Anthony Joshua, Manny Pacquiao and Vitali Klitschko are among the fighters shocked by late replacement opponents in boxing – while one heavyweight champion saw his payday against Mike Tyson flushed away with an upset defeat.
Robert Helenius steps in to fight AJ as a stand-in to replace Dillian Whyte on less than a week’s notice in London. While the 6ft 6in ‘Nordic Nightmare’ is understandably given little chance, there are several boxers who’ve caused absolute chaos on short notice.
It usually occurs when an elite fighter is preparing for one type of boxer, only to suddenly be faced by a completely different style of opponent. Motivation can be a factor – but sometimes the late substitute is far, far better than anticipated.
Joshua knows this better than anyone. Britain’s two-time heavyweight world champion has been in his own personal Groundhog Day this week, as he’s been through almost this exact scenario before – with chilling consequences.
For his US debut in 2019, AJ was supposed to be facing brash American Jarrell Miller, only for ‘Big Baby’ to fail a VADA drug test. Promoter Eddie Hearn must regret not hauling a local NYC bouncer off the street to fight his prize headliner.
Instead, it was Andy Ruiz, a heavyweight who looked more dangerous to a breakfast buffet than he was to Joshua. But despite an unimpressive physique, Ruiz had fast hands and good skills – as he showed in recovering from a knockdown to famously stop AJ in a huge upset.
AJ dominated the rematch but one heavyweight who never got the same second chance was ‘Terrible’ Tim Witherspoon. In 1986, the ’Spoon just had to secure one defence of his world title and he would get the payday of his life: a unification fight with ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson, who a month earlier had blitzed Trevor Berbick in two rounds.
Tony Tubbs, Witherspoon’s opponent, pulled out with a shoulder injury and was replaced late on by James ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith – a boxer ‘Terrible Tim’ had already beaten. But the rematch was a different story, Smith pouncing on Witherspoon and scoring a first-round KO.
It was ‘Bonecrusher’ who got the big payday, losing to Tyson in Las Vegas, while the gifted but erratic Witherspoon never did get to face ‘Iron Mike’ in the ring.
Have sympathy, however, for Lehlo Ledwaba and the nightmare the super-bantamweight champion endured in 2001. The South African was training for his seventh world title defence, but when Enrique Sanchez pulled out he accepted a raw, unknown Filipino as a late stand-in.
Manny Pacquiao was 22 years old, had a 32-2 record and had never fought outside of Asia before. He was only in the US to train for a few weeks, but with Ledwaba urgently needing an opponent, Pacquiao got the call 24 hours before he was due to fly back to the Philippines.
What was supposed to be a showcase for Ledwaba’s skills turned in to one for his opponent. Boasting lightning speed, dynamic aggression and a lethal left hand, a skinny Pacquiao terrorised the champion Ledwaba.
After a one-sided, knockdown-filled sixth-round KO, Pacquiao had his first win on American soil and – though nobody knew it at the time – one of the greatest careers in boxing history had truly begun.
“He was a late substitute for Sanchez – I watched his fights on tape and he looked wild!” said a rueful Ledwaba later. “His trainer [Freddie Roach] did a good job in the gym.”
Adjusting quickly to a new style of opponent is a reason why many world champions are wary of late replacements. Lennox Lewis was preparing for slick, 6ft 2in Kirk Johnson in 2003 when the Canadian pulled out with a chest injury.
Boldly, Lewis accepted the powerful, awkward, 6ft 7in Vitali Klitschko on a few weeks’ notice – and nearly paid the price. Vitali bludgeoned Lennox repeatedly and the pair had a terrific scrap before a gruesome cut above Klitschko’s eye ended the fight with Vitali ahead on the scorecards.
That bout rebuilt Vitali’s reputation after, coincidentally, he’d been upset by a late replacement himself. In 2000, the older Klitschko brother was supposed to be fighting Donovan ‘Razor’ Ruddock but when he pulled out, slippery southpaw Chris Byrd stepped in.
Vitali was winning the fight against Byrd but when Klitschko tore his rotator cuff and chose not to fight on, causing boos from the crowd, suddenly Byrd was the winner and a world champion – having not even been in the fight a few weeks’ before.
Similarly, Pacquiao, having made his name as a late substitute, eventually had his career ended by one. The ‘Pac Man’ was due to fight Errol Spence in 2021, until a torn retina denied Spence his chance.
Cuba’s Yordenis Ugas was free – coincidentally because his own opponent had pulled out injured too. He stepped in and scored a decision win over the 42-year-old Pacquiao, who wisely retired afterwards.
Ugas lost to Spence in his next fight, but sometimes late stand-ins get a terrific run out of an upset triumph. Welsh ‘Cinderella Man’ Steve Robinson was called in on two days’ notice and had to drop 6lb in 48 hours to face England’s John Davison for a 122lb world title in 1993.
But Robinson, who was working part-time in a shop, not only pulled off the victory, he made seven defences of his world title before losing to ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed outdoors in Cardiff Arms Park.
Barry McGuigan’s shock defeat in the Nevada heat by Steve Cruz, Victor Ortiz having his jaw broken by Josesito Lopez, Rocky Juarez losing his featherweight title to Humberto Soto – each of these bouts also featured a short-notice replacement pulling off the upset.
Then there was Geordie Shore’s Aaron Chalmers, who came in to fight Floyd Mayweather in an exhibition this year after Liam Harrison pulled out, only to put a beating on Floyd the like of which… OK, that definitely did not happen.
Clearly there is a limit to what a late stand-in can do. And Helenius, at 39 and having fought in Finland a week earlier, is long odds to add to AJ’s misery with another shock. But late replacements will always strike fear into promoters and A-side boxers, because you simply never quite know what you’re going to get.