Honeyghan vs Vaca Poster

Shocker! Welterweight Upsets In History (Part II)

More of the biggest upsets in welterweight history…

December 5, 1958 – Virgil Akins vs Don Jordan

Local upstart Don Jordan battered champion Virgil Akins over fifteen rounds to win a decisive unanimous decision at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. Jordan, who had earned the title shot with two close wins over Gasper Ortega, was considered by many as just a blown up lightweight, and he entered the contest at even money simply to last the distance against the hard hitting Akins.

Don Jordan

Instead, he not only comprehensively out-boxed Akins, but had him on shaky legs and wobbling on a couple occasions in the tenth. Akins, who had resorted to dirty tactics several times in the bout in an attempt to ruffle Jordan, survived the onslaught and came back strong behind a heavy body attack in the next few rounds, although he was penalized a point for butting in the fourteenth round. It was the second deduction of the night for Akins, who also lost a point for a low blow in the seventh.

Image courtesy of TheCyberBoxingZone

The official scores were lopsided, 145-138, 145-132 and 146-136, as were those of the ringside press, who all had Jordan in front by a comfortable margin. After the bout, Jordan gave credit for the upset to his trainer Eddie Futch, telling the Los Angeles Times that, “I did just what he told me to do. He planned all the strategy. And he had it down right. Any credit for my success tonight goes to Eddie.”

Akins, who finished the fight with bad swelling over his right eye, was forced to change his airline reservation out of town, having booked an early flight on the basis of thinking he’d need only a few rounds to dispatch Jordan. He also had a rather unusual excuse for his defeat, explaining that his training had not gone well due to a pair of lost running shoes. He promised a rematch would prove a different story, but Jordan once again had the better of things when the fighters met the following spring in Akins’ hometown of St. Louis.

Sep 30, 1961 – Benny “Kid” Paret vs Emile Griffith

Benny “Kid” Paret came on strong down the stretch to reclaim the welterweight crown with a disputed split decision over former conqueror Emile Griffith, at Madison Square Garden. Paret, a 3 ½ to 1 underdog, who had lost his title to Griffith by knockout earlier in the year, finished the bout with both eyes badly swollen, along with a bloody mouth and a gash on his cheek.

Benny "Kid" Paret

It was a rough, bitterly fought battle, with the aggressive Paret, arms ever churning, doing his best work to the body on the inside, as Griffith responded with the harder, cleaner head shots from long range. Two of the three judges preferred Paret’s performance by scores of 9-6 and 8-6-1, while the dissenting vote of Referee Al Berl favored Griffith by a tally of 8-6-1. A ringside poll by the United Press International found that 18 of 22 sportswriters disagreed with the official verdict.

Image courtesy of Boxrec.com

Despite the controversy over the decision, the savage quality of the fight was undeniable. Writing in his Cauliflower Corner column, Dave Gregg of the Joplin Globe, who had been highly critical of the verdict (commenting that anyone who scored it for Paret must have been “stoned out of their everlovin’ minds”), offered these words on the bout and the title holder…

The Griffith-Paret fight, aside from the decision was just what boxing needs to stimulate interest. It was a titanic struggle…Benny may not be the best fighter extant, but he is as gutty a gladiator as I’ve ever seen.

Griffith naturally wasn’t as philosophical about the outcome and indicated he wanted a rematch, adding that he “was amazed when they announced the decision.” Trainer Gil Clancy was incensed as well. “It was a terrible decision. We insist on a return.”

When asked about the possibility of a third meeting, Paret’s manager Manuel Alfaro was quick to dismiss the idea.

“Nowhere, no how and no place,” was his response.

December 3, 1970 – Jose Napoles vs Billy Backus

It was short and bloody, and far from conclusive, but Billy Backus left the ring at War Memorial Auditorium in Syracuse as the winner of arguably the biggest upset in welterweight title history.  A nasty cut, just over the left eyelid of defending champion Jose Napoles, lead to a fourth round TKO victory for the 27-year-old southpaw from nearby Canestota.

Napoles vs Backus

According to the UPI recap, Napoles had been such a prohibitive favorite that oddsmakers had been unwilling to take bets on the fight – though the New York Times reported Backus entered as a 9 to 1 longshot.

Image Courtesy of Antiquities of the Prize Ring

The deciding cut, suffered midway through the third round, changed the course of the bout, as the visiting fighter’s superior skills had easily carried the opening two rounds – but from that point on, the bout descended into a brawl, with Backus matching Napoles punch for punch.   Napoles claimed afterward that he had been butted, though Backus insisted the damage had been caused by a right hand.  Either way, the end came a minute into the following session, when Referee Jack Milicich stepped in to stop the contest.

According to Backus, the direction of the fight turned thanks to a tip from his uncle, Carmen Basilio, who told the 27-year-old southpaw to stay to his right, which allowed Backus to successfully bull his way inside.  Naturally, Basilio was overjoyed at the stunning result…

“This is the biggest thrill I’ve had since I won the title here.  But this was all Billy Backus’s victory.  What could be better than having two champions in the same family?  I’ll admit that after it was over I cried.”

- Carmen Basilio

Napoles also cried.  He didn’t bother changing either, angrily walking right out of the ring and back to his hotel room while still in his boxing robe.  The ending didn’t sit well with the now-former champion, who felt the decision to stop the fight had been premature.

His frustrations were eventually tempered by the signing of a return match, which took place on June 4, 1971, at the Forum in Inglewood.   There would be no Cinderella repeat in California, with Napoles hammering his way to a one-sided eighth round TKO win.

December 6, 1975 – Jose Napoles vs John H. Stracey

Five years later, Napoles was upset once more.  This time the defeat took place on his home turf at the Monumental Plaza, in the high altitude of Mexico City, with Englishman John H. Stracey rebounding from a shaky start to stop the veteran champion late in the sixth session.

Image Courtesy of Antiquities of the Prize Ring

Though a stunning result to most, there were some who’d thought Napoles might be at the end of the line.  Angelo Dundee, who had trained Napoles in the past, felt the champion had shown signs of vulnerability in his two previous bouts earlier that year against Armando Muniz.  “He just might be ready to be taken,” Dundee commented the day before the fight.

The bout, a fast paced struggle, very nearly didn’t take place, with Stracey and his team having packed their bags and decided to leave town only days over terms he felt were unfair.  Threatened with incarceration by local authorities if he didn’t go through with the contest, the fighter from Bethnal Green, London, decided it was best to stick around, but found himself on the canvas less than two minutes into the opening round.

John H. Stracey

Stracey lost the second round as well, but the pattern changed in the third, when the left eye of Napoles, that had started swelling late in the previous round, rapidly began to close.  The hard-jabbing Stracey, gaining confidence, started to take the play away, and by the fifth round was clearly in command.  The end came soon after, with Napoles, his left eye swollen completely shut, rescued by Referee Octavio Meyran as Stracey pounded him along the ropes.

When asked about the possibility of a rematch, Stracey, who had idolized Napoles for years, said he didn’t think it was in the best interest of his defeated foe to fight again.

  “I just hope that he retires now because it is time for him to go.  One day, it will be my turn to go, too.  That’s boxing.”

- John H. Stracey

Napoles, who had been itching to get his title back after losing to Backus, wasn’t sure it was a good idea either.  “I’m going to rest up before thinking about going into a rematch.  I just don’t know right now.”

Six months later, Napoles announced his retirement.

September 27, 1986– Lloyd Honeghan vs Donald Curry

Donald Curry, hailed by many as the world’s best fighter, suffered a shocking defeat at the hands of British challenger Lloyd Honeyghan in Atlantic City.  Curry, who had his eyes focused on a potential mega-fight with middleweight king Marvin Hagler, retired on his stool on the advice of the ringside physician at the end of the sixth round, having been badly battered by his unheralded foe.

Lloyd Honeyghan

Honeyghan had been outspoken over his chances in the days leading up to the fight – so much so that his trainer Bobby Neill had been concerned over his cocky attitude.  He didn’t want his pupil giving the champ any extra motivation, though Honeyghan, confident in the extreme, insisted on having his say…

I’m sick of you guys saying he’s the best pound for pound fighter in the world.  That’s a lot of rubbish.  Marvin Hagler deserves that label – and I’m while I’m about it, you should give me a bit more credit as a fighter.  In fact, I’m fed up with you guys saying I’m a nice guy, but underneath implying I’ll be just another punching bag for Curry.

As for Curry’s opinion of Honeyghan…

Oh, the Brit, you mean.  I’ve never seen him before and haven’t even got a video of him.  I’ll try to make the fight last six or seven rounds to give the fans their money’s worth.

Honeyghan, however, had watched tapes of Curry.  Taking a look at the Lonestar Cobra’s victories over Nino La Rocca and Marlon Starling, the 26-year-old from London figured out his plan, and executed it to perfection against the previously undefeated favorite.  Honeyghan stunned Curry in the second round with a right cross, before eventually exerting full control in the fifth, again hurting Curry, doing the damage with more right hands.  The sixth was even more troublesome for Curry, with the fighter’s chances slipping completely away when a clash of heads opened up a nasty gash over his left eye – though even without the injury, by that point, he had looked well beaten.

In explaining the defeat afterward, Curry pointed to weight issues, explaining he’d been forced to lose 16lbs in the weeks leading up to the fight – though added he’d been beaten by a better man.  “He’s an excellent fighter,” Curry said.  “And on the night was too good for me.”

Honeyghan, was naturally jubilant over his win.  “I’m the best welterweight in the world,” he said afterward.  “And take my word.  I won’t lose the championship as quickly as Randy Turpin did.”

On the first point, he may have been correct.  On the second, only marginally…

October 28, 1987 – Lloyd Honeghan vs Jorge Vaca

A little over a year after becoming champion, Lloyd Honeyghan stumbled at an unlikely hurdle, losing his title to longshot Jorge Vaca at Grand Hall in Wembley.  Vaca, a replacement for Honeyghan’s original opponent, Bobby Joe Young, walked away with a surprising split verdict, after the fight went to the cards early due to an accidental clash of heads.

The British press didn’t take Vaca’s chances too seriously, with the Daily Express picking the heavily favored local man to win by a mid-round stoppage.  The paper also pointed out Honeyghan’s cantankerous mood, which would be unleashed in a fury on the visiting foe – though later on it was revealed that Honeyghan may have been acting irritably due to a number of distractions, and not because he was trained to a fever pitch.

The fight was an entertaining give-and-take struggle, especially over the opening few rounds, when the fighters set a quick pace, often trading power shots freely.  The battle became a little more tactical the rest of the way, as the action shifted to more of a long range dual with both fighters having their moments, and there was little to chose from at the time of the abrupt end.

The eighth round collision, which left Vaca bleeding badly from a spurting cut over his right eye that would require 16 stitches, meant an automatic point deduction for Honeyghan, which turned the result from a draw into a narrow victory for the Mexican fighter.  The scores were 67-65 and 67-66 for Vaca, with 67-65 total in favor of the hometown man.

Vaca, and his team, were said to be surprised the close decision had gone their way on foreign soil, though were classy in victory.  The new champion said he would have preferred to win in a different manner, and would be happy to come back to London for a rematch.  Those thoughts were echoed by his co-manager Ignacio Huizar, who remarked, “We would come again, no problem.  Both guys are good fighters and this was not the best way to end it.”

Poster via ChampsUK.com

The mood in the Honeyghan camp was decidedly less cheerful.  The fighter’s manager Mickey Duff felt Honeyghan had been ahead at the time of the head clash, and would be looking ahead to the rematch, though Honeyghan, who said that he’d hurt his hand in the opening round, seemed to have his thoughts on other matters…

I have had a lot of problems with my mind and maybe they caught up with me.  I was too relaxed and I was not concentrating.  I need a rest now.  I have enjoyed myself while I have been champion and I would have changed anything.  I will have to wait and see what happens next.  Quitting is a serious option.

- Lloyd Honeyghan

Later on that night, Honeyghan told writer James Lawton that he just wanted to be by himself.   He didn’t want anyone around him – he just wanted to cry alone.

Lawton gave his thoughts on the now former champion…

Honeyghan broke down, as a fighter and as a man of ambition.  He may come back for the money, but it is hard to imagine him as he was, a man whose hunger consumed all doubts.  If it is true the old Honeyghan has gone, British boxing is terribly diminished.  We will have lost our one star pupil at the hard school.

Honeyghan decided to fight on, and Vaca did return to London in March of 1988, with the championship changing hands once more, this time via a decisive third round knockout for the British fighter.  Despite the victory, Lawton was right in his fears, as Honeyghan never approached the previous high standards he had set.  He made one successful defense after retaining the crown, before losing via stoppage to Marlon Starling.

Vaca, too, was finished on the world stage, as he was hammered by Simon Brown in his first outing after losing the crown, but he did have that one joyous bloody night in London, when he upset the odds, and became the welterweight champion of the world.

e-mail Andrew Fruman

Tags: Benny "kid" Paret Billy Backus DON JORDAN Donald Curry Emile Griffith Joe Napoles John Stracey Jorge Vaca Lloyd Honeyghan VIRGIL AKINS

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