Bouncing Back: Canelo Can Learn From Great Fighters Who Recovered From Defeat

Saul Alvarez take note, you're not the first great boxer to face the long road back
14:05, 11 May 2022

Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez’s unanimous decision defeat to Dmitry Bivol last Saturday shocked the boxing world. Unbeaten in nine years, ‘Canelo’ was seen as boxing’s invincible pound-for-pound king. While he will have to fight to wrest that status back, the Bivol loss does not mean Alvarez is not a great fighter. 

In fact, apart from rarities like Floyd Mayweather, Rocky Marciano and Joe Calzaghe, almost every truly great fighter has had to respond to defeat. ‘Canelo’ himself has had to do it once, having been beaten by Mayweather in 2013. Here is how some of boxing’s other big names rebounded from defeats.

Mike Tyson

‘Iron’ Mike’s 1990 stoppage at the hands of James ‘Buster’ Douglas sent shockwaves through the sport. But despite the shocking nature of the defeat, and the overriding impression Mike could easily avenge it, Tyson was forced to go a different route. Douglas turned down a rematch and instead accepted a fight with Evander Holyfield, earning the biggest purse in boxing history at that point for doing so.

Instead, Tyson would have to find alternative means to climb back to the heavyweight summit. The New York Times reported at the time that Thomas ‘Hitman’ Hearns of all people fancied the assignment but his trainer, Emmanuel Steward, talked the former middleweight champion out of the clash. Instead, in lieu of the Douglas rematch, Tyson would instead reacquaint himself with another old foe: Henry Tillman.

Tillman had defeated Mike twice in the amateurs, effectively costing a teenage Tyson a spot on the US Olympic team. Tyson had never forgotten this, and wreaked violent retribution on his tormentor in their pro meeting. Tillman would fall by first-round knockout. The comeback was on, but it would be five years before Tyson wore the heavyweight crown again, after his 1992 conviction for rape.

Ricky Hatton

Considering ‘Money’ retired with a 50-0 ledger, the idea Ricky Hatton was once touted as the man who could defeat him seems quaint now. But in 2007, it was thought the Mancunian’s relentless pressure fighting style would give the brash ‘Pretty Boy’ problems. In the end it barely troubled him, with Mayweather sending Hatton to defeat via a head-first meeting with a turnbuckle pad. 

Few fighters have ever bounced back from a painful loss in the style Hatton did though. Returning home to Manchester, Hatton fought contender Juan Lazcano in front of 50,000 fans at what is now known as the Etihad Stadium. The setting was grand, the atmosphere was deafening and the action was scintillating. 

Hatton entered the ring in a fat suit, comedically jabbing at his reputation for enjoying life a little too much between training camps. In the ring though ‘The Hitman’ was all business. Lazcano nearly put him out of business in the tenth round, but Hatton rallied to win a unanimous decision. One of the great nights of modern British boxing.

Henry Maske

They say revenge is a dish best served cold, and Henry Maske’s unfinished business with Virgil Hill was practically arctic by the time of their rematch. 

The German was 30-0 and one of his country’s most beloved athletes when he made the eleventh defence of his IBF light heavyweight crown against WBA counterpart Virgil Hill. The American travelled to Munich and left with a hard-fought split decision victory. Maske retired from the sport, and appeared content running a number of McDonald’s franchises across the country.

But boxers are not wired like the rest of us, and man cannot live on flogging Big Macs alone. Maske came back at the age of 43 to face Hill in a rematch. While the American was the same age, he had remained active in the years since and was the reigning WBA cruiserweight champion. While that title was not on the line in this bout, many expected Hill to have too much for the rusty Maske. A German poll saw only 26 percent of respondents pick Maske to pull off the upset.

Amazingly, Maske turned back the clock, out-boxing Hill down the stretch to avenge the only loss of his career via unanimous decision. It was a blistering display played out in front of a TV audience of 20 million. Maske was a national hero once again, and could retire to his golden arches empire with his pride intact.

Manny Pacquiao

Losses come in all shapes and sizes. We have seen how people have come back from their first loss, a brutal knockout loss and an upset loss. But what about a controversial loss? ‘Pacman’ was outpointed by Timothy Bradley, incurring his first loss in seven years. But the scores were hotly-disputed, as Pacquiao had appeared to dominate the action.

While a pair of rematches with Bradley would take place in the years that followed, Pacquiao’s first assignment after this unjustified defeat was a fourth fight with Juan Manuel Marquez. Pacquiao had drawn one and won two against the Mexican, but each fight’s decision outcome had been disputed. This fourth meeting, a rarity in modern boxing more akin to the era of the 1950s, would settle the score once and for all.

After three nip and tuck fights, nobody expected it to be settled so decisively. Marquez brutally knocked out Pacquiao in the sixth round with perhaps the greatest right hand ever thrown. A perfectly timed shot that stiffened the great Filipino’s legs instantly. 

Pacquiao would recover from his second consecutive loss and battle back into contention. He won a staggering four further world titles before retiring last year.

Muhammad Ali

To illustrate our opening point that even great fighters take losses, even ‘The Greatest’ had to deal with defeat in his illustrious career. Ali would lose five fights in total but, with three of those coming while past his best, it is arguably his first defeat that would have been the most galling.

A near-prime Ali lost a unanimous decision to ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier in 1971’s iconic ‘Fight of the Century’. In the days of just one consensus heavyweight champion of the world, the road back was a lot longer than it is today, where beaten men can often jump straight back in with a different champion in their next fight.

Ever the revolutionary, Ali nearly did not face a boxer at all in his first post-Frazier bout. Decades before Jake Paul was even born, Ali lined up a fight with basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain. The LA Laker thought better of the collision though, and Ali ended up facing ex-sparring partner and former WBA champion Jimmy Ellis.

It was a successful return for ‘The Louisville Lip’, who had to put up with some stubborn Ellis resistance over the first three rounds. Ali hurt his foe with a right hand in the fourth, and the tide turned. The referee stopped proceedings in the 12th round as Ali unloaded power shots on Ellis.

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