History is littered with examples of those who appeared to be destined for greatness, yet somehow failed to achieve it. Like Daedalus and Icarus, they dared to fly close to the sun. Like Daedalus and Icarus, the shock of the fall was fatal to their dreams.
Boxing is awash with tales of those who, in the words of Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, ‘coulda been a contender’. Indeed, in many pubs in cities across the world there is one person who revels in telling people that they too could have been a contender.
Sometimes though there are boxers who reach the pinnacle of their sport and are expected to achieve so much more but are derailed by a single defeat.
Legendary boxing manager and trainer Emanuel Steward was of the opinion that sometimes a defeat lets you see what a fighter is made of. The Kronk gym legend believed that defeat could be the greatest test of character a fighter could face.
For some fighters, however, the blow to their psyche is often too much to bear and a career that seemed destined for bigger and better, and bound for boxing immortality, can be derailed. They’re never the same again.
After the first retirement of Sugar Ray Leonard, and the defection of Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran to higher weights and higher stakes, the Welterweight division was looking for a new star and in Donald Curry they found one.
Talented and handsome, Curry was a prodigious talent who it was claimed had amassed an amateur record of 400-4 and would have formed part of the 1980 USA Olympic team, had the Cold War not resulted in the boycotting of the games in Moscow that year.
With no Olympic glory possible, the Texan decided to turn professional and made his bow in the paid ranks with a first round stoppage of Mario Tineo. Ten fights later, he won his first title honours as he defeated contender Bruce Finch in four rounds. In his previous fight, Finch had fought for the world title as he was stopped in three rounds by Sugar Ray Leonard.
Curry won his first world title at the age of 21, as he faced South Korean champion Jun Sok Hwang, via wide unanimous decision in his hometown of Fort Worth to take the WBA strap. Less than a year later, he defeated former foe Marlon Starling to add the IBF belt to his honours list.
Just before Christmas 1985, ‘The Lone Star Cobra’ unified the Welterweight division as he destroyed Detroit’s Milton McCrory in the second round at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas. The talented Texan seemed destined for welterweight domination and future title glory at higher weights.
Yet, within nine months the dream was in ruins as a weight drained Curry was bullied and battered to a sixth round retirement by lightly regarded Londoner Lloyd Honeyghan in their bout at Caesar’s Palace, on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City.
Two comeback victories, both by disqualification, followed in the aftermath of that defeat before a date was set for the Fort Worth native to challenge Jamaica’s WBA Light-Middleweight champion Mike ‘The Bodysnatcher’ McCallum. For four rounds it looked like the defeat to Honeyghan had been exorcised, but in the fifth round a brutal left hook exploded off the chin of Curry. He was sent crashing to the canvas and was counted out by referee Richard Steele.
The Texan was never the same again. He won the WBC light middleweight title with a stoppage victory over the Italian Gianfranco Rosi, but he lost it in his first defence against unheralded Frenchman Rene Jacquot.
Two more title tilts followed but both ended in stoppage defeats. The first was up at Middleweight, where he challenged IBF belt holder Michael Nunn but was stopped in ten one-sided rounds. A move back down to Light-Middleweight saw Curry square off against WBC titlist ‘Terrible’ Terry Norris and once again he came up short, as he was stopped in eight rounds in Palm Springs.
In 1997, Curry was facing financial trouble and made a return to the ring as he stopped journeyman Gary Jones in Canada. This set up a bout with Emmet Linton. Curry had trained and managed him for a short while but the two fell out as Linton left his mentor, citing that he was unimpressed with how Curry was handling his career.
The situation was inflamed even further when Curry accused Linton of giving information to the mother of one of his children about his finances, which Linton denied. The two got into a fight and guns were drawn but not used. Curry filed charges but they were later dropped. Shortly afterward, Curry went to jail for failure to pay child support.
Promoter Bob Arum was never one to miss an opportunity put a fight together, and in April 1997 the two faced off. ‘The Lone Star Cobra’ was floored in round one and took a systematic beating for the next six before referee Richard Steele stepped in to save him from further punishment.
It seems absurd to say that a man who, in his time, won four world titles at two weight divisions underachieved, but with Curry it’s a fair assessment. The defeat to Honeyghan dented the aura of invincibility that surrounded him and planted seeds of doubt in his mind.
In 1977, Alfonso Zamora had it all. He’d been an Olympic silver medallist at the Munich games of 1972, made five successful defences of his WBA bantamweight championship and knocked out all 29 of his opponents.
Also in the division was fellow Mexican Carlos Zarate, himself a notorious puncher who had dispatched of 37 of his 38 opponents inside the distance. The bout, in which neither champion’s belts were at stake, was set for the famous Inglewood Forum in Los Angeles.
It was one of the most anticipated fights of recent times, and the LAPD drafted in riot police in order to prevent a repeat of the infamous riot that occurred in 1969 when Forum favourite Ruben Olivares lost his title to Australian Lionel Rose. Less than a minute into the fight the police would be needed, as a drunken interloper tried to enter the ring but, thanks to the police presence, he was easily deterred and ejected from the arena.
The fight started well for Zamora, as his crisper punching helped him take the first round but, unfortunately, that was to be the zenith of his performance. He was decked in round three and twice more in round four before his father Alfonso Zamora Sr threw the towel in.
The demise of Zamora was a much steeper one than Curry. He lost his title in his next fight against Jorge Lujan and in his last eight fights his record was 4-4, including a ninth round stoppage to Eddie Logan whose record coming into the fight was 7-7. Zamora eventually retired in 1980 at the age of 26.
There aren’t many figures who polarise British boxing fans as much as Naseem Hamed, who was a ridiculously talented, skilful and hard hitting fighter. The man from the famous Ingle gym in Sheffield was spotted by the legendary Brendan Ingle on the streets of Sheffield fighting four opponents.
Eventually, the youngster made his way to Ingle’s gym and set in motion one of British boxing’s most entertaining rides. The Sheffield man made his debut in 1992 at the age of 18, when he kayoed Ricky Beard inside two rounds in the less than salubrious surroundings of Mansfield, Nottinghamshire.
In his 12th professional outing, the Sheffield fighter faced former world title challenger Vincenzo Belcastro for the Italian’s European title. Hamed delivered a masterclass, as he decked Belcastro twice en route to winning a wide unanimous decision. Eighteen months later, the ‘Prince’ entered the ring in front of a hostile Cardiff crowd to face hometown fighter Steve Robinson. The fight was a clash of styles and a clash of personalities.
The flash, cocky and extroverted Hamed was in stark contrast to the quiet, introverted and hardworking Welshman. The Yorkshireman was the betting favourite pre-fight and the fight reflected this, as he stopped the champion in the eighth.
Easy defences against Austrian-based Nigerian Said Lawal and Puerto Rican contender Daniel Alicea, in which the new champion was floored, were mere warm ups for his first real challenge. He faced veteran former IBF champion Manuel Medina, who was having his 60th fight despite being only 25 years of age.
Hamed floored the Mexican twice but laboured to stop his foe before referee Genaro Rodriguez accepted his retirement at the end of round eleven.
In February 1997, the Sheffield man faced his first unification bout against a quality operator in the American, Tom Johnson. In a one-sided contest, Hamed rocked and hurt the Detroit native before flooring him in round eight and, though he beat the count, referee Rudy Battle waved the fight off.
At the end of 1997, Hamed made his American debut with a stunning fourth round stoppage against former WBC featherweight champion Kevin Kelley.
Both fighters hit the canvas three times apiece before an exquisite left hand put the ‘Flushing Flash’ down for the count.
Great things were expected of Hamed and, after this victory, world domination lay ahead. Little did anyone know that this was as good as it would get for the man many had predicted would become Britain’s greatest ever fighter.
Victories against fighters of the quality of Wilfredo Vasquez, Wayne McCullough, Cesar Soto, and Vuyani Bungu followed his debut appearance in the States and, in April 2001, Hamed got the chance to fight in the boxing Mecca, Las Vegas. His opponent was top class Mexican, Marco Antonio Barrera. The bookies had Hamed a huge favourite but the Mexican dominated and Hamed even suffered the ignominy of having his head slammed into the corner post as Barrera won a comfortable unanimous decision.
A TV documentary captured the craziness of Hamed’s camp, with arguments over what gloves he was going to wear and even flying his barber over for a pre-fight haircut seemed to be more important than training for the fight. When he did train, his sparring was substandard and he struggled with his Mexican sparring partners.
The shield of arrogance that Hamed always carried was destroyed in the Barrera fight and he only fought once more as he struggled to a points victory over limited Spaniard Manuel Calvo.
Hand injuries undoubtedly also played a part in the Sheffield fighter’s demise, but the style of fighter he was ensured he relied heavily on his supreme self-confidence and once that bubble had been burst, he could never be the same again. Hamed also admitted that he hated being away from his family for 12 weeks in training camp, so his motivation for a return would be tempered by this.
Ultimately, Hamed was unprepared to commit himself any further, and who are we to criticise his decision to spend more time at home.
The boxers mentioned above are a small sample of the fighters who’ve promised so much but found themselves unable to rebound fully from a defeat. The shock of the fall proved too much for them to recover and they leave behind a legacy of…what if?
By John Wharton [Twitter: @whartojohn]