer” ABC TV commentator Howard Cosell informed the US viewing audience before the Monaco contest got under way — but New York-Italian Antuofermo was the stronger man and unsettled Corro with bullish rushes. The referee told the judges to take a point from Antuofermo for boring in with his head but Vito won a split decision in an undistinguished fight.

Colin Jones TKO9 (twice) Kirkland Laing: There was no question that Laing, a stand-up stylist, had the greater technical prowess and hand speed but Jones was gritty, relentless and the bigger puncher. In each of the two meetings for the British welterweight title, Laing piled up points early but Jones never gave up trying to land a decisive blow. In the first meeting, a huge right hand got Laing going in the ninth round and Jones never gave him a chance to recover. “That is one of the most astonishing wins you’ll ever see,” BBC TV commentator Harry Carpenter exclaimed. In the rematch, Laing had Jones in trouble in the eighth round although TV replays showed Jones was hit low twice. But in the ninth Jones dropped Laing flat on his back with a big left hook. Laing got but wobbled back across the ring and the referee waved it over. “It’s a total action-replay of the first fight,” Harry Carpenter excitedly told BBC TV viewers. “That is quite  amazing!”

Julian Jackson KO4 Herol Graham: If ever a boxer had the so-called puncher’s chance, that would be Julian Jackson. After three rounds against slick, elusive southpaw Herol Graham, it looked as if Jackson was in real danger of losing his 154-pound title. Jackson’s left eye was swollen and referee Joe Cortez called for a doctor’s inspection. In the fourth, though, Graham started to stand his ground and tee off, and Jackson suddenly landed a right hand that absolutely flattened the Sheffield southpaw. “As the contest went on I thought there was no chance of him catching Graham,” stunned commentator Reg Gutteridge told the UK viewing audience.

Julian Jackson’s devastating KO of the slick Herol Graham.

Tony DeMarco TKO14 Johnny Saxton: The curious thing about this welterweight title fight is that Saxton, normally a smart, cautious boxer — boxing historian Nat Fleischer once described him as “a notoriously dull and clutching, running fighter” — was willing to fight it out. Perhaps Saxton was stung by criticism both of his performance and the decision when he won the title from Kid Gavilan in a dreary fight. But underdog DeMarco, described by Sports Illustrated as a fighter who eschewed defence and “comes at you with both hands”, fought an inspired battle in front of a Boston hometown crowd. Maybe Saxton felt he needed to open up to keep DeMarco off him — or maybe it was a pride thing. But the unexpected can and does happen in a boxing match: Things don’t always go according to the script. 

Gene Fullmer W15 Spider Webb: Fullmer, dubbed by some as the “Mauling Mormon”, had won a 10-round decision over the shiftier, classier Webb before becoming middleweight champion. Webb had won seven of his last eight bouts going into the title fight, including a decision over future champ Dick Tiger in London. For pure boxing ability, Webb was a better fighter than Fullmer. But Fullmer was stronger, rougher and tougher, with an awkward sort of effectiveness. “Scrambling over his own feet, throwing punches like a back alley drunk, Fullmer gave challenger Spider Webb no chance to fire his smooth combinations and no chance to catch his breath,” Boxing Illustrated reported.

Terry Downes TKO end of 9 Paul Pender: Pender had won the first (of what was to become a three-fight series) on home ground in Boston, busting up the cut-prone Downes in seven rounds. But in the middleweight title rematch at Wembley Pool, Londoner Downes swarmed all over the more precise Pender. There was no air-conditioning that summer’s night in July 1961 and Pender, cut over the eye, seemed more exhausted than anything when he retired in his corner after the ninth round. The fight was scheduled for 15 rounds and although Pender’s retirement was considered unsatisfactory the general view was that the American champion had shot his bolt and in the words of the Daily Telegraph’s Donald Saunders “would ultimately have run completely out of stamina as he found it more and more difficult to keep the tremendously powerful Briton at bay”.

Jorge Castro KO9 John David Jackson: Argentina’s Castro was outclassed skill-wise by smooth-boxing southpaw John David Jackson but pulled off a sensational victory on a big Don King show in Monterrey, Mexico. Jackson was looking a certain winner heading into the ninth round. Castro was cut over both eyes and his eyes were swollen and closing. Jackson had won every round on two judges’ cards while the third judge gave him six of the first eight rounds. But, with the fight just about won, Jackson didn’t play it safe. He backed up Castro in the ninth and let his hands go, only to get caught by a left hook that dropped him heavily. Jackson got up but two further knockdowns ended the fight. As dramatic endings go, this one was right up there. “It’s getting to be a hackneyed term to say it was the stuff of Hollywood movies, but this is exactly what it was,” I reported from ringside for Boxing Monthly

Jorge Castro’s sensational finish against John David Jackson in their first encounter.

Jimmy Anderson TKO9 Jimmy Revie: This was the first-ever bout for the British title in the 130-pound division (then called junior lightweight in Britain). At the time, I was covering boxing for a south London newspaper and I remember the bout as a classic boxer-fighter meeting. Revie, a 20-year-old southpaw sharpshooter, had won 13 bouts in a row, all inside the distance, but he had never been past five rounds. Anderson, 25,  heavy-handed and willing, was the more seasoned fighter, slower but stronger. I remember Revie getting off to a fast start, outboxing and outspeeding Anderson. However, Anderson just kept coming and always looked dangerous. He seemed to hurt Revie when he hit him. Things were looking good for Revie in the seventh round when he had Anderson down, but, as I remember it, Revie simply punched himself out. Anderson’s greater experience and strength told. He dropped the tiring Revie twice in the ninth round and the fight was stopped.

Main image: Roberto Duran vs Sugar Ray Leonard I, courtesy of the WBC.