Fighters Who Changed Their Spots: Boxers Turned Sluggers
By Lee Groves from Max Boxing
In the first installment of "Fighters Who Changed Their Spots," I profiled five fights in which a slugger -turned boxer in order to secure that precious "W" (or "KO") on his record. The five fights that follow here provide examples of a boxer who turned the tables on his more aggressive opponent and came out on top.
November 15, 1952, Johannesburg, Transvaal, South Africa – Jimmy Carruthers KO 1 Vic Toweel: When a title challenger travels to the champion's hometown, he knows that he must rip the title away if he expects to take it home with him. The film of Carruthers' title-winning victory over Toweel should be required viewing for all future challengers seeking to unseat a home-standing champion because no one did it better than this Australian southpaw on this day.
Though Carruthers could crack with his left cross, he mostly used his boxing skills to build a 14-0 record, with only two of his nine KOs taking place in his last seven fights. Three of his last four outings went the full 12 rounds and it wasn't expected that he could bowl over the favored Toweel, especially in front of nearly 30,000 countrymen at Johannesburg's landmark Rand Stadium.
Toweel (26-0-1, 13 KO) had dethroned the long-reigning Manuel Ortiz two-and-a-half years earlier and, incredibly, he continued to defend his South African featherweight title during his 118-pound tenure. In his first bantamweight defense against Danny O'Sullivan, Toweel scored 14 knockdowns before putting the Englishman away in round 10. The South African buzzsaw notched two more defenses against Luis Romero (W 15) and Peter Keenan (W 15) before meeting Carruthers.
Because Carruthers so badly wanted to become a world champion he decided to roll the dice once the opening bell sounded. The lefty roared out of his corner, drove Toweel toward the ropes with a left cross and ambushed the champion with a ferocious succession of left uppercuts, much like Somsak Sitchatchawal would do against Mahyar Monshipour in the opening seconds of their fight 54 years later. Carruthers was merciless as his assault knocked Toweel completely out of the ring at one point. A final left uppercut put the dazed and overwhelmed Toweel on the canvas for the 10 count. It was a most dramatic coronation and while Carruthers would defend the title three times (including a 10th round KO of Toweel), the Australian never again fought with such uncompromising savagery.
February 18, 1981, Panama City, Panama -- Hilario Zapata KO 13 Joey Olivo: At 5-6 1/2" Zapata made his mark as WBC junior flyweight champion by picking apart his far shorter opponents from the outside while making them look foolish with his dazzling defensive skills. It didn't matter that his 15-1 record featured only six knockouts as long as his stick-and-move tactics produced the desired result. But when Zapata met Joey Olivo in his fifth title defense, Zapata was presented with a unique physical and stylistic puzzle. At 5-9, the 28-1 (8 KO) Olivo was by far the tallest rated 108-pounder in the world and the fact that he was a native of San Fernando, Calif. inspired ABC to provide live coverage from Gimnasio Nueva Panama in Panama City. The 23-year-old Olivo was attempting to become the first American to break the divisional hammerlock applied by the dominant Oriental and South American fighters, and more than a few experts thought he had the goods to get the job done.
The nearly 100-degree conditions provided stifling conditions inside the open-air arena that lacked air conditioning, yet the usually passive Zapata was on the attack from the opening bell. His lightning-quick combinations tore through Olivo's defense yet he was still able to elude most of Olivo's long-armed blows. Zapata had been highly criticized by his countrymen for the safety-first nature of his past fights but here the crowd cheered Zapata's every blow. The suffocating heat and Zapata's relentless attack eventually left Olivo exhausted and he was unable to answer the bell for the 14th round. Four years and 11 fights later, Olivo made good on the predictions for his future when he decisioned Francisco Quiroz to capture the WBA junior flyweight title but against this super-aggressive version of Zapata, he had no chance.
October 20, 1982, Cleveland, Ohio – Saoul Mamby W 10 Monroe Brooks: Less than four months earlier, Mamby lost his WBC junior welterweight title to Leroy Haley in a controversial 15-round decision and his bout with Brooks was the main support to Haley’s first defense against Juan Jose Giminez. Mamby’s stock and trade was his smooth boxing skills that featured a long and educated jab. Many of his fights went the distance and while his safety-first style enabled the 35-year-old to maintain his abilities and faculties, it also stamped him as a boring fighter.
Against Brooks, whose most notable bouts were wars against then-WBC champ Saensak Muangsurin and future titlist Bruce Curry, Mamby wanted to make a dramatic case that he deserved a rematch with Haley. Though Mamby remained defensively responsible, he was far more willing to take the lead and it paid immediate dividends as he connected with a strong overhand right in the opening seconds. Normally a cautious starter, Mamby began fast and his momentum built with every passing round. His jabs snapped Brooks’ head back and his combinations connected with Brooks’ chin as if attracted by a magnet. In the third, Mamby planted his feet and pasted Brooks with flurries of well-timed blows. In the fifth, an overhand right hurt Brooks and by the seventh was more than willing to trade in the trenches.
Mamby began the 10th intent on closing the show impressively behind two strong overhand rights to the jaw and followed with two flush hooks and a right to the temple several seconds later. Mamby was fighting like a man 10 years younger as he blasted Brooks with punch after punch, and a left hook in the final minute nearly produced a knockdown. When the unanimous decision in Mamby’s favor was announced, it was greeted with an enthusiastic standing ovation, a sight seldom seen following many of Mamby’s victories. Haley retained the title later that evening and from Mamby’s viewpoint, the rematch with Haley couldn’t have had a better prelude.
April 15, 1985, Las Vegas, Nevada – Marvelous Marvin Hagler KO 3 Thomas Hearns: If a movie producer wanted to cast a fearsome looking slugger, Hagler would have been a prime candidate. His shaved head, satanic-looking goatee and heavily muscled body projected an intimidating image while his "destruct and destroy" mindset completed a most frightening package.
But one only has to look at the tapes to realize that Hagler was much more boxer than slugger. Hagler was perhaps the most versatile fighter of his generation; though a natural right-hander, Hagler preferred to fight as a southpaw and he executed his moves out of both stances with equal effectiveness. Hagler operated behind a stiff right jab and constantly kept his opponents off-balance with subtle head, shoulder and foot feints. Hagler was also very nimble as he constantly circled his opponents in search of the perfect angle to strike with his precise punches.
When Hagler lost a disputed draw to Vito Antuofermo in his first title shot, he vowed to be much more aggressive and he fulfilled his promise by bludgeoning Alan Minter in three rounds. But after he won the title, Hagler returned to his boxing roots as he carved up challengers like Mustafa Hamsho, Fulgencio Obelmejias, Antuofermo, Wilford Scypion, Juan Domingo Roldan and Tony Sibson before putting them away. In his only title defense to go the distance, Hagler was far more the boxer when he fought Roberto Duran and his caution nearly cost him the title as Duran held a slight lead on the cards entering the final two rounds.
Going into Hagler-Hearns, the conventional wisdom was that each man would box the other. Hearns possessed the greater height and reach while Hagler proved against Obelmejias that he could chop a taller man down while remaining in his boxing posture. But Hagler knew this was his chance to vault himself into the mainstream consciousness and his camp honestly felt Hearns would be vulnerable to a full-frontal assault. So when fight night came, Hagler was truly on a mission of destruction.
At the opening bell, Hagler tore into Hearns and the "Hit Man" had no choice but to respond in kind. The result was one of boxing history’s greatest rounds as they went toe to toe with an unbridled fury rarely seen in matches between superstars. The multi-skilled Hagler didn’t throw a single jab in the opening three minutes and he kept up the pressure until he drove Hearns to the canvas in round three. When it was all over, Hagler was not only atop boxing’s summit but also at the top of the money food chain – and ironically, he achieved it all by not fighting like his true self.
June 12, 1982, Miami Beach, Florida – Leo Cruz W 15 Sergio Palma II: Cruz, the far younger (16 years) brother of former lightweight champion Carlos "Teo" Cruz, was challenging for a 122-pound title for the third time. In 1978, the slick-boxing Cruz fell to Wilfredo Gomez in 13 rounds and to Palma via 15 round decision 14 months earlier in Palma’s hometown of Buenos Aires, Argentina. This time, Cruz was challenging Palma on neutral turf and at age 29 he knew it would likely be his last title opportunity.
Like his older brother, Cruz utilized quick hands and side to side movement to pile up points while Palma possessed superior physical strength and infighting ability. So it was a surprise when Cruz willingly planted his feet and swapped blows at close quarters – and an even bigger surprise when he consistently beat Palma to the punch and nailed him with clean, whistling shots. Cruz opened a cut over Palma’s left eye early in the fifth and worsened the cut by backing up the champion with a furious assault midway through the sixth.
Every time Palma would mount a rally, Cruz would come back even stronger with volleys to the head and body while never taking a single step back. While Palma was more listless than expected, Cruz was full of energy and drive. Even when Palma stunned Cruz in the eighth, Cruz never retreated and quickly regained control. Ironically, Palma had one of his better rounds in the ninth when Cruz decided to return to his normal counter punching mode. But Cruz realized the error of his ways and returned to the trenches in the 10th and continued to outhustle the champ the rest of the way. After 15 grueling rounds, Cruz became the new champion on a 149-140, 146-143, 147-144 decision.
There are many more examples of punchers turning boxer than the other way around. By adopting the tactics of a boxer, the slugger takes a smaller risk because he still can end the fight with a single blow should his ploy fail. A boxer, on the other hand, had better be sure his aggression works because should he get hurt in the process he doesn’t have the firepower to easily reverse course.
One of the beauties of boxing is the endless variety of variables a fight can assume, and this two-part series demonstrates that the only predictable thing about this sport is its unpredictability.