10 Boxers Who Lost Early In Their Career And Became Champion

10 Boxers Who Lost Early In Their Career And Became Champion

An essential part of the perception of a boxer is his record. Having that magical 0 in the loss columns always radiates a certain aura of invincibility. But having no losses does not define a fighter. What captivates the public are the stories, and just like the undefeated fighter is one compelling story. So is the fighter who lost early but then picked himself up and rose to greatness. Here are 10 boxers who were defeated early in their careers but then became champions.

1. Alexis Arguello

One of the greatest junior lightweights of the last century, Alexis Arguello, is a prime example of a fighter whose early career did not foretell what he would become. After losing his 4th and 5th professional fights and then failing in his title challenge, Arguello went on to score 24 knockouts in 31 wins on his way to capturing 3 world titles in 3 different weight classes.

One of the greatest punchers of the 20th century and one of the greatest boxers of his era, his way of taking care of business inside the ring earned him the nickname of El Flaco Explosivo-The Explosive Thin Man.

Watch my Boxing style analysis of Arguello below:

2. Bernard Hopkins

Not many people would expect a boxer who lost his first professional bout to go on and set records that would likely remain unbeaten. But this is exactly what Bernard Hopkins achieved. He started his career at the age of 23, but lost to fellow debutant Clinton Mitchell all the way back in 1988. He bounced back with 22 straight wins and then won the IBF middleweight title in 1995 and defended it an astounding 19 times.

In 2001, The Executioner defeated Felix and finally managed to cement his status as the unified middleweight champion. His story did not end there, though. At 46 years of age, B-Hop became the oldest boxer to win a world championship at light heavyweight. He then broke his own record by winning two more light heavyweight titles at the ages of 48 and 49, respectively. How is that for a fighter who lost his pro debut? 

3. Manny Pacquiao

Manny Pacquiao made an impact in boxing that very few fighters in history can rival. Unlike most greats, however, Pac-Man does not have an unblemished record. Starting his pro career at the tender age of 16, it was inevitable for him to experience ups and downs before becoming an all-time great.

His first loss came against Rustico Torrecampo in 1996, even before he was 18. But once he began winning world titles, starting at flyweight, there was no stopping the Filipino hurricane. He is the only boxer who won 12 major world titles in eight different weight classes. His list of conquered adversaries is unparalleled and includes 22 world champions. Find out how Manny Pacquiao trained below:

4. Nonito Donaire

The other highly distinguished boxer to come out of the Philippines Nonito Donaire also had a rough early career. After a first-round knockout win in his debut, Donaire had a major setback in his second fight. It would seem that this loss served as motivation for the “Filipino Flash” who won 30 straight fights after that.

Not only did he win them, but he was one of the select few flyweights that had god-given power in their hands, capable of one-punch knockouts in the lower divisions. His accolades are stellar- world championships in four different weight classes, #3 in the p4p rankings in 2011, Fighter of the Year in 2012, and let’s not forget the oldest boxer to become a bantamweight champion. As they say, power is the last thing to go with age, and Donaire is living proof of that statement, still knocking people out at 40. 

5. Henry Armstrong

If you have to point to one great champion who had a rough start to his career, it has to be Henry Armstrong. Armstrong began his career abysmally- he was knocked out in his first fight, then won a fight, and was beaten 3 more times in a row. Luckily, he didn’t give up on his boxing career and began his first win streak of 11. In 1937 alone, Henry went 27-0, a feat unthinkable not only in this day and age but at least since the 50s.

His nickname, “Hurricane Henry,” was well deserved, as was his record of 27 straight knockout victories, still considered one of the best runs in the history of the sport. He was among the first fighters to win titles in three different weight classes, but his main success was amongst the welterweights, where he defended the crown 19 times. Despite starting out 1-4, Armstrong fought 183 times in his career, winning 152 of them, 100 by knockout. You can read that again, I assure you there are no spelling errors. 

6. Rafael Marquez

Rafael Marquez-boxinglife

It’s very interesting to notice that both Marquez brothers find a place on our list. Rafael started his professional career the tough way- against a former world champion who already had 55 title pro fights at the time, Victor Rabanalez.

As you might expect, Marquez lost that fight, and he did so with an 8th-round KO. Marquez picked himself up and managed to win two world titles in two weight classes in his 50 fights as a professional boxer. 

7. Juan Manuel Marquez

Just like his younger brother Rafael, Juan Marquez lost his first professional fight. But unlike him, he remained unbeaten for the next six years and compiled a 29-1 record in that time. The older Marquez became famous for his technical precision, but also for his inclination to follow his Mexican heart and engage in violent brawls.

His toughness will remain in history, especially in his legendary four-fight saga with Manny Pacquiao and his battles with Orlando Salido, fellow slugger Marco Antonio Barrera, and even his valiant loss to Floyd Mayweather. The “Dynamite” is only one of three Mexicans to win world titles in four different weight classes. Marquez was never finished in 64 fights. 

8. Jack Dempsey

The first man to set a million-dollar gate also did not start his career the best way. But this was in a different era of boxing than what we know today. Dempsey started fighting in betting barroom brawls. When his official career began, it was a rough start. His first officially recorded bout was a draw, and then he lost his 9th bout.

Dempsey’s early career was bumpy, to say the least, but in 1917 alone he scored an impressive 15-1 record. His in-ring aggression and relentlessness quickly made him a hugely popular figure. One of the greatest heavyweights of all time, he will be forever remembered for his legendary bouts with Jess Willard, George Carpentier, and Gene Tunney, despite a rocky start to his career.

9. Jose Cuevas

Jose Cuevas boxer

Mexico has produced a legion of world-class boxers, and one of the less well-known vicious punchers was Jose Cuevas. It’s inevitable for a fighter that turns pro at a mere 14 not to lose early. Better known as Pipino, the teen Cuevas won only 7 of his first 12 fights, but they served as a tough lesson on his way to becoming the youngest welterweight champion in history at the age of 18.

He managed to defend the crown 11 times before finally losing it to the great Thomas Hearns. After that loss, he would start to wane and never get back to his prior glory, but his impressive 36 wins with 31 Kos won him a well-deserved place in the Boxing Hall of Fame. 

10. Benny Leonard


We return to one of the golden ages of boxing to look at the IBO No. 1 and The Ring No. 2 lightweights in history. Like a few other boxers on this list, Leonard had to start fighting too early as his only way out of poverty. Turning pro at 15, Benny was knocked out in his first fight. His next couple of years were not very successful either, but as he matured and developed his trademark speed and lightning-fast reflexes, he started racking up win after win.

Once he won the lightweight title, he held it for 7 years, 7 months and 17 days (1917 till 1925) a record that stands unbeaten to this day. He retired with an astonishing record of 219 fights- 185 wins, 22 losses, and 9 draws (although the official record lists half of the fights as “no decision” as it was customary at the time).

Hope you enjoyed this boxing list. Make sure to check out more similar related articles below or sign up to my boxing newsletter and get 5 Free discounts! 

Thanks for reading!

Jamie - Boxing Life

I'm a boxing analyst, amateur boxer, and blogger looking to pass on my boxing experiences and passion to anyone looking to learn or find out more about the sport of boxing. Whether that be gear reviews, fighter analysis, news, training tips, or my own personal journey, I'll be covering it on 'Boxing Life'.

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