A search of the internet will almost unanimously tell you that the biggest upset in boxing history occurred on Feb. 10, 1990, at the Tokyo Dome in Tokyo, Japan, when a little known heavyweight named James “Buster” Douglas knocked out previously unbeaten and universally feared Mike Tyson.
I have plenty of issues with that as No. 1, even though the odds were a ridiculously high 42-1 in Tyson’s favor.
Douglas was a deserved underdog, but in his previous two bouts he had beaten former heavyweight champions, Trevor Berbick and Oliver McCall. Douglas was a talented though underachieving heavyweight before meeting Tyson, and while he was a 42-1 underdog, he had a much better shot of winning than some others.
When I think of boxing’s greatest upsets, Kirkland Laing defeating Roberto Duran immediately comes to mind. So does Ross Puritty over Wladimir Klitschko.
On Saturday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the potential for the biggest upset in boxing history is there. Former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou will make his pro boxing debut in a 10-round non-title bout against WBC/lineal heavyweight champion Tyson Fury.
But for this exercise, we don’t need to go any further than Douglas over Tyson since it’s widely acclaimed as the greatest upset in boxing history. That leads to the question that if Ngannou is able to defeat Fury, whether it would surpass Douglas over Tyson as the greatest upset in boxing history.
Let’s take a look:
Douglas’ background vs. Ngannou’s
Douglas’ father, Bill, was a solid boxer in the 1970s who fought at middleweight and light heavyweight, meeting many of the elites in those divisions at the time. He compiled a 42-16-1 record with 32 knockouts. It was his punching power that earned him the nickname “Dynamite” Douglas.
Buster followed his father’s footsteps and went into boxing. Before meeting Tyson in that now-famous bout, he had wins over three men who had held the heavyweight title, Berbick, McCall and Greg Page. He’d also fought Tony Tucker for the IBF title in 1987 and was giving a great account of himself until tiring and getting stopped in the 10th. At the time of the stoppage, Douglas led on one card, was even on another and was behind by a point on the third.
So when Douglas went to fight Tyson, he wasn’t some bum off the street. He wasn’t perceived as the biggest threat to Tyson, but he was a skilled and talented fighter who had some serious wins.
Ngannou will make his professional boxing debut against Fury. His dream, he said many times, was to follow in Mike Tyson’s footsteps and become heavyweight champion of the world. He wandered into a gym in Paris, France, one day where a coach, Fernand Lopez, convinced him to give MMA a shot.
Ngannou is arguably the hardest puncher in MMA history, and won the UFC heavyweight title on March 27, 2021, in Las Vegas when he stopped Stipe Miocic in the second round. He made one defense, winning a decision over Ciryl Gane. Ngannou hasn’t had a fight of any kind since defeating Gane in Anaheim, California, on Jan. 22, 2022, at UFC 270.
Where Tyson was then compared to where Fury is now
Tyson was the biggest name in boxing in 1990 and was one of the most famous and popular athletes in the world. His every move was chronicled by the tabloids and the paparazzi and he was frequently on television.
His marriage to actress Robin Givens was major news and when it was crumbling, he submitted to an interview with the legendary journalist Barbara Walters on ABC’s “20/20.” It was in that interview with Tyson seated to her right that Givens said that being married to Tyson was “torture, pure hell, worse than anything I could possibly imagine.”
In his three fights prior to meeting Douglas, Tyson scored first-round knockouts of future Hall of Famer Michael Spinks; Frank Bruno and Carl Williams. Nothing in his in-ring performance suggested anything was amiss.
But his life outside the ring was in turmoil, which Douglas would soon expose. Tyson didn’t train particularly hard for Douglas, while Douglas prepared diligently as he planned to honor his late mother with his performance.
Fury has battled mental health issues and ballooned to 400 pounds not long after winning the title from Klitschko in 2015. While it’s a battle he fights every day, Fury has seemingly gotten the issue under control and has been at his best in the ring in the last five years.
Tyson was seemingly much more vulnerable to an upset in 1990 than Fury appears to be in 2023.
The stylistic matchup
At his best, focused and on top of his game, Tyson was one of the best heavyweights to ever set foot in the ring. His peak may well have come when he blew out Spinks in 91 seconds.
He had extremely fast hands, good feet, tremendous head and shoulder movement and is one of the biggest punchers in boxing history. When he wasn’t focused, though, and when he didn’t move his head and shoulders, he was vulnerable to being hit and wasn’t able to get off his shots.
Douglas’ power was nothing like Tyson’s, but he was a hard hitter. At his best — which was the Tyson fight — Douglas was a brilliant boxer-puncher who used a thudding jab to set up his combinations and control the pace and tenor of the fight.
Ngannou has fast hands and is strong, and there is no doubt that if he had significant boxing experience, he’d be good enough to cause a lot of heavyweights a lot of problems.
But with his inexperience, Fury’s boxing ability, footwork and massive size, there is a legitimate question whether Ngannou will be able to ever put his hands on Fury.
Talking to several boxing people, the consensus is that Ngannou won’t lay a glove on Fury if Fury shows him respect and fights him like he’s fought his opponents in the last five years. But if he fools around and tries to put on a show to satisfy the fans and the Saudis who are paying him an enormous amount of money, he could get caught because Ngannou clearly hits hard and has fast hands.
Fury has an 85-inch reach, which is two-inches greater than Ngannou’s. He’s also 6-foot-9 and figures to weigh around 270, so he’ll have a huge size advantage.
If Fury boxes like he did against Deontay Wilder, it’s hard to make a case for Ngannou getting past five rounds. Ngannou fought cautiously in a July 7, 2018, loss to hard-punching Derrick Lewis at UFC 226 in Las Vegas. Faced with an opponent he knew had the power to knock him out, Ngannou didn’t let his hands go nearly as much. That makes one believe that if Fury pops him early with a powerful jab or right hand that Ngannou may be more judicious in his punch output.
Even though at 6-4 with an 83-inch reach Ngannou is a huge man himself, his best chance might be to get close to Fury, smother him and try to catch him with a shot Fury doesn’t seem coming. At distance, Fury’s boxing skills should allow him to dictate the fight and keep Ngannou where he wants him, negating his power.
The pressure and the stakes
If there was pressure on Tyson prior to meeting Douglas, it wasn’t apparent. He was relaxed and loved being recognized by the boxing fans throughout Tokyo. He didn’t necessarily train that hard, but that’s another story. But Tyson’s loss didn’t come because he was swallowed by the pressure.
Nor was there pressure on Douglas. He was getting a career-high payday and, much like Ngannou, no one thought he could win. The Mirage sports book in Las Vegas had to boost the odds to 42-1, which will never happen now, in order to get people to wager on Douglas.
There isn’t a lot of pressure on Ngannou. He’s not expected to win and most boxing people scoff at his chances. He’s going to join the Professional Fighter’s League after Fury, win or lose, and fight one of its top heavyweights in an MMA bout.
Fury, though, has plenty of pressure on him. He has already signed to fight Oleksandr Usyk for the undisputed heavyweight championship, a bout that will likely take place in December. That’s a fight in which Fury could make upward of $100 million.
“The fact that he is an MMA fighter has made me train harder because it would make me look like s*** if I get beat by him,” Fury told Yahoo Sports. “Yeah, that’s the motivation, not to get beat by somebody in his debut.”
There were a lot of MMA fans in 2017 who believed that Conor McGregor had a realistic shot to defeat Floyd Mayweather in their boxing match. Mayweather carried McGregor early before stepping up and stopping him.
Even social media star Jake Paul, a novice boxer at best, has dominated MMA competition, beating the likes of Nate Diaz, Tyron Woodley and Ben Askren.
MMA and boxing are related, but at their core are fundamentally different sports. One day, a fighter will come out of MMA and be able to beat an elite boxer, but that time is not now.
Ngannou has too much going against him. He’s 37 and hasn’t had a fight of any kind since Jan. 22, 2022. He’s never boxed before and he’s facing the pre-eminent big man in the game.
Ngannou’s not been a guy with slick combinations and has relied on brute force and sheer power to win. Fury should be able to easily outbox him. Fury is a showman and isn’t above fooling around, but the only chance Ngannou has to win is to land a haymaker that hurts Fury. He’s not going to break Fury down over time.
So that would behoove Fury not to fool around and to use his skills to snuff Ngannou’s power and make it a short night’s work.
I’ll take Fury by TKO in the second half of the third round.