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Unheralded contenders and their value to boxing

June 11, 2019

Andy Ruiz beating via seventh round stoppage an erstwhile undefeated Anthony Joshua the other weekend produced shock waves that many never expected.

Entering a massive underdog against Joshua, the chubby Mexican proved that unheralded contenders could produce shock waves that greatly benefits the sport of boxing in many ways.

And we have seen many of these unheralded contenders making waves even in recent history, like Nonito Donaire’s shocking defeat of a then feared and undefeated Vic Darchinyan in November 2013 and Manny Pacquiao’s destruction of Lehlo Ledwaba in June 2006. In both fights, our compatriots were summoned as substitutions for the original challengers, just like Ruiz in his fight against Joshua.

The shock value that unheralded contenders produce is very good for boxing, as it demonstrates how fluid the sport can be. And in my opinion, there are a lot of unheralded contenders who deserve more respect than world title holders who never step up their game or face real opposition.

The problem with boxing today is once a fighter wins a world title from any of the alphabet boxing organizations, his handlers have the option of choosing the least dangerous foes to assure their fighter reigns long and generate large amounts of cash. You can call this cherry picking.

And if a boxer at the contender level is backed by a well-connected promoter, he can get opponents that could be reasonably dealt with in the ring, assuring he would become world champion sooner or later.

Good examples here are Canelo Alvarez and Oscar Dela Hoya, just to name a few. However, with due respect to Alvarez and Dela Hoya, both became prominent world champions in their era.

But if a boxer at the contender level is not backed by a well-connected promoter, he must risk taking on opponents that can knock his brains off. This gives him a slimmer chance of winning a world title.

One good example is Ken Norton, whom I respect more highly than past or present world heavyweight champions who are “protected” or given a diet of patsies and cream puffs for their title defenses.

Norton, who I still believe won all of this three fights against Muhammad Ali, lost by knockout to George Foreman and Earnie Shavers, acknowledged as the hardest punchers of their era.

In May 1977, Norton squared off against undefeated young gun Duane Bobick in a fight where Norton was supposed to be a stepping stone. In that fight, Bobick’s record was 38-0 with 30 knockouts while Norton’s was 37-4 with 30 KOs. Norton shocked the world by stopping Bobick in the first round, exposing his opponent’s weaknesses. Bobick never became a world champion.

Norton had a short two-month reign as world champion in 1978 and is a member of the Boxing Hall of Fame.

Norton’s being treated as a stepping stone continued when he was pitted in May 1981 against the up-and-coming “Great White Hope” Jerry Cooney. Norton was knocked out in the second round of their fight, the last in his career.

But who can forget how Norton literally tormented Ali over three fights? And the stoppage win of Ruiz over Joshua would surely have its place in boxing’s history books.

Maybe the Boxing Hall of Fame should give more recognition to unheralded contenders who have contributed more to the sport than many world champions. Also, without unheralded contenders, boxing would surely become a predictable and boring ring spectacle.

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