Following on from our piece a few weeks ago asking whether boxing’s reliance on the 0 has got to go, Matt Lewis looks at famous examples of boxing career successes following that first defeat
Being undefeated has never carried more weight. The projected millions slashed from the value of Anthony Joshua after his shock defeat to Any Ruiz Jr, not to mention from the pay packets of his future opponents, is testament to this. But sometimes, losing can reinvigorate a fighter in ways that winning never could. Ahead of Joshua’s rumoured rematch with Ruiz, I list some fighters from the last 30 years who lost, learned from it, and returned to winning ways with fresh enthusiasm.
Once upon a time, Nelson was 0-3 with a dwindling future in front of him. His first three fights included losses to debutant Magne Havnaa and to Peter Brown, who had drawn his first fight before beating Nelson over 6 rounds in his second. A gradual improvement in form brought Nelson to 6-5, and a 2nd Round TKO victory over Danny Lawford won him the Central Area cruiserweight title, taking his record to 12-5.
His next six fights saw him win the British title, defend it twice, and compete twice for a world (Carlos De Leon held him to a draw for the WBC belt, while James Warring outpointed him for the IBF). A back-and-forth period as WBF and European champion eventually led to his record-breaking reign as WBO champion, which included 14 title defences, winning 13 and drawing 1 of them.
True, only two of those men Nelson faced as a champion went on to win world titles themselves; most of the others could manage no greater than European or Commonwealth honours. But given the poor start to his career, he nevertheless considerably exceeded expectations.
In life, the classy American has bounced back from bigger things than mere defeats in a boxing ring. The 28-year-old has survived a shooting, a drowning scare and countless injuries to go with some hotly disputed losses in a much-storied career, prompting his former promoter Lou DiBella to comment: “I swear, if the kid didn’t have bad luck, he wouldn’t have any luck at all.”
Farmer started his pro career with a KO loss to Oscar Santana (who retired in 2017); two more defeats to modest opponents, along with a points draw, gave him a 4-3-1 record by the start of 2012, after just over a year as a pro. Another KO loss to future two-weight champion Jose Pedraza set him back again, but also prompted a resurgence; he hasn’t lost since, has become a world champion himself (defending again by UD against Guillaume Frenois last weekend), and has beaten some solid contenders in the super-featherweight division along the way, including Inter-Continental champion Jono Carroll, European and Commonwealth champion James Tennyson, and former world title challenger Fransisco Fonseca.
He lacks a career-defining fight, but the size of the odds stacked against him will likely, and rightly, define his career more than most fights could.
One fighter who proved that persistence does pay off occasionally. Like the others on this list, Kono began with a loss, that being to fellow debutant Toshiaki Nitta. He slowly rebuilt over the following 7 years by fighting exclusively at Tokyo’s famous Korakuen Hall, where he amassed a 20-3 record, winning the Japanese and OPBF super-flyweight titles in the process.
Kono’s first two world title shots ended in defeats, and the drop in form that followed would convince many to retire; he lost his Japanese title in his next fight, and lost the one after as well when Yohei Tobe, a 2-0 prospect at the time, outpointed him over 8 in 2011. But the Toyko native stuck with it, and caused a stirring upset when he knocked out WBA champion Panthep Mullipoom to finally win a world title in 2012. He ended his career a two-time world champion, having fought the likes of Naoya Inoue, Luis Conception, and two-weight champion Koki Kameda (who he beat).
That Kono won’t go down as an all-time great shouldn’t matter; that he overcame some big career setbacks to become champion of the world, as well as some very respectable opposition, should.
When Miguel Molina outpointed Jorge Paez over 6 rounds in July 1986, his record made for uninspiring reading; he was 7-2-1, with 3 of his victories (and one of his defeats) coming against boxing debutants, while another 3 came against winless opposition. Destined for obscurity, Paez stubbornly packed 18 fights into two years, and won them all to put himself in line for a title shot against the undefeated IBF champion Calvin Grove. Their closely-fought encounter was about to be won by Grove until Paez, behind on points but spurred on by the home crowd, knocked the champion down three times in the 15th and final round to win a last-gasp majority decision.
Paez remained champion for the next two years, during which he avenged the Molina loss, beat Grove again in a rematch, unified his IBF belt with the WBO title against Louis Espinoza, and defeated several former and future world champions. He lost his titles to Tony Lopez over 12 in 1988 and never regained them, although he challenged on several occasions.
Jorge Paez shared the ring with generational greats like Pernell Whitaker, Jose Luis Castillo and Oscar De La Hoya and retired with just under 100 fights on his ledger. There aren’t many fighters who wouldn’t be happy with that.
Surely an outside contender for the world champion with the least consistent run of form. His 47-26-5 resume began with a 2-4 losing streak after his first 6 (4 of which were against debutants). He slowly improved, but failed to gain any real momentum; wins and losses would alternate at random, with the occasional draw thrown in for good measure… becoming Pennsylvania State champion in 1985 after three successive defeats may have surprised him as much as it did the boxing fans in attendance.
Pendleton persisted. He won and then defended the USBA lightweight title, and there was no shame in brave losses to John Montes and then Pernell Whitaker (for the unified IBF and WBC titles). After a run of 7 wins, he finally won the vacant IBF lightweight belt against Tracey Spann at the second time of asking. He defended it once, against Jorge Paez (above), then lost it to Rafael Ruelas and never won another; all three of his following world title challenges ended in stoppage defeats.
His career isn’t Hall Of Fame material but Pendleton’s world title wins, his five world title challenges, and victories over guys like Roger Mayweather, Jorge Paez and Tony Lopez demand he receive some respect. As for bouncing back from losses, Pendleton spent his entire career doing so; with a little less recklessness and just a little more luck, his career could have been even more meaningful.