The Child Soldier, the Prisoner, and Other Inspirational Boxers That Defied the Odds
One of the most fascinating stories is the success of a boxing underdog. And boxing has had its fair share of these chronicles over the years.
All you have to do is consider the perpetual success of the Rocky franchise, or various other blockbusters, to understand how much the unlikely winner truly resonates with us. On a human level, the best of these tales speak to the soul in a way that invokes pure inspiration.
But, sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction. This is often the case in boxing. Over the years, we have seen some legendary men defy the odds in the sport of boxing to beat bullies, win titles, and, in some cases, ascend to the pantheon of greats. But in other cases, the odds of achievement are so high as to almost defy the laws of nature.
From premature babies to broken necks, prison deaths to child soldiers, here are 7 inspirational boxers that defied the odds.
Let’s start off with the hardly believable story of Vinny Pazienza, now known as Vinny Paz.
Paz had another name in the ring — The Pazmanian Devil — on account of his pressure/brawling style. Outside of the ropes, he was known for leading a crazy life, too, and was nothing short of a colorful character to those who knew him.
Paz came to prominence in 1987 when he beat Greg Haugen for the IBF world lightweight title. Haugen beat him in the rematch, but Paz turned the tables to end the trilogy 2-1.
Having moved up to junior welterweight, Paz lost three title fights to Roger Mayweather, Hector “Macho” Camacho, and Loreto Garza. This spurred him to move up two weight classes to junior middleweight division.
Paz beat Ron Amundsen for the USBA strap, before going to earn the WBA junior middleweight title by knocking out Gilbert Dele. He became just the second fighter in history to win titles at both junior welterweight and junior middleweight.
But then, tragedy struck for Paz. He got into a serious car accident and broke his neck. Paz was told that he might never walk again and that his fighting days were behind him.
Fitted with a Halo for six months, a circular brace fitted into the skull supported by metal rods, Paz shunned doctors’ orders and kept up a training regime that could have led to further injury.
But it didn’t, and Pazienza shocked the world of sports by coming back just 13 months later, going on to beat Luis Santana over 10 rounds.
James Braddock was born to Irish immigrants in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, in 1905. Although he had dreams of playing footballer, he would earn a reputation as a bonafide legend in the sport of boxing.
Braddock turned pro at the age of 21, amassing a record of 41-2-2 just three years later. In 1928, he shocked the boxing community by knocking out Tuffy Griffiths, which would lay the foundations for his first light heavyweight title shot, losing on the cards to Tommy Loughran.
While this loss was a huge blow to Braddock at the time, it turned out that the damage sustained to his right hand would be the biggest cause for concern.
Braddock lost 20 of his next 33 fights, with the weakened bones in his right hand all but ending his career inside the ring. With the Great Depression hitting the country hard, his decision to walk away from the sport in order to work as a longshoreman was the only choice to make.
Given that Braddock’s strongest hand was his right, he was forced to alleviate the pain by using his left hand most dominantly. Little did he know that this would pay dividends later down the line.
Braddock, who had felt humiliated collecting welfare checks during the time of the Depression, eventually found himself back in the ring. Despite being considered nothing short of a journeyman, he put together an excellent record in his return to the sport, beating some of the best contenders at the time.
Then, in 1935, Braddock was picked to fight the heavyweight champion of the world, Max Baer, at Madison Square Garden. Despite being a 10 to 1 underdog, Braddock won the fight.
Remembered as the “Cinderella Man,” Braddock’s life would eventually be turned into a 2005 Hollywood movie directed by Ron Howard.
For all of Hollywood’s boxing dramatizations, Bernard Hopkins’ story has slipped through the net.
Born into the tough Philadelphia projects, Hopkins began a life of crime at the age of just 11. By 13, he had been treated for multiple stab wounds and was already on the wrong side of the law.
By 18, he was the recipient of nine felonies and was sentenced to 18 years in Graterford Prison. When asked about his incarceration, Hopkins once told a reporter that he had witnessed rapes, tortures, and frequent beatings while locked up. However, when he witnessed a man being murdered over a pack of cigarettes, he was intent to change his life.
At the late age of 21, the Philadelphian stumbled across boxing. He converted to Islam and vowed never to touch alcohol, drugs, or junk food ever again. He stuck to his word and embarked on a successful pro career that saw him rack up a title run that put him in the path of pound-for-pound number 1 Roy Jones Jr.
Despite losing his first middleweight title fight, he bounced back with two wins over Segundo Mercado. The latter victory earned him the IBF title, and he would go on to win the undisputed crown in 2004.
Hopkins proceeded to put together an awesome string of 12 title defenses, and would eventually avenge his loss to Jones.
As he matured, his knockout power waned and was replaced with an ultra-savvy defensive style that led to him moving up to light heavyweight. He became a two-weight world champion and was beating guys years younger.
Hopkins lost his light heavyweight titles to wrecking ball Sergey Kovalev in 2014, by unanimous decision. He was just over two months shy of his 50th birthday, in the penultimate bout of his career.
James “Buster” Douglas
On February 11th, 1990, James “Buster” Douglas entered the ring against “Iron” Mike Tyson.
Tyson was no ordinary fighter. At just 23, he was the most feared man in boxing. A phenomenally explosive knockout artist that was tipped to enter the pantheon of the greatest the sport had ever produced.
He was arguably the most recognizable face on the planet and was expected to walk through his opponent with the ease of a hot knife through butter.
Douglas was seen as no match for Tyson, who was defending his WBA, WBC, IBF, and lineal heavyweight titles in Japan. Although considered a good fighter, Douglas had the reputation of a quitter, having folded under the pressure of Tony Tucker a few years prior.
With four losses on his record, it seemed inconceivable that Douglas could be the first man to hand Tyson a loss. No fighter had even taken the champ past the fifth round in three years. So, it was no surprise to hear that a bookmaker in Las Vegas had him as high as a 42 to 1 underdog to win the fight.
But, behind the scenes, a perfect storm was brewing. For both men, it must be said.
Douglas was given no hope, even by those around him. His wife had left him not long before the fight. His mother had died of a heart attack 23 days prior. The mother of his son was suffering from a serious kidney problem, and he had contracted flu just one day before the bout.
Tyson was struggling, too. His wife, Robin Givens, had humiliated him on national television. He was dealing with an ever-growing fondness for alcohol, drugs, and other distractions. His desire was on the wane, and he lacked motivation.
Regardless, what happened that night would go down as one of the greatest shocks in the history of sport. Douglas did not just connect on Tyson with a lucky punch but gave him the beating of his life.
The image of the “baddest man on the planet” scrambling around the ring for his gumshield will forever stick in the minds of those who watched the fight.
Despite his reputation as the loveable grill salesman, preacher, commentator, and all-round nice guy of sports, George Foreman was once considered the most terrifying fighter on the planet.
Born into a poor family in Texas, Foreman went from street mugger in his teens to the heavyweight champion of the world in his 20s. Following an upset loss to the great Muhammad Ali in 1974, Foreman’s star waned, and he left the sport a few years later.
Then, something unexpected happened. Foreman returned in 1987 and went on to achieve one of the greatest feats in boxing history in his 40s.
Rather than saying much more on Foreman’s incredible story, why not check it out in more detail right here?
Very few underdogs in this sport can claim to have been up against the odds since birth. But in the case of Tyson Fury, this is true.
Fury was born three months premature, on August 12th, 1988. Despite being the colossal-sized heavyweight he is today, Fury weighed just one pound when he entered this world.
Having fought to survive against the odds, his father, John, named him after Mike Tyson. It was a name that would certainly give him further reason to believe that he had a future in the sport.
It turned out that Tyson would go on to become the most famous face in a family of boxers, but his run to the top of the world came as a surprise to many.
Off the back of a solid amateur career, Fury put together a string of 24 wins that set him up with a shot at the unified champion, and ring legend, Wladimir Klitschko. Fury was a sizeable underdog in that fight in November 2015 but managed to outbox the Ukrainian to win the WBA (Super), IBF, WBO, IBO, The Ring, and lineal heavyweight titles.
But what should have been the beginning of a successful title run turned sour not long after. Fury was hit by mental health issues that led him on a dark and downward spiral.
Having relinquished his titles, Fury’s addictions saw him balloon up to almost 400 pounds. A culmination of mental health issues led to him coming close to committing suicide by crashing his Ferrari into a bridge.
But that fighting spirit saw him pull through, and he slowly but surely got his act together and lost most of the weight. Fury surprised many by getting back into the ring, where he won two tune-up bouts that earned him a shot at Deontay Wilder’s WBC world title.
Incredibly, Fury would outbox the champion in that fight, despite being a considerable underdog. He picked himself up from a ninth-round knockdown and got himself within inches of finishing the fight before he was brutally floored by Wilder’s straight right-left hook combination.
Somehow, Fury picked himself back up and finished the fight. Despite him seemingly doing enough to win the fight on the cards, the fight was scored as a split draw.
However, the man known to fans as the “Gypsy King” would not leave things to the judges in the rematch, as he destroyed the unbeaten American to earn a fourth-round TKO and the WBC title.
When Kassim Ouma was just six years old, he was kidnapped by the National Resistance Army (NRA) of Uganda.
The NRA was a band of rebels locked in a brutal war with the government. Despite having lived a life of serious poverty and struggle, Ouma had not yet experienced the depth of darkness that had awaited him.
Having been trained as a child soldier, Ouma was forced to murder several people. It would be five years until he saw any member of his family again.
When the war died down, Ouma settled in with his family but had greater ambitions for his life. It became clear that his hobby, boxing, was something that he had a talent in. He would eventually make the Ugandan Olympic team, then drop out for financial reasons.
A subsequent tour to the US with the Ugandan national squad introduced him to a new life. He decided to stay in the country, knowingly risking death if he returned to his homeland.
Ouma turned pro in 1998 and would go on to win the IBF junior middleweight title in 2004.
The Ugandan’s struggles did not end with his relocation to the US, however, as he was shot twice in Florida. He also admitted that his father was beaten to death in his hometown on account of Ouma deserting the country in the late ‘90s.
Nevertheless, things are better now for “The Dream.” Still, his story is absolutely incredible, and one of the most inspiring, if not tragic, in the history of pro sports.
The battle may happen in the ring, but the war can often be fought elsewhere. And all of these guys above have a claim to defying the odds in the sport of boxing, many times outside of the perimeters of the squared circle.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t include everyone. I know there are other boxers out there worthy of a place on this list. But I am happy to revise things if you think there’s someone exceptional that I missed out.
If so, let me know in the comments section below! And, if you enjoyed this piece, you might want to check out my article on the wild men of boxing.