Shocker! Welterweight Upsets In History (Part I)

This Saturday night in Las Vegas, Floyd Mayweather Jr. will be putting his undefeated mark on the line against Victor Ortiz.  It’s a fairly significant fight, but also one in which the odds are quite wide and should the underdog win, the result will go down as one of the bigger upsets in welterweight history.  With that possibility in mind, we though it would be good time to take a look at some of the previous major upsets that have taken place in the 147lb class.

As this is A BACKWARD GLANCE, we’ll be limiting the selections to fights that occurred before the Pay-Per-View era.

May 20, 1926 – Pete Latzo vs Mickey Walker

Fighting in front of a raucous hometown crowd, 23-year-old Pete Latzo claimed the title from Mickey Walker after ten bitterly fought rounds at the Armory in Scranton.  In their only previous meeting, Latzo  had been badly thrashed by Walker – though he had improved enough in the interceding three years to battle his way to what the Associated Press called “the most sensational upset in recent ring history.”

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Pete Latzo

Walker had the early edge, but Latzo came on strong over the second half of the bout, repeatedly backing the defending champion up in the last few rounds, while landing a number of punishing right hands.  Walker’s manager Jack “Doc” Kearns was unimpressed by the decision, claiming that his fighter had deserved at least a draw – a point also argued by Walker, who said afterward that “the fight was too close for them to take my title from me.”

James P. Dawson of the New York Times also saw the fight as a close affair, though he believed the challenger was a worthy winner…

“It was a bitter struggle, savagely waged from first bell to last, but Walker heretofore battering his way past all rivals with his vicious fighting, fought against a man tonight more vicious in his style and furious in his attack than himself, and lost.”

There was talk of a return bout, but Walker’s chances fell through when he failed to get past Joe Dundee the following month.

October 4, 1940 – Henry Armstrong vs Fritzie Zivic

Fritzie Zivic

Fritzie Zivic, a 4 to 1 outsider, ended Henry Armstrong’s run of welterweight title defenses at 19 in a fiercely fought brawl at Madison Square Garden in New York.  Almost completely blinded by cuts and swelling around both eyes, Armstrong, who also bled from the mouth and nose, still managed to make the fight close until the last couple of rounds, in which he suffered a severe beating.

The crafty Zivic received plaudits for his performance, though there were many who felt the story would have been different if the dethroned champion hadn’t suffered such debilitating facial damage early in the contest.

Image Courtesy of Antiquities of the Prize Ring

The Associated Press recap offered this assessment…

There’s no intention here of taking anything away from the clear-cut merits of the title win by the rugged twenty-six year old Pittsburgher, who learned his fighting as chief bouncer in his father’s saloon.  He took nine of the fifteen rounds on The Associated Press score card, but it wasn’t too much of a trick to put on his stretch drive to victory against the sightless Armstrong who stayed on his feet under the bruising until the final bell.  Then he collapsed and had to be led to his corner.

Joseph C. Nichols summed up Armstrong’s brave struggle in the New York Times post-fight recap…

Armstrong collpases at the finish

Armstrong exhibited a brand of courage that will cause him to be long remembered even if he had not in the past held the featherweight, lightweight and welterweight championships of the world simultaneously… In the eleventh round the defending titleholder was blind, to all intents and purposes.  In that session and through the following ones, Zivic, aware of his foe’s plight, kept the battle at long range and ripped both hands to the head at every opportunity.  The pitifully handicapped Armstrong had trouble even locating his tormentor and as he returned to his corner at the end of each round, he would murmur prayerfully, “Oh, if I could only see.”

Armstrong indicated after the fight that he would be taking advantage of his rematch clause, though a rest likely would have been a wiser option.  The fighters met again just ten weeks later, with Zivic once again emerging victorious, this time in even more decisive fashion, stopping Armstrong in the twelfth round of a scheduled fifteen.  It would be his only successful title defense…

July 29, 1941 – Freddie Cochrane vs Fritzie Zivic

Cheered on by a crowd of 10,000 spectators, Freddie “Red” Cochrane became one of the most unlikely welterweight champions when he out-battled Fritzie Zivic over 15 rough and tumble rounds at Ruppert Stadium in Newark.  The fight, decided solely on the card of Referee Joe Mangold, had the underdog from nearby Elizabeth, a winner by a score of 7-4-4.  The result even surprised the new champion’s father, who said during the post-fight celebrations, “Who’d a thought this was gonna happen?”

Freddie "Red" Cochrane

Cochrane, who entered the bout sporting a record that included 31 losses in 101 fights, beat Zivic at his own game, outfighting the champion at close quarters, while matching Zivic’s unsavory tactics with a few of his own.  Zivic mounted a late charge, and managed to cut Cochrane in the twelfth and stagger him a couple times in the fourteenth round, though the hometown favorite was never in danger of being stopped and responded by driving Zivic back into the ropes with his own rally.

When asked to explain what happened, Zivic said that he simply struggled to get going early and blamed his form on a busy schedule that had seen him already fight twice earlier in the month.  Cochrane also had little to say (I.N.S. recap)…

Cochrane was excited and also modest in victory.  While a mob of well-wishers and semi-hysterical friends and fans flocked around his dressing room, Red, who was born just four houses on Bond Street from the home of Mickey Walker, said “I always knew I could beat Zivic if I got the chance.”  That was the extent of his victory speech.

Johnny Saxton over Kid Gavilan & Carmen Basilio, October 20, 1954 & March 14, 1956

On their own, neither of Saxton’s title conquests probably warrants mention on the list, as the odds on both fights were only around 2 to 1, but combined, the controversial victories are worth including.  With the notorious Blinky Palmero pulling the strings from the manager’s seat, both wins came under heavy scrutiny.

Gavilan & Saxton

The contest against Gavilan, rumored to be almost certainly a fix, was a desultory affair, marred by an almost total lack of action, with Saxton fighting ultra-cautiously throughout.  According to the International News Service, “Saxton was content to feint and dance, dart in occasionally for a punch or two, and then hold on for dear life.”

While the performance of Gavilan, who reportedly had difficulties making weight, wasn’t inspired either, it was thought to be at least worthy of victory on the night, with 20 of 22 ringside writers scoring the fight for the defending title holder.  However, the judges, all three hailing from Philadelphia, scored it unanimously for Saxton, by totals of 9-6, 7-6-2 and 8-6-1.

Image Courtesy of Antiquities of the Prize Ring

Gavilan, who apparently knew going in that the cards were heavily stacked against him, wept in his dressing room after the bout.  The fighter was aggrieved by the way referee Pete Pantaleo had officiated the fight, a  criticism echoed by Sports Illustrated’s Bud Schulberg, who wrote a scathing rebuke of Pantaleo, arguing the official had gone out his way to help donate the title to Saxton.  Schulberg went on to write that, “Saxton can now share with Carnera the booby prize for being the most undeserving and unwelcome champion in modern ring history.”

The complaints from Gavilan and his manager fell on deaf ears, however, as Frank Weiner, chairmen of the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission, indicated that while he wasn’t satisfied with the fight as a spectacle, the outcome would not be investigated.

Dan Parker, sports editor of the New York Mirror, had this to say about the controversy…

If Commissioner Frank Wiener were an ostrich instead of an eel he would be able to save face by burying his head in quicksand after what happened in Philadelphia’s Convention Hall Wednesday night to disgrace once more his home city and his administration of boxing in it.

That Philadelphia in recent years, a dumping ground for fistic garbage was advertised wherever television carried the Gavilan-Saxton welterweight stinker as a city in which it is possible for a home-town hoodlum to job a world’s champion of his title, for the benefit of one of his own fighters is the fault of no one but Wiener, Pennsylvania’s undistinguished administrator of boxing.

Without Wiener’s approval, Blinky Palmero, a hoodlum with a malodorous record in and out of the prize ring, could not hold a manager’s license.  That Palermo was able to steal the title on this occasion was most appropriate because he also stole Johnny Saxton, the fighter for whom he perpetrated this outrage.

Having been stopped in April of 1955 by Tony DeMarco, who in turn was vanquished twice by Basilio later in the year – Saxton found himself with a chance at recovering the crown in March of 1956, this time at the Chicago Stadium, and once more, controversy, though of a somewhat lesser variety, was a major part of the story.

The scores, as they were in Saxton’s win over Gavilan, were unanimous, with totals of 144-142, 145-138 and 147-140 going against the title-holder.  Basilio was incredulous at the verdict, angrily declaring in his dressing room afterward that the officials had “insulted the intelligence of millions of televiewers.”

Saxton vs Basilio

As with Gavilan before him, Basilio was also none too pleased with how the fight had been refereed, with the Upstate New York slugger seething over the work of Referee Frank Gilmer.  With Basilio’s strength coming at close quarters, the fighter was furious that Gilmer had insisted on constantly separating the fighters on the inside.

Image courtesy of

While the decision was heartily booed by the spectators, it wasn’t universally panned by the ringside press – with 7 of 28 scribes feeling that Saxton’s effective work at long range was enough to offset the harder shots landed by the aggressive Basilio.  Though fighting in retreat, Saxton had some success, managing to draw blood from Basilio’s nose, while almost closing the defending champion’s left eye with a steady stream of left jabs.

Of those that felt Saxton had won on merit was Wilfrid Smith of the Chicago Tribune, who wrote that, “The decision, was unpopular but not unfair.”  Smith felt the crowd favored Basilio from the start, and were further swayed by Saxton’s cautious approach.  He argued that,” Basilio’s inability to cope with Saxton’s boxing skill – on occasion he covered, ducked, and turned away – cost the decision.”

Martin Kane of Sports Illustrated, however, was unconvinced of the decision’s veracity, alluding to the shady connections between Chicago Stadium and the boxing underworld.  In Kane’s eyes, there were too many suspicious factors surrounding the whole affair not to believe that something less than honest had taken place.

Six month later, there were no controversies: Basilio took back his title with a ninth-round stoppage at War Memorial Auditorium in Syracuse.  Saxton, upset my criticisms of his defensive style, surprisingly tried to battle Basilio punch for punch.  For his bravery, he heard no boos, although he left the ring a badly beaten fighter.

e-mail Andrew Fruman

Tags: Carmen Basilio Fritzie Zivic Henry Armstrong Johnny "red" Cochrane Johnny Saxton Kid Gavilan Mickey Walker Pete Latzo

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