Boxing's Cinderella Men: Leon Spinks, Andy Ruiz Jr And The Underdog Champions

'Neon Leon' passed away on this day in 2021
15:32, 05 Feb 2024

On this day in 2021, we tragically lost Leon Spinks at the age of 67. But his achievements in the sport of boxing will live on beyond us all. For Spinks defeated the defining boxing icon, Muhammad Ali, in 1978 to become the heavyweight champion of the world. To celebrate ‘Neon’ Leon’s crowning glory, here is a look at the heavyweight division’s ultimate upset artists. The Cinderella Men who, for one glorious night, were good enough to topple the greatest heavyweights the world has ever seen.

James J. Braddock

The original ‘Cinderella Man’, Braddock was already on the slide by the time he fought the fearsome Max Baer. Sporting a record of 50 wins, 25 losses and 7 draws, few gave ‘The Pride of New Jersey’ a chance against the heavyweight champion.

Braddock trained like a man possessed for their 1935 collision, while Baer eased off. The champion was expecting an easy night, but would instead be on the receiving end of one of the sport’s great upsets. 72,000 fans at the Madison Square Garden Bowl witnessed Braddock win a fifteen-round decision.

Braddock would not fight for two years, and lost the title to Joe Louis in 1937. In a neat piece of symmetry, Baer’s next fight was also a loss to ‘The Brown Bomber’.

Leon Spinks

The subject of our introduction had fought just eight times before meeting ‘The Greatest’. Having captured Olympic gold two years before, Spinks had pedigree, but lacked the experience to face heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. Or so they said…

The St Louis man flipped the script, outworking Ali to take a stunning split decision. In doing so, Spinks became the only man to beat the ‘Louisville Lip’ for a world title in the ring. ‘Neon’ Leon lost the title back to Ali in a rematch, and drifted at journeyman level before retiring in 1995. Spinks does hold another piece of history though, as one of only two men to hold championships in both boxing and professional wrestling. 

James ‘Buster’ Douglas

The 42-1 underdog vanquished the seemingly-invincible heavyweight champion in 1990, when ‘Buster’ busted up ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson. This Tokyo Dome collision was meant to serve as an appetiser for a Mike Tyson vs Evander Hoylfield blockbuster, but someone neglected to hand Douglas the script.

The challenger’s mother had passed away in the build-up, and Douglas had re-doubled his efforts in training. ‘Buster’ stepped into the ring in Japan at his physical peak, and got off the canvas to stop the then-unbeaten Tyson in ten rounds.

Douglas lost focus after the overwhelming attention he attracted for his win, and was overweight and out-of-shape when Holyfield broke him down in three rounds in his next fight. For one night though, Douglas had done the impossible.

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Hasim Rahman

In an inversion of the events above, heavyweight king Lennox Lewis was circling a fight with ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson when he stepped into the ring with Hasim ‘The Rock’ Rahman. Like Tyson, this focus on future riches would cost him. 

Not helping Lewis’ dedication was the fact he trained in Las Vegas so he could film a cameo for Ocean’s 11. Meanwhile, Rahman cared only about his 20-1 underdog shot at the heavyweight championship of the world.

The first four rounds inside Carnival City Casino in South Africa were close. Lewis looked to press the issue in the fifth round, but let his guard down and was felled by a crunching right hand that knocked him out.  An overnight sensation, Rahman pursued title defences against Tyson and popular Dane Brian Nielson, but ultimately succumbed to his rematch clause under legal threats from the Lewis team. 

Rahman was knocked out in the fourth round by a renewed Lewis. But this story has a happier ending than most heavyweight underdog tales. Rahman would win a version of the crown again in 2005, enjoying a year-long reign as WBC champion.

Andy Ruiz Jr

This generation’s natural successor to Spinks, Ruiz Jr was expected to provide a routine title defence for Anthony Joshua in 2019. Like Braddock before him, New York City was the site for Ruiz Jr to mount a heavyweight upset for the ages.

Ruiz Jr’s fleshy physique was a sharp contrast to Joshua’s mountain of muscle, but once the bell rang it was the Mexican-American who looked better-prepared for battle. Ruiz Jr overcame a third-round knockdown, the first of his career, to outlast the British fighter and stop him in the seventh. 

Like most of his forebears, Andy let himself go before the inevitable rematch. Joshua boxed a safety-first style when they met again six months later, taking back his titles via unanimous decision.

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